He made it to the rock without incident, and settled in on the side away from the river, finding a small hollow that blocked the wind. He munched silently on food pilfered from the horse’s saddlebags, pulled a sheepskin from his too-small pack and wrapped it around to ward off the cold, curled into as small a ball as his growing frame could manage, and slept.
When the black skies turned leaden in the east he awoke, alert. Something wasn’t right. A smell? A sound? Something made his senses twitch. The sound of a single horse hoof stamping in the distance. He silently unfolded himself from the relative warmth of the wool and looked around, sharp eyes scanning for motion.
Nothing near at hand or far away on this side of the outcrop.
The stamping foot sounded again, muffled in the pre-dawn world of gray. Behind him, toward the river.
He sneaked up the cold black stone to carefully peak between two spurs. The horse was at the river, on the far side, tethered to a tree. A sound like the scurrying of a mouse nearby brought his eyes closer. He lifted his head further and caught a glimpse of color only three or four paces distant. One of them must have snuck up on the other in the night unknowingly.
The Thune, wary soldier that he was, sensed something too. He whirled as Jispin rose and charged, drawing steel to face the bow being drawn on an arrow. The slippery rock slowed the motions of both; Jispin launched himself awkwardly to take a hack at the horn-laminate recurve plains bow. He hit it when it was nearly at full draw, causing one limb to shatter. Both went down in a heap. They struggled in silence, bow forgotten and they sought advantage, leverage, to strike or block or disarm. In a clinch, even the shortsword was too long. The Thune saber was still in its scabbard on the ground. Jispin managed to get his hand on the other mans’ spare knife hilt first, delivering a wicked slash to the ribs while taking an elbow-smash to the face.
They continued to struggle, Jispin dazed but hanging on, Hogol clear-minded but in agony and bleeding heavily. Gradually, over the ensuing minutes, Jispin’s head cleared and Hogols life-blood ran out from his efforts, and the close match became less and less even. With a surge and a successful thrust, it was over.
He lay back, panting heavily, recovering from his exertions amid the blood-soaked, trampled and muddy fields, the unharvested stalks of some sort of local field peas rising nearly waist-high around him. The mud in his ears amplified the blood pounding in his veins, but it soon slowed to something less than a roar. He cleaned the mud from his ears and wiped the gory goo from his face, then rose to his knees to survey his surrounding in the growing light.
To the west, to his complete surprise, rode a line of three-score Thune raiders, returning back down the river valley, lances and bows at the ready in a skirmish line. Most had one or more fresh scalps hanging from the saddle harness.Far behind them, just coming in to view, was the front of a gaggle of villagers who had survived the initial attack and been taken as slaves. Their hands were bound, and some were tied together with a single long rope.
A half-score of them, seeing him rise from the field, galloped toward him.
He didn’t have a chance.
He scooped up his dropped gladius in one hand, and the dead Hogol’s saber in the other, standing with blades drawn, ready to sell his life dearly if they gave him half a chance.
Jispin was quite a sight. His lanky and youthful features were covered with torn and ill-fitting clothes, blood, mud, and a feral grin of challenge. He expected to become a pincushion for their arrows to repay his killing their rearguard at any moment.
The line of riders slowed and came to a halt in a loose semi-circle, fifteen paces distant, and looked at the grim mess with critical eyes. Either Hogol screwed up to be taken by such a youth, though it looked like he went down with a struggle, or else the young man was a worthy adversary to be considered dangerous.One raider raised his bow, drew, and let fly an arrow, aimed true for Jispin’s heart. He’d expected such a shot, and with cat-like reflexes he batted it aside with casual disdain.
“You need a man’s bow, horseman! Any child could see that dart coming!” taunted Jispin.
The others laughed, and the man who’d shot snarled, kicked his mount forward a few steps, drew and fired again. Because of the predictability of the aiming point, Jispin again brushed it aside.
“I hope you have enough arrows, old man!” Jispin slapped his chest over his heart with his left hand, the one wielding the long saber. “Right here! You have forgotten where to aim!”
Enraged, the Thune closed closer while drawing down on Jispin once again. Another twang, another swept aside arrow, another few paces closer while the other plains raiders watched and laughed at this most excellent sport, laughing at their friends expense.
A fourth arrow was reached for, and the distance was perfect: Jispin stepped forward and flung his short sword at his would-be executioner. It spun once and planted itself deep in his side. Jispin followed through with his forward, leaping and grabbing the reins with his right hand to jerk the horses head aside, then thrusting the long saber into the mounted man’s guts just below his heavy belt. His momentum carried him sideways and past the skittering horse, the sharp edge spilling gore and intestines everywhere as all the abdominal muscles were severed and the Thune tipped back and off his horse. The rest of the Thune wasted no time on stunned silence – they were used to death and ferocious and cornered opponents.
(As always, comments, typo notes, suggestions, etc., welcome!)