“I am the only one for a hundred leagues. But that way,” he pointed, “are a thousand Thune raiders, and another thousand families. They know you are coming. They have roasting pits ready for you.” His words fell across the silent Argentain straining to listed to them, or any orders that were issued, and raised an audible intake of breath. They’d been marching a long way following the hundred Thune who’d captured Jispin. “And I’ve been here for hours, but your scouts are blind and poorly trained.”
“You lie!” said the scout officer.
“We could kill you were you stand,” the horse-troupe leader threatened.
“Then we all die. Facing down four hundred would be an acceptable way to meet the gods.” But he made no move to take up his weapons.
“You… you….” words failed the young and obviously inexperienced officer. He motioned with his sword to leave the hillock and walk toward his superior, now riding hell for lather toward them.
Jispin bowed mockingly and strolled off the hill with a swagger that belied the actual strength of his position.
A soldier, one of newer ones, seeing the threat of one boy wasn’t great enough to secure the attention of the entire force, grabbed the spooked horse to return to the officer. He arrived with it at the same time as the force commander, Primus Centurion Loukios Glaucia. The centurion was flushed but controlled as he rode up. He glared at his newly dismounted cavalry commander briefly, then considered the gangling but apparently confident youth who had so abruptly appeared in their midst.
“What’s your name, boy?” he asked. His tone was brusk, but not angry or threatening. He simply needed answers quickly.
“Why’s a Kurgen here, in a Thune jacket?”
“I was captured after I’d killed a couple of them at a village. Their rear-guard. They came upon me when doubling back with the villagers they’d enslaved. Most of them died on the run here.”
Loukios Glaucia exchanged a look with one of the senior optios. “Where’d you kill the Thune?”
“One in the woods across the stream. One near a field outcroping.” He laughed at the memory. He went on to briefly describe the methods and situation.
The optio nodded. “Sounds right enough.”
The centurion looked at the horizon around the little valley they were in. “Post guards, take lunch. No fires.”
“Obviously,” said the optio.
“Make sure the new new guys know it, too. Who investigated the Thune bodies?”
“I did, along with Minorus and Lothar.”
“Get them over here.”
“Are you going to use your pickets properly?” asked Jispin. Thee centurion froze for the briefest of moments. The others nearby were aghast at the implied insult.
“And what would you consider proper?” asked Centurion Loukios Glaucia, without condecention.
“Like the Thune. They use them much farther out. Post them on the next ridge-line over at least. Put a signal man up where they are now. You are fighting horsemen who could ride down that hill before all your men can stand, not slow-footed walls of armor like yourself.”
The older man considered the words, then looked at the junior officer, now next to his horse. “The lad is correct, Sesquiplicarius Hadrian Tatius. The nearest scout should be at least twenty minutes hard ride out, with others in between at intervals looking themselves and listening for warnings. Make it so, and keep it so.”
“Yes, sir!” Hadrian Tatius said, saluting. He could do nothing else. he mounted and galloped off to see to it, giving orders to two other riders as he went.
“Now then, lad. Jispin? What can you tell us, Jispin the Kurgan, of this Thune encampment?”
“What is it worth to you?”
The optio reached for his sword. “Is keeping your life enough?”
Loukios Glaucia held up a hand to stay his threat. “Cheeky lad. But then, the Kurgen have always had the bravery of wild animals. Your threats will do no good. Payment? Ten silvers for the numbers. Ten more for the disposition. A gold to lead us to them, two golds if you help in the attack.”
The optio, though he thought the price was far too high, bit his tongue. He figured his commander had no intention to pay, but was offering enough so this wild child would be bitten by greed. He could always be disposed of later.
“Agreed,” said Jispin with the slightest of bows to the commander in agreement. “But the two gold are paid in advance if I’m in the attack; your plan may get you killed. Ten more if I lead you to victory.”
It was the centurion’s turn to laugh. “You have the balls to be a Kurgen chieftain’s son, my boy! By the GODS you have! But if we can kill a thousand Thune, it’s worth siding with you. Ten it is!” They shook hands, mirth in the eyes of the centurion, caution suddenly in Jispin’s.
Rapidly Jispin sketched out what he knew of the encampment at the big bend in the Tehomic River. His grave-digging duty and escape route had given him a decent idea of its layout and numbers. The escape gave his wilderness-hones senses a big-picture view of how the surrounding terrain could be used by Thune or approaching foot. The boy’s confidence was infectious, and after interrupting with a few questions at first, the centurion watched and listened in silence to Jispin with growing confidence in the information, and growing doubts about his previously expected course of action.
In ten minutes the optio thought that they had gotten far more than twenty silver’s worth of intelligence, if even half of what the young man said were true. He was familiar with the big river bend, and Jispin’s descriptions matched what he remembered about the general terrain in the area. What Jispin said was as good or better than any of the scouts might have possibly provided. When Minorus and Lothar showed up, the optio questioned Jispin about his encounter with the two Thune riders back at the village, then the run west. His description matched their memories exactly. He handed over the payment without being asked.
“Wait here,” said Centurion Loukios Glaucia. He walked over to the hillock with Optio Anthelm Sextilius. He ate in silence, looking out over his men who sat in quietly watching him back, wondering what the next move would be. They had the feeling something big had changed.
“Well, that’s a huge shit in the winesack.”
“Yes, Sir,” agreed Anthelm. “The size of a horse turd.”