Another wild hack came at Jispin, and he countered with a sharp slash of his own, cutting her arm to the bone. One-handed she attacked again, and once more Jispin blocked and countered. Shortly, it was over, and he had a chance to cut another slave free of his restrictive bonds before he had to fight off another revenge-minded Thune.
Most of the villagers could barely move, after their hard driving, little food or water, exposure, and tight restraints. They did not have to be told to keep down and not look like Thune needing to be killed. When the battle line of Argentain soldiers swept through, they had no problem identifying the slaves they were there to free, in spite of the heat and blood-lust of battle. They bypassed the cluster and Jispin with little more than the faintest words of acknowledgment by Centurion Vergilius Gaius to spare from the hard work of slaughter and destruction. There would be time enough to exchange pleasantries at dinner… if they lived through the dawn to see it.
Sesquiplicarius Hadrian Tatius led his cavalry proudly through the maze of pickets. The larger Argentain horses had a faster trot than the hardy ponies the Thune rode, so in a battle of maneuver or straight-line race they held a slight edge over their foe. They’d easily been able to lead their pursuers into the trap, occasionally stopping to exchange a whistling arrow or two with the mass following them, though they had no idea to what effect they landed. The idea was to just enrage them, and get them to advance without thinking as fast as possible. They’d only lost one horse to a lucky shot in the dark, and had a man slightly injured with an arrow that barely penetrated his vambrace, in the process.
They’d pulled away near the end to give themselves a little more time to get through the pickets. The Thune entered the wider mouth of the valley just as Tatius’s horses were nearly out of it, and the lanterns were clearly visible in the dark, though what they illuminated wasn’t. With renewed whoop and war-cries, the head of the Thune horde press forward at a gallop, their quarry now in sight.
The lead riders were lucky: they missed all of the first line of pickets and ankle-breakers. Their first warning that something was amiss was hearing the scream of a horse impaling itself on an angled and sharpened stake – a picket – pointed in the direction of the incoming riders. Then a horse stepped in a small hole, one of thousands of hastily dug pits a hand-span wide and elbow deep, pitching forward with a broken and mangled leg, letting forth a heart-breaking shrill cry of agony as it pitched forward and rolled, tripping the next one behind it.
Soon dark field was scattered with the impaled, the broken, the stepped on, the crushed, the dead, and the dying. But in the field middle, the stakes and holes were scattered, so it only slowed the charging Thune to a fast trot, and allowed them to become bunched up even more. The edges were quickly found to be more heavily defended, but under the black sky and hot blood the bigger picture was not understood, only reacted to by those who found a problem the hard way. The hated Argentain were in sight ahead, going higher as they left the valley floor, lanterns illuminating them; the Thune pressed forward eagerly in spite of the apparent danger lurking in the pre-dawn dark. Galloping raiders pressed from behind, and spread out to go around the slowing riders in the van of the charge, while the edged pulled in closer, jostling for position and readying bows for an imminent fight as they closed the gap.
The sudden low bluff and numerous pickets and ankle-breaker holes channeling them in were only recognized by those on the edge of the mass experiencing them, and those falling to them were bypassed by faster, as-yet-unaware riders. The noise and excitement rose higher. Straight before them, lit by a half-dozen lanterns and facing them, but just out of range of the leading Thune riders, the Argentain horsemen formed a line. Suddenly, a lot more charging raiders started going down. Nearly the entire leading edge fell in a mass, the suddenly thick rows of sharpened picket piercing deep into horse and rider, sometimes both with one stake. The pack of horsemen grew even tighter, and those who were en the second or third rank who suddenly found themselves leaping their dead comrades and in the leading rank fell as well. With a surge, the shadows before them started moving, unaccountably at first with their eye focused on the Argentain cavalry awaiting their arrows when they were just a little bit closer. The shadows moved in a line that thrust up actively with spear-points.
Many Thune died in the first assault as Centurion Junius Petronius’ men, stationed in a rank near the mouth of the valley, counter-attacked the seething of raiders won’ not seen them in the dark until it was too late. The pickets, lances, thrown javelins, and pikes did bloody work without the need of a clarion call. Well concealed in the trees on the bluff behind them, two-score Argentain archers drew their powerful bows and poured yard-long arrows into the screaming pack of humanity and horseflesh, unaimed but unable to miss. Hundreds died. More were injured.
Eventually, despite the confusion, the general mass of Thune figured out what was happening as the gradually lightening sky revealed the trap they’d galloped into, and they started to fall back and re-order themselves. They could not see the archers who had decimated them; they could only guess their approximate hiding place. As the clan and squadron leaders who survived whipped their angry men into some semblance of order and losses were accounted for, the watched as the hated Argentains they’d faced scramble away. In the dim light they saw barely three-score shieldmen, no more missiles or pikes or spears among them, abandoning the field in haste, large shields slung behind them to protect themselves from lucky shots at extreme range. Footmen, so close, and so few!