The Thune raiders had been crushed. Some had escaped, fewer than one in ten the centurions guessed, but many of those were injured and would die slowly from their injuries in the coming days. The encampment was also thoroughly destroyed – more dead family there than warriors. On that account, the Argentain cohort’s mission was a resounding success.
Jispin had earned every one of his his grudgingly-paid ten gold coins. He had been the first one into the camp, the chaos during the cavalry ride-through was largely his doing, and the plan was based on the broad strokes of his idea.
The cost had been high: nearly half Primus Centurion Loukios Glaucia’s undermanned cohort was dead, along with his optio and Centurion Vergilius Gaius; half the remaining force was injured. Twelve horsemen were able-bodied, though for once they had a vast array of mounts to choose from. Only one-score and nine villagers were still alive and expected to survive injuries.
It took two days of hard work to properly loot the encampment and burn the remains, dump the animal carcasses into the river so they’d not feed any Thune, and have proper funeral pyres for fallen soldiers. They slipped out under cover of darkness suspecting a possible counter-attack from an allied clan when one of Sesquiplicarius Hadrian Tatius’ scouts returned telling of a mounted force of some size assembling in the distance.
They rode hard for a day, pushing as fast as they possibly could with the injured they had. Fortunately, the number of captured Thune ponies meant they could all ride. But for injured people unfamiliar with the saddle, it was a long, brutal night, followed by a painfully fast-moving day.
Centurion Glaucia called a halt shortly before sundown on that dreary day to camp and rest for the night, cook some hot food, and take care of the numerous injured. Everyone was exhausted and sore: the infantry from riding, the scouts from riding so far back and forth to keep an eye on those following them, and the injured from riding horses when they should be bed-ridden.
Tatius’s scouts reported that the following Thune were not moving very fast, and there didn’t look to be more than a few hundred of them. Three hundred healthy horse archers against their tattered cohort would be a major problem, especially if the Thune were well-led by an experienced war-leader or caught them in the open. But for now, they were moving slowly enough, and far enough back, that it looked more like a move to assuage their honor by giving chase so they could claim to have driven them back than an effective punitive force.
The Sesquiplicarius was in high spirits, though tired, as he ate his fill of the roasting pony-meat. It might not be the best-tasting, but it was plentiful, hot, and filling in their camp that night. “They were filing in three columns, and not even trotting once in among the trees. No urgency in their step at all,” he said to the centurions he was meeting with. “Like they’d given up the chase.”
The centurions – the originals, plus the newly selected optio, Fabius Balbinus, and newly elected replacement for the dead Posterior Centurion Vergilius Gaius, Livianus Marius – grunted acknowledgment of his report.
Maximus Aelianus belched and shook his head. “I don’t like it,” the gray-haired veteran said. “After what we did to that encampment they should have grown wings. They take revenge seriously.”
The cavalry scout officer scoffed. “Maybe so, but there are not that many of them, and they’ll take time to lick their wounds and bury their dead.”
“More likely to eat them than bury them at a time like this, I’d have to agree,” said the Primus Centurion. “But they can’t move fast at night, and they are a half-day away even at their fastest.”
From the nearby shadows Jispin listened carefully. He knew enough Argentain to follow the conversation well enough, but he didn’t understand the reluctance to think things might not be as they appeared. He knew the scouts would move fast on their long-legged horses, but the animals seemed to have more sense and better sight than the riders. The discussion continued for some minutes while Jispin pondered the situation. He didn’t like the men of Argentain, but these had shown they were tough, brave, and could take on a superior force and win if they planed well. At length, he spoke when there was a long pause in the debate and they poked at the wood in the fire dissolutely.
“What would you do, if you had many horses, and someone attacked an Argentain city?”
“Counter-attack. Swift and crushing,” said Fabius Balbinus the optio.
The others similar sentiments.
“If Argentain attacked a Kurgen village and killed them all, and a large number of men were nearby, only a handful would be sent to chase you back down the valley.”
“Why?” asked Maximus Aelianus. “Never met a Kurgen who was a coward. Stupid, yes, but savage and tougher than any Thune. And they take revenge even more seriously.”
“Tenagra,” said Jispin.
Maximus Aelianus stopped chewing, and slowly took a drink from a wineskin. “Shit.” The others looked back and forth between themselves, while Primus Centurion Loukios Glaucia took the wineskin from the older man and took a long pull himself.
“Shit, indeed…. How many did you see behind us, on the plain, Sesquiplicarius?” His use of the title meant he was asking for a formal, official answer.
“Our initial estimate was three to four hundred, but visibility was poor.”
“How certain are you of that?”
“At the time, I’d have thought almost certain.”
“How many did you see following us now?”
“At least one hundred, not more than two hundred. I’m sure of that.”
In the brief silence that followed, Maximus Aelianus heaved a great sigh. “Shit. Tenagra.”
“Who’s Tenagra?” asked the newly-elected princeps posterior centurion Livianus Marius.
“The battle of Tenagra,” said Primus Centurion Loukios Glaucia. “A cohort butchered to a man. They’d raided a Kurgen village way up in the back country. Did to it what we just did to the Thune. They didn’t know a Kurgen war party wasn’t very far away. A small following force slowly chased the cohort back down the valley. The rest went around them to set up an ambush. Cut them off three days later. Killed most of them quickly in battle. Killed the rest very slowly. Sent back scalps, skins, and body parts for months; launched them over walls into towns in the middle of the night. It’s why we only hunt the men who are on the mountain fringes, or else we go into the mountains by the legion or on horse.”
“So you think… you think they’re moving ahead of us, to cut us off, with a larger force?” asked centurion Livianus Marius.
“More than likely,” said centurion Maximus Aelianus grimly. “More than likely.” He took the wineskin his commander handed him and took another pull. “Shit.”
“But we can’t know that, right?”
“It is what I would do,” said Jispin quietly.
“So now what?”
Primus Centurion Glaucia stared at the fire, deep in thought, for several long minutes. “The men need some rest. We’ll move out in four hours. We’ll tell them in three and a half. There’s a rock outcrop not too far from here, Cake Rock. We might be able to reach it just after sunrise if we can move fast. Cake’s very defensible. The rest will scout ahead and to the sides, report back to the outcrop after they’ve moved at least a half-day’s ride out, or sooner if they see evidence of a strong force. We’ll hole up there and rest, wait for a relief force at Cake Rock if they are surrounding us in force. No water, but with all this rain we can catch it in the tents, and it’ll take a long time to starve us out with all these ponies. Certainly long enough for a couple of cohorts and a few centuries of archers to get here. We can leave a couple of people here to tend the fires make this camp still look occupied to any watchers. Tell your seconds, and get some sleep. Hadrian, we’ll send a messenger as soon as I can write a note; your best rider with two spare mounts. Send half your healthy riders out as soon as you can. Questions?”
The were few, and quickly answered.
Jispin wondered if he should just slip off into the night and save his own skin – he wasn’t sure any of these men he was with would survive another two days.