The attempt to slip out silently was not anything like quiet to Jispin’s ears. He said as much, and as much as it pained the optio to agree with him, there wasn’t any point in leaving behind men to make the camp look occupied. They just packed up as fast as they could, linked up horses into strings, and made as much speed as they could by torchlight.
It wasn’t a total disaster, but the scouts lost their way in the dark, two more men were injured being thrown from their mounts, some of the equipment was left behind, and one man was sentenced on the spot for a flogging for being drunk… if they lived to get back to civilization.
They finally make Cake Rock several hours after sunup. According to one of the men Jispin stood beside, it looked just like a tall layer cake, a hundred paces wide at the top, twenty men tall, with nearly vertical side rounded by ages of weathering that revealed slightly angled rock stripes of different colors. A portion of it had a sharp and steep crevasse in it up to the top, a notch that hard labor at some point had chiseled into a rude, uneven, narrow stairway to the top. It was extremely defensible. But getting down, if anyone were at the bottom waiting, would be just as hard. Even harder for the animals.
The injured were helped or ferried up first, followed by a mass of ponies and horses being herded up as fast as they’d go. It wasn’t until they were down to the final healthy remnants of the last century were about to retreat when the fist Thune arrow landed. It skittered off a pauldron, another man’s helm, and shattered on the rock wall behind them.
“THUNE!” someone yelled, and in a flash shields were pivoted out or up into a tortoise formation, men faced out, the formation tightened, and eyes scanned through narrow gaps in shields and helms for where the missile had come from. It wasn’t long before they knew. A group of them charged into view on their shaggy beasts, riding to within twenty paces and shooting on the move.
The formation tightened more.
Some shields gained many arrows, one after another thudding into the hide-covered oak or bouncing off the rounded iron boss. A few hit home, finding a gap in the defenses.
The Argentain soldiers held their discipline, and managed to make an orderly retreat under heavy fire, dragging dead and helping wounded. They were down to only eight left at the bottom on ground level when they advanced closer, doing their best to find a gap or add so many arrows the shield was too heavy to move. High above, the Argentain archers were finally ready to lend support. They arose silently next to shieldmen along the top endge, drew their powerful longbows back, and dropped more than half the attacking Thune where they sat. Swift follow-up arrows killed more; the three survivors retreated hastily to nurse their wounds.
A ragged cheer went up, and those at the bottom of the stair continued the retreat in good order. They owed their archers a drink at the best tavern in town if they ever made it out of there, they swore.
Soon, more Thune showed up, and the stalemate was on them in earnest. There was no way to escape, but the sheer cliff and wooded canopy of the rock outcrop meant the Thune could not mount any effective attack because the Argentain archers had the height/range advantage when trading darts.
“We made it!” said Primus Centurion Loukios Glaucia, in a good mood, if not buoyant. “Safe enough for now, plenty of food, message sent to reinforcements. Not as good as proper town with a proper in and ale, but good enough for now! You were right, Jispin, my boy! If we’d been caught out last night, we have been spilling our guts by now.”
Jispin took the praise with a shrug. As solid as the soldier’s performance had been, he still saw many ways for things to get worse. Much worse.
While the cohort set about making their camp more comfortable, Jispin slowly prowled the perimeter of the rock outcrop to watch and count the Thune. More kept arriving in bands of a score or two dozen. It became obvious they were from a tribe related to the ended one, and were out for blood. By sundown there were more than eight hundred.
Not long after sundown, they showed up with one of the scouts they’d sent out. They announced his capture, stripped him bare, hung him upside down close to a fire, and with small knives and care they slowly peeled the skin from his body, rubbing something on the wounds to keep him from bleeding to death too fast. The scout’s shrieks of agony could be heard haunting the night, much to the amusement of the Thune. The archers tried to put him out of his misery, but the range was extreme, and the winter rains and wind made it hard to do more than come close, and the vigilant shieldmen near the dying man made it impossible.
Through it all, various Thune kept taunting the men on the hill about how the others they’d caught would be next, but they didn’t want to use all the entertainment up at once. And, of course, how the men atop the hill could either jump to their deaths, or come down and join their friend by the fire.
Centurion Glaucia was no longer in such a fine mood.