Two days after they’d taken to Cake Rock, the victim being slowly and painfully executed was the messenger they’d sent to call for a relief force. He’d been brought in with a returning force of Thune who brought the surrounding army to an estimated eleven hundred warriors. The mood of the Argentain camp turned black. The weather was dark and dreary, the occasional arrow lofted randomly by a passing rider kept them under cover, and screams of their dying comrades slowly surrendering their life force to the fiendish devices of their tormentors kept everyone on edge.
That evening, the last of the Argentain scouts was displayed as a trophy – he’d fought hard and died before being captured, so his soul rested easily even if his body didn’t. But now the only hope was that they’d be missed, and a strong enough relief force was sent on a whim that it wouldn’t just be surrounded and annihilated, too.
The two halfhearted attempts by the Thune to storm the stair were easily beaten back, leaving three dead behind. The one abortive attempt at a sally force from the top down the stair was canceled when it was seen, and several hundred of the horse-archers arrived before three men were at the bottom. They managed to fall back without getting injured beyond a sprained ankle while backing up the steep cleft. Jispin quipped that it was a hard way to collect arrows, but it was fast and effective. Everyone nearby shot him a black look, but the commander of the archery contingent had to agree that a hundred additional arrows would be useful; he then set half his archers to work making new arrows as best they could from one of the straight-grained ceder trees growing atop the rock, knowing there was no such thing as “too much ammunition.”
Centurion Glaucia’s call for a volunteer to carry a message and go for aid met with no takers, not even with the offer of a hundred gold pieces bonus for success. No one said it, but the prospect of being impaled and skinned alive, cooked, and eaten like the last brave man who’d had his brains spooned out of his skull with great relish and laughter as the cost for failure meant it’s wasn’t a fair risk.
After spending the night, and most of a day, watching the surrounding Thune camp closely, much of it sitting in trees to get better angles and different views, Jispin approached the Primus Centurion. “Is your offer still open?” he asked.
“What offer?” replied Glaucia in a tired and thin voice.
“A hundred gold to carry a message.”
“Could be. Are you volunteering?”
“To wait and pray to gods that do not listen is to die a slow death. I will die sword in hand.”
Centurion Glaucia heaved a heavy sigh. “You are tough, boy. Even if you did get us in to this I do not want to hear my men listening to you die for three days and nights.”
Jispin shrugged. “I do not want to take three days to die. Is your message written?”
“No… when do you plan on leaving?”
“I’ll have it by then. Anything you need?”
“Rope. Light a few extra torches to patrol the edge to fire-blind them to the night. I’ll go over the side,” he pointed away from the stair cleft. “And a big distraction an hour after I leave.”
Glaucia snuffled and spat out a wad of spit. “I guess you wouldn’t need much. If you don’t get past them, don’t need it. Do make it past them you can travel fast and live off the land like an animal.” He reached for a pen and paper from his field secretary. “Grab anything you might need. This will take a few minutes.”
When it was dark enough, the Primus Centurion handed him a very small water-proof message pouch and sent a couple of men with bright torches to walk the cliff’s edge. They peered from behind their shields from time to time, making a nearly foolish show of checking for anyone scaling up. Jispin lowered his rope a ways away and hid his decent from Thune eyes in the distorted shadows of the flickering torchlight. Reaching ground he tugged three quick pulls, and shortly the rest of the line fell down to him. He was tempted to climb back up and tell them it was far easier than it looked, but he thought the guards were jumpy enough they might push him back on accident. Stealthily, silent as the ghosts of the recently dead scouts, he slunk away from Cake Rock and toward the surrounding army.
He inched his way silently near, though, past, and around small tents, sleeping men, campfires, and ponies. His dirty woolen clothes blended into the dark shadows and faint light well. He came across a Thune coat hung up to dry; he pilfered it and moved on. He’d been working his way slowly and steadily through the camp when he heard a whoosh and a new light, the yellow-orange of fast-moving fire, flew from atop Cake Rock. It was a flaming ball of pitch and sticks and rock and oil which was hurled from a makeshift catapult. It wasn’t big enough to do any real damage, and it didn’t go as far as an arrow shot, but it broke apart and made an impressive shower of fiery sparks and flying, sticky twigs. The brush was far too wet to burn, but had it landed among the small tents it would have been enough to ruin someones night. All Thune eyes turned to watch the flaming light-show.
Jispin sneaked silently forward. Passing a pouch slung from a tree he grabbed it, taking a bow and quiver from another, a sword hung up from a third place, and he rose and started walking like he had every right to be there, imitating the stiff, swaying, bow-legged style of movement the Thune had.
Shortly he was out of the camp. He stuck to the deep brush, more feeling his way than seeing – he knew that the Thune would keep to clearings and game trails here in the woods, so he avoided the easy ways until morning’s light let him see further than his eyelids. Moving carefully for the first day, he didn’t get very far, but he moved entirely undetected. He’d seen no game – the Thune were deadly hunters, and avoided the people he did see.
Finally at nightfall, he let himself slip into an exhausted slumber, surrounded by thorn-bush, buried under a mound of leaves deep in a dense thicket of leafless maple trees.
The next five days was a blur of running and hiding, sleeping briefly, hunting as the opportunity allowed, slowly consuming the meager supplies he’d left with or pilfered, and more running. He reached Delva, the large border town where he’d last seen Sir Andronikos, at twilight. Dodging patrols, he scaled the wall, slipped past an already drunk tower guard, and let himself in to the second-floor room the knight had rented.