Latii

As we crossed the border one of the messengers turned off the road in order to take a more direct line to the units he served. Yes. The people who decide the orders are male.  Those who carry them safe to their destination are male, and those who oversee their safe execution are male. But the people who write the orders and those who predominantly will carry them out are neut.

It struck me as odd too.  If neuts cannot be trusted to carry the orders, how can they be trusted to write them? Never mind. Perhaps I am just an oddity to question the social standings that have been unchanged since time began.

 

Shortly afterward two more of the messengers broke away.  One left and one right. Then a little further on the two remaining males, with me in tow, left the road, Veering right and toward where the sun was climbing relentlessly into a clear blue sky, marred only by the haze of cooking fires off to our front and left.

Then as we crested a rise we saw the source.  From here the siege was laid out in front of us in every detail, a vast network of snaking walls and trenches. Even at this distance it was plain that this was not at all like Kiisk. Where Kiisk had a single high thick wall here were a hundred low ones. Perhaps this defence had been prepared this way as a result of the fighting within Kiisk itself. I could not stop to marvel at the scene for the messengers were hot foot, with my escort cursing me to hurry up.

 

Within half a longpace we were up close to one of the walls, following its track as it gently bent in the course of its undulations. The construction of the wall was in the form of a ditch being about as deep as the average Surian is tall, the spoil from the ditch being used to create a bank on its far side and a small lip on the near side. The ditch and bank were shored to maintain very steep sides, then atop the bank was erected a wooden wall, again about the height of an average Surian.  So someone in the bottom of the ditch would have to climb three times his height to cross the wall.  No easy task when the wall is defended.

Furthermore the wall forms a regular pattern of enclaves and strong points, the enclaves performing exactly the same purpose as the sealed courtyards in Kiisk and Pom. The strong points providing bastions about which the tides of war are designed to flow.

 

Cutting away from that wall towards another not far away I looked back at it for it did not make sense.  The wall just terminated in a strong point.  I mean, just stopped with nothing behind it and no rear face. Sensing my bewilderment one of the messengers said.

"That was only their first line, put up as a deterrent. But we just came round the sides. The other end is the same and they retreated to their second line. Now all the new troops use it for practice."

"Oh." Was all I could reply as we hurried onward.

Rounding the end of another terminated wall, I saw that this end had another wall running at an angle just a little way off.   It was as if the two were meant to join up but had not been completed in time. Through this gap we entered the camp of the high chief of Zandov. The tents and canopies were of a High Chiefs' corner at the games. The demeanour of the inhabitants however was anything but.

 

Everyone looked tired and dispirited.  An air of gloom and lethargy pervaded the camp.  The messenger was received courteously enough but without enthusiasm. He was quickly on his way, leaving me unannounced and forgotten in a corner, just telling the Grand Marshall (2ic to the Land Army) that he would be back the next morning to take replies and reports to Kiisk.

I remained ignored so just sat down on my pack patiently waiting, as were all the Equerries and Officers there gathered whilst the High Chief and Grand Marshall opened and read all the orders and despatches.

From time to time they would swap pamphlets or confer over letters, some of which were handed out variously to the officers for their direct action. After reading the primary directive, the High Chief just threw it over his shoulder.

At this the Grand Marshall chided him, saying that these things should not be dismissed so, reminding the High Chief that it was by these orders that the armies acted in consort and would thereby gain victory. 

"Turds!" Was the High Chief’s reply.  "It is all a load of shit. The Kings' Champion implores me to strive harder in the aim of breaking my part of the wall.  I mean, what the shit does he think we have been doing?  This land army has already lost too many people, over a thousand of them..." 

"Mostly neuts."   Interrupted the grand Marshall.  

"All right! All right, mostly neuts,  but OUR neuts and OUR males"  The High Chief continued. "And that is in the last month alone since taking over this part of wall.  So what am I to do?   Destroy my land army?   Never!! There have to be better ways of doing this."

"All right, I know and concede this." Consoled the Grand Marshall, picking up the offending document. "But is there nothing in this of merit, interest, or hope?"

"Only that Ossov get a spell out of the line and Orel are standing in."

"But it says here that Zladisov and Pava are starting a link up the day after tomorrow."

"So?'   The High Chief retorted.  "From that little hill back there I can see the river, but that does not mean that I can reach it or stop the Latii filth reinforcing across the bridge does it?"

"No.  But surely we could organise something to divert enemy attention away from the active sectors?" 

"Ah yes!  Let us kill a thousand of our people in another futile endeavour just so the Pavans can eviscerate themselves in taking a wall, only to find that it does not link after all and the only gain is a reduction in ration costs.  Really clever!"

"Why do you not burn the bridge?"  I asked myself. I realised that I had said it aloud when faces turned to me. "Sorry!" I mumbled, blushing.

"Who let this idiot in here?"  Roared the High Chief.  "Get the pox out of my tent until you learn to control your tongue you bloody neut!"

I left, and quickly at that, to seek out and eventually find the overseer of auxiliaries. It transpired that there was not actually a job for me, so I was assigned to help around the kitchens as the only army qualification I could quote was carrying a cooking pot. A tenuous link, but enough for the overseer.

 

By nightfall I was accepted and it was as if I had never been other than a kitchen hand in the Zandov land force. The overseer was even happy, for he had by then gained the orders for my transfer. At first he had been suspicious that I was a deserter from the ranks, especially when he asked where in Zandov I was from in order to assign me to a regiment. I told him that I was a Valever. This perplexed him but he nevertheless assigned me to the High Chiefs' kitchens. I suppose it was so he could keep an eye on me until he found out where I was supposed to be.

Despite the warmth of the day, the nights were quite cold.  It was early autumn after all, and settling into my cosy sleeping pack I felt sorry for all those, who wrapped only in a blanket could not settle close to the embers of the kitchen fires.

After the exertions of the journey from Pom the days were easy. Long, but easy. Easy for me that was, not so easy for others. Every day injured and dead soldiers were brought back from the walls, the injured to the medical section located near the high chief’s kitchens, all too many of them passing through to join the corpses awaiting burial in mass graves close by.

 

A week later and after completing breakfast for the troops, the overseer called me. "Hey! Valever!" He beckoned me to him, giving instructions to go to the 2nd regiment as one of their cooks was ill and I was spare so I should for now take his place.

This I duly did. Gaining directions, I once again picked up my gear and set off.  A short way out of the encampment I stepped aside to let the Grand Marshall, who was coming the opposite way, go past.  

He stopped as he recognised me, asking, "Are you not the neut who spoke before of burning the bridge?" 

"Yes." I replied. "Sire."

"Well, never mind. It is a good idea and a shame it cannot be done.  If you have any more sparks of wisdom do not be afraid to speak out. You never know, sometimes we cannot see the wood for the trees. Yesterday was just the wrong time and place." 

"But why can it not be done?" I asked. "We hold the bank on this side of the river on both sides of the town.  A few boats starting at one end can set fire to it as they pass under, perhaps even take rafts of faggots to tie to it and make sure it burns then return safely to the bank when they reach our territory again."

"Well I will be cursed." He said. "How long have you been sitting on that to think up such an elaborate plan?"

"Well," Said I, telling the truth, "What the High Chief said made me think of the bridge. The bit about the boats came to me as I spoke to you just now." 

"Well I will be double cursed!" He laughed. "We have a military genius in our midst!" and then turning cold. "I suppose you have a plan for the conduct of the rest of the war?" 

 

I paused, not quite sure of which way to take the comment, then replied. "No, but like the High Chief, I would not be happy with the means of its waging at present." 

"He is not the only one I can assure you, but to make a change we need a breakthrough." 

"Does that have to come here?"  I asked as a retort.

"Where the pox else?" He blustered as if I were a fool then suddenly lowered his voice and eyebrows to query. "What do you mean?" 

"I do not really know, it just seems to me to be pointless to throw people against walls. The Latiians found that out at Kiisk.  If Kiisk did not fall why should Jojiisk?" 

"A pox on you!"  He cried. "Because we are better! That is why." 

"Yes." I replied, not really sure that it were true. "But are we better enough to win before the breeding season, or even before winter? Whenever that is down here." 

"A curse on you! They will break!" Almost as in reassurance to himself he continued. "We have sapped their strength for two and a half months now. Only a few more walls in some places and we will be in the town! Then see! Doubter!" 

"I do not doubt Sire." I mollified, "I am a know nothing neut and am sorry for speaking out of turn." 

"Good!  He responded, and turned to walk off. 

"It is just..."  Stupid though it was, I could not help myself. 

"What now?" The Grand Marshall said, heatedly turning back. "It is just, what?" 

Mustering my courage again I continued. "It is just that I have seen lots of contests in my time. I have seen the slug it out type and they are always protracted and bloody. It is just that this bloody little match we are in is killing people like me. The best contests are always won by clever manoeuvring or deception. I think everyone here deserves some clever manoeuvring and deception."

"You have said nothing new here.  Nothing that has not already been said and thought. But there are no new ploys, not any more. We all have to learn to knuckle down and slug them out at their own game...  That is," He sneered.  "Unless of course your little genius can come up with a stunning new strategy''             

"I.. I am sorry."  I stammered. "I do not know, but..  Maybe..., maybe, well.. How about everyone leaving, then when the Latii come from behind their walls destroy them in the field?”

"Hah!!" He cried. "Hah!! I can just see all the High chiefs giving up their hard won gains on the off chance of the Latiians coming out!" 

"All right!" I stalled. " But how about forcing the Latiian hand then? Umm... Ahh.. All right... Do not give up the siege then. Just burn the bridge so they can not reinforce or re-supply. Make sure it stays burned and wait for them to starve...  Then use half of the army to run riot through Latii." 

"Oh'... This is just fanciful nonsense." He said, suddenly tired. "Be gone with you. The High Chief was right after all. You are just a know nothing idiot of a neut."... Then turning back after he had stepped away he advised. "Think more deeply on your madcap schemes, but be careful where you open your mouth to air them. Now be gone!"  He turned again and continued his way.

 

Cursing my laxity of tongue control I carried on the walk to report to the 2nd regiments' kitchens. The regimental bivouac was uncomfortably close to a wall and even from the cooking area the helmets of the prowling Latiian sentries were plainly visible.

From time to time some fellow would expose themselves and from our forward trench a stream of arrows and stones would fly at one of these helmets. Sometimes they would hit. Mostly the sentries saw the movement and ducked. Always a returning hail of missiles came. Occasionally one of our fellows was hit and would either stagger or be carried back past my post streaming with blood.

The most advantageous aspect of this time was that this regiment was on the end of the Zandov line and butted up against the Pavan 5th regiment. They had been reinforced the previous day contrary to the understanding and among the new faces were all the people I had met in Pom. The consequence was that at night when my simple but time consuming chores were done I would go and sit with Pankov and Old neut to chat.

When at first I went into their camp I was greeted with surprise and pleasure and cries of "Hey! The Valever is back!" 

My Zandov Overseer was not happy with it but as I was always back to start the fires of a morning he did not say anything. My days were now taken with preparing and cleaning foods, fetching tinder and making long treks to the river for water.

I may be just a know nothing idiot of a neut, but on the thirty-second of First Fall the bridge was burned.  More or less like I had suggested, but with a few refinements, and mighty proud of their efforts the Zandov 1st. were too.

With that as a diversion both Pava and Zladisov won their walls only to find as the Zandov High Chief had predicted, they did not meet.   I saw the trail of injured and dead coming back and this bitterly served to confirm my growing conclusion that this was not a fight that this army was either trained, equipped or morally ready to conduct successfully.

Two days later that was evidenced as the Pavans took over our stretch of line and the Zandov land force marched clear of Jojiisk and into the field together with Svensa and Zodiv who had been on piquet, and the Ultans and Regans. The army had been split in two. One half to siege, the other to rampage.

 

"'Hey!.. You the Valever! You are first! Come here!" 

The shouts of the Overseer cook startled me from my concentration on fowl plucking at the end of our second day in the field.   

"You too Dungheap, and you the mangy one. And you!.. And you!.."

In all some sixteen persons were picked. Mostly the lazy or incompetent but some like myself because they did not fit into the Overseers way. I followed with the others to learn of new events. I was hoping that the Armies' reformation meant I could go off and continue in my journeying but this hope was soon to be dashed. The cause of our calling was indeed due to the reformation. But success to date had a high price. There were nowadays fewer mouths to feed and not the work to require so many cooks and helpers, but far from being released from service we were now to be conscripted for fighting duty.

I had learned by now that comment or complaint was an ill considered and pointless course of action and so meekly trudged in line to the supply depot. This time to collect an over jacket, a war hat and short spear.  No bows or arrow packs for us. We were to be the make weights of the regiment, more likely I thought, make corpses. Probably the only bonus was in getting my meals already cooked.  Not much of a consolation though, as the food still tasted terrible.  Furthermore, each of us were sent to different regiments and so once again I lost touch with anybody I had got to know.

The unit I had been allotted to was the Zandov 4th Regiment, 2nd Section.  

 

Perhaps here it would help to explain the makeup of the Surian Army. The military might of Sur consists of ten Land Armies  Zandov; Zodiv; Orel; Pava; Svensa; Rega; Wussiv; Ossov; Zladisov and Ulta; raised as suggested by their title from the individual lands of Sur.  It is normal for each land to have at least two standing regiments. Normally the first occupies the role of ceremonial guard and police, the second as garrison guard and first to war.

Each land is required, in addition to the militia and guard, in a time of crisis to furnish the King with at least four regiments, each consisting a minimum of seven hundred fighting troops plus any ancillaries. Thus the smallest land army must be three thousand soldiers strong. 

In practice most of the lands can field and sustain six or seven regiments and the larger lands nine or ten regiments. Even then the regiments are usually larger than 500 strong as each unit consists 4 ranks of 36, plus six end guards thus 150 soldiers. Added to that are the Section Marshall, the sub leader and the unit leader. With reserves it numbers some 180 souls, not including the Regimental captain and his equerries (one per unit) plus their runners and a labour unit .  Most regiments have anything up to six units.

 

 

The Land High Chief commands each force subject to the orders of the Kings' Champion, who naturally is answerable to the King. Grand Marshall's and their deputies, a pair of Land Captains regulate the regiments, which in turn are each led by a single Regimental Captain who uses his Equerries to relay direction to the Unit Leaders and their deputies the Sub leaders.

All these ranks are almost exclusively male.  It is unusual, though not unknown for a neut to rise to Sub leader, and extremely rarely to Unit Leader, but not beyond that. The neut ranks are, from the bottom (naturally), Soldier, the most important and yet least thought of position, End Guard, which is really a large fellow who can be trusted to secure the end of the line,  Section Marshall who keeps everyone in line and the lines straight and filled, and the best rank Overseer. A minor King, and as such either the bane or the making of each unit.

In addition to this of course there is a Labour unit attached to each regiment.  This supplies all the portaging, kitchen facilities, a medical section, tailor, armourer and so on.  It is usually organised and commanded by an Overseer, and then often one too old for action and so doubly grumpy. Experience so far had borne this out. Now all this had been the case at the start of the campaign.  By this time a number of changes had taken place. In some cases, reinforcements had been sent so regiments were up to full strength and some Land Armies even had extra regiments or extra units within their regiments.  In others the reverse had happened and units and regiments had to be amalgamated to make sensible organisations.

This process displeased the members of the regiments involved, particularly where units of two Surlands were mixed. This type of amalgamation was avoided where possible but in certain cases was the only expedient means of obtaining commandable sized regiments.   The Zandov 4th for instance retained its 1st and 2nd units and was linked with the remains of the Zandov 12th to return the numbers to regiment status.  Even then it was below normal strength and would take porters, cooks, anyone in order not to have the remnants of Ultan 3rd attached.

 

Enough, I digress. Next morning as normal the army moved on, with me safely in its midst.  For all that I was a non Surian, my unit took to me quite well. Perhaps it did not matter, as it seemed the fellow I marched next to would talk all day to anyone.

Unremarkable in appearance, typically Surian, short and squat with dark curly hair and the blue eyes of an uplander. Much like myself in fact, excepting that this one had never done anything but land work in the crop fields before joining this regiment. But talk! On and on over hill and dale as to the course of the campaign, as to how we were all heroes, excepting me of course as I had not fought yet. But I would be. He could tell by the way I carried the short spear over my shoulder! Well, I ask you, how else can it be carried?

He was frequently hushed by the rest of the unit, but continued undeterred, excepting when the Section Marshall yelled over for him to be quiet, and even then only for a short while.

Towards the afternoon the army was halted and units allotted to guard, patrol, forage and rest. As a cooks helper I had not seen this before. We had just caught up with a ready-bivouacked army and set about the business of feeding it. Now I had to do some earning.

 

The regiment's job was to form scouting patrols.  Accordingly our section was broken down into four even sized patrols and as such we blundered around the Countryside looking for indications of Latiian forces until darkness approached and the cooking fires beckoned.

It transpires that this regiment is well thought of, and their casualty rate indicates they have seen some heavy fighting though I do not truthfully know how they fare in battle but if patrolling were anything to go by, I was not impressed.  We had seen no Latii, military or otherwise but had skirmished through an abandoned farmstead. The buildings had been partially demolished, with the grain store burned out and the livestock driven off. In the half-light of dusk the form and layout had been difficult to make sense of. In such an unfamiliar surrounding the cohesion of the patrol was atrocious and the lack of enemy presence was perhaps just as well for the units' and my sake.

Unbeknown to me, I was to find out the very next day both how a battle was fought and how this regiment behaved.

 

We were roughly awoken by the Section Marshall in the early light of dawn. Not for the first time, nor I suspect the last, I appreciated my sleeping pack as the morning was cold and all the others who had only blankets were stiff and slow whereas I had been as warm as toast and consequently fresh as a daisy .

I had gathered my chattels and was looking for water to wash when I was screamed at by the Marshall.

"Where the Lords of Sur did I think I was going, and why the  *****  was I not forming up?" 

I started to explain and immediately received a tirade enough to cow the King of Latii himself. That is if there is such a thing.

So, quickly and meekly I rejoined my erstwhile comrades and shuffled into what I thought was the right place.  More lessons to be learned. Fortunately the talkative one whose name was Marak guided me through the requirements. This was not marching order but fighting formation, and though I had participated in two Valev Championship games and watched the local Iktna mass bouts this was different. This was the Surian war machine.

I was pushed into the front rank of four and told to keep in line with spear extended.  Then the regiment advanced. At nothing. We moved slowly forward over the ground our unit had patrolled the previous night and after about a subspan were halted. At the halt the front rank suddenly knelt and surprised, I quickly followed their action.  Planting the blunt end of my spear in the ground by my knee and holding the shaft before me at an angle. With the fellow behind me’s spear point just above my head I realised that we had made quite an impressive wall of spikes to confront the non-existent enemy. After half a subspan or so the order came to rest up in station. This meant relax without leaving the formation.

 

Rumours by this time had been whispered a thousand times that Latiians had been seen by one of the previous days' patrols and we were here to flush them out. The idea was, I think, that our 4th/12th regimental combine would advance after a larger force had moved behind the Latii.  Then we would chase them onto the spears of the waiting force to their rear.

So, after a short while a scout ran up to our Regimental Captain and he immediately called us to arms.  We then advanced as before for a while and then amazingly Marak shut up.  At first I thought this good news then I saw why.

A lone Latiian guard sprinting away with news of our arrival. I hoped that all the Latii were not that large.  I was to hope in vain. Needless to say, not long afterward we encountered the larger force of Latiians deploying rapidly to counter our threat.

All was silence excepting the soft tramp of our feet on the earth and the deafening pounding of my heart.   The Latii stood unmoving at our approach.  Slowly we neared, perilously close.  Then the order came. 

"Halt!"Immediately down on one knee, then. "Loose!"

A storm of arrows flew from the rear two ranks over my head and into the Latii, a large number of whom were hit and fell kicking and screaming like wounded animals. Their line closed as the injured were pulled to the rear and the screaming stopped.

My blood ran cold at the implicit savagery, but I did not have long to dwell on it as we were ordered to move closer.  The Latii should have withdrawn by now in the face of superior numbers.  But they did not so I guessed we needed to move closer to make our arrow showers tell further. There was almost not the chance as the Latii suddenly charged. Our Captain screamed at the top of his lungs to halt and loose, and it was done. But the volley was ragged and the front rank uneven.

It sufficed however, but only just and only because it was a feint attack to us but the 8th to our left, and part of the next regiment along bore the full flood of ferocity. Fortunately they were made of sterner stuff and managed to hold, though it looked and sounded terrifying; as if our little combat were not! Never before had I seen death so close or so violent. I was shaken, yet relieved that I had survived the clash.

As suddenly as the attack, the Latii ran back to a safe distance and regrouped, leaving a trail of dead and dying. I saw then that if the volleying from the other regiments had been as poor as ours, or the main attack had been against us, we would have been massacred for the Latii had crossed the killing ground under fire in both directions and yet had caused as many casualties to Sur as they themselves had suffered. There was little weeping or crying from our lines however. Not because Surians are braver, but that most of the victims were dead, killed instantly by Latiian blows. We were unnerved, and it must have showed for the Latii began to mass to our front.  Though much smaller in numbers than we, they exhibited no sign of fear or reserve for our formation. We should have made them run. It looked like they would reverse the intent and make us break.

We were saved at that point by the main force appearing to their rear and confusing their intentions. In hindsight what they should have done was to come at us anyway. But they did not, so our forces closed on them and showered them with arrows from all directions. When parley was offered, they would not take it and continued to be decimated. Then all of a sudden, as quickly as the first attack, a group made a dash for us.  Fortunately if was not as large a group as before and we dealt with them, myself killing two. Even as the first died on my spear he killed the fellow next to me. I learned from that and killed the second with a throat cut at spears length. It had been easy, the Latiian was not expecting innovative action from a Surian ranker. The surprise showed in its eyes as its lifeblood spurted. It was a bit like sheep at the slaughter. A bit too like it

 

We had taken losses but held. If we had wavered the remainder would have come. Instead they tried elsewhere looking for a weak spot and not finding it. Until that is they were all killed for that is what it took to subdue them. Those lying too injured to walk even slashed and stabbed at us as we approached, and so they too had to die.

The killing done at last, we could rest and those who could stomach the food, eat. The fare was cold, and taken amongst the proliferation of corpses. The air was heavy with the scent of blood and afterward all the bodies, theirs and ours were piled up in a mound with brush‑wood set around them and then fired. We marched away thankfully from this site before the torch was lit, and kept going until dark in an attempt to catch up with the bulk of the army, which had moved in a different direction.

It was with some relief that we finally came across the piquet guards and the welcoming cooking fires of Surian formations. The troops were ordered to settle down whilst our officers went to obtain orders. Accordingly we found food and made bivouac for the night, myself tired physically and emotionally by the long days' events.

The next day was remarkable for its seeming ordinariness and I was continually expecting a recurrence of the previous days violence. This was fortunately spared me. Unfortunately a long march was not. To compound this we even had to do our own foraging at days end as cooks had not been assigned to our column of advance. Guess who ended up doing the cooking.

 

As always it seems rumour of our role and the campaigns strategies, tactics and results was endless. Our direction of march had been more or less to southeast, which is half right from sunup and obviously more so than the main body of the army, so this supported the theory that we were to guard the right wing. Which seemed crazy as yesterday we had been to the left of the army and so had to cross its trail. This meant that the next two days were long and hard marching days to take up our proper position slightly ahead of the main body. Poor Marak had been driven to silence by the end of the first day and by the end of the second most of the regiment were almost in a state of collapse.

I was a little amazed at how well I had stood up to this by comparison and was even congratulated by the Overseer for my fortitude until he learned of my origins. This is the first time I was aware that living in the mountains gave anyone an advantage, but apparently he had seen it before that people from up high had excellent stamina. Again fate has a way of working against expectation as my condition led me to being tasked to head up the foraging party.  An onerous task at the time, but it would stand me in good stead in times to come.

 

The following day, our advance was at a much-reduced rate to fall in line with the calculated speed of the armie’s main body. By mid morning the castle of Zomov, now called Jaiiaprom by its Latiian occupiers, became visible high on a far hill and slowly and inexorably we marched closer to its dominating outlook.

In early afternoon we came across Latiian piquets, that all just ran away to a safe distance from us and kept that distance as we advanced. Then in mid afternoon a force similar to that encountered four days previously appeared to our front. Despite the fact that our force was larger than the first time, being two regiments' strength (actually comprising the remains of five) I did not relish the result of this fight.

 

I was to be surprised however, as of a sudden the attached regiment of Zodivers sent in an arrow storm of intense ferocity. A great whoop went up as another hail went out with a simultaneous charge. This was stuff these Latiians could not face up to, and they took to their heels in panic.

I was stunned. The élan! The effect! Magnificent! This was why Sur was winning this war! But little time to reflect on it. We advanced rapidly in pursuit then some way on were halted short of our quarry, as they were running into the arms of another body of Latiians. These in turn were lining up ready for action.

 

The Zodiver land captain ran over and was heatedly urging action before the two bodies were properly merged and formed up. Our Regimental Captain was more cautious, fearing a trap with Latiians from Jaliiaprom hidden in the woods to our right. They compromised by ordering a detachment of the 4th including me, into the trees to warn of troops hidden there, whilst the main body advanced into contact with the unprepared enemy formations.

From here on everything seemed to happen very quickly. Our section ran at full tilt to the trees, with the Section Marshall screaming at for us to move faster, we crashed into the foliage to find it empty.  I came back out to find our forces jogging into attack formation. Our Sub leader shot an arrow with a long golden streamer high into the air.  The all clear signal.

 

"Hey Valever!" Not for the first time I had heard that call. "Get yourself and some others to the other side of the wood and keep a lookout for Latiians." 

"How many, Section Marshall?"  I queried. 

"However many.."  The Marshall started, his face turning purple.  Then stopped in exasperation, controlled himself and went on. "Three!"  Pointing at individuals.  "You!.. You! and You!  Now get!"

Off we dashed, as best as one can through a wood.  More to give ourselves distance from the Marshall as anything else. It took a while, but crashing through the greenery in terrible abandon, we eventually broke the far side, where a good view was to be had of the castle as it overlooks the great river Survov.  It is not called that here anymore, and despite being well inside Latiian territory there was not a one of them to be seen.    

 

Wait though. There was a distant body of them. Far off on the road to Jaliiaprom, and heading toward the fighting. More importantly not far off, tracks leading around the corner of the wood though how many had passed I could not tell but it did not look like many. I had not been in true command, but quickly indicated to two of my party that they should return with this news whilst one other and I would wait here for further sign. They were gone in a trice, leaving me with the other fellow who I now learned was called Osvak.

Deciding to investigate the tracks better in order to get some idea of how many Latiians were to our rear, we advanced into the open. This inspection quickly dismayed us, as what had at first appeared to be a dozen or so individuals were in fact lots more as they had seemed to use each others' footsteps, and each track could be seen over a distance to be used by at least six or seven times. This meant that a force of at least section size had been here, and that is a heck of a lot of Latiians to have between you and home.

 

That and with the lot approaching from Jaliiaprom meant their total numbers would be awfully close to ours.  With them being such big beggars that seemed to me to be dreadfully dangerous. 

 

Our choices:

One. Just run away... Now!!!

Two.  Hope we can help salvage something as the others must know of their predicament before we can get to them.

Good sense says choose number one.  Our detachment was at least outnumbered two to one, and would probably all be dead now or very shortly, and joining them would be daft.  However, good sense does not always win out so we set off back, being more cautious in our movements than before. We had heard no sound of battle and did not want to disturb the trap laid by our detachment now in hiding, waiting to pounce on the unsuspecting Latiians as they passed the other side of the wood.

Tell the truth!! We were scared stiff of bumping into a hundred or so angry Latiians!

Our worries were groundless.  The Latiians had been, done their grisly work and gone to look for more.  Our detachment had died fighting though, and there were some twenty-seven Latiian corpses in and around the pitiful knot of the detachments' remains.  Marak the farmer was there, never to speak again or tell how he had died the hero he believed he was.

What now?  In every direction there were Latii between us and our comrades in arms, who incidentally did not appear to be aware of our late detachments' killers bearing down upon their rear. Could we let them know? If so, how?

It was Osvak who saw the answer.  From among the Latiian dead he produced a device which when put to his lips emitted an ear splitting, chilling howl. 

"What the?" I cried, attempting to cover my ears. 

"It is a Latiian battle horn." Osvak explained. "At least our fellows will know the enemy are to their rear after hearing that!" 

"Good work!'' I complemented him. "But.."

"But what ?" He questioned, a little annoyed that any fault could be found with such a clever idea. 

"Has it occurred to you that the Latiians also know now that we are here now?" 

At this he looked a little crestfallen, then brightened observing that the Latii were already a way off and he had done his duty. There was time to see them coming if they returned. At that he sat down and began to chew on some dried provisions.

"Come on." I said  "We had better move." 

His reply was that there was little point. Two of us could not assist much being cut off and all, and we were better sat where we could see the result of the fighting and make our decisions from then.

"I do not think we have that luxury." I told him. 

"Oh do come on!" He retorted. "You Valevers are a real windy lot!" 

"Not windy." Said I. "More pragmatic. Another lot of Latiians have just rounded the corner of the wood behind you!"

I could almost see his bowels vacate on the spot as he turned in disbelief.  At once he was up and running for the trees as fast as his legs would carry him, with me hot on his trail.

"Steady! ...Steady!" I cried to no avail, panting as we crashed through the undergrowth. It was taking all my effort to catch up with him and when I finally did we were deep in the wood. As I grasped him, he spun around with terror in his eyes and frothing at the mouth imagining it was a Latiian so close behind him. Seeing me, poor Osvak just fainted. I let him lay and sat myself to get my breath.

 

Sounds of pursuit came shortly afterward and this caused me to roll Osvak under a large bush and to sit beside him with my hand over his mouth in case he regained consciousness at an inconvenient time, which needless to say he did.  At first he started to struggle but stopped immediately on seeing through the foliage Latiians crossing the clearing we had lain in.

Fortunately we had come the same way as before and the Latiians were following our old trail.  This would lead them to the far side of the wood, and with luck they would not realise the mistake until too late and then be unable to backtrack as far as the clearing and our diversion before dark. Accordingly, when it became quiet again we set off at right angles to the trail as quickly and as quietly as we could making sure to leave as little sign as possible.

Darkness found us still in the wood, and fearing Latiian presence we did not light a fire but had cold supper from our packs, leaving very little remaining as regards provisions. Osvak had suggested breaking the night into watches but I declined on the basis that if they had missed us in daylight it was highly unlikely we would be found in darkness. What is more we would both need all the rest we could get for the morrow. That agreed we found a hidey-hole among tree roots and settled down for the night.

 

I was awake before dawn, which filtered slowly through the canopy exposing a wretched Osvak whom it was obvious had slept only fitfully. I was instantly overcome with guilt, as my argument had seemed good at the time but I had not realised that it had not convinced Osvak. My standing a watch would have at least eased the burden of fear for him to get some sleep.  

It transpired that we were at the very corner of the wood and again we had a choice to make. To move immediately into open land before Latiian patrols were about, or to stay put until dark and move then. The risks were that moving immediately would disclose us to an enemy smart enough and waiting for such a move, or of being flushed out by the pursuing Latiians from yesterday during the course of the day. The probability was that they had given up looking for us as we were insignificant to the war as a whole, but who can tell?

There was another stand of trees a way off and nearer the river., Risking the lesser of two evils we voted to go for these and then lay up.  This was achieved though not without some discomfort and trepidation, in a series of dashes from cover to cover.  Myself leading, scurrying low from tree to hollow then keeping lookout for Osvak to move.  He would then continue from hollow to bush and stop to lookout for me, and so it went on.

On reaching the tree stand I ordered Osvak into my sleeping pack and he gladly conceded, sleeping soundly whilst I kept watch. There were occasional Latiian patrols on the far woods but until the mid afternoon nothing of threat or note.  That is when three of them came out of the wood at exactly the point we had.

 

Our trail was now old but they were still on it! My heart flopped at the realisation then I woke Osvak up and we were packed and gone in a moment. The land on the far side of the trees afforded us with rapid movement in good cover as it was mostly scrub. We needed this to make distance from our trackers and even the occasional cleared area was taken at breakneck speed, pausing only momentarily to check all was clear before crossing the open ground. Always checking behind for signs of pursuit. Always checking for our lives.

As dusk came on Osvak started looking for a place to lie-up as the Latii had not been seen for a span at least.  I cautioned against it on the basis that they could not track in the dark and therefore we would gain time and distance if we made a visible diversion now and then resumed course at night.  Osvak agreed to go on for half the night and then resume again at dawn. So that is exactly what we did.

 

We put on a hearty pace, believing our pursuers to be far behind, but in no illusion as to their ability to cover ground as our trail would be by no means difficult to follow. With the new day we were making good progress with Osvak leading as he was the fresher of the two of us when, of a sudden out of nowhere three figures stood up directly to our front.

Osvak never stood a chance, dying on the blade of the first Latiian. It all happened so quickly. The second tried the same manoeuvre on me but Osvaks' demise had brought me time and I dodged the movement, thrusting my shortspear into its' throat.  A flick of the wrist and a roll cleared the cut and my body from the third. I ran like the wind in the mountain tops. Ran and ran. Dodging bushes, careering through scrub.  Leaping hollows, and all the time I could hear them crashing behind me. Then... NO!!!.. Cleared land!! They would certainly catch me now! RUN!!! RUNN!!  Faster, faster! Legs pumping to their limit, the ground undulations sending a stride wild but the sheer speed carrying me through. My heart and lungs about to burst I hear the roar of victory from behind! I dive and roll, coming round to catch one in the leg, snapping my spear. In one continuous movement I am up again and running even before the monster hits the ground but the other is closing and I am weaponless.  Quickly I duck under a low hanging tree, the branches slow it but do not stop it. I snatch off my war hat and grasp it like a shield. I can hear it laugh as we run. It knows it has me! Very close now! Too close! I spin and hurl the hat in one movement, edge on into its' face. It tumbles, limbs all akimbo unbalanced by the shock to crash into the ground. But I only hear this as I am running I have bought myself a little distance, that is all.

 

It is not long before I hear feet behind me again. I don’t know where I have gained the energy to come this far but now my saviour is here and I fling myself into her broad waters. The great Survov, the river of Sur. The Latii can not come on in, its armour, it would drown in moments. Spluttering gasping for breath I break the surface, clutching my sleeping pack, buoyant as those on the Grivov had been. I look back at the Latiian standing howling in fury on the bank as the river takes me away.

They had outwitted us by correctly guessing our line of march and going ahead of us in the dark, only to be foiled in complete success at the last moment. But they had got Osvak and very nearly got me. If they went to that effort for two of us, I did not hold out any hope for the Zandov or Zodiv regiments.

Triumph to disaster, how does pride fall, but heavily?

 

The river ran deep, wide and cold.  Where the Latiians had not finished me, the river and my fatigue nearly did.

It was some time later I finally dragged up on the opposite bank, far from my point of entry. Utterly exhausted and frozen. Even so I knew that I must dry out and so forced myself to stagger to a stand of trees, wherein I collected some wood and made a small fire.  Stripping off I hung my clothes to dry in its meagre warmth. Shaking out my sleeping pack, I was glad to find that it was reasonably dry inside and so laid it out, climbed in and went to sleep.

When I awoke, night had fallen and the fire had died, which was just as well in retrospect as I had not taken proper precautions with it and it might have spread or been seen. Fumbling about in the dark I collected my clothes and stuffed them into the bottom of the pack then crawled back in with them. I would dress in the morning.  By then, even if they were still damp they would be warm.  With luck they should be nearly dry.  Had I left them they would have been guaranteed to be cold and damp with dew.  Worse still it began to rain, which would have left me as badly off as before.

As it was I had to hurriedly move closer under a tree to ensure that I would not be laying in a puddle come daylight.   That done I returned to the land of nod.

 

On reawakening the rain had stopped but had left everywhere damp and horrid. I would have stayed where I was but for the rumbling in my belly. There was next to nothing in my bag so I was forced to dress and go looking for food. I was also weaponless excepting a small sharp knife which had to suffice for every duty asked of it as there were no other utensils save a small metal bowl and my spark stones. I conspired therefore after a small meal of berries had been collected and devoured, to construct some arrows or the like and a club or spear. Thus I set to the task after I had scouted some and laid a snare or two.

I first selected some straight sticks, cut them to size, stripped the bark and bevelled the rear portions to make them tip heavy, then sharpened the ends and stuck the points in the ashes of a small fire to harden.   Leaves would have to suffice for flights.  Next was to make a bow, and that required a special wood. Unfortunately there were none of the right trees around, but an inferior wood grew by the river and would have to suffice.  Cutting and shaping this wood was time consuming task and in the interim I also took a stouter bough which when properly shaped would work as a walking stick and when reversed, as a club.

It took me all day to get a crude example of the bow complete and by this time I was well hungry again.  Fortunately one of my traps had worked and held a small animal that I swiftly killed, gutted, cleaned and cooked.  This would provide enough meat for about three days if I could supplement my diet with berries and plants.  Even if it could have lasted longer the meat would have gone off by then and I would have to trap again. More importantly, the cleaned, washed and dried gut would make a workable bow-string

 

I had to go on however, and as travelling east would take me into Latiian territory (I was not sure that I was yet out of it) I elected to head in a southwesterly direction, away from the river and keeping to trees and low ground wherever possible.

There was quite a lot of pasture and cultivation, but unlike the other side of the river where buildings had been scattered, here they were grouped into small villages and this made progress easier as I was able to avoid the conurbations, only seeing the occasional herder.  They were Latiian herders however, so I kept well away and took great care not to be seen.  I realised how lucky I had been with my fire after crossing the river and resolved to light no more until I could be certain I was clear of danger.

 

The first military patrol appeared on the afternoon of the second day but I saw them well in time and laid low until they had gone, which took some considerable time.  To have travelled by night would have been safer against being seen but I discounted it as I might go astray from my intended path and could easily bump into some unexpected problem.  By day, at least I could see them coming, or so I thought.

Resting up also served to cure the gut-string and allowed me to make a better job on the bow.

It was never going to be a great bow, the heartwood was not as dense as it could be and it was lacking in ideal length as well, but it would do.

Toward midday the following day I espied another (or possibly the same) patrol and again laid up in case my movement was seen.  My trouble came due to my concentration on observing their movements, for in this I had not noticed a Latiian local come and sit just a short way off by a bush, to eat its lunch presumably. The consequence was that when I moved off, judging the patrol to be far enough off not to spot me, I nearly walked into this individual.

 

Shock and amazement passed over its face.  The first un helmeted Latiian I had seen and not so brutish looking as I had thought. I had jumped back in surprise but now lunged forward as it filled its lungs to shout. We could still be in earshot of the patrol so hit at it with my club but it was only a glancing blow, its instinctive movement and my hurried half strike had saved it.  As I pulled back to strike again it rolled away and came to its feet in one movement.

I lunged forward again this time at its legs so to unbalance it as it would have been able to parry or absorb a higher blow.  This strike was effective in that it felled the creature but failed in as much for it let out a deafening bellow of pain.  I should have killed it, but I doubted that I could do it quickly or quietly with the weapons I had so I just turned and fled.

I will be cursed if it did not keep on yelling!  I looked back and saw it hopping about holding its leg with one hand and pointing toward me with the other.  The patrol! It was giving me away to them! The arrow slipped itself into my hand and then onto the bow almost before I was aware of it. It was launched and a blink of an eye later it struck.  As good a shot as ever I have made and the Latiian tottered in that now familiar half dance then fell. Silenced.

I then ran to a small knoll where I might see the patrol.  They were coming this way though obviously not fully alerted to the situation. That would not last long. The greater distance I made now the better, and make it I did. Not even looking for concealment.

After a subspan or so, but what seemed an eternity, I came to an exhausted stop and looked back. Pursuit was not as close as I had feared and there were not as many of them as I had expected.  I let this sink in for a moment. What were they at?  There must be some form of trick. Either that or like before they had figured where I was headed and were going to cut me off again. But how? I desperately searched for the rest of the patrol, but to no avail.

Then I saw the answer. In the sky, the smoke from the nearest village had thickened and was rising in puffs ‑ it was a means of signalling ahead! I was dead! Unless .... Unless I could elude the trackers, backtrack and away from here. But they would still find my trail would they not? I knew now they would never give up. I would have to stop them. Now they may be clever beasts, I told myself, but I am a Valever and if I can pick my spot well...

 

A little further on I found such a place.  It was not perfect but it would do the Job.  Two smallish woods with open ground in between them.  I made my track very clear across the open ground and made entry with a good trail deep into the second wood.  I then returned to its edge a little way from the entry point and waited.

Sure enough they came across the open ground in a nice tight formation and about half way my first arrows struck.  I sent four in quick succession, all hit home.  A pause then another three into the mess. There was an aggrieved bellow and they came for me again so I ran, onto and along the prepared trail into the wood. But only for a short distance, as I suddenly dived to one side rolled and lay still behind a large bush.  The Latiians, not seeing this rushed past screaming hatred, following the blind trail. Excellent! A perfect plan so far! Now to return to the carnage.

Quickly I moved to the path and out into the open ground.  Only one of the downed Latiians was in any condition to put up a fight, and my club swiftly overcame its resistance.  The little knife put an end to all of them.  I recovered my arrows, except two that were broken and acquired a Latiian stabbing tool and some provisions from their bags. I then ran back to the first wood and waited, hidden on its edge.

Not too long later the Latiians came out of the second wood where I had exited, figured that I had duped them and returned to their comrades in obvious exasperation. On seeing them all dead of knife wounds and their packs rifled, the realisation that they had been double duped and made fools of sent them into paroxysms of rage. At which they tore back along my path again and at a convenient point they met my arrows.

They wavered and then ran back this time. Out of range a short heated debate ensued among the survivors with the groans of the injured egging them on. They then split up and charged, obviously thinking they would be harder targets. Not so, it merely made them less formidable. Those nearest me fell first, and then the others. One by one until I was out of arrows, at which point retreat was called for.

Running back into the wood I passed the two false trails I had made to the sides in the expectation that the Latii would think I was repeating my earlier trick, and even slowed up so as to make less noise.  Not that it really mattered, as in their pursuit they were making enough noise to wake the dead.  But it was part of my plan and I was sticking to it whilst it held together.

I nearly missed the shout that brought them to silence, and I was glad I had slowed so I could stop quickly. A short while of silence and then the crashing about started again. They were not that far away and it sounded like they were on one of the false trails, But I could not be sure and so pressed on anyway, ears wide-open and looking back frequently.

Once clear of the trees I moved a short way out from them then turned sharp left.  Taking care to leave as little trail as possible I followed the edge of the wood round. I could make good speed out of the undergrowth leaving little in the way of tracks, but every now and then I made short false excursions into the woods, just to slow them up. For if they got this far and guessed my actions they could easily outrun me or cut me off.

 

Nevertheless it seemed to work as they had not come back out by the time I had rounded the corner of the wood.  I had contemplated trying to split them up and taking them one by one in among the trees where their size would have been no advantage, but rejected it as too risky.

There were by my reckoning still five of them chasing me, and another one who was not badly hurt. I had merely hit it in the shoulder and I was annoyed at that but commiserated myself with the knowledge that this was the first time I had shot arrows against a hostile target. I had launched seventeen arrows today albeit five of them twice.  Had hit fourteen separate moving targets, on which eleven had been good clean shots with possible fatalities.

From the second wood, two arrows had hit the same beast and the one poor shot had been finished with my knife.  Of the not so good shots from the first wood (the most recent ones) one had been a complete miss, another had hit a helmet and bounced off, requiring a second arrow which did its job easily as the Latiian had stopped on the first strike. One was causing its victim a lot of pain in its groin and the last one was as mentioned before embedded in a shoulder.

 

It was a shame that I had no barbed tips as that one would soon come out. But by the same token that had allowed me to quickly retrieve my arrows from the dead. All this had been possible because these Latiians had reduced armour in comparison to those I had faced over the Grivov. That aside, I would take my archery practice a lot more seriously in the future.

Now what?  I had come round the wood far enough to see and be seen if I crossed over to the second wood.  I could crawl and hope I was not noticed or just run and chance attention was directed elsewhere.  In any case I could see that the one wounded in the shoulder had put all the others out of their misery and was tidying up by pulling all the bodies together. To burn I suspected.

I wanted my arrows badly.  I could make more, but it would take too long and I would have to light a fire anyway. So that was out as possibilities go. As soon as I approached, the beast would shout for the others and then I would be in trouble. If only I had one more arrow, but I did not.

 

Whilst I was pondering this the others emerged from the wood near their comrade.  This was bad.  Well bad from the point of view of regaining my arrows. Good from the point of view that they did not know where I was, or where I had gone.  They seemed unsure of what to do, and were in discussion for quite a while.  Perhaps I had killed their leader.  It certainly appeared that there was no one in charge there.

At length they all started on the task of collecting all the corpses together, cutting kindling and cremating them.  That was something I had not thought of. The smoke from the fire might attract others. That was a prospect I did not relish.

What happened next surprised me, for despite their size, ugliness and ferocity I had begun to think they were a not really abnormal race.  They herded animals, tilled the fields and ate cooked foods quite like any Surian. But then the Surians are not quite right either!  But here, they were without any pause or ceremony, just walking off leaving a pile of burning bodies. Bodies who used to be their companions. I would have thought that any normal people would stay to at least ensure they were all consumed and then scatter the ashes.  Not these, they were seriously after me.  They must either think I had already got past them somehow or be assuming (quite correctly) my chosen direction and be looking to ambush me.

Once they had gone it dawned on me that this was too good an Opportunity to miss. I could not retrieve my arrows but here was a ready made fire for me to harden new ones. Quickly I set to work and had eight hardening in the ashes before the fire had died too much.

I had to sit well away from it to eat however as the smell and the sight of what had been was too much for my stomach. Once my arrow tips had hardened I left the still smouldering mound and went into the second wood where I camped up for the night and finished the arrows off.  I felt bad about not scattering the ashes but considered it too much of a risk to remain there any longer. Anyway, it was obviously not something the Latiians did themselves.

 

I spent a quiet night and slept well.  Sure that I was under no threat.   Starting out at first light next morning I was twice as careful as before, with plenty of stops so I would not be tired if I had to run or make a fight at any time.

That morning was uneventful save for the increased activity on the part of the military and vigilance on the part of the populace.  Each one that I saw seemed forever to be looking about, some it was plain, with a degree of trepidation.  This amused me, that hulking great Latiians should have fear of one small Valever.

The land was rising steadily ahead of me now, and though nothing like the hills of Sur or the mountains of Valev would still give the advantage to watchers higher than I. Midday must be my unlucky time, for it was about then that I saw the watcher.  Just as it saw me.

I straightway strung the bow and then broke into a trot, deciding to gain as much height and distance from it as possible before being caught. Scanning the way in front as I moved I did not run as this would tire me quicker and might push me more easily into the ambush I feared.

I could not have stopped the watchers' signal and to have attacked it would have been a waste of time and energy. I was intrigued at the time it took for anything to develop and began to really suspect an ambush laying uphill and ahead for me.  But they could not possiblyknowexactly where I would come, and so I would have seen preparations before now, or so I thought.

 

Their patrol appeared to my high right, climbing at an angle to cut me off. It would be a close run whichever of us made it up first.  This very action told me that there was no ambush in place ahead of me. There might be troops above attempting to create one now, but they had not already done so.

Then a pair of watchers high to the left broke cover and ran to cut me off.   These were the real danger, as even if I could best them, (listen to me!  A week ago I would have run away from just one of them!) they would delay me enough for the patrol to catch me. I could not go back, for they would certainly get me that way. There was no opening for deception so it was just me against them now with all the odds on their side. So I just kept going. The least I could try was to be above the patrol when they came close and then I might yet take a few with me.

I waited until I was quite close, to be sure of my shot then I let fly.  The first of the cut offers collapsed in a fountain of blood, my arrow embedded in its throat.  The other, seeing this and my second arrow loaded, took to its heels, the bright idea of heading me off a thing of the past.

Seizing the opportunity I ran, straight uphill.  I had a chance now, a slim one, but a chance nevertheless.  If only I could outrun the patrol. They must be fresher, but some of them had body armour and that would slow them. Perhaps the others might not be so keen to attack having seen their own felled so easily.

 

With breath bursting my lungs I ran, my heart pounding as I glanced back to see to my horror that the un armoured ones had not been dissuaded. They were catching me! Turning back, I nearly fell over a white painted post stuck in the ground. Cursing the fool who had put a single post in the middle of nowhere, I ran on.

Hearing the panting of breath and thud of running feet close behind me, I looked back to find two of the pursuers dreadfully near. My turn and leaping charge disorientated them enough for me to strike one in the face with my bow and get past the blade of the other.  As I hit the ground I rolled and turned, flinging the bow at the backs of the standing Latiians' legs and it collapsed to the ground.  The first one was beginning to rise again but was in no position to defend itself against the now drawn Latiian stabbing tool I had procured yesterday. This cumbersome, overweight weapon swung in my hands like it was nothing, to smash the beast’s skull like paper. The second Latiian regained its feet and charged down at me but a deft side-step, and its downhill momentum drove it onto the point of my outstretched stabber.

 

What the watchers had failed in, these two had achieved. The patrol was here. Retrieving my thrown bow, I stood to receive them.  They had just witnessed me polishing off three of their number, and were not about to succumb to the same treatment. They knew they had me trapped and were going to get me in the least costly manner.

One of them was directing the others to fan out into a half circle, plainly to all charge at once. They had a leader and I knew now which one it was. Seeing it, I shouted and pointed at it, then took out an arrow, held it aloft for them to see. I kissed the arrow and loaded it.  That the Latiian understood me despite not speaking my tongue was plainly obvious. It barked a command and some of them started to move. The leader did not. I just raised an eyebrow then half turned my head in the direction of the movers. They stopped. All of them looked at the leader.  Even at this distance and through the slit in its helmet I could read the fear in its eyes.

 

"I have won!"  I thought. "I have won!" Even as the elation coursed through me, their leader turned its head to the heavens, paused, looked back, and charged. And died. A good shot, striking the chest armour high and ricocheting up into the neck. At first silence, then a low growl set up as the body convulsed at their feet, the death throes splattering blood over the grass. One of them said something very quietly but full of intensity. The growl grew.

I would bet that the wording of the comment went something along the lines of  "This foreigner has come here and besmirched the name of Latii. He thinks he can kill us with impunity, that we are afraid.  Are we to let him get away with this?"

They edged closer, the growling getting louder.  I had lost the initiative and knew it.  "Now I have had it." I thought. "Six arrows left and seventeen of them." I had chosen the ones to die and still knew which of them would kill me.

 

I resolved that as that blow struck home, to cry the name of Valev, that they would know where I came from. Perhaps this little affair would be talked of for I had put up a good fight. Perhaps through that, word would get back to my mother of my end. At the very least the High Chief would know to send another in my place.

Then came a shout. From behind me! They were everywhere! Their effort and persistence astounded me. How many had they sent out to look for one? Surely there could not be others from the Jaliiaprom debacle here yet. This all had to be to catch me, and kill me.

Then I realised the growling had stopped. The Latiians had not charged. The patrol were listening to what the newcomers, whom I had my back to and thus could not see even when I turned my head, were saying. The one who had spoken earlier then replied and was backed up by the rest of the patrol in a fashion that indicated that the newcomers were not to interfere. This was a personal fight now.

That did not seem to dissuade the newcomers, who sounded different to the Latiians confronting me, who now looked at each other, nodded and charged. Three were down and screaming, and I was loading for the fourth when the charge wavered and the newcomers hit. Not me but the Latiian patrol!  They were definitely not Latiian, and were making mincemeat out of them! What ever was going on? I stood rooted as the Latiians tried to group up and were hacked to bits in the process. Huge double edged axes sliced in great curves. Up and down, side to side, chopping and hewing, maiming and killing. The Latiians fought back tenaciously but were no match. Outnumbered and outfought they did not last, and their bodies were strewn over the blood soaked hillside.

From salvation to death and back in such a short space of time.  Unbelievable! Just two Latiians got away, running for their lives.  The newcomers chased them, but only as far as the white post.  That was it! I had got out of Latii!

One of the newcomers came up to me, looked me up and down and said in passable Surian. "Welcome to Nul."

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© Alexander Travell