Wisdom From The Ashes
Part Five – A Good Start
Zethar walked down from the dry, rolling hills towards the valley that cut through them. Fields spread out through the valley, just as brown as the hills. The leaves of the trees that grew through the lower parts of the hills were withered as well, curled up and grey.
A river made its way down the valley, originating from further back into the hills. It flowed slow, and dirty, much of the bank along its length now high and exposed. The waters had dried up as had the land in the face of the prolonged drought, causing the river to be much reduced from its peak.
Spires of dust rose in the air throughout the parched valley, marking the passage of cattle and travellers. Most were centred near a town that slunk defeated alongside the river, a dreary collection of houses inhabited by sullen residents.
Zethar recalled when it had all been green, a fertile and peaceful place. It lay far from the heart of the old Empire, and yet the firm hand of Imperial law maintained order even there.
All that had ended one fateful, bloody day along the eastern borders of the Empire, at a place now lost deep in the deserts. The Emperor, his sons and most of the nobles, Legions and Knightly Orders had been lost in a single day of unimaginable horror.
The Empire had not stood long after the shock of that defeat had reverberated through it. In its place, strong men and warlords had risen to carve out their own fiefdoms from the ruins, men like Harmur.
Silently Zethar cursed the dead Emperor. He had been proud, and had dragged the Empire down with him, in the process of which reducing the common, simple folk he had meant to protect to their current predicament.
Forcing aside such maudlin thoughts, Zethar returned to studying the valley. Most of it was taken up by farm land, small fields and orchards surrounded by low stone walls. Dusty paths went their way between the walls and farms. Much of it had been abandoned, the fields now fallow, with only weeds clinging to the dry soil. Only closer in towards the river were the fields still being used, and even there the crops were poor and stunted.
“Over there,” Katako said, interrupting Zethar’s thoughts. The man pointed south, along to where the valley began to climb up into the hills, and not far where the band had gathered. A dusty patrol of horsemen could be seen riding north, emerging from out of a patch of sunken ground. There were a dozen of them; men wearing hardened leather jerkins and bearing wooden shields and long spears. Their slow course saw them headed towards where the band waited.
“Harmur’s men,” Zethar said. His eyes narrowed as he studied the horsemen and the nearby terrain. He could see no obvious reactions from the horsemen beyond them continuing their patrol. He could not tell if they had been spotted yet or not, but it did not appear that they had been.
He waved for the band to take cover, hunkering down with Katako alongside him behind a large boulder. The men and women of the band sought out cover behind rocks and scraggly bushes or folds in the ground, waiting for the approaching horsemen. A number of the group carried crossbow which they began to load in readiness for if they were needed.
“Good spot for an ambush,” Katako noted. Zethar nodded in agreement. The hill slope below them was rough and strewn with boulders, making it difficult terrain for a horse to navigate. A spur ran out just to their south, partly shielding them from the view of the riders even without them being in cover. The patrol would have to come around the spur beneath them, unable to respond to an initial volley of crossbow quarrels, and even then they would have difficulty in engaging, leaving the initiative in the hands of their ambushers.
The horsemen disappeared from sight as they dropped down behind the southern spur. Zethar drummed his fingers on the boulder he sheltered behind, anxious as he waited for them to reappear. If they suspected something then they could have changed their route, and the thought of that filled him with concern. The memories of his recent defeat were still fresh and he dreaded another such disaster unfolding.
Then the voices of the riders carried to Zethar’s ears, the sound of low conversation punctuated by the odd snatch of laughter. They had not deviated from their course and came on just as he had hoped. Coming into view around the spur, they made their way slowly towards where Zethar’s men lurked. A sudden, sharp whistle split the air, originating from Zethar. At it, hidden fighters rose up from where they had been hiding, levelling crossbows at the riders.
A flurry of crossbow quarrels sung through the air, ripping into the riders. Screams came from men and horses as the quarrels punched into them. Horses crashed to the ground and men were thrown from their saddles. In the blink of an eye half of the patrol had been wiped out. Those remaining milled around in confusion, trying to make some sense of what had just happened.
Zethar drew his sword, the steely ring echoing through the hills and gave a fierce shout of rage, charging down towards the remaining warriors. All around him the other fighters came, swords and spears and axes in hand and ready for blood.
They swarmed down over the horsemen in a storm of flashing blades, stabbing and cutting. Men were dragged out of their saddles to the ground where they were hacked apart or run through with spears. Blades clashed together and shouts tore through the air as the remaining riders fought with desperation to extricate themselves from the fight. Men stumbled away bloodied as blows connected, reeling from the fight to sink down to the barren slopes of the hill.
The fight was short and brutal. Surprised and outnumbered, the riders who had survived the initial ambush were quickly put to the sword, leaving their bodies sprawled out across the ground. Blood splattered across the rocks and soaked into the ground. A number of horses ran free, those that weren’t dead.
The enemy had not died alone. Among the dead were two of Zethar’s outlaws, while a number more of the band bore wounds they had received.
“It is a good start,” Zethar noted, cleaning off his sword. Some of the men were rounding up the surviving horses, while others were beginning to strip the dead of anything of value or use.
“But a costly one,” Katako pointed out. “There are too few of us to start with, and each person we lose is one that we can not afford to.”
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