The group had been making their way towards the border since their departure from Faraday, two weeks ago. Dunstan, shadowed by Sam and Maddox, had moved to the head of the column.
Dismounting, Dunstan moved to the crest of a nearby hill, after a moment or two, he noticed he wasn’t alone.
“Bryce” he said in a low tone of greeting as he recognized the man. Turning back to the scene before him, a frown creased his face.
“What’s the situation?” he asked, trying to keep his voice to a minimum.
A lieutenant in the scouts, Bryce had been sent to accompany Dunstan and his men, naturally he’d been first on the scene. He enjoyed the sense of control in all circumstances. When things weren’t under his control or didn’t go as planned he was the first seek answers, today was to be no different.
“A short while ago, one of our younger men came upon this group as we were making our way down the valley” the lieutenant said, hinting towards a gap in the foliage for a better view.
Taking the hint, Dunstan moved into a better position to inspect the group they’d encountered. There were several large trees obscuring his vision of the camp, he tried from another view and realised he’d have to settle for the blurred view. There were some of the outlying tents visible, not enough for him to get a clear picture on numbers. He tried to gauge it based on the spread of the tents he could see, and the signs suggested a camp, and a large one at that.
Shrinking back from the open, he crouched besides the scout, needing to know the one thing every commander needed to, “How many men are they?”
Bryce thought for a moment, “Based on the number of tents visible, and their size, the number of cooking fires and so on…” Dunstan motioned for him to get to the point, “we’ve calculated there to be roughly forty of them”
The officer could almost see Dunstan going through the same thought process he’d done himself. Bryce had addressed many of the major factors in his mind already. Whether they could risk a direct attack and whether they were even an enemy chief among them.
Having seen those of the camp relatively close-up he knew they’d have little chance of slipping by unseen, thirty people were difficult to not notice, and at the sight of armed men it’d be unlikely the inhabitants would look too kindly upon them.
“We’ve half a dozen scouts including yourself,” Dunstan began, gesturing to his lieutenant, “plus myself and my men making up a further half-dozen and, of course, the lady’s own personal guard, which will give us about two dozen in total.”
It was a decent number and, under usual circumstances, might be worth the attack. He considered it for a moment or two longer, then realised the main issue they face. The lady and her guard.
Bryce saw the anguish on his leader’s face and decided to raise the point himself. “It pretty much rules out any chance of attacking them head-on”
Dunstan could only nod ruefully. “We simply don’t have the fire power to neutralize them quickly enough.” He added, then came the killing blow to that idea, “What’s more, we’ll need to assign men to keep her safe.” Bryce said shaking his head, a hint of frustration creeping into his voice.
Dunstan considered their numbers for the third time. “Nor can we look to slip past them, we’ll be spotted the moment we get any distance from them. Our only chance is to post sentries and hope they continue on their way sometime tomorrow. Though if in the event of a fight, we’d have the upper hand if we’re in position.”
Seeing the scout’s surprised reaction he went on quickly, “I’ll place some of my men on the other side of their camp” he pointed to the opposing banks of the hill, unlike their own position, the tree line was uniform and would offer a favourable overlook.
Nodding to himself now, Bryce thought of the composition of their force. “They wouldn’t have more than fifteen or so archers, likely still too many for my men and I to take out. If we can catch them in a prolonged skirmish, we’d lose out I think. Might also be an idea to post some of your men at the base of that hill in the low branches” Bryce was pointing towards the ridge on the opposing hill.
“Of course it won’t do us any good if they find us on this side twiddling with our thumbs. I’m surprised we’ve gotten this close to be honest” he stated.
The larger man, stroked his chin for several moments, it was a tight predicament they’d found themselves in. Their task was to escort one of the high ranking diplomats to the Azarowan capital. Once there, she was to act on behalf of Aylesbury in the negotiations of the treaty between the two nations of Azarowa and Normlieth in regards to the ongoing management of Caledonia, a tyrant nation. It was little more than a province that was situated between the borders of the two countries. Their carelessness in the past however had taught them to be more attentive to it.
As Dunstan had explained to Sam weeks earlier, with the treaty taken care of, they would send a written dispatch to the king of Aylesbury in recognition and push on to the north to meet up with the rest of their group.
“Surely the question we need to ask ourselves is ‘how do we know they aren’t friendly?’”
Sam had approached them with Maddox to meet them, initially he had been curious to see what they were discussing, seeing the opportunity he decided it might help if he put his own opinion in.
“Who’s this?” Bryce asked, putting the question to Dunstan.
“Maddox, baron of Faraday, and Sam a new recruit at the academy. Gentlemen, meet Bryce, Lieutenant of the Scout Guard” Bryce peremptorily shook their hands and turned an inquisitive look on Dunstan, this sort of mission seldom included first year students.
“Sam is here because I invited him along and as you can see, he’s not afraid of getting himself involved” he told the scout.
He turned to answer the young man, “We don’t know that, we can only assume that they’re here for a reason.”
Sam frowned, thinking over what he had read recently, “It doesn’t make sense though.”
He saw the speculative look on the scout, knew the reason behind it and continued, “If they’re here for a reason, for all intents and purposes, why would they hide themselves away from sight?”
It was a good point that he had made. Not a point that any of them wanted to answer, the boy was building to something, they sensed.
“If they’re Azarowans, surely they would be comfortable in this country and therefore, they wouldn’t be worried if anyone saw them, from what I’ve read, Azarowa is fairly peaceful, smugglers and bandit numbers are considered low here, so why would they think to keep themselves out of the eyes of passersby? It only suggests to me that they’re doing so intentionally.”
Dunstan was thinking through the words, he knew there had been a reason to bring this boy along. He was interested to see what his plan was.
“What do you propose?”
Sam was uncertain. It was one thing to toss up a suggestion and look at it objectively, it was another to put forward a plan of action. A lump was in his throat and his harrumphed twice to clear it and swallowed.
“Smoke them out.” He thought it best to put it as simply as possible that way he wouldn’t confuse them, or more importantly, himself.
Bryce’s lipped twitched into a smile at the edges. He couldn’t think of anything wrong with the idea.
Like Sam, he looked to Dunstan to for any obvious flaws in the plan.
“It should work, I doubt we’ll be given the luxury of waiting back here for them to simply move on, I’ll have my men and the lady’s ready for when the time comes” he put to his subordinate, it would pay to be cautious, they were in a dangerous position, unsure of the camp’s intentions. He’d decided this could be plan ‘B’.
“Very well, why?”
Sam thought quickly, “The texts were saying that when facing superior numbers, you should look to distract them, take their focus away from what’s really happening.” Dunstan nodded. It was a standard tactic. “If we put together several bonfires along the hilltops, they should throw enough glare over the top, we can use that as a screen and you should be able to keep them busy while the rest of us slip by.”
There was only one foreseeable flaw, “We’re not setting up more than one on each side, we won’t have the time and I don’t want us burning down everything. Maddox what would you say?”
Maddox shrugged, he looked across at the young would-be knight and smiled. “I’d say Sam has the right idea, except for that one point.” He added that last comment after a look from Dunstan.
Bryce gathered his thoughts quickly, thinking over the preparations that he’d need to put into place before they went into action, “Very good my lord, I’ll have my men move into position shortly after sun down” he said firmly, his eyes unwavering from Dunstan as he told him, “after sun down” Dunstan replied in confirmation, more than happy to trust the man’s judgment.
Once again, Dunstan looked around, checking that their observing eyes on the camp had still gone unnoticed. Bryce had put several of his men in place to watch over their own group in case an outlier from the camp had chanced upon them.
“We’ll need to get to building the fires, one on each side should do it, in the event we’re spotted, we’ll light them and get moving.” Dunstan thought ahead to what was likely going to be a sleepless night. He would tell the men to sleep outside the tents, the lady had her small tent, they could afford for her to sleep in that while they could.
“In the fading light” Bryce began, bringing Dunstan back to the conversation, “we’ll use their fires as a reference point, so we know where to position them so they’re most effective. If they’re asleep, their eyes won’t have grown accustomed to the dark and they’ll have little chance of seeing us. Along with that, the moon will be dull tonight, so none of you will throw any reflections from your armour or weapons. My men will need to use the darkness to move across the open ground, I’ll tell them to keep their horses tethered further down the hill and out of direct sight. We’ll meet up with you here.”
Bryce had produced a small map, rolling it out and holding it before them, they had been using similar ones throughout the past days to keep track of their position, he picked the landmarks that were situated by and settled on a spot a few kilometers south they could meet up. “I’ll show this to my men so they know, if we’re separated, they can meet up with us later.”
Content with that Dunstan called for one of his men to send out details. It was still light enough, with the days getting longer as the peak of summer was drawing nearer, he wasn’t sure when the sun would set.
“When do you think there will be least light?”
Bryce considered the question, men were shifting and moving throughout the column, many dismounting and throwing up temporary camp. He had stopped to briefly talk with one of his senior men. Most of his men were seasoned campaigners and he readily took on their views and opinions, and respected their judgment. Bryce had put the question to one of them earlier.
“My sergeant has been surveying the sun’s position, he estimates that it will reach full dark an hour or so before midnight. I think that we’d be best to wait until then.” He suggested, Dunstan was stroking his chin again. Bryce was beginning to think the man did it simply for the sake of it.
“Right then, that’s what we’ll do” he confirmed, “now” he began, moving onto new orders for setting up camp. He went to explain their plan to the new group, then reconsidered, “Remember no fires, I don’t want them having any idea that we’re here. If they get wind of us, I don’t want it being from smoke.”
There was the briefly reply of “Yes, my lord” as they went to complete their tasks. Sam, meanwhile, had followed Dunstan down the line as he addressed the company, “Going to be one heck of a night though, cold food once again” he smirked, drawing a light chuckle from Sam.
“Well we can’t have everything our way, sir.” Sam mused as darted off to prepare his own gear.