The moon was finally making its way behind the distant hills. They’d been in position for the past hour, waiting as the moon was sinking below the line of the last ranges. Their long night of waiting was in full swing. Bryce’s second in command made the three ascending note bird call that the team had designated as the ‘ready’ signal. He had risen above the line of hedges they were stationed before, exposing himself from the waist upwards, it was a necessary risk in the last light of the day.
Now they would wait for Bryce to respond.
The six scouts had split into two groups consisting of four and two men, each armed with their standard issued crossbows with eight slotting cartridges, stacked with two bolts in each. With their need for extreme lightweight and ease of handling, the crossbows were small affairs. Fighting wasn’t their stock in trade. That wasn’t to say the scouts weren’t skilled fighters, they preferred to avoid it wherever possible. When they were offered no alternative, they would use the low powered crossbows they held to great effect. The cartridges locked into a small spindle on the underside of the body, unlike the larger and more bulky spindle attached to a Commissioner’s crossbow, these were small and unobtrusive on the handling, there was a simple opening on the side that helped the cartridge fit onto the spindle and a simple pin that pulled the arrow into the firing position. Reloading required applying pressure to the side of the spindle housing and the cartridge would come free, ready to load in the next one and a pulley to load the next shot. Seldom would they need more than the sixteen bolts they held, nevertheless they were equipped with a small quiver of a further dozen arrows slung across their back for single shots.
They were known as the sharpshooters, capable of hitting a target from up to fifty meters in pure darkness, such was their canny ability with the weapon. They opted for duel firing cartridges as they were often used as a secondary shot to ensure the kill, they were also much smaller bolts that were carve through the air and make little noise upon impact, all extremely important attributes when it came to situations such as this.
Carter, a sergeant in the Scout Force had been positioned, along with three other men, on the blind side of the camp, watching over the enemy camp for any signs of movement. He checked his companions’ equipment, seeing that they too were ready for the upcoming fight, he sat with his against the fallen tree they had chosen as their vantage point, slowly withdrawing a cartridge and loading his weapon. Bryce had instructed him to maintain a low profile, using their standard signaling to communicate whenever required. If scouts were considered the sharpshooters, then Carter and Bryce would need a different name, friends since their early years, they had been on more missions together than either would care to admit, and knowing of each other’s capabilities, Carter had been an immediate choice to lead the diversion on his side.
They always said that the other was a better shot than himself, and the other would brush the compliment aside, knowing it not to be true, but they were professional enough in the heat of the moment to know who was better at leading a force. Carter had always been the more impulsive of the two, always wanting action and never settling for waiting. He was a man of action and enjoyed the prestige that came with his position. He did know however, that when Bryce impressed on him the importance of keeping quiet he wasn’t kidding, Carter had the faith in his friend to pull them through once again, knowing that he would be able to take the focus in case things went wrong.
The pair had discussed tactics earlier, Bryce and his men would stay within sight on the camp, whilst Carter and his men would watch from the other side maintaining constant vigilance. It would be a tense night, hopefully filled with long hours of silence. The strain on them would be immense, but if it meant they could go by unnoticed, they’d take it.
In the likelihood that they were seen, Carter’s men were responsible with getting the ball rolling, they would try to take the focus, then, once the campsite was roused, Carter and his men would open fire on anyone brave enough to stay in the open to fight. Added to this, Carter’s first two bolts were laced in flammable oil. When the others fired down on the camp, it would be his job to shoot the two stacks of kindling and wood they had built up on either side of the camp, when those were lit, he’d return his attention on the camp itself.
In the meantime, Dunstan would move with Bryce, and the rest of the men, escorting the diplomat along the rough trail that led away from the camp where a further two fires would be started to cover their escape while they made their way to the prearranged rendezvous point.
Once the main group was on its way, Carter knew Bryce and his scouts would stay and try to provide them with some cover, picking off anyone who dared to hit the fleeing party. All going well, they wouldn’t have to fire a shot, as Carter’s position would be the one to come under heavy fire, he was to concentrate on those attempting to flank them before finally melting away into the darkness of the surrounding trees, using the horses they’d tethered a hundred meters or so into the woods to make their getaway. As they made their own escape they would circle their way round to rendezvous with the rest, doing their best to keep their pursuers on their tail until they felt they’d given the others sufficient time to get away, it was only then that they would try to lose them.
The night wore on. And on. And on.
Carter looked at the small group of men around him, comparing them to the watch the camp had set up, Carter could only see two were on guard at all times, he knew there would be another on the far side, closer to Bryce. He kept two of his men watching at all times, however they had devised a different schedule for sentry duty. Each of them had been assigned times, every two hours one of the men on watch would rotate out, each would get four hours rest before another four hours on watch. It meant slightly less sleep, what it did allow for was twice the number of eyes scoping for anything out of place, and there was always a well-rested man replacing a tired one.
Carter had taken the first shift, overseeing the first four hours, at the two hour mark, Garrik switched over and Carter swapped two hours later.
It had been an uneventful four hours for him, he thought as he crawled with infinite care across their small dwelling to wake the next man for his sentry duty. They spoke in muted towns for some minutes as Carter updated the scout on matters, the changing of camp sentries and their habits and shared a quick joke with him as he turned in, reaching for his extra cloak and wrapped himself up in it. Garrik would return in another two hours, giving him the final four hours on watch as the sun would rise.
In those first few minutes as he bedded down, he groaned, tossing off the cloak and grabbed the irritating loose stone that had become wedged in a small nook beneath his hip. Cursing out of his breath he flung the errant rock away into the trees and settled down again, his light breathing audible only to his friends nearby.
Carter came awake suddenly, quickly, looking through bleary eyes he cast around the site, something had disturbed his sleeping, Colby and Garrik were on guard, the four hours hadn’t passed. Garrik had been sitting up, resting amongst the budding flower bed. In the cool spring air, the chill had penetrated through to him, pollen floating on the night breeze giving Garrik the interminable urge to sneeze. The camp came awake with the booming noise. One moment there was barely a sound in the area. The next, men were retrieving weapons and shouting. Instantly the camp was abuzz.
Bryce was roused from his slumber at the sudden commotion. He came to his feet, swept up his weapons and crossed to the fallen tree that provided his men with a vantage point. Samson was on duty, and was startled by his arrival, looking back at his senior, the young man’s face told everything Bryce needed to know. The head scout rummaged through his kit, grabbed a bolt cartridge, loading it into his crossbow, gesturing to those around him for their attention. Bryce gave the signal, then moved to the prearranged spot where he would be concealed best by the trees, he mounted the reinforced resting arm beneath the body of the crossbow and, using the length of the tree as support, he thrust the weapon atop the tree, pulled the loading lever back into position, loading in the first bolt.
“Here we go” he muttered to himself.
He’d only have two shots, he was in no position to retrieve another cartridge, but it would do for the moment, he’d use them as warning shots to the camp, taking his time, Bryce took several deep breaths then, picking out the first target, slowly squeezed the trigger, the crossbow spat a bolt away at the man he’d chosen, taking him in the chest.
He looked further in, camp lights were being lit as the occupants gathered themselves again. Using them as a guide, he saw men moving to what would be the armoury, and shot in their direction, determined to keep them away.
He had no time to check the shot, he slipped the cartridge free of the crossbow and was up and running for their next lookout position.
“Quickly!” he called, urgently beckoning to the men around him to move on ahead of him.
He took a quick glance in their direction and turned running back down the hill. He made a beeline for the diplomat’s horse, they’d need her to get on the move as quickly as possible. He quickly untethered the horses and helped the carriage driver up into his seat. Hitching the crossbow over his shoulder, he pulled the tethers on the horses tight and gathered the reins to hand to the driver.
“Follow Dunstan” he instructed the man, pointing towards the south. With that under control he loaded another cartridge from his waist, some of those close to the boundaries of the camp had already reached the crest of the hill, no doubt trying to flank and keep them escaping, but they were pitifully few. Bryce brought his arm up and let fly a shot at the nearest two, he saw the first man jerk back from the impact and the second staggered as he was hit in the shoulder, Bryce loaded into another canister and hit the man again, dove to the right himself as he sensed the return fire coming. Tumbling away to his right, he swung up the crossbow and hit the bowman. His breathing was erratic, his adrenaline pulsing as he leapt to his feet again and sprinted after the others.
“Come on, we need to get them both lit.”
Striking flint on steel, Carter had made one small error in judgment. The igniting bolts he’d loaded had been fed on the spindle, in his haste though he had forgotten to pull back the lever to load the shot in, as the camp had come alive, he had scooped up his crossbow, aimed down the sights at the bundled stacks of firewood and fired. The crossbow bucked wildly and he realised his mistake, a quick inspection showed him the damage of his carelessness, the shot had become warped so madly that it wouldn’t enter the passage.
Angrily, he ripped out the broken shaft and cleaned the cartridge, sliding free the second bolt and manually drew back the string using his heel and the muscles of his back and shoulders.
He’d managed to get the first fire lit, as the arrow streaked away, the heat generated from the weapon had set it alight and as it hit the first of the kindling wrapped timbers, it sparked and caught on the rest and quickly enveloped the whole stack.
Carter checked his weapon for damage, knowing of the only way to make sure it was properly clear, he left the spindle empty, pulled the loading lever back and fired into the dark trees. The crossbow sent a flurry of wooden debris out through the front of it and Carter felt for any residue. Seeing none, he loaded his next cartridge in and put it down, now they’d need to get the second fire going.
Garrik tossed him his own flint while Carter used his own steel to get it going. The steel ran along the top of a small box that would house a small amount of kindling, when lit, Carter could slide the bottom of the box out, disposing of the lit kindling.
Carter watched as Colby and Emerson were spreading themselves out along the line of the trees, using them as cover before swing out, picking off men rushing forwards to engage them. Carter saw Bryce drop below the line of the hills, using the cover of the angled trees as he went to fire and the subsequent cries of pain as his shots met their target.
Carter struck at the steel, his face tightening with the pressure. Surely this time, he told himself.
He pounded the flint against the steel one final time and saw a small flicker inside the box. The flicker turned into a small glow and he knew it was lit. He rushed across to the heaped wood.
He’d have to make a small bed that he could put the box contents, otherwise it wouldn’t do anything.
He made a small open circle of kindling that would feed onto the timbers and dropped the lit kindling onto it. Carter added a little more to the little flame, spreading it to different parts as the flames licked at the dried branches.
A minute passed and the fire was well and truly going.
Colby fired down, hitting a man in the torso, he was their best shot. Carter made sure to pull the lever back on the crossbow and crossed to the man.
There were several men breaking off to flank the crossbowmen. In another five minutes they could be up and level with them. Colby was reloading his next cartridge as Carter eased up next to him.
“Are both fires going?”
Carter looked at him quickly with a hint of annoyance, Colby would know that Carter wouldn’t have left it if he hadn’t. Even so, he decided to take a different direction.
He pulled two bolts from his quiver, two small pieces of rag and a small canteen of oil.
“Fire arrows?” Colby queried
Carter nodded quickly. The rags were thin but dry and they’d easily soak in the oil as he poured the contents of the canteen over them. Carter had a small pad that he used to dull the edges of the arrowhead, sharp edges would only damage rag and he had no desire to see them come off mid-flight.
Happy they would do the trick, he wrapped the heads in the thin rags, tying them off in a small knot just below, he inserted the head in the oily pitch in the canteen and handed one to Colby who loaded it onto the bowstring.
It didn’t take long to light them with the flint and steel and Colby soon sent the bolt down, striking the top of the largest of the tents and delighted in the sudden roar of the fire as it engulfed two smaller tents nearby.
Carter was busy loading his in, making sure that his bolt had been liberally coated and passed the flint and steel to Colby who set to work on setting alight the oily rag on the arrowhead. The arrowhead flared up quickly and he nodded for Carter to proceed. Shifting in his seat, Carter flinched in pain as a drop of pitch singed his hand. He pulled back the bowstring quickly and fired it at the closest cluster of tents. Like Colby’s shot, it took a moment or two, but the oil caught and spread rapidly across the line, halting any of the would-be flankers, who were now fleeing from the blaze barely ten meters from Carter and his men.
“I think it was about time we got a move on sir” Colby suggested to Carter, nodding his head, taking stock of their situation.
Garrik was steadily moving backwards, ensuring that their other flank was secure, with Emerson watching their front while Colby and he were maintaining vision on the left and front. Emerson moved to join them now.
“Are you sure you’ve got them under control?” Carter asked the pair. Both men in turn nodded in confirmation.
“We’ll be fine,” Emerson confirmed, “once you’re moving, we’ll follow you up from behind and take the lead from there” he concluded.
Carter turned and moved a further ten paces towards the main party, whistling in the lowest pitch he could, the signal for them to advance, through the high pitched sounds of the battle, he knew it would carry easily to his allies as they were hastily making their way across the open towards the western perimeter.
A dozen or so had passed him as Bryce heard the signal from his friend, following the repeating sound, he saw them up on the ridge, gesturing for putting into effect the next step of their plan. Bryce waved in acknowledgement, he loaded in another cartridge and counted the number he had left. So far he’d be rather liberal with his use, he only had one more left.
Keeping his weapon ready in case of any surprises, Bryce waved for one of his own men to follow up behind him to keep the attack going. Making his way back to along the line, Bryce met up with Dunstan, who had been leading the group in tandem with Maddox as they were leapfrogging each other to carry on ahead, waiting for the rest of the group to pass them only to then speed on ahead to take the lead from the other.
Dunstan dropped from his saddle, directing one of the men closest to him to take is position in the line. He nodded briefly to the scout as he approached.
“They seem to have things under control over there. Wouldn’t you agree?” the commander said, pointing at Carter’s position.
“They certainly are, my lord” he answered, acknowledging the man’s praise.
“Carter will get his men to move back into the trees in a few minutes.” He declared, “that boy of yours, Sam, certainly had a good idea with those bonfires, it’s helped cover our tracks and cause a little bit of panic for them.”
Dunstan smiled, he was glad he had thought to bring the boy along, “I knew giving him those extra manuals would help him, and us”.
The last of the group were moving across them now, leaving them at the rear. Dunstan stayed on foot, giving his horse a rest and instead ran alongside. It was becoming evident that the camp’s attention was being diverted as planned, as the main group moved further away and Carter and his men staying put, they would come under greater pressure from the camp, while they were given time to get away.
They crossed over the narrow pathway that led into the clearing the camp had been settled in. Reflected in the light of the flames, Bryce noticed a small group of men had acquired some hunting bows, and were keeping up a steady stream of volleys on his comrades.
Palstan was the closest of his scouts, “Hand me an extra cartridge, we need to take down their archers.” He pointed to the band. Palstan rummaged for an extra cartridge, threw it to his captain and swung his focus to the bowmen, he saw two go down under his bolts, then a couple more from the opposite side of the camp, reloaded another cartridge and spat two more shots at them, watching as the last went down.
“Take the lead” Bryce instructed Dunstan.
Dunstan swung up into the saddle, moving to overhaul the main group, he passed the carriage and checked. The lady was sitting calmly inside and smiled wanly at him. He spurred his horse on moved towards Sam further down the line.
“Keep moving son, Miller help him here” he implored, calling one of his men to support the boy, Sam had his shield on his left shoulder, leaving him protected but also free to counter attack any unexpected men coming up on them. There were none coming, that didn’t mean though that several wouldn’t come rushing out of the trees towards them.
As if on the queue, two men emerged on horseback from the trees in front of them. Rage was burning in their eyes as they hit Sam head on, the first barreling into him, lifting the youth from his feet to come crashing down, the other turning to shove one of Dunstan’s soldiers away.
Bryce was saw the move and was loading a cartridge into his crossbow as the first man drove Sam into the ground, taking the wind out of the him as he crashed into a heap, the attacker kicked his feet from the stirrups and landed lightly on the ground drawing his sword. Bryce quickly sighted the second man and hit him in between the shoulder blades.
Sam’s attacker swung two heavy overhead blows down, missing by millimeters as Sam rolled to avoid him, striking out frantically with his leg to trip the other man. The man gasped at the blow to the hip, falling to his knees, he dropped his sword, giving Sam precious time to scramble for and draw his dagger. The other man was quicker, he draw his own dagger, parried away the clumsy attack and got to his feet, stepping forward ready to drive his blade into the boy’s chest.
The moment didn’t arrive as a bolt from slicing through the air, ripping through the man’s chest, the man inhaled sharply, surprised by the unexpected agony that swept through his body. The man’s eyes rolled back in his head and fell to the ground, shuddering in pain with one final prolonged breath.
“Are you alright, you’re not hurt?”
Bryce reached down to help the boy to his feet, “No, just scared out of my wits” he admitted.
“Let’s keep moving” Bryce said. He slapped the boy on the back in encouragement and moved off.
Carter fired the last bolt from his crossbow, felt the spring kick back, pulling back on a lever and replaced the empty cartridge with a new one, making sure he put the expired one in his pack. There was no wastage when it came to the cartridges, they could be loaded again with bolts later on.
“Regroup on me” he said, keeping himself in the cover of the tree line. “They’ve finished moving across the open, we need to move back into the tree line to our horses to circle around to the west” he told them.
A call from Garrik stopped them. “Sir, I need to stay.” he claimed, “If I go with you, they’ll be onto us again, I’ll stay here for as long as I can. There’s a small gully that runs alongside the hilltop, it leads on towards the others, get to your horses and put my horse there for me. I can catch up with you later.”
Garrik was watching for any signs of movement up the banks towards them, the fires were slowly starting to die down, the one to their lefts seemed to be on its last breath. There was another metallic pat-ting sound as Garrik hit a man in the lower thigh.
For once he’s making sense, Carter had to agree. They had initially chosen a spot that gave them the greatest view, but with that also came little in the way of concealment from the camp, he agreed now with the man. “Emerson and I will run back through the trees. Make for the horses” he said, directing the instruction to Emerson, “There’s a fork in the road about fifty meters down the hill, expect us to be right behind you once we hit that” Carter said to Colby, who nodded quickly, “I’ll give you a moment or so to get ahead and I’ll come after you.” He added.
Satisfied with that, Carter looked to Garrik, who was absentmindedly emptying his satchel. “I won’t be needing any of these” Garrik said, giving Carter three empty cartridges leaving him with two remaining and a dozen bolts for single shots.
“Garrik you cover us as we go, Emerson,” he started, turning his focus on the man, allowing Garrik to make his way back to his mark, “have one more cartridge, then we leave” he said, then called further down the line, “Colby, go now while you can, you’re the most exposed, I’ll cover you here until you move past us then Emerson will follow on, just keep moving.”
He kept his eye on the camp, waiting for anyone foolhardy enough to stick their head into the open. Colby was passing him now, he counted off a few seconds in his head, saw a man appear along the ridge, and took him down.
Colby brushed aside the overhanging trees, their branches lashing at him. Confident that the man was in the clear, Carter worked his way around the tree line, he called to Garrik, “the moment you have the chance, I want you to get free and follow us down” he instructed.
Catching his focus momentarily Garrik looked over at the sergeant, “As soon as I can…” he was cut off as an arrow struck him in the side from a bowman that had approached unnoticed from the trees protecting their right hand side.
Carter shot the man down and was immediately by his friend’s side, disregarding his own safety to help his friend. Carter pulled him back into the trees, blood covering his hands, he noticed now that the wound was bleeding profusely, he removed the arrow and applied pressure to it with a bandage from the small medical kit he wore. Blood seeped through the bandage, and he could see there was little he could do, the blood instantly saturated the bandage, the man was dying.
“You need to go” Garrick said to him, the blood in his throat was making his voice thick, slurring his words.
Seeing him hesitate, Garrick pushed him away, “Go!” his strength was already fading and he slumped as though exhausted.
Hastily, Carter dragged him closing to the low undergrowth nearby, using it to conceal Garrik. Looking back at the remainder of the camp, he cursed to himself. Something always went wrong he thought to himself.
He could hear raised voices, they weren’t far away. Carter had done all he could for Garrik as he checked him one last time, he wasn’t far from death and was on the cusp of losing consciousness. As an afterthought, Carter took Garrik’s crossbow, quiver and cartridge bag with him.
Carter hadn’t a moment to lose he flew down the hill, passing clusters of trees, hearing the bounding of feet behind him, closing the gap between them quickly. He saw the rapidly disappearing figures of Emerson and Colby in the distance, leaving a trail of dust in their wake.
Heart in his mouth, he selected a tree off to the right that would keep him hidden. He rounded a slight bend, moving with the sloping hill, and reached the tree, in the middle of the small huddle. It would afford him the best view of the trail back up the hill.
Carter glanced over his shoulder to inspect the path and made out the shape of the lead runner, some meters in the clear, following the trail blindly.
Feeling the soft leather hilt of his dagger, he looked for signs of other pursuers and slowly drew the weapon. He brought the thin blade up to the inside of his cloak where it wouldn’t catch the glare of the moon and give the man warning. They were close. Carter could hear and feel the heavy burly man’s movements vibrating through the ground. He’d have to time it to perfection. He checked behind to see if he’d missed anyone coming around from the other side, stole a last glance at the man as he haphazardly ran towards him and knew it was time to strike.
He stepped out from the safety of the tree aiming high with the dagger, and felt the blade slice through the thin armour the man wore.
The sudden jerking in his arm, numbed it all the way to the elbow as he held the man steady. The strike had taken the man in the chest. Carter pulled the dagger from the wound, and noticed that there was something familiar about the insignia on the shoulder of the man’s clothing. It was of two gauntlets crossed over one another, this was unique to only one place. It also spelled danger for them as he realised the implications if they were found here, in the northern regions of Azarowa.
He quickly tore the sleeve from the man, removing the coat of arms. Bryce and Dunstan would need to hear about this. Carter collected his bearings and saw the last two horses perhaps fifty meters away. He rushed towards his, tightening the girth straps then considered Garrik’s horse, he could use it to distract a few men, their pursuers would have a fifty-fifty chance of guessing right, he untethered the other horse and set it to a gallop in the opposite direction he would go, waited a moment or two to make sure it was out of sight and headed off in the other direction.