The Rathnorans, a band of wild tribesmen to the south bred animals, they were brought up as a vicious pack of hunting dogs, they shared a close bond with their trainers and were deadly to anyone who seemed to threaten them. They were ruthless killing machines and once let off the leash would dispose of all enemies in sight. But they were not always a loyal subject, a long history of using the beasts had forced the trainers to also become adequate shots with hunting bows, once the monsters fully matured, seldom wouldn’t they turn on their owners. They were a rare and expensive brood to retain and their use in battle was limited, most were never leashed again once let loose, such was their aggressive and violent nature. Many who used the beasts had met their own end to a point where only Maarten and a select few high ranking commanders throughout the kingdom had experience with fighting with and against them.
A captain approached him now, intrigued by this new development. Maarten sighed quietly to himself and turned to face the officer, catching a look of abject dissatisfaction from Aaren, and shot the man a grim look. He looked the captain up and down, and decided he liked what he saw, he was a well-built man, a little short in his mind but capable of the task he would set him.
“I believe I might have a solution, and it’s extremely dangerous given the conditions, but I feel that if we take advantage of our position in the forest, we should be able to nullify their use of dogs by setting fire to the forest. It should flush them out, letting us pick them off from safety.”
There was a simple nod from the captain, the king would expect an answer, and he would have to deliver, it wouldn’t do to have the king listen to him bumbling and mumbling back to him, he cleared his throat and hoped his voice would hold. “My Lord” he began, pleased that his voice held something of its usual strength. “We’d need some sort of defensive perimeter, as you know, once they’re out in the open they’ll stop at nothing to kill us all, not even you, my lord.”
“Do you have any other suggestions instead?” Calls could be heard from nearby fights with the irregular whistling of arrows striking wood, ground and flesh. The captain considered the trees now, and the bulk of the army’s direct line, the forest was growing dark, the sun couldn’t penetrate through the line of trees for much longer, time was against them now, with the beasts out and no light to keep sight of their movements, it wouldn’t be long before they were taken out one by one until the last man remained.
“We’ll need to form up the front two ranks, try to form a wedge as we move out. Shields in the front and pikes to support them, as we move, those already in position can move back into line as we go, the further we go the wider the line will need to be, we’ll need to move quickly and if we’re caught out in the inferno, the dogs and the Caledonians will rip us apart” the Captain stated.
“Good idea” Maarten liked the way this man could think. “I’ll have my archers positioned to the outside of the group, they should be able to offer some protection from any projectiles the Caledonians may fire. Send word to the men, have us moving ASAP.”
Thrashings against leashes could be heard in the distance signifying dogs were desperate to be free of their chains, desperate in their rage for blood. There were the brief metallic rattles from ahead, and the snarls were gone, the hunt had begun.
The line moved onwards, everywhere they looked the land showed disturbances and signs of a struggle, for a few minutes there was only the sudden shrill cries of terror before they were quickly and abruptly silenced. It was some time before they cracked. The first to go was a middle aged man, obviously past his prime in life, the sounds of the darkening depths broke his courage, he ran for the safety of the light, not before he was struck down by a shaft from a spitting crossbow.
That signaled the start, men were running, zigzagging, jumping over fallen saplings and diving into the cover of shrubs, but still the wall of the Azarowans came on moving as one, burning the nearby foliage as they went. Pitches was set alight and passed around to several sergeants in the lines to help their movements, and soon fire arrows were being shot around the forest into the trees, to add to the flames.
The Caledonian numbers were beginning to dwindle, which brought up a further problem for the Azarowans, as another three dogs were unleashed, Maarten had tried to rescind the order for the front lines to fan before he saw the further movement, now he watched in horror as he saw the brutes dart off into the confines of the forest floor. The group started to bunch up, they hadn’t lost many men. But as the dark shapes began to attack, they were losing time of taking out the Caledonians. Eamonn and Aaren moved with Maarten and several of his associates through to the front of their force, quickly picking off men as they went, one by one, they fell to their shots, there were those who resisted, such as a testy axman, fighting tooth and nail, he’d managed to beat back several of Maarten’s men, bringing himself to the attention of his military commander, a weapons expert.
The blaze was slowly moving around the area until they came to a clearing where the fires failed to penetrate, instead the burning trail snaked its way around, ready to engulf and suffocate anyone foolhardy enough to stop in their tracks.
Eamonn stood back, calmly picking off those who dared to interfere with his repaired crossbow, the other archers were struggling in the low light of the enclosed spaces, but Eamonn wasn’t a regular archer, he was a junior commission member, someone who craved the difficult and dangerous life, the circumstances were challenging, forcing him to take more time and have far more deliberate shots, he managed to find a target after target with each crossbow bolt he fired.
Targets were moving in to intercept the fight that had begun in front of the youngster, his sent two shots at them with such ease, burying one man in the chest, and hitting another in the fleshy part of his arm.
He emptied the cartridge with one final shot, screwing up his face as he saw the bolt strike a tree. Loading the next one into his crossbow, the youth had time now to watch the duel, it was clear that the axman had some skill, but it looked for the moment that the Azarowan commander had the situation under control. It took a strong man to wield an axe effectively, years of building strength in the arms, shoulders and back muscles were required to throw around the double headed kind, and this man seemed to be tiring as he swept the weapon across at his foe.
The attempt was ducked and a quick reply forced him to give ground, parrying two blows from the commander’s sword, he tried a thrust with the specially made spikes of the axe-head, but that was the man’s last strike, a deflection forced the axe into the ground, fixing it in the hard earth, the commander ran his blade along the shaft cutting through the Caledonian’s arm and with another strike his head followed, they watched as the body staggered and land with a heavy thump.
There man sighed audibly, pleased with his efforts, all the while oblivious to the new danger. Off to his left a shadow was beginning to close in on him, men were starting to break from the lines of the Azarowan front ranks, determined not to be left to face the hounds or the burning flames. The commander stood suddenly and faced the beast, swinging his sword in a feint, almost teasing the monster to try, he stepped forward, saw the monster retreat a step and his barked laughter echoed across to Eamonn, but the boy had seen something the commander had not.
Another shadowing was moving across the small clearing, jumped and knocked the man aside, falling to his knees, the unexpected blow caught him off guard jerking the sword loose from his hand, he looked up in time to see another figure launch towards him, ready to strike him down. It was twenty meters away, then ten, five, two and SLAM, the man’s face shuddered, waiting for it to end, he was surprised to see the dog skid and barely graze his leg. He opened his eyes to see a crossbow bolt embedded into the beast’s side, its sides heaving in its exertions. SLAM. Another bolt ended the beast’s life, and it lay motionless on the ground.
Aaren steep clear of the trees barely ten meters away. In the few seconds beforehand, Aaren had moved into position just in time to get his shot away. Aaren knew of the beast’s hunter techniques and had been watching for hints when he had chanced upon the fight himself, he’d watched and observed as the two dogs moved into position, waiting for the man to fall into their trap, if he had not intervened, they would have succeeded.
While the flames had succeeded in their job of nullifying the Caledonian’s advantage of the shadows, it was now beginning working against them, the oxygen deprived air was beginning to stifle those in the clearing, natural light was now obscured by that of the flames and smoke, it all told an alarming story. The fading light would enable the dogs to make more attacks, and there were still beasts on the prowl. Eamonn retrieved the two bolts from the fallen targets, and finally realised if they were to hang around any longer, they could well find themselves in serious trouble.
“Move, move” Maarten’s cries cut through the lines of trees. Behind them men were being enveloped by the blaze, and the terror of those left to face their demise kept them going, somewhere behind, people and forest life were overcome by the dogs and the firestorm. Aaren cursed to himself, eyes streaming from the smoke sweat pouring freely from his brow as he ran, half blinded, through the endangered forest. They ran past fallen trees and a now steaming stream. One man stumbled, catching his leg on the root of a tree, Eamonn turned to help, but the insistent pulling from Aaren dragged him along.
“Leave him” was all he heard in the radiating heat, the air was almost suffocating them, burning at the back of their throats. Whatever hostilities there were between them, gone was the inclination to kill, all fearing for their lives, pushing and shoving their way through, so they wouldn’t be the one left behind.
The edge of the forest was near, Eamonn was directed there, they moved as a pack, and as one they managed to come clear of the trees. The fear of the dogs and the fire kept them going, but the light of the blaze soon diminished and the distinct lack of cover prevented the dogs from following. Darkness and shelter were their main forms of concealment and what they craved, in the open regions of the hills that luxury was scarce and so they were confined to the remnants of the lush trees of the Arze forest. There was no sudden relief that overcame them, just the knowledge of survival, Eamonn shook his weary head, checked his equipment and ammo for his crossbow, in all the excitement he’d forgotten he’d reloaded the weapon after the end of the duel.
There was something like silence, several were seated and taking drinks from their water skins, others stretched the cramps out of their sore muscles. The only one who took notice of the town nearby was a simple man at arms, he stood ahead of the rest, his hands settled on his hips, he stared defiantly at the ominous height of the trees and turned his back on it, now a distant memory. “Well” he said at length in a hoarse voice, “We’re not out of the woods yet”. There was no hint of a smile on the withered face, nor from any of the others at the unmistakable pun. Another followed his friend’s gaze to the town, and heard the distant echo of clattering of battle.
There was more to be done tonight.