159. In Flight from Hostage Camp
From Hostage Camp, the Stonebridge army saw plumes of smoke to the south. Suddenly the fires blew up, burning so fiercely that Milo and his men could see flames from their location three miles distant. No one needed to say what everyone guessed: Something has gone terribly wrong. It wasn’t long before runner-scouts confirmed their fears. Dalston and Fleming’s companies were routed. The enemy had come through the gap in force. The Herminians were two miles away and marching.
With joy I will dance on your grave.
In the moment of crisis, Milo felt an inexplicable calm. He had a sense of being outside himself, as if he were watching someone else take charge of the situation and give commands. He was gratified and impressed with the way the Stonebridge general organized a retreat—all the while equally surprised that he was that general.
He spoke first to Hrodgar Wigt, telling him to quick march the Red and Blue companies, which comprised most of their remaining army, north to a creek they had named “Damned Creek.” (Days before, when moving south, two wagon wheels had broken while fording the creek; hence the name.) Each man was to march with the food already in his pack; there was not enough time to distribute supplies from the wagons. Red and Blue companies could rest north of Damned Creek. The high water of the creek would hinder the enemy’s pursuit, since they would have to cross at the ford.
“Will we stand there, sir?” Hrodgar asked. “Make our defense at the ford?”
“Perhaps. You and I will assess our situation once I arrive. You need to get there before nightfall, guard the ford, and give the men rest. Right now our task is to slow down the enemy and keep our army together. If we scatter, we lose everything.”
Milo commanded Felix Abrecan to form a small mounted company. “We’ll need the scout ponies for the main army. So you get the draft horses from the wagons. Take three prisoners and Derian Chapman. Leave the wagons here. Don’t stop. Ride all night if you must, and tomorrow.”
Felix frowned, confused. “Only three prisoners?”
“Aye. Take General Ridere, the wounded man, and one of the others. Bring the fourth to me before you ride.”
Felix had another question. “We will reach Damned Creek well ahead of Captain Wigt. Should we not stop there?”
“No. Ride to Crossroads Inn. We will need resupply. Idonea Fatman knows the farmers in that region. Sheriff Chapman will negotiate for food, wagons, and horses. Your job is to keep our prisoners safe.”
Derian Chapman overheard Milo’s instructions to Felix. “How am I to negotiate for our needs? Does the army have bags of gold that I am unaware of?”
“Captain Chapman! Use your imagination. This is the Stonebridge army. Of course we have gold; it just isn’t with us right now. You will have our prisoners as exhibits. Surely you know how to threaten and promise! What would your uncle do? Get what you can as quickly as possible. Then…”
“And then?” Derian raised an eyebrow. Will you bring the army to Crossroads?”
“I’ll send word.”
Chapman was not satisfied. “And if I don’t hear from you? Should Felix and I take the prisoners to Stonebridge?”
“No!” Milo spoke emphatically. “Our chances don’t lie there. Not yet. We will either defeat the enemy in the field or move toward Inter Lucus.”
“Inter Lucus!” Chapman’s words were both exclamation and question. But Milo had neither time nor inclination to explain. Felix took Derian’s elbow, and Milo waved them away.
“Redhair!” Milo summoned the captain of the knife fighters. With Bryce Dalston and Aidan Fleming lost, Ifing Redhair, Hrodgar Wigt, and Derian Chapman were Milo’s remaining captains. The red-haired giant had been standing close, arms crossed, listening to Milo’s instructions to the others. “I have a crucial job for the knife fighters.”
“No doubt.” Redhair did not mask his sarcasm. “I suppose we are to make a grand stand, blocking the road, sacrificing ourselves to slow the enemy.”
“Ifing! You underestimate me.” Milo grinned. “If the road is to be defended, I will do it—with Eádulf, of course. We will need every man we have, so I certainly don’t want the knife fighters to sacrifice themselves. When second moon rises, I want the whole army, including the knife fighters, on the north side of Damned Creek.”
Redhair unfolded his arms. “What, then?”
“The Herminians have shown us what we must do.” Milo pointed south. “I want knife fighters to spread out, in teams of three or four, east and west of the road. Set fires everywhere there is good fuel. Then move north. Eádulf and I will guard the road and set fire to trees near it.”
For a moment, Redhair’s gaze lingered on the southern horizon. He nodded, approvingly. “It may work. Falcons will fire the forest.” He glanced at Milo. “But one of my teams should be with you. You and Eádulf can fight, and Falcons can start fires.”
“Good idea.” Milo noted Redhair’s use of ‘Falcons,’ and the way he agreed to Milo’s order as if it were a mere suggestion. But this was not the time to insist on a proper acknowledgement of his authority. “Let’s move!”
When Herminian swordsmen reached the place, Hostage Camp had become a blackened field, with pine trees burning on the edges. The Stonebridge army had obviously left in haste. Charred bits of firewood, camp gear, and wagons littered the meadow and road. Tall trees burning very near the road forced the Herminians out of their way around them; and a quarter-mile after regaining the road their progress was blocked by more fires. In every direction smoke transformed the blue spring sky into swirling clouds of white, gray, and black. The west wind blew the smoke eastward, but it also fanned the flames.
Along with the detritus of the enemy camp, they found Wylie Durwin, one of the men who had ridden with General Ridere and taken prisoner by the Stonebridgers. He was bound hand and foot, lying facedown in the dirt of the road with a wet cloth over his head. The fires that destroyed the camp and the surrounding vegetation had not touched him, but heat and smoke-poisoned air almost killed him. Wylie coughed incessantly and lost his balance whenever he tried to stand. They freed Wylie from his bonds and put him on a scout’s horse; the scout took him in search of General Oshelm.
Riding with Danbeney Norman near the middle of the advancing column, Archard Oshelm tried to piece together information coming from scouts. They reported fires everywhere.
“Mortane has turned our weapon against us,” Norman commented. For the moment, he and the general were stopped, waiting for two scouts. One was picking his way carefully across blackened rugged country. The other approached equally slowly on the road’s edge. He walked his horse, which was bearing a slumped rider.
Norman rested his hands on his saddle pommel, surveying the horizon to the north. “Not as effectively as we used it, of course. We routed the archers on the hills and killed most of them. He merely uses it to retard our advance.”
General Oshelm pointed to a bit of unburned grass a few yards from the road. He nudged his horse into motion, and Norman followed him. “Mortane’s use of fire is just as effective as ours, Danbeney, in its own way. He cannot defeat me, so he flees. Fire gains him time.”
“He is a coward.” They reached the grassy spot, a good place to receive the scouts.
“Nonsense, Danbeney. If you were in Mortane’s place, you would flee as well. He keeps his army alive today so that it may fight tomorrow. Not only does he protect lives, he preserves an army. I wager they are not racing pell-mell to the north; no, they are marching in ordered companies, and they will turn to face us at some good defensive spot.”
Norman looked thoughtful. “Mortane grew up in Hyacintho Flumen, son of the lord. The Mortanes claimed sovereignty over all this land in times past, all the way to Down’s End. He is torching lands that might have been his.”
“Might have been,” said Oshelm. “They are his brother’s lands now. But even if these forests were his, he would burn them to save his army. And he would be right to do it.”
The two scouts reached Oshelm and Norman at the same time, one climbing a steep slope and the other plodding down from the road’s verge. Ten yards away, Herminian soldiers continued padding their way northward. The column’s advance had slowed greatly, and many of the swordsmen cast wondering eyes at Oshelm.
“General Oshelm.” The scout leading the horse glanced at the other, hesitating. The body on his horse had been tied in place, a rope passing from boot to boot under the beast like a girth.
Oshelm looked at the passenger’s face. “By the gods! It’s Wylie Durwin.”
The rescued soldier turned toward Oshelm’s voice. “General. I…” A spasm of coughing interrupted whatever Durwin intended to say. The violence of the cough shook Durwin’s body, and the scout who attended him reached up to steady him.
Oshelm sidled his horse closer. “Wylie, how came you here?”
Durwin coughed again and held up a palm. “Ridere lives.” More coughing. “I am to say: Ridere lives.”
“Mortane left you behind to tell me this.” Oshelm looked closely at Durwin. Black sputum dribbled from the soldier’s mouth, and his eyes wandered, unable to focus steadily.
Danbeney Norman asked, “Is it true, Wylie? Mortane has kept the general alive?”
More coughing. Durwin nodded, a clear affirmative. Oshelm looked at him for a time, and then turned to the other scout. “Report.”
The mounted scout saluted. “We have lost men to secret attacks.”
“Secret attacks? Explain.”
“Men say that knives seem to come out of nowhere.”
“Aye, Lord General. The Stonebridgers throw knives.”
Oshelm couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “And after? If a man throws his weapon, is he not defenseless? Do we not cut him down?”
“They throw and run, my lord. They escape into the smoke and hide again. Rarely do our men catch them. I did see two knife throwers dead, but they generally get away. We have lost only one man killed, but more than two score have been injured.”
Oshelm considered this odd development. The scout added, “There is worse, sir. A knight attacked our vanguard, and several men were lost.”
“A knight? A single attacker?” Oshelm drew the back of his hand across his forehead. “Tell me!”
“He had a squire. But it was the knight that hit us, a true knight: great gray horse, castle steel armor, and lightning sword. He splits helms like eggshells. Before our men recover from the first charge, knight and squire gallop off.”
“It has to be Mortane.” Oshelm looked at Danbeney Norman. “The steel for our weapons is made at Pulchra Mane by the queen herself. But it is fashioned into shields and swords by ordinary smiths. Milo Mortane’s personal armor and sword would have been made for him by his father, Hereward, at the full height of his magic.”
“But Mortane is only one man,” said Norman. “He can be defeated.”
“Of course. He took a great risk in attacking our van. If one of the men had struck his horse’s leg, Mortane might be dead now.” Oshelm shook his head. “I wonder, should we judge him brave or foolish?”
Three times Milo charged marching Herminian swordsmen on the road. Madness? His father’s calculating voice echoed in his head, lessons driven home in ten years of training. Keep the initiative. Surprise is worth five swords in a melee. Once they start running, you’ve won. If they don’t start running, get away! Each time they attacked, Milo and Eádulf chose a bend in the road or a copse of trees, hiding until the last moment before the charge.
The Herminians didn’t exactly run, but neither did they stand effectively. Gray Boy was a true destrier, a thousand pounds of bone and muscle, clad with armor and yet able to charge and maneuver at speed. Milo’s superb sword, impelled by Gray Boy’s momentum, threw aside the weak blows of the Herminians and smashed their light helms like vegetable crates. While the enemy still reeled from the first assault, Milo wheeled Gray Boy in a tight circle and escaped. Milo had no intention of entering a melee. He wanted only to bloody the Herminian nose, and then get away. After each encounter, knight and squire rode swiftly northward, and the three knife fighters who accompanied them would set another blaze.
By late afternoon, the Herminian army halted. Oshelm’s men spread out along an unnamed and much muddied brook. They formed into units and established a rough camp. The captains counted their men. On the whole day, including the initial battle with the archers in the gap, the Herminians had ninety-five men killed, and twice as many wounded or badly harmed by smoke. Of course, almost every man suffered from smoke inhalation to some degree, but at least eighty were badly sickened. Summing up, Captain Allard Ing told Oshelm and the other captains that fires and smoke had hurt or killed more Herminians than the enemy’s weapons. Ing estimated that the Stonebridgers had lost two hundred or more at the battle of the gap. And, he said, the enemy left behind most of their baggage in their haste to flee; the burned wagons proved as much. “We’ve got them on the run,” he concluded.
“Aye. But as many as three hundred of our men will be unable to march in the morning,” replied Darel Hain, another captain. “The wounded and smoke-injured must rest. There is water here, but we must not leave them unprotected.”
“A small guard only. We must not let Mortane get away!” Ing protested.
Oshelm let captains Ing, Hain, and Norman debate for a while whether they should pursue the Stonebridgers on the morrow. Then he gestured for silence. “Captain Hain will take two hundred men to guard the wounded. Start for Hyacintho Flumen, Darel. Every man who can walk must. We can spare only three wagons for the badly hurt.
“That leaves fourteen hundred, more or less. We will pursue the enemy tomorrow.” Oshelm ground his teeth. “Mortane will not escape me.”
Copyright © 2015 by Philip D. Smith.
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