The ground was hard and dry under the midday sun, but the tracks still showed in the dirt. A young man kneeling down besides them traced his finger around the inside edges, then took a small speck of dirt between thumb and forefinger that he crumbled into dust.
“The ground is tough,” he said, lifting his head to follow a group of boot-shaped tracks lead off to an area of woodland.
“Aye, Sire. This place hasn’t seen rain in days,” said another, older man, standing over the first with a horse’s reins in his left hand.
“And even so their tracks are clear, and in number. There’s no sign of a wagon or animals either, so they don’t belong to farmers, merchants or refugees. They’re wearing boots and armour, and our purpose here makes it unlikely they belong to the feet of our own,” the young man concluded as he stood and straightened his back.
“I see at least thirty, maybe more. No more than fifty, but I don’t have the eyes I once had,” said the elder.
“You don’t have the hair nor beauty you once had, either,” the younger quipped, his delivery deadpan as he looked to the woods.
“I am wounded by your words. My physical attributes have not changed since I was a lad,” the elder huffed falsely.
The younger man was too deep in thought for the witticism to reach him immediately, but when it did his face cracked a small smile. “I say we ride after them,” he finally replied, pushing strands of dark, shoulder length hair behind an ear. “What say you, Sir Anselm?”
“If you wish so, my prince,” the bald Anselm answered. “I’d hazard that these tracks are not old, this morning at the latest. We could catch them in the hour.” Anselm was a tough old knight, standing a little shorter than the average man but at least twice as muscled. His beard had once been as dark as coal, but it was now greying, and was just long enough to hide his scar.
“Then let it be so,” the prince replied, clasping Anselm’s plate pauldron with his hand and then pushing off to find his horse.
In the clearing fifty armoured men and their horses waited for the prince’s command. They wore chain or plate, wielding swords, maces and hammers – some had shields, but those whose armour was sufficiently covering tended to forgo them in favour of their weapon. He didn’t know most of them, but Anselm’s men tended to be like him – simple, honest and loyal.
He found his horse tended to by one of them, a grey mare by the name of Whisper, and climbed up into the saddle. On seeing their prince mount up, those few who had taken to foot followed him and soon they were all ready to ride.
“Let’s go,” the prince commanded.
They set off riding at a light trot in a column two horses wide, with the prince and Anselm leading at the front. They followed the tracks in the dirt for almost an hour, through to the other end of the woodland and across a small creek, then up an incline and into another wood that was thicker with trees than the last. There they turned, following a gentle downhill slope into a valley where the wood gave way to a large clearing of short, dried grass and white flowers. In the middle, 30 or so armed men wearing chain and gambeson had stopped by a small river for water. The mounted party crept their horses closer to treeline to get a better view of their foe, but the summer leaves obscured them.
“Well Caden, it seems we’ve caught them unprepared and outnumbered,” Anselm whispered to the prince, who was busy putting on his plate helm.
The horsemen behind them were given a silent series of gestures and began moving to form a line twelve wide and a little over four deep. Once they were properly formed Caden turned his horse to address them and lightly patted the back of Whisper’s neck.
“They don’t know we’re here or how many we are,” Caden told them. “When we ride, begin to fan out at the rear. We’ll widen our line to catch any who try to escape, then hit them head on and drive them into the river. We’re aiming for surrender, not massacre, so act with mercy and not baseless violence. Are we ready?”
Caden looked for the affirmative nods amongst his riders. They wore the colours of their fealty – red, with a black griffin; the heraldry of Sarkana, of its ruling and royal house; alongside others of their own. Caden wore the same coat of arms on his plate cuirass for he had no shield like some of the others, only a longsword which he drew from his scabbard. Others followed with their own weapons, held low to avoid reflecting the sun’s light. After a final few seconds of calm Caden summoned his courage, lowered the visor of his full-helm and with a breath gave his command: “then we attack.”
The mounted men walked their horses out of the trees, setting off into a full gallop the moment they reached open ground with a roar of “havoc!” from old Anselm. The men by the river were taken by surprise, and their reactions were just as chaotic. Some men took up spears and bills to counter the charge, but despite the cry of the one in charge there was no time or motivation to prepare a solid defence. Others tried to flee to the flanks, but they found themselves matched by the widening line of horsemen fast approaching.
The impact was quick and fierce. Horses smashed men into the ground, or their riders veered them off to chase those who lost their nerve. Caden saw one of the men-at-arms riding besides him take a pike to his cuirass and get knocked back off his horse, so Caden turned his own and swung his sword under the pikeman’s arm and watched him fall with a great cry of pain. Looking back, he saw the man-at-arms scrambling onto the pikeman with a drawn dagger. Caden turned then, pressing on towards another man who swung a sword for Caden’s side, but he knocked it away with his own. Whisper reared up at the man, kicking with her front legs and knocking him into the river water. When the man climbed back out onto the bank, he was without weapon, and lay there with his hands over the back of his head in surrender.
The sound of fighting had filled the air, so sudden that birds fled their nest in fright. The mounted men were more than a match for those who had not even expected skirmish and a few minutes later calm once more began to prevail as the last few of the armoured party were either slain or rounded up to be bound in rope.
Caden watched as Anselm approached him, the man taking off his helm with a bloodstained sword still in his hand.
“At least it was done quick, Sire,” Anselm said, his breathing heavy.
“Tired?” Caden asked him, but his voice was off. The cool tone of his previous command was gone now and the grim sobriety of the violence that had just transpired cracked at his mind like a whip. When he realized he was losing his composure, he took a deep breath and steeled his eyes, setting them on Anselm again with a half-smile. Yet it was clear from Anselm’s expression that his attempt to hide had failed, and Anselm gave a lamenting grunt.
“We should return to your father, Sire,” Anselm suggested. “There’s nothing left to be done here except coral the prisoners, and by now he’ll likely wonder where his son has gotten to.”
Caden couldn’t help but smirk at Anselm’s steering of the conversation. Anselm was an old soldier and had seen more battles than most but Caden could see how they had numbed him, how rather than facing emotional problems he suppressed them and pretended they weren’t there. Caden suddenly realized that the thought of having to offer emotional advice must have made Anselm uncomfortable.
“You’re right of course, Sir Anselm,” Caden replied. He looked over to a man nearby, who was riding his horse up and down the bank of the river and overseeing some of the others. “You there, come here,” Caden ordered. The man, a knight by the look of his plate armour, rode over to him with a raised visor, and a green rose painted on his breastplate.
“Yes, my lord?” The knight asked. His face was young, and Caden realized that the man must only be a few years older than himself.
“How many prisoners do we have?”
“Five who surrendered, sire. Another eleven are wounded, and we count nine dead. Some of the wounded might not make it,” the knight replied.
Caden sighed, trying to quickly solve the conundrum of his own making. “Take the surrendered and the wounded who can walk and bind them, they’ll return with us back to camp. How many of our own did we lose? I don’t see any of ours fallen.”
“None, sire. We took them completely by surprise.”
“Leave the seriously wounded then,” Caden ordered. “There’s nothing we can do for them. At least they have the river’s water to drink to ease their passing.”
The knight nodded, then turned his horse and began to oversee the command as the prince and Anselm sat side by side, their horses sighing and blowing at the scent of steel and blood. For ten minutes Anselm’s men gathered the prisoners, binding their hands with rope and gathering any valuables found on the dead. Those who couldn’t travel were left near the river’s edge, groaning and waiting. Caden listened to their torment but could not bear to look at them. For a moment he wondered if it would not be a greater kindness to have them ended swiftly, but did nothing.
The mounted party left the scene of battle, their prisoners pulled alongside them with rope. They rode around the woods on their return, and up a hill and then down into a valley on the other side. There they turned, riding west as the valley walls grew steeper and began to turn and twist through the hills. For several hours they moved, passing over a river bridge and then following a dirt track that slowly began to wind north. By mid-afternoon clouds began to fill the sky, and talk grew of rain that evening.
“Who goes there?” A voice off the path called. The party stopped with Anselm’s quickly raised fist, and Caden watched as a rider came out of the trees. “Prince Caden?”
“Yes,” Caden answered, though only because he knew the man’s accent. He had the simple, deep voice of a Sarkanian, not the eloquent and rolling tongue of a Lavellan. “Do we speak to the eastern watch?”
“You do, sire,” the rider said, lowering his hood. “The King looks for you, my lord. Word has been sent to all watches, patrols and scouts to find you and return you to camp.”
“That is where we are presently headed,” the prince assured. “My father will not have to wait for much longer.”
Anselm rode forward to the front of the column, his eyes on the woods around them. “Not a bad place for an ambush, this,” he said, his eyes resting on the rider. “I surmise that without our heraldry, we would be pincushions to a man by now.”
The rider looked to Anselm. “We’re to guard this road and these woods from enemy incursion. We weren’t told of any advanced parties heading east, nor that they would be returning through here. We will, of course, open the way,” he said. The rider turned and raised his hand, fingers together and palm open, then took his mount back into the trees where he was soon hidden behind wood and greenery.
“Let’s go,” Caden said, then they continued down the road.