Authors: S. J. A. Turney
Tags: #Historical, #Fiction, #Rome, #Fantasy, #Generals
Kiva wandered as far as the gate in the wall and examined the farmhouse. Under more long-term occupation, it could be made quite defensible. The yard was fairly narrow, but very long and level. The perimeter wall stood around three feet on the inside, and the same on the outside at the western end. The eastern end had been bolstered up as the ground fell away sharply into a small valley. At that side the wall was high and as secure as a fortress. He wondered whether it had ever been used as such. Perhaps if he had time, he would wander round and take a look. It was always worth knowing of defensible positions in case they ever found themselves in the area again.
He looked around at the unit and saw the runner adjusting his footwear. He turned to Scauvus and cleared his throat.
“You ok? Clear on directions?”
The scout nodded. “Yes sir” he replied. “The lad’s got a good grasp of map making.”
Just behind him, Quintillian smiled.
“Cartography and Geography lessons. Every day from three until four” the boy smiled.
Scauvus grinned. “I never had time for any kind of –aphy, but I
know how to find places. I shouldn’t be more than an hour; two if it’s too well hidden or I bump into trouble. If I’m not back in two, presume I’m gone.”
Athas looked over at Kiva and than back at Scauvus.
back in two” he said vehemently.
The scout dumped the majority of his pack by the perimeter wall of the farmyard and, taking only his sword and small bow, jogged out of the gate and off across the fields. Kiva joined Athas at the wall and together they watched until the scout was out of sight. Bors stood a short distance away playing dice with Pirus and Alessus, two of the older men.
Once Scauvus was no longer visible, the captain turned to look at the company’s latest recruit. Quintillian stood in the sunny yard, wearing a grey tunic only marginally too large for him. Over the top was slung a harness of leather straps to help protect him from blows. Armour was too cumbersome a thing for a constantly-mobile mercenary unit to carry spares, so Athas had suggested that they make their way to the nearest village or town of any size and speak to a blacksmith. In the meantime, a few strips of leather would have to do.
Thalo had donated a bow, which now hung across the lad’s back diagonally, a quiver slung at his side, and Athas had given him two long-bladed daggers and the rest of the standard kit, from tinderbox to canteen. He was actually beginning to resemble a soldier, albeit a pasty and thin one.
“Starting to look like one of us now, lad” Kiva said thoughtfully. “Next thing is: we might as well train you how to use those weapons.”
Quintillian tapped the pommel of one of the daggers; long, straight-bladed steel knives with dark iron handles and red velvet grip.
“I’m not very good with these, but I
use a bow” he replied. “We had morning training at the colony. My friend Darius was always better with swords, but I could outstrip him with a bow.”
Kiva glanced across the group with a sceptical look until he saw the sergeant.
“Athas, come over here a moment.”
The burly dark-skinned officer put down his sword and the whetstone that he’d been using and wandered across the farmyard to stand by his captain. “Mmm?”
“The lad reckons he’s good with a bow” Kiva said, a trace of disbelief in his voice. “I’m not exactly the best judge. If I set up a couple of targets, you and he can spar for a bit. We’ve a couple of hours to kill.”
Athas nodded and retrieved his bow from where it stood propped against the wall, while Quintillian unhooked his weapon from around his shoulders. Kiva called over the others and between Thalo and himself they manhandled two large pieces of wood along the full length of the farmyard. Once there, the wood was propped against the perimeter wall. The two squinted back toward the house and made out the figures testing the tensile strength of their bows. Marco grinned.
“Best get along before they mistake us fer the bloody targets, eh sir?”
With a nod, Kiva joined Marco and the two jogged back along the wall to where the company had gathered to watch the sparring archers. Taking a seat on the wall, Kiva cleared his throat.
“One target each” he announced. “Six arrows. See how many you can get in the wood. Fire in your own time.”
Kiva sat back and the others joined him at the wall where they could observe the results. Brendan offered him a chunk from a loaf of bread, which he declined. He turned the other way to see Marco chewing on a piece of dried beef before returning his attention to the competitors.
Athas exhaled and released the first arrow almost before Kiva had finished speaking. The arrow sailed in a low arc and, even at that distance, they could hear the splintering of wood. The sergeant drew another arrow from the quiver and turned before setting up his shot, watching the lad. Quintillian pushed his shoulders back in a stretch and then flexed the bow. Reaching to his side, he drew an arrow and nocked it in one smooth, flowing movement. Staring down the length of the arrow’s shaft, the lad tensed, his breath held, and released the missile. The arrow arced through the air, considerably higher than Athas’ had, and yet came down with great force and splintered the wood of the second target. The sergeant nodded at him and nocked his arrow.
Kiva and the rest of the company watched as the two archers nocked and released arrow after arrow, Athas in short, sharp motions; Quintillian in fluid, graceful sweeps. As the last arrows hit home, Kiva stood and wandered across to the two archers.
“No need to go count ‘em” the captain addressed the archers. “I think we all heard them strike. Five each, I believe?”
Athas and Quintillian both nodded and the large sergeant, having leaned his bow against the wall, patted the lad on the shoulder.
“Damn good shooting for a scholar” he complimented his competition.
“Plenty of practice” the boy smiled as he replaced the bow around his shoulders.
The captain and the two archers strode across to a free area of the wall and took a seat. Athas looked at the lad and sighed.
“What you do, though,” he added, “is sport or hunting archery and I presume that you learned using seabirds for targets. That kind of archery has two practical uses: hunting, where your targets are often far off or high up and at low speeds, and large scale warfare. It’s true that in the days of the full regiments we’d have had archers firing high and far, but that was when there were hundreds of archers firing at a time over our own men and into the mass of the enemy. We’re a unit of a dozen men. You simply don’t have the luxury of being able to set aside a unit to fire from distance. If you want to learn how to fight the way we do now, you have to learn to aim your shots low and direct and to be able to release a number of them in quick succession.”
Quintillian raised one eyebrow and the sergeant went on.
“Your preparation and firing’s pretty to watch, but it’s quite slow. I daresay I could get three arrows off in the time you fire one if I’m on form. Thalo’d get four. He
good. Your arrows arc too high; too indirect for a modern battlefield. Remember your targets are on the ground, probably too close for comfort, and they’ll be moving. The lower the arc you can manage, the less chance there is of them getting out of the way in time. Speed. A lot of it’s about accuracy, but a lot’s about speed.”
Athas picked up his bow and an arrow and began flexing it and demonstrating to the lad. Kiva yawned and stood. Since he’d never been able even to hit a building at ten paces, the whole conversation was way above his head. The principle was ok, but when they started demonstrating technique it was time for him to move. Stretching again, the captain wandered off along the yard toward the wooden targets. The day was bright and becoming noticeably warmer. Flies buzzed around the dung in the farmyard and the smell was more than a little pungent. With a look at the two wooden targets it took Kiva some time to work out which arrows were whose. Whatever Athas thought about the lad’s technique, each archer had struck home five times of six and the grouping was fairly good. The results had looked much the same.
To say Kiva didn’t trust the lad would be to make too much of it. Quintillian was naïve and young. The deeper problem was that, as far as Kiva was concerned, he was a disaster looking for someone to happen to. One day someone who recognised the boy would capture and use him. Then everything would explode and the world would probably go to shit. He was too valuable a piece in the eternal game of power and politics and, as the last living descendant of the late Emperor, he would be important to some factions alive, but to a lot more dead.
Following the perimeter wall, the captain wandered away from the increasingly unpleasant smell of warm dung. With the farmer and his family having fled, no one had cleared the yard for several days and the acrid aroma at this end where animals had obviously been fed was too strong for prolonged exposure. Scanning the distant tree line for any sign of activity, he walked around the building and to the rear gate. There seemed to be plenty of time. Even at best it would be three quarters of an hour before Scauvus returned. He exited the gate and wandered down the gentle gradient alongside the farm wall. As he moved toward the north western corner, the ground began to slope away toward a stream and he brought his attention back sharply, almost losing his footing on the loose earth and stones of the slope. Concentrating hard on not sliding down the hill, he reached the corner.
His years of combat-honed alertness saved Kiva at the last minute. He heard the stretch of a bowstring and a couple of skittering pebbles as he rounded the heavily buttressed corner and allowed himself to slip along the loose ground as he passed. The arrow, loosed in perfect time to pass through the air where Kiva’s chest would have been, whistled off into the distance. The captain arrested his sliding descent with a kick and rolled to one side, coming back up into a carefully balanced stance for his next move.
Four men stood in a small knot, one fumbling for another arrow, while the other three hefted their swords menacingly. They wore the pale green tunics of Lord Celio, a lighter shade than the old Imperial Green. They also had the look of professional soldiers, rather than mercenaries. As always in situations like this, instinct took over, leaving no time for practical thought. As he came up and before he’d fully registered the situation, already his hand had wrenched his two throwing knives from the leather thong on which they hung and had brought them up in a sharp, underhand throw. The knives; straight, chisel-tipped steel blades with bone handles, hurtled through the air and hit the bowman in the left shoulder and the left leg. Athas had tried time and again to teach him with the best weighted knives available but, regardless, Kiva would never make a marksman. Still, the bow was effectively out of commission. The archer grunted and stumbled, the bow dropping from his suddenly spasming fingers.
As one of the four soldiers opened his mouth to speak, Kiva was already diving into his next move, rolling between them with his fingertips touching the pommels of his swords.
The soldier’s voice tailed off as Kiva’s blade tore through his hamstring. As the Captain had dropped and somersaulted, he’d whipped both his slightly curved blades out to the sides and had come up half a sentence later behind the middle two, having sliced neatly through the tendons at the back of the knees. From rounding the corner to standing behind them and watching them fall had been mere seconds.
With a sharp cry of pain the speaker collapsed in a heap, his blade flailing out at random. The man on the other side had slid to the ground, whimpering and clutching his knee. The archer began to back away down the hill, while the remaining enemy soldier stood facing the captain, looking somewhat startled. Kiva lifted one foot and kicked against the high perimeter wall, spinning in a half circle and lashing out with his swords as he turned. Before he even saw his opponent, he heard the slicing sound of carved meat and felt the slight resistance tugging at the blades. As he landed, catlike, on his feet before the man, he watched his victim’s torso slide gently off the pelvis, the spine entirely severed. He looked down at the half body, registering with distaste the startled look still on the face as the lower half of the body toppled slowly backwards. Kiva stepped back.
He looked down at the two crippled but active men flailing around on the floor and clutching their wounds. They looked a great deal less smug now than they had a moment ago.