28

May

by thefourpartland

By the time Ira finished taking her trainees around the village, the sun had begun to set. It was a fair amount of trepidation that she followed one of the stock keepers out towards the farthest of the pastures, for despite her brave words to her squad earlier, she had barely been off of the skycity herself, and knew only what woodcraft she had been taught.

What she did know, however, was that most animals hunted by scent, especially those who came in the night.

“Alright you lot, I want people spaced fifteen paces apart around the edge of this pasture. And once you’re there, cover yourself in some of the animal leavings. It’ll disguise you from the wolves. Or make them think you’re cattle.”

The response she got was as expected. Which meant a collection of stunned faces and shaking heads.

“Are you sure we have to do that?” One of the young lads asked.

“Quite sure. Otherwise the wolves won’t bother coming and we’ll have done all this for nothing. One thing I will say, though. Try and get it mostly on the armour, instead of cloth. Armour cleans off more easily.”

Armed with such a helpful piece of advice, the recruits fanned out into the field, all of them tossing glances back at their apparently slightly insane commander.

The gazes didn’t stop being incredulous when Ira finally unlimbered the monstrous contraption that hung across her back, and settled it onto a small stool that she had borrowed from the shepherd who normally kept watch over these fields.

Thus positioned, the machine was revealed as a heavily strengthened and massive crossbow. One that looked more than capable of putting a bolt through a stone wall, never mind flesh. And one that was so cumbersome it could barely be used.

Admittedly, both of those things were actually true. The arbalest had the power to punch through damn near any target, usually killing them on the first shot. On the other hand, it was a bitch to aim, needed a rest, and reloading it took a heavy duty crank and a lot of time. As a weapon, it was impractical at best. But it had the advantage of firing almost perfectly level, unlike more normal ranged weaponry, and even a glancing blow was usually more than enough to finish whatever was being shot at.

Underneath all that, Ira just thought using it was fun, of course.

What wasn’t fun was the waiting. As the sun dipped below the horizon and the chill of night began to seep into bones that weren’t moving, her mood grew short, and she snapped at those trainees that shifted about or called out to one another. Learning to hold a post was a crucial component of being a guard, but damn if it wasn’t a boring one.

And one that became more boring as the moon rose, a thin glimmer in the sky, partially blocked by the clouds. Perhaps the wolves weren’t going to come tonight, no matter their hunger. It should have been the right evening, since the pack apparently hunted every third day, but despite leaving a few choice cattle in the field, now currently mostly dozing placidly amongst the recruits, there had been no movement spotted from the verge of the forest.

The quiet of the night was split by a sound like a saw being drawn across stone. Which, after it repeated itself a few moments later, Ira identified as snoring. “Some bloody lout is getting a foot in his arse in a moment.”

Just as squad leader began to rise from her post behind the arbalest, her eyes, by now thoroughly accustomed to the gloom of night, caught a glimpse of movement amidst the trees, followed by the shine of light from two golden eyes.

“Of course the wolves arrive just as that fool starts snoring. Of course.”

The wolves padded forward, out of the trees, their forms grey shadows in the moonlight. Uncertain of whether her trainees had seen the oncoming creatures, but not wanting to startle them until they were within range of the spears and swords of the guards, Ira instead kicked the steer that had fallen asleep a pace from her.

The steer snorted, loudly, an edge of panic in its call, and then levered itself to its four hooves, clearly trying to figure out what had struck and woken it. The shattering bellow that followed moments later as the animal caught the scent of a predator did exactly what Ira hoped it would – spurred the wolves on to charge.

And charge they did, loping one after the other through the long grasses outside the fencing of the pasture, angling out into a long line that was clearly meant to encircle and trap the now panicked steer.

Unfortunately, it appeared her soldiers were equally panicked, either unable to see the creatures, or waking from a sleep they should never have entered, or just overcome by nervous energy. Thankfully, their shouting and fumbling did nothing to discourage the onrushing predators, although by the sounds of the matter, if her trainees met their opposite number at this precise moment, the Hanian half was going to come off the worst for wear.

So Ira sighted along the iron markings across the top of her creation, leading the first of the wolves by only half a pace, such was the speed of a bolt from the arbalest. Once certain of her shot, she pulled on the triggering lever, cursing as the recoil slammed the butt of the weapon into her shoulder.

But the shot had been good and true, and the wolf struck by it bowled over backwards in a spray of blood and fur, able to emit only a brief whimper as it tumbled through the air.

So sudden was the death that the other wolves didn’t notice, and continued their charge, the leaders beginning to leap over the fence and into the pasture with the cattle. Now, things quickly began to devolve into a fractured melee, as the trainees screamed, shouted, and hacked away at shapes moving in the night, some of them having nothing to do with the wolves, while the cattle bellowed in the background, and wolves slipped around and through the thin human line in search of more substantial prey.

Which turned out to be the steer whose startled awakening had been the beginning of the whole mess. Harassed by a predator nipping at its ankles, it spun first left and right, and then, bitten again hard on the buttocks, charged forward, hoping that speed could free it from the entanglements.

Before it could gather too much momentum, however, a large shape rose in front of it, causing the animal to spin away, panic filling its voice. But the large shape resolved itself into one of the trainees, able to catch the one of the trailing wolves with a sharp jab from a spear. It wasn’t a killing blow, but the stab caused the struck limb to collapse under it, sending the predator to the ground, where it was soon finished off.

All this time, Ira was attempting to shout orders, but in the noise and confusion, her voice could do little more than add to the matter, and so she waded in, leaving the arbalest where it lay and hoping it would survive the night undamaged. Now with her sword in hand, she tried to pick her moments carefully, swinging only at things that came within reach and she was sure were members of the pack.

Moments later, there came the consistent sound of yelping, and the sinuous shapes of the wolves could be seen breaking away, sprinting into the long grass and brush that verged the forest. They left behind two of their number, although from the glistening of the grass, perhaps another few had been wounded. Likely, the Hanians would never know, since the wolves would presumably move on to other prey for the time being.

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