"When entering into open combat, proper procedure is to let your opponent strike first. Of course, if both parties know this etiquette, no blood will be spilled. This is intentional."
-from Uppelo's "Combat Manual"
They had marched for eight days. Only twice had there been skirmishes: deathless encounters between Elizabeth's rear scouts and the Lakkomians' forwards that ended as quickly as twenty heartbeats. A few frantically fired arrows and a hasty retreat to report to their superiors. The first skirmish took place in the early morning after the first day. The Lakkomians came upon the Huntsmen as they packed up their camp. Only four scouts, but it told the Huntsmen that they were close, too close. The second encounter happened the very next day, again as the Huntsmen packed their camp. After this, Elizabeth decided to increase the pace of the march and decrease the time spent resting. At night, the refugees were allowed three to four hours of sleep. As a result, three of the elderly refugees had died due to fatigue and exhaustion. Still they kept marching.
It was day eight, and they were approaching the first stop: Marcus' encampment. Elizabeth sent her scouts ahead to make contact. Marcus wouldn't be happy, but Elizabeth didn't really care about anyone's personal feelings at the moment.
Lefir returned to Elizabeth with his scouts in tow. Elizabeth tried to read his expression, but it remained passive.
"Marcus has ordered his men to pack up and join us." Lefir said.
"Good," Elizabeth let go of her inheld breath, "what's the bad news?"
"He wants to speak to you personally, ma'am. Alone."
Elizabeth had expected as much. It still didn't soften the blow. She trotted her horse forward with a click of her tongue, veering off the main road into the wooded area. Marcus' encampment was small, just ten or so tents surrounded by a shoddy wooden fence. As she approached the gate, Elizabeth dismounted and walked into the camp itself. Marcus was waiting for her with his hands on his hips, trying to look intimidating but failing as his portly stature made him appear as a gnome. The twenty bandits he had under his command hurried around behind him to break camp.
"You've got some nerve, girl," Marcus growled, "some fucking nerve to march in here with Lakkom on your ass."
"Save it, Marcus." Elizabeth cut in. "We're in the same boat now, so you might as well start rowing."
"When all this is over, I'm coming after you." Marcus said, pointing a stubby finger in Elizabeth's face.
"You're assuming we'll both survive this, then?"
"I'll make damn sure the both of us survive. A chance to have you in my debt is one I won't pass up. I ain't dying until I see that smug look wiped off your damn face."
"You can try, you little shit." Elizabeth teased. "Make sure you're ready to move within the hour. And you'll want a horse. We march too fast for your stubby legs to keep up." She turned away and mounted her horse once more, galloping to the train of waiting Huntsmen and refugees. Gunther was waiting for her there.
"And how did it go?" he asked.
"Oh, it was lovely." Elizabeth answered. "We bonded over a picnic."
Marcus' band slowed them down. They weren't ready to leave within the hour, and like hell was Elizabeth going to leave without them. A bit over an hour later, Marcus' bandits came out of their encampment and joined the Huntsmen.
"It's about godsdamned time." Elizabeth barked.
"Well, forgive us for having to move on such short notice, your highness!" Marcus sneered. Before Elizabeth could retort, the two of them were interrupted by a frantic scout, who came galloping along on his horse.
"They're right on our ass, boss!" he said to Elizabeth.
"How close to our ass are they?" she asked him.
"Any closer, and they'd be fucking us." he answered. "The rearguard is keeping them back with volleys of arrows, but the bastards are determined."
"Have we lost anyone?"
"One of our scouts was killed. The others said that the Lakkomians were waiting for them. Instead of Lakkomian scouts, they met the vanguard."
"Go find Gunther, tell him to move his men towards the back."
"Yes, ma'am!" the scout saluted and rode off.
"Marcus?" Elizabeth addressed the man riding next to her.
"Time to prove your worth. I see your men have crossbows. Send eight of them to the back of the train. On horseback."
"You expect me to follow your orders now?"
"Only if you want to live."
"Fine," Marcus growled, "but I'm not doing this because you told me to, I'm doing it because it's a good plan."
"Of course." Elizabeth smiled. Marcus rode off to address his men.
Gunther surveyed the Lakkomians from atop his horse. Yes, they were getting closer now. Their vanguard, at any rate. Looked to be about sixty of them, on horseback. At the moment, they were drawing back a bit to rally. The Huntsmen celebrated, as if they had beat them back. No. These first little attacks from Lakkom were a test, probing the defenses of the Huntsmen. The Imperials hadn't even lost a man yet. They were being cautious. The real battle would begin soon.
"Listen up!" Gunther yelled to his men. "They're going to charge any moment now!" By this point, all of the men gathered looked to him. The road was smooth and straight, with flat and level plains to either side. This would be true open combat. Luckily, Gunther well remembered his training. There were around fifty of the rearguard, counting the support received from Gunther and Marcus' men.
"I want twenty archers on horseback, ten on the left side of the road, ten on the right." Gunther called. "Hold your arrows until I give the command. If I see a single godsdamned one of you wasting an arrow, I'll do Lakkom a favor and kill you myself!" Twenty archers obeyed his command and took position.
"Marcus!" Gunther ordered. The man rode up next to him. "Position your eight crossbowmen in the center of the road. They fire at the same time as my archers: on my command."
"You heard him, boys!" Marcus called to his men. "Do what he said!" His men obeyed.
"The rest of you," Gunther yelled, "put your bows away and take out your melee weapons!" The remaining men did just that, taking out short swords, axes, and even a few spears.
"After the archers fire their volley, I'm going to order them to retreat. You hear that, boys?" This last question was addressed to the archers and crossbowmen. They called back their affirmative. "When they do, I want you men to ride straight at those imperial bastards. Yell, make noise, let your warrior ride! But remember this: before you actually hit them, veer left. Hit them and retreat back and get into formation. Archers! While these brave men are charging, you regroup into your positions and reload! The very second our riders have cleared out, give the Lakkomians another volley." The Lakkomian vanguard was gearing up once more, making ready for their charge. Their front was a good 250 yards away. "Get into position now, men!" Gunther ordered. His men did just that, the twenty-two riders and Gunther taking position behind Marcus' crossbowmen.
The Lakkomians charged forward. They were on horseback and wore imposing chain and leather armor, armed with spears and swords.
"Archers!" Gunther yelled. "Knock your arrows and hold!" The Lakkomian war horses began their trot, slowly but surely picking up speed. The ground rumbled like thunder. Closer and closer they rode, Gunther could feel the fear palpitating around his men. "Hold!" he ordered.
The Lakkomians reached just under 130 yards.
"Loose!" Gunther cried. The archers and crossbowmen loosed their arrows and bolts. The crossbow bolts pierced the leather and chain mail with relative ease, incapacitating the five riders whom they hit. They were forced back in their saddles, rearing their horses and disrupting the charge. The Huntsmen's arrows soared over most of the initial riders and hitting imperials and their horses behind them.
"Now! Fall back!" Gunther ordered. The archers and crossbowmen galloped away behind Gunther and his main force.
"Charge!" His men obeyed, trotting forward and screaming chaotically. Gunther gave forth a fierce war cry, one he hadn't uttered in many years. The two charging armies grew closer and closer.
"Veer!" Gunther wailed. Just before the armies connected, the Huntsmen veered left, devastating the front line of Lakkom like a scimitar slashing across exposed flesh. Sick sounds of horses' cries and the deaths of men mixed with the thunderous hooves and war cries. Gunther stuck his sword out to his right side and felt it connect with a Lakkomian rider. He pulled his sword back to his side and led the retreat of the men.
"Knock! Knooock!" Gunther cried to the archers and crossbowmen. He passed his archers and looked behind him to ensure his men had cleared the fray before giving the order: "Loose!" The arrows and bolts collided once more with the Lakkomian soldiers, causing further death and chaos in their ranks.
"Form up! Form up!" Gunther howled to his cavalry. As they reformed their line and made ready to charge once more into the imperials, the Lakkomian commander ordered a retreat. The remaining soldiers turned around and fled back to their army. The Huntsmen cheered in victory, reveling in the glory of combat. Despite himself, Gunther joined in. When the thrill of battle enters your veins, you are slave to its will. Marcus approached Gunther from astride his horse.
"You know," he began, the adrenaline making his body shake, "the worst part about taking orders from somebody you don't like is when they turn out to be right."
"You don't like me?" Gunther asked. "I'm offended that one so mighty as Marcus, commander of cutthroats, finds my company displeasing."
"You did well today. Not a single one of my men died. Keep them alive and I may learn to call you my friend." With that, he rode away, ordering his men after him. Gunther rejoined the celebration.
Elizabeth lost nine men in that battle. Of course, Lakkom suffered a heavier loss, but any death was one she could not afford.
She had ordered the march continue, double-time, for the rest of the day. Hours later, when they stopped for the night, everyone was exhausted. But, Lefir had informed her, they put considerable distance between them and Lakkom.
Elizabeth had also redirected some of Holly and Samuel's men to the back of the train. The next time they met in open combat, she wanted to be prepared.
What's more, she learned that the enemy had horses, and must have had a considerable amount. Lefir's initial report said a small vanguard had horses. If they had that many to spare, then that meant that either Lefir's scouts were wrong(which she didn't believe), or...
Or their pursuers received reinforcements.
So there was another issue. She, nor anyone else, no longer knew what they were up against. This first battle was a test. To see if the bandits could see this thing through. The only reason they had won the day, Elizabeth was sure, was because Lakkom had underestimated them. They wouldn't do it again.
Laying down underneath the stars, Riddle curled up next to her, Elizabeth finally started taking Gunther's words into consideration. They wouldn't get through this with her. If they wanted to survive, the Huntsmen, no, the bandits, no, Anorde, needed a leader.
They needed a queen.