Table of Contents ??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????The Herakian Chronicles
Stories and Serials
PAUL EDMUND NORMAN
He hurried back to where Shaffeek crouched, stillkeeping low, taking care not to allow the sunlight to shine on the flat face of his sword.
'There are thousands of them, Shaffeek,' he whispered. Shaffeek frowned.
'That cannot be!' he muttered angrily.
'Come with me and see for yourself.'
'No, I believe you. Well, we will stop the first of them from getting through the pass.'
'What will that achieve?' Cormac demanded. 'There are thousands of them. They will swarm up the hills, killing you and your men, destroying everything in their path. Killing a handful of them will achieve nothing!'
'You do not lead this band, I do!' Shaffeek cried in a low whisper.
'I do not wish to lead your band, Shaffeek. I offer only my advice, for what it is worth.'
'You are just a boy!'
'Nevertheless, inexperienced as I am, even I can see that preventing twenty or thirty of an army which is many thousands strong from getting through the pass will simply delay them. It will not stop the invasion of Walfen!'
'Why should I care about the invasion of Walfen? It is Koriss I want back!' Shaffeek hissed, glaring.
'I do not understand.'
'I do give a damn about Walfen! Koriss is my country. My people have been forced to live like outlaws ever since Vitellius overthrew the kjal of Koriss! I mean to have my country back!'
'Well then, can you not see that killing just a few of their men will not get you back your country?'
'Do you have a better plan?'
'What is it, then? Tell it to me and you will be well rewarded. I will give you whatever you wish.'
'I do not believe you have anything I would wish to have except.....'
'Your assistance in helping me to prevent the invasion of Walfen.'
'I told you, I do not care about Walfen!'
'If I help you to turn back this force, and then subsequently to overthrow Connacht, will you agree to help me defend Walfen from them?'
'I might,' Shaffeek said grudgingly.
'Very well. This is what you do. We need bows, and arrows. Are any of your men trained with the bow?'
'Pick off the first twenty or so riders, until the pass is jammed with their dead. When the followers come into the hills to look for us, we retreat to the caves. When they reach the caves, we fire on them again. While we engage them thus, some of your men can fill the pass with rubble and rocks from the hills so that they cannot get through, and the entrance can also be blocked in the same manner. They will send a hundred, maybe two hundred after us into the hills. They should not be too difficult to pick off from the cave area. How many men do you have?'
'Fifty or so,' Shaffeek said. 'Thirty of them can use the bow.'
'Position ten men thirty or so feet from the cave entrance, another ten five paces behind them, and the final ten in the cave entrance. When the Korissians come, the first line of men fires, then steps back while the second line fires and the first reloads. Then the third line fires, and the first two resume their positions. Worth a try?'
'They should not reach the caves, eh?'
'That is the general idea.'
'We will do as you say. Call the bowmen forward, here, to the ridge!' he called. Immediately men appeared from behind shrubs and rocks and ran to the ridge.
'When there are twenty men in the pass, each of you pick a target and when I give the order, loose your arrows. You three men, get you to the other end of the pass, where they ride out to the shores, and start loosening the rocks. I want a landslide! The same goes for you lot! Get to the lookout point and do you the same. I want the first twenty men trapped in the pass!'
Men began to hurry off in all directions as he had ordered them. Cormac snatched a bow and a sheath of arrows from an older man and told him to assist with the landslide. He positioned himself more or less flat at the edge of the ridge and peered down into the pass, which was sided by fifty-feet high cliffs. There were thirteen riders now in the pass, moving slowly along, looking all about them, expecting an attack of some sort, but knowing not where it would come from, and partly secure in the belief that their sheer weight of numbers would see them safely through.
As the twentieth man rode into sight, Shaffeek saw that what Cormac had told him was right. There were hundreds more riders, and thousands on foot. This was an army intent on reaching the shores and preparing to mount an all-out attack on Walfen, of that he had no doubt. He imagined that they would make camp on the shore, and they would build rafts and coracles on which to sail across the narrow stretch of water. Blocking the pass would serve only to delay this operation, but he had no doubt that between them he and Cormac would come up with another plan to thwart the invasion of Walfen, and at the same time a great blow would be struck towards the liberation of Koriss.
'Fire!' Shaffeek cried, and twenty arrows flew into the pass. At the same time the order was given for the landslides to begin, and tons of rocks and rubble began to roll down the cliffs at either end.
'Attack!' a Korissian cried, but Cormac's first arrow caught him squarely in the throat and he died without a murmur, slipping gracefully off his mount and into the sand.
'Fire!' Shaffeek cried again, and the arrows flew thick and fast. A third volley finished all of the riders trapped in the pass, their dead or dying mounts adding to the blockage.
'Now, send men down into the pass to despatch any who are not dead, then let us get back to the caves before they come after us!' Cormac called. Shaffeek detailed four of his men with swords and axes to kill any survivors, and calling the rest of his band together, they retreated to the comparative safety of the caves.
When the first wave of Korissians came crashing through the undergrowth and up towards them, they came face to face with three rows of men, the first kneeling, the second and third standing. Shaffeek waited until the first of them was within fifty feet, and gave the order to fire. Ten arrows brought down ten men, and a great cheer went up. The second line of bowmen advanced to the front whilst the first reloaded, and again ten of the enemy fell to their deadly aim.
'They will soon realise what is going on!' Cormac said to Shaffeek. 'They will bring up their own bowmen!'
'What should we do?'
'Give me five men and a length of stout rope and some netting.'
Shaffeek frowned. He gave the order for the third row of bowmen to fire, and there were thirty of the enemy dead or dying on the forest hillside. Then he called for volunteers to go with Cormac.
They raced along the top of the hill, keeping out of sight in case the enemy had already called for their own bowmen to come to their aid, until they reached the top of the ridge. Looking down, they could see that the pass was totally blocked by landslides at either end, and Shaffeek's men had killed all of the survivors trapped there. Beyond the pass, where the valley stretched out to the north, there were hundreds of men waiting for fresh orders, and Cormac saw that a number of them carried bows and arrows. There was only one feasible route for the enemy to take into the forest. They first stretched the rope between the trees, hoping that it was so dark and gloomy that the oncoming men would not see it and trip over it. Cormac directed the men into the trees, carrying the netting with them, which they tied loosely to the upper branches.
'Stay up there until they are directly below you, then loose the netting!' he told them, and then hid himself to wait for the attack he knew must come.
Come it did. Within a few moments, thirty or so men came up the hill at a charge, carrying their bows slung over their backs. As they came within sight of the rope, Cormac and his counterpart behind the opposite tree stretched the rope taut and the Korissians tumbled over it, sliding into the mud and leaves of the forest floor.
'Loose the netting!' Cormac called, and stepped out from behind the tree to assist with the entrapment of the men. It was easy work to lay them out and take their weapons from them, and the net was rolled up ready for further use if the opportunity arose. Now Cormac and his five men had bows and arrows, and an assortment of weapons, including swords, knives, and axes. They had ten prisoners whom they secured to the surrounding trees, for the other twenty had died, either crushed by the weight of the men following into the trap, or killed by the sword when they tried to resist.
'They will send more men shortly,' Cormac said. 'We must go further down the hill and try to stop them before they get too far.'
'There is a ravine to the left of us,' a man said. 'If we could lure them to it, I'm sure we could surprise them from behind and push them into it.'
Cormac nodded. It was a good plan.
They made their way through the forest gloom to where the ground suddenly disappeared from under their feet. The opposite side of the ravine was twenty feet away. Cormac could already hear the pounding of feet through the forest floor. He directed two of the men to go with him and together they ran almost into the path of the oncoming Korissians, then doubled back when they had been seen, and ran towards the ravine. When the men got to within a few feet of the ravine, the others rushed out from their hiding places, wielding swords and axes and clubs, and forced the Korissians back. One by one, they had no alternative but to retreat over the edge of the ravine where they were swiftly cut down and hurtled to their deaths.
The men around Cormac cheered heartily, but he warned them that there were many more Korissians, and that this small victory should not encourage them to become complacent. There was no sign of further pursuit and so they made their way back to the caves, where they reported to Shaffeek that twenty Korissians had been taken out. Altogether they estimated that they had killed some fifty men that morning.
'They will not be dissuaded by this small setback,' Cormac said. 'They mean to have Walfen. Whoever controls Walfen controls the approach to the mainlands, both at the north and the south.'
'It is not Walfen I am worried about,' Shaffeek said. They sat by the fire in the late evening, within the caves. The women had prepared a meal of roast meat and bread, and there was plenty of strong sulce to be drunk.
'Walfen is of no interest to me. I want my lands back. The Korissians snatched it from my father twenty summers ago. I mean to have it back.'
'How far do your lands stretch?'
'Forty leagues to the north and west, and to the eastern coast where the permafrost begins.'
'We come originally from Tuarassa stock.'
Cormac nodded. He had thought it a possibility. Shaffeek was a bronze colour, like the northern Indian tribes.
'We settled in this south eastern corner of Koriss many hundreds of summers ago, but my father was killed and the Korissians, then under Vitellius, took our lands and drove us into the hills.'
'You are the only band living in the hills?'
Shaffeek laughed shortly.
'No, there must be hundreds of men and women dotted about amongst the hills and the mountains.'
'Why do you not all get together to try to take your lands back from the Korissians?'
Shaffeek stroked his chin.
'I have often thought about that. Who would lead a combined band against Connacht? Most of us are primitive warriors, not disciplined militia like you saw today.'
'But between us we defeated fifty of them and they left us alone for the rest of the day, abandoning their main route to the coast, and thence to Walfen.'
'Fifty is nothing! There are thousands in Connacht's army. You have seen them. There is an enormous garrison outside the city. It covers two leagues or more of the land around the city walls.'
'Then get the rest of the hill fighters together for talks, and plan a way to take your lands back. Treat with Connacht. If he knows you do not oppose his invasion of Walfen, he may listen to you.'
'I thought you wanted my help in preventing the invasion.'
'So I do. But your own interest must come first in this. I will continue my fight against Connacht in my own time if I have to. For the time being, our needs are pretty much the same. You wish to take back your lands, I wish to stop Connacht from reaching the coast. Between us we can achieve much. We can force him to march around the headland to the western coast, and he will abandon your lands.'
Shaffeek shook his head.
'You do not understand, Cormac. Connacht will never talk to us about giving back our lands. He intends to conquer Walfen, and then to strike off into the mainland. He already has the western continent, with garrisons in Shar-Mak and Horta.....'
'Horta has fallen to the Korissians?'
'Days ago. The siege lasted for many months, after Marcellus was carried off to Eskishehir and thence through Tuarassa lands into Pekeesh, and Horta held fast. But news reached us these past few days that it has at last fallen. I tell you, Connacht is not the type of man to engage in talks to give lands back. He means to have them all!'
'Then what do you suggest we do? Do you think he will mount another attack against us here in the hills?'
'It is the quickest way to the coast. And do not forget that they have to build craft in which to sail across the sea to Walfen when they reach the coast.'
'You think he will attack, then?'
'Yes, I do.'
'So, will you send men to the other hill tribes, and call them all together for a talk?'
'It would do no harm, I suppose.'
'Do it, then!'
'You are right. I will send men out tomorrow.'
'And in the meantime?'
'We eat, and we drink, and we make love!'
'I think I will go down into the village to look for Caraleen.'
'You will not find her, my friend.'
'She will have been taken to the city with the others, Gundula and all of them. They would have been rounded up before they marched to the pass.'
'But why? I do not understand.'
'Why should you? You are Walfenlander. You are not Korissian.'
'Many of the soldiers in Connacht's army have women in the villages that lie between the city and the coast. When the army marches, Connacht has all the villagers brought into the city, where they are kept from distracting the men.'
'Then I will go to the city and look for her.'
'You are mad!'
'I am Reyniksen,' Cormac said, grinning. 'I wear his clothes. I can go where I please! Maybe I can find out what Connacht plans to do next.'
'You are still mad to even think of such a thing!'
'But you will not prevent me from going?'
'I would prevent you as a comrade and a friend, but I would not seek to detain you here. You have helped me enormously. It is just that I would not see you give your life away unnecessarily.'
'But you are forgetting, Shaffek, I am one of Connacht's men. What can possibly happen to me?'
'I do not know. I just feel it. I feel that something will happen to you!'
Shaffeek turned his attention to the meal and the drink, of which there was a vast quantity. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Maire a few feet away.
'What do you want? What do you want, girl?'
'I was sent by the other women to make sure that you both had plenty to eat and drink. You have spent much time away from the rest of us, they were worried that you would miss out on the feast they prepared for you.'
'There, Cormac, forget about Caraleen! Here's a girl for you! Take her and forget about going to the city!'
'I think not, Shaffeek. She is not my woman.'
'Neither is Caraleen, but I dare say you had her right enough!'
Cormac reddened. Shaffeek continued.
'Take this one. I give her to you!'
'She is your woman, Shaffeek!'
'I want nothing to do with her. She is bad luck!'
'It is the drink talking,' Cormac said to Maire.
'No, it is me talking. She makes my flesh creep! Take her with you to the city and sell her for a gold coin.'
'Aye, we do not want her in our camp any more. Take her when you go to the city in the morning. She knows the way.'
'I was thinking of travelling tonight.'
'You are even more mad than I thought you were! Very well, take her with you now!'
'Shaffeek, I ask you to reconsider....'
'I said take her! If you do not take her out of this camp this night, I will put her to the sword!'
Shaffeek withdrew the long thin sword from its sheath. Cormac raised his arms in agreement.
'Very well, I will take her. But I do not believe you wish me to have her really!'
'What do I have to say to convince you?'
Cormac shook his head.
'You will regret this, Shaffeek. I implore you, do not make me do this.....'
Shaffeek advanced on the terrified girl, his sword arm raised.
'Better get you gone, boy!' he growled. And though Cormac knew that Shaffeek was already the worse for drink, he could see that there would be no persuading him that he really wanted to keep Maire this night. Reluctantly he went to the girl and bade her put on some warm clothing, for the city was a good four hours' march away, and outside the cave the snow was again falling heavily.
'I wish you well, Shaffeek,' Cormac said. Shaffeek took a gold coin from his purse and handed it to him.
'You will find that you need this, to purchase food and drink and lodgings. I wish you well, Cormac, son of Tiberis.'
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