It had been an otherwise pleasant day.   The heat wasn't too excessive.  The older boy and his middle sister hadn't been arguing loudly and not doing their chores.   His father and his mother-in law had slept most of the day, so they hadn't been telling everyone, again, how things had been done 'in the olden days'.    He was getting ready for supper after his day plowing in his fields. His.  That was one of the things that separated him from the 'olden days' his two elders liked to harp on.  This was his land he worked. Not some arrogant noble. His hold.   A proud smile crossed his face.  It had taken years of marching to the songs of the Iron Road, but he walked away with a stake to buy this land.     He looked at the manse he had built for the young woman he had taken up with and that then little knucklehead older son.   He took a deep breath of the evening air on his land.    The first horseman was outlined on the hillside to the left of his house. He could make out that that one was bearing a spear or a lance. 

 

 Another joined the first rider, the setting sun reflecting off the polished iron helmet that one wore. Both riders started off the hilltop and towards the manse at a fast trot.    The man stood for a moment frowning, then hurried towards his manse.  By the time he got there at a run the riders had reined in at his approach away from the manse.  One dismounted.   He took off the helmet. His braids were now dyed red.     "Hail Diagasse! I take it the news you bring is not good!"   His oldest daughter liked this young man.   Second generation Freeholder. The one still mounted and holding the reins of Diagasse's horse, was Diagasse's first cousin, Meroqola.   Both were fully accoutered for the Iron Road.    "It is not good!  Chief Beokiza summons all to his hold across the Shemaor, to get ready to repel the Masohirlaners!   It seems they've found an energetic ras who wants to rearrange the border between our lands."   " The garrison-" the man started to say, as his wife, children, and the two old ones now stood in the yard. " It was one of them who broke the news to the Chief," Diagasse added, giving a slight nod in the direction of Onaedre, the man's daughter.   She looked much as her mother did when the man marched into her mother's birth town that now ever so long day ago.

 "It's a 'high tide'. This ras of theirs seems to be aiming for being hailed as a conquering king."   The man balled his hands into fists.     He looked at his family. The oldest boy was clasping his hands in anticipation.       His wife was looking back at him with apprehension.        The man looked out upon his hold.   " How far away are they? "   "About three days away the main pack is. Our provincial army is at least a week or so away from here.   Chief Beokiza wants to keep their raiders hemmed in."   The man took a deep breath.   " I'll get me gear. You fellows might as well come inside and enjoy some good cooking before we all take that walk on the Iron Road."

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The Ras Terakolah nodded his bearded head for the executions to proceed.   The misfortunates of the Ne Varii trade caravan screamed curses and pleas for mercy. None was shown.  The freelancer Danobusso frowned and did not try to hide his distaste at the act.  It wasn't at any feeling of fellowship towards the victims. When he became a mercenary such feelings of nativism were pushed aside.  This was just useless bloody mindedness.   The Masohirlaner turned his way as if he had heard those thoughts.  The only expression on the noble's face was of acceptance at what had just occurred.  The collected shouts of the other Masohirlaners on the field at the executions didn't seem to faze him, though it irritated Danobusso. "What was that about? Some religious ceremony, or were you just being careful?"   "Watch how you address the esteemed Ras Terakolah, hireling", growled the female leader of his guard, Feonaske. At the disparaging term, the Freelancer instinctively placed a hand on the arm of his lieutenant Wanugassa, to avoid a bloody disagreement.    Though the word irked Danobusso as well.      "Just a display to my followers of what I intend to rain down upon the enemy. I intend to be merciless," the noble spoke as if he was discussing the bloodline of a prized racer.   His eyes seemed to find it all quite amusing.  Danobusso now wished his outriders hadn't fallen upon the caravan.   The loot was worthwhile but even he and the survivors of the caravan hadn't expected this showcase !

"This fellow is quite nuts and very dangerous," Wanugassa said as they walked towards their camp.   They both were glad they had insisted on fortifying their spot even though they were now on the Masohirlaner's payroll.  "Ones such as he believe they can do no wrong appeasing the hordes, we are here to add a stiffening to the batter he and his cronies are stirring up here," Danobusso said looking back at the now frenzied Masohirlaners.     Their camp was sedate compared to what was occurring a few hundred yards away.  The side gate guards recognized the pair with a clashing of spears against shield and allowing them entry.    Another pair of Freelancers waited in the large central tent.  The outside guard leader spoke. " Kemorra and Yadurah are inside, my ras."   Danobusso's companion came up as he entered not saying anything,  just smiling and presented the entering pair with silver goblets of wine. She nodded towards the two who sat on the stuffed zebrahide pillows drinking their wine.    Kemorra was the youngest and wore a bright yellow cape.  He exuded confidence mainly because he wasn't particularly good looking.  Yadurah was a battle-scarred veteran whose black bearded face was now twisted into a smile at the taste of the proffered wine. Danobusso was about to ask it, but Wanugassa said it aloud first. " What brings you fellows this way? Having second thoughts?"   It made him Danobusso's perfect lieutenant. Kemorra took another sip of the wine, before giving off one of his horse teeth smiles.  Yadurah spoke putting his goblet down, as if grinding it into the skull of a foe.    "Me boys and me are not likin' the looks of this dustup. The idea of facing off against the main Ne Varii army doesn't sound too appealin'!" Kemorra spoke next. "Some of the Masohirlaners I've met are looking elsewhere, like the capital instead of wading into Ne Varii.  I'm all about making some money. But it has always been my idea of spending where I chose, alive.   Think this bumpkin can win?"  Danobusso frowned at that. The Ras Terkolah could lead a successful raid, but the forces he was gathering under his banner seemed to be aiming more for a campaign of conquest.   And that definitely meant a return match opposing Ne Varii lancers and horse archers enraged at having lost territory.  The current occupant of that land's throne didn't even like the idea being discussed!

The torn up soil and cluster of torn up bodies upon the grown told of a battle having been fought.  A hastily made mass grave was to one side of the battle site by the ford. The freeholder looked at the trail of the fallen marauders from Masohirlan and grimaced. Hastira who he had thought had some sense, tore into these raiders from ambush. Then he led his blood elated band in pursuit, leaving both banks of the ford unguarded. The rising dust cloud approaching didn't make him feel better.  "You want to see if they are Hatira's people?" asked Bamogasse reining in beside him.   "No need to", he said.  "That is most likely what Hatira and his people ran into." "How can you be so sure?"  "I'm just guessing. Hatira would be trying to get back here in a more hasty manner. That crowd is not in a hurry though they're not coming on too slow either.  There's not enough of us here to stop them or to slow them down."  "Nip and fly?" Bamogasse asked looking toward the approaching riders.   "Maybe, if they breakup into groups we might be able to stand a better chance of harming them. In the meanwhile,  we'd better send a messenger back to Chief Beokiza.   Those Masohirlaners are getting ready to pay us a visit!"

The raiders were all for galloping off after the retreating Freeholders, but the troop leader of the Freelancers waved that idea aside.  She had been told to gain both banks of the ford and that was her intention.    The mercenaries crossed and some dismounted and began erecting fortifications.  She led a sixteen man squad of Freelancers into the thickets about the camp, discovering the distinct tracks of the two Freeholder bands.    She signaled for a raider group to follow that that had been made by the Freeholder.    She led her riders on the trail they had taken away from the ford. She listened intently to what another of the Masohirlaner scout leaders said, though she could barely make out this one's rapid speech, but she got him to slow down and explain what he said, over again.    Her second, spat onto an anthill.  He didn't like the Masohirlaners and thought they all stank.   And they all had a pronounced streak of gutlessness in them.    The disorganized mob flying before the lesser in number Freeholders of Hastira's group, seemed to prove his and several others point.   All she wanted was to get paid and show her merit.  She motioned for the Masohirlaner to proceed at a steady pace to follow the trail of the Freeholder band.  She looked back towards the river.  Another troop of Freelancers were crossing. Their mail and leather clad weight would give her the stiffening she felt she needed to hold the territory hereabouts.  From the earthen fortification arising, she planned to do some damage to this Ne Varii nestsite.

Chief Beokiza thought it was best to show himself to the people he was supposed to be in charge of.  Mayonasse his secret councilor, had thought it best.  He'd much rather had stayed behind her stout stone walls, but he had been thrust into being the "chief".    His illegitimate son and a strong force of this compound's retainers plus those of the various holds already waiting for him in the yard, made a respectable showing, he felt.   Several bands joined up with him as he made his way to the slight rise of ground that passed for a ridgeline in this part of the savanna.  Beokiza dismounted and handed his reins to one of his guards.    He made no sign that the ride was discomforting, but Beokiza was no natural horseman, like his late brother and sister were.   Another group of Freeholders coming from the direction of the southwest were trotting towards where he and the others stood.  Some of them held lances with the heads of Masohirlaners impaled upon them.     "Seems they have been successful," said one of the witnessing Freeholders aloud.  Quidas. That was his name, thought Beokiza to himself.  He made ready to answer when he eyed another band. If not as grisly accoutered as the others were, they seemed to be bearing news.  Behind them were the outriders of the Masohirlaners.   

Those of Masohirlan pulled up from their pursuit of the retreating Ne Varii, as the sharp eyed amongst them made out the banner of the head chieftain of the Ne Varii freeholders.    Someone was raising and lowering the banner as if it was a signal flag.  The leader of the Masohirlaners looked over his mates.   There was no telling how many of the damned horse thieves there were.  "Nulava," he called out to a grey and black bearded rider, "head back and tell the sellswords we found the top dog of the Ne Varii pack.  The rest of ya keep ya godsdamned eyes open, cus we's gonna find out just how many of 'em are out and about."   His second looked over at him, frowning, her brow creased.  "You wanna see if they out in force, Terdassa?  We're liable ta be gettin' in the wind like Clufobe's bunch."   " I ain't said nothin' 'bout ridin' into an ambush! But I don't wanna go into this dustup all blind and such.  We got some solid people with us."   His second strung an arrow to her bowstring. " I'm pretty sure Clufobe thought the same 'bout his chicken coop robbers."   "Bah!" he spat with contempt.  "That uppity westerner got what he and his mob deserved!  I ain't got no intentions of playin' his tune this trip!"    With a sneer on his face and making a forward gesture to his fellows, he led them headed towards the rise. 

Chief Beokiza grew angry. Both at himself for being here and at the presumptuous Masohirlaners approaching! "Rather than meet these louts in a head on charge, let's give these louts a solid thumping on there,hmm, right flank?"   Quidas and the recently arrived group's leader nodded their heads in agreement.  The newcomers quickly mounted fresher horses brought by the other freeholders, then rode off with Quidas' band.    The Masohirlaners came on at a steady pace.   A head nod from Beokiza, and those who had dismounted, using the grass and low brush for cover, edged toward the advancing invaders.  "Will you take part, my chief?" asked a grizzled looking freeholder, in the mail shirt of a settled veteran. He grasped a lance in one large fist and he and several others with him bore sabers about their waists.    Was this bad ass daring him? Beokiza looked about him. His bastard looked noncommittally at him, along with several other leading retainers of Mayonasse.    From his right and the Masohirlaner's left, a volley of arrows fell into the advancing Masohirlaner line.    Another was loosed followed by the all but silent onslaught of Quidas and the other Freeholder.    The entire Masohirlaner line turned to receive them, some among them loosing their own bowshots as they did so. There came the expected clash of arms and the fall of torn bodies. The Chief Beokiza turned towards the veteran with a predatory smile.   "I think now is the time to wade into this!   Press these overanxious dogs hard back towards the river!   The new air seems to have made these dung soup slurping bellycrawlers braver."    Another few moments than they all charged!

Beokiza wielded his sword at a Masohirlaner who slashed at him with his saber. The blades met with to Beokiza's ears a resoundingly loud "Clang"!   The Masohirlaner quickly saw that his fellows were pulling away from the lethal onset of the freeholders.   Not thinking of sticking around to trade strokes with Beokiza, he spurred his mount around and back towards the river.   Beokiza was more than happy to see him leave! By the gods and spirits of the ancestors, thought Beokiza, what if they had been hardcore?     He looked about him and the stricken field.   The Masohirlaners had gotten the worst of it, but they weren't flying away in utter disarray, either.  "Glad to see your still ahorse,my chief!   These be just the outriders. The main bunch is coming across the river now." The Freeholder reined in beside Beokiza and nodded towards the retreating riders.    " I suggest we fall back and gather up some more of our good people. This is going to be a rather rough month looks like," Beokiza replied.

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