The trudge through the scrublands of Telucia was truly hellish. The sun hanging overhead sapped strength and will in equal measure, a constant companion to Ledram’s suffering. Spiteful vegetation grabbed at his clothes and tore at his skin, marking the sellsword with rashes and lesions. Every way he looked, he could spot cruel looking insects dotting in and out of crevices, sporting formidable fangs or a sinister stinger.
The worst of his suffering, however, was brought about by Isaac. Should Led slouch too far forward, or straggle for but a moment, the robber-baron would spew a string of insults and threats. Perhaps fortunately he didn’t waste all of his venom on Ledram; Tors and the other mercenaries were getting chewed out equally.
Ten minutes into the march the men were tossed a satchel from a Telucian cavalryman. Isaac scooped it up quickly, and rifled through it. From within the leather-bound confines he produced a number of sad looking loaves of bread, speckled with unground wheat and mould. Isaac carelessly tossed the food to the mercenaries, all the while stating any slowdown would be punished.
Ledram caught his rancid loaf, and brushed the sand from it. It was a far cry from the bounty of the capital, but it was hardly the worst thing he had eaten. Tearing the loaf in half, he scooped the half-stale insides and began to eat. The coarse bread scraped against his still tender gums, and Led swore his metal teeth would fall out.
“Need me to chew that for you, lead man” Isaac scoffed, ripping a chunk from a slab of salted pork he had procured. “Perhaps some mush peas and beef stock, like my gran used to eat!”
Ledram snorted, but kept silent. He could tell Isaac was getting bored, and he didn’t want to give the robber-baron a reason to exact retribution. Isaac’s interest quickly passed to another mercenary, whom he heckled mercilessly.
The march became a damnably dull cycle of walking and sweating, punctuated by Isaac’s jabs and the occasional rider bearing drink. Water was a welcome relief, even if it were near as stale as the bread. Now and again a conversation would be struck up by one sellsword or another, only to be shut down by Isaac, for whom Ledram had developed a special kind of loathing.
The islander was relieved when the first structures came into view. Crude, squat buildings huddled around a rank looking oasis, haphazardly placed and hastily painted white. Perhaps two dozen in number, they stood at varying heights.
The village in sight, it would simply be a case of burning and pillaging.
However, Led spotted a complication. The houses were swarming with people. Figures lined the low roofs and filled the spaces between the buildings. The fields surrounding the village were strewn with scraps of timber, and dotted with ditches. The makeshift fortifications stretch’s two hundred feet around the village, posing a threat to any force attempting to cross.
Isaac gave the order to stop, and to line up. The sellswords quickly huddled together, standing shoulder to shoulder. Led nudged Tors, who had pushed his way next to his comrade. “They’ve fortified the village,” Ledram hissed.
“Yes, I noticed,” Tors sighed, “and damn well at that.”
Ledram leaned forward, glancing to either side in search of their taskmaster. Isaac was occupied with the Telucian cavalryman who had ferried them water during the march. Stepping back, Led continued. “How many you reckon?”
“A hundred or so,” Tors stated, eyeing the village, “at least on the outside. Could be more inside.”
“And how many do we have?”
Tors waved either side, were other companies had gathered. “Count ‘em.”
“Can’t count that high.”
Tors rubbed his eyes. “Pushing three hundred.”
“That’s good,” Led said optimistically.
“Yes it is,” Tors agreed, before nudging his comrade. Isaac was fast approaching the company.
“Alright, louts,” he began, presenting a piece of paper, “this is what we’re being paid for. And I got good news.” He put his hands behind his shoulders, and began to pace. “You lot are now double-soldiers. We’re getting paid twice our wage this week.” He quickly held a hand up, silencing any cheers. “Which means we’re going in first.”
The sellswords cried foul, many vehemently refusing the near suicidal role. Ledram was particularly vocal, going so far as to threaten desertion.
“Got a problem? By all means, leave,” Isaac hummed, pointing behind the mercenaries. Ledram turned, and was presented with a pack of Telucian soldiers.
Clad in painted scales and bearing steel-spanned crossbows, the soldiers stood before imperial banners. “Get past the royal contingent,” Isaac chuckled, “and your home free.”
Ledram’s heart sunk. It seemed the empress had taken every measure to ensure the loyalty of her mercenaries. Scowling, he turned to Tors, who had gone pale.
“Shields are being brought up from the quartermaster’s cart,” Isaac explained, “so make peace with any gods, and save any self pity for after the fight.” He brushed the remnants of his hair back, and smirked. “We’ll be lining up with two companies of islanders and a horde of northmen. When the horn blows, we move forward and draw any fire from he village.” The smirk dropped from his face. “Keep your head down, your sword drawn, and by my ancestors make me look good.”