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Chewing his breakfast, Gao Qiu grumbled unhappily and stared out over the misty lake, towards the rising sun. “Dried fish and hardtack. Every fucking day lately, we eat dried fish and hardtack. A man could kill for a plate of red meat and rice, or a bowl of soup noodles with a side of duck. Get this job done right and we’ll feast like kings, my comrades.”
“Ah it ain’t so bad Captain, we had dried fish and pickled vegetables the other day, didn’t we?” The lazy-eye’d Jester Wang chortled, bits of food dropping from his mouth. He never liked the man, never could tell which eye was looking where.
“Fuck your mother with that ‘captain’ shit, ain’t been a captain in decades. Mark my words, you ever call the boss ‘Major’, he’ll rip yer head off, he ain’t as tolerant.” Gao Qiu continued to eat, his stomach recoiling as he washed down the salty meal with a mouthful of wine, in short supply these days. “This granddaddy needs real food soon or I’m liable to snap. Sixty-three years old and in ten years a soldier, I ate enough hard tack to last me ten-thousand lifetimes. If I knew bandits normally ate so well, I’d have told the army recruiters to eat shit. Let me tell you, for a time all we had was good food, good wine, and beautiful women.” Then again, if he’d never joined the army, he’d never have met and served under Major Yo Ling, the man responsible for all their success.
“Aye, then fucking Bastard Liu realized his cock was so tiny, he needed a title to make up for it.” A few of the others chuckled at Jester Wang’s joke, but Gao Qiu kept his mouth shut, swallowing his angry retort. “If it weren’t for that motherless sheep-shagger wantin’ to be called ‘yer majesty’, we’d be ruling these lands like real kings instead of eating tooth-breaking cracker shit.”
True, they’d fallen out with Major Liu Shi, but he was still a better man than these mangy buffoons who knew nothing of loyalty, honour, or camaraderie. Sad and trying times these were to call these scumbags his comrades, but change was inevitable. No longer were they united beneath one banner, choosing only the best to join them in Butcher’s Bay. Now every crook and con man had options, and recruitment standards had dipped dangerously low. Bastard Liu wasn’t doing any better, the top experts were going to the Azure Ascendants who sprung up out of nowhere, luring the best over with their deep pockets and seemingly endless armoury. What a boon it would have been to have Lord of Thunder Lei Gong fighting at their side. Gao Qiu was one of the few who knew the boss had offered Lei Gong the mantle of leadership. An army was only as good as its officers, the rest merely meat for the grinders.
“Bad news Captain.” The scouts returned in huff, the appellation sticking despite Gao Qiu’s insistence to drop it. He should have killed Jester Wang for bringing it up the first time, but it was too late now. “The fisheries have been fortified, wooden spikes and walls everywhere. Only place we can land is a small strip of beach at the peak, plus I seen soldiers and them thick-furred river wolves swimming about. It has to be the Bekhai.”
“Are you shitting me? First the Marshal’s fucktoy throws us back from the rivers and now we have to deal with barbarians? What is this?”
“Fuck me, I ain’t fighting the Undying Savage. Ain’t right in the head, a black-hearted torturer he is. I hear he hung a hundred men the day he arrived in Sanshu and bathed in their blood.”
“He’s just a scrawny runt who killed a few kids and thugs, this daddy will pluck his head like plucking apples. It’s the Ravenous Wolf who rides at his side that worries me. A giant among men, they say he devours the hearts of his enemies. He’s one of the Father’s children mark my words, that whole clan be tainted.”
The murmurs grew as they traded stories while Gao Qiu had the scouts draw the layout in the dirt. Speed and shock were his most familiar weapons, and even with 800 comrades, he’d lose many trying to squeeze onto the beach. Retreat wasn’t an option, the boss needed the coin and food to buy supplies and wait out this military pressure. There were other raiding parties, but none of their targets would hold as much as the fisheries, and Gao Qiu once again cursed their dire circumstances.
Although it was no secret 5,000 soldiers were deployed to Sanshu, the boss had only taken meagre measures in preparation. No one expected Major Yuzhen to come at them so fiercely, blaming them for an attack on Falling Rain, as if they’d be dumb enough to try, much less fail. Those damn merchants of Sanshu, always making things difficult for the common folk, their scheming was the reason the military was here to begin with. Fucking merchants, the lowest of all scum, stealing weapons and food from the army, the Boss tolerated none of that. He remembered his days of service, but the problem was, in these trying times every two-bit cutthroat thought he could run his own crew, like this Jorani and the Mother’s Militia. If not for their own problems, he would have sorted that rat out himself. A soldier’s lot is shit enough, ain’t no call to soldier on an empty stomach.
Scratching his beard, he made his plan before speaking. “Delay the attack. The Bekhai are archers, first and foremost, carve a few logs for shields and add cover to the longboats.” Determination set in and he stared towards the fisheries, only a few hours away. “We’ll not let a few milksops keep us from taking what we need, not while we outnumber them. Three to five hundred soldiers at most, and they’re spread throughout the villages on both shores. So what if they’re Warrant Officers? Boss Yo Ling, the Spectre of Butcher Bay has seen us through worse. There’s bloody work ahead, but who better than the Butcher Bay Bandits to carry it out?!”
“Aye! With Captain Gao Qiu, the Red Devil of Sanshu here to lead us, what have we to fear?!” Jester Wang roared in support, and the others cheered with him. Gao Qiu grimaced at the reminder, both of times best forgotten and his advancing age, his hair white with age and regrets. That first decade of constant bloodshed and slaughter still weighed upon him to this day, but the easy life didn’t come so easy. Bloody work, a bandit’s lot, and a man did what was needed to survive.
Waving the man over, Gao Qiu lowered his voice and pointed towards the map. “Jester Wang, take 500 cutthroats and lead the march through the forest, distracting them from my eastern flank. There’s no way they can hide more than 500 soldiers in these woods, so at worst, you’ll have even odds.” A dangerous job, the idiot clown might die in the attempt, but Gao Qiu didn’t mind so much. “I’ll take the rest into a few longboats and force my way onto the beach. You move quick as you can through the villages and link up with me. Take what we need, burn what we don’t, and kill everyone in your path until you meet up with me. No slaves, not today, we can’t afford the distraction.” Or the extra mouths to feed. “After that, we double back to the lake and ride the currents out. Simple is as simple does.” As dangerous as Jester Wang’s job was, Gao Qiu’s was no safer, but that was the cost of being in charge. Sometimes, you had to step up. At worst, he would take the coin and flee, leaving Jester Wang behind to cover their retreat. 500 dead comrades was a heavy loss, but also 500 fewer mouths to feed.
Another round of cheers sounded out as everyone began chopping wood, preparing for the battle ahead. Wielding his battle-axe, Gao Qiu Honed the edge and set to work, cleaving through a tree as thick as his waist in a single blow. These Warrant Officers were not to be underestimated, but neither was Gao Qiu. Many bandits would die today, but their lives would not be bought cheaply.
Old Marshal DuYi seemed to be losing his memory and needed reminding just why the Butcher Bay Bandits were the number one gang in the North.
Sitting in the forest on the eastern shore, Huushal calmly counted. Two groups, twenty boats waiting, thirty-eight boats disembarking. With ten to sixteen bandits per boat and only 260 warriors between three Warrant Officers, they were heavily outnumbered, at least two to one in total. He signalled his uncle Kalil to Send a message to Rain. Although the chi fluctuations could be sensed by an expert, it was likely the bandits knew they were being watched. While waiting for a response, he wracked his brain for a plan of attack. All he could come up with was to hold the landing party in place alone while Fung and Rain dealt with the beach force, but he risked much in doing so. With his wives at his side, he would prefer better odds than outnumbered five or six to one.
Before he could think of another plan, his uncle spoke. “Officer Rain believes they mean to attack in two prongs, by land and by sea. He requests you hold until the longboats set out before you begin harassing the landing party. Delay their passage to the first village where Officer Fung will set up a battle line, and Officer Rain will attack them from behind once engaged. After this group is taken care of, we turn to face the other.” His uncle nodded sagely and stroked his beard, eyes filled with approval.
Huushal held a sigh, lamenting his own mediocre talents. Take out the larger group while the smaller one was in transition and untouchable. Much better than his plan, the two forces were closer in number, but theirs was mounted while the bandits moved on foot. His rival did not disappoint and Huushal could only push himself to work harder. Unlimbering his bow as his retinue spread out, he picked out three arrows and held two in hand, nocking the last as he readied to rain death upon his enemies.
They were unlike the other bandits he’d faced, a disciplined bunch, quiet and orderly as they took positions in the treeline with practiced ease, blending into the foliage. They’d come prepared, carrying heavy wooden shields made from freshly felled timbers, each one large enough to cover their whole bodies. It seemed these bandits deserved some of their reputation, but Huushal was one of the People, and they were second to none in forest-craft. Let them turtle beneath their shields and think themselves safe.
The longboats rowed away and Huushal counted his breaths, watching the bandits march cautiously towards the first village, only ten minutes away at a normal pace, thirty minutes from the beach head. Fifteen slow breaths before he raised his bow, his retinue mirroring his actions. Draw and release in one fluid motion, his arrow pierced through the air with a howling scream. As if echoing the arrow, an inattentive bandit shrieked as it punched through his face. Huushal’s second and third arrows were loosed before the first made contact, hurtling away alongside dozens of others.
Whooping loudly, he signalled to withdraw almost simultaneously as the bandits reacted, firing back as the bulk of their forces charged through the storm of arrows. His quin Jaga huffed and drooled as he weaved through the trees to disappear into the brush. Circling east, Huushal brought his retinue around and scattered through the forest, peppering the bandit flank with arrows before fading away. Cries of pain and anger filled the air, but the bandits did not break ranks. Their leader yelled out orders and the bandits clumped together with shields raised, protecting themselves from all angles as they marched steadily towards the village, a trail of dead and injured left behind them.
Huushal smiled in anticipation as he led his retinue on a wide berth around the bandits, listening intently. The first trap triggered with a crack and he wished he could have seen the large, fire-sharpened log stake crashing through the bandit ranks. Wails reached his ears and he took guilty pleasure in their suffering, satisfied that damage had been dealt.
He visited them twice more with mixed results, firing into their arrow-studded shields, brushing aside their return fire and delighting in the anger he induced, their loud curses and taunts music to his ears. Dancing through the trees, his retinue gave them no quarter, laughing boisterously each time one of their traps triggered. After the first, the bandits were careful, moving off the trail and into the grass, but that was not enough to save them. There were many snares and trip-lines hidden in the tall grass, and although the traps were non-lethal, a dangling bandit was a prime target and a prone bandit left a hole in their defensive line.
After a few more passes at the bandits Uncle Kalil Sent him a message. “Officer Fung is ready and requests you enter the village from the east and join him. Officer Rain is also in position, and awaiting the right moment.”
Smiling wryly, he signalled for his retinue to gather and took stock of the injured while riding away. He estimated twenty minutes had passed since they began fighting, the longboats likely beaching at this very moment, yet still five minutes more before these bandits would reach the first village, twenty after that to reach the beach unhindered. Not bad, but the amount of casualties he’d inflicted was far too low for his liking, a few dozen at most. Rain had done the same on his own.
Putting aside his bow, he drew his great saber and changed directions, riding head first towards the bandits. Bursting through the trees, Jaga leaped towards them and Huushal’s saber crashed into a wooden shield. Cleaving through wood and bone, he sent a bandit sailing through the air in two piece. His retinue struck only a heartbeat behind him and he wheeled away, listening to the dying screams and curses of the bandit filth.
Clear of the battle, Huushal glanced around and spotted Yesui and Yosai, their weapons dripping with blood as they beamed at him. Chuckling to himself, he rode towards the village, narrating the events in his mind. The Ravenous Wolf had nipped at their heels and tore at their soft bellies. Tired and wounded, his prey now ran into the jaws of his pack and together, they would rend until nothing was left.
Good, good. A fine addition to his growing collection of war stories.
Mila crouched next to Rain, a little disgruntled. “I told you they’d come from the south and hug the east coast. Now we’re on the wrong side of the cove and your soldiers can’t cross. They can’t lighten themselves enough to stand on the quins while they swim.” Neither could she, but she’d inherited incredibly dense muscles and bones, meaning she weighed far more than her small frame suggested. There was only so much Lightening could do.
“My apologies, you were right once again.” Rain flashed a smile and she refrained from smacking him, turning to glare at the bandits on the other shore instead. Almost a kilometer across and three kilometres long, the cove was large enough to support seven villages, almost ten thousand souls. The bandits waited patiently as their comrades disembarked, and when they finished, the longboats rowed away, cutting through the water towards the beach, leaving close to forty longboats behind. “Mila you’re with me. Rustram, Pran, and Saluk, stay here and cover our crossing. I’ll send boats back for you.”
She swallowed her angry response, instead grumbling beneath her breath at the indignity of it all. Why couldn’t she wait here for a longboat? Unwilling to lose face, she handed her bow to Song and followed Rain down into the water. As his fat quin eased into the water and paddled towards the other shore, Rain stood upright with bow in hand, watching the departing longboats. Thinking up terrible punishments for him, she waded in and held tight to her quin Atir’s harness, laying flat on her stomach and allowing herself to be dragged through the water while she lightened herself as much as possible.
At least she wasn’t alone in her plight, most of Rain’s squad mimicking her actions. The other Sentinels stood, including Song, the beautiful woman standing heroically at Rain’s side, like a pair matched by the Mother herself. Pushing aside her childish jealousy, Mila submerged her head in the clear water to watch the unridden quins escorting them across, digging through the sand for clams and chasing away any threats.
Emerging at the other side, her hair plastered to her skin as water dripped down her face, cold and miserable. She watched enviously as the quins pulled three longboats back to where Rustram waited, the little wagon quins delighting in the work. There was no need for her to embarrass herself, the bandits hadn’t even noticed their crossing. She could have taken a boat and arrived dry and comfortable, but no, Rain wanted her to follow him. Stupid Rain.
Resigning herself to her fate, she brushed her hair aside and waded out to cut loose the remaining boats, shoving them away to let the currents drag them out. If a person were caught in those tides, it would likely mean death by drowning, the boats zipping off as if carried by wings. The quins realized the dangers and stayed close to shore, Atir chirping nervously as Mila worked, consigning the boats to their watery graves.
Rustram and the others arrived and Mila struggled to keep from glaring. It wasn’t his fault, as Rain made the correct decision. Rustram was second-in-command and should never be risked at the same time as Rain, in case the worst should happen. Still, she felt a little resentful as she emptied her boots of water, the quins dragging the boat right onto land so he wouldn’t even get his boots wet. Unfair, stupid Rain should have realized her plight and brought someone else instead.
Following Rain’s lead, she mounted Atir and rode into the forest, stealthily shadowing the bandits as Huu harassed them, staying well back and hiding their presence until Fung was ready. Viciously stabbing every bandit who crossed her path, she showed no mercy to the wounded. If the bandits learned they were surrounded, their efforts here would be largely wasted. Fung’s retinue was no good in the forests, so the bandits needed to be herded towards the open fields.
After long, agonizing minutes of patience, Rain silently signalled to ready the charge, and Mila gripped her spear and shield, her blood lust rising. She was wrong to be upset with Rain, he had much to think about as the commander, his strategy of ‘divide and conquer’ working brilliantly thus far. She couldn’t fault him for that one mistake.
No, if anyone was to blame for her plight, it was the bandits in front of her. If they’d arrived on the west coast, she could have stayed warm and dry and Huu would have crossed into the water instead. They owed her a debt for her humiliation and she was ready to collect in blood and fire.
Who knows, perhaps she’d find a worthy opponent to properly vent her frustrations on.
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