Nelson leaned over the horn of his saddle. The last of the farmers had clustered around the house of their headman. At their back still hung the two mutilated bodies of the raid’s scouts. Any thought of mercy was washed away by the blood covering the rider’s dead companions. Nelson surveyed the ring and lead his troop up at a trot.
He rose his fist to halt the advance. “They have no honor and thus do not deserve a warrior’s death. Shafts for the plowsmen but leave the mercenaries and the headman be.”
“There is no reason to risk my men against trained soldiers,” he thought. “Especially men caught up in a raid that was not their fight. I believe they will take their parole. As for the headman, I have other plans.”
Twenty horsemen skillfully uncased bows and drew shafts. When the first group flew and killed most of their fellows a couple of farmers charged figuring that if they must die they’d take a rider with them. Both failed to reach their targets but two riders cried with glee as their sabers bit into the necks of those two who, at the last instant, became men.
The second flight of arrows finished those who remained huddled around the house excepting the headman, clearly recognizable by his badge of office, and two mercenaries whose livery matched but which Nelson did not recognize. He rode up to the two mercenaries blocking the path to the headman.
“You men fought bravely in a fight that was not yours. I offer you parole and safe passage.”
The two men exchanged glances, but did not lower their swords. “Why should we trust the word of raiders and thieves who slew simple farmers.” The speaker was the shorter of the two. Nelson thought he looked like a man crushed by a steel beam in a Looney Tunes cartoon from his childhood, squat and thick but suprisingly fast with a sword.
“We slew these farmers because of their treatment of our scouts,” Nelson said, gesturing to the hanging bodies. “They took them by treachery and treated them in ways that should offend any soldier.”
The taller mercenary visibly blanched looking up at the bodies and even the squat man turned a shad paler.
“He lies,” the headman said in a pitch closer to that of a frightened girl, “You were here and saw how they swept upon us out of the north to defend those criminals.”
Nelson continued, ignoring the outburst, “You are soldiers by evidence of your fighting and your revulsion at this treatment. I offer you parole. You cannot count yourselves as betraying employers as it appears you have none.”
The two men exchanged glances and the shorter one again spoke. “We had mounts. We leave with them.”
Nelson nodded. “And the five silver coins of honorable parole.”
The two men lowered their swords and sheathed them. The shorter stepped forward and placed his right hand over his left breast. “I, George Hernandez, give my pledge to refrain from hostilities with you and yours for the twenty-three days of peace.” His companion, whose name was Emory Young, swore the peace as well.
The headman continued to scream, calling the mercenaries betrayers and barbarians themselves. He never, however, thought to use the time to flee for his own safety. Perhaps he knew it was futile but soon the chance expired. As soon as the second man had sworn his parole Nelson nodded at Richard Howe, commander of the third troop, who trotted up with another rider. The headman realized too late his error and was knocked prone and unconsious rider as he turned to flee.
Nelson turned to the mercenaries before the headman was even subdued and counted off five coins to each man, leaning forward in his saddle. “In peace, I give you bread money to ensure you have no need to fight.” He then sat back up and called, “Horatio, take your troop and lead these men to their horses and give them peace guard for 1000 hoofbeats.”
As his lieutenant lead the mercenaries away Nelson turned and faced his troop. “Gather all that is valuable and herd the women and children here but there will be no testing or choosing of women until Horatio’s troop returns.” As the riders dismounted and began to ransack the forty or so homes which made up the small town Nelson entered the headman’s house.
* * * * *
The house was a classic southern shotgun home that was a hallmark of poverty when he was growing up in Alabama back in the twentieth century. He walked at a deliberate pace, checking each room for valuables with a well learned thoroughness.
“Hard to believe this place. Poor farmer and workers lived in nearly identical houses like this when I was a boy. Yet here it is four hundred years later,” he thought, struck with a bit of wonder at how things rarely change.
In the third room he heard movement before he saw it. The headman had been wealthy enough to own a large wardrobe with actual decorative work. The door was ajar. Nelson slowly approached the wardrobe and, sabre drawn and held with the grip close to his hip and he used the tip to nose the door open.
Despite his caution Nelson startled at how fast the boy sprung at him. While unable to impale him on the sabre’s point he was able to strike him aside with the flat before the knife so much as nicked him. The boy sprawled and the knife clattered away, knocked free by the fall or the blow, Nelson wasn’t sure.
He went to straddle the boy to bind him and realized it was not a boy, but a young woman with short cut hair. In his youth, Nelson vaguely remembered, it was called a pageboy.
“Heavens, woman, you could have been killed.” He sheathed his sabre and took the coil of rope from his belt just as she kicked up. Laughing he caught the foot and twisted it garnishing a yelp. “I learned to expect that trick years ago.” Catching up the other foot he wound the rope around both ankles then drew a line up to her wrists which he also bound.
He walked out of the building as two riders he recognized as belonging to Horatio’s troop approached the door. He outlined what he had seen and reported he had missed one room.
He tossed the bound girl, who had yet to speak but glared at him with dark eyes across the front of his saddle. Her hair did not match the darkness of her eyes. Instead it had the sandy blonde and brown tones he was used to see among the plainsmen to the north, both his riders and the farmers east of the Mississippi river.
For the next, hour the riders pillaged the town with the efficiency and ruthlessness of men long on campaign. Nelson heard the occassional scream as riders tested women to see if they wanted to take any as booty. He had selected two attractive women of suitable age as well as four children to be split among the clans of the two men whose death had lead to the destruction of the town.
The women and children not selected as plunder were herded to the northern edge of town. While he could not reverse the bloody age he had found himself in Nelson was able to smooth the edges of its excesses among this riders. Thus, they did not slay those they decided not to enslave but drove them ahead of their march to the sea.
It was not merely an act of mercy. The stories and panic ahead of their march had resulted in very little resistance in the tribe’s march to the sea.
“We must have outrun our reputation,” Nelson mused thinking of his dead scouts. “Perhaps this will spur it back ahead of us.”
The town yielded four mules and two wagons with oxen to draw them. Nelson thought in the long run they would be more useful than yet more slaves, but some traditions were set long before he awoke and found these people. Also, as his experience proved, once a slave was not always a slave.
The treasure of the town was sorted and the most valuable loaded onto the mules and the wagon. The chosen human plunder, including the audacious young girl, was arranged in two long files with ankle shackles connected with lengths of rope. Nelson had Horatio take his troop and the third troop, between them twenty-seven riders, and the newly acquired baggage train ahead on the long trip back to the tribe’s current encampment.
Nelson took his first troop, now a mere eleven men given the two dead scouts and losses in ravaging the town. He rode back to headman’s house where the remaining women and children huddled. A good third had already fled but the others, fearing the unknown over the next hill or in the coming night more than the riders, remained.
The bodies of the two scouts, cleaned and prepared by custom for a warrior’s funeral, were set in the front room of the headsman’s house. At the same time two timbers had been stripped from the same structure and hammered into a cross. The headsman was stripped naked and bound upon it. A sign was hung around his neck. Once he was firmly attached and marked water was splashed about his face to awaken him and the cross raised as up as the frightened townfolk watched.
Nelson rode up and read aloud the bold, simple red letters on the sign. “They swore peace. They broke their oaths and killed our brothers. Let them roast a century in each of the Twenty-three Hells.” He finished by emasculating the man. As he delivered the cut his riders whipped the survivors through the town, lighting the already primed buildings as they passed.
With the women and children fleeing to the south the riders turned and headed north. As the sun set they reached the baggage train. The town was a red scar in the southern sky burning behind them.
* * * * *
The baggage train had been moving for at least three hours when Nelson and his troop reached the rest of the squadron. Nelson pulled alongside his two lieutenant.
“Five miles? That is half again what I expected you to travel. Did we take so long to burn the town,” Nelson said, a broad grin primed by energy rush he always felt after a raid splitting his face.
Horatio laughed. “Not at all. The lads were still a bit warmed up and were able to encourage speed out of their new slaves. Still, we are starting to pay for it and a camp would be wise.”
Richard grunted agreement and Nelson nodded.
“There is a large stand of trees about a mile further up,” Nelson said, “and my troop spied a large clearing as we came through. We will camp there.”
Half an hour later, with the sun fully set and the full moon illuminating the way, although barely, the raiders came to a halt among a large expanse of acacia trees. Captured animals were corralled with ropes strung between the small diameter trees.
The women and children were separated from the two long lead ropes and each lead off by a man to take care of bodily needs. Afterwards they were attached to spikes driven into the earth with ropes from their ankle shackles. Most were, at least, although a couple of troopers decided to bed a woman they had taken.
It appeared as Nelson would do the same. After conferring with Richard and Horatio he had dispatched three pairs of scouts to the south, southeast, and southwest. He then found the short haired girl and untied the rope from her ankle and led her to his tent.
Her day of silence was broken as soon as he pushed under the triangle peak. “So it is to be rape.” She spat at his feet.
Nelson laughed. “It is to be cold tonight and I thought both of us would be more comfortable in warmth but if you would rather sleep exposed on the ground.”
“You take me for a fool, but you are the fool leaving me unbound. You cannot stay awake forever.”
Nelson considered the girl for a moment and then drew a short knife from his belt. Flipping it in his hand he offered her the hande. “If you are so concerned keep your honor safe with this.”
She took the knife and glared at him. “How do you know I won’t kill you in your sleep.”
“I don’t, but you know that doing so in the center of an armed camp with guards posted would be a form of suicide. Besides, I do not even know your name. A man should know the name of anyone who plans to slay him.”
“Alyn of what clan?”
“None, my family dies of pit pimples six years ago. I was sent to live with my uncle in his town. You killed him.”
“Well, Alyn, neice of my victims, I am Nelson of the Clan Spaatz. Now, I am going to bed.”
The girl looked at the bedding and, without relinquishing the knife, began to untie her trousers with resignation. Nelson reached forward and stayed her hand.
“I was serious about the warmth.” He shed only his chaps which had the dust, mud, and blood of the day’s activities crusting them.
The girl watched and then knelt beside the bedding and slid into it.
Nelson slid in as well and curled up around the girl. He had almost fallen asleep.
“Why do you not force yourself on me? I heard, I hear, your men doing it.”
“It is not my way even if it is the way of my men.”
“Then why did you take me instead of leaving me for them to try me out in the village.”
Nelson thought on that for a moment.
“First, anyone brave enough to attack a fully armored man with a knife and then a foot isn’t a common girl to be taken as a slave. Second, you look like a very old memory made real.”
“A woman long dead before you were born.”
The girl rolled over in the bedding and looking at Nelson. “I am twenty-three and you cannot be much over thirty. How can you remember someone my age dead before I was born.”
“Because she died roughly four hundred years ago. Now sleep.”
The girl went to ask another question, but Nelson, weary from the day’s fighting, was not awake to answer.