Chapter I: Predation
Reading time ~15 minutes
“We are Unbroken” every man prays to himself. “We are Unbroken” the words are unintelligible even to the most acute of ears. “We are Unbroken” and the weight of the snow finally rests, settling like a freezing blanket on top of the skirmishers’ shoulders. They have been through worse. In truth, the Unbroken were notorious for their capacity to sustain any hardship, to absorb any shock that came their way with unyielding resilience. The rumors are, however, a bit exaggerated, with the layman going as far to believe that even the sharpest swords can not slice through their thick hides, or that a bullet’s force can easily be dampened by the bestial fur that covers their skin. By all means, the layman’s experience of the Unbroken, and the Polex Chapter of the Naramarian army they belong to, is limited to the sounds of swords clashing and muskets gunning that arise off their compound when the wind lies still in a clear summer day.
Footsteps, and perhaps something as large as a cart rolling, starts shaking the snow that covers them. In addendum to the rumors I mentioned, I have to admit there is indeed a speck of truth in them: I have not known of an Unbroken who ever shied away from a fight, or one who flinched in the face of adversity. Their sigil, the shattered shield under the crown, is, I believe, misguiding; rather, I would have it be a lone pine that refuses to bend under the fury of the unrelenting storm.
The sound of the cart is loud enough to make the white mounds collapse on the sides. From the top, the view changes only slightly. They look like carcasses of animals that fell pray to the sharp cold, as it is animal furs and feathers that protrude, rather than clear signs of human presence. The carriage, the goal of the mission, approaches with each passing moment. The guards step heavily, probably after a particularly long march through the treacherous wilderness of the northern lands of the Chiontezzo.
Why would a group of twelve individuals be stationed in foreign territory? War of course, between the two kingdoms that occupy the Locro island. A few months back king Halavadro decided to invade the kingdom of Fonte after the royal family of the latter insulted their cousins across the border by withdrawing from an arranged marriage (some say it really was a trade agreement by which the silver prospectors of Specchio Valley would sell exclusively to the Fontean trade guild). Over those months, the Fontean king Riccio the Bald had proven himself a capable strategist.
And why did the Naramarian not send some more significant force to capture the Chiontezzo? A few months back, when the king suggested that brigade should be dispatched to capture the land, it was marshal Trindano Da Vorgu who refuted the argument said to king Pedro IV the Brute, when the barbarian hordes invaded the land, meeting with little resistance from the kingdom’s army:
“You can hunt a boar, you can butcher it, but if you don’t let it roast for a good while, your teeth won’t make a single dent on it. The barbarians advanced for months! When there was nothing left to pillage, the horde imploded and we removed them from our lands with only one cavalry company and an artillery brigade.”;
and while the king had received the highest quality of tutoring in both the fine art of courtship as well as the less gentle military strategems, he thought thought his marshal was openly casting doubt on his god-bestowed competencies. The perceived mockery, as only few expected, provoked the swiftest retribution; Da Vorgu was sentenced to either exile or death (nobody saw the ole’ grunt again, his fate remains uncertain still).
The carriage rolls, now almost in place.
What the Marshal meant, in any way, was that tough meat requires sharp fangs, and that the hordes could put the steaks in its mouth, but the trouble for them lay not in advancing through vacant greenfields, but the incorporation and assimilation of the gains, i.e. maintaining the system of complex supply lines and logistics to and fro the frontier, handling the economy of the new lands. It was those ever-too-important ‘trivialities’ that hordes were not adept at handling; the attrition proved itself as effective as any army, but at the same time more efficient and bloodless, and within months the horde was eroded, finally caving in under the pressure of a few well-thought out cavalry charges. Perhaps it was this likening of the god-anointed king Halavadro to a horde’s warchief that pushed the Marshal towards punishment. Yet, even though the king reacted heavily to the insult, coyly avoiding marching the army through the northern and the southern mountain ranges, opting to exert the full force of his army in the central frontier instead. Of course, by the time the shenanigans were done with, Riccio had already caught wind of the Naramarian strategy (or lack thereof), and reacted with the entrenchment of his armies around the southern parts of the central plain, essentially blocking the path to Fonte.
Probably due to lack of a competent circle of military advisors (even those who did have ideas dared not speak), Halavadro insisted on what he perceived as most heroic: “Charge!” “Charge!” “Charge!”. And while the brutality did offer the chance for military distinction, the gallantry was washed off the endeavour by the seven-month-long bloodbath. It took some thousands of lives before the reality of the deadlock started to dawn upon Halavadro. What he did next, had half the kingdom flared up against him.
In a unique display of brashness that was not well received by most of his own, he commissioned the entire fleet of the various merchant guilds in Naramar. After a month, the ships had been equipped with cannons and sent off to blockade the major Fontean ports. They started by raiding the trade routes, but the trade guilds are famous for their cautiousness in the face of adversity and hardship, so they were quick to halt their operations. After a series of naval battles, the blockades were finally set, and they remain unmoved to this day.
Meanwhile, one of Halavadro’s counselors, a young courtier by the name of Hermes Velosand, had this idea that the better chance of success lied with somewhat of a double envelopment strategy, by which he claimed that a somewhat modest force could sustain a series of skirmishes and disrupt the supply lines of the entrenched forces. Feeling he was not alone for the first time in months, the king abided by the wise-sounding advice.
Kardell is grumpy, as he pulls his foot from the deep snow. Guarding a carriage is an undertaking that any mercenary band can roll into for easy, albeit time-consuming cash. “Easy, huh?” the sniper groans to himself. While the guys by the carriage are saved the toil of the long walk, contrary to him, Morgun’s plan demanded that he accompanies the carriage concealed, and from the fringes of the path. His role was twofold: first, he had to look out for the carriage. The marauders were bound to attack sooner or later, and he should have his rifle ready to suppress any evil-doer that made a move on his mates. Secondly, and tying in with the first, he had to find his path through the trees, find high ground and then set up his massive long-ranged rifle right there.
“Whoo! Whoo!” the sound of a lone white owl creeps along the snowed in path and flees towards the sky.
“A white owl this close to the sea?” no time to climb a tree. Cold sweat instantly covers his entire body. He throws the rifle to the ground, then removes the bipod from his bag and nails it to the snow. He sets the rifle right on top of it, and falls back. No time to set up a scope. His view of the carriage is clear.
One of the white mounds, that lies a few tens of meters behind the carriage and to the side of the path, collapses to a gust of wind- at least that is what the carriage’s guards spot.
Kardell tries to discern the origin of the sound. North? North! He turns his rifle towards the back of the carriage. He is difficult to discern, but Kardell spots him after a while. Dressed in white furs, a man approaches the carriage from the back. He holds something dark, the color of wood. Kardell cannot afford the time to focus on what it is.
The caravan master, a man dressed inconspicuously in order to blend in with the rest, lifts his arm from the front of the carriage where he sits. “Halt!” he talks in normal voice, his word expanding effortlessly on the silent landscape. Oddly enough for a caravan, the guards follow the command with more than descent precision. Mercenary escorts are usually lax, indisciplined and autonomous in regard of their motions.
Gunfire erupts. An agonizing scream shakes snowy dust off the pine branches. The commander, stands up, and peeks to the back of the carriage.
“Get the bastard here!” he orders with a low voice. Two guards jolt to the back, and return a few moments later with a young man on their backs. The man, cladden in thick furs and leather armor, seems to be in pain. His right foot is wounded, right on the kneecap, and blood is gushing from below the patella, which seems heavily fractured.
“Lay him easy” the master orders, and jumps from the driver’s seat. He unbuttons the top button of his coat, revealing the instantly recognizable blue military suit that is worn by the Fontean soldiers. “You’re too young to sabotage my carriage, boy. Hold him.” The man proceeds to remove the huge round hat and lay it on the carriage.
He has the look of a seasoned man. Although the heavy black coat concealed his true size, he is obviously larger than the common man. His face is almost indiscernible under the maze of wrinkles and scars, and if one were forced to point out a characteristic that makes the face unique, it would be the blurry imprint of a burn wound that started below the right cheekbone and vanished beneath a thick, silver beard that was ridden with a few patches of black here and there. “Mmh...a grievous wound.” the commander whispers to the captured Unbroken. “Bad news my boy, looks like you’ll have to chop the foot off, before it is infected. A cripple or a dead man, quite a dilemma.”
The commander knocks on the door of the carriage. The door is kicked open, and some seven more fully armed soldiers got out and got in line formation. The man groans, and throws his hand on the inside of his coat, where it gropes around for some ten seconds, until it recovers a crumpled paper that was torn around the sides. The commander then puts on his monocle, and proceeds to unwrap the paper, the noise reverberating across the snow. The commander then coughs, clearing his throat, and with inflated chest, he went on to read the decree.
“Gentlemen! You are hereby ordered by the royal crown of Fonte to surrender your arms. If you surrender in peace, you will be bound and transferred in front of his majesty or his appointed archon, where due judgment will be passed upon you, and suitable punishments will be assigned to each of you for the crimes of marauding, pilfering and disrupting the supply lines of the army. Should you fail to comply with his majesty’s orders, you leave me no option but to capture you by violent means.”
Tense silence covers the valley and for a moment, it seems as though even the great mother goddess herself holds her breath with anticipation. A fox cry echoes around the valley.
The commander stretches his neck. “I give you five seconds to come out of your hiding spots gentlemen”; the man then upholsters a short pistol, gilded with golden details and jewels, and pressed it against the prisoner’s head, “then your friend over here will have shards of lead where his brain was. Don’t make it harder than it has to be boys. Three!”
Nothing moves in the valley, contrary to what the commander hoped for. Usually, marauders would, one by one, reveal themselves, drop their arms and approach the guard carriage. Then, they would be commanded to stand with their faces towards the carriage, so as to “be shackled and stored until they reached Fonte’s dungeon” where they would “await trial”. More often than not, however, and depending on the size of the bandit party, the commander would order the soldiers to shoot them in the back.
See, captain Morgun the Bloodhound had years of experience in leading bounty hunters, since he first got in the business at fifteen; he may have been commissioned by the crown, he may have been bestowed upon with the title of lieutenant by Marshal Ordan Fonte himself, but it is not the clothes, however fancy they may be, that make the man. He would rather have his own men enjoying the privilege of comfort and warmth that the carriage offers; at the same time he detested it when shackled prisoners would lag behind the carriage, exacting toil on his two horses.
With what seemed like a significant loss in profits (about 30 percent of the bounty, or half a silver per head), he elects to bring only the heads of the marauders to the Marshal’s office. However, it only seems like a loss, since it gave him the opportunity to station his wagon outside the city, then send a runner with the bag of heads to the office, and be ready to start the next hunt by evening; in terms of business, war held a lucrative flow of opportunities; peace, on the contrary, was the ebb. Of course, don’t make the mistake of thinking it was this brute that managed to apply efficiency in his company’s operations.
Gunfire booms. A moment later the commander’s shoulder explodes in a formless mass of meaty slab. Morgun falls to the ground, his back sitting on the carriage. His golden pistol has drops, plunging halfway into the snow.
“Retrieve the hostage!” snow moves as if an avalanche was happening. Something small and heavy struck the back of the carriage. Then gunfire blasted again, and the thing detonated with a thunderous sound, only slightly disturbing the carriage but covering it with a blue-burning alchemical fire. The soldiers scatter to all sides, two of them running amok, drenched with the incendiary liquid.
Gunfire, as if from all sides starts raining down upon the caravan. Two more guards fall to the ground, with bullet holes spurting blood from their bodies. Morgun, a harsh man by all accounts, draws upon his grit; he has never taken a bullet before, but the animal in him demands him to draw upon the last drop of grit he can muster. The prisoner starts crawling towards the bushes to the side of the path. He stretches a bit to the side, and grabs the golden pistol. He lifts it up, and it is as though a dagger is plunged in his shoulder. He bites his lip, then aims it towards the fleeing prisoner.
“You’re not going anywhere you lil’ shit”, he whispers calmly. He fires, the bullet hitting the young man right below the rib. The victim flinches for a moment, and the bushes to the side move. A tall man, dressed in white furs that grant him near invisibility against the snowy landscape, jolts forward.
“Get him! Get him!” Morgun screams to the captain that has taken cover beyond the sill of the driver’s seat. The captain nods, and aims his musket toward the attacker. His musket explodes in a thick cloud of smoke, the attacker slides in the snow. The feral man grips the fallen soldier and carries him beyond the bushline before the captain reloads.
“Hold the line!” HOLD. THE. LINE.” Morgun screams. The soldiers fall to the snow and retaliate the enemy fire. Slowly but surely, the fighting subsides. Bullets fly here and there, striking random targets. Five minutes after the last bullet has been fired, Morgun stands up. He stares towards the corpses of his soldiers, seven out of fifteen are wounded, four dead; the carriage is burnt halfway through, the ember only stopping before the iron reinforcement about a meter from the wagon’s floor.
“At ease boys. We’ll get’em next time.” he says, caressing his torn shoulder and staring at the thin blood trail left behind by the parting gift he gave to the prisoner.