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"This is a good place; we'll pull off there," Haft said softly. He used hand signals to show his men where to leave the road and where to go.
"Here" was where the winding road made a narrow cut through a spur of the Princedon Mountains, the range that formed the spine of the Princedon Peninsula. The ridge was heavily wooded on both sides of the cut, boulders barely visible among the trees on the right, upland, side of the cut. Haft's nine men, eight of them in the mottled green of the Zobran Border Warders, continued fifty yards beyond the cut to where Haft had indicated before carefully climbing the far side of the ridge and back to its top, leaving no sign that they'd left the road. The first man off the road clambered up a tree to watch their back trail. The other eight men filtered through the trees, seeking places where they would be hidden from the road and protected by stones or stout tree trunks while being able to observe where it climbed the ridge. They strung their bows and readied arrows, drew their swords or axes and lay them near to hand.
Haft moved from man to man, checking his position and view. The road ran straight for nearly a hundred yards from this vantage point before turning sharply left. Its farthest reaches were deeply shadowed. He moved two of his men to positions offering better fields of vision and fire.
"One," he said to the first man, clasping his shoulder. "Wait for me."
The former Border Warder nodded.
"Two," he said to the second, who grunted in reply. "Wait for me," he repeated.
"Three," to another.
And so he went along his thin line, assigning to each his target in the enemy's line of march. The eighth man-the one not in the Border Warders mottled green grab-was Jatke, a hunter from the town of Eikby. When all were in position, he took his own place in the middle of the line and lay his broadaxe and crossbow ready to hand. From there, through a break in the trees, he had a clear if shadowed view of the bend in the road.
Haft hadn't picked the best fighters for this squad-those were probably the Skraglander Bloody Axes who had sworn fealty to him. This was the rear point of the large band of refugees he and Spinner, his fellow Frangerian Marine, were trying to lead to a safe place away from the Jokapcul invaders overrunning the Princedon Peninsula. More important than the best fighting ability on the exposed rear point was the ability to move quietly and stealthily. The Border Warders were adept at stealthy movement and quicker than the Bloody Axes to spot followers. They also needed clear and quick communications; the Border Warders all spoke Zobran and the Eikby hunter spoke a dialect of it-he could understand the Border Warders well enough, and they him. Haft's own harbor Zobran, picked up during several port calls at Zobra City and sharpened by travel with the refugees over many weeks, was easily intelligible to these men, and he understood them as well-provided they didn't talk too fast or use words he didn't know. And not to be underestimated, they all carried the longbow, which shot its arrows with enough force to penetrate the metal-studded leather of Jokapcul armor.
He looked at the demon spitter he carried and cautiously tapped on the small door on the side of the tube. The door popped open, nearly catching his fingers, and the small, naked demon poked its head out.
"Wazzu whanns?" the tiny demon piped at him.
"See the road?" Haft whispered.
The demon looked down the length of the demon spitter tube. "Yss. Whatch abou id?"
"Look to the left. See the break in the trees? And the road through it?"
"Can you spit through that break and hit horsemen on the road?"
The demon clambered all the way out to the top of the tube and peered intently for a moment, then said, "Nawzwetz."
"How should I aim?"
The gnarly little demon, hardly taller than Haft's hand was long, craned its head, side to side, up and down, for a few seconds, then pointed with a lumpy arm. "Aam lik ziz."
Haft shifted his head to look along the demon's arm and got smacked on the head-the demon hit surprisingly hard for so small a creature. He jerked back.
"Naw winnige," the demon sneered, "vazion!"
Wishing he could rub the sore spot on the side of his head, Haft drew back and looked at the angle of the demon's arm. The demon had told him not windage-the side-to-side aim of the weapon-but elevation, how high to aim.
"Like this?" he asked, pointing a finger at the same upward angle as the demon's arm.
"Thass righ," the demon said, then dove back into the tube, slamming the door behind it. Before Haft could settle the tube into its firing position on his shoulder, the door popped open again and the demon piteously piped, "Veedmee!"
Using his thumb and two fingers, Haft opened a pouch on his belt, withdrew a raisin-size pellet and held it out. The demon snatched the pellet and disappeared back into the tube. Crunching echoed hollowly from inside it.
A leaf rustled nearby and a dark form settled next to Haft, peering along the road they watched.
"Ulgh," the dark form said softly, and nodded.
Haft flinched, and looked askance at the wolf. "Wolf, you're supposed to be tracking them." Haft wasn't sure which bothered him more, the wolf who had attached himself to the original group months earlier, or the spitting demon that had taken a liking to him a week or so ago on the night he, Spinner, and a few others had conducted a raid on the Jokapcul encampment at the ruins of Eikby. Now the demon wouldn't spit for anyone else.
"Ulgh!" Wolf grunted, and hunkered lower behind the boulder-clearly, the trailing Jokapcul patrol was near, so he didn't need to track them anymore.
A bit of unsecured tack jangled somewhere out of sight.
Haft glanced at the wolf. He didn't trust the beast-men and wolves were natural enemies, and Wolf had no business traveling with people and aiding them. Still, "Watch my flank," he said.
Wolf looked up at him for a second, tongue lolling. Then, faster than the man could react, he stretched out his neck and lapped Haft's cheek.
Haft jerked away and swatted at him, but Wolf had already darted away to face the side. Before Haft could do anything else, he heard feet scrabbling on bark and the snap of a twig. He turned to see Birdwhistle, the man who'd climbed the tree, scooting toward him.
"They're less than two hundred yards away," Birdwhistle said quietly. "Still in one group, fifteen of them."
"Good," Haft replied. He pointed to his right, to the last open spot on the line. "You're four. Wait for me. Pass the word and bring it back." He then gave Tracker, the man to his left, the same order.
"Fourth man in line," Birdwhistle repeated, and went to the place Haft pointed to.
Haft told the next man in line where the Jokapcul were and readied his crossbow, arrows, and sword. Less than a minute later he turned to Haft and signaled-all nine men in the ambush had their assigned targets, leaving the last six men in the Jokapcul column unmarked. Those last six were the responsibility of Haft and the demon spitter. If the officer was still up, Haft knew he'd use the second spit to take him out-if he could see him from his position. They had to get the officer fast; the Jokapcul fell apart without an officer to give orders.
Haft checked the angle of the demon spitter's tube on his shoulder and sighted toward the section of transverse road visible through the trees. He looped his fingers lightly across the signaling lever. Shortly, he heard the faint clop of a hoof striking a rock, followed by a horse's wet snort. Soon he heard more faint sounds of horsemen on the road. Then the first Jokapcul appeared.
The Jokapcul horseman held his short bow in his hands, arrow nocked, string half drawn. A lance was tucked beneath his right thigh. He wore a gold-tinted leather armor jerkin, with shields that spread wide over his shoulders. A short skirt the same color as the jacket dropped from his waist over the top of brown leather trousers. His gauntlets had cuffs that reached to his elbows. A conical leather helmet sat on his head, a leather flap hung from its back and wrapped around to the front, protecting his throat. All of his leathern garments were studded with metal rectangles, save for his boots. He leaned forward in the saddle and peered intently to his front and sides as he trotted ahead to the road's bend, searching for any sign of the people he was following.
The point rider disappeared for a moment, then reappeared on the straight of the road; others soldiers began crossing the break. The second Jokapcul followed thirty yards to his rear. The remainder were at five-yard intervals. The point man stopped halfway to the cut and signaled for the officer to come forward. The officer was easy to spot when he appeared-his helmet was topped by a golden plume, and the polished metal rectangles on his armor glittered where shafts of sunlight struck them. He stopped alongside the second man in the column and examined the cut. After a moment he quietly ordered the second man to join the point and for the two to scout ahead. The second man readied his bow as he trotted forward. When he was nearly on the first, the first advanced his horse at a walk.
Haft looked to his right. He couldn't see all of his men. Those he could see looked like they were well-concealed from view from the road. It wasn't long before the scouts disappeared from his sight, hidden by the cut's rising bank. He listened carefully and heard the soft clops of their horses walking through it. His breath caught when the clopping didn't stop right away-would they go far enough to see where his squad had left the road? The Jokapcul outnumbered his men, and not enough of them were within range for his men to turn the odds in their favor with their first arrows.
No. It sounded to him as though the scouts had stopped about halfway from the top of the cut, where he and his men had left the road. He hardly dared breathe as he heard them return. They stopped before he could see them again. Evidently they had signaled "all clear," because the officer now signaled the column to move out.
But the officer didn't move when Haft expected him to. In every small Jokapcul cavalry patrol he'd ever seen, the officer was positioned near the front of the column, no farther back than the fifth man, often closer to the front. Haft counted: the two scouts, then a third, fourth, fifth, and sixth man. The officer remained at the far side of the road, watching his men troop by.
Haft straightened his fingers, moving them away from the demon spitter's trigger. Move! he thought. You're supposed to be up near the front of the column, where my men can kill you, not at the rear. He wanted the patrol's leader taken out with the opening shot, but the officer was far enough back that even a broadhead arrow from a long bow might not kill him, and horsemen were passing between him and the ambushers.
The fifth man in the column was a sergeant. Against soldiers from another army, he'd settle for shooting the sergeant first. But the Jokapcul weren't like other armies-their sergeants were little more than disciplinarians and relayers of officers' orders; they had no leadership function. Taking out the sergeant first would do little more than setting off the ambush by shooting a private. Haft glanced to his right. The first soldier behind the two scouts was already nearing the place where the cut would take him out of his sight. In only a moment or two the front third of the column would be beyond the ambush. The last men were passing through the transverse section of road, and he knew he had to have the demon spit now if he wanted to hit the rear of the column.
He lightly tapped the side of the tube near the demon's door to let it know he was ready, carefully aimed at a horseman passing his front, then squeezed the lever.
The demon spat with a thunderous crack. A second later a Jokapcul and his mount vanished in a burst of fire and smoke. To his sides, Haft was aware of arrows zipping through the air. He heard thunks as they struck leather, and the pings of arrowheads striking and glancing off the metal plates that studded the Jokapcul armor. He swiveled to aim at the officer-but couldn't see him; someone must have shot him.
In seconds half a dozen Jokapcul were down, arrows sunk into chests, bellies, thighs. As Haft looked back to the transverse section of road, a horse staggered and went down on its hindquarters with an arrow sticking out of its chest. Another, struck by an arrow that glanced off its hip, reared violently and threw its rider. The tossed Jokapcul rolled over and started to rise, then dropped back down when three arrows hit him-one glanced off, another pierced his armor over his chest, and the third found its way between the protective neck flaps of his helmet.
A roaring voice drew Haft's attention, and he saw the plumed officer's head alongside a standing horse that strained against its tightly held reins-the officer had dismounted and was hiding behind his mount. Before he could aim the demon spitter, its door popped open and the demon gave him a sharp rap just below his eye.
" 'Ey oozeph! Ook!" The demon pointed a gnarly arm at the road where it came from the trees.
Haft looked and swallowed a gasp as he swiveled the demon spitter away from the officer-the demon had spotted a dismounted Jokapcul aiming a demon spitter at the ambush! The other demon spat even as Haft was sighting. Thunder erupted fifteen yards to his right and twigs and clods of dirt rained at him through the brush. The Jokapcul with the magical weapon darted to another position, but Haft followed his route and was able to fire before the other could begin to take aim once more. The enemy with the demon spitter disappeared in a thunderous gout of flame.