Winner of RPGC #24: Tactical Espionage Action
Brown and beige tents were put up in neat rows spiralling away from the big tents in the centre. Soldiers wearing simple bronze chainmail over red leather worked hard to get the camp set up before dusk would settle and lead the way for the evening to come. The air was filled with the smell of moist dirt, sweat and oil; and the sound of talking, shouting and grinding of blades being sharpened.
A soldier walked through the camp, smiling to greetings, saluting superiors. He tried to act naturally, casually, and dropped a bag behind a tent. Without pausing he went in a new direction, his fingers stroking the wood of the handheld crossbow he kept under his cloak. Sure, these people had their Army Destroyer, but his people had been able to downsize crossbows to a more manageable size, without sacrificing a lot of piercing power or range.
His eyes took in the metal-and-wooden structure that was their secret weapon: a moving catapult that was pretty damn accurate and fired big rocks, flaming coal, and flasks of oil at the same time. It was certainly capable of doing a lot of damage, but it wasn’t in the same league as the City Destroyers the dwarves had used during the last war.
The Army Destroyer moved slowly, but surely. It was pulled by oxen, but a set of gears made it easier for the animals to pull it. Another thing left behind from the war against the dwarves, who had invented those. Their machines had run on coal and water and hadn’t needed any animals for pulling. That was something humans hadn’t been able to replicate.
Around him soldiers were talking amongst themselves and he listened to the bits and pieces of the stories and complaint, but his attention was focussed on the moving machine. They had just finished making camp and the Army Destroyer was on its way to the designated location. Steve smiled and nodded to one of the enemy soldiers as he passed him, so far no-one had seen through his disguise. The enemy army was large enough for soldiers to know their own unit by name, the closest units by face and some by name, and the rest, well, it was good everyone wore the same uniform. He noticed how some had removed their chainmail, while others kept it on. And aside from those who had to patrol, most seemed to relax and take their time to clean or repair their armour or weapons.
“Hey, from what unit are you?” someone asked.
Steve turned to face him, taking in the scarcely decorated chainmain and clean leather pants. This man hadn’t been marching. He saluted the officer. “Twenty-four blue, sir,” he said.
“And what are you doing here?”
“Delivering a message to the legas of green ten, sir.” He showed the man a closed letter with the name of the legas on it.
The officer subjected him to a scrutinizing look and after a moment held out his hand. “I will take it, report back to your legas.”
“Yes sir.” Steve turned around and walked back, but when he was certain the man wasn’t looking he snuck between some tents and quickly went back in the direction he had been going in before. That was the only letter he had; it was best to avoid being stopped by anyone else. He moved quicker now, he needed to do this before the Army Destroyer would reach its place and come to a halt. He looked at the machine that towered over everything else, still moving steadily.
Only special troops were allowed near the Army Destroyer, but that didn’t matter. His goal was unguarded. He reached the tree closest to the machine and climbed in.
“What are you doing?” one of the enemy soldiers asked.
“Just getting a good view,” Steve replied as he pulled out his crossbow.
“What is that?”
Steve didn’t answer and took aim. There were two confirmed weaknesses. One only worked if the enemy would approach them on the battlefield, but the other was within range. As someone shouted “Hey, stop!” below him, he fired an iron dart. It pierced the air and buried itself in the gears that allowed the machine to move. The gears came to a grinding halt while the gears on the other side still moved, causing the large weapon to turn. For a moment it seemed the large machine would topple, but the drivers managed to stop the oxen in time.
Two hands grabbed his legs and Steve smashed the crossbow against the tree, to make sure the enemy wouldn’t get their hands on his weapon. He didn’t have any more darts with him anyway, he knew before coming here there would be enough time for just one shot.
They dragged Steve to a tent and pushed him against a pole. Steve coughed as the blow forced the air from his lungs and took in a deep breath as the soldiers tied his hands behind the pole with a rough rope.
The heavy fabric of the tent let very little light in. It took a moment before Steve’s eyes adjusted to the darkness around him. There were very few items here. A table and a chair at one side, a crate filled with ropes. And three poles, one of which was still empty. His eyes rested on the other prisoner in the tent. They looked at each other but didn’t speak.
“Grand commander Bendul,” a man barked as he entered the tent. Judging by the ornaments on his uniform he was a high-ranking officer. Steve silently observed him while he addressed the other prisoner. There was some grey in his black hair and despite the evidence of a good life around his abdomen he seemed to be in good shape. “Is this one of your men?”
“I don’t know all soldiers by face,” Bendul began, but was interrupted by Steve.
“I am. And you must be marshal Doruk.”
The marshal turned to him. “Did you really think that little stunt of you would stop us?”
“It should delay you,” Steve replied, his voice calm and he smiled at the man. “But, to be honest, that was just a message from first major commander Andrus. A warning.”
“Andrus,” Doruk grumbled. “I’ll have his head on a stake.”
“He said that you would say that, and if you would then I had to tell you that his left side is his best side. And that if you would place his head so that the sun is always on the left, he’d make a stunning ornament.”
The grand commander groaned, and the face of the marshal turned red. “I will put his head anyway I want to!” he bellowed, turning around and stomping out of the tent.
“Was that why he sent you?” Bendul asked. “So that you could taunt Doruk in his place?”
“No, sir. I came here to rescue you.”
Bendul let out an amused sound. “That’s not really going according to plan, is it?”
“To be honest, sir,” Steve said, lowering his voice to a whisper as he started wriggling and turning his wrists and plucking the rope with his fingers, “after studying the knots they use a lot, Trevor tied me up with a knot they use most frequent and left food with me, telling me that if I was hungry I had to get it myself. It took me a day, but I found a way to untie myself. Then of course I had to do it again, but faster. Then another knot…”
“That sounds like Trevor,” Bendul sighed. “If he’d still be an officer I would have demoted him for that stunt.”
“But he’s not, and that’s probably why the first major commander requested his assistance. The first major commander didn’t know what Trevor did though.”
“Of course,” Bendul said, but they both knew Andrus knew exactly what Trevor had done.
The ropes fell to the ground. “Maybe it is unethical to tie one of your own up and withhold food from them,” Steve went to the grand commander to untie him, “but it worked.”
Bendul decided to let the matter rest, he would pick it up with Trevor personally when he would be back at their side. “I suppose you have a plan to get us out of here too.”
“Yes, sir.” Steve walked to the back of the tent and lay down on the ground. He lifted the fabric and peered through the opening. Three set of boots marched on the other side of the tent and he waited until they were gone. As far as he could see there weren’t any boots or shadows of people within eye range and he grabbed the bag he had dropped there earlier, pulling it into the tent.
“Missionary cloaks,” he said as he opened the pack. “And two daggers.”
Bendul took the green cloak made of plants and feather and put it on. After he pulled the hood over his head, he turned to Steve who also had the cloak on. “Lead the way.”
Pulling up the hood, Steve opened the tent and stepped outside. When he saw a couple of soldiers he quickly made the blessing symbol with his hand and waited for the grand commander to join him. Together they walked through the camp, their hands clasped as all missionaries seemed to do, their eyes cast to the ground. They managed to walk through most of the camp, giving blessings to those who requested them, but they were stopped by a soldier.
“Missionaries aren’t supposed to be in this part of the camp,” he told them.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Steve said, his hand disappeared in the cloak and his fingers wrapped around the handle of his dagger.
“Show your hands,” the soldier said, putting his own hand on his sword.
With a swift movement Steve drew the blade and lashed out, but the soldier evaded it. Before he could shout for help, Bendul grabbed him and slit his throat from behind. The man grabbed his throat, blood oozing through his fingers, and Steve started to pull him between the tents.
"Hey, you two!”
“Damn,” Steve muttered, dropping the dying soldier. “This way, sir!” He started running through the camp, followed closely by Bendul. He pulled down a stack of crates, dove between some tents and rushed into one of them. Quickly he removed the cloak, pushed it in an open barrel, and grabbed another bag as Bendul removed his cloak too. They ran out the other side, Bendul just a step behind him, and sprinted through the camp, diving into another tent and went for the two soldiers who were drinking beer. Being caught by surprise they couldn’t grab their weapons or shout for help before they were overpowered by the two soldiers. With their daggers they stabbed the soldiers as quickly and silently as they could. Blood mixed with the spilled beer, creating a brown puddle and leaving a strong sour and metallic scent.
Steve panted and gave the bag to Bendul, who opened it and pulled out red fabric. “Enemy uniform. Quick.”
They both cleaned their hands and Steve removed his chainmail while Bendul changed in the red uniform. It was good the blood barely showed on his leather armour; Steve didn’t want to explain how it got there. There were orders being shouted on the other side of the tent and Steve listened to what was going on there.
“You were prepared,” Bendul stated.
“I prepared a few things, yes.”
When Bendul was ready they left the tent, carefully closing the flap so the dead soldiers wouldn’t be noticed instantly. Steve looked at a few soldiers who were searching for them, making sure to hide his worry deep inside and keep a more casual pose, as if he belonged here.
“You two,” one of them said, stepping closer to them. “Did you see any missionaries?”
“I think two went that way,” Steve said, pointing to the north. “Why?”
“They killed one of our men.”
“Quick then!” Steve started running in the direction he had pointed to. “They can’t be far!”
Together with Bendul and a handful of enemy soldiers, Steve lead the search for the two missionaries. They looked in tents and behind barrels, but to no avail. At one of the junctions Steve stopped and turned to the soldiers. “You guys go left, we’ll go right.”
The enemy soldiers nodded and ran to the left. Steve quickly turned right and together with Bendul ran through the camp.
“What’s up?” someone asked.
“Two missionaries killed soldiers!” Steve explained. “We’re looking for them. We must bring all the missionaries to the main tent and confirm their identities. Help us do that.”
The soldiers complied and relayed the orders to other soldiers they came across. Steve watched them disperse and turned to Bendul. “This way, sir.”
They reached the outskirts of the camp and when one of the guards asked what they were doing here, Steve told them they were send on a mission by legas Uli. He wanted to drink tea again. The guard rolled his eyes and with a gesture of his head allowed them to leave the camp. The tea obsession of Uli was well known among the soldiers, Steve had heard a few things about that during his exploration of the camp when the soldiers were still putting it up.
Once they were far enough from the camp, Bendul turned to Steve. “Did you plan for transportation?”
“At the river.”
“And what are the current strategies for the upcoming battle?”
"The first major commander decided that the strategy we used against the City Destroyers will work just as fine now.”
“So, he’s letting his men dig really big holes,” Bendul concluded, using the exact words Andrus had once used when he had proposed the idea for the first time.
“Yes sir, we are preparing trenches.”
Bendul showed his approval by nodding. “Let’s make haste, we have to be a good distance away before they find the missionary cloaks in the barrel and find out two soldiers left the camp.”
Together they started running to the river.