The large iron whistle fitted on the side of the steam engine blasted through the open plain to indicate the arrival of the train. A short distance ahead, were the smoke columns of the town and the Trading Post of Horizon. The ground all around was flat, save for a few small hills and outcroppings of trees. As they moved closer, Synne was surprised to see several long lines of people and men on horseback.

“Hey, Thrax, I think we’ve got trouble!” she shouted.

Thrax was sitting in the single remaining wagon, crammed in with the survivors of the violent battle. Next to him was Jonas who was now even paler than before.

“What is it?”

“Come and have a look.”

He lifted himself up with a groan and then lumbered forward to the end of the wagon. With an effort, he climbed the tender and then dropped down to the cab.

“Hurry up, Thrax!” called Synne.

He pulled himself up the ladder and to the high fighting platform above the engine where Ulric and Synne were stood.

“What is it?” he asked.

“Look,” she said.

Thrax held onto the railing as he looked off to the south. The Trading Post was now only a few hundred feet away and the train was slowing. Stretched out between the buildings in a thin line were hundreds of people. It was as though a crowd of people was lined up and waiting for their arrival. He scanned to the left and then to the right before spotting a banner. Looking more closely he spotted a small group of men on horseback near the centre of the group. He sighed and then looked back to Synne with a relaxed expression.

“Looks like my students did their work,” he said.

“Students?” asked Ulric.

“I asked Bara to send my students to get help and it looks like they succeeded. Look at them. See that flag,” he said, as he pointed of slightly to the right.

“I see it,” she said.

“Well, don’t you recognise it?”

“It’s the symbol of the League,” answered Ulric, before realising what he had just said.

“They are here?” Synne asked.

“It looks that way,” replied Thrax.

The screeching from the train became deafening as the breaks locked on the engine and after what seemed like an age, they came to a halt just a few feet past the platform. The engineers let out a great deal of steam from the tired, overworked engine. No sooner had it stopped, were the passengers jumping overboard and moving towards the Trading Post and the crowds. Thrax and Synne climbed down whilst others helped pass down the wounded Jonas. As they started to retrieve the wounded, a number of people came over to help. One of them, wearing a rough uniform and armour approached them. Past the platform were the outer buildings, shops and storage sheds used by the inhabitants of the Trading Post. It didn’t have its own palisade but it did have half a dozen watchtowers scattered along the perimeter and each one was manned by several people. The towers carried heavy mechanical crossbows, each one far too heavy to carry in battle. On the ground and spread out into a thin line, only two deep was the assembled army. Most were on foot and there appeared to be no uniform or standard of equipment. Some carried spears or swords, others carried crossbows and even more seemed to be carrying farming implements.

The man in the armour stopped in front of them. He was hardly an athlete and his armour looked uncared for, but carried none of the marks or damage you might expect from equipment worn in battle. Thrax made an unimpressed noise as he stopped and nodded to the group. He turned and pointed to the assembled army.

“We received word that the Brotherhood was sending an army down here into League lands. This is the muster for the north. Tell me, is it true?” he asked.

“Who are you?” asked Synne.

“Jackson, Commander of the border fort, sixteen miles west of here. I’m responsible for the defences in this sector on behalf of the League.”

He took a step closer to Synne before noticing her sword, still bloody and still in her hand. He stepped back, feeling a little less confident of himself.

“Who are you?” he demanded.

“Synne, daughter of Lord Galan!”

“Galan? You are the daughter of the Lord of Haven?” he asked with a look of surprise on his face.

Ulric moved just a few inches closer but his presence was substantial. Jackson, though still arrogant, lowered his head a little.

“Indeed she is, and this is Ulric, the rightful heir of the city,” said Thrax with a strong tone in his voice as he indicated towards Ulric.

Ulric examined the man and was not impressed with what he saw. The man had seen far too much time either on horseback or resting, than training with his men. A typical League man, a talker not a fighter, and certainly not a man to be trusted.

“Why are you here?” asked Thrax.

“Two of your students rode to our outpost yesterday with news of the trouble. My commander ordered all available forces to congregate here to defend the outpost against a Raider attack,” he answered.

“Raider attack? Are you joking? The force up there is led by Cainon of the Brotherhood and his forces number in the hundreds, maybe more,” he said angrily.

“Why is your commander not here?” asked Synne.

“He has headed west to get reinforcements from the other League cities,” explained Jackson.

“Isn’t that what messengers are for?” asked Synne.

“Yeah, I think you’ll find he is heading west as fast as he can because he knows exactly what is coming,” explained Thrax.

“It is no wonder that our northern border was more vulnerable that we expected. The truce with the Brotherhood has been broken and even worse, it looks like the League border forces have been taking bribes,” said an angry Ulric.

“Bribes? No, we would never take bribes from Raiders,” pleaded an even less confident Jackson.

“Not from Raiders? How about from anybody else?” said Ulric with a snort.

Thrax looked at the forces assembled, noting most were enlisted workers, certainly not professional warriors. From his knowledge of battle and warfare, he already knew that they wouldn’t stand a chance in any kind of conflict.

“What has happened to Haven in our absence?” asked Thrax.

“Haven? As far as I know since the city was razed it has been abandoned.”

“Abandoned? We were attacked by Raiders and the Brotherhood!” roared an angry Ulric.

The man shrugged, seemingly unconcerned about the implication of the Brotherhood and the Raiders attacking together. Whether it was because of some deep down hatred of Haven or something more insidious, possibly even knowledge of what the Brotherhood was doing, they couldn’t tell.

Anna appeared, she was unwounded but her clothing was torn and on her shoulder she carried her bloodied spear. Jackson squirmed as the point of the spear moved past him. A fact spotted by both Synne and Ulric.

“There is something coming from the north!” she said.

“Something?” asked Synne.

Anna beckoned the small group to follow her and they moved to the open area in front of the assembled crowd. The view to the north was of an almost featureless plain but in the distance, a wide line of dust indicated the approach of something substantial.

“It’s Cainon, it has to be,” said Synne.

“Perhaps,” replied Thrax.

The three looked up and down the line of people that were waiting for their orders or maybe they were just waiting to see what happened next.

“How many warriors do you have?” asked Ulric.

“Well, thirty from the fort and I’ve mustered the militia in the Trading Post and from the villages to the south. So in tota, about a hundred warriors.”

“Warriors?” said Thrax with a scathing tone.

“The last thing I would describe them as is warriors. Where are the professionals? The ones the League cities pay upkeep on?” demanded Ulric.

“This is it,” pleaded the man.

“You bastard, you’ve been pocketing the hard earned coin from our cities. To what end?” shouted an angered Ulric.

The man said nothing and simply shrugged.

Thrax beckoned to the rest of their small group, they closed in whilst Jackson inched away, sensing danger though whether he was more scared of the approaching enemy or of Thrax and his comrades, wasn’t clear.

“We can’t hold them off in the open with these people,” said Ulric.

“I agree, the horsemen will run them down and drive them away like cattle,” replied Thrax.

“So we use the buildings. The place is full of them. Let them ride in and our people will be safely protected,” suggested Synne.

“Good, good, I like it. Let them break their energy on wood and stone and then we break them before they can escape. Come on, we need to get these people organised,” said Ulric.

They moved closer to the large group of defenders who waited eagerly to know what was going on. Thrax, though the largest was well aware he was neither a man with a title or lands or even experience in making speeches. He simply roared to get their attention before placing his hand on Ulric and Synne’s shoulders.

“People of Horizon, and all surrounding lands. Before you is the truce-breaking horde of the Brotherhood and the Raiders!” he shouted.

A murmur ran through the crowd as they realised they were not facing a small group of faceless bandits but potentially an actual army. Discontent spread fast and a few from the rear of the group started to move away.

“ Wait! I am Ulric and this is Synne, children of Lord Galan from Haven. For too long you have let the Raiders bring prisoners and slaves through this place and have turned away from the evil that has been done. Now you are going to face the consequences. To the North a great army of barbarians, bandits and Raiders are being led by clans of the Brotherhood to take control of our lands,” said Ulric.

“We never worked with no Raiders!” shouted one man.

“Hey, the Brotherhood only pass though here for trade and to buy supplies,” shouted another indignant trader.

Synne pushed to the front and raised her sword into the air.

“Liars!” she shouted.

“We were dragged from Haven and through this Trading Post just days ago. Not one of you said a word. We were taken to the North to their prisons and for a painful death in the mines. Do you have no shame?” she cried.

“We were told the Raiders destroyed your city and all your people,” answered one of them.

“Yes, that is nearly true. Do you know why? Because people like you chose to turn away when you could have said no!” she shouted angrily.

Synne walked along the line of people, the fear and guilt evident on some of their faces.

“You, what do you do here?” she demanded of one of the men.

“I trade in wine and fruit,” he answered.

She moved a little further and asked the same of a merchant.

“I sell leather goods to whoever wants them,” he answered indignantly.

“So, you buy and sell here. How many times have Raiders or members of the Brotherhood clans passed through here with slaves?”

A few of them muttered but it was clear it happened often.

“And you are happy with that? For people in the South to be taken as slaves to be worked to death or forced to fight for the Brotherhood?” she demanded.

A gruff looking man carrying a short spear and the clothing of a common labourer or farmer pushed to the front.

“What can we do? If we refuse, they take us as well. We are not warriors. If you couldn’t stop them how will we?” he asked.

“Fight. We will help you. Occupy all of the buildings on this side of the Trading Post. Use your spears and crossbows to fight them at a distance. Don’t fight them any closer than you have to,” said Ulric.

“So we do all the work?” argued one.

“We’ve already done the work, what have you done? We have fifty or more of our own people who will fight alongside you that are disembarking from the train. They have already proven their worth in battle,” replied Ulric.

Synne pointed out their little group.

“We will stay on the train and fight from the high platforms. Now, who will fight?” shouted Synne.

She tried as hard as she could but her voice wasn’t the equal of Thrax.

“You heard her, what are you going to do?” he roared.

“Fight!” a few of them shouted back to him.

Is that it? You’ll leave the battle to just a handful? I asked you, what are you going to do?” he roared again.

“Fight!” came the reply, this time louder and with some vigour.

“To the buildings. Remember, they take no prisoners, either fight, or die!” added Ulric as he made for the Train. Synne, Anna and Thrax joined them.

“How is Jonas?” asked Synne.

“Not good, he has lost a lot of blood. We’ve taken him to one of the medical stations over there,” Anna said as she pointed.

“And the rest of the wounded?” asked Synne.

“Same place.”

They were now at the base of the ramp that led to the platform and the train. Only a handful of people remained on the train as they handed out weapons from the fallen to those that needed them. Eric was there along with two other warriors.

“We will fight with you, what is the plan?” he asked.

The group climbed aboard and up the ladders so that they were on top of the fighting platforms used so recently in the battle of the trains. The wagon attached to the rear of the tender was now empty of people though it was still stained with the blood of the dead and wounded and many bodies still littered its floor.

Everybody else is manning the towers and buildings. We will defend the engine from here where we have the commanding position of the battle.

“Won’t we be sitting ducks out here?” asked Eric.

“Kind of, but look,” said Synne.

She pointed up to the towers and then the buildings, the nearest being just twenty feet away.

“We are in range of the closest crossbows. If they try to board us...” she said before being interrupted by Thrax.

“Which they will.”

“Yes, they will. When they do that, those in the buildings behind us can provide fire to clear them off.”

“Good idea. So we are the bait and whilst they try to reach us the civvies can use their ranged weapons in safety,” said Ulric with much enthusiasm.

He slapped Synne on the shoulder.

“Good work, little sister, we’ll make a warrior of you yet!” he laughed.

The bell started its chant from the centre of the Trading Post. The small numbers of people still standing about either ran for cover or joined the rest of their comrades in the small wooden and stone buildings dotted about. The largest building was the storage warehouse next to the rail platform. It was easily thirty feet tall and inside were about twenty fighters, plus a number of older people and children. The rest were spread amongst the smaller structures and the three nearest towers.

Thrax watched the approaching enemy with interest, his binoculars again coming into play. He examined them for a moment before turning to the others.

“It’s Cainon alright. I can see their clan’s standard plus a few I don’t recognise.”

“How many?” asked Ulric.

Not easy to tell with the dust. I’d estimate one hundred to one fifty. They’re all mounted and they definitely mean business.”

“One hundred and fifty?” exclaimed Eric.

We don’t need to beat them, we just need to drive them away. They are no different to any other bully. Bloody his nose and send him home. We need to do the same, they’ll be here in no more than a few minutes, I suggest we get ready,” said Thrax.

Eric was still carrying his curved sword. He moved a few feet away to where he had been stacking weapons.

“Already ahead of you there, we kept back a stash of gear for us, I thought we might be needing it.”

 Ulric and Synne quickly rummaged through the gear. Ulric spotted a two-handed mace and pulled it out. He gave it a test swing and it moved with speed and power.

“That’s more like it, good work, Eric.”

 Synne pushed her curved sword inside her belt and looked for anything else that might be of use. There was one of the powder weapons but no ammunition so she pushed it away and found an odd crossbow. She picked it up and gave an odd look to Thrax and Ulric.

“What is this?” she asked.

Thrax grinned and stepped forward, taking the weapon off her.

“Ah, you don’t see many of these.”

The weapon looked like a normal crossbow save for the wooden box fitted on top that contain two dozen small bolts. To the rear was a handle connected to parallel rods that ran back to the body of the weapon.

“You see, this is a low power repeater crossbow. You put the bolts in this box and make sure they slide back into place. The handle is lifted up to pull back the string and to load in the next bolt. When you bring the handle down it launches the bolt. It will fire as fast as you can pull the lever.”

“Wow, why don’t we all use them?” she asked.

“They are pretty low power, so their use is limited. I think today might be the perfect time to try it out though!”

Thrax knelt down and grabbed a handful of bolts for his own weapons before returning to the end of the platform.

“Here they come!” shouted Ulric.

Synne and Eric moved to the sides of their respective fighting platforms above the engine. They had the perfect view of the enemy and it was a sight to behold. Their formation was much looser than it had looked at a distance. Each of the men wore substantial metal , leather and rubber armour plus a variety of weapons from swords and spears to axes and crossbows. As the first wave rode past, they started shooting their ranged weapons at anybody they could see. One man for some reason had opted to stay out in the open, he waved his pitchfork defiantly at the horsemen. Within seconds, the majority of the horde assembled in a large mass to the side of the train and before the towers and the buildings. In the middle and at the front was the standard of Cainon’s clan along with Cainon himself. He pushed ahead of the rest of the riders.

“People of Horizon, why do you harbour criminals? We have had this arrangement for a long time now!” he shouted.

“The bastards, I knew they were in on this!” swore Synne to her brother.

“Calm yourself, sister, you’ll have the opportunity to do something about it soon enough.”

“You have been taking from us for too long, leave us, leave us be!” shouted the man that was standing in the open.

Cainon rode towards the man who stood defiantly, refusing to give ground.

“Who are you, old man, and why do you defy the will of my clan?” he demanded.

“Your clan is nothing but bandits and brigands!”

Catching everybody by surprise, he stabbed forward, the tip of his pitchfork striking the horse hard in the flank. The animal reared and Cainon tumbled to the ground. There was no sound as the warriors on both sides held their breath, waiting for the inevitable bloodbath. A large warrior jumped from his horse and rushed over, picking up Cainon before turning to the man.

“I am Khan and I’ll show you want our clan of bandits and brigands thinks of your little dump!” he shouted.

Grabbing his sword from his belt, he whipped it out and in one clean movement lopped the head off the old man. The head dropped to one side whilst the body dropped to its knees and then to the ground.

“Now!” roared Thrax, who appeared from the cover of the metal plating running down the sides of the platform.

He fired first, sending a bolt into the chest of Khan who staggered, but continued to drag Cainon to his horse where helping hands lifted him up. More bolts came from the train and then the defenders opened fire. The nearest tower launched a two-foot long arrow that was tipped with iron. The projectile slammed into one of the Raiders, and kept going before striking another, pinning the two of them to the ground.

“Kill them all!” screamed Cainon as he straightened himself on his new mount.

A dozen riders lay dead on the ground before they were able to start moving. Some rode around the train whilst the rest split up and raced around the buildings looking for anybody to attack. One group of the men dismounted and rushed for the train, some grabbing the bottom of the ladders, the others leaping onto the main boiler and working their way to the platforms. The quickest managed to reach the top of the ladder where Synne and Ulric were. It was a bad position to be in though. Ulric was waiting and with a heavy swing, he brought the two-handed mace down onto the Raider’s head. The impact crushed his skull and sent the body tumbling down onto those climbing up behind.

“Behind you!” shouted Ulric, as he spotted more coming from the front.

Synne ducked to avoid a volley of bolts and then balanced herself against the railing so that she faced the next group advancing along the boiler. She hadn’t used the crossbow yet so she prayed to herself and lifted the handle. She heard a click but nothing happened. She shook the weapon but still nothing. The closest Raider was now only six feet away and had already drawn his rusted axe. Then she remembered Thrax’s words about the handle. She slammed it down hard and the bolt rushed out and hit the man in the chest. He looked down and then back at her.

“You bitch!” he shouted.

The man started to climb over the railing and onto the platform. Thrax was right, the power was significantly less than a normal crossbow, even at this range the bolt had only gone in a few inches through the man’s light armour. She considered dropping the weapon and drawing her sword but curiosity got the better of her. With a quick motion, she pumped the handle up and down. It was hard work but after the first movements, she got the rhythm. Bolt after bolt whistled out and struck not just the man, but the two climbing over the fence behind him. When she stopped, she was stunned to find one man slumped over the fence with four bolts in his chest, neck and head. The other two had either fallen or jumped.

“Wow!” she said as she turned to check on the rest of the train.

Two more Raiders were fighting Ulric and Thrax but they couldn’t force their way onto the platform. Half a dozen bodies were already resting on the ground around the ladders. The head of Khan appeared and he threw himself onto the platform. Anna was in the way and without hesitating he grabbed her and threw her over the side to the waiting Raiders on the ground. His size and bulk knocked aside Ulric and Thrax was almost thrown from the side. Synne moved to help but another had arrived from the boiler and she swung around to slow him down. Pulling the lever, she emptied the remaining bolts into the man, the effect being quick and devastating. As the man fell, she drew her sword and rushed in to help Thrax in his battle with Khan.

The huge warrior swung a flail in his right hand and stabbed with a wicked looking knife. It was slightly curved and the back of the blade was serrated. Thrax had already taken a nasty wound to his left arm but it had allowed him to get close enough to get Khan into an arm lock. Ulric rushed forward to help him.

“Grab his other arm!” shouted Thrax.

Ulric ducked underneath the flail and grabbed the man but he refused to be held. With a massive effort, the Raider lifted his knee and delivered a savage kick to Ulric’s stomach that sent him flying to the ground. Synne rushed over to him and dragged him clear of the two men.

“Are you okay?” she asked.

“Yeah, I’ll live, help Thrax!” he groaned.

Eric who until now had been fighting on the other platform jumped over to help. Khan spotted the movement and with a quick stab caught the poor man in the throat, tearing a great hole that could have decapitated a mule. The lifeless body of Eric dropped down to join the many others that had fallen in the fight.

Synne needed no encouragement and rushed to the side of the platform. Khan was so busy wrestling with Thrax that she was able to deliver a wicked slash down his back. To her dismay, the cut simply opened up the other layer of his clothing, revealing tight-fitting leather under armour that absorbed the bulk of the slash. The blow did hit hard enough however to make him stumble. Thrax twisted his arm around and charged to the ladder. Both of them stumbled over the edge but Thrax managed to hang onto the top rung as Khan tumbled to the bottom with a crash. Synne reached out and helped pull him to the top.

From their position, the battle appeared to be going their way. One building was on fire and a tower had smoke belching from it. The rest of the buildings remained well defended, and repeated crossbow bolts and stabs with spears were keeping the buildings clear. A low rumble from a war horn blasted through the plain and in less than a few minutes the surviving horsemen were riding away to the north.

Ulric, with the help of Synne dragged himself up to the side and looked out to the field of battle. He watched the riders moving well out of range of their weapons where they appeared to stop.

“Why are they waiting?”

“It is simple, they were caught by surprise. The next attack will be even worse than before,” replied Ulric.

Another horn, this time much quieter came from the north.

“No, look, can you see that?” shouted Synne.

“Yeah, I see it, they’re bringing reinforcements,” said Thrax with a tone of resignation in his voice.

“We can hold them though, right?” she asked.

“That isn’t up to us, look,” he said, pointing down to a group of people emerging from the town and riding out on horses towards the horse that waited not half a mile away. One of them carried a long pole with a white flag hanging from it.

“It’s that idiot Jackson! What is he doing?” asked Synne.

“A white flag, they are looking for a truce,” answered Ulric.

“I don’t believe this. A truce for what, surrender?” she demanded.

“Who knows? We need to be ready. If they return and try to hand over the Trading Post we will have to intervene. I know the Brotherhood, they are oath breakers and will say anything to get what they want. Cainon cannot be trusted. Just like his father,” said Thrax bitterly.

“They are coming back!” said Ulric.

“That was quick, is that good?” asked Synne.

“Not usually, come on, let’s get down, we need to find out what that idiot has said,” said Thrax and he lowered himself down the ladder. Synne and Ulric followed though both held their weapons out to the side, ready for trouble.

Jackson approached along with two other riders.

“What the hell are you doing, Jackson?” demanded Ulric.

“I’m doing what you should be doing, resolving this peacefully and without killing half the town.”

“You fat oaf, we’re trying to protect you all. What did you tell them?” shouted an angry Synne.

“It doesn’t matter, they won’t negotiate unless we hand over the children of Galan,” he said, whilst looking down at Synne from his horse.

“Look,” said Thrax.

Three Raiders including the clan’s standard bearer, a short but heavily built warrior, as well as Cainon and Khan approached them. The three moved on foot and like Thrax they carried their weapons in the open. Cainon looked vicious, his clothing and armour were damaged and ripped and he bled from several minor wounds. Khan, despite his previous setback looked equally dangerous. In front of him, Cainon pushed the fragile figure of Anna, now in chains. Thrax turned to Synne and Ulric.

“Be careful, you cannot trust these bastards, I promise you!”

“Yeah, he’s right, move back to the buildings, we need cover if they try anything,” replied Ulric.

They all moved their way back until they stood just twenty or so feet from the nearest building. Some of the defenders hung out of the windows to watch, whilst small contingents left the safety of the cover to get out and watch the events unfold. Behind Cainon, the rest of the enemy force approached but at a careful distance. They were close enough that they could rush in to assist their commanders, but not close enough that they could be easily hit with most of the projectile weapons used by the town’s defenders.

Cainon stopped no more than ten feet away from Synne and her group. He said nothing, just stared into her face in her eyes. Khan, the animal that he was, growled but like Cainon, said nothing. The rest of the Raiders had already dismounted and formed up into a large line of men where they could watch.

“What about the reinforcements?” whispered Synne.

“They’re already here, look to the left,” replied Ulric quietly.

Synne moved her eyes over to her left and spotted about another thirty or forty men dismounting and running over to join the rest of the Raiders. One of their group carried a different banner to Cainon.

“They must be another clan from the Brotherhood,” she replied.

“Yeah, great,” answered Ulric.

Jackson dismounted from his horse, which was quickly taken away by some of his lackeys. He took a few steps ahead of everybody else to face Cainon. Thrax, Ulric and Synne also stepped forward until the two small groups faced off against each other.

“What do you want, Cainon?” demanded Synne.

Cainon snorted and spat on the ground.

“I don’t speak to rats like you,” he growled.

“You will...and you will like it.”

The group of Raiders separated as the leader of the reinforcements arrived. As he approached, it was clear he was much older and far more distinguished than the rest of the men there. He moved up to Cainon and Khan who both bowed down before him. After speaking quietly, he then took a few steps to face Synne and her allies. Ulric instantly recognised him.

“Master Lar, you bastard!” he shouted.

The man gave an evil grin whilst looking at the group. He spotted Thrax, a glimmer of recognition in his eyes.

“Thrax?” he asked.

“Yes, you old snake, it is me,” he replied with scorn.

“Interesting. Well, I see you are all getting along well?”

He stepped to the side so the rest of the people of Horizon could see him.

“I have a proposal for this Trading Post. If you leave immediately, you can live, for a while. Stay and you die,” he shouted with an evil laugh.

The people were visibly shaken by the man though from the expressions on some of them Synne was convinced he had been here before.

“Why did you attack Haven? What are you up to?” demanded Synne.

“The League is weak, we will combine it with us to create something, well, what is the word, something more agreeable,” he said with a sneer.

Some of the defenders were already starting to move away from the defences and it was clear Cainon had spotted this, as he leaned in and whispered to Lar.

“We need to do something and fast, look at them!” said Synne as quietly but as forcibly as she could manage without being noticed.

Thrax heard her and had also spotted their weakening position. He needed to do something to turn the tables and give them a fighting chance. There was only one thing he could think of.

“I demand a Contest of Champions!”

The look on Lar’s face instantly told Synne that he had made the right choice. Whereas before his expression had been one of confidence, a glimmer of doubt had slipped in.

“Never. We have nothing to prove!” he replied with venom.

“Your brave leader refuses a Contest with us, this little band of fighters!” shouted Thrax.

He turned to the people of Horizon, most of whom were stood in a mixture of fear and awe. 

“Look at these brave warriors!” he shouted, as he pointed to Lar and his men.

“They are professional and they quake at the chance to fight us in a Contest!” he shouted even louder.

A few in the background started to laugh. Others around them joined in and in just seconds the tension of the situation changed completely as they started laughing and shouting towards the Raiders.

Cainon was speaking loudly into Lar’s ear, but with the din of laughter, Synne couldn’t hear what they were saying. Khan stood there, saying nothing, just staring directly at Thrax, his intentions were clear and obvious. The warriors behind Cainon were starting to fidget. Whether it was because of doubts of the inevitable battle or because they were unimpressed with the lack of valour of their leaders was impossible to tell.

“Well, will you fight us or will you leave the work to everybody else?” shouted Ulric.

Lar shouted loudly, holding his sword to the air. A silence gathered over the group of warriors, each waiting to hear what he had to say. Though the numbers were roughly even, the defenders of Horizon had the advantage of the buildings and the towers. It could go either way but a large number would die to settle the decision. Synne and her group knew it and so did Lar.

“The Brotherhood has never turned down a Contest!” he shouted though his expression showed he was less than impressed.

The army of the Brotherhood roared in approval at their master’s decision.

“Now, our demands are simple. With our victory we will occupy Horizon, the League will cede this entire territory and…” he said as he pointed to Synne

“I will take Synne for our personal pleasure!” he added with a roar.

The men shouted with approval. Synne started to move forward, goaded by his insults. Ulric grabbed her arm and stopped her.

“They’re just provoking us. Stay calm,” he said quietly.

“We accept your conditions, now here are ours,” answered Ulric.

Ulric turned to the people of Horizon and then back to Lar.

“If we are victorious you will hand over all your territories along the tracks up to your settlement and your mine. Plus, you will hand over a hostage of our choosing!” he shouted.

“Done!” replied Lar quickly, before the crowds even had time to digest what had been said.

The leader of the Brotherhood clan turned and walked away, flanked by the standard bearer, Cainon and the still snarling Khan. He stopped and turned back for one last comment.

“We will meet in our hour for the decision, if you are not there we burn this place to the ground. Here, you can have her as a token of our intentions,” he said as he signalled to Cainon to push Anna in front of them before returning to his men. She stumbled and fell a few feet in front of Ulric who helped her up. As the enemy moved away to a safe distance, Synne and her companions stepped back to the safety of the buildings.

“Why did you do that?” asked Synne.

“Simple, this way we only need to win one small battle. Look at the people of Horizon, they would never have stood another attack. I doubt they even have enough ammunition for another fight. This way we risk less, plus, we get to choose who on our side will fight,” said a grinning Thrax.

“They will do the same though and they have a whole army to choose from!” said Ulric.

Well, we had better find another dozen people to join us.

“You should be happy,” said Thrax to Synne.

“Why is that?” she replied.

“You are going to fight in the Battle of the Thirty!” he said with a laugh.