"He can not attack from the northward sides," Arrio was saying. "The river bends there and protects us."
"Yes," said Vencel. "He would rather come in along the road; he would have the river to protect his right flank, at least."
Gemma took the earthen jug of ale from the tray and offered it to Vencel. He took it absently, drank, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
"Thank you lass," said Arrio as he took the jug in his turn. "I do not think he will come along the road. The ground there is clear, it is true, but turns upwards rapidly as you approach the town. Janus would find himself advancing uphill against a charge. There is a reason the citizens of the Empire built on bluffs."
"Ah, I did not know that," said Vencel. He seized one of the small loaves from Gemma's tray and broke into it. "I came the opposite way, from across the ferry. It is good you are here Arrio; it will save me much time if I do not have to learn the land."
His long finger traced the line of the river inked on the parchment.
"So he must attack from the south."
"Yes, there is an open place here as the bluffs run along the river. He will most likely send his scouts into the trees, and draw up on flat ground during the night."
"The sun is wrong for him," Vencel mused. "He may wait out the morning to attack."
"Aye," said Arrio, eating cheese. "Further, he does not know you are here. He will be hoping to wear down the rebels with waiting. This is good cheese, lass."
"Lucky for us that I am here," Vencel said. "I will lead them out at first light. General Janus will not be expecting a sortie from this lot of public rabble."
The two men grinned at each other with satisfaction. Vencel's face was like a hunting wolf.
"You will lead? But. . ." Gemma started. She bit her lips as she realized she had spoken aloud.
Vencel turned to her. "Yes, I will lead the men," he said. "The enemy will be numerous and well equipped. They will have mail and spears of steel. Maybe they will even bring some long lancers. I do not know; my scouts have not returned yet. But there is one advantage we have that they do not. You see, General Janus has grown soft. He has forgotten the old ways of the great Imperial generals. He will stay back in the trees here" - a long finger tapped the map - "and let his men run off the troublesome rebels for him." Vencel straightened up and his eyes flashed. "He does not know that I am here. He does not know that tomorrow when he faces this petty rebellion he will find strong men led in front by a captain who can show them how to fight and how to die."
Gemma had taken in only one word of three from this speech, but she heard at the end of it the words "to die." She turned away hurriedly and busied herself rearranging the tray.
Arrio could see the twisting eyebrows that Gemma hid from Vencel. He set a sympathetic hand on her shoulder.
"It's not as bad as all that, lass," he said. "We'll have the sun with us, and we'll be fighting on our own ground. And," his eyes flashed with cunning, "it will take Janus a day or two to get here, and another to push his unwashed pig's ass army into position."
Gemma's face reddened.
"Sorry," Arrio muttered. He cleared his throat and continued. "The main clash will happen here. With the river and the bluffs to the northwest neither of us can make a flanking move there. So my guess is Janus will have his scouts lead his lancers through the trees here and try to spring an ambush on our other flank after his spears pin us down."
"Aha, I begin to see," said Vencel. "Are you suggesting a stratagem?"
"Aye, that I am." Arrio laid a finger along side his gnarled nose. He pointed to the map at the space between the town and the forest. "We'll have at least one day before his outriders get into the forest. What if we dug some trenches here and disguise 'em. Then, maybe we sink some good sharp oak stakes along this way. We can station bowmen across to keep off anyone who tries to get too close. Janus brings his cavalry out, the horses won't ride into the stakes, so they turn this way, and poff! We have ourselves a nice mess of broken horse-legs."
Vencel was laughing. "You are truly devious my friend! I thank whatever good fortune brought us together. As a matter of fact, I had my own idea for a little trickery. Janus will be well back from the battle, and he would not be able to see beyond our shieldwall in any case." He looked at Arrio. "Have you read how Cassis defeated the barbarians at Parma?"
"He was outnumbered by the barbarians," Gemma volunteered unexpectedly. "So he thinned out his center and reinforced his flanks. When the barbarians broke through, his strong flanks had already defeated their opponents. So, they turned inwards and crushed the disorganized enemies between them. The survivors routed through the fresh soldiers that the barbarian king was sending to the battle line. Cassis swept the field and only a few hundred of his own men were lost."
Vencel was staring at her with astonishment. "Yes, that is it exactly. How. . .?"
"I like to read," said Gemma, looking at the floor.
"Ahhhh," said Arrio, a long sigh of contentment. "But, what about his scouts in the forest? They'll be able to see around the end of our line."
"Yes, exactly," said Vencel. "That is why I will reinforce the left side and lead from there. That way, the appearance of our numbers will also be exaggerated. We will easily overrun Janus' advance. The rest of our line off to the right will be just four men deep. When they break it will draw Janus forward in disarray. And then," he brought his hands together with a loud clap, "I will turn and crush them against the river."
Arrio was nodding. "Lead from the left, that will give him a nasty jolt and no mistake. It is good, it is good. There are bluffs there along the riverside, too. I would say at least one hundred feet high. If you are lucky, you can push them into the river in truth."
"But," said Gemma, feeling like a mouse in a room full of cats, "If our men in the center give away, some of the enemy soldiers may come to the village."
Vencel looked at her even more interestedly than before. "Yes, that is true. I had planned to ferry the women and children to the island for safety. I will leave a small band to protect the town from pillagers."
"I. . ." Gemma twisted her hands into her skirt. "I must be with that warband! I can fight!"
Vencel was staring at her, but Arrio was nodding. "Let her fight, lad," he said, "Let her fight. It is a need she has."
"Well," said Vencel, looking back and forth between them, "Well. Very well, though I mislike a woman to fight. But how is it that Gemma knows so much of warfare? I sense some tale here. Someday you must tell it to me."
"Aye," said Arrio. "After the victory!"
"Indeed," said Vencel. "After the victory."