If nothing else, Velhaf admired the stamina of the southmen. Approximately ten of their leaders rode atop horses at the fore of men running on foot. The tromped to a halt in orderly ranks as if with one mind and waited in rigid silence. Their skins had burned red and their red and blond hair seemed matted from perspiration.
“They must come from a colder clime,” he said aside to Sodnammoc.
The old priest grunted, dipping his dog cowled head.
“How many do you think there are?” Velhaf asked.
“About two hundred, give or take a score.”
Vindavian spears glinted in the sun. Mannis, standing next to his father, pointed at the long knives scabbarded on the southmen’s belts. Kaliva, now the tallest and broadest of the tribe, stood a couple of paces to Velhaf’s right. The rest of the men, stood in a huddled group as the women and children watched from behind.
At the fore of the southmen, a man sat astride a white horse. His clothing seemed different to the others. Like his fellow riders, he wore a crimson cape and helmet, but the helmet looked more ornate.
“Looks like a pompous one,” sneered Kaliva, now joining his chieftain.
Velhaf snorted. He had to agree. A blacksmith would have spent days making the helmet unnecessarily attractive.
The Southman leader gestured. One of the riders to the leader’s right held out his hand. A foot man lobbed a spear, for the rider to catch deftly. A triangular piece of green cloth flapped from its pointed tip. Their mounts walked abreast of each other toward the village. It gave Velhaf a closer look at the green cloth. This part of the southmen’s actions he understood. The dog tribe too had an emblem of a snarling dog’s head against a deep blue background.
They reined their horses to a halt a few paces short of the fence.
“Who will speak for you?” asked the leader.
“I do,” called Velhaf.
“I am Merikay, a ruscatron of king Natas’ forces.”
“What is a ruscatron?”
“A minor officer, normally in command of 100 men, but as you see, I have 200. I take it you are the chieftain here?”
“King Velhaf of the Dog tribe,” he corrected sternly.
Merikay smirked. “Well, that is why we have marched here from across the river. I had hoped to persuade you to willingly pledge your allegiance to Natas.”
“With 200 hundred armed men?”
“They are merely a deterrent, and also an assurance of victory against any hostile actions.”
Merikay sighed heavily. “Look, Velhaf. The destruction of your village is something neither of us want. We are better armed and disciplined and let me tell you, experience counts for much. For years we have fought men who scratch around in the dirt like you. All have fallen to our swords, and Natas’ empire grows stronger each day. So I beg of you, let us end this day in peace. What say you; will you pledge allegiance to Natas?”