The wagons were pulled by giant horned goats native to the area around the Southern Metal Sea. Normal horses were not strong enough to pull such heavy loads, and they did not do well in the constant heat, nor was there anywhere for them to graze. Importing exceptional horses that could match the steelhead goats would be more expensive for the same effect.
Barrett listened to the sound of their hooved hitting the ground, the wheels turning, and people breathing and moving. There wasn’t always anything to say, so there were long stretches of silence on journeys of more than a day or two. Barrett had been working on his hearing, not just because it was useful in general, but specifically because his biggest enemies at the moment were the Silver Blade. If they caught him sleeping, they could easily kill him- as long as they were second tier or higher, and not careless. Barrett was still trying to find a balance between getting woken up at every noise and not hearing enough. On the road, however, hearing everything was the best training and forewarning. “Riders are coming,” Barrett said to Iokua, “Maybe a couple dozen. About a kilometer that way, off the road.” The current terrain was hilly, with boulders strewn about and uneven terrain. There were also shrubs and a fairly large number of trees. Perhaps enough to be called a forest, but the metal trees grew smaller than normal trees, and further apart. Even so, there were enough things around to dampen the sound… but there were also enough riders that Barrett could still pick them out from a reasonable distance.
Iokua didn’t hesitate or question Barrett’s words. He had already seen evidence of Barrett’s hearing, and they suspected an attack. “Double time! Head for the outcropping to the southwest! Enemies incoming!”
The caravan had almost two dozen guards, and while the enemy might not have outnumbered them, seeking a better defensive position was always the right choice. Behind the rock outcropping they could not be charged as easily, and the back was more open so they could escape that way if they needed to. The enemy could circle around, but that would take time and let them react. There was also a chance the riders weren’t actually enemies, in which case they would go their separate ways.
Of course, riders didn’t go off road for no reason. Iokua recognized them first, “Tch. The Heavy Blades.” He turned to Barrett to explain, “A bunch of mercenaries barely better than bandits. Alright men, get ready! Bows out!” Iokua once again explained to Barrett, “Their control of metal generally doesn’t extend beyond their own weapons and armor. They’re fairly typical warriors… but not pushovers.”
If Barrett had known that, he could have worn his armor… but the armor wasn’t always better. He was faster and more agile without it, and it wasn’t like he couldn’t take a hit without it either. Generally it was better to have more defenses, but it wasn’t as big of a difference between having armor and not for Barrett as it was for a normal person.
The Heavy Blades rode in on steelhead goats, and they all carried long hafted axes at their sides, as well as holding a shield in one hand. Once they were somewhat clear from the scattered trees, the caravan’s guards opened up with a volley of arrow fire. Most of them were blocked by shields, or ricocheted off armor, but some of the steelhead goats or their riders were still injured.
The Heavy Blades didn’t just wait to approach. Instead, they pulled out strange slips of metal, which a moment later Barrett recognized as some sort of slings. Metal normally wasn’t suited for such use, but it obviously worked. They launched nearly fist sized rocks at great speed.
Barrett reached out to catch one that was going straight for Iokua’s face. “I might suggest you take cover…”
Iokua’s next action showed he agreed. He might have understanding of business and tactics but he was not a cultivator. He moved back behind a wagon just as several more rocks flew towards him. Barrett carefully checked their trajectories to make sure he was safe, while at the same time throwing back the first rock he had caught and catching another.
Of course, slings were capable of throwing rocks much further than the human arm, but that didn’t stop Barrett’s attack from striking one of the attackers hard enough to break their arm through the shield they blocked with. After all, they were mostly first tier cultivators, though Barrett thought there were a few second tier among them. There was one final volley from the Heavy Blades and Barrett took out two more of their number before they reached the outcropping.
The steelhead goats had no trouble jumping up onto and over the two meter tall boulders, but they lost their momentum- which was good enough. Cavalry that couldn’t charge was half as dangerous, at most. Kail was on the front line, and as one of the riders swung his axe down, he stepped forward and grabbed their upper arm, pulling them off and slinging them over his head into the ground. The riderless goat tried to turn to headbutt him with its horns, but Kail pulled one of its legs out from under it.
Barrett had also moved forward, and three riders converged on the open area around him. The lead rider’s goat stumbled as Barrett shifted the ground beneath its hooves, but sadly it didn’t go down. Barrett wasn’t sure what they thought of him- unarmed and seemingly unarmored- but they definitely didn’t hold back in their attacks. As the lead rider attacked from the front, the other two went around to flank him.
The goat bent down to ram Barrett with its horns while the rider had readied his axe to swing down if Barrett dodged to the side. Instead of dodging, Barrett met the attack nearly head on. He hadn’t fought any steelhead goats- they were too valuable to leave roaming the lands, and weren’t predators so they didn’t seek him out during his travels. However, he knew they were tough. Any ram was, especially the head… but steelhead goats weren’t named that just for fun. Perhaps he could have caused some damage if he struck it in the head… but there was no need to fight suboptimally.
In a way, Barrett did dodge slightly. He took a half step to his right as he grabbed the horns of the goat, muscles straining as he flung it around toward one of the flanking riders. He forced his center of gravity to be at his feet so that he could avoid swinging himself around instead- and even so the rocky ground sprayed up as the spikes of berserk energy grounding him tore through it. Still, it was enough to throw the goat off course into the other with a resounding crash. Barrett grinned. There was no point in doing so much strength training if he didn’t use it.