Despite sharing two colors, the Mardu and the Abzan couldn't be more different. The Mardu emphasize speed, moving fast and striking hard to seize the spoils of victory. The Abzan believe in endurance, outlasting their opponents and fighting to be the last ones standing.
"Captain." The lieutenant jogged up beside him, kicking up a spray of dusty sand that drifted sideways in the breeze sweeping across the craggy steppes that hot afternoon. "Do you see that smoke there on the horizon, to the east of Golem Rock? That could be a Mardu camp." He raised his arm to illustrate the vector and pointed with his gloved hand, each overlapping metal plate of the articulated fingers clicking into place as he straightened his index finger.
"Good eye," Riza responded, scanning in that direction. "But that is no Mardu encampment. We would see many campfires as they like to make a show of numbers in order to confuse enemies. And if it was a Mardu scout, the only evidence we would see would be the hoof prints left in the dirt." Riza breathed a quiet sigh of relief that his lieutenant was wrong. Let us pray, he thought, that we do not make contact with the enemy for the remainder of this patrol. He looked over his shoulder at his men, fifty strong, walking in two columns, maintaining a disciplined march, but engaged in small talk and laughter.
"When I get back to my wife," his krumar chief of scales boasted, "I'm going to drink an entire jug of wine, eat an entire hindquarter of a goat, and I will not leave my bedroom for two days."
"And I," Riza replied, "will sing my children to sleep." He paused. "And then drink a jug of wine, eat a goat, and retire to my bedroom." His men laughed as they marched the shepherd's path that paralleled the Salt Road, moving ever farther from the safety and civilization of the Abzan territories.
As the day wore into a reddish afternoon, the lieutenant again hurried up to the commander's side.
"Commander, do you see that smoke there?" He pointed it out in the hazy distance. "It looks like many campfires."
"Yes," Riza replied slowly, his smile fading, "I do see that." He stopped and his men drew to a halt behind him. "What do you make of that?"
"Sir," his battle priest said, "I do not think that is a campfire. I sense something very different."
The patrol marched on, more quietly now as they slowly approached the distant smoke. It became obvious that it was not campfires they were seeing but burning buildings, as the smoke rolled up thick and black, drifting back and forth in the shifting desert winds. The men grew silent and wary, keeping keen eyes in all directions. The patrol's falconer dispatched their buzzard who screeched as he took wing, a stray feather circling back to the ground behind him.
Eventually, they reached the source of the smoke, a summer camp for the shepherds who grazed their flocks in the grasses of the nearby mountain slopes. The horror of the scene was hard for the men to absorb. They had seen villages ravaged by Mardu hordes before, but nothing quite this brutal. The small village lay in utter desolation. No survivors were left. Men, women, and children lay where they fell, splayed open or missing limbs and heads. Each of the wood-framed lean-to huts smoldered, with not one left standing.
The patrol fruitlessly looked for survivors. The scouts counted hoof-prints to determine the size of the horde that had moved on to the north, estimating at least one hundred.
I do not want to meet this horde, the commander thought as he ordered his men to bury the bodies.
The hordechief dropped the goat bone he had just stripped of its meat and chugged the last gulps of wine before letting the vessel fall to the ground and break.
"This is the fruits of our labor!" he exclaimed to his warriors as he slumped back on his pillows. The small army arrayed across the field before him looked up from its meat and wine to hail its fearless leader.
"Backstabber, take stock of our new supplies and figure how long before we must loot again."
Backstabber took a final bite and slinked away to count the stolen goats and cheeses.
"Nightrider, we must discuss our next target." He motioned his advisor to come closer. "The shepherds will be moving their flocks north to the villages for winter. Let us raid while the pickings are easy." And keep away from Abzan strongholds when we can, he thought.
He surveyed his horde—orcs, humans, goblins, horses, all relying on him. They need me, he thought, self-satisfied yet grave. Their survival depends on my unwavering certainty. Any crack in my façade is the opportunity another will take to become horde leader. It is how I gained my rank, it is the way of our people, and it is what has kept us alive for so many generations.
He was roused from his introspection by the return of one of his spies. The diminutive goblin slinked up and whispered in his ear.
"I have news. An Abzan patrol is tailing us, only half a day's ride to the south. Their numbers are half of ours, mostly on foot, well-armed and armored, and they know we are here. They have seen the shepherd camp." He looked up at his leader, awaiting a reaction.
The horde leader breathed out slowly, reached for a nearby flagon, and drank deeply.
"We are outnumbered two to one," Riza, the patrol captain, said to his top lieutenants, who stood in a circle around a map of the area. "I do not think direct confrontation is wise."
"Sir," said his battle priest, "we are the law on the Salt Road. If we do not act, more innocents will surely die."
"If we march out there and confront the Mardu," Riza replied, "we will find ourselves outflanked, outnumbered, and completely open to their deadly archery. If we are slaughtered by the horde, no one will protect the shepherds who feed the Sandsteppe Gateway."
His men murmured consent. I am afraid, he thought, but I must remain steadfast. The Mardu strike like lightning on a dry day. We will be slaughtered like stray dogs and I will never see my family again.
"We will fall back to the oasis at Canyon Falls and await the larger Salt Road patrol. Once we rendezvous, we will have the strength and support to drive the horde back to their lands. Lieutenant, send runners to find the patrol and apprise them of our situation. Also, engage our spy to put eyes on the horde."
When the Abzan had finished burying the dead and giving their rites, the patrol rested briefly before packing up and backtracking toward the oasis.
The hordechief stood up and brushed crumbs and gristle from his belly.
"Abandon your feast," he yelled with a suddenness that froze his warriors arrayed around him for hundreds of yards. "The foolish Abzan have sent a patrol after us that is half our strength. Once we slaughter them we will be free to raid these lands at our will. Anyone who makes an Abzan kill may claim the spoils of the body."