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In a short story I am writing, a human kingdom on the technological level of late bronze age greece, has begun to be raided by a species of cruel catfolk called grimalkin.

The humans are neither aware of the fact that below their feet lies an expansive cavern system or that said cavern system is inhabited by tribes of grimalkin and as the tribes are mostly interested in warring among themselves, there have not been any recorded or memorized encounters between the two peoples so far.

At this point in time however, the tribes of grimalkin have been united under a single banner for the first time and looking for resources to support their increasing population, have begun to venture above ground. Of course, the unaware humans with their focus on agricultural villages ruled over by a local king are a alluring target. Human villages, are built to deal with other humans at this time, with palisades, lookout towers, and from time to time a moat. Generally they are distanced at least a few hours of travel on foot from each other, and surrounded by fields and forests.

Hoping to stay undetected for as long as possible, the raiders keep to a very strict organisation for their attacks.

  1. Scouting. Takes a few days up to a week. At night and from hiding, scouts stalk the inhabitants of their target villages, to get an estimate the number of inhabitants and the strength of their defenses.

  2. Preparation. Takes up to a few weeks. While the scouts are doing their job, a group of tunnelers prepare an entrance into the villages midst by sapping a fortified tunnel (using physical tools such as shovels and picks made from various materials such as bone, antler, copper, flint and bronze and with the help of large tamed creatures similar to pangolins) as close to the surface as possible.

  3. Attack. the raiders aim for less than two hours to completely subdue their opponents. Once preparations are complete, the raiders begin their assault. Around midnight, the tunnel is collapsed to gain fast entry past the defenses, while a separate group encircles the village. Altogether, the raiders match the defenders numbers to take even the slightest advantage from the villagers. The encircling group also hunts down anyone trying to escape the village and keeps watch for possible travellers or patrols that could attempt to come to the aid of the defenders, to prevent precious informations leaking to other humans.

  4. Gathering. Depending on the amount of loot, and the time needed for the other stages, this is meant to take between 3 - 6 hours. Once the ensuing struggle has concluded, surving humans are taken prisoner and abducted through the tunnels, to serve as slaves or source of food. Any cattle is slaughtered and also taken along with any valuables, harvest and other useful supplies.

  5. Cleanup. Planned to take around 1-2 hours. Any grimalkin that did not survive and other traces such as discarded weapons, armour and equipment of underground origin are removed from the battlefield, the village is put to the torch and tunnels are fully collapsed. The former entrance underground is sealed with large boulders and packed earth. Once an attack is concluded, the grimalkin will not target another village in the vicinity for at least a month.

Assuming the grimalkin stay vigilant and keep to this schedule, but depending on success will risk attacks on more and more well defended and more populated towns following the same, or slightly altered attack pattern, how long is it likely going to take for the humans take to find out the concrete origin of the attack as well as the schedule?

Given the somewhat sparse population density of most bronze age civilisation and that even if the humans dig out the collapsed tunnels, they will just end up in a completely dark and hostile environment without a grimalkin in sight, I believe that it could take years to discover the truth, but I might have overlooked something.

Also, as a secondary bonus, what could be some effective methods for a local king who is able to field an troop of around fifty men within a day or two to and a larger army over a few weeks protect the lands that he owns?

I am not looking for information on the realism of the grimalkin's existance, whether these raids are even worthwhile or the technological level they would need to burrow tunnels as described in a real world scenario.

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    $\begingroup$ I guess as soon as the Grimalkin miss two normal survivors, or one highly respected one, or a few soldiers escape on horses or a boat, or a relieving patrol engages the Grimalkin and reports back; how do you estimate such a thing? I think shorter than years, unless they target very small villages. $\endgroup$
    – user86462
    Commented Jan 4, 2023 at 10:21
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    $\begingroup$ Or a scout gets caught (the most likely weak spot other than missing survivors?), or has a heart attack, or the locals win despite being outnumbered, or the local king notices the attacks all feature tunnels, or the Grimalkin cock up their geotech and open up a tunnel, or a Grimalkin turns traitor. $\endgroup$
    – user86462
    Commented Jan 4, 2023 at 10:29
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    $\begingroup$ One question per post. $\endgroup$
    – sphennings
    Commented Jan 4, 2023 at 10:30
  • $\begingroup$ It's not like encirclement was always 100% effective when people did it. $\endgroup$
    – user86462
    Commented Jan 4, 2023 at 10:32
  • $\begingroup$ Underground tunnels, depending on their vicinity to the surface and their amount, will be found out sooner rather than later. What kind of soil do the lands these tribes inhabit have? $\endgroup$
    – Joachim
    Commented Jan 4, 2023 at 10:38

4 Answers 4

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A few hours at best.

By the bronze age, humans had domesticated dogs. Dogs are extremely good at hunting down cats with smell and sound and sight, and would extremely quickly spot the scouts and try to eat them. They're also pretty stealthy and fast, so they'd probably kill them.

Soon the scouts would become a regular source of meat to supplement the diet of the surface dwellers who are much better at piercing stealth on the surface than cave dwellers are at hiding.

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    $\begingroup$ A very good point and one that I had not considered at all, admittedly. I suppose I'll have to think of a solution to that. Poison, maybe. $\endgroup$
    – Amianas
    Commented Jan 4, 2023 at 14:15
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    $\begingroup$ It's pretty hard to selectively poison them. The only common resources, wells and rivers, tend to have constant traffic on them because water provides power, water, fish, washing, ores, and is extremely valuable. A conquering army can poison wells and food resources but it's not an easy subtle action. Food supplies are watched pretty closely for obvious reasons. $\endgroup$
    – Nepene Nep
    Commented Jan 4, 2023 at 15:10
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Small, outlying settlements can be ambushed, large cannot

If we're assuming british bronze age settlements (as that's what I'm familiar with)

I suspect the Grimalkin would manage attacks on small, outlying settlements. Even if there were survivors, they'd likely not understand how the attacks occur, and perhaps even what enemy they're facing. Walls around small settlements would help protect against attackers, but would mostly be for keeping cattle inside.

However, Late bronze/iron age saw the emergence of hill forts - these were big structures, with room for 1000+ people to live in, large, packed earth banks with wooden structures, guardhouses, and, most importantly for the story, beacons and sentries. After a few attacks on outlying settlements, people will begin to congregate in these structures. In the area where I grew up, each hill fort is in visual range of the next one - i.e, a big beacon can be seen by the next structure, either from smoke or fire. There will be sentries watching for attacks, along with large hunting dogs, closest to wolves (and sometimes actual wolves, as reported by the Romans.) If there have been attacks on settlements, almost everyone who can fight will be armed in some way.

The first thing that happens if there is an attack is that the beacons are lit. A large hill fort has long and roundhouses that would be decently defensible. To prevent holdouts, the Grimalkin would have to individually tunnel under both the walls, and into some of the larger settlements. Coordinating this timing will be difficult, and, if they're close to the surface, may be audible to the defenders. If they're noticed ahead of time, they'll be emerging into a mob of spearmen, from a tunnel they have limited space to exit.

If this works, the Grimalkin will still have issues. A round house is built with slabs of stone for the lower walls - it would be fairly defensible, such as some determined spearmen could hold the entrance for some time. Setting fire to the roof would be a quick way to flush them out, but would be very obvious to the neighbouring forts that an attack is happening.

The defenders only have to hold out until help can reach them from the neighbouring fort. The Grimalkin have the element of suprise, true, but they're unlikely to take the fort fast enough that warnings cannot go out. If the other forts are warned, they'll send scouting parties to investigate. It won't be obvious who the attackers are, but it will be obvious how the attacks were carried out - no amount of work in the few hours they have before help arrives would conceal the giant tunnels through the earthworks. It may even be hard to finish the attack before the relief force arrives - I've hiked between two of the closer hill forts in around 3 hours, at a relatively gentle pace.

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Is your goal (as the writer) to explain how the attacks remained undetected, or is it to explain how they were defeated?

  • Do the Grimalkin have better night vision than humans? Attack at dusk, so they can disappear before dawn.

  • They don't dig directly from their underground lairs, unless your story needs that. Instead, the tunnel goes from a forest nearby under the fortifications. Even if humans excavate the collapsed exit, all it gets them is a disposable entry.

  • Grimalkin are part of the local folk myths, and a generation ago a gang of robbers used Grimalkin masks to terrify their victims. Surely this is more of the same ...

  • Grimalkin are part of the local myths, and there is a dark cult worshipping them. Surely this is just another cultist outbreak ...

  • A Grimalkin tunneling crew hits a well that is in frequent use. During daylight. The Grimalkin are not yet ready to attack, but they fight the villagers who get winched down the well. There is noise, the perimeter is not yet in place, word gets out.

  • Villagers put bowls of water into their cellars, with sentries to look for vibration. Especially at night, when nobody should be moving around. With enough warning, horse-mounted archers go hunting for the Grimalkin scouts during daylight.

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/ separate group encircles the village. Altogether, the raiders match the defenders numbers to take even the slightest advantage from the villagers./

The group outside the village occupies a large area. They will leave tracks and other spoor. Persons investigating the empty village will find all these strange Grimalkin tracks. They will realize that there are no tracks leading into or out of the village and so the entities leaving the tracks somehow appeared in the village. I did not see that dead humans are removed from the village and looking at remains would let investigators conclude these humans did not die from supernatural forces - there would be weapon wounds. If the dead are heaped up and burned that too shows nonsupernatural agencies.

A person familiar with the village who was not there when the raid happened could identify the place where the earth had been disturbed and repaired.

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