Age of War (Part XXIII)

The only sound the scout made as the arrow slammed into his chest was a breathless gasp of surprise. For a moment he stared down at the feathered shaft sticking out of him and then slowly toppled from the saddle of his horse. The animal whinnied in panic and looked as if it was about to bolt, but Albrihn was there, emerging from the shadows on his own horse to place a firm, reassuring hand on the skittish beast’s bridle. The last thing they needed was riderless horses heading back to their masters, alerting them that enemies were in their midst, and no one had any desire to put them to the knife. He trotted deeper into the forest, where Morrow and a handful of others were waiting. There were three other horses missing their riders in amongst the group. Morrow lowered her bow and gave a brief nod in the commander’s direction. They were on the northern fringes of the Forest of Ixion now. It was a cold, moonless night, and their breath misted in the air. The trees were bare of leaves, but so dense was the forest that it hardly made a difference at all. They carried no lights, but Albrihn’s eyes had had a while to adjust to the darkness and he could make out the shifting shapes of their army all around. There were mounted soldiers and infantry too, but all lightly-armoured – if at all – and armed with bows for the most part. For his plan to work, they couldn’t allow the enemy to close in and engage them in hand to hand combat.

Albrihn guided his horse towards Morrow. “They’re complacent,” she said. “They should have their patrols combing every inch of this forest.”

“They’re only a few leagues from home. They’re not expecting to be attacked.”

“I hope you’re right, commander.”

“So do I.” He squinted towards the south. There were lights visible through the trees, bobbing up and down. Torches and lanterns, carried by the long column of soldiers snaking their way along the forest road. Ixion was a dense, twisted mass of trees, but it had been easier to drive a path through that than the rolling country all around. The road, a broad swathe of beaten earth, had passed this way for longer than any book of history recorded, and it served as a major thoroughfare. A whole industry of woodsmen existed on the edges, felling trees for timber and ensuring the road was kept clear for travellers. Albrihn didn’t know how the relentless bad weather of the last few years had affected that. They were still yet to see any farmstead or lodge in any state but ruin. “You know the plan,” he told Morrow.

“Aye, sir.”

“We wait for your signal.”

She nodded. Her face was hidden by shadows, but she looked nervous. He’d never known her to be anything but enthusiastic for a fight, but somehow this did feel different, even for him. Both of them were unused to this degree of authority. Both of them knew that many lives depended on them. Of all the battles they’d fought together, this was surely the most significant of all. So much hung in the balance tonight.

He pointed towards the distant lights. “The road is narrow up ahead. Their vanguard can’t march more than ten abreast. We’ll catch them there. No more than ten minutes. Time to go.”

“Time to go,” she said. Then, more firmly, “Time to roll the dice.”

“Sorry you don’t get to make a speech.”

“It feels odd doing it as captain.”

“Hasprit will have to take over.”

“Him?” She glanced at the grizzled lieutenant who was off to one side, watching the lights like the rest of them. He turned when he heard his name and shot them both a grin, twisted by the scarred side of his face. “He’s about as inspiring as gout.”

“Here’s my first piece of advice for being a captain: don’t badmouth your lieutenant. I never did…”

“That’s because it was me. What bad stuff could you possibly have said?”

“Fair point.” He leant across his saddle and the two of them clasped arms. “Good luck, captain.”

“I was born lucky.” She wheeled around and broke into a gallop. Her nimble horse dodged between the trees easily, and Hasprit followed. Shadows streaked off in their wake, fully half of the force, some several hundred soldiers. They’d take up position on the eastern side of the road, which meant crossing over it. Thankfully their foes were still too far away to see them – or at least that was the hope.

Albrihn turned his own horse. He had a few of the Seventh with him, but most of the others he commanded were more or less strangers. The exception was Jerl, the stocky irregular, whose band of cutthroats were standing around in loose formation, eyeing the shadows. Every one of the men and women he’d brought here was used to fighting in these kinds of conditions, where manoeuvrability and adaptability were the key factors. Saffrey’s army was big, but that would be its undoing: they were optimised for a pitched battle with blocks of infantry and cavalry columns that would smash into the flanks of their enemy. But Albrihn’s army had no flanks. They would flee like leaves before the wind if they saw any heavy horse bearing down on them. This was a new way of making war, at least on this scale. If everything went to plan, the victory would be glorious. And yet, as Albrihn rode towards the south, his contingent following behind to take up their positions on the forest road’s west side, it wasn’t glory he thought of. He looked up at the naked canopy that framed the dark sky. This civil war would cost lives Atlantis could ill afford to lose in these times. The fifteen-thousand soldiers marching straight into this trap belonged defending their towns and cities, ensuring that this great civilisation would withstand the coming horror for as long as possible.

“They’re not far, commander,” Windhael said, intruding on his thoughts.

Albrihn followed the young corporal’s gaze. He could see the enemy now: a narrow column of infantry led the way. They wore mail and carried shields and marched along the road in a steady rhythm. He was just able to make out the sound of a drumbeat, keeping them in step. He could see officers on horses on the flanks too, and more further back. A baggage cart with a handful of camp followers sitting on it. A woman was playing a bawdy song on a harp that was making the soldiers around her laugh. This was not an army that was ready for battle. He hesitated and reined in his horse.

“Commander?”

These people did not deserve to die. He looked up at the sky again. Like Morrow, he felt an unfamiliar sense of trepidation, and it wasn’t because he doubted victory would be theirs. If anything, he was more confident of that than usual. No, something felt wrong. For a moment, he considered calling off the attack. He imagined calling for a parley with Saffrey, negotiating a peace. Wouldn’t that be best for Atlantis? Surely there was some compromise that could be reached with Vion? He knew that was a fantasy. Vion was the Empress. The Empress did not compromise. The Empress did not negotiate. Saffrey was a rebel against the throne: that was all that mattered.

“Let us begin,” he finally said to the corporal, and urged his horse onwards.

There would be no horns to sound a charge, no banners unfurled, no indication that battle had been met at all in fact. It would come from the darkness, from the forest, and for many of the men and women caught in the crossfire, they would be dead before they even knew they were under attack. Albrihn waited, perhaps a hundred strides from the treeline, watching the soldiers pass by, unaware that hundreds of hostile eyes watched them. They marched in a pool of orange light cast by their torches, facing straight ahead. His troops were all around him, but they were invisible from the vantage of the road. The plan depended on precise coordination, or he would have called for the attack already if only to get this cruel business over with, and so they waited, restless, eager, or perhaps just nervous and scared. Everyone faced battle in a different manner.

A few heartbeats later, it came. A long keening whistle from the other side of the road, starting low and climbing until it could be heard across the whole forest. He couldn’t make out Morrow’s arrow against the night sky, but he could tell from the sound the special fletching made that it had flown true, straight upwards. There was a ripple of unease visible through the enemies’ ranks, with some officers turning their horses and foot-soldiers looking this way and that, trying to find the source of the odd noise. It didn’t matter now though. That was the signal, and it was too late. The first skirmish line of archers rose from the undergrowth on the edge of the forest and unleashed a volley. Arrows ploughed into the closely-packed formation of infantry, and a horse went down with an ear-splitting scream. The same chaos was unleashed on the opposite side of the road as Morrow’s force poured their own fire into the easy targets before them.

“Form up! Form up!” bellowed an officer. She urged her horse forward and was just drawing her sword, but an arrow took her in the throat and she fell limply from her saddle. The horse bolted – no one was there to calm it now – and trampled through the infantry, knocking soldiers to the ground. The arrows kept falling, but they’d managed to raise shields now and arrange themselves into some semblance of a fighting formation. The first line of archers fell back into the forest, to be replaced by another. The volleys started further up and down the road too. This was how the plan was supposed to go. They struck in waves, so that Saffrey’s army could never bring their numbers to bear. Bowfire could never win a battle: against armoured targets it could only disrupt their cohesion and cause green troops to go to ground or even flee in panic. To rout or destroy stern opposition would take a determined assault. The task of this forward contingent was to leave the enemy in disarray, so that Rykall and Hadrin’s forces at the rear could mop them up at their leisure. An army was designed to function as a unit; reduce them to fifteen-thousand desperate people, and the battle would be as good as over.

Now the enemy knew they were under attack, and their officers had begun to try to mount a proper defence. The infantry made a shieldwall and now there was a scramble for missile weapons of their own. An officer, a capable-seeming woman on foot who was shouting orders, moved the archers to the centre of the phalanx and now came the retort as arrows began to patter into the trees. The firers couldn’t see their targets, and the forest provided excellent cover. Each shot clattered harmlessly into the branches or stuck into tree trunks. Even so, it was time to move on. Albrihn signalled. “Move,” he called out. There was little risk he’d be heard above the clamour on the road now. His troops fired one last volley and then, as one, they began to move to the south. At the same time, another unit were circling around to the north. Their entire army would remain mobile, constantly shifting from wherever the fighting was fiercest to attack another place in the column. In that way, Saffrey would never know how many of them there were, or where they were concentrated.

As word of the ambush spread, the great army began to mobilise. Weapons were drawn, shields were raised and cavalry began to rush to the head of the column to meet the supposed threat. Albrihn was gratified to see a company galloping right past them, heading in exactly the wrong direction. No battle on this scale could be won easily though, and they met their first determined resistance just a few minutes later. A block of heavy infantry in ornate armour held the line further down, ducking behind high shields bearing the device of Chronus and presenting a bristling wall of spears. Arrows glanced harmlessly off them and Albrihn was just about to order his troops to move on and find easier pickings when they began to advance towards the trees. They marched in lockstep, shields still raised, moving with inexorable confidence. Albrihn didn’t know the unit, but he judged them to be an honour guard of some kind – the best and bravest fighters. They couldn’t maintain their shieldwall in the forest, but they would be a formidable threat nonetheless. “Volley!” he shouted. Arrows thundered against the tall shields and some found chinks, eliciting strangled cries of pain. They still came though. Another volley, and a handful more fell, but they would soon close in, and each of these veterans would wreak serious damage before they could be brought down. He turned and nodded to Jerl, who was waiting with her light infantry. She didn’t need to be told twice.

She was a stocky woman, but it was clear her compact form was almost pure muscle. She sprinted through the forest, drawing her mattock from her belt as she ran. Her soldiers were close behind her, all wielding their mismatched weapons. The arrows continued to fall, and as the Chronusi entered the forest and finally broke ranks, the irregulars hit. Now Albrihn saw first-hand how Jerl handled her weapon: still three strides from her chosen target – the unit’s leader, with an ornate helm and gilt-edged armour – she leapt into the air and came down on the aghast man like a thunderbolt, her mattock with all her considerable weight behind its cleaving edge, smashing straight through his steel helmet. Blood spurted and the gaudy captain fell to the ground, his skull a shattered ruin. Jerl’s troops had a similar effect, each of their vicious assaults bringing down foes, driving them back. Some were skewered by the honour guard’s spears as they charged, but for the most part the fight belonged to the light infantry, whose pell mell charge and disorderly lines were impossible to make a stand against in this terrain.

Now though any hope of secrecy was ended. The battle was joined in earnest. Albrihn nocked an arrow and guided his horse forward, taking aim as he rose up in his saddle. He could hear the thunder of hooves to the north: that cavalry company he’d seen before was on its way back, no doubt. On the other side of the road, the arrows continued to fly and he caught sight of Morrow galloping past through the trees. They were on their way but, for better or worse, Albrihn would make his stand here. He loosed as the first of the enemy cavalry came into view, taking one of their vanguard in the arm, enough to send him reeling from his saddle, and his horse crashing into his neighbours’, disrupting their advance. Seconds later they were in amongst them, and Jerl’s company was engaged in a swirling mêlée in the road. This would be the eye of the storm. He yelled a war cry and urged his horse into a gallop that took him careening out of cover. The rest of his force were close behind, laying about them with swords and axes, while arrows filled the air. The honour guard had caved in completely and were fleeing down the road, which seemed to have a demoralising effect on their nearby comrades. Albrihn fired again, slaying another of the cavalry, but now the time for bows was ended, and he discarded his casually, throwing it to the ground before drawing his sword. The captain of the cavalry was a woman with a scarred face, and she singled him out instantly. She bore a sword that looked as fine as his and charged towards him. The ring of steel filled the air as they clashed, horses dancing around one another. She was quick, this one, with a strong arm and deft technique. Twice she got past his guard, but his breastplate turned the strikes aside both times. Perhaps she’d hoped for a quick kill, because now her lunges became more desperate, and he took advantage after a feint, knocking her blade to one side and then sliding his own into her armpit where her plate met. She screamed as blood coursed down her side and he flicked his sword back to slit her throat and put her out of her misery. She slumped down in the saddle and the horse reared and ran.

More troops were coming, both his and theirs, and all semblance of good order broke down as the road devolved into a wild scrum. Horns were being sounded somewhere up the line. Albrihn swung his sword at foot-soldiers that tried to swarm him, slashing at hands and faces, leaving horror in his wake. He saw Jerl flailing with her mattock again, destroying enemies on either side. He could hear more hooves, this time from the south, and turned to see fluttering banners. A long wedge of heavy cavalry were charging right through their own troops, smashing any foot not sharp enough to move in time aside, trampling them as they rode forth. These were Chronus’s finest, he had no doubt, but as fearsome as they appeared he was grateful for their presence – they were succeeding in drawing off the enemy, leaving the rear vulnerable for Rykall and Hadrin.

“Break!” he called out. Even as Saffrey’s relief force crashed into them, they were fleeing, crossing the road and diving into the cover of trees on the eastern side. Hundreds of bodies were left in their wake, but casualties were lighter on their side. Jerl extricated herself from the swirl of combat and beat a hasty retreat. Archers sprinted from cover, firing off snapshots as they passed, aiming for horses rather than heavily-armoured riders. The heavy cavalry had shields and lances, and they drove through friend and foe alike, skewering or trampling anyone unfortunate enough to be in their path. One of Jerl’s men was lifted into the air on the gleaming steel head of a lance and thrown aside to land in a bloody heap. It was darker now: torches had been snuffed out or dropped, and there were just a few pools of light here and there. It was chaos.

“Commander!”

He turned to see Morrow a little way into the forest. She was breathing hard and patting her horse’s neck. “You should be half a mile south of here by now!”

“Something’s wrong,” she said.

Hasprit was by her side, looking around him. Soldiers, some mounted, others dodging around trees on foot, flowed around them. Some of the enemy pursued them into the brush: these were cut down in short order by more deadly volleys of arrows. “It’s the same all along the line,” he said.

“Good: that’s the plan. We’re trying to draw them off.”

“They’re rallying,” Morrow told him with a grimace. “It’s a big army, but most of them are well-drilled.”

“Then let’s hope our friends to the south arrive soon and draw them back in the opposite direction.”

“I’ve seen no sign of them, commander, that’s the thing.”

“What?” He looked southwards, trying to see some evidence of Rykall and Hadrin’s work. They were supposed to set engines and baggage alight, and he expected to see a glow on the horizon, but there was nothing. “They must have been delayed.”

“All I know,” growled Hasprit, “is these bastards are finding their feet now. We’re outnumbered.”

“We always were.”

“Yeah, but now it counts.”

“All right.” Albrihn wheeled around, trying to take stock. Saffrey’s army was beginning to form up in earnest. The arrival of the knights had rallied the other units and their captain – a burly man with a black beard streaked with grey – was taking charge, getting the infantry back into good order and having his own company draw swords now their lances were spent. It was clear he planned to sweep into the forest; a dangerous plan, for both sides. Reinforcements were coming from north and south too.

“They know you’re here, commander,” Morrow said.

“I’m sure they do. But I won’t be for long.” He pointed south with his sword. “We’re going that way. We’ll reform further down the column, hit them again.”

“Aye, commander,” she said. She started to turn, but then an arrow buried itself in the tree beside her and she ducked down instinctively. A group of enemy archers were in the forest now, between them and the rest of their force. All along the road, Albrihn could see lighter troops were being sent into the trees in an attempt to flush them out. Soon, they’d lose their only advantage.

“Hadrin had better hurry,” he said, breaking into a canter and charging the archers. Hasprit and Morrow were by his side and the three of them smashed through, scattering them. They galloped on, ducking branches and letting their horses find their own way through. They saw some of their own troops, fighting desperately in the shifting shadows of the forest. Albrihn charged in, cleaving with his sword on either side, and he could hear Morrow’s bowstring twang behind him as she let fly a seemingly endless stream of arrows. He remembered how she’d demolished that target back in Atlas, but this time she’d run out of arrows before she ran out of enemies. “We only have to hold them off for a little longer!” he called out. He looked up again, hoping to see the fires to the south, but the sky remained resolutely black.

“Commander!” It was Hasprit, who pointed towards the road. Someone was coming, a rider on a great horse that, rather than dodge the trees, simply shouldered through the branches and boughs. It was visible even in the darkness, for its flanks were pearly white and it wore no barding, or even tack as far as he could see. The beast looked more like a draught horse than a charger, with great ragged fetlocks and a long, flowing mane. Its rider was similarly outsized: a towering slab of muscle, pale-skinned and already covered with dark blood. A long orange braid flew out behind him, and he carried a curved sword that he wielded with speed and skill that belied his immense size. He scythed through the Atlasians in his path. Behind him came more Chronusi, mopping up whatever he left in his wake.

“That’s your Ankhari, I assume?” Albrihn said to Morrow. She just nodded dumbly.

“Look at the size of the bastard,” Hasprit said, “we have to bring him down.”

“Agreed.” The fight was completely formless now, and the air was filled with the sound of horses and men screaming. Steel rang against steel and arrows whooshed past. The Ankhari was a bolt of pale fury, moving with incredible grace and precision, never coming close to an enemy blade, batting aside all attacks and slicing open throats with just a flick of his wrist. Morrow shoved her dagger into the eye of a man holding onto her saddle and then set another arrow to her bow. She took aim at the Ankhari, but the shot flew wide as he galloped by. Albrihn tried to make sense of what was going on, tried to see how he could rally his troops and make a stand, or at least a fighting retreat. They were never supposed to be pinned down like this – unless relief came from the contingent to the south, they’d soon be destroyed.

“Commander,” Hasprit shouted above the sounds of carnage, “we need to get out of here!”

“Where the fuck is Rykall?” Albrihn bellowed.

“Forget him,” he said, grabbing his arm, “we’re getting slaughtered!”

“Morrow, sound the retrea…” He turned to see the captain falling from her saddle as an axe buried itself in her horse’s forelimb. She cried out and tumbled to the ground. The soldier who’d brought down her mount stepped calmly over the dying beast and yanked his axe free. He raised it over his head, but now Hasprit was charging in. He reared up and his horse kicked out at the man, smashing his skull with a well-placed hoof. He reached down to help Morrow up to her feet. She lifted a grateful hand and then screamed: behind Hasprit loomed the towering white shape of the Ankhari. Hasprit spun around in his saddle and tried to raise his sword in time, but the mainlander’s curved blade smashed into his breastplate, splintering the steel and lifting him into the air. He was thrown backwards into a tree and slumped down to the ground limply. The Ankhari barrelled into Hasprit’s horse and his luck finally ran out as both animals went down in a tangle of limbs.

He rolled free and lifted his sword to strike at Morrow, but Albrihn was there now. He grabbed the back of her collar and hauled her up onto his saddle as the pale warrior howled in fury. Everywhere Atlasians were dying. Clutching Morrow close to him, he rode away from the battlefield, and death. The horizon was still dark. Somehow, Rykall and Hadrin had failed to carry out their part of the plan. He wondered if he’d live to find out why.

 

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