I’ve been posting slower than I would like to, but I’m glad to be able to put this slightly longer than usual update in place, and hopefully will be able to return to a more regular posting schedule. This one is about 2,000 words long, and covers a nice little bit. There are about 10,000 more words to go to get the story to its desired length, but if it comes out shorter or longer, the story is more important than aiming for a specific length.
Two days later, their turn came in the rotation of squads to go on forage duty. Rhyfelwyr put Llofruddiwr on point. The man was a ghost when he wanted to be, and could almost certainly find danger before it found them. The other five followed at a distance, with Locsyn having the unenviable job of being the rearguard. The squad’s patrol area was off to the western side of the army, between this branch and the next, and so with the rising of the sun, Llofruddiwr turned his back on the glowing orb and headed off.
The march took them across a ruined landscape. They had been told that the first few farms and areas had been already picked clean of anything that might resemble food, and so the soldiers had a ten mile march just to reach their assigned area, and that hike saw them pass the burnt out shells of farmhouses, the skeletal remains of barns, the dead bodies of work animals left to rot and die, and fields that had been turned into ruined husks of what they once were.
“This devastation is unprecedented. I have never, in all my years, heard of a war conducted in such a self-destructive manner. Why, even if they win, the Lianese will be set back a generation by this, if not longer.” Taflen gaped at the terrain they passed through.
“They won’t be the only ones set back a generation if they win. What of Bhreac Veryan? What of us? Our empire crumbles if we lose Niam Liad. It’s the city we use to hold all of the land on this side of Yn Brydio Ad. Without it, the linchpin is pulled from our army, and the other cities will fall away just as easily. We need to win this war more than they do.” Locsyn was feeling particularly sour this morning.
“We’ll win it. Did you see that lot break and run at Miath Mhor? They’ve got nothing for us in combat.” Gwyth grinned.
“The Lianese are well aware of that fact, it is why they are trying to defeat us by lack of food, rather than skill of arms. They are poor soldiers compared to us, but they may have hit upon a strategy which can overcome our superior forces if those forces are weakened and taken from the field of battle before the battle even commences.”
“Taflen, Locsyn, Gwyth, shut it. We’re here to look for food, not plan out the whole campaign in an hour. We can’t control the strategy, so lets worry about finding the food we’re out here to look for and then haul it back to camp.” Rhyfelwyr had had enough of the argument brewing. “You lot can just keep it quiet and tag along.”
Rhocas was the only member of the five who had not spoken, and he continued to march with his head down and his shoulders slumped, looking for all the world as if he would rather be in any other place than where he was now. The battle had taken something from him, and he struggled with that loss. Perhaps he would come out of it; certainly, the hope of this foraging was that Rhyfelwyr and the others could pull him out of that shell that he had built around himself, but there was such a gap in age and experience between the veterans and this novice soldier that perhaps that could not happen, and Rhocas would just wander through the war depressed and uncertain of his position.
A low whistle from up ahead caused Rhyfelwyr to put his hand up, calling for the squad to stop and to hunker down behind a low rise. Slipping back over that rise came Llofruddiwr, making a gesture of ten. When he settled in next to Rhy, the sergeant whispered over. “Ten soldier patrol?” Llof nodded, not saying anything. “Can we go around, or is this a case of going through?”
“Damn it. Do you have any suggestions?”
“Thanks.” Rhy gestured for the others to huddle up around him. “We’ve got a ten soldier patrol up ahead, and Llof says we have to clean up. Gwyth, you take right flank, Locsyn left. Taflen, Rhocas and I will charge.” Gwyth and Locsyn began crawling off to the sides, looking to get into position on the enemy forces. Rhocas leaned over and mumbled. “Llofruddiwr not fighting?”
“You see him here?” Rhy chuckled.
Rhocas glanced around, realizing that somehow Llof had disappeared without anyone noticing.
“He’s the one who’s going to cause the most trouble. Just wait.”
Several minutes passed, and then Rhyfelwyr pulled the two soldiers with him to the top of the mound, lying flat on their stomach so they could see the Lianese patrol. There were ten men, two standing guard, sitting down and having a light meal, their midday pause before the end of the patrol. Presumably, the Lianese forces had scouted the disposition of the central arm of Glanhaol Fflamboethi, and were returning with that information, in which case it was even more imperative that they be slain.
“Prepare yourselves, should be any minute now.”
“What are we waiting for?” Rhocas asked again, nerves showing in his voice.
“Quite down and wait, and just follow me in.” Taflen nodded at that, but Rhocas had a slightly wild look in his eyes, a prey animal who has just seen a predator. Rhyfelwyr sighed, placing his hand on the recruit’s shoulder.
Llofruddiwr burst up from the ground not five yards from the campsite, his two favourite longknives in his grasp. A quick slash with one cut the throat of the picket he was standing near, and he charged into the mass of Lianese soldiers, his blades flickering from left to right, catching incoming thrusts and deflecting them aside as the Veryan soldier tore through the camp at a full sprint, wounding several soldiers and killing two. Those still standing made to follow, grabbing their gear and chasing after Llof, who appeared to flee, directly towards where Rhy was waiting. As the Lianese soldiers burst into a run, Gwyth and Locsyn slammed into them from either side. Gwyth’s heavy shield sent one soldier flying into another, knocking both down into a tangle on the ground, while Locsyn feinted a shield slam, pulling up at the last moment to deliver a short stabbing blow with his sword underneath the rim of the shield, ripping through the leathers over his opponent’s thigh.
Rhyfelwyr hoisted Rhocas up, and the three soldiers sprinted at full speed to join the battle, Llofruddiwr turning to join them. A dagger flew over Rhocas’ shoulder, and the young man turned his head back in fear, but it was Llof’s throw, and the dagger protruded from the thin collar armour of the leading pursuers. Gwyth and Locsyn were sore pressed now, facing two against six Lianese. Several of the Lianese had been wounded, and discomfited as they were by the strange tactics of their opponents, they had not managed to take full advantage of their weight of numbers until moments ago, and then the remaining four Veryan soldiers arrived to join the battle, evening the field once more.
Llofruddiwr danced around the outside, lunging in with lightning fast thrusts, always hunting for an opening in the guard of his enemy. With quick stabbing motions, he would leap around one of the other Veryan soldiers, strike, and then be back out of range before the counter could even begin. Gwyth stood as a wall, facing off against two enemies and laughing while battering their attacks aside through sheer size and brute force, his countering blows nearly driving foes to their knees as they sought to catch the force on their shield or mace.
Locsyn fought in the more traditional style of a Veryan soldier, round shield held high in front of the face, one-handed sword stabbing out from beneath it to strike or catch a blow. He was using all the years of combat to his best advantage though, and a quick lunge sent a knee crushing into a Lianese groin, staggering his foe and making the follow on attack easy. Rhyfelwyr arrived in the fight with a sideways strike towards the kneecaps of his enemy, and when the sword swept down to intervene, his shield’s edge snapped up and crashed into the helmet, knocking the Lianese soldier backwards and almost off of his feet. Rhyfelwyr pressed the attack, but a thrust from the staggering soldier bounced off the edge of his shield and caught Rhy across the thigh, leaving a deep red gash that began to bleed. Backing away with his shield held to protect his wounded lead leg, the sergeant was forced to let his opponent recover.
Taflen moved into battle with precise form, each strike a cut taken exactly from the training regimens of the Veryan army. That was not to say that he was predictable, for each cut may have been straight from the book, but they followed one another in such a vast profusion that his opponent appeared almost stunned by the rapid strikes. Taflen had left his right flank for Rhocas to cover, for that was the recruit’s position, but Rhocas hung back, his sword arm low and his shield held high, an entirely defensive posture. Seeing the opening, a Lianese soldier charged into the side of Taflen, sending the historian sprawling and bringing his mace down. Taflen’s shield came up to block the strike, but the force of the blow cracked the shield in the middle, and he knew he could not survive another such attack. Rhy cried out and sought to lunge towards his downed squadmate, but the wound in his leg took the speed from him, and he knew he would arrive too slow to save Taflen.
The strike that would finish Taflen began to descend, and tears sprung to Rhyfelwyr’s eyes, for he had known Taflen many a year, the two men growing old and surviving many battles together. He had always worried that one of his squad would die in battle, but he had been blessed that he and these other four had been able to keep one another hale for so long. It appeared now, in this place and after all this time, that Rhy would lose one of his friends.
It was then that a great shout rent the battlefield, and with it a burst of flame leapt forth to intercept the incoming strike, blasting it backwards and searing the arm of the Lianese soldier clean away, the flames blue from their heat. Rhy halted in amazement and looked over to see tears pouring down the face of Rhocas as he gestured with one hand, the fire streaming from the air about him to building a shield of scorching heat over the downed form of Taflen.
Seizing the opportunity, Taflen rolled away, keeping himself low and under the flame to finally stand up next to where Rhocas still held to the flame, the billowing cloud cinders making the Lianese shrink back in fear. Not one to be stunned by any turn of events, Llofruddiwr took advantage of their distraction to plunge his longknives into the back of two of his foes, and with that strike, the battle resumed. It was soon over, however, for the sight of the fire had heartened the Veryan soldiers and stolen the morale of the Lianese, and soon it was that Rhy, his leg bandaged, was standing over the only living remnant of the Lianese patrol, who had surrendered almost unhurt after Llofruddiwr had chased him down when he sought to flee the battle.
Another update in the story. I’ve also begun working on putting together a podcast or two, and so will see where that ends up. With luck, I might have one in a week or so. The first series will likely be me doing readings from Tarranau, going through the whole book over the course of a couple months. Scheduling is rather hazy at this time. Either way, hope you enjoy the story update from today. I’ll try to be more regular in my posting habits here.
Two days later, those smiles had begun to disappear, as Glanhaol Fflamboethi began to pass burned out farmsteads and fields of scorched grain, the legacy of the Lianese retreating to the south. Rhyfelwyr looked at Taflen, his eyes asking why would they do such a thing. “It promises annihilation to their own people, doesn’t it?”
Taflen shrugged. “There will be very little food this winter, aside from what the few fishing boats left will bring in. No grains, no vegetables, no meat. Their commander must despise us to a degree we have not yet seen. I wonder if our burning of Miath Mhor was a cause of this scorching?”
Llof joined the two soldiers. “No, it wasn’t. This was planned before we arrived, as a fall-back measure. Wait till we get south.” With that, he wandered off again.
“Does he always have to speak like that? It’s annoying, being the educated one and having him run rings around me.” Taflen muttered.
“Hah. You’re still not used to that? Llofruddiwr has usually figured out what the enemy is going to do before they’ve even done it. Why do you think I keep him around? Keeps our necks safe.”
With a miserable look, Taflen stomped away, his back straight, still muttering about soldiers who don’t know their place in life.
“What’s got into him?” Gwyth and Locsyn joined Rhyfelwyr on the small mound where he was stationed as a picket.
“Oh, he got outsmarted by Llofruddiwr again.”
“Still stings him, does it? It’s been going on for years, you’d think he’d learn by now.”
“He’s a teacher, not a learner.”
“True, true. So why are you up here again, Rhy? We could all go stick our heads in the sand and no one would attack us.”
“Buggered if I know. Officer’s orders. Keeping the camp in shape, I suppose. Just means I sit up here and watch all the smoke rising from the land around us. Not exactly what I want to see.”
“Burning more farms, are they?”
“East, west, south. There’s a damn ring of smoke curling up all around us. The Lianese are sending patrols out to the sides of our route to make sure that burns if we try and forage. I know we’re the Cleaning Flame, but even fires need to eat. Keep this up and it’ll be starving.”
“I think that’s what they want, Rhy.” Locsyn twisted one end of his moustache. “After that first battle, they know they’re going to have a hard time beating us in open combat, so why bother? Doing this, and then slamming us hard when we’re weak and sick down by Horaim, well… it might work. Soldiers don’t fight so well on empty stomachs. I hate to think it, but they might have come up with the only way to defeat us.”
Gwyth responded. “What about our mages? They can control fire, right? So why not have them put out the flames?”
“Wish I knew why, but I think it’d be too much work for them, and they’d be exhausted when it came to fighting. They’re the best thing we’ve got going for us. The Lianese mages are all sailors and other lazy, fat types, used to sitting around and wondering what sauce the chef is going to put on the fish. Ours are combat trained from youth. It’s why we haven’t seen any of theirs on the field, they’d be useless. Good thing, too. They’ve already got enough damn arrows and javelins and other crap to throw at us, they don’t need any more.”
“So we just keep pushing on, then, and hope for the best? You aren’t making me amazed at your leadership here, Rhy.” This was Locsyn, his face downcast.
“You got a better idea, tell those officers in their tents over there. I’m sure they’d love to hear it right now.”
“Just hit the Lianese and take their food away. It’s worked before.”
“We’re trying that, Gwyth. Already did it once, even. We just decided to burn all of the food instead of take it. Think we outsmarted ourselves on that one. Wonder if the Lianese were willing to let Miath Mhor burn in order to defeat us later. Gods that would be cruel to their own if they did.”
“Think the ones running that rebellion are really having it hard? I bet the little man out on the field is getting squeezed right hard, and the commanders and the money boys are hanging around in the back, living their comfortable life and trading away with Bohortha Eilan like nothings changed at all.”
“Soldiers lot in life, being screwed by the people higher up the hierarchy. Nothing new there for any of us. Probably have more in common with the poor sots we’re stabbing in the gut than with the people giving us the orders.”
“You’re a soldier, ain’t you? Good, now stop bitching and go back to camp. Get yourself all polished up and ready, cause when I get down from this picket, you’re on inspection.”
“I was just saying…”
“Shut it, Loc. Inspection, got me?”
“Yeah, yeah, got you.”
Locsyn and Gwyth headed back down into the camp, leaving Rhyfelwyr alone with his thoughts at the picket. The sun was low over the horizon, lending a red back-light to the fires and smoke that consumed the land all around him. If even the veterans like Locsyn were wondering why the army was here already, the rot was spreading faster than Rhy had hoped for. There was the chance that things might get better, but it looked like a lot of the soldiers were already losing their desire to fight, and they’d just had a rousing success in battle. Amazing how quick the passion disappears when the stomach knows it’s going empty. There’s a lot to be said for having food, but enough to drive an army to its knees? Rhy wondered, and found himself uneasy.
Days passed as the Veryan army marched down to Horaim, and for a solid week since their crushing victory at Miath Mhor, they had seen no sign of enemy forces, just burnt farmhouses and fields empty of grain. A few had been harvested in haste and their supplies pulled to the south, but most had been torched, the food and seed they had once promised ashes scattered on the ground. There was dissent now amongst the ranks, for the army had been put on half-rations to conserve the food for the battle outside of Horaim. Glanhaol Fflamboethi had also split apart, moving in three separate columns down the peninsula. Yesterday, the two outside columns had peeled away to take up station twenty miles either side of the main march. It was far enough apart that should any meet the full strength of Niam Liad in battle, it could well go rough for the Veryan forces, but that was a risk the commanders were willing to take in order to widen the search for food and supplies. The hope was that the Lianese could not burn such a wide swathe, not without at least some of it being left unharmed. Or, perhaps, the Veryan soldiers could drive off the Lianese before the burnings had taken place, and then capture all of the food for themselves.
The three wings were to reform two days march outside of Horaim, where they would then invest the city. The plan relied on the presumption that Horaim had become fortified in the three weeks since the battle at Miath Mhor, although given it was the last defensible position before Niam Liad itself, it would have surprised everyone in the Veryan army if Horaim hadn’t been turned into a fortress. With the food stocks as low as they were, the assault on Horaim would have to commence within a few days of the Veryan arrival outside the walls. It was assumed both sides knew, and would be ready for a fast confrontation, although the threat of raids from the Lianese defenders worried the officers of Glanhaol Fflamboethi, because responding to each raid would sap the energy of their troops. All in all, the campaign had taken a decided turn for the worse for the soldiers from Bhreac Veryan.
Rhyfelwyr and his squad marched in the vanguard of the central army, among those leading the thrust down the peninsula. He’d rather have been with one of the two outlying armies, for each had a better chance of finding some fresh food. Oh, the food stocks weren’t as low as everyone rumoured about, but eating compressed meat and trail bread day after day was not a meal the stomach could readily enjoy. There had been a bit of good luck the day passed, for they had come on a farmstead where the basement had still been stuffed full of goods and grains, stored away against a famine. The Lianese must have torched the building and the grain around it, but never checked inside, and so the Veryan soldiers had cheered when extra rations were handed out that night. The men went to sleep with full stomachs, and woke up happier and more contented with their lot in life. The army pressed onwards, marching down a road that split between fields of crops, their ashes tossed by the winds.
It was a sight to sour the mind, and Rhy saw those around him becoming bitter, especially Rhocas, who had not had the years of experience as a soldier to build the barriers about the mind that the others had. It was clear to Rhy that Rhocas was becoming despondent, and in some ways Rhy hoped there was a battle soon, for it could hopefully snap the young man back to himself, rather than his silent and morose self.
Locsyn sidled up to Rhyfelwyr and tapped him on the shoulder. “So what do we do? That kind of attitude’s poison in an army. Everyone sees it and it begins to infect the rest of the soldiers. Granted, he’s not the only one, but every time a soldier looks to the vanguard, they see slump-shoulders over there leading the way, looking like someone just kicked his puppy.”
“I know, I know, but how the hell do I cheer him up? He just looks at me and nods whenever I speak to him, and then just goes on being the old mope he’s become. And I can’t exercise him too much, because there isn’t enough food for that.”
“Maybe get us sent on one of the foraging parties? We should be one of the squads next in line anyhow, and it might provide enough of a change to break that ugly clay he’s baked all over himself.”
“That’s not the worst idea you’ve ever had Loc. Not that that’s saying much. Right, I’ll go talk to an officer or two, see what they can do for us.”
Here is the next in the series, another 1400 words in the story. This writing has reached the begin of the meat of the story, the part that I really want to tell, and the part that ties back into what is happening in the story of Tarranau, all those generations later.
Carnage ran rampant as they crossed the fields, the dead and the dying scattered about in clumps and bunches, where a force from one side or the other had surrounded and cut away an incursion. Most of the piles here were Lianese soldiers, their bodies gouged by sword blows and left to rot on the field. Taflen sighed, knowing that this field would gain a name, a curse, among all of those from the coast, and that curse would build and multiply against the invaders. Oh, the fear might help in the short run, but over a longer period, it would turn to vicious resentment. The corpses would foul the fields with plague and with anger, and leave of this place a ruin, and that Bhreac Veryan would revel in that bitter taste. Fear had ever been their weapon to keep in line the subjugated people, and Taflen looked around, seeing just where that led.
Back within their own lines, Rhy found a cutter, and dragged him across to see to the wounded in the squad, patching up the gashes that covered Gwyth, and removing the arrow from Rhocas’s leg. Rhocas screamed as the arrow came out, and with it a bright well of blood, flowing once more as the bolt no longer blocked its path. Cleansing herbs were stuffed into the wound, and white cloth bound about. “He’ll be able to walk again in a few days, it won’t hinder him that much.” With a nod, the cutter set off for the next screaming soldier
Llof lifted the recruit to his shoulder again, and they continued on their way back to the campsite, where they rested that evening. Rumours flew past, and Locsyn and Gwyth disappeared to go retrieve them, returning an hour or more later with news of what had happened that day on the field. Locsyn spoke. “Fairly simple day of combat today, all told. They charged the centre, and didn’t have enough skirmishers to the wings to prevent us curling around and cracking them like a nut. They’ve fled in poor array back to Miath Mhor, and we’ve got chasers after them. Won’t catch too many of them, but enough to harass the bastards until they get back to the city.”
“Not looking forward to that.” Rhy answered. “Miath Mhor isn’t fortified, which is good news for us… kind of. We’re going to have to go in and fight street by street, building by building, if we want to capture it. Perfect for ambushes, bleeding out our superior numbers in tiny fights all around.”
The other soldiers looked aghast at the notion, and Rhocas went pale once more. Llof rose up, turning to go and tossing a comment over his shoulder. “Burn the city. No more ambushes.” Llofruddiwr then disappeared into the dark night. With that grim thought dancing in their heads, the other five soldiers looked at one another, and fell to arguing the merits. “We’d survive the battle a lot better, and hurt them besides.”
“And all the supplies, the food, the wealth. You want to throw that all away?”
“Dead men eat no food, spend no coin. I want to stay alive as long as I can, and dying in a horrible city engagement the first siege isn’t it. No, we burn them out and let them starve as well. We’ve got enough supplies, been foraging as we made our way down to add to them. Break them at this city and we’ve got them for the rest of the campaign, too scared to fight.”
“And if it makes the Lianese too angry to flee, too scared of our mercy to surrender? Then we fight a battle against the desperate, and that goes poorly, for they will trade life for life until annihilation, and down here, they’ve got more lives. Bloody streets are better than burned ones.”
The argument raged on into the night, until Rhyfelwyr gestured for them all to go to bed. Rhocas had passed out long ago, the pain in his wounded deadened by the herbs. Gwyth just rolled over and fell asleep, unmindful of the wounds he had taken this day. The others soon followed suit, although Llofruddiwr had still not returned. He was a dark one, but maybe the best fighter Rhy had ever seen, and so was permitted his quirks.
The morning saw the trumpets calling out to meet the dawn, and groggy and mealy-mouthed, the soldiers of Glanhaol Fflamboethi stretched themselves, veterans all this day. To the sound of burning logs and popping joints, a warm breakfast was served, and the army gathered itself once more into the march formation, outriders spreading far and wide, all in double strength this close to Miath Mhor. There was no fear of an ambush on this day, just precautions against the unlikely possibility of one. In the eyes of those who had fought but one time, this was to be an easy campaign, where the enemy would fight once, flee, and then the city would crumble in surrender. Older heads worried, for it was an ill sign to them that the campaign had begun so easily. They preferred difficulty, even disaster, the first battle, for from them on, things could only get better. Not this. This meant a stiffening of the spine, a reorganization, a building antipathy, and so the veterans feared Miath Mhor, and all that it meant.
Two days of march passed, and on the morning of the third day, the army paused on a ridge, overlooking the city which they had come to reclaim. The officers gathered there, on the highest point, and discussed the strategy to be used in taking this bastion of Lianese strength. Some spoke in favour of the soldiers, others for the torches. In truth, the discussion mirrored that of Rhyfelwyr and his squad some nights previously, but these men had to come to a conclusion, and so it was that the skirmishers of Bhreac Veryan bound rags to their javelins, and brought forth burning brands. Ringing round the city, a thin line of flickering flames, they charged, shields held high to ward away the arrows that streamed down from the outlying buildings. Dashing through the streets at a full run, torch after torch sailed into warehouses, apartment towers, mansions, hovels, any building that looked as if it might burn.
Miath Mhor was a city made of wood, and as the skirmishers fled the burning in ragged numbers, the rest of Glanhaol Fflamboethi could see the flames of their namesake licking through the city, building into an inferno that would swallow Miath Mhor, devouring the heart of the people within. Citizens fled their burning city, and Glanhaol Fflamboethi let them go, their hungry mouths a burden on those who lived further down the peninsula, starvation made into a weapon by the commanders of the Veryan army. Those men who looked liked soldiers, or even of a fighting age, those were cut down by battalions positioned about the city. Many more fled into the fishing boats, and white sails filled the harbour as they sought to flee the sparks and the smoke of the city. In their haste, many ran aground or crashed into one another, and soon wrecks began to fill the harbour. It was a day of carnage for the Lianese, their city destroyed, their livelihoods stolen away, bereft of their belongings.
The Veryan soldiers had taken losses on this day, more than the commander had hoped, but a paltry few compared to the brutality of street combat, and that pushed the campaign further onwards. And so after witnessing the destruction of a city, the army settled down for the night, only to move the next day, the path of the war turning them south, their next major goal the city of Horaim, a good three weeks down the peninsula. There were lesser towns and villages in the way, but those were expected to present no danger, aside from the odd small ambush, as the Lianese reformed their broken forces and built another army about the city of Horaim, the last major point of defence before the city of Niam Liad itself.
It was smiling soldiers who led the way south that morning, striding out down the road towards glory and spoils.
I had hoped to have a little more writing done this morning, but I managed a little over 1700 words this morning, and that isn’t too bad. For those who are trying to be writers, always write at least 1000 words a day, otherwise the story will fade, and the touch and ease with which writing comes won’t be there either. It’s not something that can be done sporadically, not if you wish to be good at it. At least, that’s how I see it. And now for the story.
Arrows and javelins flew through the air, and Rhy and those around him lifted their shields to catch the incoming darts. Most skipped off of shields and armour, but some found their way around, and the screams and groans of the injured and the dying began to fill the air. Locsyn and Rhy both felt the old sensations again, the weight of all their previous battles come forward to claim this moment as their own, to add it to the tally that they each carried within. A sigh escaped Locsyn’s lips at the sadness of it all, but he lowered his shield and threw his momentum into the toss, sending the glass sphere flying to burst in a cloud of painful dust across the enemy line. Others from Glanhaol Fflamboethi had done the same, and up and down the Lianese line, soldiers cough and cursed and scratched at their throat and face, and some began coughing blood as the razor-edged clouds began to rip apart their breathing.
The Veryan army paused its headlong rush, bracing itself to take the impact of the disorganized Lianese charge, the order of the front ranks ripped apart by the salvo of spheres. A quiet descended on the field for a moment, a quiet as if all the sound had been pulled away, only to return with a mighty crash as the thundering attack crunched into the shieldwall of Glanhaol Fflamboethi. The shieldwall bent, pushed back by the momentum of the attackers, but soon righted itself, and slowly began driving into the more lightly armoured Lianese soldiers.
Slightly to the right of centre, Rhyfelwyr’s squad was set three in the front of the line, and three backing them up. Rhy, Locsyn, and Gwyth stood solid in the front, warding blows with their shields and striking back with short sword thrusts, no room for the extravagant motion of a cutting attack. Reaching over their shoulders or around where they could, the other three soldiers sought to strike and strike hard, making the Veryan wall a forest of stabbing swords.
Rhocas stood very pale, his face twisted as his arm rose and fell in the mechanical motions of the training ground. He was the youngest of them, had only seen the few brief moments of fighting in the skirmish the day before, and this cacophony of noises and sounds, overwhelming his senses, had in some ways turned off his conscious mind, and he stood wondering at the why of it all, for this battle was against those who had been friends mere seasons ago, and who would be considered so again, should Glanhaol Fflamboethi win. Rhocas could feel his youthful optimism about life being stripped away with each stroke of the sword blade, for how could this be some grand adventure, standing his ground and stabbing people when they weren’t looking? It was a sordid type of battle, and the groans and the shrieks of each sword blow made his stomach roil and churn, until he bent over and threw up on the battlefield. Another soldier stepped around Rhocas and into his place in line, and the war continued, not missing a beat.
Shaking his head, Taflen continued his slow, methodical strikes over the arms of Gwyth, waiting until he had a wide opening. The historian had seen many battles and read countless more, and not the sanitized reports that appeared in publications and histories, but rather the personal accounts of the soldiers who had been there, the heartfelt and gruesome stories of trying to survive. He used those now to build a wall about his mind, composing his tale of the battle as he swung, his eyes open, observing all that he could from where he stood. Later this night, he would venture around to the various campfires, asking the soldiers for their impressions of the day, before sleep robbed the ideas of reality and changed them into something else, the mind coping with the horrors of what it had seen.
Their blades hacking and slashing, stripped of any grace but brute efficiency, Rhy, Gwyth and Locsyn fought their enemies backwards, driving the Lianese soldiers, grinding them with the mass of the army behind. The shieldwall had begun to break, the organization lost as the battle became more muddied, a long spate of conflict where encirclements in miniature took place. The Lianese were getting the worst of that, and Llofruddiwr wondered at that, for their army had ever been better used for skirmishing, for the fast moving and withdrawing style that their open plains favoured. This stand and brawl combat was much more suited to Veryan temperaments, and it was showing on the field that day, as many of the Lianese soldiers began to lose heart, dropping their weapons to the ground and fleeing over the rise towards Miath Mhor. Llofruddiwr shrugged, for those who fled would likely be caught before they reached the city, and those who weren’t would just put an undue burden on the resources there. Either way, it was good for the soldiers of Glanhaol Fflamboethi.
Gwyth was breathing heavily now, his blade stained with the blood of many foes, and exhaustion was slowing his sword and shield, making each parry feel as if it took an age, each counter unbearable in its ages. It was a bad situation to be in, and the only reason he was still standing with no more than minor nicks and cuts was that those Lianese he faced were just as tired as he was, and for that Gwyth was thankful. He pressed forward all the same, letting his sword and his shield continue to do the work. For that was combat was to Gwyth, nothing more than work. Oh, perhaps if he had apprenticed himself to another, it might have gone differently, but at a young age, he had joined the army, and been there ever since, and so, this was a task to be completed. It involved killing, yes, but that was a minor part of all the marching and the practising and the rest, and so he moved forward behind each stroke, as unfeeling and unstoppable as an avalanche gathering speed down the hill. Rhy and Locsyn were dragged along in his wake, each standing to one flank, their weapons and shields protecting the mountain that stood between them. Rhy had seen Gwyth like this before, when he began bowling over and through enemies, and knew that if the squad was not careful, they would be pulled ahead and isolated, and then only luck and skill could rescue them. It had worked in the past, when the three men had been younger and more full of life, but now that they had grown older, the edge of their temperament, their invincibility, had slipped away. Well, slipped away from Locsyn and Rhyfelwyr. Locsyn didn’t think Gwyth would ever lose that, he wasn’t bright enough to realise he shouldn’t be able to do this.
As Rhy had feared, soon their attachment to the rest of the army became tenuous, as fighting began to spill around behind the squad, and the six of them, for Rhocas had recovered and rejoined, had to turn into a circle, moving as a slow unit through the Lianese forces. Thankfully, this close to the front line, most were already engaged, and so the fighting was no more hectic than it had been in the shieldwall, and so Rhy’s squad continued to drive their way through, although Locsyn had succeeded in altering the course of Gwyth’s path so that it now cut across the battlefield, instead of straight through it.
An arrow clipped off Taflen’s shield, and he turned to his left to peer, and saw a small band of archers and javelin throwers gathering themselves to strike the squad’s huddled mass. “Shields!” came the cry, and the initial volley skittered away across the armour, leaving scrapes and nothing more. Seeing them ready another volley, Rhyfelwyr called “Charge!”, and the six men thundered down on the skirmishers, their shields held out in front to ward any incoming projectiles. There was only time for one more volley before the charge was upon them, but the archers stood their ground, and Rhocas screamed and began to fall, an arrow piercing him through the calf. Llofruddiwr slowed his charge, grabbing the recruit by the arm, and dragged him into a hopping run, only capable of using one leg. Using his free arm, Llofruddiwr began to fling daggers at the archers, daggers that had been sequestered somewhere on his person. Two archers fell beneath the flying knives, while one of the javelin throwers countered by whipping his weapon towards the Veryan soldiers. Gwyth caught it on his shield, but the throw had been so hard that it slammed straight through, the bolt coming to rest with its tip touching the soldier’s arm. Growling, Gwyth tossed away his shield, and taking his sword in a two-handed grip, fell amongst the skirmishers, his blade rising and falling as one after another died to that onslaught.
Bereft of his shield, Gwyth took several countering blows, but shrugged them off and continued to kill as Rhy and Locsyn arrived, their matching styles working through the lightly armoured and armed foes with ease. Soon all who stood near the squad had fled or been killed, and Llofruddiwr began the process of retrieving his knives from where they stuck in various foes. Surveying the field of battle, and the state of his soldiers, Rhy nodded once, then gestured back towards the advancing lines of soldiers. “We’ll rest, and get Rhocas here to a medic. If they need a pursuit, well, we’ll be in for it. Otherwise, we’ve done our work for the day.” Llofruddiwr and Taflen between them took Rhocas’s weight, and the squad began limping through the shieldwall, although any such name was long since useless, for it was now mopping up the retreating and broken army of Lianese soldiers. Rhyfelwyr wondered how the battle had fared on a larger scale, but for now, he would take his soldiers back to where they could be treated, and then listen about, see what was being passed around the campfires tonight.
In order to give others a look at what goes on in the background, I’ll start posting in-progress writing here. All of the work will be unedited, and presented so that a comparison may be made between beginning and final versions of a work. I won’t be posting any of the various edited drafts that will eventually happen, so this feature will occasionally go quiet while I edit.
Please note that this posting does not give the reader any legal rights, and so on (necessary and annoying to say).
Now, to catch the reader up on where this story currently takes place. It is set hundreds of years before any of the other stories in the Four Part Land, at the time of the shattering of Hymerodraeth Heula, the Empire of the Sun, ruled out of Bhreac Veryan. The main character is a soldier in the Hymerodraeth Heula army at the time of Niam Liad’s rebellion. There are about 7,000 words written so far, and the goal is about 25,000, so the story is about 30% complete.
And now, I hope you enjoy.
The crowd roared, a rolling thunder that spread out from the centre and echoed back off of the buildings surrounding the square. Today, they had come to hear an announcement from their lord and ruler, and they were incensed by what was said, for Niam Liad had risen in rebellion against the rightful rulership of Ymerawdwyr of Hymerodraeth Heula. Now the crowed cried out for blood, for vengeance, for a sacrifice of those insolent peons to the empire of the sun. The Dialedd Lluydd, the army of vengeance, was being prepared to crush this rebellion, and Ymerawdwyr had called for new recruits to come join. Swept in a tidal wave of passion, young man after young man ran to the army barracks and begged to joined. Today, enlistment in the army would run to the highest totals seen in decades.
Rhyfelwyr looked at the mess before him and sighed. All these new pups, wanting to be soldiers. That just meant more work for him training them, and more people who didn’t have a damn clue what they were doing getting killed on the battleground. He glanced over at Locsyn, where the same expression was written on that soldier’s face.
“We’re in for a right mess, aren’t we, Loc?”
Locsyn spat onto the ground before answering. “Better believe it. Now lets go get drunk before the officers find us and make us train those louts.”
“Good call, good call. Get the others?”
“They’re already there.”
Rhyfelwyr nodded, and the two soldiers set off into the backstreets of Bhreac Veryan, wending their way to a grungy old bar tucked away in an alley. Shouldering aside the mat that hung in the doorway, the two sat down at a table with three more men. The youngest of them was in his late thirties, and all had the weather-beaten look of men who had spent too much time outdoors. For a while, none spoke, but a conversation seemed to be carried on nonetheless, in gestures, glances, expressions, and shifting in their chairs. Finally, the largest of the squad, a giant named Gwyth, looked at Rhyfelwyr and spoke.
“Alright, what is it?”
Rhyfelwyr drained his mug, wiped his face, and then answered. “We’ve got six months, maybe seven, to train thousand and thousands of new recruits, them march them halfway across the damn continent, and then fight against Niam Liad skirmishers in their home countryside. I’m just not looking forward to it, is all.”
Taflen spoke at that. “Much as you might like to have us believe that, Rhy, we know there’s something more going in there.” Taflen glanced around the table, at each of the four faces, finishing with Rhyfelwyr’s. “You think they’re going to break up the squad, don’t you? Promote us all to sergeant or lieutenant, give us each our own. I hope the officers aren’t that stupid.”
Rhy shrugged. “They’re officers, and they’re twenty-three and never seen real battle before. What do you expect?”
“A little better sense than that, at least from the veterans further up. Anyway, don’t worry about orders like that coming down. We’ll deal with them.”
Llofruddiwr perked up at that. “My dealing?” he asked.
Taflen blanched a little at that. “I’d rather not. We’d run out of officers in a hurry.”
Llofruddiwr shrugged, then downed another mouthful of beer.
The conversation drifted away into other matters, and the night stretched long as the soldiers drank.
Days and weeks passed as the squad was used to train the youngsters. The very basics of marching, of holding a weapon, of moving in formations. Rhyfelwyr despaired that any of the recruits would become soldiers, or even live past their first five minutes with the enemy. Each time he’d spar with one of the kids, a flick of the wrist, a simple block with a shield, and the openings he found were large enough to drive a herd through. And he’d go back to the bar and hear the same reports from Locsyn, from Taflen, from Gwyth, and from Llofruddiwr. Although he expected that from the soldiers being trained by Llof. The man was a wizard with the blade, and with the other assortment of weaponry that he kept tucked away within the folds of his armour and his cloak. Even the cloak was a weapon: it had weights sewn into the hem so it could be used to catch and trip opponents.
A month had passed in training when Locsyn came over to tap Rhyfelwyr on the shoulder, an expectant look showing through the massive handlebars of his moustache.
“You’d better come for this.”
Bemused, Rhyfelwyr followed Loc through the barracks to the front gate, where an elder was trying to force his way out of the grip of a squad’s worth of six soldiers. Four of them had lost their helmets, three had blood or broken noses on their faces, and all were showing some kind of bruise or battering, and when Rhyfelwyr saw who it was they were holding, he understood how it had all come about.
“Gwewyr, leave off man. They didn’t know, okay?”
The elder turned and shot Rhyfelwyr a glare full of menace, but it softened quickly, and Gwewyr straightened, brushed away the hands holding him, and dusted himself off. With a last glance back at the squad who had been sent to retrieve him, he strode over to Locsyn and Rhyfelwyr, and pulled them towards a quiet corner near the gate.
“Look, I’m not going to leave the wives and kids behind. I’m trying to feed five families, now, and it’s hard enough to make it all work without being dragged off to fight some damned fool war that doesn’t matter to me.”
Locsyn patted him on the shoulder. “We know, Gwewyr, we know. We’ve helped you often enough. What’re you doing here, anyway? You retired out two years ago.”
“I’m not retired any more, lad. Not according to those jumped up pricks. No more pension, not until I do my duty one last time and go off and get killed under some snotnose who can’t tell his left foot from his right. Course, even if I do survive, it don’t matter. I just die when I get back here and the families have shattered. No thanks.”
“There’s no one else, Gwewyr?” Rhyfelwyr looked at his feet for a moment.
“They’re all dead, remember? Four out of five brothers, lying pretty in the family grave. Oh, sure, the pensions help the wives a bit, but not enough, and I don’t trust anyone else to keep order in that place, aside from me.”
Locsyn looked at Rhyfelwyr, who nodded at the thought. “Look, why don’t you come back and train. It’s six months on full pay, maybe a little extra if we can talk to the paymaster about it, and then you just disappear the week we’re heading out. It’s a little more money in your pocket, and you aren’t going anywhere. Has to help a bit, doesn’t it?”
Gwewyr looked thoughtful for a long moment. “Maybe, lad, maybe. I’m not sure I can go back, though.” He looked down at his hands. “I haven’t touched a blade or a spear since the day I furloughed out.”
The other two nodded, then each put one arm around Gwewyr’s shoulder and gently led him towards the gate into the barracks. “Don’t worry about that. The recruits will be so scared of you they’ll just drop their blade and run the first time you spar with ‘em. We’ll make sure of that.” A slow grin spread across Gwewyr’s face as they walked inside. “I like that.”
Gwewyr quickly fell back into the habits that had helped him stay alive across many a battlefield, and even the others were impressed by how many little tricks he brought to the sparring grounds. Stepping on a retreating fighter’s toe, tapping at their elbow with the spear, or closing the distance and using knee strikes, Gwewyr seemed to have an unending fountain of varying attacks, and soon Rhyfelwyr and the rest of the veterans were sparring with him, hoping to pick up the tricks.
Two months had passed since that first call to vengeance, and it was now late autumn, and the training was on well apace. The flow of new recruits had almost stopped, for which Locsyn and the others were grateful, but every day they looked around at the mass of infantry training in the squares, and wondered how many of these newcomers would survive the first battle. While none of the veterans had had experience fighting against the soldiers of Niam Liad, all of them had faced the similar hit and run tactics of the raider kings of the northern mountains. For a large army, it was frustrating in the extreme, as the warriors would jog up, toss a few spears, and then sprint away, always retreating and giving ground until they were backed up against the mountains, and then the raiders just disappeared into the tors, going to ground in the many caves and crevasses. At least this time, the soldiers could be forced to defend their capital. If that hadn’t been the case… Taflen shook his head and let the though dissipate. Getting worked up months before the campaign started served no one.
The winter months passed in much the same way, day after day of training, but now the officers were confident enough in the new recruits skills to let them engage in squad level skirmishes. Due to their skill, the squad of Gwewyr, Locsyn, Gwyth, and the others was often used as a measuring stick, not that it made the poor recruits feel any better. Llofruddiwr alone could often ‘kill’ the opposing squad of six men, and the veterans would send him out there, then take bets on which of the young soldiers would be the first to fall to the dancing assassin. It was a lively business, and made the bar conversations all the sweeter as Rhyfelwyr or Taflen recounted how he had fleeced an officer or two to pay for the night’s drinks.
A new light had come to Gwewyr’s eyes, and each evening, he found it a little harder to return home to the five families, of which he was now the head. The camaraderie of the army, of veterans who had seen it all and lived to tell about it, that was where he felt at home, not among a household full of noise and fury. But he owed a duty to his family, to his lost brothers, and how could he let the remaining children grow up without a father, without someone to hold the house together? As the day marked for departure grew nearer, the burden began to weigh heavily on him, and his performance on the sparring ground and training the recruits suffered visibly. Locsyn and Rhyfelwyr had looked at one another and shrugged. They knew what was going through Gwewyr’s head, but they weren’t sure how to help him. This struggle was one for him and him alone, for a friend’s shield turns aside emotions not at all.
In the end, it was the wives at home who decided the matter for Gwewyr. They had noticed his predicament, well before Gwewyr had, and spent many hours discussing it. And so it was that when he returned home one evening, a month out from the campaign, that he was confronted by all five wives, and told in no uncertain terms that he was going, and that he better stop moping around the house. They were fed up with him acting like a little child whose favourite toy was in danger of being taken away, and that they could survive without him just fine. After all, how’d he think they got on when the brothers went out on prior skirmishes and battles? Gwewyr thanked them all profusely, wrapping each in his arms, and there was a small celebration that evening, although it ended poorly when Gwewyr’s wife slipped out of the room crying. She had seen four husbands die fighting, and had thought that with Gwewyr’s retirement, she was finally past the danger of losing her husband. Now, that danger had once again surfaced, and she had agreed to countenance it, and that was too much for her. Gwewyr knew of whence the tears came, and emotions struck at him too, memories of five boys playing in the street, toy soldiers off to imaginary wars. Gasping, he grabbed the strongest liquor in the house, and began downing it straight from the bottle, hoping that a drunken stupor would cleanse his mind of all that ran through it. It didn’t, and Gwewyr ended the evening on the steps of his home, bawling out his eyes, looking very much an old and broken man.
It was some few days before he was fit again to return to training, and when he arrived, Taflen had pulled Llofruddiwr aside. “He’s dead, isn’t he?” And the simple reply was “Yes.” Saddened at that, Taflen had hunted down the other three, finding them tucked into the shade of a small building. “Gwewyr’s back, but his soul has fled.” Rhyfelwyr cursed under his breath. “He’s staring out from dull eyes?”
Locsyn spoke up. “Better we go short then, or take a fresh-face. Like that, Gwewyr will be looking for a spear point.”
“Don’t tell the officers, we’ll handle this. Taflen, who’s been the best recruit?”
“Probably Rhocas. Want him?”
“Get him assigned to our squad, I don’t care how. Forge the papers if you have to, you’ve got the eye for it.” A quick wave and Taflen was off.
“And now I need to talk to Gwewyr, and get him back on the retired lists. And if he won’t listen, well, there are other ways.” Locsyn patted Rhyfelwyr on the shoulder at that, and the two men rose and headed their separate ways. Each had a task to do.
Rhyfelwyr found Gwewyr in the quad, watching recruits at formation practice. There was little of the light in his eyes, and, indeed, as they looked out over the field at the younger soldiers, there was even sorrow, at what had been, and what might happen to all of those who stood before him.
“Gwewyr, I’ve got a few things with the squad to talk to you about.”
The veteran looked over, his eyes taking the measure of Rhyfelwyr, then shook his head and began walking away. Rhy was forced to hurry to catch up. “Look, you and I need to talk, is all.”
Gwewyr glared over at the sergeant. “You’re going to tell me I’ve lost it, that I should be walking away from all of this and just going home. I can’t, not after everything I went through just to get to this point again. No, I’m fine, and I’ll be coming with you, even if you disagree.”
“No, Gwewyr, you won’t. Not just for you, but for everyone. The skill is still there in your arms, but your heart isn’t, and once that’s gone, there’s almost no way for a soldier to get it back. In some ways, its why the rest of us can’t quit being soldiers. We know nothing else, and our hearts are too well trained for just one thing, and that’s fighting and killing. You’ve moved beyond that, Gwewyr. You’re a civilian with the skills of a soldier, not a soldier. Not any more. And I don’t want to always be on the lookout for you in the melee, and I don’t want you to cost someone else. But most of all, I don’t want to have to come home and explain to Menywod why she’s got no husband, why I let a man fight who I thought shouldn’t. I’m not letting you march to your death, not on my conscience. You’re staying.”
The life fell from Gwewyr’s face, and he sat down on the ground, a sad puppet with no strings. “You realise what you’re telling me, Rhy? That I’m too old to be useful. That I’ve reached the stage in life where everyone just nods and waves at me as they go past, and expects a few stories and an occasional visit, and otherwise I’m just supposed to moulder quietly in some corner. I think I’m more afraid of that than even of dying. At least there, I get carried home on my shield, a warrior of many battles. This way… I just fade.”
Rhyfelwyr knelt by his friend, smiling. “You haven’t been home often enough if you think you’re going to fade with that lot around. You’ve got five families, kids, and grandkids all running around in the largest damn house in town. Just trying to keep that mayhem in check should be enough to keep you on your toes for years. Plus, don’t worry about the campaign. We’ve seen raiders and skirmishers before, and they aren’t a problem for us. It’s not like we’ve let Niam Liad have anything resembling a real army in centuries, they won’t have the troops to stand against us. One season, then we’re back, and it’s all the way it was before this mess started. No, you’ve got no reason to worry about fading. Flame’s breath, you want to keep on your toes, just start training some of the younger ones with a blade. You’d have your own mercenary corps going in no time.”
Gwewyr brightened at that. “I could… provided Menywod lets me. She can get pretty hard at times.”
“What, she’s worse than Sessenagh? That old warhorse could chew leather of your armour from twenty feet away, and you managed to stand up to him.”
“In some ways, she is. But I see what you’re saying, and it’s something I’ll think about. Probably too much, now. You’re right though, I should try some other things. Even with the retirement, I’ve been a soldier for so long I’ve forgotten how to be a father or a husband.”
Rhyfelwyr patted Gwewyr on the back. “You’ve got a lot of new experiences ahead of you, there’s no reason to worry about reclaiming old ones. Those are always with you. Anyway, lets get you back to the training ground, if you want.” Rhy turned to go, then turned back. “And one last thing: if I see you in the troops leaving for war, I will beat you over the head and drag you back to your house myself. Don’t ever doubt that.”
Gwewyr looked rueful. “I had gotten that from your words.” He stood up and looked around, brushing the dirt off as he did so. “I think I’ll head home, if you don’t mind. Better not to keep grasping at being a soldier.”
Clasping hands with his old friend, Gwewyr turned and left, his feet taking him out of his old life and into his new. Rhyfelwyr watched as the old veteran marched away, his feet still coming down in time with the beat of a drum long silent. He was glad that Gwewyr had made the decision he had. It was the right one, and it made everything easier. Now Rhy wouldn’t have to worry about Locsyn’s part in this. A sad smile across his face, Rhyfelwyr headed back to the barracks, looking for Taflen and the forged paperwork. That, they’d still need.
“Okay, sarge, who’s the snotnose standing over there? He’s looking all bubbling and expectant, and it’s getting on my nerves.” Gwyth growled at Rhyfelwyr when he arrived.
“That’s Rhocas. He’s replaced Gwewyr.”
Gwyth looked at his feet for a second, then nodded. “Like that, was it? Yeah, we all saw it. Still, this fresh-face? Really? You couldn’t get us anyone worthwhile?”
Rhy shrugged. “Taflen recommended Rhocas. We’ll see if he’s worth anything. If he’s getting on your nerves enough, duel him, find out how good he is with a blade.”
“Worthless, just look at him. His posture’s wrong.”
“Well beat it out of him then.” Rhyfelwyr paused. “Just not too hard, he’s only got a month to heal.”
Gwyth grinned, and pulled his axe from over his shoulder, then unlimbered the shield onto his left arm. “Oi, Rhocas, we’re supposed to duel.”
The recruit looked up at that, then grabbed the sword from his belt and hefted his shield. “Are you sure, sir?”
“Oh yeah, positive. Just spoke to Sarge about it.”
“Oh, very well then.” Rhocas attacked, without waiting for Gwyth to get into position. The veteran was barely able to get his shield up, and grunted at the presumption of the recruit. Catching three more successive blows onto his shield, Gwyth decided that it was time for him to go on the offensive, and leapt forward, bullrushing Rhocas with his shield out in front, then spinning into a slice at the ankles with the haft of the axe. A solid thunk sounded from the impact, and Rhocas fell to the ground, surprised. He struggled to his feet on a sore leg, and peered at the standing Gwyth.
“How do you use that when you’re in a shield wall?”
“You don’t. Or you pray the man next to you keeps his shield up.”
Gwyth growled again. “Presumptuous lad.”
The two exchanged blows for a few seconds, and then Rhocas spun into the same ankle-breaking strike that Gwyth had just used. Gwyth had to jump high and back to stay out of the way of the sword, and nearly fell on the landing. Forced onto the defensive, it took him a little while to recover and push back against the recruit. Eventually, though, Gwyth was able to use his strength to knock the recruit down again.
Rhocas popped back up and assumed the stance once more, and Gwyth sighed. He’d just been looking to teach the recruit a lesson for looking so flaming cheerful, not get caught into a long running duel. The fighting continued for some time, during which the others slowly gathered. Rhyfelwyr leaned over and whispered to Taflen. “Is Rhocas really a recruit? He’s got some moves in there that only the veterans know.”
“The boy is a sponge. Sucks up knowledge from everyone. Just needs to be shown a strike once or twice to learn how to do it. Given him enough training on the march, and he’ll fit right in with the rest of us.”
Nodding appreciatively, Rhy watched the fighting continue, until both combatants called it off due to exhaustion. “Rhocas, I’m sergeant Rhyfelwyr. This is Llofruddiwr, Locsyn, Taflen, and you’ve met Gwyth. Rather a few times, I think. If you’ve moved into our room in the barracks, that’s all there is to it, just follow one of us around and train as best you can. We’re all teaching various squads at the moment, trying to make them worth something.”
“I look forward to it, sir.”
“I’m not a ‘sir’, that’s for your officers. Just call me Rhy.”
“Yes, Rhy, sir.”
Rhyfelwyr shook his head. “You’re dismissed.”
Rhocas trotted off, while Rhyfelwyr turned to the others in the squad. “So, he worthwhile?”
Llofruddiwr answered first, uncharacteristic of such a silent man. “He’ll do.”
The next answer was from Locsyn. “Still a bit rough, and his striking isn’t smooth enough. We’ll polish him up.”
Still panting, Gwyth followed. “I beat him every time, but he made me work for it by the end. We’ll keep him.”
Rhy grinned. “And I know how you feel, Taflen. So that’s sorted. Good. Back to being trainers, now.”
The soldiers grumbled as they departed. Any more training and they’d be ready to turn on their own officers. Especially the young, know-it-all ones who seemed to get every lieutenant spot in the army.
The final month of training passed quickly, and the first bloom of spring began to show over the desert and oasis of Bhreac Veryan. What little snow was on the ground disappeared, sucked away by the voracious sand, and as the wind whipped and tore at the standards, the soldiers of Hymerodraeth Heula stood at attention to hear a speech by Ymerawdwyr, blessing them in the name of the fire, naming the army Glanhaol Fflamboethi, the Cleansing Flame that would burn away the infectious rot of Niam Liad. Orders had come that the city was to be punished for its presumptions, and punished harshly, and today that retribution would strike forth.
Rhyfelwyr and his squad were in the vanguard of the army, given pride of place for their veteran status, for it was months before the army would first encounter opposition. The army would march south, across the great desert, until it reached the oasis at Falna, where it would turn southeast, and strike towards Miath Mhor, the city that dominated the mouth of the peninsula upon which Niam Liad sat. There, Glanhaol Fflamboethi would begin the process of cauterizing the wound that had been slashed into the side of Hymerodraeth Heula.
The speech over, a roar went up from the crowd gathered to see the army off, and an answering cheer echoed back from the assembled soldiers. At a grand gesture from Ymerawdwyr, the vanguard faced forward and began to march, each step churning up the dust and the sand. Soon, the army was enveloped in a cloud of its own making, as they wended their way down the string of oases towards Falna. This part of the journey would take them almost a month to complete, and during that time, the final training and preparation of the army would take place. It was expected that the arrival at Falna would be contested, although by how many was unknown, and that every step from there on would be fraught with danger, traps, and ambushes, as the rebellious soldiers used every inch of their land to advantage.
For his part, Rhyfelwyr felt only a little tingle of anticipation at the thought of once more going into battle, into a war. He was too old, too experienced, for the excitement that coursed through the younger soldiers. Even Rhocas’s normally bubbly personality had ramped up, and his energetic personality had nearly brought him to blows with Gwyth and Locsyn. Rhyfelwyr knew that passion would ebb across the many miles of near-featureless desert, only to resurface once more in nervous form as actual battle approached.
Days passed in a cloud of dust, and the squad was thankful for their position at the front of the army, ahead of the billowing clouds that caused coughing and covered gear and men in a brown cloak. Rather than march during the heat of the day, the army moved at night, using firemages and their heat vision to guide the soldiers along the right path. Every morning, before the sun came up, the army would dig itself down into the desert, disappearing and leaving an almost featureless wasteland, scattered with what looked like the discarded remnants of a battle. And every night, as the sun set, the army would appear once more, crawling out of the sand and the dust to arise as new men. Training was conducted whenever the army stopped for a meal, with half an hour or an hour beforehand given to marching in formation, swordplay, and all other manner of exercise.
As the army forged south, scouts would be detached ahead, ranging for days in front of the main body, searching, searching for that first contact with the enemy. True, Glanhaol Fflamboethi was in land considered safe and inhospitable to invaders, but there was little cause to be sure of anything. Word from Niam Liad had ceased entirely over the winter months, and so the army marched blind of information, the last it had heard some six months previously. Thus it pushed forward its own feelers, seeking out every scrap of knowledge it could find from traders, desert nomads, or the few villagers who lived around each oasis.
The army strode into Falna, caught within the dust storms of its own march, and there spent the next two days provision and resupplying. Falna was a walled city, wrapped around an oasis, a hidden jewel lost in the middle of the desert, and the only green that showed within hundreds of miles. When they arrived Rhyfelwyr heard word of probing attacks that had tested the defences of Falna, but none had come in such strength as to force a breakthrough. Still, it was word that they would need to fight soon, and he passed it around amongst the troops. Rhocas bounced about like a young puppy at the news, while the rest of the squad simply grunted, and went back to what they had been doing. Rhy understood that attitude: fire burns, soldiers fight, it is the natural order of things.
Provisioning and a final round of training over, Glanhaol Fflamboethi forged south once more, the scouts doubled and pulled in closer, weaving a net of eyes in front of the vanguard of the army. Rhyfelwyr and his squad still marched within the vanguard, and their eyes too spread across the countryside, looking for any imperfections that might mark a hidden ambush. Soon, the army began coming across traps built into the route, mainly covered pit traps with some spikes at the bottom. These seemed designed not so much to harm, but to delay, to make the army ever slower, but their design left the soldiers wondering if something more ingenious was waiting.
A week south of Falna, and the first minor skirmish took place. A troop of scouts came back, holding several riders onto their horses. They had been caught out by a series of spear and arrow using ambushers from the top of a hill, and were forced to retreat, although not before taking several casualties. That attack set the pattern for the next several days, as scouting parties were attacked and harassed wherever they went. Sometimes the Veryan soldiers got the better of the skirmish, other times those of Niam Liad, but the army pressed on, almost catching up with the scouts as the generals and officers pushed the pace of the march, determined to get out of the constraints of the desert and into the freedom of operating in the lush grasslands of the southern peninsula.
Two days of peace followed the week of skirmishing, and then the scouts brought back news that a small force waited some ten miles ahead, situated atop a hill on the main route south. Accepting the news, the soldiers marched on, until they stood on a corresponding hill further north along the route. Over an intervening distance of some two miles, the forces stared at one another. Locsyn twisted his moustache in one hand and muttered. “Not a lot of armour on those boys. Means hit and run. Either that or the real force is hidden somewhere nearby. I hate this.”
Taflen spoke. “It’s why we brought mages. We can use them to out-range those bows, and that allows us to force them off of the high point without much danger.”
“Only if they didn’t bring any of their own. If they did, no advantage.”
“You’re always a pessimist Locsyn. Look on the bright side of things for once.”
“I did, once. Lost my sight for a few days from staring at the sun. Pessimism’s safer.”
Taflen shook his head. “Orders come through?”
Rhy responded. “Yeah. Wait and see.”
Horns sounded, and the vanguard of Glanhaol Fflamboethi began to creep forward as certain unremarkable soldiers carrying large shields slipped amongst their ranks. There were only a few of them, perhaps ten or twenty dotted about. Taflen nodded at that. It meant most of the firemages were being held in reserve, lest anything go wrong. With the forces on the hill, the number here should suffice. Reaching the depression that sat a mile away from the opposing forces, the vanguard locked shields to form a wall, and then began a slow pace forward to two-thirds of a mile distance. Now, the mages were well within the range at which they could strike, and after a brief moment, strike they did. Ten giant balls of fire rolled up from the ranks, arcing over towards the Lianese positions. As they reached the peak of their arc, winds howled and tore at the balls, pulling some to pieces, deflecting others to land short of their goal. Only one got through, landing with a thump amidst the enemy soldiers. Most had scattered from the area, but the splashing impact and slow responses caught several who hadn’t run far enough or fast enough.
By the time that first strike impacted, another was in the air, and the bombardment had begun. Again, winds tore at the spheres, breaking and diverting their course, but two more got through, and these struck tighter clumps of troops than the first. Bodies screamed as the fire engulfed them, and within seconds, charred skeletons were all that remained of many who had been burned. Above those cries of pain rose the sound of a horn, and the soldiers who manned the ridge slipped backwards behind the crest, pulling their dead and wounded with them. Glanhaol Fflamboethi had won this day, the first fight going their way. Rhyfelwyr made a little note in the mental scorecard that he kept, wherein lay all of the battles, skirmishes, and other conflicts in which he had been involved. This was a mostly empty victory, for little harm had been done either way, but at the least, the route was clear for the next day’s marching. A horn sounded from within the Veryan army, and once more the vanguard picked up their feet, and moved to the top of the hill, where they could see the soldiers retreating before them. Retreat it was, not an undignified flight, and over the distance between the two, gestures and shouts were exchanged, crude and inventive alike. The Lianese disappeared into the gathering dusk, and orders came down to form a stockade, a fortress ring around the camp tonight. That would be the normal from now on, always expecting attack in the night.
Rhyfelwyr started awake at shouting and cursing, grasped his sword and dove out of his tent. On the other side of the camp lay a burning tent, smashed by a barrel of flaming pitch. More cries went up as another barrel arced high overhead, slamming down into a cooking fire and splashing flames across the tents nearby. Rhyfelwyr rushed in and beat at the flames, where he was soon joined by Llofruddiwr and Gwyth, using bedding and boots to stamp out the burning. No more attacks came as the fires were put out, but Rhyfelwyr was cursing all the same. Tonight, Niam Liad had stolen the mental edge from Glanhaol Fflamboethi, and soldiers would fall back asleep wondering if their tent was to be next. A small attack, but a large damage to moral. Still, he managed to sleep easily.
Several days passed without incident, as both sides took stock of their foe. The Lianese forces stayed in front of the Bhreac Veryan army, but withdrew at a safe pace. Occasional skirmishes took place between scouting parties, although one or the other would withdraw as the fighting started, and so it was this strange battlefield, of two sides staring at one another for days on end, yet no fighting taking place. Taflen worried over what this meant, and wondered if the Lianese sought to draw the army into the jaws of a trap. Rhyfelwyr and Locsyn waved away that notion, not though bravado, but because it seemed unlikely the Lianese could create a trap against a force such as Glanhaol Fflamboethi. Still, to ease all their minds, Rhy sent Llofruddiwr on a solo scouting mission.
The assassin returned late that night, sneaking in through the sentries and arriving outside the cook fire. A few questioning glances answered his arrival. “If there’s something going on, the line soldiers don’t know it. They’re wondering why no raids are taking place.” After his longest speech in months, Llofruddiwr disappeared into taciturnity again. Gwyth grumbled and grabbed a sharpening stone, grinding it down the edge of his axe with a loud squeal. “So they’re planning something. Bugger.”
The other veterans nodded at that, while Rhocas piped up. “Well, if they don’t know what they’re planning, we’re fine aren’t we? After all, it can’t happen soon.”
Rhyfelwyr shook his head, while Locsyn answered. “Doesn’t need to be ‘soon’. Just needs to happen. Later might be worse for us, longer to retreat. Just hope our officers have their heads out where they can see.”
Taflen shuffled through the scrolls in his mind, retrieving information. “There are a few possible options in a military conflict that only take place when used on the defensive. There’s also the possibility of drawing us into a pincer trap. Our biggest problem is that their small force keeps retreating at the same speed as we move ahead. It allows them to block our scouting attempts ahead of them, and so we are blind to what we walk into. Overall, we are acting as they wish us. Confidence is good, but I think our commanders might place too much faith in the strength of our soldiers. Brilliant soldering can’t overcome foolish leadership.” With Taflen’s words of encouragement ringing in their eyes, the squad settled down to sleep.
A week passed, and the land around them changed, growing green and fertile, with cool breezes and clouds scudding high overhead. They had reached the edge of the great plains north of the peninsula, and a week’s march ahead of them stood the city of Miath Mhor. It was to be the first target in Bhreac Veryan’s reconquest of Niam Liad, and the first place where the Lianese army would be forced to stop and fight. Grim eagerness swept through the ranks of Glanhaol Fflamboethi, as each man in turn sensed the coming battle. The morning air filled with the sounds of stones shrieking on swords, armour being buffed and polished, and the clash of weapons sparring. After more than two months of marching, the soldiers wanted to fight, and all their building anticipation had hearkened to this moment.
Three days of marching passed, and then the enemy gave notice that it would stand firm before them, turning and briefly slicing at the vanguard and the scouts, before withdrawing with undue haste. Rhyfelwyr had bloodied his sword for the first time in that fight, catching a skirmisher in the thigh with his blade. It had not been a deep cut, and the man had fled, but the strike had reminded Rhy of what combat felt like, and how everything would change in the coming battle. No others of the squad had bloodied their weapons, although, from Rhocas, a tongue of flame had seemed to reach for a foe as part of a blow. Taflen and Locsyn both said they saw nothing, and so Rhyfelwyr discounted it as a glint from the sun. Either that, or a firemage had been near the forefront and he hadn’t noticed. Either was possible.
That night saw one last round of checking gear, testing straps, sharpening, and then the long, hard time of waiting. Gwyth examined and tugged on each strap till it seemed they would burst, repeating his actions over and over, until Rhy laid a hand on Gwyth’s gear and tugged it away. Taflen had fallen into a meditative state, running through each and every possible contortion to the battle that might occur on the morrow, and readying those ideas that he felt most useful for the likely situations. Llofruddiwr and Locsyn had fallen asleep hours ago, able to withstand almost any nerves. Locsyn’s moustache bounced and buzzed as he snored, a loud rumble cutting through speech. The last of the squad, Rhocas bounced and burbled, never sitting still, standing, pacing, going through the training cuts with his weapon, jogging out to the sentries to look towards the enemy camp, then coming back, always to report that there was no change. Even Gwyth tired of the skipping energy, and bade Rhocas sit and sleep. He would need the energy on the morrow, not tonight.
The next morning’s dawn saw the vanguard pulled up in the centre of the line of battle, with the main bulk of the army spread to the left and right in flanking wings, serried blocks many men deep. Across from them was the thinner, yet still large, line of the Lianese army, their banners and gear of a much more motley array than the cold, insectoid, armour of Bhreac Veryan. It looked to be an easy day, from a strategic view, for both sides had arrayed their forces in such a way as to state they wished to roll up one end of the opposition, crumpling them from the outside in, and at that Taflen nodded. It was the most basic, and the most common, strategy, especially when one force outnumbered another. He wondered what the Lianese might have in store to change the balance in their favour, but dismissed those thoughts when the horn sounded ‘Slow March’.
With the tramp of measured feet, the army of Bhreac Veryan surged into life, a rippling motion all along the shieldwall as soldiers took their first step in time with the comrades to the left and the right. The whole great mass trundled forward, closing down the gap between them and their foe. A trumpet blew from amongst the Lianese, and they in turn stepped out, their banners cracking in the high breeze, the snap of a flag audible even over the rumble of marching troops. Soon there was but a quarter-mile between the two forces, and the horn for ‘Quick March’ rang out. Rhyfelwyr picked up his feet, and felt those around him do the same. As he did so, he let his hand draw out and cradle one of the glass globes that hung in leather pouches at his waist. Filled with glass dust and broken shards, they would fracture and spray their contents across those near the point of impact. These weapons were to be the opening salvo in the battle, much as they had been in wars past. All around, he sensed the unlimbering of weapons, as that quarter mile shrank away, and only a few hundred yards separated one foe from another. Across from him, he could see javelins and bows being pulled from their cases, held high in throwing hands in anticipation of the moment of release.
The cry came for ‘Assault’, and the battle was upon them all.
So, it’s been a little quite around here recently. There’s unfortunately been a good reason for that, which is while the layout and all internal structure of the book is complete, I’ve been having a pretty hard time finding a cover artist who I like, and who fits within the budget of Deepwood Publishing.
Hopefully I won’t jinx the matter by counting chickens early, but it appears there might be one such person on the horizon. If all goes well, there will be good news to report by Monday. Fingers crossed on that one.
For aspiring authors out there, don’t make the mistake I did and leave the cover to the last minute. Start hunting one down as soon as you start the editing process, if not earlier. It might seem like you aren’t quite ready for one yet, but your schedule will thank you later.