24

Apr

by thefourpartland

Breaking an Empire was a short story I set out to write to bring Unfolding a New Continent up to the world limit I wanted it to be at before I started editing. It was supposed to be 25,000 words of backstory as to why the two main kingdoms of The Four Part Land hate one another so much. Effectively, it was a longer take on those history segments over on the main page. It turned out quite differently than that, for me. Oh, the story went where it was supposed to. I couldn’t change that without rewriting the setting. But I didn’t expect the six characters to mean this much to me. Every other time I’ve finished a longer piece of work I’ve been happy. It feels like a great accomplishment, and then with a little polish it’ll be great. This… this feels a little more like a loss, like closing the chapter on something that shouldn’t quite yet be over. I think much of that feeling stems from the fact I couldn’t give them a happy ending. They were born to lose, and I struggled against that by the time I got to the end of the story. I found myself writing the last battle and wanting them to win, and so although I’d thought long and hard about killing them off, I couldn’t do it.

30,000 words from when I introduced them, here is the conclusion to the story of Rhyfelwyr, Locsyn, Taflen, Gwyth, Llofruddiwr, and Rhocas. I will miss them.

The Veryan line was forced back a step, as the mass of Lianese soldiers pushed up the hill. Gywth cursed, finding himself fighting a man even larger than he was, and the Veryan soldier had to use his shield to block three straight blows from the heavy. On the fourth, Gywth caught the incoming strike on his shield, holding the arm up above the heavy’s head. Seeing the opening, Taflen stepped forward and thrust into the exposed armpit, severing the vessels there. The heavy collapsed backwards, blood pouring from the wound. Another came towards the soldiers, and this heavy was struck down in the same manner, having not seen Gwyth and Taflen use the tactic. It required great strength and effort and luck, and even the mighty giant was tiring as the battle drew on. He and Taflen had amassed in front of themselves a pile of corpses, but around them the line was being pushed back, and back, as arrows and javelins arced overhead to strike down upon the Veryan soldiers. The shield wall was holding, safe from the projectiles, but even so, the numbers were dwindling, and it bowed dangerously inwards where the Lianese heavy infantry had struck. Most of them were gone now, but they had done grievous damage to the western half of the Veryan ring, and troops had been pulled from the east to shore up the sagging lines.

Llofruddiwr found the pickings easy against the more lightly armoured Lianese troops that were now the main foe. The heavies had given him much trouble, for his usual style of twin long-knives worked ill against men encased in such plate, but he had found the openings, and a small pile of them lay dead before the assassin’s feet. Now, against these conscripts and foot soldiers of Niam Liad, Llofruddiwr found openings came freely, and he struck and struck and struck again, each thrust from his blades dropping another Lianese soldier. Soon, he had built a low wall of corpses about him, and those who still dared to challenge him needed to climb over it, exposing themselves to Llofruddiwr’s flashing knives. He paused in his swift slaying, looking about to see that he was a lone Veryan soldier, a bastion out amidst the sea of Lianese, and only his fearsome skill and the shaky morale of the Lianese had kept him alive. The shield wall was some ten paces behind him, engaged with Lianese soldiers. Bursting over the wall of corpses, Llofruddiwr ploughed into the back of the Lianese, his long-knives sweeping open a path to the Veryan lines. The Veryan wall split for a moment, allowing the assassin to dive through, and then closed up again, shields once more overlapping as they faced down at their foes.

The battle was hours old, and still the Lianese came up the hill, sending their nation’s men in a great tide that would break again and again upon the firm rocks of the Veryan wall. But such resistance had a terrible price, and now the backs of the Veryan soldiers were nearly at the ring of wagons that marked the last stand. The firemages huddled within those wagons, fearful and exhausted. Most were still asleep, not recovered from their efforts of the morning. Those few who were awake could barely move, and staggering to their feet made them faint and ill. There would be no help from the firemages this day.

Squads had broken and died, and now men fought shoulder to shoulder with those they did not know, and only the ferocious discipline of Glanhaol Fflamboethi kept the shield wall whole. The conscripts from Niam Liad threw themselves against it in a fury, urged on by their officers. The Lianese commanders could sense that the tipping point was near, for both sides fought with a fury born of desperation and exhaustion, and soon the facade of one force or another would crack, and that would mark the end of it.

The Lianese skirmishers had all but exhausted their arsenal of arrows and javelins, and now the only ones that came over the line were pulled from the bodies of dead soldiers. With no more glass spheres, the few Veryan soldiers who were not in the line, including many of the cutters, had taken to throwing back all of the javelins and knives that they found, and this took a toll upon the lightly armoured Lianese soldiers. Cutters and quartermasters and scribes and those others who supported the army but did not normally fight had donned armour, and many were in the front ranks of the line, trying to hold back the Lianese soldiers.

The Lianese pressed hardest against the western shield wall, a pressure that had never relented from the moment the heavy infantry had bowed the line. Only by retreating in measured steps had the Veryan soldiers recovered the shape of their wall, and now with the battle reaching its peak, the line was often but two soldiers thick. Wounded men who could barely stand were going back into the lines, holding shields in both hands as they staggered into place. They could not fight, no, but perhaps they could block a blow or three, and when the time came, their crippled bodies could take a strike to save the few unharmed soldiers left.

It was at this point that shouts came from the eastern wall, and it bowed dangerously, pressed backwards until the Veryan soldiers stood against the wagons. The Lianese had snuck the few remaining heavy infantry around to the eastern side of the hill, and brought them up through the press of conscripts. Formed into a wedge, they smashed into the centre of the Veryan line, and broke through. Conscripts began climbing over the wagons to get at the wounded within the ring, and only a ferocious defence by the officers and the cutters shored that hole in the line. The force of heavy infantry had split into two, each seeking to turn the end of the circle they had broken.

Rhyfelwyr saw what they were doing and shouted at his squad. Breaking from the line at a run, the five soldiers shot across the narrow gap to find themselves athwart ten heavies. Gwyth, Rhyfelwyr, Taflen and Locsyn formed into a short shield wall, and pressed against the heavies, using all the skill they could muster to blunt the strength of their advance. The Veryan soldiers around them fought desperately, stemming the tide of conscripts who followed behind and around.

The breach held, for the moment, but even a lightning glance showed Rhy that the soldiers fighting at the wagon wall were soon to fall. If the line did not throw out the Lianese interlopers and once more form the circle about the top of the hill, the battle would be lost. Growling out orders, Rhy pushed the squad forward, driving his sword into the gut of the enemy before him again and again. The blows clanged away off of the metal, but it stole his foe’s balance, forced to reach down to defend himself, and so when Rhy slammed his shield into heavy’s helmet, the soldier fell over backwards, stunned and off-balance. Taking advantage of the confusion and poor footing the fallen foe caused, Llofruddiwr leapt from his perch atop a wagon onto the backs of two of the heavies. Heavily armoured though they were, the helmets had not been designed to stop an upward thrust from behind, and Llof slammed his long-knives under the helmets of the heavies, pitching them to the ground, dead in an instant. A fourth heavy fell, this to a crushing blow from Gwyth, and the others tried to step back and regroup. Locsyn and Taflen did not let them, stepping out of the shield wall for leaping strikes at the unprotected joins on the back of the knee. Two more fell, and then it was five against four, and the squad swiftly overcame these brutes, sending their spirits winging away.

Once more against conscripts, the soldiers of Bhreac Veryan closed the gap in the shield wall, once more securing the perimeter about the wagons. Rhy spared himself a glance to where the other force of heavy infantry had been. There, the Lianese soldiers had made a better go of it, for they had taken two to one or three to one from the Veryan troops, and the line was ghastly thin, barely able to withstand the mass pressed against it. The Lianese were ill-trained, farmers, peasants, sailors, men who had never been in a fight before in their lives, and they faced a hard core of Veryan veterans who had been campaigning for months. But the Lianese outnumbered the Veryan soldiers by a great margin, and on the strength of those numbers, the Lianese would likely win. Rhyfelwyr sighed and shook his head in sadness as he parried away the attack of a foolish boy and cut him down. Two kingdoms were being broken today, for Niam Liad would take generations to recover from the scorched earth and murdered manhood that lay all about, while Hymerodraeth Heula was fighting against the oncoming twilight, for the military might of Bhreac Veryan was scattered about this unnamed hilltop, dead or dying.

The Veryan army had lost eight out of ten men and from up above the thin ring that protected the wagons was no more than a shadow against the horde of peasants. Greater still was the army of corpses that lay all about, for the Lianese had lost so many men they were forced to carry the dead down the hill just to have avenues of attack. Bodies were piling up at the bottom of the hill, forming great mounds of waste, and it was into this scene that a brilliant flame burst, arcing in a wide band over the heads of the Veryan soldiers and down into the Lianese mass. One of the firemages had risen, and Rhyfelwyr turned his head to see Rhocas staggering, his face drawn with a look of starvation, but his hand upraised as the flame jetted out into the Lianese soldiers, incinerating many. Rhocas played the fire in a slow sweep, burning a hole in the Lianese attack that gave a few moments of respite to the tired Veryan soldiers. Then the firemage turned his attention to the mass of flags that signalled a Lianese command post. A great ball of flame flew from his hands, floating overhead to smash down upon the officers, spraying fire and sparks everywhere. Crying out in joy that the firemages had come to save them, the Veryan soldiers pressed down the hill, the sight of the flame giving them new strength and purpose. The morale of the Lianese had been severely weakened by the horrendous losses of the day, and the combination of fire and renewed assault by a foe they thought was nearly finished broke the Lianese, and the conscripts turned and fled down the hill. With no officers and precious few regular soldiers left to command them, the rout became total, as the Veryan charged after, breaking those few pockets of resistance.

Rhocas had collapsed into a coma after the ball of fire, and was convulsing upon the ground as cutters sought to aid him. They tried all manner of treatment, and were able to still the jerking of his limbs, but the mage was wan and pale. The cutters carried him off to the wagons, where he was laid down under a thick blanket. They would wait and see, for there was little they could do.

Rhyfelwyr looked about the remains of the camp, and at the field of death that the hill had become. It ran red from the very summit down to the base, grass stained and sticky with blood. He was sore from many nicks and bruises, as were the others in his squad. Gwyth, as was his way, had several deep slices, but none appeared to have truly harmed the giant. They were amongst the lucky few. Most of Glanhaol Fflamboethi was dead or dying, screaming out their last breaths in anguish. Even the firemages had not made it out unscathed, for protected as they had been by the cutters and the officers in the very centre of the army, when that attack had broken the ring, skirmishers had managed to slay several of them where they lay. This was no longer an army. At best, it was the broken remnant of one, but after today, Rhyfelwyr thought that no one who had been here could fight again.

That night, he and the squad gathered the belongings and the weapons and the armour from their friends, and stacked them high in wagons no longer needed for food. Then the bodies of the Veryan dead were formed into a massive pyramid, and a firemage, still shaky and weak, played flame across its face. The funeral pyre lit the sky for miles around, and even the fleeing Lianese stopped in their tracks to look at the column of fire that split the night. Rhyfelwyr wished he could say a prayer for the dead, but he had nothing within him now, merely an empty shell, scourged clean of any thought. As the pyre burned on, exhaustion claimed the Veryan soldiers, and they sank down where they stood, and as they slept they became indistinguishable from the dead about them.

The next morn no one stirred, and it was only as the sun reached its peak in the sky and began to descend that the first of the Veryan soldiers rose from their sleep. Gathering their belongings and forming up into a long column, Glanhaol Fflamboethi marched to the north. Rhyfelwyr’s squad had been broken apart, and each man placed in command of their own, but it was understood there would be no fighting, for neither side had any more stomach for blood. Nor did any of the men of Rhyfelwyr’s squad. They would turn in their blades at Bhreac Veryan. Rhocas woke late that day, sitting up in the wagon in which he had been laid. Movement was difficult and breathing more so, and he would live the last few years of his life as a cripple, for the strain he had placed on his body that day was too great.

The sun set that night as it had so many others, but this night it set on Hymerodraeth Heula and the dreams of men.

22

Apr

by thefourpartland

3500 words today, perhaps my best day writing for this story. Another day like this, and the story will probably be over. The goal is to finish it this weekend, once that is done, it means the end of Unfolding a New Continent, which I can then begin to edit. That will be a rather fun experience, working on my second book and getting it ready for publication. Of course, I need to do more of that on my first as well, I appear to like writing a lot more than I do the other work that goes with being an author. Enough of me wittering on, here’s 3500 words of Breaking an Empire.

The next morning saw the squad taking their place as part of the vanguard of the army, leading the march south, towards their foes in Niam Liad. Rhyfelwyr fell into the steady pace of the march, giving his mind leave to wander. He had spent many a day in such a state, and today he wondered at his own state. He was, charitably, heading towards late middle age, and had been fighting for a great many years, but he had nothing when he went home. He had no house, no family, and his only friends were those with whom he had been fighting for so many years, the squad. At this point, they were his only connection beyond himself, and, he reflected, he was probably theirs. The squad had been through so many years together, resisting all attempts of the officers to promote them or break them apart, but all they knew was the camaraderie and chaos of the battlefield. Rhy pondered what it would be like to have a family, to find someone who loved him, to have a child he could play with, to know peace. He sighed and shook his head. That dream should have died long ago. He had made his choice, enrolling over and over again, well past the required years of service. At the end of each campaign, he was offered retirement, and each time he turned it down, instead walking back out into the field, sword and shield in hand. Perhaps he was too afraid of civilian life, or of what would happen to him, but, whatever the reason, he turned away from peace, and back to war.

Rhyfelwyr’s thoughts continued on in that vein for many hours, and his face was still pensive when the tents went up that evening. Locsyn and Taflen saw the expression and exchanged glances, knowing full well what it meant. Everyone in the squad had had that look at times, even Llof, although with him it was hard to tell what it had meant. The two of them grabbed Gwyth and went to find a fire to drink at, leaving the sergeant to his thoughts. Llof, as usual, was nowhere to be found.

From then on, the days passed in thick profusion, until Glanhaol Fflamboethi stood but a few days outside the walls of Niam Liad. Now, close to their enemy’s citadel, the officers tripled the patrols, sending them out in profusion and in strength, less patrols than they were raiding parties. With the information from Llofruddiwr, some of those patrols went north, looking for the army that came along behind the Veryan forces, seeking to trap them. Reports came back from all of the scouts, confirming what Llofruddiwr had guessed: Niam Liad was occupied by archers and airmages, and to the north lay the great mass of the Lianese troops. The army settled down and dug a small fortress out of the rock and earth, building fortifications around atop a hill while the officers sat in conference and debated strategy and tactics. The debate lasted many hours, and it was early in the morning of the next day when Rhocas arrived, bearing orders for Rhyfelwyr and his squad.

“Come back to us at last, have you?”

Rhocas shook his head. “Other way around. Your squad and a few more have been assigned to me to keep me and some of the other mages safe during the upcoming battle. Mostly from archers and Lianese mages, or as a last reserve. We head for Niam Liad today.”

Rhy nodded. He’d known they would go for the city first. That was the mistake that the Lianese had made, thinking they could get to the Veryan soldiers before the city fell or was destroyed. The Lianese army might destroy Glanhaol Fflamboethi afterwards, but Niam Liad would be a ruin too. “Burning?”

“To the ground.” Rhocas turned and departed, to gather up the other squads that would join with him. Rhyfelwyr looked at the other soldiers in the squad, and they began packing their belongings, readying themselves for today’s march. Tomorrow would be quite a day.

The next morning saw the whole army on the march. Today, the scouts were pulled in tight, well within shouting distance of the main body of the army. There was no point in losing soldiers, not now. The firemages were spread out amongst the army, little knots here and there, spaced well apart so that the airmages of Niam Liad could not strike them down all at once. Rhyfelwyr knew that he and his men were supposed to do all in their power to keep the mages alive, even including sacrificing themselves to stop incoming weapons. They were the only hope the army had of making it back up the peninsula alive.

The land around Niam Liad was rolling plains and moors, grasslands that had once been full of grain and cattle, but were now burned to the ground. The ash crunched underfoot, as not quite burned stalks shattered and broke. Taflen wondered at the significance of marching to war on a bed of ash, and thought that someday he would have to research and write on the matter. Today was not that day, and he gripped his shield tighter, looking over the rim at the sweeping expanse of the city before him. He could feel the strong breath of the wing, and a tang in the air that had to be the salt from the sea, and he wondered at the Lianese love of archery, in such a windy clime. Then again, there was no cover for hunting here, so bow and arrow would be the only way.

Glanhaol Fflamboethi shifted its formation, changing from a column to a line abreast, facing Niam Liad. Atop the ramparts distant, Locsyn could see the dancing pennants and deadly soldiers, each preparing in their own way for the day to come. The numbers of men standing atop the wall was few, but some of those were airmages, and there may well be more down below in the courtyards. Despite the consistent failings of the Lianese soldiers, Loc thought they might still have a trick or two up their sleeves. Looking down towards the city, he could see a series of brown patches cut into the earth, making up a ring about the walls. They were range markers, and when the Veryan soldiers crossed that line, they could expect to be showered with arrows. Further in, there were more marks, and those must designate the javelins. Good thing that the Veryan troops would not close with the city.

The horn sounded once, then twice, and the Veryan soldiers moved forward at a slow march, shields held high and facing to the front. The Lianese watched them come, and upon the battlements they readied their bows, placing quivers against the crenellations and waiting for the order to fire. Glanhaol Fflamboethi strode closer, pride stiffening the posture of all the soldiers within her, until they stopped a hundred yards outside the brown marks. Another horn sounded, and the mages turned inwards, gathering their strength for the first attack on the city. The battle paused for a moment, until the first of the giant fireballs arced upwards, aimed not to strike the walls, but to fly high overhead, and come down within Niam Liad.

The first wave launched, the mages disappeared into the squads surrounding them, taking up sword and shield like normal soldiers as the army shifted itself about, disguising their positions with the movement. As the fireballs closed with the city, great gusts of wind rose from the walls beneath to meet them. The howling gales were able to push back some of the fire, but more crashed within the city, and from their vantage point, the soldiers of Glanhaol Fflamboethi could see buildings catch alight. A cheer went up from the gathered troops, and with it another round of fireballs. These were attacked earlier by the airmages, and less of them made it through to Niam Liad.

A triple blast sounded on the horn, signalling a change in targets for the firemages, and this time, as the first wave of fire arced upwards, a second wave of long sheets of flame sped outwards, aimed to scour the battlements of any who stood there. Treating the fireballs as the primary targets once more, the airmages were able to stop almost all of them, but they turned their attention to the sheets of flame too late, and while they were able to blow holes in a few places, the sheets swept over the wall, catching many of the soldiers who were on guard, and some of the airmages. Others jumped backwards, flinging themselves off the walls and into the courtyards below to avoid the scorching blast. Dead or injured, it mattered not, for they were out of the fight for now. Seizing the moment of distraction in the Lianese ranks, the firemages of Bhreac Veryan expended themselves, launching wave upon wave of fire into the city, spreading it out so that it would catch in all the many quarters and cantons of Niam Liad.

Another cheer rose from the soldiers of BhreacVeryan, for before them burned the capital of their enemy, a golden glow reaching up to touch the sky. The soldiers left on the walls turned inwards, racing down from their positions to grab buckets and try and dampen the fire, that or flee the city on the trading vessels in the harbour. Either way, it mattered not. Glanhaol Fflamboethi had achieved their goal, breaking apart and punishing the rebellious cities of the southern peninsula. Only Horaim was left standing of those who rebelled, and perhaps that would be changed on the way north. It would take decades for Miath Mhor and Niam Liad to reclaim their former prominence, if the inferno continued to rage as it did now.

Once more the horn sounded, this time the call for retreat. Work done, the army turned to the north. There was one more battle they must face this day, and without the firemages, who were too exhausted to offer more than token assistance. Rhyfelwyr had been forced to catch Rhocas after his last blast, for the young man had fainted to the ground, along with all of the other mages about him. Now, they rode back amongst the supply wagons, tended by the cutters, the mages ashen-faced and shivering, their bodies expended. Rhyfelwyr thought that some of them might not make it through the day, their bodies so exhausted that they would fall into the sleep from which they would not wake.

Now it was the turn of the soldiers of Bhreac Veryan, for they had to fight their way to the north through the bulk of the Lianese army, and that would be a trial the likes of which they had not faced before, for the army that stood across from them was far larger than they, at least in numbers. Somewhere, the Lianese had been able to conjure thousands more troops out of thin air, although Rhy and his squad suspected that the numbers had been inflated with many sailors and farmers brought in from the surrounding lands, and that only a small core of the army was well trained in the arts of war. Still, there was one cause for worry: Llofruddiwr and others had reported the presence of a new type of soldier, Lianese heavy infantry covered from head to foot in armour and carrying large shields, with each holding a flail. There were only a few hundred of them, but they marched at the head and centre of the Lianese forces, and would likely be used as a block, while the great numbers of the Lianese wings swept around and into the flanks of the smaller Veryan forces.

The officers of Glanhaol Fflamboethi had not given up hope of avoiding the battle, or at least choosing the grounds on their own terms, and so the march away from the city was angled towards the eastern coast, in the hopes that they could slip around the end of the more ponderous Lianese forces. Hours passed from that morning’s engagement, until a cry went up from the scouts on the western side of the Veryan army. They had finally been spotted by a scout from Niam Liad. Thus warned, the officers of Glanhaol Fflamboethi began hunting for a location that would let them make a stand, and found one in a small hill that gave a good view of the surrounding countryside. It would offer a little in the way of advantage, and perhaps delay the Lianese assault, which would give the firemages more time to recover, and perhaps even become a factor in the battle, although that was wishful thinking, as far as Rhyfelwyr and Talfen were concerned. Today would be a battle won or lost on the strength of Veryan arms.

Officers spread out amongst the men, positioning the squads in various ways, forming a ring about the crest of the hill, with the wagons and the supplies drawn up at the very peak. The soldiers started digging with a will, forming a shallow trench perhaps five feet in front of their lines, mounding up the extracted dirt into a small wall. It would provide little protection against the arrows and javelins of the Lianese forces, but it should dent the strength of their charges. Likewise, the wagons at the top of the hill were drawn into a circle, where they would be the last fall back should the army need it. If the fighting reached the wagons, though, the battle was lost for Veryan, and the soldiers would likely fight to the last man, for after the campaign so far, no quarter would be given nor asked.

Rhyfelwyr and his squad were placed to face westward, the direction from which the main thrust of Lianese soldiers would come. And come they did, in a wave that spread across the horizon and made the numbers of the Veryan soldiers seem paltry and few by comparison. But that wave also gave the Veryan soldiers hope, for, as Taflen pointed out, the soldiers on the wings carried little in the way of weapons or armour, and some seemed to have nothing more than daggers, clubs or sickles. The morale of those troops would be low, and they would break easily. If only a few firemages were available to cause that break. Locsyn returned from where he had gone to check on Rhocas, and shook his head. None of the mages were awake, and most still had the ashen face and shallow breath of one on death’s doorstep.

Had the Veryan soldiers been given more time, they would have turned the hill into a killing ground, with strong fortifications and a field of caltrops scattered before the trenches, but with the Lianese soldiers coming on, it was all they could do to finish the trench they had laid out before them, and position themselves in the deep shield wall surrounding the summit.

It was late in the afternoon by the time the Lianese soldiers reached the foot of the hill. There, they paused, letting the wings circle round until the base of the hill was engulfed in Lianese troops, although the eastern side of the hill was facing only ill-armed conscripts with a thin screen of skirmishers in front of them. The western side of the hill looked down on the heavy infantry of Niam Liad, each swathed in glistening layers of metal and wood. With just a glance, Gwyth could tell the armour would take many a direct blow, and so he told his comrades around him to go for the joins of the armour, where it would be weakest. Rhyfelwyr and the others nodded; it was likewise with the insectoid Veryan suits. Both armies waited there in silence, until the call sounded from within the Lianese lines. The heavy infantry led the slow march up the hill, for there was no way they could charge.

Rhy thought for a moment, then shouted. “Tip the heavies into the trench! They can’t get up!” Indeed, it looked as if the armour weighed enough that that would be the case, and Rhy sincerely hoped it would be. As the front line of the Lianese soldiers came up the hill, the skirmishers began to release their javelins and arrows. Shooting and throwing uphill robbed the projectiles of some of their strength, and the Veryan soldiers were able to catch most of them on their shields, but some few got through, leaving gaps in the Veryan line that were filled from behind, the wounded dragged back to the cutters. The Lianese forces closed closer, and a horn sounded. The Veryan lines took two steps backwards, contracting. Rhyfelwyr looked to his left and his right, nodding at Gwyth and Locsyn, and each withdrew a glass sphere from the pouches hanging at their belts. Each soldier had been issued two spheres for today, the last from the army’s supplies. The Lianese lines had sped up to a slow job, and had almost reached the shallow trench.

A strident note flew overhead, and the Veryan soldiers threw the spheres. The glass containers crashed into the faces and visors of the Lianese troops, showering them with shards and glass dust, leaving them in milling confusion, breaking the momentum of the charge. Wishing they could take advantage of the mess, the Veryan soldiers hung back, for the glass dust took no notice of friend or foe, and could easily blind Veryan troops if they charged in too soon. The front lines of the Lianese stumbled back down the hill, faces bleeding and barely able to see where they were going, taking with them some of the dangerous heavy infantry. Gathering themselves once more, the Lianese stepped into the trench and over, and as they did so, the Veryan soldiers roared and charged, slamming into the Lianese with all the momentum that the extra two steps up the hill had given them, using their shields as battering rams to knock the Lianese troops backwards and down the hill. Most of the Veryan front rank fell down, launching themselves fully into their foes, but into the chaos stepped the second rank, and their swords played havoc with the scattered and befuddled Lianese soldiers.

On the eastern side of the hill, the skirmishers were unable to stand the force of the Veryan charge, and they broke, leaving the conscripts to face the might of the Veryan veterans on their own. The conscripts wavered, but held for a time, the sheer numbers of them providing a counter to the skill of the Veryan soldiers. A single soldier might kill three or four of the conscripts, but if his sword got caught or his shield fouled, then a Lianese would leap atop him, using weight to bear the Veryan soldier to the ground where he could be overwhelmed. Seeing what was happening when they fought as individuals, the Veryan soldiers on that side of the hill regrouped, falling back into the shield wall. This served them much better, for the Lianese recruits had no training in how to break a wall of this kind, and without shields or armour of their own, they had little chance against the heavily armed and armoured Veryan soldiers.

On the western side of the hill, matters were much more dire. The initial charge had bowled over or killed a great many of the heavy infantry and the supporting troops, but, much to Rhyfelwyr’s dismay, the brutes were standing back upright and marching forwards to rejoin the fray. It appeared their armour was not quite as heavy as it appeared, and that they would have to be killed after all. Pressed back by the numbers of Lianese soldiers, Rhyfelwyr and his squad fell into the shield wall next to the other Veryan soldiers, slipping back into the old rhythm of front ranks defending, second ranks stabbing over and around. Rhyfelwyr felt Locsyn behind him, and grinned, for this was a dance the two men had perfected many years ago, and as Lianese soldier after Lianese soldier came forward, they fell to the trickery and exquisite timing of the two old soldiers. Until before them stood a heavy infantry, his massive shield covering the entire left side of his armoured body. Swords flickering in and out, the two soldiers sought openings in the guard of the Lianese soldier, but none presented itself, and the heavy countered by striking with his flail. Unlike a normal weapon, which he could catch on the edge of his shield, Rhy saw that if he did that here, the flail head would swoop over and continue its motion, striking without impediment. Up and down the line, the heavies were entering the fight on the side of Niam Liad, and the situation was looking grim for the shield wall of the Veryan soldiers.

15

Apr

by thefourpartland

It’s been a few days since I touched Breaking an Empire, but today seems to have broken the ice on the story, and I’ve managed a little over 2,000 words of writing, bringing the total to 24,000. This covers much of the build-up to Niam Liad, and what will happen there. Feels odd to be drawing to a close on this story that I’ve been working on for months. When I finish it, that means I end up back in the editing room, tweaking it and the various other stories that will make up Unfolding a New Continent. In some ways that will be a nice feeling as well, because it’ll mean I’m nearly done with my second book.

I hope you enjoy today’s story.

Two days of sleeping and eating followed, with the squad rarely rising until the sun was directly overhead. It was a pleasant time, a break from the strictures of warfare. The citizens of Horaim, those who remained, came out of their hiding places to stare at the invading army. Some hucksters took advantage of the situation, and sold their wares at inflated prices to the Veryan soldiers.

The third day came, and Glanhaol Fflamboethi formed up, the supply wagons flush with goods, and trundled south once more, moving closer to the siege of Niam Liad. It was to take a little over two weeks for the army to march down the peninsula, barring unforeseen circumstances or constant raiding.

Two days of travel passed, and the soldiers saw evidence of burned fields and ruined landscapes once more. The cursed landscapes brought a dark humour over the soldiers of Glanhaol Fflamboethi, and may wry and sarcastic jokes were passed back and forth on the the march. Locsyn delighted in creating new ones, and shared them far and wide. Taflen took part too, as did all the others, eventually, except Llofruddiwr, who disappeared for days at a time, returning at random intervals to gather supplies. Rhyfelwyr thought of approaching Llof to ask his purpose, but knew he would get nothing more than a glance and one word, and so left the man alone.

Rhocas had departed the squad once more, called back to his mage training. Whether he would be reassigned to them or not was uncertain. Rhy was grumpy about that, for he had spent a great deal of time trying to turn the young lad into a good soldier, and just when he had achieved that, command pulled him aside and tried to make Rhocas into a mage. The young man hadn’t had enough time for his teachings to settle in, and being confused or uncertain in battle was a quick way underground.

The black humour lasted until the army was a week down the peninsula. Then the raiding began. The Lianese had held back some of their skirmishers, and, early in the morning or late in the evening, they would charge up on a flank, throw a single volley of javelins and arrows, and retreat at full speed. The Lianese managed this twice before the officers adjusted to the tactic, and the third time the skirmishers came for the Veryan army, they were met with massive balls of fire, each tearing huge chunks out of the onrushing line. With perhaps a third of their number dead or severely wounded, the Lianese turned tail and fled, and did not try that raid again.

Upon seeing their defeat, Locsyn twirled his moustache and grinned. “They’re going to have to come up with something better than that to defeat us.”

Taflen sounded forlorn as he spoke. “They have, Loc. We’re being fed well, but our food supplies won’t last a long siege, and they won’t last the run back up the peninsula, unless we capture and take every ounce in Niam Liad. Even if we win and break their rebellion, our army and this land will be shattered for many years to come. We’re the last guttering of a candle before the wick runs out.”

“Damn it Taflen. I’d been trying to forget that.” Locsyn stared at the ground for a long moment. “You think I want to be reminded that I can survive every arrow shot and sword stroke, and rather than die a hero’s death I’m going to die a thin skeleton in some roadside ditch? Look around. The black humour was the only leg we were standing on as far as morale, and if the Lianese get more inventive with their attacks, we’re going to crumble and fall apart like so much bad masonry.”

While Locsyn was speaking, Rhy had joined the little group standing there. “No, we aren’t going to crumble. You’ve seen this army in action. You really think it can crumble? We’ve battered two Lianese cities, crushed their armies, and we’re still marching, while they flee in front of us.”

Locsyn raised an eyebrow. “Optimism? That’s unlike you, Rhy.”

“Only leg I can stand on, Loc. I suggest you do the same.”

“Right, right. Soldiers always were good at ignoring facts. Guess I can do it one more time.”

Rhy patted Locsyn on the shoulder, and the two friends wandered off to find a quiet area, where they could speak of old times, of youth and of happiness. Taflen sighed, and made his way through the camp, stopping here and there to speak to other soldiers, recording their responses for his history of this campaign. The historian knew it would never see the light of day, but it was his goal and his ambition to finish it, and so he pushed ahead, letting the work carry him forward.

A day passed in peace, as the Lianese gathered themselves once more. That night, as the camp was made, burning casks of pitch and tar arced high into the sky, smashing down upon the tents and the soldiers of Glanhaol Fflamboethi. Shouting and cursing, men readied themselves and turned out towards the night, where they were met by a shower of arrows and javelins from skirmishers who had slipped into position after darkness fell. Backlit by the campfires and the burning casks, the Veryan soldiers made easy targets for the Lianese, and were felled in droves. The horn sounded for the retreat, and the Veryan troops pulled backwards, just in time to see a series of small flares fly over their heads from back within the camp. The skirmishers, revealed in the light, turned to flee away, but they could not outrun the wave of fire that spilled over them, as the firemages of Bhreac Veryan laid their wrath upon the countryside. A few casks flew into the air, aimed at the pack of Veryan mages, but the mages were quick to avoid them, and watched the burning tar splash harmlessly away.

Upon a far hilltop, from whence the casks had come, the soldiers of Bhreac Veryan saw several figures stand and make gestures. Even from this distance, the message was clear: that we are coming for you, and that you shall die. The Veryan soldiers jeered and called out in response, mocking the Lianese airmages, for that is what those men were. They had finally been called into battle, as the Veryan army approached their last city. All had known they would face the airmages at some battle along this campaign, but to see their efforts evened out and repulsed by the firemages was a welcome sight, and restored much of the faith of Glanhaol Fflamboethi, for what had once been an unknown was now a known, and a known that could be overcome and stopped. The Veryan troops went to bed that night mourning their fallen comrades, but secure in the knowledge that this campaign could be, and would be, won.

With their tactics foiled a second time, the Lianese soldiers withdrew from the battlefield, giving the Veryan troops free passage to Niam Liad. This heartened the Veryan soldiers considerably, but for Rhyfelwyr and his squad, it became a source of worry. “Even with the losses we were taking in the midnight raids, I’d rather face those than have the same soldiers standing atop a city wall, firing down at us. Have they forgotten Horaim? We lost a third of our men in that trap, and they may well invite us into Niam Liad for the same purpose.”

“Relax Taflen. If nothing else succeeds, we burn the city to the ground and go home, calling it good. You think they forgot Miath Mhor? We scorched the city to the ground rather than enter it, as we should have done with Horaim. It was only the food that stopped us that time. Now, well… we have more food, and we don’t have to make it to another battle.” Locsyn and Taflen were once more debating the state of the campaign.

“I see. So the predicament the Lianese are in forces them to expend their army attacking us before we get to the city walls. You realize, of course, that this means we will be engaged in more ambushes, and that they haven’t withdrawn all the way to Niam Liad.”

“You once accused me of being the pessimist. I think you’ve well overtaken me.”

Gwyth looked up from his place by the fire. “Stuff it, you old women.”

“Old woman? I have a moustache!” Locsyn twirled both ends for emphasis.

“Stolen from an old rug.”

“Why you!” Locsyn turned bright red, his hand going to his sword. “Withdraw that!”

Gwyth looked Locsyn up and down, then spat at the ground. “Calm down. Can’t be teased any more?”

Locsyn took his hand away and looked shamefaced. “No, no. I guess not. I’ve been wondering if this campaign would do me in, especially ever since Taflen mentioned our food supplies. Been a little touchy since then.”

Snorting, Gwyth turned back to the fire. “Best get yourself sorted. You’re currently no better than Rhocas was when he joined us.”

Locsyn muttered to himself, then disappeared off into the darkness. He needed time to go and think this through, for if he had lost that special core of soldiering, he was useless. Worse, he’d be a liability, and if one of the others got run through trying to protect him… Locsyn knew he couldn’t live with that. They’d sent Gwewyr home for that, only there was no way to be sent home now. Locsyn would have to make it through somehow. Crossing his lap with his sword, he sat and watched until the sun’s first rays heralded the dawn.

Llofruddiwr was back from one of his many expeditions, and was sitting talking to Rhyfelwyr out in the darkness beyond the pickets. This time, the assassin had been gone for several days, returning only when he had completely run out of food and supplies. “What is it, Llof? Something has you troubled.”

“Stalking us, front and back. Back’s the dangerous one. No forces in Niam Liad itself.”

“They’ve got an army behind us? Where the hell did those troops come from. We wiped out the Lianese north of here.”

“Took boats from Niam Liad to Horaim after we left. Been moving down the peninsula after us since then, but far enough away not to bother our scouts. In front is just skirmishers and some airmages. They’ll withdraw into the city a day before us.”

“So they’re putting us between hammer and anvil, and if we wait, we starve.”

“Lianese do as well. Have barely more food than we do. Less now.”

“Less now? What have you been up to, Llof?”

“Burned some of their supply wagons at night. They didn’t have enough pickets up.”

“But where does that leave us? Is that something you could do again?”

“Upped the pickets and patrols, and added an airmage listening. He nearly caught me.” Llofruddiwr lifted his arm to show a puncture wound through the armour beneath his left arm. “Magic-guided arrow. Managed to get out of range before the second one was fired. Only reason I’m still alive, I think.”

“You’ve had that treated, right? The cutters need to look at it and make sure it’s clean.”

“Cleaned it myself, and a few days now. I’ll do fine.”

Rhy glared at Llof. “You damn well better, you’re the best fighter in the whole army. No one can stand up to you, even in sparring.”

“Gwyth can.”

“Okay, sure, he can, but Gwyth doesn’t feel pain, and he heals from wounds in a day. They don’t even scar. He’s the only person I know who takes a hit just to make sure he can finish his enemy off.”

Llofruddiwr shrugged. “Necessity, sometimes.”

“Okay, okay, I get it. You’ve got the answer for everything tonight. You’ve reported all of this to the officers, right?”

“They cursed.”

“And didn’t change our orders. Which means the officers are wondering what they can do to get us out of this mess we’re in. Lovely. You’re a better strategist than most of them, so what do you think they’ll do from here?”

“Burn Niam Liad. Then die trying to fight back to Bhreac Veryan.”

“You’re such an optimist. I should lock you and Taflen in a room. You’d talk one another to death.”

Llofruddiwr shrugged again. “Realist, not optimist.”

“Oh why do I bother.” Rhyfelwyr shook his head and stood up. “C’mon, let’s get you some food and some rest.” The two soldiers departed, heading back into the camp, readying themselves for what tomorrow would bring.

10

Apr

by thefourpartland

Shorter than I would normally like, at only 850 words, but I didn’t quite seem to have it this morning. A pity, that, but no matter. Still glad I was able to write a little. I think perhaps it might have had to do with trying to write the comedown after a battle, and back into the ‘connection’ piece between Horaim and Niam Liad. Also, while reading/writing, I had an alternate idea for the ending, and I’m not sure which one to use.

Eight Veryan soldiers set out, Rhyfelwyr in the lead. Another had died while they recovered in the market. Rhyfelwyr looked about and his small unit, blood spattered, staggering, and at less than half strength, and wondered why he did this. Why did he lead young men into battle over and over, only to watch them die? He feared he knew the answer: he could do no other thing, that he was such a soldier he could no longer exist outside the strictures of the army. Perhaps he couldn’t, at that.

Shaking the dreary thoughts from his mind, Rhy turned his weary eyes to the road ahead, glancing back and forth at all the openings in the buildings looming overhead, the hidden spots on the roofs where archers could hide. If they encountered any more Lianese troops, any more, they’d all die. Why knew his squad was too exhausted to even retreat, and wondered if he should hole up in some basement, and wait for a day or two, discover the outcome of the battle afterwards. Something inside wouldn’t let him though, and Rhy could see it in the countenances around him: they had come too far to stop now. There would be an end to it this day.

Stride by stride the Veryan soldiers approached the warehouses, and although the sounds of fighting drifted over the city towards them, their passage through Horaim was untroubled. Sticking to the back-alleys and hidden ways of the city, Llofruddiwr lead from his station high above them, leaping from rooftop to rooftop, appearing at junctions to point the way. How he had the energy for such exertions Locsyn would never know, for he had been forced to drop his shield entirely, no longer able to stand the strain it placed on his wound. The shield was lying back in the rubble of the market, so much detritus.

The sun was touching the horizon when the squad arrived at the first warehouse, tucked away on the south side of the city. The squad had fought and marched their way across all of Horaim, arriving wounded and tired, battered and nearly broken. Letting the other slump to the ground around him, Rhy motioned Gwyth forward. “Open it.” The brute nodded, and a mighty blow from his sword cleft the chain holding the door shut. Running his fingers along the edge of his blade, Gwyth pulled out a whetstone and began to grind the nick from his sword.

Pulling the doors open, Rhy smiled as he saw the fully stocked warehouse before him. “Everyone, eat your fill. Don’t make yourselves sick, though. Taflen, when you’re done eating, take inventory.” Taflen nodded, his eyes glancing over the stacks and barrels of food. Patting Locsyn on his unwounded shoulder, the historian pried open a cask and handed the dried meat within to his wounded friend.

The other soldiers set to with a will, and Rhy stationed himself at the door as a sentry, gratefully accepting some meat to chew on while he waited. As the twilight laid a thick blanket over Horaim, he pushed the doors closed, barring them from the inside and falling asleep on the ground. Around him, his squad slept, content in their lot.

The morning arrived late and groggy, the squad struggling to rise in the dim confines of the warehouse. Unbarring the doors and pulling them open, Llofruddiwr and Gwyth were greeted by the site of other Veryan soldiers, standing and sitting in the square before them, organizing supplies being taken from the stockpiles. Llof turned to Rhy and pointed, and the sergeant sighed and shook his head. “I’ll go report, shall I?”

Report made, Rhyfelwyr returned with orders that they were to assemble at the south gates at noon. They would then be given quarters in the city, and two days leave, after which they were expected to be well-rested and able to march down to Niam Liad. “There’s something else though, something they weren’t talking about. We lost a third of our men here. You could see it at assembly, whole banners missing from the rows. We also lost about half the storehouses. They were fired before our soldiers could get there. We have enough for the trip down, and perhaps some of the trip back, but not all the way across Bedwar Barthu Dirio. Looks like it’s Niam Liad or nothing.”

Taflen spoke. “A third? We must have crippled the Lianese as well.”

“Oh, we did. Their forces in Horaim were shattered. But how many more do they have in Niam Liad? I wonder.”

“Given how many fought us here, they can’t have more than a few handfuls left. The emperor never let them keep or train many soldiers, so we’ll probably be going against farmers with pitchforks.”

“Pitchforks and a twenty foot city wall. Anyway, off to assembly.”

The squad marched on, their heads filling with thoughts of leave and sleep.

9

Apr

by thefourpartland

This feels good. 2500 more words, and a nice relaxed morning. What a wonderful way to start the day off, and I feel so much better now that I’m writing again. Feel off when I don’t get the chance to do that. I remember what it is like to write this story, and I’m glad it’s moving along apace. 21,000 words now. The original end goal was 25,00, but I’m going to pass that easily, at least before edits begin to cut material out. This is fun, and I hope you enjoy reading it. Comments and critiques are always appreciated.

Several times they were struck from the side or the front by opposing Lianese soldiers, but each time, the Lianese were repulsed, although one close encounter had hung in the balance until Rhocas had gathered himself and sent a jet of flame playing across the Lianese front lines. Their moral broken, the Lianese tried to flee, and were slain by the charging Veryan forces.

Each skirmish brought Rhocas, Rhyfelwyr and their forces closer to the warehouses, and now they could see the bulky shapes only a few streets away, the heavy forms promising food and sustenance for weeks to come. Calling to his troops to rally on, Rhyfelwyr trotted round a corner to find himself in a market square, still filled with the stands and stalls of the hawkers. Cautious for an ambush, he gestured left and right, sending Taflen and Gwyth to scout through the remains. The other soldiers tucked themselves in tightly, forming a small square of shields at the edge of the open area.

Taflen advanced cautiously, his sword and shield held at the ready, eyes as much on the roofs around him as they were on possible foes hidden behind the stalls. Gwyth strode forward, openly challenging any who would dare to come stand with him, using his shield to swipe the stands aside, knocking them to the ground. After both had passed through two-thirds of the square, they glanced at one another, and nodded at Rhyfelwyr. The sergeant led his forces forward at a steady pace, until he glanced upwards and saw Llof standing on the building opposite, waving and point down at the street below. Rhy cursed, then shouted at the men around him. “Square, form a square! Pull the stands in as barricades! Now! Now!”

The Veryan soldiers leapt to obey, with Gwyth picking up two stands at a time and stacking them into a deep wall in the direction that Llof had gestured. Within moments there was a shielded square of Veryan forces, wrapped around by an outer barrier of wooden stalls and market detritus. As they finished readying themselves, Lianese forces poured from two of the streets into the market. Combined, the two forces outnumbered the Veryan three to one or four to one, and Rhy steeled himself for what was to come. Leaning over, he tapped Rhocas on the shoulder. “Don’t both using your magic until we’re engaged. Otherwise, you’ll be a pincushion.” Turning to bellow to the soldiers around him, the sergeant cried out orders for the defence. “Grab spheres! Meet their charge at five paces! Then swords!” The soldiers readied appropriately, their faces showing the strain of half a day fighting in the alleys of Horaim, for the sun stood high overhead, and it had barely crested the horizon when the fire had first struck the north gates of the city. Here and there, a shield or a sword sagged towards the ground, but their comrades would jostle the arm back to its proper place.

A trumpet rang out from within the Lianese forces, and Locsyn saw the javelins being readied that would precede the charge. His arm pained him greatly, and was still all but useless, but he had been able to sling his shield from his shoulder and strap it to his upper arm. He could barely move it, but it covered half his body, and that was better than before. Wordlessly, he took the sphere of glass that Rhocas proffered him and tucked it away in his belt pouch. A second trumpet sounded, and Locsyn ducked down as the Lianese charge began and the javelins flew overhead. Most were deflected away, caught in the barrier or glancing off shields, but a few pierced through the shields, and others found gaps in the defences, opening small holes in the Veryan forces. Men stepped forward to fill the holes, leaving an already thin line even thinner. Soon, Locysn knew he would be called to step into the line, and do the best he could with but one arm.

As the Lianese forces reached three paces from the barricade, Rhyfelwyr cried “Throw!”, and the glass spheres were hurled outward, smashing into the face and shields of their foe, shattering into clouds of abrasive shards and cutting splinters. The front lines of the charge stumbled and collapsed, blinded Lianese soldiers collapsing to the ground with broken and bloodied faces. Those behind tripped and fell over their comrades, leaving the charge a ruin before it even reached the barriers. And now, when they tried to charge again, there would caltrops scattered across the ground, promising injury to any who tried to step forward.

The Veryan forces watched as the Lianese withdrew, picking their wounded up and pulling back to gather against the edges of the market square, building courage for another charge. Rhyfelwyr wished they had been able to take more advantage of the confusion of the broken charge, but that would have meant breaking the shield wall and stepping over the barricades, and giving up that defensive surety for a momentarily opportunity was not worth the cost. He called out, and the second, and last, round of spheres was brought to hand. There would be nothing but the sword after this, and if the Lianese were wise to that and started to bombarbed the Veryan forces with arrows, the only response Rhy could conjure would be a deadly charge over the barricades, into a waiting force. He could only hope that the battle was going well enough elsewhere, so that these Lianese forces did not have the time for a leisurely battle.

The second charge came, and it was repulsed in the same way as the first, glass spheres breaking the momentum at point-blank range. There spheres rarely killed, but the clouds of abrasive glass would injure many an eye, and the spray of sharpened waste would make the ground a spike-ridden mess, and for that Rhyfelwyr was grateful. In the brief pause as the Lianese forces gathered for a third charge, Rhy spoke with his squad, pulling them from the lines.

“We’ve lost three of the twenty men we started with, and three more are like Locsyn, wounded. They’re going to throw a third round of javelins, and we’ve already tightened the wall once. Do we charge?”

Taflen looked up, examining the Lianese forces for a long moment before shaking his head. “We stay, we’ll take more of them with us that way.”

Gwyth grunted. “Uplifting, you are.”

Nervously twirling the end of his moustache in one hand, Locsyn shook his head. “Rhocas, can you get us out of this?”

The young mage sighed. “I’ve been training as a mage for only a few days, I can just barely manage summoning fire when I want it. I can’t do one of the giant balls of flame. I’m sorry.”

Rhy patted the young man on the back. “Nothing to be sorry about, you signed on as a soldier and you do a soldier’s job. We stand.” Rhy turned back to his post in the centre of the barricade, and only Taflen heard him mutter that “I hope Llof comes up with something.”

The third trumpet called, and Gwyth readied himself, his shield held high to catch the incoming javelins. His arm ached and a slow trickle of blood flowed from where the arrow had pierced it in the morning, but he ignored the pain, and caught the first Lianese soldier over the wall on his shield, slamming it up into his foe as the man jumped from the barricades. A sword thrust around the side slammed into the Lianese ribs, and Gwyth dumped him off, shield reset to deal with the next foe.

Taflen steadied himself, one foot up on the wooden barrier, and as the first of his foes tried to scramble across, he caught the fool with a hard strike to the helmet, cleaving the protection and leaving his foe writhing on the ground. Two more followed at the same time, pushing Taflen back as he fought to keep his shield in front of one and strike at the other with his sword. The split attention meant neither succeeded, and a thrust at his ribs was only stopped by the quick attention of the Veryan soldier to Taflen’s left. That assistance allowed the historian to strike hard at the legs of the foe to his right, and the sword carved through the shin until it lodged midway into the bone, yanked from his hand as the Lianese soldier fell. With nothing but his shield left, Taflen put his right hand behind the boss and slammed it into the face of his second foe, knocking him backwards. The strike was too late for Taflen’s ally, for in stopping the thrust at Taflen he had left himself open, and a countering blow had left him dying in the dirt. In the brief moment of freedom that he had, Taflen grabbed the sword from his fallen comrade’s hand, stepping backwards and readying himself for the next foe to come.

The shield wall contracted further, with only ten of the original twenty still standing, of which five came from Rhyfelwyr’s squad. He was proud of them, that they would stand against the odds, but some twenty five Lianese soldiers remained to press in on them, and that left Rhy sore at heart. He could see Rhocas calling on his magic, and brief sputters of flame would appear, but the carnage and the chaos of the battle had stolen the mage’s concentration, and soon he fell back on his sword, standing in the shield wall and delivering blow for blow, his face pale with sweat. The young man had seen too little of life to die, and he fought with the strength of the desperate, fear lending power to his strikes, and speed to his counters.

The Lianese line began to slacken and turn back on itself on one side of the square, and Rhy tried to look over the combat to see what could steal their resolve, but he could see nothing. The scene resolved itself moments later, as several Lianese soldiers collapsed with daggers piercing their throats, revealing a blood-soaked Llofruddiwr standing with two of his long-knives in hand, slashing into his Lianese foes. Caught between a suddenly surging shield wall on one side and a dervish on the other, the Lianese turned back to back, fighting desperately as two of them tried to slay Llofruddiwr. He dismissed their pitiful attempts, catching each strike on his knives before batting one Lianese weapon aside and kicking the soldier in the groin. One foe incapacitated, Llof turned his full attention on the other, and in a whirlwind of cuts and slices, hacked away at the wrist on the sword hand, wounding it until it could no longer hold its weapon. Both foes rendered incapable, he stabbed each, cutting an artery and letting them bleed out.

The Lianese forces on that side of the barricade were soon finished, but two more Veryan troops had fallen, rending their total count down to nine, now that Llofruddiwr had returned to bolster them. That left those nine against fifteen of the Lianese, and the Veryan forces were exhausted. Locsyn could barely stand, having been cut along his thigh, unable to lower the shield to defend himself. Rhocas had gained a wound across the back of his sword hand, and his arm trembled each time he tried to lift the blade. Gwyth stood like a rock, but this rock bled from cut after cut, and even his prodigious strength had slowed and weakened. Only Taflen stood unwounded, for even Rhyfelwyr and Llofruddiwr had been struck. Knowing what must be done, Rhy called out “Charge!” and leapt over the barricade, followed by Llof on his left and Taflen on his right, with the other soldiers a step behind.

Rhy could feel the energy fast draining from his body as he pushed it beyond all limits, and he staggered on his third step, nearly falling to the ground as he struggled with the enemy in front of him. Only a Llof knife-thrust stopped that stumble from being the end, and in a moment Rhyfelwyr was back on his feet, his sword sweeping around in a low arc to cut the ankle of an enemy, shield held high to protect from strikes to the head. Gwyth summoned his massive strength for one last blow, and simply slammed his blade into a Lianese shield, cutting through the wood and metal to drive the tip of his weapon into his foe’s neck. Sword caught in the shield, he let it go and grasped his shield with two hands, laying about him as if it were a club.

The far end of the line was anchored by Rhocas and Locsyn, and they fought as a team, one blocking strikes, the other leaping forward to thrust through the openings created. The style of combat was alien to the Lianese troops, and two fell before they began to understand the rhythm of blows, and drive the two Veryan soldiers backwards. Stumbling, Locsyn was only just able to turn his body to catch the attack on his shield, and he saw Rhocas take a further step back, leaving Locsyn fighting two on his own. Locsysn did all he could to defend himself, not even trying to counter, only trying to deflect the strikes as they came at him. He was rewarded for his skill a few moments later when a lance of blue flame flew over his shoulder and played upon the nearest Lianese troops, incinerating the two he had been fighting, and then turning down the line to catch two more.

The burst of flame from Rhocas left the young mage in a near faint, kneeling on the ground and retching, but it had shattered the Lianese soldiers entirely, and they scattered, a few caught from behind by the daggers of Llofruddiwr, but most escaping, the Veryan soldiers too exhausted to try and follow. Gathering themselves in a tight circle, Taflen applied bandages to the various wounds, cutting strips of cloth from the dead soldiers around them. They waited there for many minutes as the sun passed across the sky, sprawled upon the ground like so many dead, their bodies shut down. Only when the sun began to touch the tops of the buildings did Rhyfelwyr stand again, and gesture the others onwards, towards the warehouses.

8

Apr

by thefourpartland

The first time in two months I’ve written on this short story, and as part of The Four Part Land. It feels very good to get back into the flow of writing in my favorite setting. Here is another 1100 words for Breaking an Empire, bringing the total story to 18600. I feel a little rusty, trying to remember the style I use, but I hope it meshes well with what is already there.

The next morning, before the sun had arisen, Glanhaol Fflamboethi assembled facing the north gate of Horaim, silently slipping from their beds to form in a great mass. Formed into a long column, orders had come that they were to charge the gate as soon as it was destroyed. Rhy hoped they could catch the Lianese forces before morning woke them, but as he looked out over the field of battle and towards the distant walls, still shrouded in night, he shook his head. Today, he had a bad feeling.

A great burning noise filled the air, and a massive ball of fire lifted from the front ranks of the Veryan army and slammed into the north gate and surrounding wall, shattering them into rubble. A roar thundered out, and the column surged forward, quickly building pace to a run. Rhyfelwyr and his squad had been designated to go capture warehouses, along with many other squads in the army. The food situation was desperate enough that capturing those supplies could change the outcome of the campaign, and so Rhy gritted his teeth and raised his shield high above his head, warding off the arrows he felt sure to come. Around him, Gwyth and Locsyn and Taflen kept time, while Llof had disappeared. That didn’t surprise Rhy at all; it meant Llof had been close to the walls when the explosion opened the gates, and was causing havoc inside Horaim.

Glanhaol Fflamboethi crossed the open ground to the north gate with no shower of arrows or waiting defenders in their way, and as the column passed into the city, it began to fracture into many smaller commands, each heading towards their set targets. It was but a few moments later that the sounds of fighting erupted all around, and archers appeared on rooftops and leaning out of windows as Lianese soldiers burst from their places of concealment to strike the Veryan troops in their flanks. Momentarily bewildered, the Veryan forces found their footing and fought back with a vengeance, blades clashing against shield and short spear.

Rhyfelwyr found himself fighting alongside Gwyth and and Locsyn, the three of them broad enough to block a small alley, using their mass and their skill to carve into the Lianese troops, each sword thrust a quick stabbing motion made to kill or maim. Gwyth was less graceful, using his brute strength to batter the foes in front of him with his shield, before slamming his sword point through their armour. Taflen had taken station at their backs, and his sword flickered over the shield wall whenever an opening appeared, oft taking a foe in the neck, leaving them writing and bloody on the ground.

An arrow sped down out of the sky and slammed into Gwyth’s arm, causing him to curse and look upwards. Archers had taken station on the roof above them, and were picking their spots to fire down into the Veryan squad. Rhyfelwyr glanced at Gwyth’s wound and then upwards, and sighed, for he could not use his shield to protect both his front and his top, and so he hoped that the archers would be of little skill. Waving with his sword, Rhy called for the others to step back, slowly disengaging from the Lianese forces in order to make a break away from the archers. Staying alive was more important than killing these few soldiers.

Locsyn screamed, and Taflen looked over to see that a javelin had been thrust through his shield and the army holding it, locking the two together and leaving it almost useless. Diving forward, he brought his shield up in time to stop the counter-thrust coming over Locsyn’s useless defences, and was able to flick his sword out in a low cut, hamstringing his opponent. Stepping in front of Locsyn, the historian placed his shield so that it might cover both of them as best as possible, and began to step backwards, Locsyn taking Taflen’s former place at the back of the shield wall, his sword stabbing over the defences, but without much strength behind it, for his wound was grievous and incapacitating.

The Lianese soldiers pressed forward, seeing they had the advantage on this small band, and shouted up for more arrows to fall upon their foes. Their answer came, as a body plummeted from the roof to slam on top of a Lianese soldier, driving him to the ground and breaking his neck. Two more bodies fell, landing again on soldiers, and then arrows began to rain down, piercing the bodies of the Lianese as they sought to retreat from the suddenly charging trio of Rhy, Gwyth, and Taflen. The Lianese flight garnered only a few steps before they were cut down from behind, blades cutting through kidneys and spine to slay the foe. Rhy looked upward and raised his sword in salute, knowing that he would see Llofruddiwr standing there. Sure enough, his old friend waved back, captured Lianese bow in hand, before disappearing down behind the roof line.

A hand clapped Rhyfelwyr on the shoulder, and he spun round to see Rhocas standing behind him, along with two more squads of soldiers. “What are you doing here, lad? You’re supposed to be in the main van.”

Rhocas chuckled. “Always new orders. Didn’t you used to tell me that? I’m supposed to assist you in capturing the warehouses, along with this lot.”

“Good. Give us a few minutes and we’ll be ready. Llof is already scouting ahead.”

Rhocas nodded, and the soldiers sat down in the alleyway, free to rest. While they waited, a cutter came and attended to the wounds on Gwyth and Locsyn, breaking the arrow off and pulling it from Gwyth’s arm. The large man grunted once, then fell back into silence. For Locsyn, the cutter had to saw through the metal head of the javelin, and by the time he was done, Locsyn was white, his face sweating as he breathed rapidly. Pulling the spear from the wound saw Locsyn faint away, and the cutter stuffed herbs into both ends of the wound before wrapping it in cloth. Rhyfelwyr gave Locsyn a few minutes unconscious before prodding him awake. Sighing as he rose to his feet, Loc cut the straps from his shield and stuffed his now-useless left hand into his sword belt. Glancing around at the assembled soldiers, Rhyfelwyr nodded once, and set off towards the warehouses.

5

Feb

by thefourpartland

A little bit lighter than the previous entries, this one clocks in at about 1500 words total. I’m quite fond of this story now, and of the characters in it. It’s the first time I’ve written a story that focused on more than just one or two companions, and its interesting thinking about how to have all six (in this instance) interact, and the dynamics that exist between them.

Keeping the voices separate and distinct can be a challenge some times, because the characters are all more or less from the same background and have been together for years, and so they should all speak in a similar manner, but with enough personality differences that the tone of voice is obvious. Hopefully that’s coming through, even in the unedited text that this is. I know polishing dialogue is one of the primary tasks (for me) when I go through and edit material later on.

Rhyfelwyr and the rest of the squad saw Rhocas only but a little from that point onwards, for the firemages had believed the story, and taken Rhocas for training, where the young soldier now spent almost every waking moment of his day. Often, he would not return even for mealtimes and sleep, too exhausted to wend his way back across the camp. He would likely return when the army began to assault Horaim, but until that time, Rhy didn’t expect to see the soldier.

Glanhaol Fflamboethi made its way southward in three prongs, each drawing slightly closer to the other as the army neared Horaim. As the weeks passed, the patrols in search of food were doubled and then tripled in size, in response to increased Lianese forces in the area. Soon, the Veryan troops were but a two days march from the city they were to invest, and the three segments of the army reformed themselves into one great mass, although one that was running low on food supplies. There was, perhaps, enough food to last the army for a week once they arrived at the walls of Horaim, so it was imperative that the siege be conducted quickly, and that whatever supplies remained in the city be captured as well, otherwise the campaign would falter and fail. Unfortunately, it was presumed that the Lianese knew this as well, and so resistance would be extremely strong.

Rhy was not looking forward to reaching the city, for it meant that he would be forced into an incredibly dangerous situation, one that he had no experience in. He had been in numerous battles, but most of them had been wars of suppression, keeping a lid on the various provinces in the empire that hadn’t wished to behave, and the rest had been campaigns against strings of bandits. Never before had he had to match wits and forces with another full army, and most certainly not in a siege. The largest obstacle that he had seen invested before was a small fort of no more than fifty troops, not one of the larger cities this land possessed. Rhyfelwyr hoped that he and his squad could survive this encounter, as they had so many before.

A day of marching and shuffling about passed, and that night the camp fell asleep with the various elements of the army settled in such a way that they could invest the city on the morning. It was to be a quick investment of only a few days time, before the Veryan troops would be sent against the walls. It was hoped that those few days would give the Veryan officers the insight needed to break into the city, for sacrificing troops on the walls of Horaim would end this campaign as surely as starvation.

So it was on the morrow that Rhyfelwyr, Taflen, Locsyn and the others found themselves standing on a low mound, some miles out from Horaim, looking down over the terrain that surrounded the city. The city itself was perched on a low rise, a spine of sorts, that ran down to the south, on the far side. The walls were not high, perhaps only ten feet off the ground at the crenellations, but they were constructed of stone, not the hoped for wood. The gate was shut tight, and on both the walls and on the taller towers that sat behind, there were visible the silhouettes of archers. Outside of the walls of Horaim, the land was green scrub, with nothing in the way of cover for attacking troops, and a few small streams, which would break up the force of a massed charge. Aside from the low height of the walls, there was little that offered hope to the Veryan troops. There had once been houses and a small slum outside of the north gate, but it had been cleared away and burnt to the ground, to stop it offering any protection to the Veryan soldiers. The Lianese had been thorough in their preparation.

Locsyn nodded at the sweep of the army as it split into two columns to march around to the east and the west of the city. “We’re risking them having another force in Niam Liad, and getting caught in the middle.”

“There is little we can do in that case, for if they have such a superiority of numbers, we are likely to be done for regardless. I do not think that likely, however.” Taflen was the respondent.

“Oh, stop your moaning. We’ll just smash them and be done with it. Look at those walls, I could walk straight through them.”

“Maybe you could, Gwyth, but the rest of us are normal people, not some hulking brute who can use his skin for armour.”

“Hey, I have good looking skin.”

“Compared to what? An anifail chan beichia?”

Gwyth growled and shoved Locsyn, sending him sprawling to the ground in a loud clanking of armour and weapons. The large soldier then stood with feet planted staring down at the moustached man, anger turning his face a simmering red.

“Enough, enough. We’re supposed to be digging in up here to make sure they don’t use the north gate at all, not getting into fights. Gwyth, Locsyn, you can start digging the trenches. The rest of us will spell you when you need a break.”

The soldiers set about building small fortifications in front of their position with a determined look, a basic moat and wall system to break up any charges. Once they had the primary trench built, the soldiers added a second, shallow one some ten feet further out, in the hopes that two would fracture charges even better than just one, and that when the Lianese forces arrived at the wall, they would be disorganized and easier to combat.

Later that evening, Rhocas returned to their camp for the first time in several days, nodding at all of those around him. He still wore his battered and dirty armour, and on the outside had not changed at all, but Rhy wondered if the nascent firemage stood with a straighter back, and a stronger gleam in his eye.

“Oh, so you can finally get back to work?” Locsyn twirled one end of his moustache in his hand while he spoke.

“I’m to be the secondary mage on this side of the walls, in case a breakout attempt happens. Hopefully, it means I don’t have to do much in that regard. I’m better with a sword than with fire, still.”

“If you can do anything with fire, it should cause a fair bit of panic. Just make sure to keep that armour on you if you do, because waving fire around is an invitation to end up looking like a pin cushion stuffed full of arrows.”

“Thanks, that’s really making me feel happy with this new role.”

“Well, if you’re smart, you can be so far at the back the arrows can’t reach you. That makes it a lot safer.”

Rhocas shook his head at the comments, and the banter continued on into the night, one of the squad taking watch duty for each stretch, while the others spoke around the fire. The next morning saw them wake tired from the night before, and to the mists and fogs of a grey and wet sunrise. The damp collected on everything, and with no breath of wind to stir the blanket away, it appeared ready to sit on the camp all day long. Rhyfelwyr sighed, and ordered the men forward into a picket line near the walls of the city, but still out of bow shot. The mist damped sound enough that if the Lianese troops sought to sally forth from their city, there would be little warning, and so better that his squad be across the mouth of their gate.

The day passed cramped and uncomfortable, and when night fell and the fog began to lift, the squad returned to their fire damp and grumpy, only to be met by orders that stated the attack was to come the next day, near dawn. Hearing that, Rhyfelwyr ordered the entire squad to sleep, and did not bother to set watches for the night. They would need all of their strength on the morrow, and it was unlikely the enemy would sortie at night. A hearty meal in their bellies, the soldiers lay down to bed, although some had trouble sleeping. It was to be a momentous morning for all of them.

3

Feb

by thefourpartland

Another 2000 word update, the next in the series.

Before questioning the prisoner, Rhyfelwyr glanced over to where Taflen and Rhocas sat, talking quietly to one another. That was a mystery that would need to be explored, and quickly. Rhy saw Locsyn just shake his head, wondering at the new revelations. All of the patrol was stunned by the realization that Rhocas was a firemage, although probably an untrained one. Firemages were something to be feared, their rank high above that of the common soldier, and yet here one was, wandering around out on patrol. Trying to clear his head of all the thoughts that whirred about, Rhy turned to the prisoner, who was bound and sitting on the ground.

“So, what brought your lot out here? Scouting out our army?” The prisoner just glared back in response, his jaw clamped firm.

“Make it hard on yourself if you’d like. If you aren’t going to talk to me, I’ll just hand you over to Llofruddiwr and his longknives. I don’t have the time to wait around for you to warm up to me.” The prisoner’s head swivelled to where Llof was sitting on the ground, polishing the blades of his weapons with bits of cloth taken from the Lianese he had slain. Llofruddiwr didn’t look up in regards to the scrutiny, just kept examining the blades until he had each one shining perfectly.

Rhyfelwyr smiled. “Yes, the ghost over there. He’ll be just as nice to you as he was to all of your fellows.”

The prisoner glared once more, then spat on the ground next to him. “I get it. What do you want?”

“What were your orders?”

“We were shadowing your army for a few days, and then on the way back to report. Been keeping an eye on you, is all.”

“Right, right. And where are your forces located?”

The prisoner looked around and closed his mouth, clearly not willing to talk about that subject. “Llof, you busy? Might need you in a second.” Llof looked up, then loudly and deliberately scraped a sharpening stone across his longknife.

“They’re forming up around Horaim. I’ve been out in the field a week, so I don’t know if they’ve moved or not since then.”

“Good enough. Locsyn, I’ve got a present for you. Keep this little bundle of joy from scarpering for the rest of the day, can you?”

“I’m touched.”

“We’ve still got a job to do, so lets move.”

The patrol gathered itself, and what little it had taken from the enemy squad, and moved out across the land in search of food. The first few places that they came across were stripped bare ruins, but they found a nice cache hidden under one of the outbuildings in the fourth farmhouse. The building had burned down and collapsed on top of a trapdoor, but Taflen had noticed the edge of the door in the rubble, and with Gwyth doing the heavy lifting to clear the burnt timbers, the latch was soon broken off. Rhyfelwyr and Llofruddiwr descended into the dark below to find themselves in a square earthen chamber, with several barrels of grain and dried meats stored away. Sending Gwyth down to hoist each of the containers out of the ground, Rhy then detailed Llof and Taflen and Rhocas to hunt up whatever forms of transportation might be available.

The squad couldn’t carry back all of the supplies themselves, and with a prisoner, Rhyfelwyr knew they couldn’t send a runner either, as they were already a small unit to be out on their own. Cursing at the officers for sending them out here without more men or a wagon, the sergeant waited for the return of his three men. Soon a grunt sounded nearby, and Rhyfelwyr spun round, to hear Taflen call out. “Send us Gwyth, damn you!”

Rhy gestured at the large man to go help, and shortly a wagon came around the corner, with the traces draped over Gwyth’s neck, and his legs churning to pull the contraption along. Taflen and Rhocas were pushing at the back of the wagon, which slowly settled to a stop in front of the outbuilding.

“Where’d you find this thing? I’d thought they’d all been ruined or taken.”

“Some farmer left it out in a little dell in a field about a mile away. Must have panicked and fled.”

“Good work Rhocas, Taflen. Now to get the barrels on top. And Locsyn, keep an eye on your present, he’s looking shifty. Spoke him with a sword if you have to to keep him from being too active.”

With that, Rhy grabbed one of the barrels, hoisting it onto his shoulder, and then over the side of the wagon into the bed. Gwyth followed after, shrugging a barrel onto either shoulder and just flipping them into the wagon. With the others helping, soon all of the supplies were loaded, and they were ready to turn for home.

“Right, Locsyn, get him into the traces. It’ll stop him from trying to escape, and we need the muscle anyway.” This next was to the prisoner. “And if you think about taking a break from pulling, well, the big guy will be pushing at the back of the wagon, and you’ll just get run over, so step lively until I call for a halt.”

The prisoner spat at the ground in front of Rhy’s feet, but the sergeant just waved at Locsyn in response, and his friend proceeded to shove the prisoner in under the traces, and settle them over his head. With a slap to the back of the prisoner’s head, Locsyn set the man pulling at wagon, slowly getting it to move. Gwyth, Rhocas, and Rhy chipped in at the back, breaking the inertia of the heavy vehicle, before letting Gwyth take the first stint pushing from behind. The others would rotate in pairs to free Gwyth up. The sun was near to setting, and Rhy hoped the wagon didn’t slow them down so much that they would be forced to camp for the night before resuming the journey back to the army.

The squad was exhausted when they stumbled into the army camp that night, an hour after the sun had set. Rhyfelwyr had thought of stopping as the sun’s light disappeared, but the next little rise had shown a field of camp fires, and so they had pushed on in that direction. The prisoner was sagging in the traces, only standing upright because they held him so. He had had no breaks to speak of, whereas all of the squad had rotated in short shifts.

An officer soon came to see the prisoner, and took the report of the day’s actions from Rhy. With a few words of praise, the officer dismissed the squad, and led the exhausted, groaning Lianese soldier away as quartermaster troops swarmed over the wagon, inventorying the find and then wheeling it away.

Rhy hunted up a cook and had him make the squad a hearty meal, their right after a day on patrol and in combat. There was little conversation over the meal, and it was only when their stomachs were satiated that they were able to relax in front of the fire and talk about the day’s events. Knowing that Taflen had already spoken with Rhocas for a little, Rhyfelwyr let the conversation roam, although it mostly settled on the ambush of the Lianese patrol.

“You know, I’ve been fighting beside you for years, and I’ve still never figured out how you get that close to lookouts. Do you crawl under the ground or something?” Locsyn was talking to Llofruddiwr.

“I move quietly.”

“No, I move quietly, and they can hear me from twenty paces or so. You move like a damn spirit, not even here in this world until you pop up and surprise everyone. If anyone actually survived meeting you, there might be a growing rumour about your skill, but you’re so good no one ever knows. And yeah, I know you like it that way, all quiet.”

“Yes.”

“Gwyth, you talk to me, you’ll say more words in one sentence than Llofruddiwr will in an entire day.”

Gwyth doubled over with laughter at that, then put on a silly expression. “Yes.”

“Oh bugger, not you too.”

Leaving the others to their mirth and unwinding, Rhyfelwyr got up from the fire and tapped Rhocas on the shoulder, gesturing for the young soldier to follow into the quiet darkness. Rhocas did so reluctantly, and glanced back at the warm fire more than once as he followed the sergeant out. This conversation wasn’t one that the young man wanted to have.

Rhy turned and eyed the firemage in the dark. Nerves were visible in every aspect of Rhocas’ stance, and Rhyfelwyr patted him on the arm before gesturing at the ground and sitting himself.

“I know you don’t want ot be out here, but I need to find out what’s going on with you. You’re a bloody firemage! You saved Taflen’s life, but you also should have been there to protect his right flank in the first place. It turned out well in the end, but, what are you? Did the mages send you down here to live like a soldier for some reason?”

Rhocas mumbled at first, his voice faint in the night. “No, I’m not a firemage. Never managed to have the training, never noticed I had the talent. Me, or the people who tested me when I was young. It doesn’t come out very much, just when I’m angry or scared, and then it comes out in big waves. It only started showing up a few years ago, and I thought something was going wrong until I realized I had a talent with fire. It’s not really all that useful, just shows up every now and again.”

“Not all that useful? Taflen would be dead if you didn’t have it. That counts as fairly useful to me. Now, why’d you never take yourself round to the firemages and get trained properly. The life’s better than grubbing along down in the dirt with us soldiers.”

“Never wanted to, and always thought I was too old to be allowed into the school, least by the time I knew anything about this. And when Ymerawdwyr was calling for young men to join the army, I decided I might as well go. I was just mucking out stables at a caravan rest, so a soldier’s life is a step up from where I was.”

Rhy nodded. “Still, you might want to go talk to one of the firemages that we have here with us. Doubt they can give you a lot training between now and Horaim, but it might be worth it to learn how to use your talent a little better. Can’t hurt to have an extra tool or two, and might make your life a good deal better in the long run, if you can get bumped up to that status.”

“I’d thought about it, but how would that work? They’re not going to believe that some poor fool of a soldier is a firemage just because he says he is.”

“I’ll talk to them, and bring the squad with me. We’ve been around for long enough that officers at least know I’m not going to lie to them. We’ll do that on the morrow, after we’ve all rested a good bit. Let’s get back to the others, I’m sure Locsyn’s about to have a fit with all the teasing the rest are doing.”

“Thanks, Rhy.” Rhy glanced back and nodded, and then led Rhocas back to the camp fire, where they settled in for the night with the rest of the squad, laughing and talking before finally falling asleep.

31

Jan

by thefourpartland

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?”

“Through.”

“Damn it. Do you have any suggestions?”

“Kill them?”

“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.

28

Jan

by thefourpartland

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.”