In order to give others a look at what goes on in the background, I’ll start posting in-progress writing here. All of the work will be unedited, and presented so that a comparison may be made between beginning and final versions of a work. I won’t be posting any of the various edited drafts that will eventually happen, so this feature will occasionally go quiet while I edit.
Please note that this posting does not give the reader any legal rights, and so on (necessary and annoying to say).
Now, to catch the reader up on where this story currently takes place. It is set hundreds of years before any of the other stories in the Four Part Land, at the time of the shattering of Hymerodraeth Heula, the Empire of the Sun, ruled out of Bhreac Veryan. The main character is a soldier in the Hymerodraeth Heula army at the time of Niam Liad’s rebellion. There are about 7,000 words written so far, and the goal is about 25,000, so the story is about 30% complete.
And now, I hope you enjoy.
The crowd roared, a rolling thunder that spread out from the centre and echoed back off of the buildings surrounding the square. Today, they had come to hear an announcement from their lord and ruler, and they were incensed by what was said, for Niam Liad had risen in rebellion against the rightful rulership of Ymerawdwyr of Hymerodraeth Heula. Now the crowed cried out for blood, for vengeance, for a sacrifice of those insolent peons to the empire of the sun. The Dialedd Lluydd, the army of vengeance, was being prepared to crush this rebellion, and Ymerawdwyr had called for new recruits to come join. Swept in a tidal wave of passion, young man after young man ran to the army barracks and begged to joined. Today, enlistment in the army would run to the highest totals seen in decades.
Rhyfelwyr looked at the mess before him and sighed. All these new pups, wanting to be soldiers. That just meant more work for him training them, and more people who didn’t have a damn clue what they were doing getting killed on the battleground. He glanced over at Locsyn, where the same expression was written on that soldier’s face.
“We’re in for a right mess, aren’t we, Loc?”
Locsyn spat onto the ground before answering. “Better believe it. Now lets go get drunk before the officers find us and make us train those louts.”
“Good call, good call. Get the others?”
“They’re already there.”
Rhyfelwyr nodded, and the two soldiers set off into the backstreets of Bhreac Veryan, wending their way to a grungy old bar tucked away in an alley. Shouldering aside the mat that hung in the doorway, the two sat down at a table with three more men. The youngest of them was in his late thirties, and all had the weather-beaten look of men who had spent too much time outdoors. For a while, none spoke, but a conversation seemed to be carried on nonetheless, in gestures, glances, expressions, and shifting in their chairs. Finally, the largest of the squad, a giant named Gwyth, looked at Rhyfelwyr and spoke.
“Alright, what is it?”
Rhyfelwyr drained his mug, wiped his face, and then answered. “We’ve got six months, maybe seven, to train thousand and thousands of new recruits, them march them halfway across the damn continent, and then fight against Niam Liad skirmishers in their home countryside. I’m just not looking forward to it, is all.”
Taflen spoke at that. “Much as you might like to have us believe that, Rhy, we know there’s something more going in there.” Taflen glanced around the table, at each of the four faces, finishing with Rhyfelwyr’s. “You think they’re going to break up the squad, don’t you? Promote us all to sergeant or lieutenant, give us each our own. I hope the officers aren’t that stupid.”
Rhy shrugged. “They’re officers, and they’re twenty-three and never seen real battle before. What do you expect?”
“A little better sense than that, at least from the veterans further up. Anyway, don’t worry about orders like that coming down. We’ll deal with them.”
Llofruddiwr perked up at that. “My dealing?” he asked.
Taflen blanched a little at that. “I’d rather not. We’d run out of officers in a hurry.”
Llofruddiwr shrugged, then downed another mouthful of beer.
The conversation drifted away into other matters, and the night stretched long as the soldiers drank.
Days and weeks passed as the squad was used to train the youngsters. The very basics of marching, of holding a weapon, of moving in formations. Rhyfelwyr despaired that any of the recruits would become soldiers, or even live past their first five minutes with the enemy. Each time he’d spar with one of the kids, a flick of the wrist, a simple block with a shield, and the openings he found were large enough to drive a herd through. And he’d go back to the bar and hear the same reports from Locsyn, from Taflen, from Gwyth, and from Llofruddiwr. Although he expected that from the soldiers being trained by Llof. The man was a wizard with the blade, and with the other assortment of weaponry that he kept tucked away within the folds of his armour and his cloak. Even the cloak was a weapon: it had weights sewn into the hem so it could be used to catch and trip opponents.
A month had passed in training when Locsyn came over to tap Rhyfelwyr on the shoulder, an expectant look showing through the massive handlebars of his moustache.
“You’d better come for this.”
Bemused, Rhyfelwyr followed Loc through the barracks to the front gate, where an elder was trying to force his way out of the grip of a squad’s worth of six soldiers. Four of them had lost their helmets, three had blood or broken noses on their faces, and all were showing some kind of bruise or battering, and when Rhyfelwyr saw who it was they were holding, he understood how it had all come about.
“Gwewyr, leave off man. They didn’t know, okay?”
The elder turned and shot Rhyfelwyr a glare full of menace, but it softened quickly, and Gwewyr straightened, brushed away the hands holding him, and dusted himself off. With a last glance back at the squad who had been sent to retrieve him, he strode over to Locsyn and Rhyfelwyr, and pulled them towards a quiet corner near the gate.
“Look, I’m not going to leave the wives and kids behind. I’m trying to feed five families, now, and it’s hard enough to make it all work without being dragged off to fight some damned fool war that doesn’t matter to me.”
Locsyn patted him on the shoulder. “We know, Gwewyr, we know. We’ve helped you often enough. What’re you doing here, anyway? You retired out two years ago.”
“I’m not retired any more, lad. Not according to those jumped up pricks. No more pension, not until I do my duty one last time and go off and get killed under some snotnose who can’t tell his left foot from his right. Course, even if I do survive, it don’t matter. I just die when I get back here and the families have shattered. No thanks.”
“There’s no one else, Gwewyr?” Rhyfelwyr looked at his feet for a moment.
“They’re all dead, remember? Four out of five brothers, lying pretty in the family grave. Oh, sure, the pensions help the wives a bit, but not enough, and I don’t trust anyone else to keep order in that place, aside from me.”
Locsyn looked at Rhyfelwyr, who nodded at the thought. “Look, why don’t you come back and train. It’s six months on full pay, maybe a little extra if we can talk to the paymaster about it, and then you just disappear the week we’re heading out. It’s a little more money in your pocket, and you aren’t going anywhere. Has to help a bit, doesn’t it?”
Gwewyr looked thoughtful for a long moment. “Maybe, lad, maybe. I’m not sure I can go back, though.” He looked down at his hands. “I haven’t touched a blade or a spear since the day I furloughed out.”
The other two nodded, then each put one arm around Gwewyr’s shoulder and gently led him towards the gate into the barracks. “Don’t worry about that. The recruits will be so scared of you they’ll just drop their blade and run the first time you spar with ‘em. We’ll make sure of that.” A slow grin spread across Gwewyr’s face as they walked inside. “I like that.”
Gwewyr quickly fell back into the habits that had helped him stay alive across many a battlefield, and even the others were impressed by how many little tricks he brought to the sparring grounds. Stepping on a retreating fighter’s toe, tapping at their elbow with the spear, or closing the distance and using knee strikes, Gwewyr seemed to have an unending fountain of varying attacks, and soon Rhyfelwyr and the rest of the veterans were sparring with him, hoping to pick up the tricks.
Two months had passed since that first call to vengeance, and it was now late autumn, and the training was on well apace. The flow of new recruits had almost stopped, for which Locsyn and the others were grateful, but every day they looked around at the mass of infantry training in the squares, and wondered how many of these newcomers would survive the first battle. While none of the veterans had had experience fighting against the soldiers of Niam Liad, all of them had faced the similar hit and run tactics of the raider kings of the northern mountains. For a large army, it was frustrating in the extreme, as the warriors would jog up, toss a few spears, and then sprint away, always retreating and giving ground until they were backed up against the mountains, and then the raiders just disappeared into the tors, going to ground in the many caves and crevasses. At least this time, the soldiers could be forced to defend their capital. If that hadn’t been the case… Taflen shook his head and let the though dissipate. Getting worked up months before the campaign started served no one.
The winter months passed in much the same way, day after day of training, but now the officers were confident enough in the new recruits skills to let them engage in squad level skirmishes. Due to their skill, the squad of Gwewyr, Locsyn, Gwyth, and the others was often used as a measuring stick, not that it made the poor recruits feel any better. Llofruddiwr alone could often ‘kill’ the opposing squad of six men, and the veterans would send him out there, then take bets on which of the young soldiers would be the first to fall to the dancing assassin. It was a lively business, and made the bar conversations all the sweeter as Rhyfelwyr or Taflen recounted how he had fleeced an officer or two to pay for the night’s drinks.
A new light had come to Gwewyr’s eyes, and each evening, he found it a little harder to return home to the five families, of which he was now the head. The camaraderie of the army, of veterans who had seen it all and lived to tell about it, that was where he felt at home, not among a household full of noise and fury. But he owed a duty to his family, to his lost brothers, and how could he let the remaining children grow up without a father, without someone to hold the house together? As the day marked for departure grew nearer, the burden began to weigh heavily on him, and his performance on the sparring ground and training the recruits suffered visibly. Locsyn and Rhyfelwyr had looked at one another and shrugged. They knew what was going through Gwewyr’s head, but they weren’t sure how to help him. This struggle was one for him and him alone, for a friend’s shield turns aside emotions not at all.
In the end, it was the wives at home who decided the matter for Gwewyr. They had noticed his predicament, well before Gwewyr had, and spent many hours discussing it. And so it was that when he returned home one evening, a month out from the campaign, that he was confronted by all five wives, and told in no uncertain terms that he was going, and that he better stop moping around the house. They were fed up with him acting like a little child whose favourite toy was in danger of being taken away, and that they could survive without him just fine. After all, how’d he think they got on when the brothers went out on prior skirmishes and battles? Gwewyr thanked them all profusely, wrapping each in his arms, and there was a small celebration that evening, although it ended poorly when Gwewyr’s wife slipped out of the room crying. She had seen four husbands die fighting, and had thought that with Gwewyr’s retirement, she was finally past the danger of losing her husband. Now, that danger had once again surfaced, and she had agreed to countenance it, and that was too much for her. Gwewyr knew of whence the tears came, and emotions struck at him too, memories of five boys playing in the street, toy soldiers off to imaginary wars. Gasping, he grabbed the strongest liquor in the house, and began downing it straight from the bottle, hoping that a drunken stupor would cleanse his mind of all that ran through it. It didn’t, and Gwewyr ended the evening on the steps of his home, bawling out his eyes, looking very much an old and broken man.
It was some few days before he was fit again to return to training, and when he arrived, Taflen had pulled Llofruddiwr aside. “He’s dead, isn’t he?” And the simple reply was “Yes.” Saddened at that, Taflen had hunted down the other three, finding them tucked into the shade of a small building. “Gwewyr’s back, but his soul has fled.” Rhyfelwyr cursed under his breath. “He’s staring out from dull eyes?”
Locsyn spoke up. “Better we go short then, or take a fresh-face. Like that, Gwewyr will be looking for a spear point.”
“Don’t tell the officers, we’ll handle this. Taflen, who’s been the best recruit?”
“Probably Rhocas. Want him?”
“Get him assigned to our squad, I don’t care how. Forge the papers if you have to, you’ve got the eye for it.” A quick wave and Taflen was off.
“And now I need to talk to Gwewyr, and get him back on the retired lists. And if he won’t listen, well, there are other ways.” Locsyn patted Rhyfelwyr on the shoulder at that, and the two men rose and headed their separate ways. Each had a task to do.
Rhyfelwyr found Gwewyr in the quad, watching recruits at formation practice. There was little of the light in his eyes, and, indeed, as they looked out over the field at the younger soldiers, there was even sorrow, at what had been, and what might happen to all of those who stood before him.
“Gwewyr, I’ve got a few things with the squad to talk to you about.”
The veteran looked over, his eyes taking the measure of Rhyfelwyr, then shook his head and began walking away. Rhy was forced to hurry to catch up. “Look, you and I need to talk, is all.”
Gwewyr glared over at the sergeant. “You’re going to tell me I’ve lost it, that I should be walking away from all of this and just going home. I can’t, not after everything I went through just to get to this point again. No, I’m fine, and I’ll be coming with you, even if you disagree.”
“No, Gwewyr, you won’t. Not just for you, but for everyone. The skill is still there in your arms, but your heart isn’t, and once that’s gone, there’s almost no way for a soldier to get it back. In some ways, its why the rest of us can’t quit being soldiers. We know nothing else, and our hearts are too well trained for just one thing, and that’s fighting and killing. You’ve moved beyond that, Gwewyr. You’re a civilian with the skills of a soldier, not a soldier. Not any more. And I don’t want to always be on the lookout for you in the melee, and I don’t want you to cost someone else. But most of all, I don’t want to have to come home and explain to Menywod why she’s got no husband, why I let a man fight who I thought shouldn’t. I’m not letting you march to your death, not on my conscience. You’re staying.”
The life fell from Gwewyr’s face, and he sat down on the ground, a sad puppet with no strings. “You realise what you’re telling me, Rhy? That I’m too old to be useful. That I’ve reached the stage in life where everyone just nods and waves at me as they go past, and expects a few stories and an occasional visit, and otherwise I’m just supposed to moulder quietly in some corner. I think I’m more afraid of that than even of dying. At least there, I get carried home on my shield, a warrior of many battles. This way… I just fade.”
Rhyfelwyr knelt by his friend, smiling. “You haven’t been home often enough if you think you’re going to fade with that lot around. You’ve got five families, kids, and grandkids all running around in the largest damn house in town. Just trying to keep that mayhem in check should be enough to keep you on your toes for years. Plus, don’t worry about the campaign. We’ve seen raiders and skirmishers before, and they aren’t a problem for us. It’s not like we’ve let Niam Liad have anything resembling a real army in centuries, they won’t have the troops to stand against us. One season, then we’re back, and it’s all the way it was before this mess started. No, you’ve got no reason to worry about fading. Flame’s breath, you want to keep on your toes, just start training some of the younger ones with a blade. You’d have your own mercenary corps going in no time.”
Gwewyr brightened at that. “I could… provided Menywod lets me. She can get pretty hard at times.”
“What, she’s worse than Sessenagh? That old warhorse could chew leather of your armour from twenty feet away, and you managed to stand up to him.”
“In some ways, she is. But I see what you’re saying, and it’s something I’ll think about. Probably too much, now. You’re right though, I should try some other things. Even with the retirement, I’ve been a soldier for so long I’ve forgotten how to be a father or a husband.”
Rhyfelwyr patted Gwewyr on the back. “You’ve got a lot of new experiences ahead of you, there’s no reason to worry about reclaiming old ones. Those are always with you. Anyway, lets get you back to the training ground, if you want.” Rhy turned to go, then turned back. “And one last thing: if I see you in the troops leaving for war, I will beat you over the head and drag you back to your house myself. Don’t ever doubt that.”
Gwewyr looked rueful. “I had gotten that from your words.” He stood up and looked around, brushing the dirt off as he did so. “I think I’ll head home, if you don’t mind. Better not to keep grasping at being a soldier.”
Clasping hands with his old friend, Gwewyr turned and left, his feet taking him out of his old life and into his new. Rhyfelwyr watched as the old veteran marched away, his feet still coming down in time with the beat of a drum long silent. He was glad that Gwewyr had made the decision he had. It was the right one, and it made everything easier. Now Rhy wouldn’t have to worry about Locsyn’s part in this. A sad smile across his face, Rhyfelwyr headed back to the barracks, looking for Taflen and the forged paperwork. That, they’d still need.
“Okay, sarge, who’s the snotnose standing over there? He’s looking all bubbling and expectant, and it’s getting on my nerves.” Gwyth growled at Rhyfelwyr when he arrived.
“That’s Rhocas. He’s replaced Gwewyr.”
Gwyth looked at his feet for a second, then nodded. “Like that, was it? Yeah, we all saw it. Still, this fresh-face? Really? You couldn’t get us anyone worthwhile?”
Rhy shrugged. “Taflen recommended Rhocas. We’ll see if he’s worth anything. If he’s getting on your nerves enough, duel him, find out how good he is with a blade.”
“Worthless, just look at him. His posture’s wrong.”
“Well beat it out of him then.” Rhyfelwyr paused. “Just not too hard, he’s only got a month to heal.”
Gwyth grinned, and pulled his axe from over his shoulder, then unlimbered the shield onto his left arm. “Oi, Rhocas, we’re supposed to duel.”
The recruit looked up at that, then grabbed the sword from his belt and hefted his shield. “Are you sure, sir?”
“Oh yeah, positive. Just spoke to Sarge about it.”
“Oh, very well then.” Rhocas attacked, without waiting for Gwyth to get into position. The veteran was barely able to get his shield up, and grunted at the presumption of the recruit. Catching three more successive blows onto his shield, Gwyth decided that it was time for him to go on the offensive, and leapt forward, bullrushing Rhocas with his shield out in front, then spinning into a slice at the ankles with the haft of the axe. A solid thunk sounded from the impact, and Rhocas fell to the ground, surprised. He struggled to his feet on a sore leg, and peered at the standing Gwyth.
“How do you use that when you’re in a shield wall?”
“You don’t. Or you pray the man next to you keeps his shield up.”
Gwyth growled again. “Presumptuous lad.”
The two exchanged blows for a few seconds, and then Rhocas spun into the same ankle-breaking strike that Gwyth had just used. Gwyth had to jump high and back to stay out of the way of the sword, and nearly fell on the landing. Forced onto the defensive, it took him a little while to recover and push back against the recruit. Eventually, though, Gwyth was able to use his strength to knock the recruit down again.
Rhocas popped back up and assumed the stance once more, and Gwyth sighed. He’d just been looking to teach the recruit a lesson for looking so flaming cheerful, not get caught into a long running duel. The fighting continued for some time, during which the others slowly gathered. Rhyfelwyr leaned over and whispered to Taflen. “Is Rhocas really a recruit? He’s got some moves in there that only the veterans know.”
“The boy is a sponge. Sucks up knowledge from everyone. Just needs to be shown a strike once or twice to learn how to do it. Given him enough training on the march, and he’ll fit right in with the rest of us.”
Nodding appreciatively, Rhy watched the fighting continue, until both combatants called it off due to exhaustion. “Rhocas, I’m sergeant Rhyfelwyr. This is Llofruddiwr, Locsyn, Taflen, and you’ve met Gwyth. Rather a few times, I think. If you’ve moved into our room in the barracks, that’s all there is to it, just follow one of us around and train as best you can. We’re all teaching various squads at the moment, trying to make them worth something.”
“I look forward to it, sir.”
“I’m not a ‘sir’, that’s for your officers. Just call me Rhy.”
“Yes, Rhy, sir.”
Rhyfelwyr shook his head. “You’re dismissed.”
Rhocas trotted off, while Rhyfelwyr turned to the others in the squad. “So, he worthwhile?”
Llofruddiwr answered first, uncharacteristic of such a silent man. “He’ll do.”
The next answer was from Locsyn. “Still a bit rough, and his striking isn’t smooth enough. We’ll polish him up.”
Still panting, Gwyth followed. “I beat him every time, but he made me work for it by the end. We’ll keep him.”
Rhy grinned. “And I know how you feel, Taflen. So that’s sorted. Good. Back to being trainers, now.”
The soldiers grumbled as they departed. Any more training and they’d be ready to turn on their own officers. Especially the young, know-it-all ones who seemed to get every lieutenant spot in the army.
The final month of training passed quickly, and the first bloom of spring began to show over the desert and oasis of Bhreac Veryan. What little snow was on the ground disappeared, sucked away by the voracious sand, and as the wind whipped and tore at the standards, the soldiers of Hymerodraeth Heula stood at attention to hear a speech by Ymerawdwyr, blessing them in the name of the fire, naming the army Glanhaol Fflamboethi, the Cleansing Flame that would burn away the infectious rot of Niam Liad. Orders had come that the city was to be punished for its presumptions, and punished harshly, and today that retribution would strike forth.
Rhyfelwyr and his squad were in the vanguard of the army, given pride of place for their veteran status, for it was months before the army would first encounter opposition. The army would march south, across the great desert, until it reached the oasis at Falna, where it would turn southeast, and strike towards Miath Mhor, the city that dominated the mouth of the peninsula upon which Niam Liad sat. There, Glanhaol Fflamboethi would begin the process of cauterizing the wound that had been slashed into the side of Hymerodraeth Heula.
The speech over, a roar went up from the crowd gathered to see the army off, and an answering cheer echoed back from the assembled soldiers. At a grand gesture from Ymerawdwyr, the vanguard faced forward and began to march, each step churning up the dust and the sand. Soon, the army was enveloped in a cloud of its own making, as they wended their way down the string of oases towards Falna. This part of the journey would take them almost a month to complete, and during that time, the final training and preparation of the army would take place. It was expected that the arrival at Falna would be contested, although by how many was unknown, and that every step from there on would be fraught with danger, traps, and ambushes, as the rebellious soldiers used every inch of their land to advantage.
For his part, Rhyfelwyr felt only a little tingle of anticipation at the thought of once more going into battle, into a war. He was too old, too experienced, for the excitement that coursed through the younger soldiers. Even Rhocas’s normally bubbly personality had ramped up, and his energetic personality had nearly brought him to blows with Gwyth and Locsyn. Rhyfelwyr knew that passion would ebb across the many miles of near-featureless desert, only to resurface once more in nervous form as actual battle approached.
Days passed in a cloud of dust, and the squad was thankful for their position at the front of the army, ahead of the billowing clouds that caused coughing and covered gear and men in a brown cloak. Rather than march during the heat of the day, the army moved at night, using firemages and their heat vision to guide the soldiers along the right path. Every morning, before the sun came up, the army would dig itself down into the desert, disappearing and leaving an almost featureless wasteland, scattered with what looked like the discarded remnants of a battle. And every night, as the sun set, the army would appear once more, crawling out of the sand and the dust to arise as new men. Training was conducted whenever the army stopped for a meal, with half an hour or an hour beforehand given to marching in formation, swordplay, and all other manner of exercise.
As the army forged south, scouts would be detached ahead, ranging for days in front of the main body, searching, searching for that first contact with the enemy. True, Glanhaol Fflamboethi was in land considered safe and inhospitable to invaders, but there was little cause to be sure of anything. Word from Niam Liad had ceased entirely over the winter months, and so the army marched blind of information, the last it had heard some six months previously. Thus it pushed forward its own feelers, seeking out every scrap of knowledge it could find from traders, desert nomads, or the few villagers who lived around each oasis.
The army strode into Falna, caught within the dust storms of its own march, and there spent the next two days provision and resupplying. Falna was a walled city, wrapped around an oasis, a hidden jewel lost in the middle of the desert, and the only green that showed within hundreds of miles. When they arrived Rhyfelwyr heard word of probing attacks that had tested the defences of Falna, but none had come in such strength as to force a breakthrough. Still, it was word that they would need to fight soon, and he passed it around amongst the troops. Rhocas bounced about like a young puppy at the news, while the rest of the squad simply grunted, and went back to what they had been doing. Rhy understood that attitude: fire burns, soldiers fight, it is the natural order of things.
Provisioning and a final round of training over, Glanhaol Fflamboethi forged south once more, the scouts doubled and pulled in closer, weaving a net of eyes in front of the vanguard of the army. Rhyfelwyr and his squad still marched within the vanguard, and their eyes too spread across the countryside, looking for any imperfections that might mark a hidden ambush. Soon, the army began coming across traps built into the route, mainly covered pit traps with some spikes at the bottom. These seemed designed not so much to harm, but to delay, to make the army ever slower, but their design left the soldiers wondering if something more ingenious was waiting.
A week south of Falna, and the first minor skirmish took place. A troop of scouts came back, holding several riders onto their horses. They had been caught out by a series of spear and arrow using ambushers from the top of a hill, and were forced to retreat, although not before taking several casualties. That attack set the pattern for the next several days, as scouting parties were attacked and harassed wherever they went. Sometimes the Veryan soldiers got the better of the skirmish, other times those of Niam Liad, but the army pressed on, almost catching up with the scouts as the generals and officers pushed the pace of the march, determined to get out of the constraints of the desert and into the freedom of operating in the lush grasslands of the southern peninsula.
Two days of peace followed the week of skirmishing, and then the scouts brought back news that a small force waited some ten miles ahead, situated atop a hill on the main route south. Accepting the news, the soldiers marched on, until they stood on a corresponding hill further north along the route. Over an intervening distance of some two miles, the forces stared at one another. Locsyn twisted his moustache in one hand and muttered. “Not a lot of armour on those boys. Means hit and run. Either that or the real force is hidden somewhere nearby. I hate this.”
Taflen spoke. “It’s why we brought mages. We can use them to out-range those bows, and that allows us to force them off of the high point without much danger.”
“Only if they didn’t bring any of their own. If they did, no advantage.”
“You’re always a pessimist Locsyn. Look on the bright side of things for once.”
“I did, once. Lost my sight for a few days from staring at the sun. Pessimism’s safer.”
Taflen shook his head. “Orders come through?”
Rhy responded. “Yeah. Wait and see.”
Horns sounded, and the vanguard of Glanhaol Fflamboethi began to creep forward as certain unremarkable soldiers carrying large shields slipped amongst their ranks. There were only a few of them, perhaps ten or twenty dotted about. Taflen nodded at that. It meant most of the firemages were being held in reserve, lest anything go wrong. With the forces on the hill, the number here should suffice. Reaching the depression that sat a mile away from the opposing forces, the vanguard locked shields to form a wall, and then began a slow pace forward to two-thirds of a mile distance. Now, the mages were well within the range at which they could strike, and after a brief moment, strike they did. Ten giant balls of fire rolled up from the ranks, arcing over towards the Lianese positions. As they reached the peak of their arc, winds howled and tore at the balls, pulling some to pieces, deflecting others to land short of their goal. Only one got through, landing with a thump amidst the enemy soldiers. Most had scattered from the area, but the splashing impact and slow responses caught several who hadn’t run far enough or fast enough.
By the time that first strike impacted, another was in the air, and the bombardment had begun. Again, winds tore at the spheres, breaking and diverting their course, but two more got through, and these struck tighter clumps of troops than the first. Bodies screamed as the fire engulfed them, and within seconds, charred skeletons were all that remained of many who had been burned. Above those cries of pain rose the sound of a horn, and the soldiers who manned the ridge slipped backwards behind the crest, pulling their dead and wounded with them. Glanhaol Fflamboethi had won this day, the first fight going their way. Rhyfelwyr made a little note in the mental scorecard that he kept, wherein lay all of the battles, skirmishes, and other conflicts in which he had been involved. This was a mostly empty victory, for little harm had been done either way, but at the least, the route was clear for the next day’s marching. A horn sounded from within the Veryan army, and once more the vanguard picked up their feet, and moved to the top of the hill, where they could see the soldiers retreating before them. Retreat it was, not an undignified flight, and over the distance between the two, gestures and shouts were exchanged, crude and inventive alike. The Lianese disappeared into the gathering dusk, and orders came down to form a stockade, a fortress ring around the camp tonight. That would be the normal from now on, always expecting attack in the night.
Rhyfelwyr started awake at shouting and cursing, grasped his sword and dove out of his tent. On the other side of the camp lay a burning tent, smashed by a barrel of flaming pitch. More cries went up as another barrel arced high overhead, slamming down into a cooking fire and splashing flames across the tents nearby. Rhyfelwyr rushed in and beat at the flames, where he was soon joined by Llofruddiwr and Gwyth, using bedding and boots to stamp out the burning. No more attacks came as the fires were put out, but Rhyfelwyr was cursing all the same. Tonight, Niam Liad had stolen the mental edge from Glanhaol Fflamboethi, and soldiers would fall back asleep wondering if their tent was to be next. A small attack, but a large damage to moral. Still, he managed to sleep easily.
Several days passed without incident, as both sides took stock of their foe. The Lianese forces stayed in front of the Bhreac Veryan army, but withdrew at a safe pace. Occasional skirmishes took place between scouting parties, although one or the other would withdraw as the fighting started, and so it was this strange battlefield, of two sides staring at one another for days on end, yet no fighting taking place. Taflen worried over what this meant, and wondered if the Lianese sought to draw the army into the jaws of a trap. Rhyfelwyr and Locsyn waved away that notion, not though bravado, but because it seemed unlikely the Lianese could create a trap against a force such as Glanhaol Fflamboethi. Still, to ease all their minds, Rhy sent Llofruddiwr on a solo scouting mission.
The assassin returned late that night, sneaking in through the sentries and arriving outside the cook fire. A few questioning glances answered his arrival. “If there’s something going on, the line soldiers don’t know it. They’re wondering why no raids are taking place.” After his longest speech in months, Llofruddiwr disappeared into taciturnity again. Gwyth grumbled and grabbed a sharpening stone, grinding it down the edge of his axe with a loud squeal. “So they’re planning something. Bugger.”
The other veterans nodded at that, while Rhocas piped up. “Well, if they don’t know what they’re planning, we’re fine aren’t we? After all, it can’t happen soon.”
Rhyfelwyr shook his head, while Locsyn answered. “Doesn’t need to be ‘soon’. Just needs to happen. Later might be worse for us, longer to retreat. Just hope our officers have their heads out where they can see.”
Taflen shuffled through the scrolls in his mind, retrieving information. “There are a few possible options in a military conflict that only take place when used on the defensive. There’s also the possibility of drawing us into a pincer trap. Our biggest problem is that their small force keeps retreating at the same speed as we move ahead. It allows them to block our scouting attempts ahead of them, and so we are blind to what we walk into. Overall, we are acting as they wish us. Confidence is good, but I think our commanders might place too much faith in the strength of our soldiers. Brilliant soldering can’t overcome foolish leadership.” With Taflen’s words of encouragement ringing in their eyes, the squad settled down to sleep.
A week passed, and the land around them changed, growing green and fertile, with cool breezes and clouds scudding high overhead. They had reached the edge of the great plains north of the peninsula, and a week’s march ahead of them stood the city of Miath Mhor. It was to be the first target in Bhreac Veryan’s reconquest of Niam Liad, and the first place where the Lianese army would be forced to stop and fight. Grim eagerness swept through the ranks of Glanhaol Fflamboethi, as each man in turn sensed the coming battle. The morning air filled with the sounds of stones shrieking on swords, armour being buffed and polished, and the clash of weapons sparring. After more than two months of marching, the soldiers wanted to fight, and all their building anticipation had hearkened to this moment.
Three days of marching passed, and then the enemy gave notice that it would stand firm before them, turning and briefly slicing at the vanguard and the scouts, before withdrawing with undue haste. Rhyfelwyr had bloodied his sword for the first time in that fight, catching a skirmisher in the thigh with his blade. It had not been a deep cut, and the man had fled, but the strike had reminded Rhy of what combat felt like, and how everything would change in the coming battle. No others of the squad had bloodied their weapons, although, from Rhocas, a tongue of flame had seemed to reach for a foe as part of a blow. Taflen and Locsyn both said they saw nothing, and so Rhyfelwyr discounted it as a glint from the sun. Either that, or a firemage had been near the forefront and he hadn’t noticed. Either was possible.
That night saw one last round of checking gear, testing straps, sharpening, and then the long, hard time of waiting. Gwyth examined and tugged on each strap till it seemed they would burst, repeating his actions over and over, until Rhy laid a hand on Gwyth’s gear and tugged it away. Taflen had fallen into a meditative state, running through each and every possible contortion to the battle that might occur on the morrow, and readying those ideas that he felt most useful for the likely situations. Llofruddiwr and Locsyn had fallen asleep hours ago, able to withstand almost any nerves. Locsyn’s moustache bounced and buzzed as he snored, a loud rumble cutting through speech. The last of the squad, Rhocas bounced and burbled, never sitting still, standing, pacing, going through the training cuts with his weapon, jogging out to the sentries to look towards the enemy camp, then coming back, always to report that there was no change. Even Gwyth tired of the skipping energy, and bade Rhocas sit and sleep. He would need the energy on the morrow, not tonight.
The next morning’s dawn saw the vanguard pulled up in the centre of the line of battle, with the main bulk of the army spread to the left and right in flanking wings, serried blocks many men deep. Across from them was the thinner, yet still large, line of the Lianese army, their banners and gear of a much more motley array than the cold, insectoid, armour of Bhreac Veryan. It looked to be an easy day, from a strategic view, for both sides had arrayed their forces in such a way as to state they wished to roll up one end of the opposition, crumpling them from the outside in, and at that Taflen nodded. It was the most basic, and the most common, strategy, especially when one force outnumbered another. He wondered what the Lianese might have in store to change the balance in their favour, but dismissed those thoughts when the horn sounded ‘Slow March’.
With the tramp of measured feet, the army of Bhreac Veryan surged into life, a rippling motion all along the shieldwall as soldiers took their first step in time with the comrades to the left and the right. The whole great mass trundled forward, closing down the gap between them and their foe. A trumpet blew from amongst the Lianese, and they in turn stepped out, their banners cracking in the high breeze, the snap of a flag audible even over the rumble of marching troops. Soon there was but a quarter-mile between the two forces, and the horn for ‘Quick March’ rang out. Rhyfelwyr picked up his feet, and felt those around him do the same. As he did so, he let his hand draw out and cradle one of the glass globes that hung in leather pouches at his waist. Filled with glass dust and broken shards, they would fracture and spray their contents across those near the point of impact. These weapons were to be the opening salvo in the battle, much as they had been in wars past. All around, he sensed the unlimbering of weapons, as that quarter mile shrank away, and only a few hundred yards separated one foe from another. Across from him, he could see javelins and bows being pulled from their cases, held high in throwing hands in anticipation of the moment of release.
The cry came for ‘Assault’, and the battle was upon them all.