Lord Falmus inspected the southern battlefront from atop the rampart, his prairie bear familiar trailing him. He hadn’t seen much fighting since the last Halan war. But except for Lord Androl, who seemed to know his way around battle strategies as well as actual combat, he was the only one with any experience in wars.
A cold wind swirled the violet banners above the ramparts. The walls did not have battlements before the war had begun two days ago and it still amazed him that they could mould the walls in any way they wanted with magic.
The war was theirs for the taking in an out-an-out battle but Falmus knew the military tacticians of the Northern Alliance had opted for a war of attrition. As he would have. The Alliance has been keeping its distance above the small ridge for the past two days since Elena’s death-light had hit. Chills went up his spine as he recalled seeing the desolation wrought by the Empress. A few hundred lay dead on the field, almost all with open eyes, never having realized what had killed them. He’d was glad he was on this end of the field.
But today there seemed to be distinct movement in their ranks. Androl had deployed about a hundred of the strong magic-wielders on the southern walls. Evidently the aged advisor who’d accompanied the prince was also a skilled showman and was using tricks to hound the bandit armies. Tremane Blaint. The bearded lord chuckled. Why Androl was scared of a lord turned showman was beyond him. Clearly, one who forsook his life in the comforts of a palace to roam around a ragged bunch of showmen had lost his wits.
He stopped near one of the huge violet flags of Ianthine. The sentry nodded at him. The men posted at look outs were non-magic folk- men without disabilities. Disabilities! He shook his head. Even with their powers, nature always balanced things outs. He looked towards his familiar, who peered over the wall.
A loud horn sounded in the Alliance camp. The reverberations floated through the morning mist and rang true through the walls.
Falmus peered out closely. No army used loud horns except to announce an attack. An attack which would not fail. He passed on instructions to keep the sorcerors ready with the fireballs.
Three smaller horns answered the first in quick succession. The sentry shouted to him. But he could see it himself as the uniform lines of soldiers from the Alliance began breaking up. “What are they doing?” His familiar also stood up against the wall following his instinctive mental command. Large black balls appeared in the gaps which the soldiers had created, each of them reaching to the chest of the men on the ridge.
The commander of the southern rampart also peered out beside him. “Lord Falmus, they look like humongous cannonballs.”
Falmus shook his head. “No, I doubt they are cannonballs. The cannons required to fire those would require so much powder that it would rip apart the cannon itself. But they can be explosives in their own right. Ready the soldiers. If they send those balls our way, we blow them up before they reaches the wall. I doubt anything can breach it but let us not find out. Relay the orders.”
A soft wind fluttered the flag above him. He felt a strange enthusiasm overlooking a battle. Magic hadn’t just rejuvenated his mundane life. Now it was forcing everyone to adapt and change.
Faint echoes of orders being bellowed by the Northern Alliance floated through. The attack would come soon. He rested his hand against the raised wall and waited.
All at once all of the balls were pushed off the cliff of the Alliance and came tumbling. He smiled. How predictable.
The huge black balls jumped and bumped through the uneven terrain and hurtled towards the wall. A few snagged up against rocks or outcropping and a couple bumped into each other and simply stopped. But the others picked up speed.
Falmus almost felt the air charge up around him as the sorcerors drew magic to create the fireballs. Not all of them could hurl the fire great distances but Falmus had provided each of them with balls of cotton doused in small quantities of lamp oil. He had spaced the ones who could spear the balls over a hundred metres along the wall and interspersed them with others.
The balls gained speed as they rushed towards the wall. He raised his hand and his familiar roared. About twenty fireballs shot out from over the wall and arced towards the giant orbs.
Falmus winced as the fireballs flew over their targets. These men had never been trained to use the fireballs to hit moving targets. Most of them had not been trained at all. Just then, a lone fireball shot out from the third turret to his left. The fireball streaked through the air and hit an oncoming orb.
A brilliant flash sparked on the ball as it continued its descent. Falmus smiled. Magical fire was different than normal fire. Once it caught on it burnt the entire object down and only magic could put it out.
But his smile quickly turned into a frown. The flames spread on the ball were enveloped with thick black smoke which rose in a large plume as the ball jumped and fizzled in mid-air.
The remaining balls hit the wall with thuds.
“These aren’t explosives.” Falmus bellowed. “Do not hit the balls with fire.” But his instructions came too late. Fireballs rained down upon the prone balls as dark black smoke billowed out of them.
Falmus ran away from the turret to avoid the smoke but his view of the battlefield was quickly obscured by the smoke rising from newly lit balls. He coughed and gagged. The smoke was heavy and smelt oddly familiar. His eyes grew wide as he realized what they were. He stepped back in shock.
“These are King’s Snakes!” But why use them? They were the most harmless of all fireworks. He shook his head. He needed to get the smoke cleared. “Get some winds going. We need to clear the smoke.” He shouted to the sorcerer on the adjacent turret.
“We don’t have any wind masters on this wall, Lord Falmus.”
Falmus cursed his luck. “Stay alert. They are probably going to hit us with cannons now. I don’t want any casualties.” He ran towards the right where a portion of the wall remained clear of smoke.
“Everyone fall down and crouch against the wall,” shouted one of the men on the higher outlooks.
The Lord of Familiars saw large flaming arrows arc through the sky and descend towards them. But he immediately knew, they weren’t half as high to breach the wall. He peered down the black wall. More King’s Snakes kept thudding against the wall.
They are trying to light up more of these balls. But what is the point? Even these big balls would create smoke for not more an hour. They couldn’t possibly get ladders or ropes in place before the snakes burnt out. Even setting up cannons in range of the wall and firing them would take them at least half of an hour and cannons were ineffective against gneissstone. He smirked. Maybe the old showman was more senile than he had anticipated.
“Keep your fireballs ready. They may try attacking the wall. Others draw your arrows.”
There was nothing to do but wait till the smoke cleared out. He sent a man to fetch a few wind masters.
But his battle instinct kept buzzing like a bee in his head. His familiar growled. He peered after the animal.
A sword flashed through the smoke. Falmus instinctively recoiled and fell backwards as the blade whizzed past his nose. His familiar jumped at the Alliance soldier, a clubbing blow sending the man back over the wall. “They are scaling the wall. Draw your swords.”
Screams rent the air as Alliance soldiers jumped through the smoke.
Falmus parried a blow and ran through another man, even as two sorcerors fell to another soldier. “How are they scaling the wall?” He shouted in frustration.
A ten foot black vine grew on front of him past the wall and down on the rampart. The smoke had begun to thin. Ten foot wide coiling structures had spawned from the base of the wall like vines and the Alliance soldiers were quickly scaling them. A few of the snakes were still growing.
“Fall back, men. Fall back. The wall is taken.” Falmus scrambled towards the tower to climb down, his bear mowing down Alliance soldiers in front of him. Magic had changed war in more ways than he had anticipated.
Fabius cuddled up against the warm embrace of Mariam. His days had turned into a nightmare with the war and the reverses they had been experiencing inside Ianthine. They had barely managed to hold on to the wall.
He knew it was wrong but Mariam’s company felt so comfortable that the small moments they had been stealing with each other through the day, rejuvenated him. The shy smiles and the kisses they shared put him in a cocoon of safety where he did not have to be the Prince and leader of armies. It also kept the thought of Elena away from him. Even now, his imagination tried running what-could-have-been situations with her, not to mention multiple ways of inflicting pain on her.
He chided himself for his weakness again but Mariam pulled him closer, tugging slightly at the sleeve of his cotton vest.
“What is happening?” she looked up at him.
Fabius raised an eyebrow and kissed her on the lips. “I’m just enjoying the company of a girl who cares about me.”
“No, you lump. I’m talking about the ruckus outside.”
“What?” Fabius pulled away from her. She was right. The camp rend with shouts. Had they been overrun?
Fabius pulled on his shirt and scampered out from his tent. The guards outside his tent were all clustered about twenty feet away looking southwards, away from both the battles. He could also make out a horde of his camp accumulated to the south.
A messenger ran past him. “Oi, boy. What in the Sucellok’s name is going on? Is another army attacking?”
The boy turned around, wild-eyed. “No. They say Prince Darius Throdden has joined us.”
“What!” Mariam had come out beside him, still dressed in her shift, although she had wrapped a shawl around herself.
But the messenger had already scampered off towards the melee.
Fabius glanced at Mariam and ran full pelt towards the gathering. Initially he had to push through the crowd but the men soon realized and parted way, some shouting and announcing his approach.
Mud seeped through his toes as ran through the hundred or so people. A man with a shaggy beard and unkempt long hair was being pushed in by five of the Throdden Imperial Guard. His hands were bound.
“Darius? Is it really you, brother?” Fabius brushed past the spear-wielding guards. He looked past the mangled mop of hair and straight into his eyes.
“In flesh and blood, brother.” Darius cracked a dry smile through his blood crusted face.
“Unbind him already, you buffoons. He is Lord Darius, your future king.” Fabius spoke to the three men holding on to Darius.
The guards stiffened on the order and slit the ropes binding Darius’ arms, apologizing profusely.
Darius waved a hand. “I expect nothing less from the Throdden Imperial Guard.”
Fabius grasped his brother in a tight embrace. “I missed you so much. I knew it! I knew the rumours of your death were false. No bandits can slay the mighty Darius. But why do you look so shabby? Have you become a hermit? Even they look cleaner,” Fabius grinned.
“Maybe because I bring war with me, little brother. But I wouldn’t mind a bath and a set of clean clothes. We have grave things to talk about.”
“Of course we do!” Fabius nodded to two of his guards, who rushed off to prepare Darius a hot bath. “My brother has returned at the turn of this war. Victory is ours. Go spread the word.” Fabius roared to the growing assembly of guards and soldiers.
Cheers rang out and a chant for Lord Darius soon engulfed all in sight.
“Darius?” A soft voice echoed behind them. Mariam had adorned a blue night cloak, her face flushed red with happiness and shock.
“Mariam! Bless my goats, I’d never hoped to see you here.” Darius lifted her off the ground and kissed her passionately on the lips.
Pangs of guilt pierced Fabius’ heart. How could I have been so selfish? She was always Darius’. But even then his heart gave a tiny flutter of joy when Mariam broke off the kiss abruptly.
Darius looked a bit surprised but let Mariam down. “What’s the matter, Mariam? Aren’t you happy to see me?”
Mariam stole a glance towards Fabius, which made his ears burn in shame. “Are you crazy, you big lummox? It’s just that you smell worse than dead pigs.”
Fabius laughed. “My brother is here.” He shouted once again. Relief washed over him. He hadn’t led to his brother’s death.
Darius was soon led away to a hastily erected royal tent, which for once Fabius was glad. Darius would never complain of being treated like a commoner but he was used to living like a prince unlike himself.
He walked back to his own tent, informing the chefs to prepare the best meal they could, with a war raging. He felt guilty stepping away from the war but Darius’ return merited a break.
Androl drummed his fingers on the table, looking out over the city. Smoke still rose over the southern walls. In spite of the situation, he couldn’t help but admire the brilliance of the Northern Alliance’s plan. He’d never thought fireworks could be used in this way.
Falmus had handled the situation admirably well. He had cordoned off the southern two blocks with raging fires through the streets. It had slowed down the Northern Alliance soldiers, but Androl knew the wall needed to be retaken. They wouldn’t be able to open the door which had been sealed shut by Elena using gems but they could get men across the wall.
A tall brusque man named Lynch entered the room, his orange beard braided in the style of the north-west states. “All the men are in position. Archers and the firelords.”
Androl smiled. “Now it’s my turn.” He got up and grabbed his coat. It was time to cleanse the city of the invaders.
Caranne had learnt all his battle tactics from his uncle. And he had paid attention because he had believed that war was inevitable if the Viallans could redeem themselves. Even with Dah Kun running circles around the Northern Alliance, he had command over a third of the bandit forces. And he couldn’t afford to be the weak spot.
Although they mainly had foot soldiers, the bandits had accumulated weapons and armour over the years along with a few horses. He had two regiments of light cavalry at his disposal.
The non-soldiers had been trained quite well by Dah-Kun. Controlling their minds did not give them the extra strength to wield a sword or the accuracy to rain arrows. But spears was another matter. They would hurt wherever they landed on a man’s body and did not require any specific skill other than jabbing. The Northern Alliance cavalry found that out as a surprising number of spears felled them. The reach of the spears also helped them keep down many of the foot soldiers who only had swords. While on an empty field a trained soldier could weave around the darts of a spear, his movements were severely restricted on a battlefield flanked by allies.
Caranne mounted a steed. Holding the stream seemed to be of some tactical value, especially since it also affected how the battle against Ianthine went. The bank had become dirty and sloshy, as the area around the stream had been beaten down and had become a churned up expanse of mud. The men’s colours could hardly be made out and Caranne wondered how they told apart friend from foe.
The speed of their attack enabled the cavalry vanguard to smash hard into the right flank of the Alliance. Many of the Alliance foot soldiers fell and were crushed under the mounts. The regiments carved halfway into the melee and turned back carving the remaining soldiers. His cavalry regiments were precious. Losing as less of them was preferable than going for an all-out attack.
A dozen Alliance soldiers crept through the lanes, some still carrying the heavy shawls and sacks they had pilfered from the houses to douse the fires.
Androl waited till the last solider in the file had entered the lane and then flashed the gem in his hand the sunlight. Two flashes acknowledged his orders. Within a minute, all the soldiers lay on the street with arrows in their necks, chests and backs. Only two needed more than one arrow.
He turned his attention a block down. The towers had the advantage of even overlooking the four story houses and allowing him an eagle eye of the entire district. Within the city, he didn’t need nor could he afford a face-off. He had taken down about a hundred Alliance soldiers in different lanes with archers positioned in the high-up windows. He’d also laced the entrances to the houses with gems to burn anyone who tried entering.
He smiled as another group entered a parallel lane. This time he did not flash the gem. The ten soldiers passed through the lane to the fountain and immediately took up position guarding it.
“Why didn’t you signal the men?” Lynch asked.
Androl did not reply. This wasn’t the time to teach the man battle tactics.
It didn’t take long for the remaining Alliance troops to filter in to the square via the two lanes he’d left open.
Androl raised his hand again and flashed the gem. This time four flashes responded from various houses in the square. The fountain water glowed yellow as the gemmers used the gems he had placed in the fountain, to target the unsuspecting soldiers.
He couldn’t hear the screams of the Alliance soldiers but he saw them writhe in pain and collapse. He’d thought about using fireballs but this seemed cleaner and he didn’t want any of his men caught in accidentally.
He turned his attention back to the wall. He’d cleaned up the soldiers from here to the wall but he knew he couldn’t keep drawing all the soldiers and he couldn’t afford the Northern Alliance and the showman more time to come up with tricks like the King’s Snakes.
He called Lynch. “We move to take the wall. Are all the arrangements in place?”
The man nodded but a huge boom rang out as a slight tremor rocked the floor below him.
Androl looked to the south but a second boom made him realize that it came from the east.
“It has to be the bandits. They are the ones at the eastern gate.”
“Send out scouts. I need a report within the hour.” Androl commanded and the man marched out of the room. He’d heard of the bandits having a few magic-wielders of their own but none had attacked them yet.He climbed out to the balcony and looked to the east. This tower wasn’t the best vantage point but he could see a white haze lingering beyond the eastern wall. If the bandits had opened up the eastern front, then the Throdden prince had ensured an impossible situation; a three way war.