The prince stood on the ramparts of Eldynvagar, looking out over his mustered forces. Valmyr, Nicolar, Lysandra and Algard were all amassed along the walkway, their eyes lost over the parapets. Dozens of other men were gathered at their sides, thanes and chiefs, messengers and pages, all deep in frantic discussion about the coming day. Dawn had broken the night sky, a halo of golden red limning the mountain peaks. Every single man saw the beginning of the sun's ascent, as all eyes were turned to the mountain passes.
There had been no word or sign from the first defenders, the men who were sacrificing their lives to give their province time and reap as much destruction in enemy ranks as they could. Santhor's gaze almost never drifted from the road that plunged into the narrow chasm between the mountains. Nothing moved. From such a distance, no sounds reached the fortress and no man, however keen his eyesight, could distinguish the slightest movement. Even the mountains seemed small, their rugged flanks still stained with last patches of ice, the majestic shield of Gales. Spilling down its sides was the great rolling forest of hillocks and dells, swaying glades and impenetrable copses. Appearing low in the mountains, the road was a slender white line that snaked down into the province, along the dark borders of the forest and leveling out in the wide swathe of fields that led to Eldynvagar.
At any moment, a black mass of men would spew from the mountain pass and come marching down like a dark torrent of death.
The wait, at its culminating point, after months of exhausting preparations, was the worst. Soldiers and thanes alike fidgeted as they kept their heads turned to the east, to the road. Santhor, with the consent of his military advisors Valmyr, Nicolar and a select group of battalion commanders, had decided to amass his troops before the fortress' town long before the enemy arrived. He preferred to be ready, to have his forces in place, even if that meant tiring hours of waiting and sleeping out in the open. Surprises were never good in wars.
The four main companies of warriors were arrayed as so: the vanguard was formed of a single regiment of fifteen hundred vaeringar conscripts, stretching the entire length between the sheer cliffs and the first trees of the forest. Every foot of open land was hidden beneath a soldier's boots. Valmyr had been worried that the vanguard was, because of this, stretched too thin, but he agreed that they could reinforced as needed by the remaining regiments. Behind the vanguard, two regiments occupied a shorter width of land, in more compact formations. Depending on the tide of the battle, they were to move into position where the vanguard weakened the most, filling in the shield wall with fresh men. A final company had been established inside the town itself, scattered in small forces, ready to spring ambushes if Santhor's army was defeated. The majority of this regiment had taken position near the bridge, which was the only access to Eldynvagar. If things turned sour, the retreating vaeringar would be protected by their brothers and regroup in the inner courtyards of the fortress.
Santhor would risk no unnecessary lives. The fortress was nigh impregnable and could withstand a siege for months.
The light of day and a night's rest had left the prince more hopeful than he had been over the past few days. He did not forget that to enter Gales, the enemy would have to break through four defensive barriers in the mountains. The canyon was rigged and trapped throughout its entire length, with hundreds of boulders ready to come raining down if the defenders were lost. Once past this first obstacle, the enemy had a march long of several miles, along a forest which was infested with sentinels, sentinels who would harry them ceaselessly. Those who survived and reached Eldynvagar would be met with a pitched battle against almost five thousand well-rested warriors. Looking out over his army and his province, pride filled Santhor's heart.
A lone trumpet startled every man within earshot. Ripples of anticipation and worry passed through the commanders at Santhor's sides and the entire army in the field.
"There! A rider!" A young boy, whose eyesight must have been far superior to everyone else's, shouted and pointed. He was right for far in the distance, a lone black speck galloped along the pale road, dust billowing behind him.
"Send out riders," Santhor ordered. His orders were passed from ear to ear until a messenger rang three curt blows on a trumpet. Down below, mounted men heard the signal and charged out into the open, under the eyes of the whole army. They became faint specks as well, met with the lone rider and wheeled around to come galloping back. The army parted and Santhor watched as the rider trotted through the town, over the bridge and beneath the wall on which he stood.
The prince and his officers turned and watched as in the rider emerged into the courtyard. He dismounted with difficulty, almost falling, and was escorted by soldiers up the stairs where he was brought before the prince.
Santhor winced as he was presented the rider. It was one of the defenders from the mountain passes, his armor stained with blood, his clothes singed and his face black with soot. In the middle of the grim face twitched two eyes white with fear.
"Speak!" Valmyr ordered.
"M-m-my prince," the man nodded his head. Obviously, he had not been one of the warriors present when they had turned on Santhor. "The enemy has broken through the first three walls. The men are still fighting, b-b-but..." his eyes flicked to the small crowd that had gathered around him.
"Speak the truth, soldier," the prince commanded. "All these men have the right to know."
The man lowered his head and looked at his feet. "It was a slaughter... They demolished the first wall with flaming rams. Fire everywhere. Explosions. We fought when we could, but no sword cuts through flames."
"Hurry, tell us more," Valmyr urged, impatient.
"Yes, jarl," the man was trembling. "We retreated behind the second wall, after losing dozens of men. The boulders were let loose, but it only stopped them for a short while. They have thousands and thousands of men, my prince. Countless soldiers... They rained arrows on us throughout the night as we cowered behind stone and shields and while they cleared the rubble. It took them mere hours to break through the following walls."
"They cleared the boulders in hours?" Nicolar croaked.
"As if they were made of straw, my lord..."
"This is unsettling news," Valmyr grumbled and turned back to the mountains. From this far, it seemed as if the last wall was standing firm.
"Where are your men now?" Santhor chewed his lip. Around him, men were beginning to whisper. He knew the tale was going to spread, rumors about monstrous fire-breathing men. He had made a mistake not speaking to this man alone, but never had he thought that the enemy would be so powerful.
"A handful are still fighting at the wall. The rest fled into the woods, to find the sentinels and warn them. I rode here as fast as I could. My prince, we underestimated their strength, the power of fire, the numbers."
"It matters not," Santhor remained stoic. He would not succumb to fear. He had given too much of his time to fear since coming to Gales. He had seen the enemy's army and they had been numerous, but his sentinels and vaeringar would defend the province like snarling wolves over a carcass. "When will the fourth wall fall? How close—"
High in the mountains, a deafening, echoing blast sent a tremor through the earth as the fourth wall erupted from the pass. Those on the parapet and in the field ducked and cringed as a single man. At the top of the road, boulders and rubble had exploded from the mountain and heavy stones showered the land. A thick veil of clouds billowed forth from the pass, shrouding the mountains and the road in a pale haze of grey.
Santhor strode to the edge of the parapet and opened his mouth in awe. When the storm of dust and stone settled and the echoes died down, a great clamor came rushing to his ears. Horns and drums sounded in the distance, terrifyingly close. The gaping hole in the mountain disgorged a black snake of men, banners tiny red squares flapping in the wind. The enemy host came marching down the road as the pass seemed to empty itself of thousands upon thousands of men. The snake grew longer and wider, but it never stopped emerging from the shadows.
Under the prince's gaze, his own army bristled with fear, as their trumpets blared and soldiers got into formation. Ignoring the concerned looks of his counsellors, Santhor turned his eyes towards the forest. He did not know if he imagined it, but it seemed as if the forest had begun to move.
The sentinels plagued the oncoming host for hours on end before the prince's unblinking eyes. It was a difficult battle to oversee from such a distance, for men were nothing but specks that sometimes moved and other times ceased moving. The clangor of swords ricocheted through the woods and down the road, the shouts of men as well. As the thickening line of soldiers advanced, small packs of grey shapes darted out from the dark forest before retreating. The enemy seemed to hesitate to pursue the sentinels, preferring to remain grouped on the road. Santhor smiled.
After marching halfway down the mountainside, the sentinels were harrying the head of the army. Men fell to arrows that were loosed by invisible warriors, others defended themselves when the sentinels appeared, but grew frustrated by the easy retreat and protection offered by the woods. The enemy's descent was drastically slowed, until it ground almost to a halt. The sun's ascent into the sky, on the other hand, seemed to pass by incredibly quickly. By noon, the host was stopped and a great cheer rose from the mustered forces of Gales. Perhaps their roar would give the sentinels heart to continue their impressive work.
From one moment to the next, the host lurched back into movement and restarted its march on Eldynvagar. The sentinels must be regrouping, thought the prince. His fingers began to twitch with anticipation. A selfish part of him wanted the enemy to reach the fortress so that he could draw his sword and lead his army like a hero would. The reasonable man in him was desperately hoping that their plan would work.
He had spent months stalking the woods with the sentinels and Nicolar, noting the lay of the land, discovering hidden vales and gushing rivers. Even from his place on the parapet he recognized the intricacies of the forest. There were dips and rises in the canopy and areas where the leaves were greener and glades of taller trees and patches of moss-covered stones. He had walked through nearly every part of the forest and, on one of his last trips, had found what would become the sentinels' greatest weapon.
Four streams, which came directly down from the mountains and were fed by melting snows, met somewhere in the depths of the forest. There they crashed into one another and formed a furious, frigid torrent. The torrent followed the slope of the land, coursing north where it formed pools in the hills and seeped into the earth before finding the ocean through underground tunnels. Ullen, with his sharp eyes and cunning, had been the first to realize that the torrent veered north because of a particularly thick copse of evergreens on a low hillock of mud and clay. Santhor had been the second to understand what could be done.
In less than a month, the sentinels and as many men as could be spared were sent to that hill to chop the trees down, dig deep into the hill and build a dam on the edge of the forest. From the high walls of the fortress, Santhor easily spotted the bare stretch of land in the middle of the woods, like a brown scab on a green skin. The river gleamed silver as it meandered between the trees. Flagrant from above, the great excavation and wooden dam were invisible to those on the road.
Excitement built up in Santhor's chest and he gripped the wall before him, waiting for the inevitable. The sentinels would wait for the army to be well engaged on the road before breaking the dam. The army inched forward, down onto flat ground and entering the last stretch of road before reaching the fortress. Only a few miles separated them from the prince's army. A few miles and an unnatural river. His heartbeat quickened, his palms were slick with sweat.
The foe became clearer as they drew closer, no longer an indistinct mass of dark smudges but an army of soldiers. The host turned the final bend in the road and came face to face with the Galesans. The haze of the sun shimmered before them, but the ranks were clear, the banners thick in the air. Steel glinted as light reflected on helms and the tips of spears. A great regiment of cavalry trotted in the front ranks. The enemy marched on with confidence, stimulated by the sight of the fortress ahead of them. After months of call to arms and weeks of marching across the provinces, they were finally here. The soldiers saw the small army of Gales massed before their walls and a gust of speed flew through their ranks, as if they were now certain of victory. Months of preparation for this, for a war against less than five thousand men cowering beneath their fortress. It would be a massacre.
And then the sentinels shattered the dam.
A great, creaking, whining groan echoed from deep within the forest, as if the trees were taking a long, simultaneous breath. The strange sound was followed by a cacophony of cracking trunks and crashing timber. Both armies turned their heads towards the roaring trees. Santhor watched without flinching as the torrent gushed out of the forest, an explosion of clear water, a tidal wave of melted snow that had been piling up against a sturdy dam, eager to be let free. The river poured out onto the road, bringing with it broken trees and dirt and stones and anything light enough to be carried by its sudden force. The enemy never saw it coming.
The man-made torrent pierced through their ranks like a frigid spear hurled by the mountains. Men scattered like ants, but the river was wide and strong and fervently trying to reach the ocean's womb. In a single seething wave, it broke the enemy host in two, coursed over the flat earth, destroyed the road and then plunged forcefully off the nearest cliff and cannoned into the churning waves of the ocean below.
Santhor's face brightened with joy and pride. There was no sight sweeter than seeing the enemy being swept off the face of Gales by rushing water, their flames snuffed out instantly and their drowning corpses thrown off the sheer black cliffs where they would sink to the bottom of the ocean. The prince's army cheered again, their voices magnified by the small but significant victory.
It took long minutes for the violent strength of the river to dwindle down to a bubbling stream. With no waterway to contain it, the water soon began to spread and dribble into the earth, leaving behind it vast stretches of deep mud. The enemy host was cut in half, separated by a sea of oozing sludge and bodies. There was no way for Santhor to assess the damage Ullen's plan had dealt, but the chaos it had wrought and the time it had bought was already enough. Every foe would reach Eldynvagar exhausted, soaked and fearful of what new havoc the Galesans would unleash.
The enemy commanders decided to halt their march, regroup their forces and recuperate their strength. Tents and pavilions were raised where the land was dry, bonfires were lit and spikes were dug into the earth. It was troublesome to see the giant army camp a mere two miles from Eldynvagar, as if they were already on their territory, but there was nothing to be done. Santhor could sound an attack in the dead of the night, but the enemy was too numerous and the advantage of surprise would be rapidly lost. Better to make the most of another night's rest, while the foe attempted to dry their boots and keep warm by the fires.
Santhor watched the vast constellation of campfires sprawled out before him, a swathe of darkness between the two opposing camps. He stayed for a long time standing on his parapet, while his counsellors and the others retired to their sleeping quarters. Behind the outer walls, in the first courtyard, a small camp had been raised, with tents in abundance for all those who wished to stay close to the action. The prince, when the moon was high in the sky, walked to his tent and fell into a deep sleep. To his surprised, he slept untroubled until dawn, woken by the pounding yrin vagar.
This was the true beginning of the war, he thought as he donned his armor, sheathed his sword and stepped out into the brisk air. Santhor wrinkled his nose, a thick odor of smoke filled the air. Everything before this dawn had been preparations and skirmishes and traps and primary defenses. Today, Gales would stand or fall, its men would live or die, with its prince at its head.
Santhor strode up the stairs to the parapet and his heart beat vigorously. There they were, after months of waiting, the army of the realm was arrayed on the fields of Gales, ready to assault the great fortress. The prince took his bearings. He had not been alerted during the night, and so did not think anything of import had happened. His eyes told him otherwise.
The right flank of the enemy's host was already battle-worn and bloodied, some of them lying face down in the mud, others huddled in defensive formations behind their shields. The sentinels had carried on their attacks throughout the night, picking vulnerable targets, striking swiftly and disappearing into the forest. A forest which had become a charred black shadow of its former self.
Entire glades were burnt to the ground, leaving behind little more than swirling ash and blackened leafless trunks. The flames had spread far and wide, a contagious plague that had passed from branch to branch throughout leagues of woodland. Pillars of smoke still rose from the remains, darkening the clear morning sky and stinging the eyes.
"They burned everything..." Nicolar, who had appeared like a ghost at the prince's side, wheezed.
Santhor's gaze followed the forest's wounds before returning to the enemy host. All around them fires had been lit and made to spread. Estates, fields, huts and hovels, the docks and harbored ships, the pyrocrats had razed everything they could to the ground under the eyes of helpless Galesans.
More officers were joining them on the parapet and discovering the night's carnage and the desolation that was their home. Anger and hatred contorted all their faces in the same expression of fierce sadness.
"All they have done is lit our hearts and fueled our desire for vengeance," Santhor spat through gritted teeth. "Today, we show them that our fury will burn brighter than their flames! Nicolar, call to me my captains! You, boy," the prince glared at a young page, "let the horns of war sound with the rage of the dawn-waves!"
The boy picked up his small horn and took a deep breath. Dozens of eyes were latched onto his every gesture, the leaders of Gales waiting for his call. He put the horn to his lips and let the air rush out of his lungs, blasting a single pure note that pierced the morning air. The horn's cry hung in the air for endless seconds and dwindled to a faint echo that was swallowed by the ocean. And then down below, another answered the call. It was deeper blast, a longer bellow and was joined by dozens and dozens of horns. The warriors of Gales continued until the world was deafened by the simultaneous howl of warhorns. Drummers took up the rhythm and trumpets blared their shrill brazen shrieks. High above Eldynvagar, thousands of gulls and crows who had amassed to witness the slaughter cried and cawed, adding to the immense din.
Valmyr appeared followed by stern officers, all of them clad in the full wargear of Gales. Orders were barked and messages sent, banners were hoisted and waved, and under the prince's watchful gaze, the Battle of the Vaeringar commenced.
"Jarl, what is the state of our troops?" Santhor asked, but his eyes never left the battlefield and his hand never left his sword hilt. All fears forgotten, he itched to be down with his warriors, but it was not yet the time for the prince to show himself.
"Ready for battle, my prince," Valmyr pointed out over the parapet. "The vanguard is stretched thin, but the second and third regiments are ready to step in where needed. The enemy is weakest on their right flank, where the sentinels have gnawed at their forces ceaselessly. The left is where their cavalry has been positioned. Our riders are ready to charge wherever theirs do."
"Good. What of the rest of their forces?"
"Footmen mainly, our scouts counted eleven thousand at the very least. Two thousand horsemen. Two siege towers, seven rams and thirteen ballistas. They are as much prepared as we are for a siege."
"It may never come to that," Santhor narrowed his eyes. The enemy had sounded their horns and trumpets and drums as well, and were beginning to march. They would swallow the two miles in minutes. Everything suddenly seemed imminent to the prince. His calculating look hovered over the cavalry, trotting in pace behind the enemy's own vanguard. Through the haze of smoke and against the sun he thought that Valmyr's scouts must have overestimated. Two thousand seemed enormous. He shook his head. At this point, two thousand or fifteen hundred made little difference. He was outnumbered no matter what.
As the span of land between the two armies lessened, Santhor thought to his books. Other commanders had been victorious despite unfavorable odds. Valiant armies had held strong positions against endless hordes. Intelligent generals had tricked their enemies into overconfidence. This was not hopeless. Gales would not fall today.
The enemy closed the gap in under an hour and stopped when they were so close that even Santhor from his high wall could see the soldiers' faces. Farmboys, peasants and craftsmen mingled in with several battalions of seasoned soldiers. Most of them were as young and as untrained as the Galesans. Except that they were fighting for a cause that they did not understand, against a prince who had once been the heir to the realm and warriors who would bleed for their homeland. None of the enemy's soldiers cared whether Gales fell or not. All they wanted was to survive. And that would make the difference.
Santhor breathed deeply. Two hundred yards separated the armies, both bristling with anticipation, fear and bloodlust. A strange silence fell over the land as the horns and drums and sounds of marching men faded. Only the gulls and waves made any noise. For a moment, the prince closed his eyes and he could have forgotten that before him stood thousands of men waiting to storm his fortress, a burnt forest and warriors lying dead in the mountains. Gales was calm, the breeze of dawn, pungent with smoke, still blew through his hair. The ocean hammered the earth as it always had.
And then a man screamed. Santhor opened his eyes and saw a lone soldier break into a run and come howling and waving his sword. He ran fifty yards alone without looking over his shoulder and before he had reached halfway, the entire enemy army lurched into motion. Thousands of men began walking then trotting and as they gained momentum, raised their weapons and charged. Both armies howled and roared.
"VAERINGAR!" Santhor shouted and his cry was joined by those of his officers. "VAERINGAR!" The word rippled through his army until five thousand screamed the word. At the forefront of the field, the vanguard trembled as men braced for the impact. An archer loosed a single arrow which soared over his brothers and caught the lone runner in the chest, sending him tumbling to the ground mere feet before he had reached his goal.
"Shield wall! Shield wall!" Thanes down in the field began screaming and the order passed through the vanguard like a bolt of lightning. The enemy was approaching, fifty yards remained. Hundreds of Galesan archers drew their bows and sent a hissing volley of arrows raining down on the enemy. Charging men crashed into the dirt, their shields raised over their heads hardly protecting them from the deadly shower. Santhor's vanguard locked into formation, planting their rounded shields into the ground, with their brothers filling the gaps. Another volley blackened the sky and dealt indiscriminate death on their foes. The archers did not have time for a third as the enemy closed the last dozen feet with a furious cry. From his parapet, Santhor cringed. On the battlefield, a moment of expectation hung peacefully in the air.
And then the two armies collided with a sickening, thundering crack.
The shield wall held in most places, swaying and bending, but almost never breaking. The vaeringar locked their shields together and heaved and pushed the enemy back. Warriors wielding spears thrusted through the gaps, dealing deadly blows in men's groins and guts. Others hacked over their shields, aiming for the heads. A steady drizzle of arrows continued to fall over the enemy ranks. The violence of the shock was impressive as seen from the parapet. Santhor watched with wide eyes as his warriors held strong against thousands of charging men. Where one vaeringar fell, another rushed in to take his place. The ground turned a gut-wrenching rusty color and the wailing of dying men carried over the wind.
Behind both clashing vanguards, the rest of the armies waited patiently, slowly advancing as the battle made its first piles of corpses. The gulls shrieked fanatically in the air, the stink of death driving them insane.
"My prince!" Valmyr squinted and his finger led to a long row of enemy soldiers slowly marching into position. They were pressing close to their vanguard and hoisting massive weapons over their shoulders. Crossbows.
"Archers!" Santhor shouted and his messengers sounded trumpets and waved flags. On the battlefield, the archers hurried themselves as they filled their quivers and nocked new arrows to their bows.
The first crossbow twanged and even from afar the prince saw the bolt puncture a man's shield, take him in the chest and send him flying back with a fist-sized hole oozing blood. Dozens if not hundreds of crossbows followed suit and most found their marks. The shield wall broke in many places as warriors were blown off their feet by massive iron bolts. Santhor's archer's retaliated, aiming most of their fire on the enemy crossbowmen and gave the shield wall a brief moment of relief during which it reformed with new warriors.
The prince had given orders that the shield wall was not to plunge to deeply into enemy ranks, even if it was capable. By doing so, the sheer numbers of the enemy would allow them to cut off parts of the wall and circle the vaeringar, isolating them from their brothers. Let the waves of enemy soldiers come crashing and break against the shields, he had said. Let them tire and weaken at every new assault.
The battle evolved quickly, in places becoming chaotic churning pits of blood-drenched men hewing and hacking without relent while others waited for their turn. Where the shield wall held strong, the press of men had become so important that swinging a sword was impossible. Warriors relied on spears and short knives to deal deadly blows to their foes, while others banded together to crush the life out of the enemy between two shields. When the vaeringar managed to advance, they stomped over living men, drowning them face-down in the blood-soaked mud.
Santhor wanted to retch and began wondering how long he truly would have survived in the terrifying havoc of a shield wall.
"The vanguards are thinning, my prince," Valmyr noticed. "Your idea worked. Our shield wall is holding and our losses are less important than theirs. They never expected such resistance."
"When they are too deeply engaged," the prince nodded, "send in our second regiment and execute the next assault."
Valmyr stormed off to give orders to various officers and had the messengers trumpet and signal to the warriors in the field.
"It will be done," the jarl said when he returned.
The prince's focus went back to the battlefield where little was changing. Both vanguards were tiring, but his men, protected by a massive shield wall, were in a better position. Directly below him, half a regiment of vaeringar, conscripts and riders had begun marching. Nearly a thousand men advanced, getting closer and closer to the thick of the fray. When they were close enough, and protected by the sturdiest part of the shield wall, a trumpet sounded. Santhor's heart quickened. He clenched his fists. Valmyr looked out to the right of the battlefield, solemn. Nicolar hung his head and waited.
The prince watched because it was his duty. He watched because it had been his idea. He never turned away and neither did Valmyr and the other Galesans because a sacrifice had to be made. His men had known it, had asked to give their lives for the sake of their home. Only the fiercest and bravest men had been positioned on the right flank of the shield wall. Only those with the truest hearts. Santhor winced.
The fearless men heard the trumpet that sounded their doom and none shied away from their commitment. Santhor had learned how loyal the men of Gales could be during his time in the province but today was the proof. The trumpet sounded a second time. Then a third. The thousand vaeringar waiting behind the wall swiveled to the right.
And the men in the shield wall purposely broke.
The enemy gushed into the breach, thinking that they had dealt a great blow and finally made it through the shields. Hundreds of men spilled into the gap, slaughtering the men who had sacrificed themselves for their province. The thousand vaeringar waited and waited. They waited until as many foes as possible had engulfed themselves into the hole in the shield wall. When retreat was no longer a possibility for the enemy, the vaeringar charged.
Warriors and conscripts and riders stormed the royals who believed that they had just shattered the shield wall. A thousand men howled as they careened towards the exposed flanks of the tricked vanguard. They crashed into the foe's side, riders first and soldiers next. They drove a wedge and plunged deep into the enemy ranks. Taken by surprise, the enemy began retreating. Battle was engaged, swords clashed and axes slammed into helms. This was no shield wall. Warriors fought like bears as they pushed and pushed. The enemy fought back, but lost ground as soldiers fell.
"It's working, my prince," Valmyr said, but there was no joy in his voice.
The enemy had not seen how close they were to the edges of the cliffs when they had charged into the falsely broken shield wall. All they had wanted was to break the Galesan ranks and fill the breach. When the half-regiment of vaeringar attacked, the enemy's back had been to the cliffs. Now they were being pushed off in the hundreds, driven backwards by vengeful warriors and a strong cavalry. Meanwhile, the other half of the regiment had filled in the rupture in the shield wall, trapping the enemy between a thousand men, a wall and a plummeting fall over the black cliffs of Gales.
The gulls swarmed to the beaches below to feast on the piling corpses.
With a single stroke of strategy, Santhor had swept a great part of the enemy vanguard into the ocean. There was no hint of a smile on his face.
The sway of the battle ebbed as midday approached, although the skies had never been cloudier in Gales. Black storm clouds were sprouting like mushrooms over the ocean and a grey veil shed a pale light over the battle. Dust and smoke were still thick in the air, making it more and more difficult to distinguish anything but shadowy formations smashing into one another. Only the noises of war remained clear; clanging steel, wailing men, curt blasts of trumpets, the crash of wooden shields.
Reports were rushing in from the field as messengers from the shield wall and the vaeringar regiments reached the prince's position.
"We are weakening on the left flank!"
"Our reinforcements are ready and awaiting orders."
"The enemy is retreating! The enemy is retreating!"
The last message granted Santhor a moment of respite where his breath no longer stuck in his chest and his shoulders loosened. He gave Valmyr permission to sound a moment's rest to the troops as soon as the enemy had fully retired to their camp.
The men in the shield wall continued to advance as their foes withdrew from the fray, hauling as many of the wounded as they could. Santhor ordered them not to move too far forward so as to keep their strong position in the field. There was no use in pursuing the enemy. Their vanguard had been crushed and they had suffered a stinging defeat.
Rare were those who cheered when the dust settled and a false calm fell over the battlefield. Soldiers leaned on their shields and swords, or sat in the blood-soaked grass next to hundreds of corpses. Hordes of birds sensed the lull in the battle and swooped in to pick flesh from bone. The land between both armies was strewn with bodies, some groaning as death searched for them, others crawling away with missing limbs. Most were dead, and there was no distinguishing the dead. Vaeringar, conscript and foes alike littered the reddened plains beneath Eldynvagar.
"My prince," Valmyr whispered in Santhor's ear. "I do not think we should retreat just yet."
"Neither do I," the prince replied, "but a moment's peace will do the vaeringar some good, will it not?"
"It would, but I do not think the enemy means to grant us any respite. They have the numbers to continue the onslaught. We must prepare for a second wave and I do not think this wave will be a vanguard formed of peasants and boys."
Valmyr was right, of course, but Santhor could not help but let guilt slither into his heart and mind as he saw his soldiers ambling without purpose after their victory. He watched his warriors lie down or stare at their brothers' dead eyes and he felt the need to let them breathe. A horn interrupted his thoughts, one of the enemy's.
"My prince!" Valmyr's tone was urgent now.
Across the land, the enemy was reforming and a new host began its march towards the fortress. This one was longer, thicker, wider than the vanguard. The soldiers in its ranks seemed to shimmer in the grey light, steel plates covering their chests, colored plumes sprouting from their helms and a determined pace that sent tremors through the ground. The vaeringar heard the horn and saw the second wave lurching into motion. Wounded and tired, they rebuilt their shield wall as fast as they could, hundreds of men scurrying into position, leaving the dead to rot beneath their feet. There was no time to clear the field. Orders were howled, reinforcements filled in the thinner sections of the wall, entire regiments moved forward a notch.
The enemy's forces marched confidently, in unison, each soldier mirrored by the men to his sides. Legs were lifted high and arms swung in rhythm with the pounding drums. At the forefront of this grandiose battalion rode a line of officers and standard-bearers brandishing the flags of the realm, gold crown on blue. Santhor's blood churned with anger. The pyrocrats had usurped his throne, murdered his father, and were now using his own realm against him. It seemed certain that none of the soldiers in the royal army knew that they were fighting for traitors.
The fresh battalion halted a hundred yards from the Galesan shield wall, arrayed in rigid, glimmering ranks. A ripple passed through the enemy ranks, as if they were parting in several places.
"What is happening?" He asked the officers around him, but all were squinting through the dusty haze. The shield wall quivered impatiently.
Small shapes were being pulled through the enemy battalion by packhorses, their frames covered in red cloth and surrounded by men. They reached the front of the battalion, nine of them in all, and the cloths were swept off in a flourish, revealing mechanical ballistas. A shout caught in Santhor's throat. He turned frantically as his thanes burst into activity, bellowing warnings and sending messages. The vaeringar below stepped back as the foe began loading the great weapons with bolts as big as a ship's mast.
"Make them fall back!" Santhor screamed. "Fall back! Now!"
A horn cried retreat but it was too late.
The men circling the ballistas had cocked the springs and slathered the bolts with a dripping black liquid. A royal commander rode forward with his sword high above his head. The shield wall was splintering, in some places the vaeringar were stumbling backwards, in others they held their ground.
The first ballista let fly its giant bolt and a vicious metallic sound echoed in the air. Santhor watched with horror as the massive stake launched over the empty field and punched into the shield wall with the force of bull. There was a resounding crunch as dozens of men were skewered and scattered by the fearsome spike. The eight other ballistas followed the first and death and chaos pierced the ranks of the vaeringar. The enemy was already reloading its terrible weapons when dozens of bare-chested soldiers broke free from their ranks and charged.
"Kill them! Kill them!" Santhor hissed under his breath, feeling more helpless than ever.
The strange warriors hurtled across the stretch of grass, leaping over corpses and swinging thick leather slings over their heads. Dark memories flashed back to the prince's mind, memories of his first battle in the mountains. He knew what was coming next but could do nothing. The warriors spun their slings fiercely, aiming for the bolts now strewn behind the shield wall. They loosed their weapons and dozens of gleaming blue orbs soared into the air. The orbs shattered with the sound of breaking glass and blazing blue flames suddenly erupted in Santhor's army.
Men were thrown off their feet by the burning explosions, the blue flames spreading from man to man in great gouts. The black liquid from the ballistas burned as quickly as hay, and soon the entire army was doused in fire and confusion. The vaeringar fled the flames only to find themselves facing more loaded ballistas and loosed bolts. A line of fire was spreading from one end to the other of the army, faster than anything Santhor had ever seen.
Then the enemy charged.
They charged slowly, marching in casual rhythm with the assertion that victory lay before them. The commanders almost nonchalantly directed their troops, splitting their forces where they needed them most, while the vaeringar were trying as quickly as possible to reform their ranks. There was no collision like with the battle between the two vanguards. There was no running charge, no crash of steel on shield. The foe simply marched into the fray, picking their targets, cutting them down with ease, maintaining their formations.
Santhor leaned over his parapet, words stuck in his throat, the pain of loss rising within him. His men were not only losing, they were being slaughtered like pigs. Valmyr's face remained statue-like, but he never turned away from the massacre. The jarl put a hand on the prince's shoulder and they watched, tears glimmering in their eyes.
The entire left flank of the prince's army had been utterly destroyed and the enemy had now sent in its heavy cavalry to plunge into the heart of the vaeringar. Each minute saw the foe gain another fifty yards on the fortress and a hundred men lose their lives.
"Sound the retreat," Santhor murmured. "Everyone behind the walls."
"What about the men positioned in the town?"
"Let them decide what they will," the prince said. "Those who wish to die in the field may do so."
"Are you certain?" Nicolar intervened.
"I am," Santhor declared, standing tall against all his gathered officers. "And now, Eldynvagar is under siege."
The men hung their heads and turned their backs on the battlefield. That battle was lost, but there was still hope for Gales. The fortress would hold. Santhor walked down from his wall with the sounds of his routed army following him.