They are there.
I know it.
They keep hiding.
What are they waiting for?
Symon did not bother to look at Everitt. He merely tilted his head to the right, to offer an ear.
“Your command?” Everitt asked.
Symon narrowed his eyes. He scanned the forest across the ford once more.
What am I to do?
Six scouts had been sent out since they had taken positions at the beachhead. Before the shallowest section of the river, they waited. Symon, considering the possibility that Hunold would traverse at another point, had half a dozen of his best men go forth to surveil the banks up and down the river along with the surrounding woods.
None had returned.
The forest beyond the water and behind them had quieted beyond what could be expected. Yes, there were the scattered words exchanged amongst his men, though they were directed to stay quiet. Their mutterings aside, the countryside offered not a familiar sound. No bird songs, nor creature calls. Even the wind had ceased to dance with the branches and leaves above. Such lack of natural discord unnerved Symon, so much so that he experienced trouble fermenting a single thought.
At that, Symon glanced at his Right Captain.
“We should do something. The men, they grow nervous. I can tell.”
Symon looked over his shoulder to the soldiers. Pavisers behind their large shields. Archers, at the ready, with many having unloaded their quivers and set their arrows standing in the soft mud of the bank. Then there were the pole-men, along with some esquires and knights intermixed, all anxious and uncertain. Those troops right behind Symon stared up at Their Highness. Eager they were. Too eager. Just like children waking from a nightmare, wanting the comfort of a parent to tell them that the demons of their dreams would do them no harm.
Symon sighed, knowing that he could no such assurances. For their demons were real.
Nonetheless, he knew Everitt was right. He had to say something.
He set his sights on an archer to his far right. “You, there.”
The archer, a soldier a year or two his senior yet seemingly green in his battle experience, gaped at him. “Your Highness?” he said, voice cracking.
“Can you yell?”
“Uh, why, yes. Yes, My Lord.”
“Then, let us hear it.”
Symon shifted his attention back to the woods ahead. If the enemy, warriors from an inhospitable wilderness, choose to stay silent, then we will fill the void. Let us then see if they remain hidden, if they refuse to confront us.
The archer he had directed hesitated. “What, privy . . . What would you have me yell?”
“A battle cry, of course. No words, if you prefer. I want to hear a loud, clear shriek.”
“As you wish, My Lord.” The archer cleared his throat. He emitted a single yelp. “Ah!”
The archer, flushed, yelled louder. “Ahhhhh!”
Symon, unsatisfied, left his position to approach the bowman. The man recoiled.
“No need for that,” Symon assured him as he came to his side and placed a gentle hand on his shoulder. “What is your name?”
“Name’s Wallace, My Lord. But me mates call me Hare.”
“On account of my skills with the bow. I can bag any hare, rabbit or critter with one shot.”
Symon grinned. “Good. I’m counting on it.” Symon nodded to the woods across the Chesa. “You see those woods ahead, Hare?”
“I do, My Lord.”
“You have family?”
“My father and mother back at the hamlet. My sister is married to a cobbler the next town over.”
“Have you thought about what would happen to them if we fail here?”
At that suggestion, the archer’s eyes widened. “Why, no, My Lord.”
“Consider it now.” Symon peeked around him. Though he spoke low, he saw that all those within earshot leaned in, hanging on his every word. Exactly as he had hoped. “What do you think would befall your family?”
Symon waited. Hare looked down at his feet, then raised his head. “I suppose they would be killed.”
Symon paused. This may go too far, he told himself. This is something Ely, that Prince Fool, would say. Or Dawkin, with his wits. This is not me.
Yet I must.
“They would be butchered,” Symon insisted. “Cut to pieces. Like sheep.”
“But your family are not sheep. You are not sheep. Are you?”
“No, My Lord.”
“Hare, Wallace . . . Whatever your name may be. You are not a farmland animal to be taken lightly. You are a force to be reckoned with. You are a lion. A wolf. A leviathan of the deep waters. You are a beast, one who will do anything it takes to protect his own.”
“What did you say?” Symon asked, his voice rising.
“Aye, Sire!” Hare responded, his tone matching Symon’s.
“Good. Now let them know it!” Symon grabbed Hare by the shoulders and directed him towards the woods across the Chesa. He pointed ahead. “Raise a battle cry that will break every branch and split every tree. Level the forest, Hare, and there you will find the enemy, quaking in their boots.” Symon looked over his shoulder. He saw the men continuing to look after them. This time, their eagerness was not borne of fear. It was fueled by determination, absent of hesitation.
“What say you, Marlishmen?” Symon asked. “Will you join Hare, here, in his battle cry?!”
“Aye!” they yelled in unison.
“I don’t think they heard you!” Symon signaled to the forest.
“Aye!” Their shriek rose from all, including Hare.
“For Marland!” Symon screamed, thrusting his sword into the air.
“Marland!” his men chanted. “Marland! Marland! Marland!”
The horn blast cleaved their chant short. The soldiers fell silent. The blast was accompanied by a second, and a third.
Symon looked to Everitt. His Right Captain stared back, as shocked as His Highness. Symon scanned the forest ahead, then directed his attention back to his men.
Hare, alarmed, looked to him. Symon met his gaze . . .
A javelin drilled through the base of his throat. The archer recoiled. Blood squirted in a wide arc, splattering all around him, including Symon. The other soldiers cowered as Symon stood over Hare, aghast.
Symon barely had a moment to look up when Everitt came crashing down on him. He hit the pebble-strewn bank with a thud as Everitt rolled on top, shielding him from the projectiles. Arrows landed from all sides, as did more javelins and crossbow bolts. Marlish soldiers fell by the dozens, some dead on impact, more crying in anguish. Those not paralyzed by shock crowded behind the paviser shields on the beach, though there were too few to protect all of them.
“Your Highness . . .”
“Retreat!” Symon commanded, ignoring Everitt’s concern. “To the tree line! Retreat!”
Everitt waved in a line of soldiers, who fell in around him and Symon to create a shield wall. Under their cover, he and Symon hurried to the tree line, away from the beachhead.
The two fell in behind a wide alder tree. Symon, leaning against it, banged the back of his head against its trunk.
“Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!” he admonished himself. “How could I have let my men position themselves without proper cover?”
“Tis my fault, Your Highness,” Everitt offered. “I should have surveyed the positions, counseled on the threat.”
“They are barbarians! Archery is far from their expertise. How did they learn that mode of combat so quickly? With stealth? And where did they get the weapons?”
Everitt, somber, gazed at Symon. “We underestimated the Lewmarians, My Lord. I fear they may not be acting alone.”
Dear Mar and all his Kin, Symon cursed to himself.
The swell of projectiles stopped. Symon, hearing the thuds cease, peeked from around the alder. On the banks of the Chesa, those of his men who had been hit and unable to retreat laid where they had been struck, wailing in agony. Or at least those still alive. The rest, who had fared less fortunate, dotted the stones and sand, forever still.
A Marlish soldier up the bank let out a shrill cry. Symon turned to discover a few precise arrows raining down on him. The last one pierced his cheek, whipping his head back. Another Marlishman, having suffered a bolt to his right thigh, was crawling to the cover of the woods behind him when he soon met the same fate.
“Bloody bastards!” Symon ground his teeth. “They’re slaughtering my men. Pavisers! Where are the others?”
“We stationed the rest of the shield bearers to the sides and rear when the scouts didn’t return, in case we were flanked,” Everitt said, at once realizing their folly.
“Well, that was another error in judgment. Shields to the beach!”
The remaining pavisers, drawn to the commotion, were already prepared for their orders. Their commanding officer came before Symon and knelt. “Your Highness.”
“Shields around every living man on the beach. Quickly! Get them to safety!”
“At once.” The officer placed his right hand over his heart and withdrew, all the while directing his men. Within seconds, pavisers spilled onto the bank to surround the wounded. In haste, they pulled them toward the tree line as more shafts careened in, striking sand and shields.
Ooo ooo ooo loooooooooo!
Three short burst followed by one long blast from a war horn.
“What now?” Symon asked.
As if to answer, shouts rose from the forest beyond the Chesa. Near and wide, the uproar was unanimous. Unnerving. Frightening. And focused.
Lewmarians rose from their concealed positions. From behind bushes and shrubs, stepping out from trunks and logs, they emerged. By the hundreds.
“Mar . . .” Symon muttered.
“Why, they must outnumber us two-to-one,” Everitt estimated.
“Try doubling that number.”
“Archers! Fire at will!”
“No!” Symon yelled. Planting both feet firmly on the ground, he straightened.
No, Symon told himself. The men need to see me like this. Bold. With no regard for death.
His eyes scanned the beachhead. His sights settled on Hare’s body.
I need to regain this beach. Control this chaos.
Symon stepped out from behind the alder.
Ignoring Everitt’s pleas, Symon bolted from cover. Arrows rose in arcs before him, from archers not wanting to pass the opportunity for an easy mark. Symon had anticipated their approach though. His steps had never been swifter. The projectiles shot overhead as he raced under to the cover of the nearest shield wall.
“Pavisers!” The crack of arrows biting into wood muffled Symon’s words but the pavisers still managed to single out his tone, turning their sights to their sovereign.
“To me!” he commanded, waving.
The shield bearers crowded around their Prince, who clamped a hand on their commander. Step by step, he guided the commander along with his unit to the shallowest part of the ford, where the water lapped against their ankles. The other shield units followed.
“Hold this line.”
“Yes, My Lord.” The shield commander made a series of gestures, dispersing his pavisers to form a barrier. As wide as the ford was, they had only enough men to establish a single line of shields.
It’ll have to do, Symon prayed.
The shrieks from the Lewmarians grew louder and denser. Symon watched through a gap in the shields as the enemy horde coalesced to the opposing bank.
Turning back to his men, who remained concealed behind trees and brush, he shouted. “Archers, nock your arrows and aim. Do not fire until my command.” Finding Everitt directly behind him at the nearest tree, he pointed the tip of his sword at him. “Gather the pole-men! But do not disperse. Not yet.”
Everitt nodded. He pivoted to give the command.
Symon shifted his attention back to the Lewmarians, who had bunched at the ford directly across from him and the pavisers. As wide as his line, but with far more men, Symon gathered that their line was at least four, maybe five men, deep. More than enough to overwhelm his pettily-erected shield wall.
“We could use those pole-men by our side, for support,” the commander suggested.
“Not yet,” Symon urged. “I have a plan.”
“I pray to Mar it works.”
As do I.
The chants from the Lewmarians changed tone, becoming shorter yet no less enthused. Symon watched as down the middle of the horde, the Lewmarians parted.
From a sea of fierce warriors their god in the flesh emerged. He had shed the animal skins and furs Symon had seen him in earlier, so that his chest was bear. Etched on his torso were scars testifying to every battle fought and endured. His eyes, more menacing now that he stared straight ahead, spoke of a fearlessness that knew no bounds, one that welcomed more cuts and scars. Eyes devoid of any concept of mercy.
In response to the demon before him, Symon rose.
“Your Highness!” Everitt admonished in a harsh whisper, along with a dozen other Marlishmen close by.
Symon ignored them all. He straightened, allowing the Warlord across the river to see him.
Hunold, whether impressed or amused, smirked. He raised his multi-headed halberd toward Symon and uttered a quick, guttural phrase.
“Darsha, darsha! Ol fre ui appresil xi rutta, xi rutta!”
Hunold spat into the Chesa, a gesture no doubt directed at Symon. He then thrust his halberd into the air, turned around and shouted. The Lewmarians, upon seeing their leaders face, returned his war cry with their own, each section of the line rising in volume as Hunold rotated all the way around. When he finally circled to a stop, he lowered the head of his halberd until it was flush with his chest. Then, in an arc, he used it to gesture to the line of pavisers stretched across the ford.
Hunold shrieked, his blend of pitch and tone one Symon had never heard before. His men followed his lead, though their efforts fell short of matching the Warlord’s intensity. Symon dropped to one knee behind the shields as arrows and javelins whizzed overhead.
“Archers!” Symon yelled. “Draw! Aim for the center of the ford!”
His bowmen complied. A few loosed their arrows.
“Not yet!” Symon commanded. “Hold your draw!”
Symon shifted his attention to the pole-men and the rest of the infantry. Pointing to them with his sword, he commanded Everitt. “Every pole-man to the front of the line. Lower your weapons. Prepare to charge on my signal. Every other infantry soldier, whether with sword or spear, behind them.”
Though the raucous on the river was deafening, Symon saw Everitt reading his lips, understanding every word. He and his Right Captain had practiced the reading of each other’s’ lips since adolescence, at the suggestion of Everitt’s father, Baron Ralf, whose long career on the battlefield had required him to develop just such a skill. Though his brothers had done the same exercises with Everitt, none had mastered the connection like Symon.
Everitt, having received Symon’s directive, hurried down the length of the line to ensure every soldier knew his orders. The men, upon hearing the command repeated, nodded.
Ooo ooo ooo loooooooooo! Ooo ooo ooo loooooooooo! Ooo ooo ooo loooooooooo!
Symon, jolted, looked ahead. The lines of Lewmarians broke from the opposing bank, spilling forth into the Chesa. Hunold, his halberd raised, led the charge.
The river became a fury under their footfalls. A deluge of waves and droplets shot up, obscuring the enemy in a veil of water. The splashing overlapped their roars, as though the Chesa had taken their side, to favor their assault.
Symon, defiant, would have none of it.
He lifted the tip of his sword into the air. He waited. “Hold the line, men, hold the line!”
The men, some quivering, did as they were told.
Symon, noting the progress of the enemy, continued to wait. When the first Lewmarian stepped into what Symon considered the middle of the river, he lowered his sword.
A surge of arrows flew overhead, barely high enough to avoid the line of Marlish pavisers. The arc, line and low, struck the mass of Lewmarians. Ever foolhardy, the horde had charged with scant protection – save for a small shield here or a breastplate there – having been inspired by their leader’s own disregard of death. That cost them dearly, with much of the first line falling, to be trampled by their fellow warriors behind them.
Hunold, unscathed by the volley, accelerated.
Symon turned to Everitt and the line of pole-men. “Charge! Brace the shield wall! Charge! Charge!”
The Right Captain beat his sword into the air as he jumped into the Chesa. The line of pole-men followed his lead.
Projectiles from the depths of the opposing woods fell on the Marlish ranks. Soldiers dropped their halberds and collapsed into the shallows of the ford. But thank Mar, the volley was not as ruinous as before. The pole-men continued their charge.
Then, the Marlish line of pole-men met the Lewmarian onslaught. At the shield wall. At the same time.
As Symon had predicted, the blitz of Lewmarians overwhelmed the shield bearers. A few of the pavisers tipped backwards before their countrymen, with the heads of their halberds extended, yet still bravely counteracted the enemy force with a power all their own. Halberd after halberd, pole after pole, impaled the assailants. In a uniform act of precision, the fruit of years of drills and conditioning paid off in that one moment. Almost every sharpened blade found an exposed spot in the Lewmarian line. A throat. A shoulder. An eye. No part nor appendage was safe.
The pavisers, kneeling and bracing their shields against the weight of the enemy line, grimaced as blood sprayed from above. Dead and wounded Lewmarian bodies piled up against and even over their shields. But that had been enough to stop the first charge.
The pole-men, reaching over the heads and shields of the pavisers, withdrew their halberds from their marks and stabbed at the enemy again and again. The line of Lewmarians not wounded from the charge stepped back, out of range of the halberds, their eyes on the blood-soaked blades.
That’s just enough, Symon knew. “Archers! Loose!”
Another volley erupted from the Marlish bowmen. Arrows dropped more Lewmarians on the front line. Those behind recoiled.
All except for Hunold.
Enraged, the Warlord extended his halberd to his right then his left. He barked commands, which sent a handful of warriors from the head of the horde to the rear, where they disappeared into the bordering forest.
They take to the rest of the river. They will cross at another point. And flank us!
Symon could not consider that now. Not when the bulk of the force still lay before him.
Hunold, shouting indistinctly, beat the head of his halberd against his chest. The edges and points pierced his skin and ripped his flesh. Blood seeped from his wounds, the drops merging to create streams of red that ran down the length of his exposed torso.
He stepped forward, casually. He let the head of his halberd fall to his side as he took another step. And another. With each move forward, his men went along with him. Some stood straight like their leader. Others crouched. All advanced, their gazes on the shields and halberds.
The mass of them reached the heads of the halberds first. They clanked their swords and axe heads against the bladed edges. The halberds wavered yet always returned to their intended positions.
Their strikes are loose and without fury. They test us.
Hunold and the front line of Lewmarians grew dense before the Marlish shield wall. They were too close to the Marlish lines for archers to hit and just out of range of the halberd blades.
Hunold looked up and down the Marlish ranks. He studied the iron studs on the shields, the banded wood of their lengths. He peeked in between the few sparse gaps from shield to shield, searching for a lone weak spot.
Symon, not wanting to take his eyes off of the Warlord for too long, surveyed his own ranks. The pavisers were strong men, trained well for this moment. Still, most were green in the art of engagement. Only a handful could say they saw heavy battle, the last time being the final skirmishes of the Century War. Such men had been mere child soldiers then, recruited when Marland faced a shortage of able-bodied souls to fill their ranks. While experienced, much time had passed since they saw such a threat. The others, lent from various manors throughout the island, had served well in their drills and marches. However, Symon knew their mettle would be sized up and tested in a few short moments. As would his.
Somewhere down the line, a Marlish soldier – perhaps on loose footing due to the gravel and stones of the Chesa – slipped. He sopped into the river, the plop of his leg disturbing an otherwise subdued front.
Hunold snapped his head, instantly noting the source of the racket. He pointed to his right, issuing no verbal command, for his soldiers knew what to do.
They huddled en masse before the section of shield wall Hunold had indicated. Everitt, in response, directed a grouping of his own men to the spot.
“Hold tight, men!” he urged. The Marlish infantry collected behind the pavisers and pole-men, at the ready to support them as needed.
And need it they did.
The Lewmarians disregarded the dangers of shield and blade before them and slammed up against the Marlish barrier. One enemy was instantly impaled by a halberd. Another lost an eye. A third suffered mortal wounds to his neck and left shoulder, the clefts squirting blood onto the row of shields.
The barrier, against the force of the assailants, held. The pole-men and the rest of the infantry leaned the whole of their weight against the pavisers and their shields.
Then the Lewmarians inched closer. One managed to clasp his fingers around the top of a shield. His neighbor lifted an axe head high, just above a paviser’s head.
“No!” Symon yelled.
The curved blade came crashing down, splitting the hard leather of the man’s helmet in two. He limped into the arms of the soldiers behind him as the other Lewmarian pulled the shield apart from the barrier to force a gap in the wall.
The horde overflowed through the narrow space, their sudden presence and war cries inundating the Marlish defenses. Swords and axes clamored together as Marlishmen and Lewmarians fought amongst the tight quarters. No man could raise a weapon or thrust a blade without brushing against or knocking into a brother-in-arms. The absence of space lead to more shoving and pushing than actual swordplay, a dance of brute force that slowly thinned the Marlish ranks until at last the Lewmarians stumbled forth into the running water behind the defensive lines.
And that is when the real battle began.
With the defenses broken and flanked, the Lewmarians saw their advantage. They responded to the opportunity by unleashing their inner wild. They became feral creatures. More beasts than men, each Lewmarian lashed out at their Marlish counterparts. The Marlish retained their soldierly composure, yet in the face of so many rivals could not beat them back for long.
Two Lewmarian axe heads fell upon one Marlish sword again and again. One Marlish shield sustained multiple blows from both mace and spear. Then the staff of a Marlish halberd broke. A shield shattered diagonally from top to bottom. The scene repeated itself over twice, then thrice, as more blitzes opened gaps in the shield wall.
They broke our lines.
Skulls were crushed. Limbs hacked. Screams grew in pitch as wounded men turned desperate before being silenced by blunt force and blades.
Symon felt the pull of his soldiers as they urged him back. The paviser he had stationed himself behind held his shield steady but had shied back from the rest, so as to continue to defend his Prince. Symon, ever the soldier, glanced thrust and swing from every enemy sword with his own. Though with the cluster of his men around him the carnage still felt removed, distant.
A fourth gap, this one the largest by far, cleared a center portion of the shield wall. Hunold, having made his way there, pounded the face of two shields – one then the other – repeatedly, as did his men until finally the pavisers behind them faltered under the pressure. Hunold ripped the shield away from one, exposing the paviser. With two hands, he raised his multi-headed halberd and brought it down on the man. Once. A second time. A third.
My brothers . . .
Hunold turned his sights to another Marlishman, leaving the soldier he had killed. His fellow Lewmarians trampled over the body, which was now no more than broken bones and mangled flesh held within the mail and torn clothing of a soldier.
“Retreat!” Symon barked. “Fall back! To the shore! To the shore!”
Symon searched the width of the ford. In the roar of war, his cries went unheard.
“Fall back!” he tried again. He screamed. His throat felt stretched and strained, as though the impact of his own emitted cries would rip apart the very flesh of his neck. “Retreat! Retreat!”
Finally, some of his men took notice. They stepped away from the main battle line, careful not to turn their back to an enemy right on top of them.
That’s it. Move back. Cluster again. We can draw away from the ford, toward the beach head. Reform the line.
“Fall back! To me! To me!”
Symon, for the first time since the shield wall was breached, glanced to the shore behind them. The archers had their arrows nocked. A few fired at random. But with the Marlish forces so well entwined with the enemy, firing was useless. Even the most expert among them had as much chance striking their countrymen as they did hitting an enemy.
“To the shore! To the tree!” he commanded.
Symon looked over his shoulder again. This time, out of the corner of his eye he caught sight of a few Lewmarians making their way to the rear of the Marlish line.
They mean to cut us off, to flank us.
He spotted two at first. Then four.
Damnation . . .
Symon broke from the circle of soldiers around him. He slipped through their defensive ring to rush to the back of the battle lines, to engage the four Lewmarians.
The first Lewmarian was caught by surprise. No sooner had he taken notice of Symon emerging from his protective circlet when he dropped his sword and gripped his neck. Symon, having closed the gap too quickly for the warrior to react, had slashed the Lewmarian’s throat.
The other three were far less surprised but not much more prepared. The sudden flash of Symon’s blade, a ballet of swordplay displaying both precision and strength, caught them unawares. Symon, using the watery field of battle and his skills to full advantage, sliced through the first warrior. Then, picking up the fallen man’s sword, engaged the other two simultaneously. Their steel sang for a few seconds before Symon’s blades found their home within their guts.
Symon withdrew his own sword, allowing the borrowed blade to remain inside one Lewmarian. As both assailants sank into the shallows, Symon waved his men back.
“Now! Come on!”
With the path clear, several fell back. For some the invitation to retreat from the chaos proved too tempting. They turned . . .
Exposing their unprotected sides, those men fell.
They crashed into the river. The Chesa threw up blood-stained water in their wake. The sight of collapsing fellows prompted more Marlish infantry to turn and escape. A fortunate few managed to emerge from the tributary unscathed. Many were not so fortunate.
Symon noted one in particular – the scout he had chanced upon in the forest. Having fought back a Lewmarian into a deeper part of the ford, he had turned and ran. He had made it three-quarters of the way across the Chesa when the head of an axe cleaved through the mail of his back.
He tripped forward, arching his back and grimacing as he fell. His head dunked into the river. Lifting his face, he gasped for air. Seeing an opportunity for an easy kill, a Lewmarian trudged up behind him, his axe head poised above.
Symon’s sword blocked the assailant’s mid-swing.
He knew not when he rushed into the river, nor did he remember stepping over the bodies of his fallen brothers to reach the scout. He recalled not the war cry he emitted to distract the warrior’s attention nor the same warrior’s grin as he glanced from Symon to the scout and made to cleave through the fallen man anyway.
Symon only retained the vibration in his hand, extending the length of his forearm, as he held out his sword, which bore the weight of the axe head and the arms of the man who held it.
Enraged, the Lewmarian swung his axe head horizontally toward Symon. Symon ducked. He slashed at the shaft of the axe, hoping to hack it in two. Yet the wood proved sturdy and hard, easily rejecting Symon’s steel.
The axe came for Symon once, then twice more. Symon blocked each slash before gripping his blade and taking a defensive, half-swording stance. He looked down to the scout. To his surprise, the man was conscious. Pained and in anguish, however, still awake.
“Go! Get to shore!”
In response, the scout crawled out from under Symon’s protection as Symon blocked more blows. The scout stumbled through the remainder of the ford. One of the remaining pavisers who still had his shield came to his aid to provide him cover.
Symon sustained another attack. This time, he allowed the Lewmarian to come close. Foolishly arrogant, the man overextended himself. Symon, seeing his opportunity, stopped his blade and pushed it off before planting the tip of his sword in the pit of the arm.
The Lewmarian shrieked and fell to one knee. With his uninjured arm he gripped the opposing shoulder.
Symon pierced the base of his throat. Though covered in a neck guard of hard leather, the sword found its place. The Lewmarian slinked back. As he did, Symon surveyed the ford.
Where his defensive line had once been now lay a line of splintered shields, discarded weapons and corpses; a narrow hillock traversing the ford, composed of overlapping Marlish and Lewmarian bodies. To the east of the Chesa, Lewmarians proceeded to emerge from the woods, reserves of fresh warriors having not yet spent their focus or strength in battle. To the west of the corpse line, his men stood scattered, apart from one another as more Lewmarians encroached upon them.
An enemy band stepped over a scattering of corpses to converge on Symon. Symon backed away slowly, careful not to turn away from them. He spotted Everitt to his side with two other Marlish infantry, slicing his way toward the Prince.
“Your Highness, run!” Everitt begged. Everitt cut down a Lewmarian, pushing the fallen aside, only to face a dozen between he and his sovereign.
That moment had passed, Symon knew. Any deviation other than to face the enemies before him would result in a bloody death. Or worse: capture.
Symon wrapped his hands around the hilt of his arming sword, preparing for what would come.
The first advance came from his right. A hulking beast of a warrior lashed out at him with a mace of solid iron. Symon blocked it, the force sending a shudder through him. The Lewmarian swung again as a warrior to his left moved in. Symon deflected the mace and then pivoted to cut at the second man. The second leaned back, well out of Symon’s range. A third Lewmarian closed in, his spear poised. He jabbed at Symon as the first swung again. Symon blocked them both once more.
Then the spearman and the mace-bearer lunged forward, extending their weapons at the same time. Symon had a fraction of a breath to react. As the spear point was closest, he whacked at it first, sending it away. The mace, however . . .
Symon keeled over. He gasped, his lungs clawing at the air that escaped through his mouth. His arms fell around the mace head, which had thumped against his belly. Its owner towed at it, trying to break it free of Symon’s grip. Though expended, Symon held on a bit longer until his grip wrapped around his sword hilt again.
He released the mace head just as the Lewmarian pulled it back. Finding his enemy exposed, he shot his sword upward. The tip was just near enough to pierce the underside of the man’s chin. The point entered the soft flesh, disappearing until it came up and through the ridge of his nose.
Symon pulled his blade free and hurried away. The other four watched as their slain comrade splashed to his death. Their notice was short-lived. Shifting their attention to Symon, they charged.
The Prince had nary a moment to straighten from his shock when a sword struck his ribs. Though it did not pierce his mail, it still hurt. Symon forced the blade away and parried a thrust from a separate warrior. He did so again from the other two. The butt of a staff struck the back of his leg. Symon fell to one knee. Exposed.
Today I die.
The spearman charged, his tip poised.
A knight from nowhere collided head first into the spearman, sending him careening back. The knight, bearing the breastplate and helm of Voiceless, drew his sword and engaged the remaining three on their feet. He rebuffed every one of their advances while flashing his edge to their sides and over their heads. The whirling of his sword forced them to keep their distance.
He fights . . . So precise. Such discipline.
The mace bearer screamed and swung wildly. The knight turned, pitting the warrior between him and the other two. With the threat of the others momentarily quelled, he met his strikes in kind. The mace bearer, in frustration, charged.
As though seeing the future, the knight simply extended his sword. The edge found the Lewmarian at the exact spot it needed, at the exact time.
The Lewmarian collapsed as his two counterparts retreated and called their men forward to renew their assault. Symon, still clutching his gut, made to rise to his feet.
The knight grabbed him by the collar to drag him from the river.
“Where did you–”“Shut up and on your feet!” Dawkin yelled through the visor of his helm. “They are on the move. We need to find you cover.”