They have gone pale. The life having been stolen from them. They bleed no more.
Symon scanned the length of the river. Several corpses from both sides had settled in the shallows of the ford. Some were intact, nearly doubles of their former selves save a wound to the neck or thigh. Others were beyond recognition, having been slaughtered or hacked to the point that exposed flesh and entrails obscured any notable visages.
“Sire, the rest of the pavisers have fallen back.”
Symon closed his eyes for a moment. “Thank you, Everitt. How many did we lose?”
“They flanked us most heavily on the north side. Only a handful survived. The rear and south fared better, having lost about half each.”
Half? That was far more than he had anticipated. “Thank you.”
The Right Captain fell back to check on the few wounded they managed to pull behind the lines. In his absence, Dawkin – still disguised as a Voiceless – approached Symon.
“We are surrounded,” he said solemnly.
“We can still fall back. The threat to the west and south sides isn’t so much that we can’t fight our way through. We still have a number of horses. You can ride to safety.”
Symon considered it again. Their horses were the one advantage they had left. While not able to build up speed and charge on the loose footing of the ford or within the close confines of the forest, if they could just create a gap in the Lewmarian ranks, then a handful could ride to safety.
He looked back to those behind him. Scores stood as more leaned or sat, having exhausted themselves in the river fighting. It would take the lot of them to fight through even the meager force of Lewmarians who had flanked them. For what? So that he and a few could retreat?
So many would fall and die, to allow me to cower away, all in the name of the Crown.
“We stay,” Symon decided. “We fight.”
Dawkin, unconvinced, leaned in toward his brother. “We do Marland no service by becoming corpses. At least if we were to escape, we could warn the surrounding manors.”
“I thought you provided the Conclave with a surmise of the threat?”
“You know them. Old men with nary a consideration for anything that isn’t right in front of them. Well, now the enemy is at their drawbridge.”
“No, the enemy is here. On the ford. Before us. Those old men have had their warning. We do them better – all of Marland better - by striking down as many as we can. Right now. While our shields stand unbroken and our swords remain in our hands!”
Dawkin leaned away a bit. With his head he motioned to those behind them. Symon glanced back, noting that several of his men had raised their brows at the sight of their Prince yelling at a guard who supposedly could not speak.
Symon shifted his attention back to the front. On the Chesa, several Lewmarians plundered what they could from the dead, whether Marlish or their own countrymen. They strode in pairs, with one looking for valuables while another stood by his side, small shield raised should a Marlish archer release an arrow. More Lewmarians squatted behind bushes on the opposing shoreline or sat on logs, waiting for their next command.
Then there were the most fearsome of the lot. They stayed in the frigid waters that traversed the ford not to look for loot but to stake their position closest to the Marlish lines. Those Lewmarians rested not on logs but on dead bodies. Or they paced the ford, their soaked boots sloshing through the water. Some were even so bold as to stand, unshielded or unarmored, as if to taunt the archers into firing.
Hunold was one of those. Boldest of the bold.
He stood in the center of the ford, the closest of all the Lewmarians. His Right Captain and guards – or at least what would pass as such in Marland – were some twenty paces behind him, their round shields raised and their knees bent, should they need to race to their Warlord’s aid. A novice commander would have assumed that was the reason the Marlish archers had not fired upon Hunold. But Symon knew better. A loosed arrow, whether it missed its target or was fortunate (or unfortunate) to hit the Warlord, would have only roused the Lewmarians to charge with such a fervor that the Marlishmen had yet to see. And certainly one they could not afford. Not to mention what Hunold would do in answer to the arrow.
Hunold must have known what an assault against him would have meant to his men’s spirits, for as he continued to stand in the river, the shallow water rushing all about him, he casually removed layer after layer of furs from his torso. One by one, the dropped his prized pelts into the Chesa. They flopped to the water before being carried away by the clear torrent. When the last one fell, only a loose leather vest clung to his chest, leaving the Warlord almost completely exposed. In one hand he held his multi-headed halberd, while in the other he clenched the shaft of a hand axe he had chosen from a fallen comrade. Every now and then, he would extend his weapons, twisting and stretching, as if to ready himself for a charge.
He will tire of waiting. Soon.
Symon observed his men once more. Their faces reflected their fatigue. And fear. With every taunt of Hunold’s, the light of their eyes dimmed, their hope ebbed from them that much more.
They can’t stand much more of this.
“And neither can I.”
“What?” Dawkin asked, believing that his brother had addressed him.
“Don’t use my real name–”
“I must. If only this time. Every year on the anniversary of the armistice, we read Marlish accounts of the Century War, remember?”
“Of course. Most are from our kin.”
“And to honor those of our family who have fallen, what do we say?”
Dawkin paused, not liking the direction of Symon’s conversation. “Symon, you shouldn’t be so remorseful.”
“What do we say, brother?”
“We recite, together, the battle poem that Grandfather composed so long ago. ‘He who suffers the sword for his country is blessed by Mar with a hero’s welcome into the War Hall of Heaven. He who falls by an arrow will be greeted by Maidens of Mar, who will become his eternal wives. He who loses his life for the sacred island of Marland will forever walk in the Sovereign Gardens, to be granted an eternal kingdom all his own, one bordered not by enemies, but by brothers.’”
Symon turned to him, smiling. “Promise me.”
“Promise you what?”
“That you and our brothers will sing that same song when I have gone.”
His brother’s mouth stayed agape. Perhaps he meant to speak but could not find the right words. Or mayhaps he did, but the wind dispersed the words. Either way, it mattered not to Symon as he stormed into the river.
“For Marland!” Symon cried out, charging straight toward Hunold. The Warlord grinned as he stretched out his arms wide, as a raptor does with its wings, so as to invite him to strike first. Symon answered the invitation with a long sweeping overhead strike, one that Hunold easily met with both of his weapons. Undeterred, Symon pulled back his blade to thrust and cut in rapid succession, his moves more precise than they had ever been in his life. Hunold deflected every motion effortlessly, as though Symon was foreshadowing in slow motion. No matter the stab or the strike, steel rang against steel, the flesh of the Warlord uncut and intact.
After several exchanges, Symon took the sharp edge of his sword in his gauntleted hand, turning to half-swording for the advantage. Hunold, smirking, pulled the bladed heads of his weapons close to his body.
What is your style? Symon wondered.
He soon found out.
Like fists of ore, the weapon heads struck out at Symon. They landed with such force that he had no choice but to step back from each blow, lest the shock shake the sword from his grip. Symon blocked each one in rapid succession; they came not individually but as though in pairs. So rapid was the exchange between Hunold’s assault and Symon’s blocks that Symon soon found himself backing away and sidestepping without any purpose other than to avoid a fatal blow.
His foot suddenly sank so that he lost his balance. He slumped to one knee, his sword still extended upward to block another round. The move was instinctive, though, and desperate. He held the sword too high, leaving too much of himself exposed. Hunold saw his opening.
The head of his halberd swung under Symon’s sword, straight for his neck.
There it held.
Everitt’s sword stood in the way. The Right Captain had not yet put his helm back on, disregarding his own safety for a chance to protect his sovereign. Hunold, his chance thwarted, withdrew his halberd and struck out with both his weapons at Everitt. The knight answered with blocks and glances before another joined their bout.
Still in his disguise as a Voiceless, Dawkin jumped into the fray with an arcing strike down on Hunold. The Warlord blocked it and stepped back toward the center of the ford, fighting both Everitt and Dawkin at once. With two upon him, the Warlord now had his guard up. He ground his teeth as both cut in large arcs to force him back as hastily as possible.
Hunold moved to his right in a flash, pitting Everitt in between himself and Dawkin. Having lost the two-to-one advantage, he sped toward the Right Captain with both his blades bared. Everitt, undeterred, wielded his sword with precision and grace, having not lost his courage by having to face Hunold alone. His large strokes and cuts continued to keep Hunold at bay, until finally, the tip of his sword open a gaping wound across the center of his chest.
Hunold leapt back, more from shock than from pain. The Lewmarians, who up until then had been watching, encircled the Warlord to form a protective barrier between him and the Right Captain. Everitt, seeing his advance cut off, fell back. Hunold, looking down at his fresh cut, seethed.
The line of Lewmarians before Hunold stepped forward.
Only to be met by the cries of Marland. From every soldier on the opposing side that had suddenly felt a swell of hope in the battle.
Archers abandoned their cover. Pavisers picked up their battered shields. Infantrymen and knights alike descended onto the narrow passage of shallow water to come to their countrymen’s aid.
Symon, regaining his composure, hurried to the front. Only this time, he was not alone.
Dawkin fell to his left side. Everitt to his right. And every other Marlishman fell all around and between as the lines on both sides of the ford formed again.
“Defend your Prince!” Everitt commanded as the enemy laid before them. “Defend your King!”
In line with his men, Symon rushed forward, sword raised. The Lewmarians answered the blitz in kind. Steel brutalized steel. Armor dented. Mail separated as it was pierced. The fighting became a back-and-forth of power and momentum, the tide of battle favoring no one and punishing all.
The protective line between the two commanders saw the fiercest exchange. Dawkin and Everitt proved just as wild – at times more so – as their Lewmarian counterparts. Those around Hunold were the most savage of his warriors, baring teeth and wild eyes as they swung and thrusted their weapon heads forward, desperate for any injury they could inflict and every drop of blood they could spill. Hunold, removed from the fighting by his men, could do nothing more than glare at the Prince until the melee gave way.
Symon, in the same awkward position, breathed deeply. The stench of sweat and the rancor of the dying pummeled his senses. Through it all, he meditated through the chaos. He pushed and shoved as needed. He offered a block or a stab when gaps between his men allowed. The core of his focus though remained on the Soulthief, the one he knew he had to defeat.
His opportunity came when one of Hunold’s men fell. Leaning over, the Warlord saw his chance. He shuffled back, then jumped atop the back of his fallen to leap toward Symon.
Symon shoved Everitt to the side so that his Right Captain would avoid being knocked to the ground. He blocked Hunold’s halberd and axe head in the nick of time. The two exchanged strikes and stabs once again.
This all seems so familiar. The shouts. The blood. The steel.
I’ve had my share of skirmishes. I’ve protected villagers from raids. Ships from pirates.
I have read of many more battles. Epic in scope.
It seems familiar. And different.
The histories spoke of the courage. The prestige. The glory.
No accounts tell of the longing. The wait. The impatience.
I want all this to end.
I want to end this now.
Symon dove forward.
The crowd on either side of Hunold was such that he could not extend his arms much, thus allowing Symon to plow into him. The two commanders collapsed. The river – with all the dirt and blood and debris of the skirmish – washed over Hunold, nearly suffocating him.
The impact knocked the sword from Symon’s hand. The move had given him the upper hand, as he now laid on top of Hunold. His hands instinctively wrapped around his neck. He choked the life from the Warlord, who splashed and struggled under the pressure of Symon’s grip.
The trance overtook Symon. The Warlord, shaking, laid moments away from dying.
Out of the corner of his right eye, he saw the sword in Everitt’s hand break. As the blade whirled through the air, a boot kicked in his chest. The Right Captain fell back as the Lewmarian he was fighting aimed a war hammer straight at his head.
Symon suddenly found himself face to face with that same warrior. On his feet, he struggled to pull the war hammer – which he had stopped inches from hitting Everitt – from his grip. The two shifted and shoved. Securing his stance and adjusting his weight, Symon rammed his forehead into the warrior’s. The warrior, thrown off, sank back before Symon took the hammer to his temple.
The rush Symon felt did not stop there. Taking two swords from the fallen, he charged into the right flank of the Lewmarians, which was sparsely defended. He broke through the line easily to suddenly find himself behind enemy lines, taunting his assailants with a sword in each hand.
“Come on, you fools. You bastards. Face me.”
The Lewmarians answered as Symon’s own men looked on, aghast. Jumping to his feet, Everitt pulled a dirk from his back sheath and repeated his initial battle cry.
“Defend your King!”
If the Marlish ranks had never before responded to the call, they did then. They pushed and shoved forward in unison, ignoring the cuts and strikes they endured. Symon, edging toward the woods, waved them forward.
“Onward!” he shouted.
He turned to face Lewmarian after Lewmarian. Most yelled and screamed yet Symon could tell from their brutish and imprecise strikes they were the least skilled among the warriors. He deflected them easily, all the while moving toward the woods.
Those few Lewmarian archers who had not stood with their brothers on the ford drew their bow strings back and aimed at Symon, who caught five of them in his sights.
Two loosed bolts whizzed past him. One flew straight for his chest.
Symon blinked. Opening his eyes, he found a lone paviser had knelt before him, shield in hand.
“Do not do that again!” Everitt called as he came beside them.
Symon looked back, a number of Marlishmen had broken through the Lewmarian lines to overwhelm the enemy. Many were chanting a battle song that grew in popularity among them.
“What are they saying?” he asked Everitt.
“They are saying, ‘Rue the ford!’” his Right Captain replied. “What is your command?”
“Rue the ford it is. And end that Warlord once and for all.”
Symon turned and scanned the battle ford. He spotted Hunold as two Lewmarians lifted him from the Chesa. Hunold, coming to, looked about. Then, in haste, he made his way from the ford to the deeper waters of the Chesa, removing his garb as he went.
“Everitt,” Symon called. “He means to get away.”
Symon fought through the Lewmarians as they eyed the Warlord disrobing to all but his fur skin trousers. He waded out to the Chesa with a few men in tow, who themselves were too weighed down by leather and armor to follow suit. With Everitt close at hand, Symon cut through his opponents one by one until he reached the edge of the ford, just before the lip of the river bottom beneath dropped a few feet. From there, the shallows became depths, capable of drowning any man in armor.
Hunold had avoided such a fate. He swam downriver, floating over on his back once to catch sight of Symon looking after him.
The gaze of the two met. The distance between them was such that Symon could not read whether fear or anguish or rage reflected on the visage of the man he had almost killed.
“Sire,” Everitt said, as though to console his loss. “We won. The battle is ours.”
Symon nodded, feigning approval. He glanced over his shoulder to spot the expanse of the ford, his men outnumbering those opponents still present, many of whom fled to the forest.
He turned back to Hunold, whose head bobbed up and down, the Chesa threatening to consume him. It never did though, with Symon only losing sight of the Warlord as he disappeared past the bend of the river.No. We have not won. It has only begun.