In The Absence of Eagles: Book 1 of the The Chronicle of the Shires

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Chapter 14: The Stake in the Ground is Tested

The open fields before the village of Haccalm, green and lush even for this time of year, were known for their great harvests due to the rich, cultivated soil they sat on. But now the plain began to darken with the growing army of Mephistopheles deploying for attack. This day promised a different yield.

Hai’asi estimated they were outnumbered five to one. He could not only sense hesitancy in his gathered force but also could see a wavering in their resolution. The majority of the men had never faced battle before. Even many of those who had tasted combat had never fought against the likes of these.

Their defensive position was a good one; he had chosen well. While the ground to their front seemed open, on either flank were shallow drainage ditches, which in reality were deep bogs that would not allow easy passage. He had paced off an exact distance from where it began, afterwards setting where they would stand. In addition, on either side of their line were thick abatis, and sharpened stakes in the ground. He had deployed his levies as spearmen in the center, supported by seasoned swordsmen right behind them. What archers he had were behind the closely formed ranks and finally his cavalry, led by Pagiel, was in reserve to plug any gaps that may come. Their line was the cork in the bottle but if the cork didn’t hold the funnel he’d created to even the numbers would be of no value.

A man of quiet resolution and action, Hai’asi was unused to this position of authority. Always he had been the one to follow the orders of others. Often he had said he wished to make the decisions. Now here was his chance. Elder Samej had only told him what points to maintain leaving the remainder to one he trusted implicitly with this important charge. Now the army, HIS army, was looking to him for courage and leadership not just skill with a weapon. He could not sit back and wait for another to step up. Something had to be done about the growing fear in the ranks and he must be the one to act.

Hai’asi spurred his horse to the front of the line. “Up men, up! Don’t fear what you see to your front,” he yelled, getting the men’s attention. “No, instead fear what will be done to what’s behind you if we fail. Look beyond the horizon, see the death and devastation which has been brought upon our lands.” Brandishing his axe and waving it in the air his voice rose in intensity. “Be glad this day you have a weapon and can strike a blow against our enemy. But a sword or a spear is of no use if the hand holding it is not steady. We will stand here! We will not leave this place!” he shouted. “I won’t leave this place. Who will stand with me?”

A great roar went up from the outmatched army, firming the determination of even the most afraid. While the fear still existed, they now feared something greater than the Natas. Now none wanted to let down their leader or each other.

Hai’asi allowed the men to cheer freely before continuing his speech. “My friends, before us is a mighty array but they have not felt the sting of man resolute. Let this day be the beginning of our liberation. Together let us strike a blow against our oppressors that will be sung about for generations. For the Shires!”

Another mighty roar went up like thunder, ringing throughout the field, momentarily checking the deployment of the silent mass before them. Hai’asi galloped up and down the line pumping his fist in the air as men yelled and screamed, unleashing the pent up rage that was in them. As their leader returned to his place in line, though, the shout was replaced by quieter sounds. Some men were reciting their family lineage, others were gently singing songs of their lands, hands were clasped in silent bond and prayer. Each was seeking his own way of connecting with what was important to him, drawing on the strength it gave. The men of the Confederation were ready.

A blast of a horn along the Natas line was met by the return of dozens of others. Their massive force lurched forward unevenly but with resolve. That purpose was to smash the resolution of the tiny army before them seeking the carnage and plunder, which lay beyond.

Hai’asi, still surprised not only by the passion of his speech but the words he had spoken, knew his mark so watched the steady advance with a clear eye. He stayed mounted on his powerful charger at the front and in the center of their position so all could see him, the standard of the Royal Guard of Amethyst snapping in the breeze behind him. As the Natas relentlessly marched forward in line yelling unknown words in cadence he measured carefully. Finally the attacker reached the mark he was looking for.

“Archers, make ready,” he called out in a clear, steady voice.

Behind the line over two hundred bowmen took arrow from quiver, knocking them onto their bows. Hai’asi was pleased to have them and counted on their effectiveness. While the vast majority were not soldiers most were hunters skilled at providing meat for their tables. He was banking on that degree of accuracy from their powerful ewe bows. As the archers pulled their bowstrings tight Hai’asi saw what he was waiting for. The first ranks of Natas had hit the bog on either side of their line and were starting to flounder, not able to make their way through the muck. The ranks behind them were shifting to the center in an attempt to skirt it but instead caused a logjam due to the numbers virtually halting their progress.

“Loose!” Hai’asi commanded.

Arrows flew from bows but before they would find a mark in the densely packed ranks two more flights were in the air. Howls of pain and anger could be heard before the sound of blowing horns signaled the Natas to move from line to column in order to shrink their front. Smartly the command was executed so now the wave was turning into a hammer. As arrows continued to rain down on them the line reorganized and continued to relentlessly press on despite their casualties. When one fell another took its place until they were just within striking range. As the angry host neared the Shire line they let out a fearsome yell, surging forward. Brandishing pole arms, all manner of swords and edged weapons the attackers were anxious to assault the now steady position.

“Spearmen ready!”

One rank of Shire men kneeled while two others stood, their long spears dropped down to form a hedgehog of sharp spikes. The front of the Natas column tried to skirt around it but the weight of the creatures coming from behind pushed them forward into the impenetrable line. Impaling themselves on the spears and unable to move, this held their advance for a while. Still the arrows flew overhead, hitting the rear.

Despite bodies piled up along the front the sheer numbers of Natas began to push the line physically back until it was bending, threatening to break. The snarling creatures, sensing blood, pushed harder.

Hai’asi stood in his saddle just behind the line with the swordsmen. Despite the threat of thrown spear and arrow he continued to make himself a target in order to stay close to the men. The Natas had their archers in range and were firing as well. More than once he had been shot at but providence didn’t allowed any to find their mark.

The leader sensed the danger at hand from a potential break. “Hold the line lads,” he yelled encouragement, “hold them.” Turning to those behind he called out, “Swordsman ready!” Then certain of the need the command went out. “Forward!”

The sound of metal rasping on metal bolstered the resolve of those to the front. As the line began to burst the swordsmen dashed forward slashing and cutting to plug any gaps. Hai’asi waded forward as well on horseback hacking away with his mighty two-headed axe.

The progress had been stopped, the Natas ranks were thinning. Hai’asi’s army was able to reform their position, even beginning to push back. Victory seemed at hand.

Then from the right of the Shire line a primal scream came. Streaming out of the forest to the rear of the abatis a wave of Gershonites burst onto field. Panic spread throughout the Confederation troops as the hairy attackers slammed into their defensive position. A large number of men broke ranks, running back towards the town in terror.

The whole line threatened to cave in.

Hai’asi watched this, reacting immediately, for he knew the danger. The commander cut his way over to the point of new contact in order to try to stem the flow. “Pagiel!” he yelled to his friend while doing this, “bring your men here.”

A desperate fight began to keep the Shire position from collapsing. The captain of Amethyst was at the center of it.

“Hold the line lads. Regroup,’” he called out between swings simultaneously fighting and inspiring. “Hold the line. Think of your homes. Think of your families.”

Pagiel and his cavalry came galloping forward in response, but a breech in the line had been created. Defeat seemed imminent as the thinning defenses were being crushed between the two attacks.

Hai’asi fought like a wild man, swinging his axe back and forth. These were no ordinary Gershonites who usually fought cowardly, flying before opposition. These possessed not only a new resolve but also were armored in the style of the Natas. Their armor was strong making it more difficult to strike so Hai’asi had to aim his blows carefully to inflict the most damage.

The smell of so many of these creatures was overpowering, yet he continued. The warrior felt the sting of searing pain as one who gotten behind him struck out. The creature hit a gap in the armor on his left arm causing a deep wound. Hai’asi retaliated with a swift axe stroke felling the attacker. He was swarmed from all around, the Gershonites pulling at from all sides. Yet he remained in the saddle despite the pain of his wound. He felt as if all eyes were on him so instinctively knew that if he fell the whole army would collapse. So he fought with every ounce of energy to not allow that to happen.

The mounted troops had been able to stem the tide but they were slowly being overwhelmed, as the combined weight of the attackers was too much. It was only moments now before the dark tidal wave buried the men who had fought so hard.

The soldiers who had retreated were so filled with terror they involuntarily looked behind fearing pursuit. They were surprised that none followed and instead the battle still raged on. The men saw their powerful leader standing out from the rest almost single handedly keeping the attackers at bay, allowing them to flee. The cavalry arrived but it was still their captain who was holding the enemy off.

No words were spoken, yet humiliation burned within those who had run as they witnessed such raw bravery. This disgrace set fire to an inner strength so instead of continuing to flee first one man stopped then another and another until the whole lot had stopped running.

With a cry of, “For Hai’asi!” they charged back into the fray from where they had left with new found and now unbreakable courage.

The Gershonites had been focusing on the line as it existed so were unprepared for this assault from the rear. Noticing the charging men only at the last moment, they could not adjust and were caught out of position. Although leaderless those who previously had been fleeing acted as one and on the example of their leader.

Hai’asi’s face lit up with a smile at what he was seeing. He forgot the pain in his arm as a combination of adrenaline and pride in his army took over. Even though the battle was far from over, he continued to be a whirlwind on the field yelling oaths and allowing nothing to stand in his way.

The Natas and Gershonites were so confident in victory they couldn’t fathom defeat by such an army. That in the end was to be their downfall. When the battle was clearly lost their commander committed what reserves they had, including himself, in a futile attempt to stem the tide.

The Shire men, their confidence soaring and blood lust up, now started to push the previously confident foe back. The Natas, unused to such resistance and driven only by hate, began to hesitate. As there was no call to withdraw they held their position, no horns blew and no sounds were heard from their now dead leaders. Finally pragmatism took over, along with the natural tendency towards self-preservation. First the Gershonites then the remaining Natas attempted to flee.

Seeing the effort to break contact Hai’asi was determined to finish them. “Pagiel,” he yelled, “don’t let them escape. Ride them down!”

His friend and lieutenant, gathered his mounted troops. They quickly went after the now fleeing foes that already had foot soldiers chasing them. While it was difficult to thread their way through the Shire troops the cavalry was determined so swiftly caught up to their quarry. Unorganized and thinking of nothing other than safety the remnant of Mephistopheles’ forces was no match. Within minutes not a single Natas or Gershonite stood. None escaped the wrath of man. They had been utterly destroyed and the field belonged to the Shires.

The realization of this took a few more minutes to sink in. Then the thunderous cry of victory spontaneously went up. It was a sound that could be heard for some distance, as the elation of what happened sunk in and the adrenaline caused by the fight began to wear off. They had done it!

While Hai’asi was in his desperate fight at Haccalm, Commander Tiglath was regaining his confidence. The humiliation he felt over what happened gave way to a new resolution to not let his countrymen down again. With a new vitality he swiftly reorganized his army then began to scout forward, seeking intelligence on what the enemy was doing. Also, he sought opportunities for his men to regain their confidence. The payoff was several sharp skirmishes, which had gone in their favor, giving rise to a new belief that they may be able to prevail.

Unfortunately, at the same time King Jashud was losing the war of attrition. His knowledge of the territory and areas of his kingdom had initially given him a distinct tactical advantage. But the sheer number of attackers was thinning his small army, which really now could only be called a band. They were down to the point where it was not possible to fight in the conventional sense. Once the pursuers, now they were being pursued.

The king of S’Apphire sat on a log in a thick, dark forest jabbing his sword repeatedly into a fallen log, frustration showing through his furrowed brow. His most trusted advisor was again trying to compel him to break off their fight.

“Your Majesty, we must withdraw. We can raise no more men. Those that we have left are exhausted and in need of rest. We’re being pursued now almost by the hour and have lost the initiative. We must flee.”

The king hesitated for a moment. Though pained to offer such counsel, the speaker thought he had finally gotten through to the man who had inspired him so much of late.

“You are a faithful friend and your counsel is wise,” Jashud replied pensively. Then pausing he got a strange look on his face as if he were far away. “Our people for the most part have always been miners. It’s the nature of our land. But my father, when he was only a young man and my grandfather sat upon the throne, spent some time sailing on the Great Sea.”

The advisor was drawn in by the strange reply as were several other soldiers nearby.

“I was but a young lad,” the king continued not noticing the gathered crowd, “when he told me about a time afloat during a storm, how his ship came across another that was sinking, having erred and strayed into rocky waters. They used their small boats to rescue the surviving crew of the stricken vessel but the captain refused to leave. You see, he had been mistaken and led them there in a moment of distraction. So he was resolved to go down with the ship and my father watched from safety a man of honor do this noble thing.”

Jashud placed his sword back into its scabbard and stood with a glint of new resolution in his eyes. “I never understood the meaning of that story nor why my father would tell it to me, but now I do. I have led this land to the rocky shoals through my own pride and arrogance.” He raised a hand to stop the advisor who was about to protest at the statement. “While I am not passively going to stand and go down with the ship neither am I going to leave while those who have trusted their lives and future to me suffer due to my folly. No, I will not leave, I cannot leave.”

Then as if released from some tremendous burden his face lit up like it had not done since the affair began many weeks ago. He turned his attention from the one man to speak to the others gathered around him during his speech. “I will not withdraw from this fight while I still draw breath but my tactics must change. I will take whoever will come with me into the hills, striking at our enemy when practical. There are many caves and food aplenty in this territory for those who are resolute. We will strike terror into our oppressors, stealing their will to fight.”

He looked at the men from Carnelian, originally placed under his command. They were now leaderless since their captain had been killed a week before. These he had taken under his wing. Jashud then looked affectionately at his own men who he knew so well. He finally said the words that had been such a heavy burden for him. “But I do not order any of you to this fate. Men of Carnelian, I release you from your charge. You are free to return home. Men of my kingdom, I release you too. Any who do not wish to serve in this desperate endeavor are free to leave and seek the safety of the Shire line with my thanks and admiration.”

Not a man moved.

A smile came over the stern face of the king along with a choked feeling in his stomach. This is what it meant to lead. “Thank you for your confidence,” he finished in a quiet voice.” You are all as dear to me as brothers. Now let’s gather our things and begin a new day.”

Fires burned from a number of points in the field outside Haccalm. The victorious men of the Shires had piled up the bodies of the Natas and the Gershonites then set them ablaze. This was used not only to clear the field but also in hope of deceiving any potential reinforcements that the village had fallen and the smoke meant it was ablaze. The armor and weapons had been stripped from the bodies of the vanquished then distributed to any they could be of use to. The remainder was even now being sent by wagon to the capital since the metal could be reused. No one believed anymore this conflict would be over quickly, so collecting resources and sustaining the war effort became of great importance.

As Pagiel and his Captain walked the field, encouraging and congratulating the now confident troops they knew this was an important victory for a number of reasons. Not only had the evil forces been checked but more importantly the army knew their enemy could be defeated. They had bought some time Hai’asi knew, but the question was would it be enough?

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