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

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Chapter 27: Decisions

Late in the night Hai’asi met with the leaders of the various divisions and the Clan Council members to finalize their strategy. Once set and long before first light, the troops were roused to begin marshaling into position. Picquets positioned well in front of the army ensured no observation of the movement and no surprise attack. They were ready.

Hai’asi had stood until the sun dropped the previous day on the hill where he first observed the enemy. The warrior felt the pressure of his upcoming decision as he intently studied the scene below him. He could see a hasty attempt had been made by the enemy to create a fortified position at what had likely been considered their rear echelon up until the previous day. A shallow trench had been dug along the face of the line, while sharpened logs were buried into a berm several feet high made of the dirt from the ditch to create somewhat of a wall. Though not a well-devised defensive work it would still provide a challenge to be overcome.

The commander of the Northern Alliance force revisited the hill several times in the night before meeting with the other leaders. He continually checked their enemy’s disposition, ensuring no change based on the fires and torches that burned, while continually seeking how best to break the solid line.

In the end, the final plan would see two divisions form tightly packed columns and acting as the point of a spear thrust into the center of the enemy line. Skirmishers would be sent out to engage the flanks of the enemy, drawing attention from the center. The initial assault would be done as fast as possible to ensure surprise. Another similar column would form just behind the first two in order to exploit the breech the initial shock of assault was expected to create. Two more divisions would be in column behind the third to press through the opening, rolling back the enemy to the right and the left. Finally, the sixth division would deploy in line as the others moved forward to sweep the entire field of what should be, by that point, the remnants of the dark horde. The last division would stay in reserve to protect the rear, provide aid to the wounded and watch over the Council members.

Fierce debate broke out over who should have the honor of being the first division to attack. In addition, the issue of who would be left out of battle, since none wanted that dishonorable distinction, caused hot debate. Ancient tribal rivalries again flared up. Accusations and counter accusations broke out, threatening the unity of the army. Hai’asi, after a heartfelt appeal to finish united like they had begun, convinced them to draw lots for the positions leaving their place in the order of battle to providence. This was accepted, saving their harmony for the day to come. More than one observer was again impressed by the leadership skills of the quiet warrior.

So now in the early hours of the morning the troops of the Northern Alliance silently moved. It was a testimony to their leaders that they were able to keep the highly emotional fighters silent so as to not betray their plan. The liberating army was to strike at dawn’s first light and so moved into position with plenty of time.

En masse, the Mahlites turned about to face the north. Taking one knee they fell into silent prayer. While the ritual in the past ended in a fearsome call on this day they again restrained themselves merely standing afterwards upon completion and resuming their positions in line.

Hai’asi walked up and down the line, greeting the troops and encouraging them. He would not lead the assault, which he sorely wanted to do. Rather his position would be on the knoll overlooking the field in order to assess and direct the overall battle. Deep in thought, he played over and over again how the battle would transpire attempting to see if there was anything he had missed.

“May good fortune be with you today captain.”

The feminine voice surprised Hai’asi out of his concentration. For a moment he thought of another back in Ammon Ramlah that had become dear to him.

Rebekah appeared out of the darkness, accompanied by their other traveling companions of late, Mitt Cela, Belac and Umim. For a moment they all stared at each other. Though the very fate of man hung in the coming battle, the enormity of the moment was lost in the bond these people shared. No other words were spoken between the friends. None needed to be. The crucible of fire they had gone through together connected them. They affectionately embraced each other.

Then, it was time to take positions.

Belac accompanied Hai’asi, Rebekah returned to the rear but this day Mitt Cela, instead of being at the rear, went forward. He would be with Umim and the skirmishers making initial contact.

First light peaked above the horizon, casting a pale light over the arena where the contest to come would be held. Hai’asi returned to his place on top of the hill and took one last look at the enemy line before him. They were only now showing signs of life. He raised his hand in the air. A series of relays responded to the command: advance.

Led by Mitt Cela and Umim, the skirmishers kept low moving forward silently. Onward they crept through the tall grass on either side of the road, cautiously advancing forward in the low light of a growing dawn, spreading out across the entire front. Suddenly they came upon several hidden outposts set in front of the line. Shouts were raised and a sharp fight ensued with the surprised Natas manning these positions quickly being overwhelmed. Movement could be seen in the enemy line in response as sentinels went to alert their leaders but the surprised Natas moved sluggishly.

The first two divisions were already in the woods just behind the edge. When the signal came to advance a deafening cheer from the Mahlites echoed in the forest. The first elements of the main body sprinted out as quickly as they could towards their objective. The columns swiftly caught up to the skirmishers, pressing on to the fortified position in front of them. By the time they reached the edge of the trench all of the first line troops were in the open. Though exposed, the attack had caught their enemy unprepared. While some arrows flew to stop them they were undirected and too few to check the progress of the Northern Alliance army.

Racing through the trench then over the berm the Mahlites met the unorganized resistance and swiftly captured the line. Natas attempting to form up were hacked down in the savage fury of the attack. With the frenzy of combat growing, a tidal wave of Mahlites swept across the surprised camp faster than any had anticipated.

The pace of the battle had not been missed by those behind. The third division pressed forward hard on the heels of the first two looking for someone to engage. The initial successes of the first two divisions had been so complete their much-anticipated fight did not emerge. Frustration with this and a fear they would see no action caused those in the third column to charge forward even harder. The result was their tightly disciplined ranks broke apart and began to intermingle with the others already engaged farther ahead.

The Natas on the forward position were in full retreat, running for their lives to the rear. Those who stood to fight were dispatched where they stood. Command and control began to break down among the fiercely independent Mahlite warriors. As the blood lust rose instead of an orderly advance the battle was becoming a rout.

The next three divisions, now in position to exploit the breech created and sweep the field, saw the complete victory being won. Fearing no share in the glory they spontaneously charged prematurely without orders. While initially moving in regimented order, as they became aware of what was happening to their front the excited levies spontaneously broke, joining in the chase.

Hai’asi immediately saw how their strategy was beginning to break down so had signal horns blown to reform the army. While the initial success had been more than he could have ever imagined, he became concerned as the first line of troops reached the horizon beyond what he could see. His plan had been to break the enemy line, decimate their camp and hold. From there they could properly assess the situation then move forward, if practical, in stages. Despite how glorious it was to observe, the pursuit he witnessed wasn’t part of the strategy.

The calls to reform and hold were being disregarded. Ordering dispatch riders to him Hai’asi gave explicit instructions to the division commanders to halt the progress and consolidate.

A party of chieftains, including Duel and Princess Rebekah rode up to the summit. The look of concern on the commander’s face was not lost to Duel. “How goes the battle, captain?” he asked.

Preparing to personally move forward with his entourage to better ascertain what was going on Hai’asi only paused for a moment before riding off. “We’ve done very well so far,” he yelled back, “but I’m concerned that our plan is beginning to come unraveled with success.”

Nothing could stand in the way of the Northern Alliance flood. They pressed further on from the point of initial contact down the road to Dan Dera. More and more troops were being pressed into a steadily shrinking area as a forest crowded in. At the same time the road dropped between two small hills, making their progress difficult.

Then it happened.

Without warning wave upon wave of arrows rained down on the flanks of the Mahlite attackers. Suddenly, out from a series of defiles on either side of the road rushed heavily armored Natas who hit the unorganized Alliance troops like a hammer on an anvil. To the front more enemies surged in and finally the full weight of the Knights of the Black Sceptre charged down the road.

They had entered into a trap.

Unable to see the new front line, Hai’asi at first was unaware of what just happened. At the point of the ambush being sprung he was riding as swiftly as he could to get into a position where he could reorganize his overly enthusiastic army. But as he pressed on through the Natas camp the sound of ferocious battle caught his attention. He knew something frightfully wrong was happening.

Moments earlier while fighting together as skirmishers, Mitt Cela and Umim had been swept aside by the surging Northern Alliance troops. The Mahlite warriors eagerly showed their desire to destroy the enemy once the initial victory had been secured and didn’t hold back. Now the pair were attempting to take their company forward in an orderly fashion through all the confusion. The men from the south knew as they progressed that the advance was further than had been anticipated or wanted. So the pair attempted to not only hold their own command in check, but also rally the surging troops around them to slow their progress. With the Mahlite’s blood lust up the effort was to no avail so they involuntarily moved along in the crush. Just behind the ambush when it unfolded, Mitt Cela immediately knew what had happened. The bounty hunter reorganized those troops who had stayed with him, preparing to become a defender once more.

The wave of momentum that had carried the attackers forward now became their undoing. Stretched out along the road and scattered about the axis of advance they were like a neck lying on a block with the axe now coming down to chop it off. Confusion over the rapid change of events reigned in the ranks as the slaughter of those caught in the initial trap methodically happened. The full weight of Mephistopheles’ army then turned onto those who remained. The first two divisions were annihilated while the third was now being hard pressed.

Hai’asi figured out what had happened and now desperately tried to fix it. Shouting to his officers, he attempted to get them to reform. It was now no longer a matter of holding on to what they had gained, but rather staving off their destruction. He reformed several companies but the army was still too strung out to effectively be communicated with.

Unsure what to do, with enemy all about and hopelessly disorganized, the Northern Alliance warriors stopped. Their momentum gone, the remnant floundered and began to be rolled back like a carpet. The natural instinct to fight as individuals took over only furthering the route.

The command banners following the Amethyst captain trying to rally his troops caught the attention of the enemy so they descended upon the leader of the army. Seeing a group of Natas break through his troops Hai’asi pulled the axe from its saddle sheath and swung freely, almost happy to finally be able to do something.

Earlier, Belac had watched the day develop with interest. Though not privy to the plan of attack, he knew by watching Hai’asi that after the initial success things were going too far to fast. His anxiety grew as it became obvious, even to him, that the army’s momentum had been used against them. A trap had been set and sprung. Whether it had been done ahead of time or as the battle developed became irrelevant now. The reality was they now were in danger of total defeat. When Hai’asi had ridden off to the front to try to reorganize, the squire had automatically come along without being requested. Now in the thick of it, he drew his sword to protect himself from the surging enemy that began surrounding the commander’s party. An initial reaction of fear and the wish he had stayed on the knoll was almost immediately replaced by the exhilaration of feeling for the first time that he could fight, something he’d longed to do on this trip.

As dark creatures crashed down on them, the hours of training and practice with the guardsmen back at the castle, time spent that he had often been mocked for, now automatically came back to Belac. He held his own, keeping the would-be destroyers at bay.

The cordon around the command party shrunk as escorts and officers began to fall. Despite how ferocious the Mahlites fought, the sheer numbers against them began to overwhelm. The Northern Alliance troops were being scattered and ground up so no relief could came from that quarter. Hai’asi fought like a man possessed, unleashing all his fury upon those who challenged him. He had been knocked from Scobeo Deo, but on foot he became even more deadly, swinging his axe in wide sweeping arcs. While almost poetic, his efforts would be ultimately futile since momentum was against him.

Belac skillfully battled his way over to the man he now considered his friend. Together they fought with only a handful of others making a last desperate stand.

But then, from outside the compressing circle, the sound of close combat drew nearer causing the aggressors to check their progress in order to see what descended upon them. The sight of a large two-handed sword sweeping down like a scythe cutting wheat, rising and falling above the heads of the Natas, signaled help had arrived.

Bursting through the cordon Mitt Cela joined the fight, closely followed by Umim and their party of scouts. The man known as a loner, who had thought only of himself in the past, was a blur of action slashing, chopping, parrying and dodging those who tried to stop him. None could even get close. Moving forward, a pile of dead Natas trailed in his wake. His ability with the sword caused several to pause in amazement until they quickly realized this was no tournament but a fight for their lives.

With the added reinforcements the attackers scattered and the command party was relieved. The group now found themselves a little way behind the action. This allowed them a moment to assess the situation.

“Unless we can regroup the day’s lost Hai’asi!” Mitt Cela yelled out, the sense of urgency evident in his voice.

Calling to the remaining man who possessed a signal horn, Hai’asi had him sound again the recall but to no avail. “No, the day’s already lost,” he finally responded, surveying the scene. “We have to find a way of extricating ourselves.”

Looking about for the next attack the pair could see a large group of the Northern Alliance moving forward towards them from the rear. Prominent in the party were the Clan Council members, Deuel and Princess Rebekah. They closed the gap quickly, with the last division following them in close ranks. With a new defensive position set up, finally a sense of order could be restored, if even for a short time. More horns were added to that of Hai’asi’s signaler and some troops did begin to respond to the sound. But in reality, with defeat nearly complete those scrambling to return knew they had lost. Rather than responding they were only seeking any safe haven from the relentless assault of the enemy.

The numbers able to return were not encouraging.

Deuel had a strangely serene look on his face despite the chaos around him. “What are we to do, commander?” he asked, bringing matters to a head. The words spoken did reveal a sense of anxiety.

Now remounted on Scobeo Deo Hai’asi took a final quick glance around, assessing the situation before speaking. “We have little choice. We must pull back and regroup,” he responded with regret in his voice. “I fear with the enemy on our heels and the state we’re in we may have to retreat all the way to your fortified border.”

“But Ammon Ramlah is only a few leagues away,” Umim countered. “We can’t fall back now.”

“We have no choice. We’re being ground up here and don’t know what we’ll find going forward,” Hai’asi emphatically stated. “We have to pull back.”

“A small mounted party could break through and make it to the capital,” the scout countered. “They have to at least be informed about what’s happened.”

Hai’asi looked at his friend realizing the reality of what he was saying. The warrior nodded his head in agreement. “You’re right Umim, they must be warned. Mitt Cela, you lead that group and break through. Take Belac and Umim along with the company of scouts. Tell them what’s happened.”

Princess Rebekah moved forward with a determined look on her face. “I’m going with them,” she declared. “I will not withdraw again from my kingdom, regardless of what happens to me.”

“You can’t. It’s too dangerous!” Hai’asi shot back.

“I will not leave these lands,” she calmly replied, but a steely look in her blue eyes showed that her mind would not be changed.

Hai’asi could see the Natas reorganizing and beginning to probe their shaky defensive line. He knew that time was running out so an argument was futile. “Very well, you can return to the capital with the others. Inform them of what happened and report what you’ve seen.” Turning Scobeo Deo towards the line he concluded with melancholy in his voice, “Take care my friends. I hope to see you all again sometime.”

The firm voice of Deuel broke in. “You are going with them captain.”

Hai’asi, though surprised by the declaration, responded immediately. “My place is with my troops, the ones I’ve brought this far and now have failed. I can’t abandon them like this.”

“No my brave young friend, the failure is not yours. You have done more than what you have been asked to do. It is time we began to lead ourselves. Your services have been admirable, but we can no longer afford disunity. We will come together and look after ourselves.” Placing his hand on Hai’asi’s arm to comfort him Deuel concluded, “We will pull back to Mahl Jaktan if necessary, reorganize then come back to your assistance. You press on and make it to the castle.” Then with a wry look on his face the withered Mahlite added, “Do tell Elder Samej how sorry I am that we were not able to see each other again.”

The strong-willed Northern Alliance leader would allow no opposition to his decision. With time not allowing debate on the issue, they instead developed a hasty plan. The Mahlite line, now fully pressed by Natas, would make one surge forward in order to distract the enemy and allow the party carrying on a chance to break free.

The group from Carnelian waited on their mounts just behind the line. After looking at High Chieftain Deuel one last time, the signal to advance sounded.

Hai’asi, heart heavy at leaving the army seemingly at the brink of total destruction, led along with Mitt Cela while the rest were set up in a tight wedge formation. The Mahl riders with them looked uneasily at the clansmen they were leaving behind but none said anything opposing the decision.

As the arrow-shaped group began to move, Mitt Cela glanced back at Belac who was with Rebekah in the center of the party. “Belac, look to the Princess’ safety,” he called back. “Don’t let her out of your sight!”

With a grim look on his face the squire nodded agreement. Glancing over at Rebekah crouching low in Treasure’s saddle ready to ride he had no doubt she would be able to keep up. Belac hoped the same thing could be said of him.

Once more the terrific war cry of the Northern Alliance rose above the din of battle and they pressed forward into the dark horde. Just after that, the riders rushed into the small gap that opened for them. Scobeo Deo crushed a number of the Natas under his hoofs while Hai’asi brought more down with his axe unleashing the growing rage rising within him. Mitt Cela as well slashed furiously with his big sword, cutting a path for the others to follow. The wedge grew, gaining momentum. Just as suddenly as they had been in the thick of it, they broke free.

Galloping hard down the road towards Ammon Ramlah the group seeking a new safety in the capital didn’t break their pace for anything. Though some enemy remained on the road most of them flew from the path of the thundering party. A few rushed arrows found their mark but for the most part they were able to progress unimpeded. Once free of the area of battle the ride went quickly and they covered the distance to Dan Dera without impediment. Nearing the outskirts of the town preparations for an assault on the capital were evident. But in this area their arrival seemed to catch the attackers off guard so no organized attempt to stop them was mounted. Passing through the town they could just see the highest tower of the castle on the horizon. It appeared they were safe.

But then the pace of the party racing to Ammon Ramlah began to involuntarily slacken. The exertion of the ride was beginning to take its toll of their horses. Still, this seemed of little concern until the group observed to their front a well-manned defensive position that appeared to be ready for them. Looking behind for an alternate route, they were horrified to see a party of Knights of the Black Sceptre riding hard and gaining on them. There was no option to press on and through the line ahead.

With no time to lose, the riders charged on preparing to hit the awaiting line. A hail of arrows thinned their ranks but none of the original travelers were struck. Making contact with the defensive line they engaged those who tried to stop them seeking to break through quickly bogging down. With the refuge of castle agonizingly in view on the other side of the river, they tried to wade through the attackers. Unfortunately Natas swarmed around the group forcing them to come to a dead halt. The densely packed ranks of the Alliance riders finally broke and a free-for-all ensued. All the time the Black Knights moved closer to the battle.

Pressing on, slowly the group seeking the shelter of the castle cut a path through the line drawing closer to their objective. Then a scream from Rebekah caused a hard-pressed Belac to look from his own battle. Horrified, he saw three Natas holding the princess and Treasure attempting to drag her from the saddle. Turning his own horse towards the scene he crashed into the fray knocking aside those in his path. Belac had nearly freed Rebekah when a spear found its mark striking his mount and sending him hard to the ground. The squire rolled just in time to miss a sword stroke aimed at his head then slashed back, taking his opponent down. Now on his feet he swiftly dispatched the remaining foes around the princess.

While Belac’s act of valor had been going on, Hai’asi and Mitt Cela along with the others in the front had been able to break through the Natas line. They formed a bit of a wedge allowing others in their party to make it through to safety. Seeing the road finally clear to the Carnelian defensive line on the north side of the river, Rebekah reached her hand down to Belac so that he could ride with her. The squire grasped it, then with a mighty leap jumped into the saddle behind her. Though there were now two in saddle, the pair easily outdistanced pursuit and rode to safety.

With the head of the company finally riding again towards the capital the delay had allowed the Black Knights to catch up to those unfortunately in the rear. As they swept down several of the beleaguered Mahl riders fell before them unable to stand against the princes of Mephistopheles. The sheer numbers fighting in the area was the only thing that finally slowed the deadly foes progress. So the dark riders slogged on getting closer to the head of the action cutting down anything in their path, Northern Alliance and Natas alike.

Mitt Cela saw this threat developing and knew freedom for the princess and the others was still not at hand. With no enemy before him, he could have easily secured his own safety. Instead, he determined to stay behind to assist the remnant trying to escape. With heart pounding, knowing this was likely the waning moments of his life, he determined to go out in a blaze of glory. So with a yell he spurred his horse back towards the unbeatable foe.

With the last of the Northern Alliance riders at the rear fallen and the Natas scurrying out of the way, the path stood clear for the dark knights. Then it became blocked by a single man, Mitt Cela.

It was only a matter of seconds before the two foes connected. Bearing down on each other one of the Black Knights spurred his mount to ride faster seeking the glory of the kill. With a terrible sound the beast responded taking it’s master ahead of the others and towards Mitt Cela.

The bounty hunter’s mind flashed back to events of the last several months, how he had changed and how now something more than self mattered to him. A fire burned within overcoming the fear he had of the red-eyed foe. Holding his sword low, Mitt Cela met the initial swing meant for his head. He felt the impact of the jarring stroke all the way up into his shoulder but countered it despite the pain, catching the Black Knight off guard. Mitt Cela’s blow pushed aside the sword of his opponent giving him an unexpected opportunity. Sweeping back as hard as he could in a left arc he connected with the torso of his foe who screamed in surprise and agony. This success of the bounty hunter’s strike caused the other Knights circling the lone defender to involuntarily halt in their tracks.

Mitt Cela blocked all of this out wanting to exploit his sudden success. Pulling his sword back, he thrust hard with the point penetrating deep into the chest of the Black Knight who gasped and fell from the saddle dead.

He had unhorsed a Black Knight!

The other Knights, along with the gathered Natas, didn’t move. Stunned silence hung like a cloud, none able to believe what had just happened.

Mitt Cela knew not to push his luck any further. Finding a gap in the attackers he rode towards the Carnelian line and the bridge beyond. This time no one stopped him. With a quick backwards glance he saw that no one pursued him. In fact all were still in their previous place seemingly unable to move. Giving it no further thought he raced to safety across the bridge to the capital reaching the town gate that had been opened to allow those fleeing a place to go. The journey of the travelers was over.

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