Published in Darklaw |
Copyright © 2017 Teresa Wymore. All Rights Reserved. |
Epic fantasy |
IT TOOK SEVERAL more weeks before Avestine felt the troops were ready. With Gerard’s assurance and Hamran’s enthusiasm, the Council was willing to follow her recommendations.
The Sovereignty’s heavy infantry left the city of Resolute on ships, which followed the coast past the Breakland Forest. Avestine took her archers on a march straight through the forest. Along with Hamran, chief of the Wasteland, Gerard took charge of the light infantry, traveling with Samas and the heavy infantry.
After three weeks, the forces came together on the Plains of Cochin, an idyllic land bounded on two sides by hills. Island breakers made the Trade Ocean placid, especially the large anchorage of Salus Tribute, where Avestar had set up a garrison.
Surmising the landscape, she saw that the Sovereignty had the ocean at their back and Darklaw had the advantage of the hills. Darklaw could have come by boat from Illusion Bay or staged at Salus, or they could have split their force between hills and sea, surrounding her. Darklaw had done none of that, which meant the legion’s choices were impractical—just what she had come to expect from her brother. Despite that, he had taken one city after another.
She walked among the Sovereignty’s soldiers as they set up camp and wondered how she had convinced the Council to sacrifice these men on the disastrous strategy of engaging Darklaw so far from Koledoon, just outside the enemy’s stronghold and surrounded by forces on three sides.
Even the most naïve general could see that no one would succeed with such tactics. But she had convinced them, or rather, the gods had. She was sure of that, and equally sure now that her brother would be watching to see what the gods had planned. After all, no one else in the world knew as well as he that the gods walked with her.
Before two armies engaged in battle, tradition allowed messengers to meet and offer negotiations, but Avestine had successfully stopped the generals from pursuing the customary meeting. The meeting would make their arrival conspicuous, but she hoped that, by arriving and engaging without pause, she might find her brother’s troops at least flat-footed.
The day following, Avestine arose and ate a light breakfast. Servants dressed her in leather armor. She removed the black tie around her queue and bound her hair tightly with rope, then clubbed it with a thin coating of tar to keep it weighed down and out of her way. She checked her sword and spears, and mounted her horse. Before that morning, she planned only to assess the performance of the archers, but now she found herself eager for the fight.
Sovereignty flagmen lined the hillside, their yellow, red, and blue streamers set to relay signals across the plain. Beside her, catapults were drawn, and when the line of colored streamers switched from blue to red like a snake sliding across the landscape, she nodded to Gerard who initiated the bombardment.
The catapults creaked and cracked. Flaming ballistics whooshed across the valley, followed by howls of ferocious joy.
A section of Darklaw’s palisade splintered, but behind it, Avestine watched the legion form quickly, cavalry at each flank. Unfortunately, they were able to draw up their preferred formation. She saw the standards, and her gut tightened when she saw it was the Black Tide.
The chieftains sent infantry into the hills, but they managed to toss only a few spears before they fell like toy soldiers under Darklaw’s cavalry, which charged down the hill, circled around, and attacked like the arms of a crab crushing its prey.
That left the center of Darklaw’s first division without support, so the Sovereignty’s second wave managed to split it in half. Avestine thought the break was too easy. Her suspicion was bitterly rewarded when the black-clad soldiers reunited at the Sovereignty’s back, drew together, and, reinforced by their cavalry, collapsed onto the enemy like wolves on a weak deer.
Avestine found herself agitated by the easy manipulation. She told herself to be glad for the rout. That’s what she had wanted. Still, to see her men so easily ruined was too much to bear.
Darklaw had taken advantage of the opposite hill with their catapults, but the work of heavy machines only softened lines. Once the lines engaged, they were useless. She shouted for the archers to form as she kicked her horse and charged down the hillside. She got the attention of a flagman and sent orders for the infantry to stand. They had lost their formation, but she could see they were trying to carry out orders.
But then the unexpected happened. The wall of Darklaw cavalry lost their discipline, dissolving as they isolated remnants of the enemy’s line and brought swords to bear.
Avestine returned to arraign her archers, and they formed themselves based on their bows’ distance, those with the longest range set to take out the soldiers on the machines.
The archers could shift and re-engage at a moment’s notice, and some took on the job of seeking out the commanders behind the lines. From their distance, they could not pierce armor, but with their superior aim, they could find the holes in armor around necks and groins.
As the sky darkened with arrows and the Darklaw cavalry began to fall from their horses like sacks of flour, the infantry lost their morale. Samas rode into the fray, urging his second line forward. Avestine watched the frenzy below. The armies engaged like a tavern brawl.
And still, victory was near. And it was incomprehensible.
Avestine found herself charged by two of the dwindling Darklaw cavalry, who raged on despite the loss of their companions. An arrow dropped the horse from under one, and a soldier cut him down. The other made a suicide charge, but Avestine parried, rocking the man before she was able to knock him from his mount.
In a short time, the clattering steel and wail of dying men faded.
Smoke erupted from the hills. Rather than supply the Sovereignty with weapons as they retreated, Darklaw soldiers set their own machines on fire. They burned their palisade and stocks of food and weapons, as well. The remaining soldiers retreated toward Ureth Mourning, but across the battlefield through rolling clouds of brown smoke, Avestine saw a man atop a coal-black horse.
As retreating soldiers moved past him, his gaze seemed to rest on her, but from the distance, the only detail she saw was the silver glint of his cuirass and the blue cape that fluttered from his shoulders. She could feel his stare like the cold wash of the sea, and that cold reached to the very depths of her.
She trotted her horse across the field to a fallen flag. Dropping to the ground, she picked it up, held it high, letting the wind flutter through the image of the Blue Sun. As she held it, the man drew his horse around and disappeared into the smoke.
Victory had come neither easily nor completely.
Avestine roamed the field taking in the extent of the loss. She flipped off a few helmets to see the men who now comprised the most elite legion of Darklaw. Only then did she make sense of what had happened.
She found two men with the brandings of slaves. Two others had missing noses, a common penalty for thieves in the Dark Quarter. The legion had carried the emblems of the Black Tide, but it was undisciplined, even suicidal in its attack, and that’s because the legionaries were not soldiers. Her brother had sent condemned men to a slaughter. He was probably laughing somewhere at that moment as he imagined her tearing off helmets to find her very own imperial legion had become nothing but a band of brigands.
She kicked a body in the ribs. She kicked it again and turned furious eyes on the men around her who had stopped to stare.
“Strip them all! These dogs won’t rest for eternity in the uniforms of my legion. Burn them. Bring all the armor and standards you find on this field to my tent.” She slammed a helmet on the ground and walked away.