Part III On Conflict, War, & Mortality
It’s true. As writers we can pull some serious mileage out of warfare. As a fantasy author, at least of “epic” fantasy, warfare is all but mandatory. Epic? All right, it’s a legit term if a bit grand sounding. Let’s just say that several tomes are required to encompass the tale’s full sweep. And in the spirit of full disclosure, my kinda favorite read as well. Hence my unvarnished enjoyment of Steven Erikson’s Malazan epic and Robert Jordan’s grand, Wheel of Time (And gods bless Sanderson for finishing the series.) And the list goes on. For moi, it all started with Burroughs’ Tarzan, Howard’s Conan, and then Tolkien’s Hobbit and the following Fellowship of the Rings threesome. And yes, war drives them all (except Tarzan). And because they are written not just well, but honest in their portrayal of war’s ugliness, of what it does to those who wage it as well as those who are its collateral damage, as novels they succeed. Though, for the record, the movie adaptations of Conan were … not so good.
For good and ill and everything in between, war is transformative. Transformative on a scale that can engulf the stars as well as tribes, clans, nations, and worlds whole. (My latest sci fi great read being The Expanse series.) Transformative as only the forge of total conflict can be: physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually … to the very DNA of our species, or any other species for that matter. To write of war is to paint not merely its chaos, destruction, and the ruin of death. These are the aftermath, the obvious, the most immediate consequences of the conflict’s causes. But to write honestly about the horror of war is to paint every color of it — cause, consequence, and absolutely, the intimate effects of it on your characters. They will be changed by war. Show their metamorphosis. Show it in all its painful, horrified, glorious, and shocking detail. If we as writers fail in this, we have sadly painted a picture by the numbers. And we all know what those look like.
In the end, wars, for all their grand scope, are fought by mere individuals. Each striving against an impossibly vast and lethal monster, allying their purpose with others, suffering together in their fight to prevail. Always build from there. And remember, not every favorite character can possibly survive when the wolves of war are loose.
I recommend an amazing novel on war from the “boots on the ground” perspective. The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
From my upcoming second novel in the series, The Years of Bone and Ash, Across Time’s Dark Way, here’s an excerpt. One battle in the larger conflict. In each battle scene I strive to show only the individual perspective, show the fight from their eyes, from their thoughts and emotions. When someone dies, the reader should know something about them; can find a measure of empathy for their death, regardless that the character has only “lived” for but a few pages or even only a paragraph’s mention. Skirmish after skirmish, pitched battle after battle, I work to create a fuller appreciation for war’s consequences at the most, base level. — Drew Dobson
With Dael’s death, the nine clans spread across the dead wastes they called home. These would be the years of tempering. And waiting. For how long we knew not, only that we waited and held fast to our Promise, our Duty, our Oath. Many believed we waited on Dael’s return from the land of the dead. Sweet Arawn, but we were already there.
— The Clans in Diaspora: anonymous
A Redemption Dressed in Blood
“Let’s just pray,” Ahzra-hôd whispered, “that the Earl has everything ready back there.”
“Aye,” Miknorgric hissed, lying on his stomach next to his captain. “I count at least a wing camped below. Maybe a claw more. And that’ll be on top of what’s already in the hold.
The two scouts were peering down from a ledge not a thousand paces distance from the Clan Eagle caer. They had been there since before first light. From the outside, the Aestrâgor hold appeared to be little more than a fissure in the face of a near vertical wall of basalt. Rising easily a hundred or more paces above the dusty, bare ground, it formed the foundation for the sweeping pile of stone that formed a narrow canyon running east to west. It was here on the canyon’s sandy floor that the clan warriors made their daylight camp as they hurried towards the fighting around Hell’s Ridge. In this dry, desiccated land, the hidden reservoirs of precious water each caer guarded were vital for warriors traveling quickly through the furnace-like wastes of rock and stone.
For two days the scouts had observed this same pattern of activity around the caer. As the shadows shortened with the day’s heat, the talons, fangs, and claws of distant Aestrâgor caers would begin to arrive and make camp outside of the Clan Eagle hold. All day, warrior groups would stride into the encampment and catch what rest they could before departing at first darkening for the building battle along the Blood River.
This day, at least one wing of mixed clans — mostly Eagle, Raven, and Crow — had made camp on the canyon’s floor. A fang of Boars had stridden in out of the shimmering heat well past highlight. Weary and parched, they had made twenty-five leagues since their last rest. A bloody eagerness drove all the warriors towards the wide-open brawl of a fight with their age-old enemy. The Boars had covered over three hundred leagues in less than eleven nights for the chance to kill as many Krîll as their arrows could find.
Now, with the waning day’s shadows growing steadily towards the east, the clan fighters were stirring. Still the air above the bare stone danced and wavered in the scorching heat, but the worst of it would soon begin to surrender to dusk’s cooler clime.
It was time to give the signal, or not. The legions waited a little more than a league north.
“Send it,” Ahzra-hôd said. “Put their strength at two to three wings.”
That caused the grizzled first whip to glance over, one eyebrow raised.
“Fuck ’em if they don’t like my numbers,” the whip leader gritted. “We count one plus down there. No telling what’s inside the hold. I’m calling it another wing. If it’s less, so be it. I’d rather be high than low.”
Nodding, Miknorgric slid backwards, careful not to dislodge any loose stones until he was well back of the ledge’s edge. Rolling over onto his back and pulling himself into a sitting position with his legs bent, he pulled a finely crafted spyglass from its leather case. Propping his elbows on his knees, he trained the extended brass tube on a sharply pointed ridge crest half a mile to his north, its shimmering outline hazy in the harsh light. The First’s eyes felt dry and gritty as he gently adjusted the glass. Waiting until the distant rock sprang into focus, he swept the circular view left to right until he found what he was looking for. Another spyglass was trained on him, its tiny eye boring into his glass. Good! Their signal optio is on his mark. Slowly he held his right hand up, fingers spread. After a moment, his counterpart signaled that he was ready with his own raised hand. His fingers showed clearly in Miknorgric’s glass. He immediately began using his fingers to sign his brief message. When the signal was repeated back to him he signed off and returned to his captain’s side.
“Signal’s sent. Time to go.”
Nodding, Ahzra-hôd took a last hard look at the massed Aestrâgor warriors below and followed his first whip back and down. They’ll be breaking camp soon, he thought grimly.
After running along a side gorge’s rock strewn bed for several hundred paces, the two scouts rounded a gentle curve where the walls narrowed to find five cohorts of very hard, tempered looking legionaries arrayed across their path. Spotting the force’s commander standing next to a standard bearing a gold I on a field of red, they jogged over to him. Ahzra-hôd realized it was Legate Loshka-rak as he came to a halt in front of the general. These must be the survivors of the First Legion. Out to redeem their honor? He groaned at the thought of these men throwing themselves in harms way until at some unspecified time in the future they either felt they had expunged their defeat at Devil’s Gap, or they were all dead. Poor Bastards.
They looked like anything but poor bastards as Ahzra-hôd gave his report. Grim, determined, eager even to throw themselves into the open maw of the Aestrâgor wolf waiting just a little more than eight hundred paces south, but not poor.
“So there’s a wing-plus camped at the hold’s entrance. What clans?” the legate asked in a harsh voice.
“Two claws of Eagles, sir,” Ahzra-hôd answered. “A fang each of Ravens, Crows, and Boars. And then whatever’s inside the hold, maybe another wing.”
Turning to his primus pilus and tribunes, Loshka-rak gave his orders. “Primus, have the First, Second, and Third Cohorts deployed to quick march in columns. The Third will drop off and form up by files at four hundred paces out. Only the First and Second will attack. When they fall back, they’ll pass through the Third’s ranks. That will relieve the pressure and help keep the formations tight.
“The Fourth and Fifth Cohorts deploy across this gorge in depth. But back where it opens up again. Too tight here. They’ll let the retreating cohorts pass through and then the whole lot of us will pull back. We’re what . . . not quite half a league from the legions where we stand now? So keep your cohorts tight, archers to the rear, and make sure your files rotate at a steady pace to relieve the point legionary. We’ll bleed those bastards good over the ground we cover.” Looking from cohort commander to cohort commander, Loshka-rak’s face broke into a wolfish grin, satisfied with what he saw in their eyes. “We march on command. See to your men.” Turning to his tribunes commanding the Fourth and Fifth Cohorts, the legate motioned them to remain while the others saw to their unit’s deployments. “The reason I’m only attacking with two cohorts is for speed. This is a pretty tight space and any more than that and we’ll be tripping over ourselves instead of falling back in good order. Each of you ready your cohorts and deploy them against the side walls back there where it opens up. When we reach your positions, link up and make sure those bastards don’t get around our flanks. This final leg will be a tough, bloody slug and I don’t want them slipping past us and forcing our rear. Hold our flanks!”
Both tribunes snapped their right fists over their armored chests and chorused, “Sir! We’ll hold!”
“Good. Now see to your men.”
“Sir, a signal just received from the scouts,” Primus Pilus Grinlac said.
“Good,” Earl Loshka growled in a dry, parched voice. “What’s going on up there?”
“Groups of talons and fangs have been arriving and camping at the hold since daybreak. Mixed clans. A wing plus a claw in strength. Another wing possible inside the hold.”
“So,” the Earl frowned, “let’s say three wings. If they hold to the last few days’ pattern, they’ll deploy to the east by nightfall. The First’s cohorts are attacking on this one?”
“Their signal confirmed that, my lord.”
“Other than its existence,” Loshka reached up to tug at his cuirass where it rubbed his sweat and dirt stained neck, “we don’t know anything more about this hold, do we?”
“No, sir,” Grinlac shook his bare head. He held his helmet with its distinctive centurion’s crest in the crook of his left arm. “Besides them being Clan Eagle, we don’t know a bloody thing. Even after watching them these past few days. And I still don’t know exactly how we ever got their location. That I know of, we’ve never done that before.”
“One of Legate Stördic’s contributions I’d guess,” Loshka said, finally tugging his neck cloth to cover the raw spot on his neck. “There,” he grunted in relief. “Earl Karnik seems to have the locations of several holds up here in these rocks.”
The two men stood quietly before Earl Loshka smacked his right fist into his left hand and rubbed his knuckles, his brow dark with thought. “But what we don’t know can’t be helped. Before this is over we’ll know a hell of a lot more about these bastards than we thought possible.
“Make sure the men are in position,” he ordered, focusing on the immediate task at hand. “And emphasize to each legate that no one so much as pokes their head up until I give the signal. I’ll bloody well flog the whoreson who gets too eager. Make sure they all understand that.” He glared out over the canyon’s floor, a shadowy darkness beginning to spread out over the sandy floor along its far side. Here and there the bright glint of sunlight on steel flashed as the legions began to deploy out across the burning sand. Of the legionaries hidden along the rocky ledges and heights to either side, there was no sign at all. Nor would there be.
“So it’s true then,” Fael said while squatting amongst her filemates in the shade cast by a high wall of dark gray stone. The sun had passed its midpoint some glasses ago and a band of shade crept lethargically across the gorge’s dusty floor. Her talon, part of a five-hundred strong Clan Raven fang, had been running east now for six nights. Their caer was over a hundred leagues to the west, where the northern mountains marched far into the barren wastes. A much larger force followed them by several nights. They were merely a vanguard.
“Wash rue?” Tain asked, his words slurred around the thick jerky he was chewing vigorously. He’d been attacking the tough strip of dried vignísh meat ever since he’d stirred from his restless slumber. Soon enough they would break camp and stride for the muster point just north and west of Hell’s Ridge and the Blood River. Then there’d finally be some fighting. All this marching just left the young warrior hungry . . . and thirsty for a fight. He’d never had the chance to kill any Krîll. In fact, other than a few minor scrapes with some Crows, he’d not pulled his bow against another in the three years he’d worn his clan’s mask. Tain had dreamt of joining one of the elite fiana talons like Taeg’s, but without proving himself in a real fight he saw little hope in realizing his dream. The eastern gwlads have all the luck. They raid and fight the Krîll all the time. Well, that’ll change soon enough. Tain the Terror is going to war. The thought made him grin, sticky juice running down his chin.
“That Taeg’s Talon was wiped out. That’s what got all this started at Hell’s Ridge.” Fael looked at Tain and shook her head at his slobbered, torpid expression. “Almost to the last fighter. Only a dozen or so escaped. I also heard,” her voice dropped to a near whisper and she glanced around the group, “Taeg lost an arm.”
“I don’t believe it!” Tain cried. “Those dumb Krîll could never catch a fiana like Taeg’s. Never!”
Fael gave the youngster a hard look. She had been on three raids, the last not six months ago. They’d slipped over the mountains north of Hazric Pass and struck south. After burning a lumber mill, they had left the cover of Mirwood Forest and struck at some farms and then a breeding ranch. That’s where the Krîll cavalry had caught them and chased her talon back into the mountains where the legionaries stayed hot on their trail. When they’d finally gotten free of their pursuers, the talon had lost over fifty fighters with another twenty-two wounded. She wore a nine-finger-span scar across her left shoulder from that fight. Those Krîll had seemed anything but dumb. Well trained and hard. Most definitely. And very deadly in their tenacity.
“I was just speaking to one of the survivors. She’s carrying a child born on the raid back to their tref at Lost River Caer. Taeg’s still along the Blood River. So if you’re smart, Tain,” Fael’s penetrating look made him squirm, “you’ll reconsider your estimate of the Krîll’s legions and listen to experienced fighters who know a thing or two about fighting and dying.”
“I heard one of their mountain legions took Hell’s Ridge,” Kori said from where she squatted across from Fael. “Scaled the bloody thing in the dark. And, we had at least a fang holding the big rock’s summit. They were Crows, but still, that was one ballsy assault. No, Fael’s right,” Kori glanced around the group, “these fucking bastards can fight.”
“But . . . they outnumbered us!” Tain objected, still smarting from Fael’s rebuke.
“Since when does that carry any weight?” Fael gave Tain an exasperated look. “Apparently we had three wings — mostly Raven and Eagle — involved in the battle’s first days, and we still got pushed back over the river and lost the ridge. Three wings!” She held three fingers up as if the sight of them retreating were indeed a shocking thought. “We’re going bow to bow, spear to spear with them in a few days, and you’d better pull your head out of the sky, Tain.”
“More like out of your butt,” Kori spat and shook her head.
“And realize the Krîll can and will fight us bloody,” Fael continued, feeling her own heat rise. Especially after having heard what Tammy had to say about her talon’s death. “You do Taeg’s Talon no honor in belittling our enemy. So shut your milk-wet mouth and don’t bore us with your fucking opinions until after you’ve faced a few Krîll your own fucking self!”
If her outburst caught the small group by surprise, none of the older warriors showed anything other than to nod their heads and return to whatever they had been doing. Kori shot Tain a disgusted glance and shrugged. Fael glared hard into Tain’s now bright red face, daring him to so much as open his sticky mouth. Finally, he jumped up and stomped off, away from the file.
“By Dagda, but that boy’s a pain in the ass,” Fael hissed after a few moments, then started inspecting her arrows’ fletchings.
“He’ll straighten up once he finally sees some real fighting,” Kori said. “Or die.” Pausing, she frowned and added. “Funny, I’ve raided with his older sister. Older hell, she’s just two years older. Anyway, she’s a fighter anyone would want covering their back. Saved my sorry ass when my bow string fucking snapped at just the wrong time. I promised her I’d keep an eye on the little shit.” Kori grinned. “Her words.”
“Then I’ll keep an eye on you,” Fael grunted, sighting down an ash shaft. “Because that little shit will get you both killed if you’re not careful. And lucky!”
“I feel safer already,” Kori chuckled. “What else did y –
“What the fuck!” she bellowed, staring at a Krîll arrow that quivered in the ground not a hand’s span from her left thigh. War horns were blaring before any reply was offered by her filemates.
Fael had a bloody gouge running across her right shoulder where an arrow had scored her. Gwydi, their file leader, lay sprawled in a spreading pool of blood, a red fletched arrow piercing him almost through the center of his head. Its barbed point jutted four finger spans out his chin.
Battles are always chaos let loose. Ambushes, just more so and one sided. At least at their onset. So the chaos that swept through the files, talons, fangs and claws gathered on the very steps of Flat Rock Caer was exactly what the Krîll archers sought as they sent flight after flight of deadly shafts arching into the sullen air. The sound of falling arrows was like a beast’s low moan, angry and lethal. While the archers plied their trade concealed within a shallow ravine, the remaining seven hundred legionaries of the First and Second Cohorts swept down upon the confused Aestrâgor camp.
The legions’ discipline and tactical mastery showed as the last volley of arrows dropped into the camp’s milling ranks even as the First Cohort’s prior century trotted to within thirty paces of the still confused scene within the camp. Behind them in ranks of twenty-five came the cohorts’ remaining centuries. The Second Cohort swung around the First’s right flank to double the front rank’s length. Their tight ranks and locked shields formed a wall a hundred paces wide, sixteen deep, bristling with pila ready to be launched. No battle cry did they give. Murderous silence shadowed them as they surged forward in the steady infantry shuffle that would drive them deep into the enemy’s center.
With surprising speed, despite the initial chaos and carnage, the Aestrâgor files and talons began to sort themselves out, an Eagle fang of five hundred warriors rushing forward in a solid mass to confront the advancing cohorts. The distance between the two forces was too little for more than a rapid volley from the Aestrâgors’ powerful bows. Their arrows had just punched into the legionary’s front rank when two hundred lead weighted pila dropped into the fang’s front ranks, their long slender shanks driving deep into flesh and bone. Where they lodged into an upraised buckler, their weight drove through the shield, bending the iron shank, leaving the defender no option but to drop his now uselessly encumbered buckler. Just as often that matter became moot as the pilum’s diamond shaped head found flesh behind the small shield. Another volley of pila rose and fell on the heels of the first as the fourth and fifth ranks released their javelins with well-drilled precision. Now the first rank pushed forward in a short sprint to close the gap between them and the fractured Aestrâgorian ranks. Loosing their own pila at less than fifteen paces, they drew their gladia with an audible, synchronized rasping of steel blades and slammed their scuta into the enemy with a solid clash of leather against mail, leather, and flesh.
A tall warrior with a Clan Raven tattoo darkening his face leapt forward and with a great cry of contempt for the grizzled centurion facing him, drove his spear straight for the Krîll’s throat. Catching the spear on his scutum’s upper edge, Primus Ordine Kralnik drove his gladius in a vicious stab that entered his opponent’s abdomen just below his ribs, slicing inwards until its point struck and severed his spine. Twisting his blade to release it from the wet suction of the young warrior’s bowels, Kralnik slammed his shield’s boss into the crumbling figure and pulled his gladius free. The warrior’s face showed shocked surprise for an instant before death’s shroud hid all expression behind its dulled sameness. Tain had finally met a Krîll legionary.
The initial clash between the two forces sent a violent shock wave through the Aestrâgor ranks. Within ten score heartbeats of the first Krîll arrow dropping out of the sky to bury itself in flesh, over two hundred clan warriors lay strewn across the now dust-choked gorge’s floor. And as many nursed less fatal wounds. The cohorts drove deep into their enemy’s struggling formation. The ground over which they fought was soon carpeted with the twisted bodies of the dead and wounded. But a thousand legionaries, even with the element of surprise, could only inflict so much death and damage before the sheer weight of the numbers they faced brought their advance to a slow, bloody halt. There the First and Second Cohorts of the decimated First Legion locked shields and fought with a savagery that more than equaled their enemy’s. They fought to reclaim their honor. Lost — in their eyes at least — when they were overrun at Devil’s Gap.
“That’s it!” Loshka-rak bellowed over the din and chaos around him. “Sound the withdrawal!”
The trap was set, the bait taken, now to see about living long enough to see it sprung. The Legate’s cornicen sounded three sharp notes. The call was picked up and repeated by the centuries’ horns. With the last notes echoing over the battle, the cohorts began a slow withdrawal, methodically shuffling backwards while maintaining their ranks in a tight wall of shields and lethal gladia. It was in just this type of fight that their hours of tough, brutal training stood them well. There was no panic, no confusion; only a steady coordinated withdrawal as the battle raged all around. Guard, stab, step. Guard, stab, step. Guard, stab . . . and always, cover your mate fighting next to you.
“Primus,” Loshk-rak called out, “move forward with the cornicen. Gauge when the first ranks pull back past this gorge’s walls. Then signal a running withdrawal.”
“Sir!” Driskalic snapped, and taking the cohort’s trumpeter in hand, began working his way closer to the front.
The Aestrâgor renewed their assault with increased fury. The cohorts’ retreat only fueled their eagerness to avenge the ambush. Never in all of their history had a Krîll force penetrated their mountain fastnesses and found, much less attacked, a caer. The clan warriors wouldn’t rest until every last legionary lay dead, their blood soaking into the dirt and dust of the mountains . . . the Aestrâgor mountains.
While the cohorts’ retreat carried them beyond the larger gorge fronting the hold and into the smaller defile out of which they’d first launched their assault, the Aestrâgor ranks continued to swell, more than replacing their losses. Over three thousand Eagle warriors had poured from the caer’s well hidden entrance. And more would follow as those already locked in a death grip with the Krîll invaders pushed north and made room within the tight confines of the gorge’s steep walls.
Twisting sharply to her right, Fael managed to deflect the legionary’s thrust. Just. With a rasping sound akin to a whetstone on steel, his gladius slid along her down-thrust buckler drawing sparks against the small shield’s brass edging. With no target other than his scutum, its iron boss splattered with blood, Fael slammed her shoulder into its battered surface almost coming clear of the ground in her effort to throw every stone of her weight into the blow. It was like hitting a stone wall. Worse, her knees buckled with the impact. Suddenly she was falling, her feet flying free in the air as she landed in an awkward pile. Her shoulders pressed against the ground while her hips and lower back straddled a Boar’s slippery corpse leaving her legs suspended in the air, unable to find a purchase from which to rise. And even worse than worse, the grim Krîll had stepped forward, reaching out again with his gladius in a gutting thrust. She noted his bloodshot eyes were blue. Blue in a field of sweat streaked yellow dust and blood. Like two delicate flowers in a death ravaged field. I die by Pretty Eyes’ hand. Oh shit. His face suddenly exploded, sweet eyes flying wide in shock even as his head snapped back, a black fletched arrow buried just under his left eye.
Already the dead legionary’s comrades were ten paces further down the defile, steadily retreating in good order, his place now filled by another blue-eyed boy from the high crags north of Hôd Pass.
“Stay with your ranks!” a centurion’s voice bellowed over the retreating legionaries. “Steady boys! Hold your lines!”
A callused hand grabbed Fael’s tunic, roughly hauling her to her feet. “Now that’s an interesting way to fight these bastards.” Kori grinned.
“Fuck you,” Fael hissed. Snatching her spear up, she saw the bow in Kori’s hand. Leaping over Blue Eyes’ crumpled body, she yelled, “And thanks!” and continued her pursuit.
For all their overwhelming numbers, there was only room within the near-vertical walls for so many clan warriors at a time to engage the retreating cohorts. The press of bodies made it impossible to see anything beyond a few paces in any direction. Add to this the clouds of choking dust, the natural din of the battle’s progress — the cries of the wounded and dying, the horns and trumpets’ blaring signals, the hoarse commands of file leaders and centurions — and even though they were vastly outnumbered and withdrawing, the advantage lay with the legionaries. Their shield wall formed a barrier, plugging the gorge’s course with a wall of steel and determined flesh.
“Primus, place the archers to the rear,” Loshka-rak ordered, casting a quick glance along the rocky walls that made up the gradually widening limits of the gorge’s floor. The Third Cohort had just inserted itself into the formation, smoothly replacing the hard pressed First and Second. Its fresh fighters hit the front ranks of the Aestrâgor wings with a fusillade of pila, bringing the close pursuit to a staggered halt. Hundreds of iron headed javelins drove into the packed ranks of clan warriors punching large gaps and leaving piles of pierced bodies strewn across the sandy floor. The momentary pause allowed the legionaries of the First and Second Cohorts to slip to the rear, reforming behind the Third. “If any Aestrâgor appear up on the walls, I want them brought down. Quickly.”
“Sir!” Driskalic acknowledged and spun around, calling for the centurion commanding the combined archers.
Hearing the renewed clash to his front, the legate judged that the shocked pause created by the Third was over. The fight — the close fighting — was rejoined. So far, it had gone much as he’d planned. The surprise of a sudden ambush had sewn the hoped-for confusion while the tempered discipline of the clans had enabled them to recover, and then attack with incredible speed. But it had been just that lightening response that Loshka-rak had been counting on. The Aestrâgor were engaged and drawn into their pursuit before they considered the possible consequences of the terrain. Their terrain. Now he had to keep them engaged, locked as tightly as a nâzrill’s jaws, until the trap was sprung. Well, he and his men had to stay alive during all this too, he thought grimly as arrows began to drop out of the air around him. “Scuta up! Second and Third Cohorts!” he ordered his cornicen.
A short, low note followed by two more flew over the cohorts. Then a long sustained note blew from the cornicen’s trumpet. Before he had repeated the call, a shield cover was being raised over the heads of the rear cohorts as Aestrâgor arrows rained down in thickening clouds
It had been as hard fought and bloody a withdrawal as what they’d endured at Devil’s Gap. Primus Pilus Driskalic wearily guessed their losses at near two hundred so far. Parched, covered in blood and gore, he spotted the First Legion’s standard and quickly made his way towards it. But there was one major difference between the retreat at the Gap and this, he thought, a tight grimace of pain crossing his face — not all the blood he wore came from the Aestrâgor. One big, bloody difference. Here, WE control the fight. Regardless what those whoresons may think. Here, WE leave four dead for every fallen legionary. Here, the First fights with a purpose far different than that of a legion in retreat.
“It was a close thing there for a span of grains,” the Primus Pilus reported as he drew even with his legate. “But the Fourth’s posterior century swung around and managed to plug the gap.”
“Good work.” Loshka-rak nodded, continuing to scan the battles widening front. “This is as wide as this canyon gets. Another five hundred paces and we’ll reach the Thirteenth’s prior centuries.
Behind them waited the Thirteenth Legion with its more than four thousand rested and ready legionaries deployed by cohorts across the canyon’s exit. At its widest, the dusty floor opened up to four hundred paces from one steeply walled side to the other. On a slight curve running west to east, it ran northward nearly a mile before narrowing again as it cut its way deeper into the surrounding mountains. Except where a vein of softer stone had been undermined over the eons by the wind’s scouring power, the walls rose sharply, in some places near vertically, to a height of ten to twenty rods above the canyon’s floor. Hidden and awaiting the signal, each bank’s summit was lined by a legion. The Second held the eastern side, the Fifth Legion the western. Earl Loshka had joined his command to the Second. The signal would be given by the Thirteenth as it engaged, leaving the entire Aestrâgor force well into the surrounding wall’s confines. This was the true ambush to which they had been so skillfully led.
The five cohorts of the First Legion, the survivors of Hell’s Gap two fortnights past, pulled back a pace at a time. Each step given up grudgingly, contested with steel and blood. Against their shield wall, the Aestrâgor warriors now numbering well over nine thousand threw themselves in a fury of killing anticipation as they sensed the cohorts’ reserves waning. Soon, by dent of pure numbers, the wall would be shattered and the bold if foolhardy legionaries killed to the last man. The clan horns’ eerie wails echoed their challenges off the stone walls, driving their fighters forward.
Unseen by the Aestrâgor, the rear ranks of the First’s cohorts began wearily filtering through the first of the Thirteenth Legion’s centuries. Bloody, bruised, and battered, but unbowed and proud, their grim eyes shown bright and hard with their victory.
Soon only the first and second ranks still fought, locked in an intimate and deadly embrace with their enemy. A trumpet’s call split the air: two high notes, one low, and another high. With the prescience of doom, a humming whistle replaced the last strains of the trumpets’ high, wavering note. And then the first of two thousand pila began to fall into the massed Aestrâgor. Thrown in two volleys, the first, from the front two ranks of the Thirteenth’s cohorts, was of heavy, lead-weighted pila. These fell just behind the front ranks of the Aestrâgor with devastating effect, their weight-enhanced iron shanks driving deeply through bucklers and mail to pin the flesh and bone underneath. The second volley, cast by the third and fourth ranks, were lighter socketed pila and carried further into the massed clans. Both cut a deep swath of carnage across the Aestrâgor’s leading wing.
“G-a-gh,” Kori groaned, her heavily scarred buckler pinned to her chest by three feet of iron, two of which were now sticking out of her lower back. The impact of the blow drove her to her knees. Her left arm, savaged by the heavy javelin as it punched through her buckler and into her chest, was fixed tightly against her slumping body. She braced herself on her spear, right hand gripping the ash shaft with desperate strength.
“They’ve been reinforced!” Fael shouted into the preternatural silence suddenly engulfing her. Sensing the pierced emptiness around her, she jerked her head to the left and right. Finding three of every four filemates down under the iron of a pilus, suddenly she spun around.
“Kori!” she cried, dropping down to catch her blood sister’s shoulders as she collapsed, a great gout of crimson vomiting from her pale lips. Krîll trumpets seemed to fill the air, their sharp notes calling out with the harsh, unyielding herald of death.
For Fael, death returned blue-eyed, grim, vengeful. Thirty inches of bright steel slid up under her ribs, throwing her backwards and forcing her to abandon Kori’s limp body. But we killed you, she frowned, staring into the fading visage of her death.