More than five weeks had passed since the levy was called. Four weeks to the day since the formal declaration of war was made. The Army of Landisilo was in the field, and Maruk with his men were out ahead of it. Every man of Plannasi rode on horseback, even those of lower birth. This made them ideal for scouting duties – something that those of more noble birth tended to think of as beneath them.
The land up until now had been flat and good for riding, but the mountains to which the army was headed loomed ever closer, and Maruk’s scouting party was very much in the foothills now. The non-stop farmland had given way to rougher, harder terrain with dry ground and loose stones. Hardier scrub grew patchily where it could, and the party had already passed several houses belonging to goat herding families. Most of them were abandoned, their owners having already fled deeper into Landisil territory so as to avoid being caught between the two armies.
There was nothing here worth having. No fruit, no grain, no meat. Thus, it was worth everything to the king. An army had to keep itself supplied, so the Berrumin would be forced into a confrontation on Landisil terms or risk being pinned in this desolate territory to await starvation.
The sun was hot. Just past midday, it beamed down fiercely upon the riders from the South-East. Trees and the shade they offered were few and far between. The mountains trailed off on either side, fading into the faint blue haze before they properly passed below the horizon. Maruk’s helmet had a length of white cloth wrapped around it and descending to cover the back of his neck, but he was nevertheless decidedly uncomfortable. He sweated into his tunic, and was even grateful for the respite granted by the cool, sticky patches that created. His horse was plainly suffering too.
“Gamma, see if you can find a stream nearby,” he said. “We need to water the horses.”
“Yes, Maruk,” said Gamma. He spurred his horse to a gallop and raced up the road, disappearing behind a boulder-strewn hillock up ahead.
He returned after only a few minutes. “There’s a valley just up ahead,” he said. “There’s a small stream there down to the left of the track.”
Sure enough, as they rounded the bend up ahead, the ground sloped gently downwards. A few coniferous trees were dotted about, and on the far side – which was steeper – bare rock protruded from the ground and a scree deposit lay between two large outcrops. The stream itself glittered with reflected light from the sun, but up close was silty and brown. Nevertheless, the horses seemed happy enough to drink from it. Maruk dismounted and took the opportunity to drink from his waterskin. The water was warm, but it would have to do and there was still plenty left for the rest of the day.
Then he heard them. Hooves tramping on the dry track up above, approaching from the opposite direction they had been travelling.
“Psst!” one of the other men had heard it too. All six of the men in the party unslung their bows from their shoulders.
“Mount up,” hissed Maruk. Lerro’s horse neighed as he did so and everyone in the party drew their breath. Maruk glared. Lerro patted his horse and shushed it, but it was too late. The hooves stopped and the sound of urgent voices came from above the lip of the small valley. Silence, then a helmeted head poked from behind a boulder near the top of the ridge. The Berrumin man saw them and withdrew his head.
“Scouts!” cried the man in his heavily accented voice from behind the rock. “They’ve seen us!”
Maruk kicked his horse. “Go!” he shouted at the other men of the party. “Come on, we’ve got to get back!”
Yelling voices from the ridge, and the sound of thundering hooves along the track. Maruk and the other Landisil had a slight head start, but he knew that the Berrumin would have the benefit of the more suitable terrain. Down in the valley, the ground was full of small stones and scrub and the ground was loose. The horses couldn’t ride as fast as they might and the Berrumin were gaining on them. They had to get back onto the track as soon as possible.
“Nock arrows,” said Maruk. “When you see them, shoot at their horses!”
As if in response, an arrow came whistling from the track. It fell short and clattered harmlessly on the ground.
As Maruk rode up closer to the lip of the valley, the Berrumin came into view more plainly. There were seven or eight of them. Too many to even attempt to take on in a straight fight. Maruk drew his bow and waited, feeling with his legs for the split second when his horse’s hooves were off the ground. He loosed the arrow and saw it hit an enemy horse in the neck. The horse immediately fell to the ground, throwing the rider forward to land sideways on his head. His body and legs kept flying forwards and his neck twisted impossibly. There was a sickening crack, audible even over the thundering hooves. The Berrumin cried out in alarm and one of them stopped. The others kept up their pursuit as Maruk reached the track, followed by the other men. Lerro and Jonal loosed arrows of their own. One hit a horse in the leg and it too fell, though the rider landed better. The other missed.
Most of the Berrumin now brought their horses to a halt, but as they did so, the horseman who had stopped galloped past them, picking up speed. He clumsily tried to shoot at them, but the arrow sailed up and to the left. But his horse could not keep up the pace of and soon he too slowed his horse to a standstill. Then he let out a frustrated scream. Bloodthirsty and almost inhuman in its fury, it made Maruk twist around in the saddle to look at him properly. The man was sat on a pale brown horse and wore a pale yellow tunic. He was now quite distant, but he wore no helmet and his face was plainly visible. Upon it was an expression of anguish and hate.
They arrived back at the army in mid afternoon. They rode to the men of the vanguard, where the Great Lord Deroshto of Mallar received them and escorted them down the long, snaking line to the king’s guard.
“Scouts returned, my King,” said Great Lord Deroshto.
King Ferralo was not as grand as he looked in the portrait in Lord Torru’s house. He was in his early fifties but he was prematurely aged. The lines on his face were deep and he was slightly hunched. His mail was the best Maruk had ever seen: every ring was gilded and there was not a hint of rust or broken links. He wore a cloak dyed sky blue like Maruk’s own thin sash; the colour of nobility.
“Thank you, Deroshto,” said the King. He turned to Maruk. “Very well, make your report.”
Maruk was briefly silent. He knew what he had to say, but briefly went blank upon actually coming face-to-face with the man himself. But the King’s expression was patient, so Maruk composed himself properly.
“My King, we encountered an enemy scouting party less than an hour and a half ago,” he said. “They saw us and we were pursued, but we unhorsed two of them and killed one. We took no losses of our own.”
“You are the first scouting party to report direct contact,” said the King. “If, as you say, you killed an enemy scout, then you have drawn the first blood of this war. Can you read a map?” he asked.
“Yes, my King,” replied Maruk. The King gestured to a nearby aide, who produced a map of the area and handed it to Maruk.
“Where did this incident take place?” asked the King.
“Here, my King,” Maruk said. He pointed to the stream. “We were watering our horses when we heard them approach.”
“Thank you, Triarch,” said the King, glancing at Maruk’s sash. “Join the column, rest your men. You’ve earned it.”
“Thank you, my King,” said Maruk. He bowed his head and twitched his horse’s reins to leave. The other members of the scouting party murmured similar words of thanks and followed him. They trotted towards the rear of the column, where Lord Torru rode with the rest of the Plannasi men.
Torru saw them approach.
“Maruk,” he said. “You’re back already? What happened?”
“We met an enemy party,” replied Maruk. “Killed one of them.”
“Can’t be long before we see the army itself then,” said Torru. “We’ll probably set up camp pretty soon while the King and the generals decide what to do.”
Sure enough, as the army passed an abandoned inn at a crossroads, the halt was called. There was a large, round hill on the right side of the road where the King ordered camp be set up. The sun was getting low in the sky. Chevaux de frise were erected around the perimeter. Scout groups were returning more and more frequently and Torru was summoned to a briefing, which he returned from with orders to send out Dyamma’s scouting party for a few hours until just past sunset.
As the purple glow of the sun over the Eastern horizon faded to black, the men of the army set up camp fires. Pots of soup and loaves of bread were brought around, unloaded from the baggage train. Maruk and the others were starting to get comfortable when one of the guards on the perimeter shouted:
“The enemy have come down from the mountains! They’re lighting fires!”
In moments, half the army seemed to be crowded to that side of the camp. The King and his bodyguards came out from his tent, clearing a path through the crowd to the front.
Out in the darkness, perhaps ten kilometres distant, a patch of land was peppered with camp fires, pinpricks of light against the imposing shadow cast by the mountains behind them. Then, over the hubbub, someone shouted:
There it was, racing up from the West in its high arc. What had weeks ago been a terror and an ominous sign was now a mere curiosity. But a moment later, as they all watched, a second star appeared from behind the horizon following the same path. The hubbub died in an instant.
This was new, fearful. Maruk had never set much in Darro’s sermons in the temple, but even he found himself gripped by a renewal of the existential dread he had felt on the plains with Jorj that night when the star had first appeared.
Jorj! How long it seemed since he had seen his son. Maruk remembered his own father going off to war, how he had watched the road every day for riders bearing news. He wondered if Jorj did the same. He wished he could be back in Plannisi.
Standing out in front of everyone else, the King was wide-eyed, but then he seemed to collect himself and turned to the crowd.
“You are men of Landisilo!” he cried. “Sons of the first of the Refugees! Guardians of their land!
“Those stars may be a sign,” he continued after a brief pause, “or they may not. I am not a priest. I do not pretend to understand such things. But I do understand that those men over there in that camp are desperate. They are hungry. They are poorly supplied. But you are none of those things. You are well-fed and well-rested. When we fight them, we will do it on our terms, on the ground we choose. We have every possible advantage over them.”
He gave a practised, fatherly smile to the men. “Return to your food,” he said. “Eat well and sleep deeply. Tomorrow may very well be the day of battle.”