Maruk woke the next day to the rousing horn. He opened his eyes, then realised that the sides of the tent were bright and that sunlight was streaming in through the flap at the far end. He sat up with a jolt and looked around the tent, half-expecting to be alone having somehow overslept, but the rest of the men were all there.
Outside the tent, the camp was slowly becoming active. Lord Torru was already up and wearing his mail. He was sat by the embers of last night’s camp fire with Kuferak, son of the butcher in Plannasi. Maruk was not well-acquainted with him. The horses were roped up next to troughs of grain a few metres from the tents.
“My Lord,” said Maruk to Torru in greeting. “Why were we woken so late?” he asked, sitting down across the fire pit from him.
“The King saw fit to let us all get a good night’s rest,” replied Torru. “We have the advantageous position. We can react easily to anything they might do to try and break out, but if they attack us directly it’s better that the men are rested properly. We won’t be marching far today, if at all.”
As they spoke, a lone scout rode into the camp past their tents, headed for the King’s tent in the centre of the camp. He was filthy and looked exhausted. He was not carrying a spear.
Torru followed the man with his gaze. “Someone’s been in a fight,” he said. “I’d better go his way too, find out what’s going on.”
Breakfast was leisurely. Porridge and fruit were doled out around the camp. Lord Torru returned to the Plannasi camp fire as the rest of the men were finishing their bowls.
“Right,” he said, sitting down, “there’s been a bit of night skirmishing at the enemy camp. Our troops managed to burn a couple of tents and kept the enemy awake much of the night, but most of that group were killed.
“Other than that,” he continued, “we’re apparently going to be put on the right flank when the army forms up, which should be soon. Ahead of the heavy cavalry. I think that’s possibly the best possible place we could be, all other things being equal.”
As he spoke, the King’s entourage walked by a few metres away, down the main passageway through the tent groups. His standard, two red moons on a field of sky blue, flapped half-heartedly in the slight breeze. From across the camp, they heard someone shout:
“They’re on the move!”
Moments later, the horn signalling everyone to break camp was sounded and the place became a sudden hive of activity. Most of the men around the fire pit stood up suddenly and saw to their belongings. Maruk retrieved his helmet, shield and weapons and went to his horse. A martial drumbeat began. Ba-dum, dum. Ba-dum, dum. Trumpets blared, discordant but rousing. This was it. They would meet the enemy today, one way or the other.
Midday. The weather was merciful, with enough cloud cover to offer some respite from the sun. Even so, the air was warm and Maruk did not envy the men making up the infantry, packed in close together in the sweaty heat.
As Torru had said they would be, the Plannasi men were out in front on the right flank amongst other men from villages near the Western Plains, stretched out in loose formation as a screen across the heavy cavalry behind them. The main infantry line was divided into five blocks, stretched across the plain. The road was on the far left flank, with the inn and other buildings of Pallesk at the crossroads there providing a visual anchor as well as a fortified position. Behind the front line were two reserve units, the nearest of which to Maruk were the troops who had made up the vanguard yesterday: the feared Leffanwa, of whom every child in the land was taught stories of their bravery and cunning. They were hand-picked, elite troops from the peninsular province. Every one of them fought left-handed. Great Lord Deroshto had command of them.
Just behind the Leffanwa was the king himself with his bodyguard of aspirational noblemen and elite riders. He was plain for all to see, his shining mail partially covered by a regal tabard of sky blue. Upon his helmet was a black and gold circlet.
The Berrumin army was coming down the road, in plain view for all to see. There was no longer any need for scouts. There was no longer any doubt. The King had offered them battle and they were going to take it.
They did not fly many banners, Maruk noted. Instead, each man wore a coloured feather in his helmet or cap. The whole army rippled and moved with colour, punctuated by the flashes of spears and helmets glinting in the sun. A thin cloud of dust drifted to the right from them as they marched.
As they drew closer, they suddenly changed their behaviour. A horn blew and the entire army halted at once. No delay, no reforming. Then their marching formation broke up into fighting units. Every man among them moved in perfect step, even without drums to guide them. Tramp, tramp, tramp. Even the loosely-spaced skirmishers making their way to the front kept time.
“Lord Torru!” came a voice from behind them. It was Great Lord Yal, commander of the heavy cavalry. He rode up to Torru. “When their cavalry form up, you and your men will make a push against the hard right. Try to draw the enemy cavalry into a pursuit, but stay out of bowshot. If they do give chase, allow them to close the distance and shoot them. Unhorse as many as you can, but your main priority is to separate their cavalry from the main infantry body. They appear to have only a small number of their own horse archers, so you should be fairly safe. Do not engage them hand-to-hand unless ordered.”
“Understood, Lord,” said Torru. He bowed his head slightly. Great Lord Yal turned and trotted back to the heavy cavalry. Torru rode a little way forward. “Alright, everyone. We have the honour of opening the battle. I want every man carrying spear and shield as we advance. Close ranks.”
The Berrumin infantry line was nearly set up. Behind them, their cavalry kept moving right. They each carried spears longer than Maruk might have thought possible. Each man wore a lamellar cuirass and carried a triangular shield strapped to his upper arm, with both hands on the spear, which in truth was more of a pike. Where the infantry each had a solitary feather, these men all bore great red plumes of dyed horsehair on their helmets cascading down their backs.
“Here we go,” said Gamma to Maruk’s right.
“Here we go,” Maruk agreed, grimly. The enemy horsemen were now so close, so many. His stomach had a knot in it. He could feel every beat of his heart pounding away in his chest.
Lord Torru looked left and right at the men of Plannasi and the other horse archers under his command. His eyes briefly caught Maruk’s. He raised his spear.
“Men!” he cried. “Forward!” He dropped his arm, levelling the spear at the enemy. With a shout, the horse archers advanced at a light canter, maintaining the close formation. A cheer went up from the infantry line to their left. The battle had begun.
Maruk could no longer think. It was as though the fear had completely left him. His stomach was no longer knotted and in his mind was a growing rush of aggression bordering on madness. It was almost joyous. It almost took more effort not to break ranks and charge headlong into the enemy.
A horn sounded from the enemy lines and the entire Berrumin army began a slow march forward. Inch by inch they pushed up the slight hill to the Landisil line, strictly keeping their formation. A second, higher-pitched horn sounded and the enemy cavalry began their counter charge at a trot.
“Turn!” shouted Torru, barely audible over the thundering hooves. He kicked his horse into a gallop and sped off to the right. Maruk sped his own horse and followed him with everyone else. The Berrumin horsemen turned to give chase, their crimson plumes floating behind them as they tried to match the pace of the Landisil.
“It’s working!” Torru cried, his voice cracking with adrenaline. “Spread out! Use your bows!”
In a practised motion, Maruk slung his spear and shield over his shoulder and retrieved his bow from its leather pouch behind the quiver. He set an arrow to the string as Torru led them left in a zigzag. They were now on the hard right flank of the entire enemy army, which stretched for almost two kilometres out to the road. The enemy cavalry were now bearing down on them, lances lowered.
“Fire at will!” shouted Torru. “Don’t let them catch us!”
Maruk drew his bow and loosed the arrow into the thick of the enemy cavalry. He barely even aimed, they were so many. He didn’t even see where his arrow landed. Around him, the other men were firing irregularly. Arrows hissed through the air, most clattering harmlessly against the enemy riders’ armour. Maruk saw one hit a horse, which fell and threw the rider along the ground. The only armour on the horses were metal plates on the front of their heads and on their chests. He loosed another arrow, this time aiming properly for a horse. The legs and sides were completely exposed, and his arrow found its mark in the upper foreleg of one which screamed and reared, disrupting the riders behind. Maruk saw another rider go down, tripping many horses behind. One unfortunate rider’s lance dropped too low and accidentally impaled a fallen horse. The rider didn’t let go of the lance in time and he was lifted bodily from the saddle like a pole vaulter before the lance snapped and he was catapulted forwards, landing heavily on his hip.
Over the din, a Berrumin horn sounded and their cavalry immediately turned and retreated. Maruk fired one last shot at the retreating horsemen, but the arrow narrowly missed the hind leg of a horse and fell harmlessly. A dozen or so enemies were unhorsed but trying to run back to their lines. More were lying injured or dead on the ground. Not one of the Landisil horse archers had been killed. Maruk aimed at a Berrumin man running and hit him in his unarmoured leg. The arrow went all the way through his thigh and he dropped immediately to the ground, clutching it and howling in pain. Other arrows brought down the other runners.
“Don’t chase them,” said Torru. “We have the flank on them now. Hold here, together.”
Maruk looked back to the hill. The infantry lines were about to engage. From atop his horse, he could see how both lines stretched across the battlefield. The Berrumin army, for all its orderliness, had started to bulge forward slightly in the centre. The air was thick with volleys of arrows arcing from both sides. Javelinmen skirmishing at the front were pulling back, running through the deliberate gaps between the infantry blocks. The last of them got to safety just as the first charge was sounded. The King had personal command of the centre. His troops made up the bulk of the army overall and they now pushed forward at a brisk march, shields locked together.
Something between a cheer and roar started along the infantry lines. The two sides crashed into one another slowly. Maruk saw one man from the Landisil side, presumably some foolish boy, break ranks and sprint against the enemy line. He was immediately cut down. Stupid. The rest of the men held the line, making spear-thrusts where they saw an opportunity, but mostly keeping out of reach themselves. The roar was now being punctuated by the sound of metal on wood, occasionally metal on metal, and screams.
At the far end of the line in the village, a few Landisil archers had climbed onto the roof of the inn and were firing down into the thick of the enemy infantry with devastating effect. A Berrumin detachment began an assault on the village itself. Some of them carried torches and were setting fire to the thatched rooves. Thick black smoke climbed up to the sky.
The Landisil right flank were the last to be engaged. They didn’t charge, but rather waited for the Berrumin. The Berrumin line was slightly longer and a few men started to hook around the Landisil, but Great Lord Yal and his cavalry began a slow advance towards them, threatening their envelopment, so they pulled back to rejoin their comrades.
Maruk was brought back to things close at hand by a sharp scream. The injured Berrumin horsemen nearby were being slaughtered.
“Maruk,” said Gamma sharply, “are you just going to let him do that?” With a jolt, Maruk realised that Jonal was among the men taking part. He thrust his spear into he chest of a Berrumin man who was holding up his hands in a plea for mercy.
“Hm? No, of course not,” said Maruk. He rode forward. “Jonal!” he shouted. Jonal turned. His eyes were wild and he was quivering. “Get back to the rest of the men,” said Maruk.
“Yaah!” screamed Jonal, as if in response. He wrenched his bloody spear from the dying man and shook his head. He turned his horse and trotted back to the rest of the men. His expression went oddly vacant and Maruk put a hand on the hilt of his sword, almost fearful of what Jonal might do. He had never seen him like this. But Jonal kept on riding and rejoined the men.
The men in the centre of the infantry line were pulling back a few paces in order to rest and cycle injured men from the front. The Berrumin line also backed off, though not quite as far.
A trumpet sounded at the far end of the field. The village was being overrun and the left flank reserves were being sent in to retake it. The King’s entourage moved right to the Leffanwa for safety.
A trumpet blast came from the Landisil heavy cavalry and they began a charge. They thundered down from the hill, heading straight for the Berrumin cavalry, who began their own counter-charge.
“Torru, what are we going to do?” asked Dyamma. His triarch’s sash was frayed.
“We hold here until ordered,” replied Torru.
“We could break them if we charge too,” said one of the men drawn from another levy. Maruk didn’t know his name.
“Know your place,” said Torru with a sharp glare at the man. “We hold here.”
The two cavalry sides clashed with far more suddenness and ferocity than any of the infantry clashes. Riders on both sides turned away before actually colliding, but the Landisil horsemen seemed to mostly underestimate the sheer length of the Berrumin lances. Dozens of the lances broke all at once with a resounding crunch and the Landisil side was stopped dead in its tracks as horses reared up. The Berrumin riders wheeled left after their turn, then made to envelope the Landisil men.
“Lord, they’re being slaughtered,” said Dyamma, leaning in to speak in Torru’s ear. “We can at least repel them.”
Maruk looked around. Almost everyone else was clearly itching to get into the fight.
“Alright,” said Torru. He raised his voice to be heard to all the men in the unit. “We’re going to hit the enemy cavalry. But we are not to engage them in melee, do I make myself clear? We shoot them, we drive them back, but we keep our unit intact. Advance, and fire at will!”
They went straight into a brisk canter, then galloped for the enemy cavalry as they had before. But as they neared, a sudden hail of arrows came from their right. They were too close to the enemy archers.
“Spread out!” shouted Maruk to his wing. Two of his men had been unhorsed. He didn’t know who. Filled with the same rush of aggression and madness as before, he barely even registered that it had happened.
“Dyamma,” cried Torru from Maruk’s right. “Take your men! Drive off those archers! Close with them! Kill them!”
Dyamma and his riders turned off to the right, quickly outstripped by the rest of the horse archers. Maruk’s attention was fixed on the men in front. He loosed one, two, three arrows, each one hitting a horse. The enemy riders were dropping like flies. But an urgent trumpet blast sounded from beyond their small battle. It was their unit’s signal, with the order to disengage. Over and over again it was blowing.
“Back!” Torru yelled. “Back! Disengage!”
Maruk brought his horse about. He couldn’t believe it. They were beating the enemy! Why turn back? He loosed one last arrow and saw with satisfaction that it hit an enemy in the arm, then galloped away with the rest of the riders. The trumpet ceased.
As they left, however, the Landisil heavy cavalry suddenly broke. Maruk didn’t see the exact moment, but the fierce yells coming from that part of the battle turned to panicked ones and the entire remaining cavalry force peeled away from the swirling, dusty mess and fled back up the hill to the camp. The Berrumin charged after them in hot pursuit. Maruk made out Great Lord Yal lying motionless on the ground, the broken shaft of a lance buried in his gut.
Torru called a regroup a few hundred metres back. Dyamma and his men made it back shortly afterwards, missing five men.
“What happened?” asked Torru.
“They shot us point blank as we charged them,” Dyamma replied. He was covered in flecks of blood and grit. “Kuferak is dead, took an arrow to the chest. Yonn too. Three more whose names I didn’t know. But we cut them down and routed them even before the recall sounded. Torru, their rear is wide open, we could…”
He stopped because a deep trumpet note was sounded from the hill. The Leffanwa were to move. The Berrumin cavalry were nowhere to be seen; they had vanished chasing down the Landisil heavy cavalry.
But then the second trumpet sounded their orders. Return to camp, they said. The Leffanwa turned and immediately began their brisk march up the rise to the camp at the top.
“What? Who gave that order?” Gamma was outraged. Maruk remained impassive. It was bad form to question the orders of higher commanders in front of the levied men. But it was stupid. The Leffanwa could stay and hold the right flank against returning enemy cavalry or they could push against the Berrumin flank. Retreating back to the camp was the absolute worst possible idea and it let the entire Landisil army know that the Berrumin cavalry were in the baggage train, presumably destroying or looting what they could.
Sure enough, the Landisil line began to shift backwards as uncertainty gripped the men. Without the threat of cavalry or the Leffanwa, the Berrumin left once again hooked around the Landisil right, this time able to press their superior numbers.
“Lord,” said Dyamma to Torru, quietly but still loud enough for Maruk to hear, “the enemy rear is completely vulnerable. We can still rout them if we charge. If we don’t, the enemy might roll up the right. We’re the only people who can pull this back.”
The Landisil centre was starting to cave in.
“Maruk?” asked Torru. He looked Maruk in the eyes.
“If they’re truly open, I say we do it,” said Maruk. Torru nodded silently, then looked straight ahead, his expression iron.
“Close ranks!” he cried. “We’re charging the enemy centre, orders or not. We’re going to win this entire battle on our own! With me! Yah!”
With his last yell, he kicked his horse straight into a gallop. He rushed across the field. Behind him with a cheer raced the rest of the men. Horse archers no more, they drew spears and shields. They ran parallel to the infantry line, scattering the few archers and other skirmishers in their path. Maruk’s horse bowled over a javelinman as he tried to flee. Then Torru turned sharply left and plunged into the rear of the enemy centre. Maruk followed him in. Stabbing overarm, they rode along the ranks of men, most of them completely unaware before they felt the sharp sting of a spearhead between their shoulder blades. The Landisil men on the other side cheered and surged forward. The momentum of the Berrumin advance was completely gone.
Then three things happened at once.
A flurry of arrows came whistling from the right. The archers had regrouped. From the right, a thin column of men, two abreast, came sprinting up from the Berrumin left to cut off their retreat.
But worse than either of those, the Berrumin cavalry suddenly returned to the field. Pouring down the hill from the direction of the camp, they surged straight for the King himself, barely two hundred metres from Maruk.
“Oh no,” said Maruk. Torru and Gamma followed his gaze. The battle raging around them almost seemed to slow down.
The King didn’t stand a chance. He barely had time to turn and face them before a Berrumin lance caught him in the throat.
The enemy cavalry pushed on, crashing into the Landisil centre barely a few metres from Maruk. A ripple of despair rolled along the Landisil line. Where seconds before they had been cheering, they now faltered. Those lucky enough to turn around in time raised their shields to protect from the furious blows raining down upon them from the Berrumin cavalrymen.
With a shock, Maruk realised that he recognised one of the enemy horsemen. It was the man on the pale brown horse whose companion Maruk had killed whilst scouting yesterday. He had seen Maruk, too. With a scream of rage, the man hefted his spear and hurled it across the lines. Maruk raised his shield to protect himself, but the spear went wide.
Instead, it struck Torru’s horse in the side. It fell immediately to the ground with a scream, trapping Torru’s leg beneath. Torru bellowed in pain. Another hail of arrows came in and Maruk narrowly avoided taking one in his arm.
The Landisil line was starting to dissolve. Men were pulling away from the rear, running back. The Berrumin horsemen were hacking down as many as they could. The battle was turning into a slaughter. It was over.
The Berrumin were not just pushing forwards. The column rushing up nearly had them enveloped. Maruk felt a sense of panic overtake him. It was an inhuman, overwhelming urge in his head to just run, to escape.
“Maruk, run!” yelled Torru from the ground. “Get out! Go!”
Maruk felt the rush of fright overtake him. He could no longer resist it at all. He couldn’t think. Fear flooded his mind. He kicked his horse, raced towards the fast-closing gap still open and didn’t look back.