All things being equal, Elazar mused, things could be going far worse. The Ushiran prince leaned around his shield and hacked down at an armoured shoulder, trying not to slip on the muddy grass. The Sarrac’s mail didn’t part, but the crushing power of the iron drew a gruff cry from the raider, and when Elazar battered down at him again, the big man dropped to one knee. Almha, keeping tight to his left, sent her boot into the Sarrac’s mouth, and blood trickled down his beard as he fell. Elazar risked a quick glance at his comrade in the shieldwall. Generally when he looked at Almha his thoughts drifted to things better suited to bedrooms than battlefields, but right now, with her eyes bright and her teeth bared, he was just glad he was standing beside her, not in front of her.
The tribeswoman clearly wanted to follow up and attack the downed man, but her training shone through as she held back the urge and kept her place in the Caledon wall. Soon enough another raider leaped over the fallen man and swung a short-handled axe at Almha’s head. The value of the wall proved itself yet again as Elazar caught the blow on his shield. The axe glanced away and the prince stabbed low, his sword plunging through the warrior’s thigh. Elazar tore the weapon free, and Almha barged into the Sarrac as he staggered off-balance.
The Bearnican lands had seen little enough rain of late, but what they’d had had softened the earth of the hill, and the pounding of booted feet had churned it up into a muddy mess. The Sarrac’s feet went out from under him as the heavy shield knocked him backwards, and he careened into the man in the mailshirt, who was struggling to stand up. The pair collapsed to the grass together. It would have looked comical if the Sarracs hadn’t been a gang of madmen bent on theft, rape, and slaughter. As things were, it was just another chance to hurt the vicious bastards, and Elazar called out to his company in the lilting tongue of the Lurians.
As one the line of tribesmen moved forward, their shields locked tight together. They took three short steps, grunting in unison with each one, and shoved the milling Sarracs backwards. When they reached the fallen raiders Elazar stamped down hard on the one man’s wounded leg, while Almha gutted the other with a quick slash of her sword. A foul smell filled the air and both raiders cried out in pain but, to their miniscule credit, neither man called for mercy. More Sarracs were coming at the shieldwall now, and Elazar left it to the rank behind to finish off the downed men. He frowned at the charging raiders still in front of him. Are they brave or just stupid to keep attacking shieldwalls like this?
Whichever it was, it was working in the Caledon’s favour. A huge man strode towards them, a giant decked out in fur and mail, with a beard like a thornbush and an axe that looked like it could split a bull’s skull in one swing. In anything vaguely resembling a fair fight he would have killed Elazar with ease, but he was brought down in mere seconds by the unity of the Caledon line; first Odran cracked the giant’s knee with his shield-rim, then Almha shoved him sideways as he stumbled. It gave Elazar an opening that was almost too easy, and the prince drove his blade up between the giant’s legs. The massive Sarrac screamed as the iron cut through his groin, and when the weapon was ripped out again, the shriek hurt Elazar’s ears. Odran kept close to Elazar’s right as his sword crashed through the gelded man’s temple, and the prince opened his throat up the moment Odran pulled back into the wall. They can rush us all they like, but we are the cliff that shrugs off the wave.
The Caledon were standing tight together, their shields locked, and the Sarracs either had to cram in too close to swing their long swords and axes, or spread out and end up facing two or three close-packed tribesmen apiece. They knew this, they had to, and yet on they came regardless. Will they never learn? Another brave or foolish man hurled himself at them, and his weapon thudded harmlessly from Elazar’s shield a heartbeat before Almha’s blade rammed under his ribs. Hopefully not.
For all the danger they were in, the Ushiran prince couldn’t keep his mind from wandering for a moment. He thought back to the first time he’d fought the Sarracs, and how terrified he’d been of these feral men, enormous in their furs and stinking of ale and blood. He’d been a mere callow youth then, standing beside his friend because it had seemed the right thing to do, and practically pissing himself each time a bearded monster came howling at him.
He was sure he’d have run away if his legs hadn’t been so weak, and what little he remembered of the Battle of Mas Arwel was a blur of fear and panic; wildly slashing at anything that moved and desperately wishing he was anywhere else in the world. Not like today.
Elazar was no fool. The rational fear of death and maiming was still very much with him, but today that fear was a lot easier to control. This was a very different fight to that bloody day three harvests ago. For a start this battle was smaller, a skirmish of barely threescore warriors per side. For another, today he stood in a shieldwall, and the Sarracs could no more breach it than they could walk across a lake. But more than that, more importantly than anything, was the man who was doing the fighting. Three years ago he’d been merely Prince Elazar, the swarthy stranger in costly silks who’d come west to help his friend. Today he was the Proud Fox, with blue woad on his face, inked battlemarks on his arm, and dragonfire burning in his gut.
He shook the thought away and braced himself as another raider came hurtling at them. Unusually for a Sarrac this one was carrying a shield. It was a small, poorly-made circle of red-painted wood, but all the same it was a sign that some of these savages had caught on to how useful a shield could be. Not that the fools knew how to use them. The raider locked eyes with Elazar and screamed as he charged, outpacing his comrades in his eagerness.
Elazar recognised the Sarracs’ name for him, which apparently translated into ‘Black Devil’. The prince was never sure how to feel about that. Considering his half-Gaian mother, Elazar was positively pale compared to most Ushirans, yet he was clearly the only Ushiran the mountain savages had encountered, and they all assumed that he was some kind of dark-skinned demon; something to be feared and hated in equal measure. This did not put them off from fighting him, of course. Quite the opposite.
The bellowing Sarrac put his shoulder behind his shield and barrelled into Elazar, clearly keen to be the man who brought Surtkramm’s head back to Rhaedian. But the move was obvious to the point of ludicrous, and the man behind Elazar had already braced against him. The prince was only of middling build, but the combined weight meant the raider bounced off the oval shield when he tried to rush them. A short stab from Almha pricked his armpit as he staggered, and the Sarrac made his second mistake by half-turning to face her. The mountain men were fierce fighters, but against a shieldwall their bloodlust was more a hindrance than a help.
The prince calmly swiped through the Sarrac’s knee, and when the leg crumpled under him Almha’s blade thrust through his neck. Impressively the Sarrac kept fighting even as the blood poured from his throat, battering forward with his ill-made shield and hacking blindly with his axe. But it was no use. The Caderyn wall stayed strong and the weapon thudded harmlessly into red-and-blue shields, doing little worse than send tiny chips into the mud. Soon enough the brave fool dropped and Odran finished him with a crushing blow to his skull. Blood and brains flew as Elazar kicked the dying man over to make space, but then he realised there was no longer any need.
What Sarracs still lived were falling back up the hill, some fleeing to their garrons in disarray but most back-stepping warily, their eyes on the Caledon wall. Eyes that burned with impotent rage. They know they’ve lost. And they hate it. The Caledon began to cheer and they might happily have given chase, but Elazar didn’t order an advance. His warriors were not legion and there was no point in risking their lives. More than half of the Sarrac raiders were down and near all of those retreating bore wounds. The mountain men had lost, but if Elazar pursued them unto death, they might take a few good Caledon down with them. And for what? A few more Sarrac corpses to bury? He saw a glimpse of golden hair to his left, and answered Almha’s question before she asked it.
‘Let them go. They have had a sharp lesson; they won’t be back until they’ve gathered more men.’
Almha nodded. He knew that part of her wanted to chase the dogs down, but that another part of her was tired of this and just wanted to drop her shield and rest. He knew it because they all felt the same. Almha’s blue-grey eyes stayed bright and Elazar suspected her pride was going to outweigh her fatigue. He decided to make use of it.
‘You and half the front rank move forward at a walk, keep them on the back foot.’
The young woman smiled, and Elazar tried to keep his mind on business. She was only a year or two younger than him, and was dazzlingly pretty when she smiled.
‘I’ll try not to kill them all if they decide to try again; I’d hate to make a Gadarim look bad.’
She thumped her shield against his, and Elazar tried not to smile. As a rule he had no problem sharing a jest, especially with Almha, but the danger was far from over and this was his command to protect. That meant orders were more important. The front rank began to detach and he spoke to Almha’s back as she and the others moved off.
‘Do not engage unless you have to. Maintain your line and make sure they keep moving back.’
Almha called over her shoulder, and even with only half her face visible, Elazar could see the grin was still there.
‘Go teach your da to make babies!’
Elazar couldn’t help but smile at that. His little company might not be legion, but they’d done this often enough to know their trade. Sure enough, when he turned to tell someone to mount up and guard the flanks, he saw four of his warriors were already heading for the ponies. Soon enough they’ll be fighting battles in their sleep.
Elazar turned around again and watched the Sarracs edging back towards their garrons. Like Lurian ponies they were beasts bred for transport, not warfare, and once the raiders had mounted up, chances were they’d head straight back to their mountain dens. The muddy hill they were on wasn’t far from a little pinewood, and he guessed the enemy would use the trees as cover for their retreat.
The Sarracs were too proud to actually run, but they didn’t waste time as they gave ground to the shieldwall. Soon the enemy was in the saddle and galloping off, hurling curses at the Lurians but otherwise leaving them in peace. Or as peaceful as a battlefield can get.
Almha and the others began making their slow way back. The sight of her was lovely; she was fair of face and form, her eyes bright with passion, and her hair shining like gold in the summer sun. But there was blood on her face along with the woad, and Elazar could feel it on his own skin too. The excitement of battle started draining away from him, along with the gentle burning of dragonfire in his limbs. No need for Gadarim magic now. Now comes the part the heroes don’t talk about. A groan from nearby reminded him all too sharply that the day’s work wasn’t over, and he scowled at the thought of what must be done.
He sighed quietly, and his mail clinked as his shoulders sagged, then he made himself stand up straight. You’re here to lead, so lead. For good or ill, Lucan had trusted him with this command, and he wasn’t about to let him down. None of them want to do this, but if their leader balks then it just makes the whole thing worse. He called out to the two nearest, and least fortunate, warriors.
‘Barr, Drustan, you’re with me.’
He raised his short blade to leave them in no doubt as to what he meant. The two men nodded grimly and dropped their shields, keeping their swords in hand. Elazar let his own shield slip from his arm, and his weary muscles thanked him for it. One-sided or not the Sarracs had kept them fighting hard, and maintaining a wall under pressure was gruelling work.
The three of them trudged into the mass of bodies, and the butchering of wounded men began. As ever, no Sarrac cried out for mercy, and so long as they had a weapon to hold they tended to accept their deaths, whispering the names of savage gods with their final breaths. Say what you would of them, the mountain men had their own strange form of courage.
Tribesmen moved among the bodies to tend to the Caledon wounded, while Elazar and the two unfortunates went about their bloody work, cutting throats and piercing hearts to finish the enemy quickly. They all knew that, were their positions reversed, the Sarracs would happily let their enemies bleed, and would often torment the dying for their own cruel amusement.
It was generally said that the Lurian people were too good-hearted to behave in such a way, and Elazar was content to indulge his hosts in that fiction. Most Lurians might be above such behaviour perhaps, but no nation was without its monsters and to think otherwise was naïve. Given what these dogs have done, the average Gorvic would be glad to give them some pain before they passed. But Lucan and the other Gadarim made sure to set examples of noble behaviour, and the tribesmen sought to emulate their chieftain and his elite.
Elazar tried to ignore the smell of blood and opened bowels as he went about the dirty work, and felt ashamed for avoiding men’s eyes as he drove his sword home in necks and chests. He was Gadarim now, one of only two non-Lurians ever to be admitted into the brotherhood, and their code was one of respect to all warriors, friend or foe. That respect extends to burying the Sarracs with a weapon, shouldn’t it mean having the nerve to meet their eyes when you send them to the gods? He tramped over to the next wounded Sarrac, and resolved not to look away this time.