The eight hundred mounted men of the vanguard rode along a small dirt track they had discovered and watched as a wide, green hill grew above the distant woodlands. A large man with red hair led them, the stubble on his face now long enough to be considered the beginning of a beard. “Keep your eyes out!” Harik Wulfsurd called out to those around him. “Armand’s scouts could be near!”
A young knight rode near Wulfsurd, with short, sand-coloured hair and the royal griffin on his breast. Prince Arian, only eighteen, was significantly younger than the rest of the knights of the vanguard, but even so he kept up with them and managed to look the part of a warrior. “You really think they could be near?” Arian asked him, his hands gripping the reins of his steed tightly.
“If Armand has been marching in our direction, it’s a significant possibility,” Wulfsurd replied. “Especially if he missed the storm that we’ve battled these past few days.”
“I’m sure we would beat him if he appeared,” Arian said proudly. “Armand and his army couldn’t even beat us with the might of Kedora on their side and now they stand alone. Do you not think so, Harik?”
Harik grinned as he rode. “I’m never too sure about anything. We can only do our best and hope we’re looked upon kindly by whoever decides the result. Let me give you some advice, young Arian. ‘tis advice you’ve surely heard before but let me assure you now that it is true: a man is at his most dangerous when lying in defeat.”
“Because a cornered dog can still bite through your throat?”
“What? Oh, yes, that too. But mostly because a warrior isn’t taught how to fight a man on his back, only one on his feet.”
Arian didn’t reply. He knew that Wulfsurd had a wisdom to him that men seldom had, that there would be a truth to what he said he did not yet see. In the most basic sense, he knew Wulfsurd was right; a man on the ground was a much different and more tricky target if one didn’t know how to fight those in that position, but there was something else. Was it that a desperate man would go to any lengths to survive? Or perhaps that even those who had victory could lose everything if they did not move wisely?
The vanguard rode onwards, following a road that ran along a river that turned from east to north, then over a stone bridge and into livestock field that were on the outskirts of a small farming village. They rode wide around the village, avoiding the sheep and cattle and the peasant farmers who tended to them who looked upon the passing parade with either scorn or indifference. On the other side of the village a hill rose to the east, sloping gently upwards to a summit almost fifty meters higher than the river.
When they got to the top the men of the vanguard came to realize that it wasn’t a hill, but a wide plateau, and that the far edge sloped down into a wide grass-filled valley about a kilometre across. On the far east of the valley floor, the terrain sloped up again to another hill or ridge, lower than their own but covered in trees. To the north the river they saw from before curved eastward again to block that exit of the valley, while the southern end opened to yet more fields.
“We should camp here,” Wulfsurd said, then ordered a fast rider to his position. It was mid-afternoon by that point and Wulfsurd knew that they would find no ground better suited for tonight’s camp before darkness fell.
“What can I do for you, Lord Wulfsurd?” The rider asked him.
“Take twenty men and ride back to find the king. Tell him we have discovered suitable ground for tonight’s camp and lead them here quickly.”
The rider gave an affirmative salute, then left to follow his orders. At that same moment Arian rode up, left arm resting on the hilt of his sword.
“Harik, there are men on the other side of the valley,” Arian said.
Wulfsurd turned, surprised, to question the prince. “What do you mean? Men? Where?”
Arian turned his horse to face across the valley, then pointed to the hill on the far side. “In those trees, there. Riders.”
Wulfsurd squinted to follow Arian’s finger, then swore silently under his breath. The prince was right – two mounted men were in the trees, well concealed but clearly not trying to hide. “Sir Roydon,” he called out, then another knight wielding a spear approached him with several of his own men in tow.
“Yes, Lord?” Sir Roydon asked.
“Spread the word. I want the men formed up into two groups. I want you to take two hundred and conceal yourselves out of sight on this hill’s western slope, and I want the rest to form up here with me,” Wulfsurd commanded. “The enemy is on the other side of that valley, so we’ll make them think our entire army is here already. It will buy us time, but just in case, your men are to stay in reserve. If they do attack us, wait until you hear my horn, then sweep around and hit them in the flank. Do you understand my command?”
“I do, Lord,” said Roydon.
“Then go and be swift.”
The men of the vanguard carried out Wulfsurd’s orders. Two hundred men took their horses to hide behind the hill, while the remaining six hundred formed along the plateau’s eastern side. The armoured knights, roughly half the vanguard’s number, took the centre; while the remaining men-at-arms filled in at the flanks. Across the line flags and standards were planted at the hill’s edge to show Sarkana’s pride and Wulfsurd watched as the men across the valley turned and rode uphill and out of sight.
“I smell blood in the air,” Wulfsurd commented.
“Blood? I smell none,” replied Arian, who sat mounted by his side.
“Phantom blood. Blood not yet spilled, but whose time will come to flow soon enough.”
“You really think they’ll attack us here? We’ve got the high ground, and we’re all on horseback.”
“And there aren’t enough of us to properly defend it. If the enemy realizes this, or even sends men to test it, we’ll be bloody soon enough.”
“Then we’ll make the enemy bloody enough to regret it.”
“We will, but you’ll be out of harm’s way while we do it. I won’t risk the king’s son to defend a hill we don’t yet need. If there’s battle, you’ll stay back and not get involved unless you must defend yourself.”
Arian sighed at Wulfsurd’s order but had far too much respect for the commander to disobey him. “Very well, Harik. I’ll do as you ask.”
The two sat there, watching and waiting, until finally voices broke the tension that held in the air like smog.
“Enemy to the south!” A man cried.
“Enemy to the south!” A second repeated, and it was repeated again by a third until the men turned to their right to see for themselves.
“Lavellan knights climbing the southern face of the hill!” A knight shouted, riding towards Wulfsurd from that direction.
“Reform the line! Wheel southwards and face them!” Wulfsurd roared, and six hundred mounted men rotated their entire formation until they faced the southern end of the plateau. By the time they had finished, a front-line of armoured horsemen had finished climbing and formed up on the flat ground.
There must have been a thousand of them, all waving standards embellished with the white stag of Lavell. Arian saw how they had their weapons drawn, from spears to swords, and wore their helmets with visors down. His heart jumped in his chest but as the men around him drew their own weapons he swallowed his panic and unsheathed a shining virgin blade, knocking down the visor of his plate helmet until his eyes were granted only a slit to see through. The Lavellan knights began to move their line closer, until taunting cries and hollers rolled over them. The Sarkanians responded in kind, but it was cut short when Wulfsurd roared out, “get on them, Sarkanians! Show them how real warriors fight!”
Arian’s horse was spurred into action alongside hundreds of his fellows, and the yet even greater hundreds of their enemy. The sound of charging hooves rolled across the hill like thunder, but the truly deafening sound came from the cries of war emitted around him. Angry, prideful, scared; the yells of men seemed to merge into the roar of a single great beast, louder and more terrifying than anything Arian had ever known.
They grew closer now. Arian remembered Wulfsurd’s orders but he was right at the front and couldn’t risk slowing with so many behind him, and suddenly he felt a terror overtake him. He was trapped – any loss in his momentum could kill him, but the inevitable clash with that opposite wall of steel could just as easily do him harm. He didn’t know what to do, where to turn, so he held out his sword and kept riding.