The land below was still dark, but a small stream that flowed through it could still be discerned – though just barely. To the east the sky was turning a dawn blue, with wisps of cloud growing pink in the earliest light of a sun that could not yet be seen. A hardened dirt road ran straight through the stream from west to east and in a wood overlooking it, two bald men were crouched in the darkness waiting.
“Dawn,” said Sir Anselm, a hand stroking over his short, dark beard. “We cannot wait much longer, Lord Colbert. It could be they won’t come this way; it could be the king was wrong.”
“No,” said Lord Colbert, whose pale, gaunt face looked a spectre in the trees. “We should not dismiss him so swiftly. It could be that they march later than expected but even so, we must remain here and wait for them. They will come along this road I am sure of it; they are Lavellan after all.”
“What does that have to do with it?” Anselm asked, still stroking his chin.
“Well, just as you’ve always said Sir Anselm – they are soft. Too soft to walk on tough ground.”
Anselm began to laugh, though Colbert turned to him with a glare and bade him be silent with a harsh hush.
The sun crept higher over eastern hills, first light soaking the woods and stream in morning warmth. The dirt road was highlighted by it; the pale, sand-like brown showing against grass that became greener with each passing minute. Though the morning was clear and beautiful, the more it bloomed the more impatient the two bald men grew.
“Lord Colbert,” Anselm said. “I understand the importance of this plan, but the longer we delay here the more the danger grows for the others. We might arrive to find the battle over and lost!”
“Wait, Sir Anselm,” Colbert replied quickly, nodding down to the road.
A lone rider climbed out of a dell to the west, then galloped eastwards along the road and through the stream without stopping.
“A scout,” said Anselm, hand reaching for the hilt of his sword until Colbert stopped him.
“Or a messenger. Let him go, we wouldn’t catch him now anyway.”
“I do not see the wisdom in letting an enemy rider roam freely,” Anselm replied, but capitulated as he watched the horseman follow the road east into the hills.
“He doesn’t matter, Sir Anselm. What matters now is that he was sent, which can mean only one thing…” Colbert surmised, standing from his crouched position and giving a signal further up into the woods where an armoured man received it. A few seconds later, several hundred soldiers stepped over a ridgeline and began marching quietly down to Colbert’s level, each taking care to be as hidden as possible. “The enemy are coming.”
Both the Sarkanian and Lavellan armies were arrayed for battle on opposite sides of the valley, around ten thousand fighting men in each.
On the western side and remaining halfway up their hill, the armour of the Sarkanian knights gleamed brightly in the morning sun, over 2000 of them wearing full plate and wielding weapons ranging from swords to hammers and glaives. These knights made up a significant portion of the centre of their line, though as they stretched towards the flanks they became increasingly reinforced by common soldiers wearing chain, leather and shields. Almost 4000 further men made up the left and right flanks, wielding spears and halberds to protect against Lavellan cavalry. Standing in ranks 8 men deep, the main battle-line of the Sarkanian force stretched 600 meters from one end to the other, covering the majority of the hill’s eastern slope and forcing the Lavellan army to stretch itself to match them. At their front, a line of banners and flags blew in a wind that came from the west.
Behind the main line, a second line comprised of 2000 archers and almost 600 black-armoured kingsguard provided support and reserve, with 100 of those mounted on horseback. Finally, and situated some ways to the right of the battle-line, one thousand further mounted knights and men-at-arms faced off across the valley against their Lavellan counterparts.
Arian had never seen so many warriors in one place before. He gripped the reins of his horse tightly, looking around him at the thousands of his countrymen about to risk their lives and kill for a valley that suddenly seemed worthless. He shook his head. It was better not to think that way, he reminded himself, then placed his helmet over his head with the visor open. In front of him, the king wore a magnificent suit of plate – steel with black trim and adorned with the Sarkanian griffin – but Arian couldn’t help but notice more the dark wings that embellished the sides of his helmet. He had never seen his father wear that helmet before and had imagined for years that it was little more than a ceremonial piece to show guests, but now he wondered if it might not be as kingly in function as in form. He sincerely hoped he wouldn’t have to find out, but somehow, he felt the inevitability of it.
“They seem eager to fight,” said Lord Wulfsurd, who sat upon his black horse a beast of a man with red hair. Harik was from an old and prestigious family line, well-known for their size and prowess in combat, and Arian could see it in him. Arian had only been young when Harik’s father had died of old age, but it was clear he took after him. He was a monster, and Arian noticed how unlike the last time they had fought together Wulfsurd now wore the armour of his house; a wolf fighting a bear on his steel breast.
“Perhaps, but there’s business to finish first,” replied Prince Caden. Caden’s eyes were fixed like a hawk on a Lavellan noble all the way across the valley field, little more than a blue spec in his vision. “And who can rightfully claim that they might not change their mind and surrender?”
The King remained silent through the conversation, so Arian spurred his horse on past him and stopped when he reached his elder brother’s side. “Are you worried?” He asked him, as he looked over the Lavellan lines.
“Worrying won’t change anything, and I need a clear head,” Caden answered.
“It’s quite strange,” said Arian, “when we held the hill, I had no time to worry. Even when that unknown knight challenged me to single combat, it didn’t really cross my mind. I did not stop to think, I just did. I guess right now you can do nothing but think, and perhaps that’s even worse.”
Caden didn’t answer him that time, instead he tried to keep his mind clear of all invasive thoughts. He tried not to be overwhelmed by the prospect that awaited him, yet even so he could already feel the adrenaline coursing through his veins. He did not want that, yet ironically it helped him stay as clear and alert as he decided he needed to be.
They watched the morning sun rise higher into the sky, felt the tension and the anticipation grow amongst the soldiers behind them until it approached uncontainable levels. Finally, when whatever secret conditions he had waited for had been fulfilled, Caden took a deep breath and took the rein of Whisper, his grey mare. “It’s time,” he said, then set off at a trot towards the centre of the field.