Arian, Wulfsurd and King Valen followed him, and on the other side of the valley a small group of armoured knights rode to meet them. The two parties met in the middle, ample space between them, and formed lines on horseback that faced one another. Arian looked at the Lavellan riders, counting off from left to right: Marquis Ghislain Souchon, King Armand of Lavell, Alaric Laurens, and a fourth he did not know.
All four of them wore lordly armour, but Armand’s helmet was adorned with a crown, and Alaric Laurens wore a blue surcoat over his plate with a distinctive white orchid. “You do not have to do this, Caden. I see no reason why we should follow ancient customs and laws and then immediately do away with them and send hundreds to their deaths,” Arian tried to argue, though he already knew it was in vain.
“Do not worry,” replied Caden. “I’ll be quick.”
“And I’ll buy you an ale when you return, lord prince,” said Wulfsurd.
The king spoke then, Valen’s voice somehow as commanding as it was reassuring. “Fight well, my son,” he said.
Caden dismounted his horse, then with hand resting against the hilt of his sword and armour clanking he walked through calf-height grass until he reached halfway between the two mounted parties. Alaric Laurens did the same, but drew his sword from its sheath and held it in his right hand even though he did not immediately approach to attack.
“You should not have done this, Alaric Laurens,” said the prince, eyeing the man up and down. They were about the same age, though from his face Caden would have guessed Alaric was slightly younger than he was. “Your family now has the misfortune to lose two of its sons in combat, as opposed to just one.”
“Do not worry, prince of Sarkana,” came the Lavellan’s reply. “By the end of this day, your family will have lost far more than mine.” He knocked down the visor of his helmet, then gripped his sword with both hands and above his head in a high stance.
Caden sighed and pulled down his own visor, then drew his blade into a middle stance which he similarly held in both hands. Slowly the two armoured swordsmen edged closer to each other, Caden’s metal form gleaming in the morning sunlight. Suddenly Caden took a step forward and lunged the tip of his blade for Alaric’s throat, but Alaric stepped swiftly to the left of it and brought his blade down towards the top of Caden’s helmet. The counterblow came with a ferocity that the prince hadn’t expected, and he only just managed to change his footwork and dodged to the right of the blow with a moment to spare.
Clapping came from the king of Lavell, which was then echoed by the others at his side. Caden suddenly became aware that he had been extremely close to taking a blow in the very first bout, and in the brief pause they took following it he found himself gripping his sword tighter to calm himself.
“Do not worry, Prince Caden,” came a muffled voice from beneath Alaric’s helm, “I shall finish it quickly.”
Alaric’s words made Caden feel a sudden unease, and the Lavellan took advantage by closing the distance between them and bringing his blade against the prince with a succession of deft blows. Caden parried them as his training had dictated, but Alaric’s sword moved with both a greater strength and speed than his own. More than this, it forced Caden on the back foot, and with every step forward Alaric made, Caden found himself stepping backwards to try and escape.
Their swords clashed further, Caden fighting with defensive guards and strikes that Alaric either attempted to feint around or pushed away as though there was no effort in the endeavour. Eventually Caden stood his ground, then pushed back against the other knight by using the vambrace of his left arm to block one of Alaric’s strikes and ramming his right fist into his visor, sword still gripped between his fingers.
Alaric stumbled back slightly but remained unphased, and did not lose his footing, but even so Caden pressed his attack. The prince began to strike for the weak points in Alaric’s plate – the straps, the neck, under the arms – and for a brief few seconds they fought evenly, and the battle could have swung in either’s favour.
But then Caden swung his blade in from the side with both hands, and Alaric caught and held it with his own despite releasing his left hand from his sword. Caden tried to force Alaric’s sword against him, but found it hopeless, and he could suddenly do nothing but watch as the Lavellan’s free hand reached behind him and drew a second blade from his belt. It was short, round and pointed – more like a nail than a dagger – and Caden realized immediately it was made for thrusting.
Alaric pushed forward with all his weight and Caden lost balance, falling to his back with the Lavellan coming down on top of him. Then he thrust, the nail-like blade forcing its way through the prince’s plate and into his heart.
There was silence then, the spectators unsure what they had just seen. When Alaric withdrew to his feet with the bloodied knife in hand, Arian looked down to his elder brother, who lay motionless on the grass.
“Caden?” Arian asked, but he got the answer to his question when Caden’s sword slipped out of his open fingers. He felt a blow strike him in the heart, and he suddenly could not move.
“Bravo, young Alaric!” Cheered King Armand, and the Marquis Souchon soon followed him in his praise. “The prince was clearly not deserving of his title!”
Alaric turned and began making his way back to his horse, but King Valen II of Sarkana spurred his horse forward and galloped at the young knight with his own sword drawn. “You fucking bastards!” He roared, his voice more like a lion than a man, and as he raced closer Alaric quickly climbed into his saddle to the sound of the lords of Lavell drawing their weapons.
Valen attacked Alaric directly, his arm swinging to take off the knight’s head in one swoop, but it was blocked by the sword of King Armand. The Marquis Souchon then rode around Valen’s flank only to find Wulfsurd had joined him, and the two sides began to clash fiercely. Though the Lavellan outnumbered the Sarkanian four to two, it was soon clear that Valen’s skill was tempered with Wulfsurd’s bear-like strength.
“Lord king let us retreat to our line!” the marquis begged.
“Fall back!” Armand capitulated, and one by one the four Lavellan broke off from the fight to gallop full speed back to their waiting army.
By this point the guards of the kings of both nations were riding out towards the centre, but when the Lavellan side caught up to Armand they veered and turned, escorting him back. Meanwhile Arian had grabbed his brother’s body and managed to drag him up onto his horse, leaving Valen and Wulfsurd behind as he rode back towards the Sarkanian line as quickly as his horse could gallop.
“Get healers, doctors and herbalists!” Arian all but screamed at the approaching kingsguard, several of whom turned to escort Arian as the rest went to protect their king. “My brother is hurt! If he dies, I will have your heads!”
Even as he yelled the words, a small part of Arian knew it was too late. As much as he would protest and deny it, as much as he would fight to the bitter end for it to be false, Arian could feel no life in his brother. Whatever trickery, whatever unholy strength had bested Caden, had taken him. Arian’s brother, King Valen’s son, was dead.
Valen and Wulfsurd reached the Sarkanian lines, where talk and whispers were aflame in the ranks of what had just transpired. They all knew it now, that Prince Caden had fallen, but Valen still refused to accept it. Even when he looked towards the hill and saw men lying Caden down in his armour and placing a sheet over him, he absolutely would not admit his son was gone.
“Warriors of Sarkana!” He yelled, riding his horse to the centre and turning to face the arrayed knights closest to him. “Remember why we are here! Lavell betrayed us, attacked us, and even with the aid of Kedora they could not best us. Armand is a weak and unworthy king, and now he stands alone on the other end of this field, shitting himself at the thought of what we are about to do to him! Make no mistake, the fight we have today will be hard won, but won it will be!”
“For the glory of Sarkana and Arfeyr!” Roared Wulfsurd, and almost ten thousand voices roared it back to him.
Across the field, the Lavellan army roared something similar but incomprehensible, and there could be no doubt that they were just as prepared for the fighting ahead. Wulfsurd rode then to the rear of the centre knights to take up his command position, while Valen rode further up the hill to join his kingsguard. As the sun approached mid-morning a great battle was about to begin.
The archers moved first; Sarkanian bowmen marched through the melee line and to the front, 2000 in all, and to match them the greater number of Lavellan archers did the same. They took up positions to skirmish and with a signal given by King Valen, the Sarkanian archers drew back their arrows and loosed them upon their enemy in great volleys.
Most missed. The morning sun blinded them, led them to be inaccurate and inconsistent in their firing, but never-the-less the whittled men began to yell and fall. The Lavellan had, perhaps, been expecting more from the Sarkanian bowmen, and as the volley came to an end bursts of sporadic laughter were hurled across the field like insults.
The Sarkanian archers began to fire again, no longer in volleys but as fast as they could draw back their strings, and the archers of Lavell were soon forced to return with their own fire. Lavellan arrows shot up into the air, passing in front of the sun and causing wisps of shaft-shaped shade to fly across the field, but as they turned to rain down it soon became clear that their momentum was dampened, and the arrows fell harmlessly into the ground in front of the Sarkanian formation.
“They missed?” Asked Prince Arian, watching the scene from the slope of the hill as he rode to meet his father. He was numb still, but he had swallowed down the loss he felt to focus on the task they had at hand, for he knew the king would be doing the same.
“The wind comes from the west,” Valen told him. “It’s blowing into the path of their arrows.”
The Sarkanian infantry began to laugh when they saw what had happened and this further motivated their archers to keep on firing. They were not wholly accurate, but they were unopposed, and they would continue to pick away at their foes for as long as they were able.
“What will they do?” Asked Arian. “Surely they can’t just stand there and die?”
“They’ll attack,” Valen replied. “They have no choice.”