Castle Roland

Sword of Kings: Tempered by Fate

by Bill W


Chapter 5

Published: 13 Oct 16

Sword of Kings: Tempered by Fate

by Bill W
Copyright © 2015 by billwstories

The Battle's First Blood

The two armies stood only a hundred meters apart, nervously anticipating the commencement of hostilities. As they waited, the soldiers shifted their weight uneasily from one leg to the other, anxious for the battle to begin and this torturous lull to cease. At various intervals, each warrior also let his sweaty fighting palm drift across the hilt of his sword, so he could test how easily it could be removed from its scabbard. Instinctively, he would continue to experiment with each of his weapons until he was certain it could be retrieved and deployed with equal ease.

After giving each instrument of war a final cursory inspection, the soldier returned it to its appropriate place, satisfied that it was where it should be and he'd done everything he could to prepare for the upcoming engagement. In preparation for what was to come, the warrior selected his favorite weapon from among the choices he carried with him and held it in his dominant hand. Then he waited for the order for the battle to begin.

As the armies stood facing one another, the droning hum from the heavy, uneven breathing of the soldiers and cavalry mounts completely enveloped the battle lines. It also helped to intensify everyone's sense of anticipation about the upcoming conflict. Each of the participants seemed to be breathing deeply through his mouth, as he waited for combat to begin. This meant that the unsteady, pulsating wheeze generated from this effort began to totally mask every other sound that might otherwise be heard.

The tension continued to increase for the waiting combatants, as they listened for the order that would propel them forward to crash into the enemy lines. This anxiety continued to grow to an even more unbearable level, until it reached the point where it could only be relieved by the initiation of hostilities. Even the horses recognized the fighting was about to begin, because they voluntarily started to bump against the mounts on either side of them. It was as if each horse was unwittingly preparing itself for the jostling and crush of battle it instinctively knew was about to follow. Each steed seemed to be anticipating its chance to charge the enemy ranks and feel the exhilaration of racing into battle, as it smashed into the foe.

After analyzing the enemy's deployment, Beraut concluded there was little doubt about their plan of attack. Madumda's entire army had been assembled into four long ranks, which were aligned one behind the other and spread out in a vast east-west line. This formation extended over the terrain and gave the impression of being eerily similar to the exposed backbone of a gigantic serpent.

The gnomes comprised one side of the battle line, while their fellow conspirators, the Merropites, formed up on the other, with the mercenaries wedged in between. The wizard also noted that the opposing fighting force was made up entirely of foot soldiers, carrying round shields, and the only mounts to be found were those being ridden by the officers in charge. From these bits of information, Beraut concluded that Madumda's army planned on making a full frontal assault. There would be no guise or finesse in this encounter.

'Hmmm, my wayward brother appears to be arrogantly flaunting his believed superiority in numbers,' Beraut thought. 'Perchance giving us the upper hand.' The wizard then stroked his beard absentmindedly, as he continued to contemplate the situation.

'Madumda seems to be overly confident that he can win this encounter by exploiting his supposed advantage in numbers and is simply going to rely on brute force to be victorious,' the wizard surmised. 'He is thereby ignoring a wide range of safeguards I most likely would have chosen to utilize, so let's hope his arrogance works to our advantage.'

As Beraut continued to contemplate Madumda's failure to take any reasonable precautions, he began to wonder if the Dark Lord's oversight might be a strategy in its own right.

'Could this just be a ruse to entice us into making a tactical blunder?' Beraut mused. 'Might he be trying to tempt us into changing our strategy or re-deploying our troops in response? Is it possible that he is hiding his cavalry or some other portion of his forces until a decisive point in the battle? Maybe he has an omnipotent champion to unleash at a critical juncture in the fighting and believes it will be enough to win the day.' The wizard continued to mull these possibilities over in his mind, as he attempted to get into his counterpart's head.

'No,' Beraut finally concluded, 'Madumda is merely behaving like the cat toying with a mouse. Since the cat cannot foresee any possible way the mouse can harm it or escape its trap, it merely plays with the rodent until the enjoyment of tormenting the overmatched creature has passed. No, I don't believe Madumda feels he has to create any illusions or cloak his intent, since he feels his army is superior. Perchance I can make his boldness come back to haunt him later.'

As soon as Beraut finished pondering over the enemy's most likely battle plan, he started to reanalyze his own offensive and defensive strategies. He needed to make sure his tactics were still appropriate, especially considering what he now knew about his opponent. The wizard noted a few minor modifications he might wish to make, but he also considered a new wrinkle he felt might be beneficial to work into his battle plan. At this point, a faint, insidious grin crept over his haggard face when he realized another little scheme, one that he had already set into motion, might be even more effective against Madumda's troop deployment than he had first envisioned. It seemed as if the Gods may be looking favorably upon them, at least for the time being, and he prayed this good fortune would continue.

The wizard's attention was suddenly jerked back to the present when one of his senior officers came riding up and interrupted his thoughts. The military leader felt it was important to point out to Beraut that something was happening at the eastern end of the enemy's formation. Turning his head in that direction, Beraut used his keen vision to scan the area, so he could determine what was going on. He quickly discovered the cause of the disturbance was due to Madumda's tardy arrival. The Dark Lord had obviously just shown up and was being cheered by his underlings as he rode his steed in front of their ranks. It was apparent he was utilizing this little ploy to get his troops sufficiently motivated for the upcoming battle.

As Beraut continued to conduct his impromptu surveillance, he observed the Dark Lord as he rode in front of the entire length of his army, so each of his warriors could get a glimpse of him. Just as soon as he reached the western end of his army, he pulled up, wielded about on his mount and gave the order for his troops to begin marching forward.

The wizard scanned the enemy ranks as they moved in his direction and closed the gap between them. During this time, Beraut also spotted another seemingly insignificant bit of information that he had failed to notice previously. It was a minor detail, but one that now piqued his curiosity. Up until this moment, it hadn't registered with Beraut that the Dark Lord's troops were now wearing an insignia across the front of their drab, black tunics.

Never before had his evil brother allowed his henchmen to wear any sort of decoration upon their dreary uniforms, so this made Beraut curious as to why Madumda had chosen this particular time to allow it. Possibly, he thought it would send an element of fear into those they were facing and give his forces a slight psychological advantage. What other reason could he have for placing a bright, red target, for this is how Beraut perceived these new blazons, upon the chests of each of his warriors?

Carefully, Beraut studied these new insignias and discovered there were three very distinct designs being used, which were obviously specifically created for the group wearing them. Even though they all had a similar appearance and radiated the same aura of malevolence, there were slight differences between the logos. Each crest had been individualized and accentuated with a facsimile of a weapon or weapons associated with the group it had been designed for.

The gnomes' blazon was created around the frontal view of a skull and then highlighted with crisscrossing battleaxes, which were prominently displayed behind it. The Merropites emblem contained a three-quarters view of a skull with a dagger plunged menacingly through it. The mercenaries' insignia was designed with a sword and mace crisscrossed in the center, with the side view of a skull located between the pommel of the sword and the spiked head of the mace. In addition to the symbol each soldier wore on his uniform, each unit also carried a battle flag skillfully designed with the same crest. The overall effect gave no doubt as to their intent or who was commanding their efforts.

Having satisfied his curiosity concerning these minor details, the wizard noticed something else. Madumda had unexpectedly ordered his troops to halt, once they were nearly within striking distance. Then, he hurriedly gathered his senior officers around him for a final briefing.

Seeing Madumda and his officers were now preoccupied and not paying his army any heed, Beraut concluded this would be the perfect chance to strike the first blow. By doing so, it would catch his opponents off-guard and immediately place them on the defensive. It might also alter whatever plan they had devised and take away any other advantage they might otherwise enjoy, right from the onset of fighting.

Without hesitation, Beraut immediately set his thought into action by giving a prearranged signal, which sent his forces hurtling at the enemy lines. The allies began shouting as they charged across the expanse and the noise they generated rivaled the sounds emitted by the restless spirits that roamed the Valley of the Dead. The cacophony this created elicited the desired effect of startling the enemy and causing confusion within their ranks, which gave the allies an even greater advantage.

Lacking senior leadership, Madumda's lines broke slightly and then began to disintegrate even further, as they watched their opponents race toward them. Confusion reigned; as some of the Dark Lord's junior officers gave orders for their ranks to advance to meet the assault, while others had their troops stand their ground or even make a slight retreat.

Madumda snarled and spewed a string of profanities, which signified how perturbed he was that his meeting with his field commanders had been disturbed. Recognizing the ongoing break in discipline along their lines, the necromancer's senior staff hurried back to take charge of their troops, which in turn prevented the Dark Lord from finishing his briefing.

As soon as his military leaders were back in their appropriate places, they began shouting orders and attempted to direct those under them as to what to do next, but it was too little, too late. Before Madumda's commanders were able to restore order to their ranks, the allies' audacity bore significant dividends. After colliding with the small portion of the enemy lines that had advanced to meet them, the allies were able to reap the benefit of having the advantage of numbers. As fierce hand-to-hand combat erupted amongst the two groups, it didn't take long for the Tarolian forces to exploit the superiority gained by the confusion they had wrought.

With unexpected ease, Beraut's forces were able to strike down a large number of the opposition and either eliminated them completely or wounded their opponents badly enough that they were no longer a factor. However, the allies did not escape the melee without experiencing their own share of casualties as well. This continued until the Dark Lord's officers were able to bring a modicum of order back to their army and temporarily slowed the onslaught, but the process was painfully slow. A great deal of time had passed before they were able to regain any significant control or bring a semblance of military organization back to the chaos that had resulted from this sudden and unanticipated assault.

Just as the enemy was starting to achieve a stalemate, a battle-horn sounded. This signal caused the Tarolian army to make a quick withdrawal and unexpectedly ended the struggle, just as suddenly as it had begun. This move baffled the Dark Lord's military leaders even more; since they couldn't comprehend why their opponents had decided to retreat while they still held a slight tactical advantage.

Even more befuddling to them was the fact that the Tarolian army only pulled back to a position about forty meters from where the battle had been fought, before halting again. At that time, the returning infantrymen quickly fell in behind those that had not participated in the initial attack. They darted through the gaps created for their return and sought refuge behind their brethren.

As the sweaty and winded fighters moved to the rear of the formation, their movements appeared similar to a flock of birds gliding through the branches of a tree, as they sought to return to their nests. Once they were safely within the bosom of their army once more, the foremost lines closed ranks again, thus protecting them behind a solid wall of armor. It also allowed the returning warriors a chance to recuperate from physical drain of the skirmish. The Dark Lord's forces now assumed the allies were preparing for the counter-attack they expected to follow and, therefore, gave this maneuver little more thought.

After a few more moments of reorganizing his disarrayed command and filling the gaps caused by those he had lost in the initial assault, Madumda ordered his army to advance toward their opponents. He was now ready to mount a counterassault of his own.

Once the Dark Lord's forces closed the distance between them to about thirty meters, Beraut gave another barely perceptible signal, which caused the front two ranks to drop down on one knee. This was done to give the archers behind them a better line of sight. Almost immediately, these warriors launched a barrage of arrows, which filled the air and wrought disastrous results upon their opponents.

The bowmen in front aimed directly at the approaching horde, while those behind them had been instructed to arch their shots skyward, so they would fall on their targets from above. This strategy wreaked havoc upon the Dark Lord's troops as well, even though it didn't stop their advance completely. Despite the bodies of the dead and wounded that continued to fall in front of them, the dark-clad warriors kept coming. Eventually, however, this tactic managed to slow their advance somewhat, since the enemy soldiers were forced to carefully select their footing. From this point on, many of them had to walk around, step over or even trod upon their unfortunate comrades that had already fallen.

While the remaining soldiers tried to dodge the feathery shafts that continued to fly in their direction, it became evident they weren't totally successful in doing so. Their round shields they carried left large gaps for the arrows to penetrate, so many of these missiles were able to skewer exposed limbs or even strike the warriors behind them. The other problem was caused by the fact that the arrows were coming from two different angles, with one set being fired directly at them, while others were raining down from above. If they used their shields to prevent against either attack, it opened them up to be struck down by the other.

To the enemy's chagrin, the torrent of arrows never lessened in intensity, because the allied archers continued to notch the next shaft on their bowstring nearly as soon as the previous one had been released. This continued, unabated, until the artillerymen were ordered to stop firing.

The final volley of deadly shafts had not yet reached its mark, before the allies made their next move. Without having to rely on an audible command, the ranks of the infantry and archers parted in a prescribed fashion and allowed their mounted brethren to race past. The cavalry, which had been waiting patiently at the very rear of the formation, now swept across the short expanse, with their pikes and lances extended menacingly in front of their mounts. As the horse soldiers hurtled into the enemy ranks, their weapons impaled whoever got in the way and inflicted a great amount of additional damage upon Madumda's already beleaguered troops. At the same time, their horses often knocked other soldiers down and then trample over them, thus eliminating even more of their foes.

Whenever possible, the cavalrymen would extract their weapon from the current victim and continue on, but this wasn't always possible. Sometimes their lances and pikes would become hopelessly embedded in the collapsing mass of flesh and the mounted troopers would be forced to let the weapon fall from their grasp, as they left it behind. The horsemen would then unsheathe their swords and continue fighting, as they slashed viciously at whichever foeman stood nearby.

The mounted troops also made sure to utilize the advantage of leverage they enjoyed by being on horseback, as they forcefully and energetically hacked down at those around them. By doing this, they felled even more opponents while moving forward. It was a brief, but furious encounter, before the cavalry made its own hasty and unexpected retreat. In their wake, the horse soldiers left behind a bloodied and exhausted enemy.

While the cavalry had been making its sting felt, the infantry and archers had closed the gap between the two armies. They then assembled into another predetermined formation, but this one was dramatically closer to the enemy lines. After the ground troops completed their maneuver, they stayed put and waited for the mounted troops to return. When the cavalry started its retreat, they scooted through the gaps the foot soldiers had left in their ranks as they returned to their place at the rear of the formation. As soon as their mounted brethren had passed by, the ground troops quickly filled the openings behind them and prepared for a counter attack.

Once the Dark Lord's forces had recovered from this vicious melee with the allied cavalry, Madumda decided it was time to retake the initiative and mount his own assault. After passing along new orders, the dark-clad warriors advanced once again, but this time more cautiously and in pairs. One soldier would march forward holding his shield in front of them, while the second would follow directly behind, with his defensive device held overhead to protect them both. This technique offered the pair as much protection as possible from another aerial attack, although the soldiers understood it wasn't a perfect solution. When they had closed to within a few meters of their foe, they suddenly took up a more traditional approach and charged the allied lines.

Unfazed by the enemy's unusual maneuver, the Tarolian archers had continued to loose more arrows at the onrushing tide with varying degrees of success. Some of the projectiles merely smashed into shields or missed their target completely, while others skewered an exposed leg or other unprotected body part, thus disrupting the enemy's advance. Without pausing, the allied bowmen continued to let their missiles fly until their foe was nearly within sword's reach. At this point, the front ranks prudently rose to their feet again, retrieved their swords from their scabbards and grasped their shields, ready to hold their ground.

As Madumda's minions collided with their adversaries, the shockwave generated by the ensuing impact could be heard across the entire battlefield. It began with the thunderous sounds of shields smashing against shields, but was soon followed by the deafening clatter of sword slamming into sword or shield. The noise level was tumultuous and easily rivaled the sounds that a thousand blacksmiths would have generated while frantically pounding on their anvils, as they desperately worked to complete a major project. However, that wasn't the only effect this new round of combat managed to generate.

The plains also seemed to have become engulfed in flashes of lightning, as the sunlight bounced off the metal blades of the various instruments of war. The reflected light danced playfully about in the air for a brief time, but the illusion didn't last for very long. Gradually, the effect lessened in intensity, as the various weapons became increasingly smeared with dirt, blood and other bodily fluids, thus ending the brilliant spectacle.

As the infantry held back the initial wave of warriors, the archers hurriedly slung their bows across their backs and exchanged them for their own swords and shields. Once they were appropriately armed, they stepped in to fill the voids created by those that had already fallen. The bleak reality of the struggle was becoming increasingly evident, as the carnage mounted around them, but the fracas continued on.

Each side endeavored to chalk up more than their fair share of victims, while every individual tried to keep from becoming the next casualty. The fierce battle marred the countryside as well and stained everything around them in a deep crimson hue, thus erasing the brilliant greens, yellows and browns of the natural vegetation. The land looked as though it had been wounded as well, and in a way it had.

While the foot soldiers continued this bloody struggle, the cavalry divided into two even groups and set out to attack their foe's flanks. This maneuver took some of the impetus away from the enemy's assault and forced Madumda's henchmen take a more defensive posture on either side of the main thrust. This brought a temporary stalemate to the battle, since neither side had a definite advantage.

The battle went on for about another hour, as the sun gradually crept toward its zenith. Both armies were growing increasingly fatigued from the fierceness of the fighting, so everyone, from the lowliest soldier to the most senior officer, started to realize they couldn't continue on in this manner forever. Eventually, both Beraut and Madumda decided to have their troops make a strategic withdrawal and regroup.

As they did so, the dead and mortally wounded were left where they fell, since both sides were too exhausted to worry about those beyond hope. With a focused determination, each army retreated away from the other, because they acknowledged there was little, if anything, that could be gained by continuing this unwinnable position.

Once they had withdrawn a safe distance away from each other, the warriors immediately sought out something to quench their enormous thirst. They were severely dehydrated from excessive sweating and desperately sought to replenish their depleted supply of fluids, which was also causing their muscles to cramp. After downing a sufficient quantity of water, they endeavored to rest for a brief time, before scrounging up a hasty meal.

Everyone understood this had to be done quickly, because it wouldn't be very long before the rigors of battle began anew. Although this respite wasn't sufficient for their bodies to be completely reinvigorated, they did enjoy the precious relief this brief lull in hostilities provided them. When their officers began to bark orders for them to fall back into formation, they went willingly, even if they weren't entirely enthusiastic about resuming the conflict.

After a brief march to the west, so they'd avoid tripping over the bodies from the previous skirmish, new assaults were launched. Beraut had basically chosen where he wanted this encounter to take place, so now each side simultaneously initiated its own attack. Over the remainder of the day, much more blood was spilled and many more bodies fell lifeless, but little progress was made in determining the final outcome of the war.

Once again, the conflict reached a point where neither side had the advantage, even though the hand-to-hand fighting remained intense. As the armies labored on, the sunlight started to fade and it wouldn't be long before darkness began to consume the field of combat. Fearing this would give an advantage to his opponents, since their black uniforms would make them nearly impossible to see, General Daveel ordered a horn to give the signal for his army to fall back.

When this signal was given, the westernmost portion of the Tarolian army started to pull back much faster than the rest of their forces. This innocuous gesture caused a portion of the enemy warriors in the same area to erroneously surmise their opponents were conceding defeat and fleeing. Invigorated by this apparent change of fortune, a segment of the dark-clad troopers aggressively pursued the rapidly withdrawing allied forces. They were hoping to kill as many of their opponents as they could and in the process possibly earn their master's gratitude.

As the allies continued this rapid retreat backward, they were followed closely behind by Madumda's henchmen. Gradually, a portion of the Dark Lord's forces had been lured away from the protection of their own lines and this continued until another battle horn sounded two quick blasts. As soon as the retreating Tarolian forces heard this signal, they suddenly stopped and held their ground, but as they reengaged the enemy, something else began to occur.

Unexpectedly, many of the dark-clad warriors began to fall or cry out in pain, but it wasn't because of anything those they'd been pursuing were doing. This perplexing anomaly created a great deal of confusion within the enemy ranks, as the various enemy troopers spun around to look for those responsible for their current plight. No matter how hard they tried to solve this conundrum, they discovered no one else nearby. They were temporarily baffled by this incongruity, but didn't have time to consider it further, since they had actual foes to battle.

What Madumda's forces failed to realize was that Beraut and his military leaders had previously planned to entice some of the enemy forces to follow them into a prearranged trap. The wizard and his advisors had prepared numerous contingency plans for the battle, one of which had been designed for this very reason. As soon as those in command realized this particular scenario was unfolding and observed the enemy was taking the bait, they instinctively utilized this back-up tactic to their advantage.

Panicked and at a distinct disadvantage, the enemy warriors now tried to extricate themselves from the predicament they had been unwittingly drawn into. To prevent this from happening, the allied infantry intensified their attack upon their confused foes. This kept the Dark Lord's soldiers from discovering, and possibly even confronting, those that had been felling their brethren from behind.

Even though they understood miniature projectiles had been coming from somewhere and inflicting a great deal of damage to their comrades, they still hadn't discovered the source of these missiles. Eventually, those trapped in the crossfire decided it didn't matter where the deadly objects were coming from and realized it would be best to make a hasty retreat. They needed to rejoin the rest of their army before it became too dark to see where they were going. However, when they wheeled about and prepared to flee, they discovered a host of dwarf warriors now had them surrounded.

Startled by the sudden appearance of these new combatants, since those soldiers had not been there only seconds before, the enemy found they were trapped in the middle of nowhere. Bravely, they fought for their lives, but it was a battle they couldn't possibly win.

Madumda's commanders watched the action unfold, as best they could in the waning light, but felt it best to sacrifice this small group, rather than risk losing more of their fighters in an extended conflict. Seeing those in this predicament had created their own problem and hadn't been following orders, they were left to get out of the predicament using only their combat training. Without any reinforcements coming to their aid, the skirmish didn't last very long and soon each of the dark-clad warriors had either been killed or captured.

Those that were taken prisoner had their hands bound behind their backs, and then another rope was used to lash them to another captive on either side. The prisoners were fastened together in groups of three or four, to make it more difficult for them to escape. Once this process had been completed, they were placed between two rows of guards and led back to the allied encampment, where experienced interrogators were waiting to question them.

This left only the dwarf soldiers who had miraculously appeared out of nowhere. Their friends and comrades were relentlessly questioning them, since they wanted to know exactly how they happened to show up when they did and who had given the orders. Noting the intensity of their curiosity, Captain Baith stepped forward and took charge of the situation.

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