Chapter Seventy-Three: Battle of the Alba, Day Two, Afternoon
We almost missed the sight of the longships.
There were the explosions kicking up dust around the Qunari camp, setting off secondary detonations of the organ guns' powder reserves, the smoke from the fighting to our right and the blazing sun causing sweat to drop into our eyes to distract us. On top of that, we couldn't see the waterline directly from where we were. The end of the granite plain dropping down into the estuary swamp formed a sort of lip between the two.
But it was impossible to miss the cannonfire slamming into the Qunari fortifications from the direction of the river, especially when one or two of them went wide. The whirling lead went travelling just over the lip of the estuary and parallel to the ground until they hit Qunari retreating in good order from action against Mike's troops..
The good order bit quickly changed after that, though I'm not sure if an order to hurry the hell up was issued by the local Antaam officers or if it was a bottom-up decision. It was
From atop Bellona, I could just about see the ships coming down the river, oars moving in and out of my sight as they swept the water behind them, the space between the rowers filled with Jaderite marines. I could even pick out Ciara standing on the prow of the Liberté, heavy firelance balanced on an unused cleat.
I had to ask someone the name of what the hell you tie ropes to on a sailing ship, by the way. I'm still a species of land predator to this day. "Cleat". God damn sailors.
But at noon that day, it was a far more amphibious set of predators coming to fight. Seeing the longships was hard, but their larger cousins were very easy to spot.
The carrack Camille was leading the two larger galleons Élodie and Cécile up to the point they couldn't go any further upriver. The former could go almost all the way up to the pontoon, in theory. The movement of the Navy's fleet annoyed me.
"Anyone know what Fisher is doing with the ships?" I asked over the radio.
To my surprise, Julie was the one who replied.
"A courier ran back and forth through the eluvians here earlier," she said, "Qunari ships are putting to sea. Running, maybe, or coming to attack."
Which meant some signal had been sent from the Qunari position back to Hercinia. I was curious as to how they managed that so quickly. I stopped Bellona's slow trot forwards, giving the order for the Rangers to halt too as I looked to the Qunari ramparts.
There was a series of colourful flags on the corner facing Hercinia, long streaming ones on high poles. They hadn't been there before.
A basic semaphore system, I realised. Probably displaying a single word, tied to more complex instructions in a codebook somewhere, though we never would find such a book in the camp. Neither Tam nor Asala were ex-Antaam, The Qunari's military sophistication relative to the rest of Thedas continued to impress.
It wasn't very long before the entire Qunari line began sprinting in retreat. For the remaining Hercinians, it was an outright rout. They had faced against the Grenadiers Division and were entirely ill-prepared for such a fight, having no firelances of their own. Ordinary crossbows just don't work against massed, magically protected infantry. The Qunari forces moved differently, however. Not in flight, but to tighten the line, to free up troops to send at the pontoon. Even before the longships reached their destination.
But there was no way that the Qunari would make it in time to stop them. There were already troops on the pontoon bridge, but they were not numerous. Didn't help that much of the retreating Hercinian cavalry had simply thundered across it in a mass of confusion minutes earlier, with others making their way into the swamp to wait out the battle.
The Liberté came alongside the mud and reeds, boarding hooks thrown out to secure it, and the landing ramps fitting to the side of the prow came slamming down onto the pontoon itself. In the distance, on the north side of the river, the Justice did the same.
The Marine Corps of the Trojan Republic streamed off the longships, the few Qunari guards on the bridge overwhelmed in seconds. From where I was, all I could see was a tide of blue overcoming the small specks of grey, amongst gunsmoke. The blue was soon moving to form a line-of-battle across the pontoon and to either side of it in the swamp. Barrels were being rolled off the ships, to be filled with water and stood up as cover.
We all knew what it meant. The Qunari were trapped.
Time to close the noose.
On the left, Mike ordered her troops out of the defences against a hugely weakened Qunari right, reinforced by troops from my division that had retreated into the forest before and rallied again. They were moving against increasingly badly formed lines, as the Qunari had taken very heavy casualties and dealt very little in reply on that front.
On the right, Isewen finally found her moment, and the light lancers charged along the edge of the swamp into the Qunari regiments that had been forming up to defend the pontoon in place of the Hercinians that had run away. Behind the light lancers, the Grenadiers formed up and try and stop the Qunari retaking the bridge.
In the centre, Soprano moved her troops up to continue the fight, while Louise withdrew the Guard Cavalry to the rear to regroup.
But before and while all the above was happening, the Rangers and I were on the move forwards again. What had appeared to be a solid line troops and organ guns ahead of us soon began to thin, as the Arishok issued his commands. A large body of the defensive formation ahead of us began to move off, four regiments if my count of their banners was any indication. With them went many of the organ guns.
These forces would make it to the pontoon. The Grenadiers would not reach the enemy and Isewen's lancers wouldn't break the the defence line in time. But that's why I gave Armen and Ciara the Earth firelances. I knew the Marines would have to be able to hold on their own.
The safety of my two companions concerned me greatly though, the thought of their deaths making my blood run cold and my gut coil. So I decided to throw caution to the wind. I dismounted Bellona, having our horses sent to the rear, and took the lead of the advance in person. It was to be no steady march.
The remaining Qunari organ guns aimed straight at us. We saw them loading the things, and pointing.
Nothing motivates you to move your ass like seeing artillery target you without any foxholes to jump into. So we ran into engagement range, ducking and weaving as the Qunari struggled to put a serious volley downrange at us from their infantry weapons. We returned the favour with a frantic fire-and-movement, doing about as much damage.
At the front, I would pick my shots and crack off the whole magazine, stop to reload while my bodyguards let fly with their magic and firelances, and rinse/repeat. The occasional whizz by the ear told me that the Qunari had noticed us, probably because of the pretty substantial hole we were blowing in their line relative to the damage the rest of the Rangers were doing. They never got a real shot at me though, because I targeted the front gunners to prevent them. I had eaten through three magazines when the air and ground shook us to a halt.
The Qunari organ guns had fired in a giant barrage, obscuring the infantry in front in a thick smoke. Their powder smelled different to ours, more putrid, like there were different ingredients. At this time, we didn't know what the source of sulphur they used was, of course.
Their aim was off and loading process had taken too long. The fiery stones overshot us by dozens of yards, one coming pretty damn close straight over me, sending me sprawling to the ground with twenty others.. We were 'under their guns', as the old saying goes. Beyond their ability to shoot effectively.
The stormtrooper tactics were working.
The enemy couldn't concentrate their fire quickly enough, and most died before being able to shoot, dropping their weapons. Dropped firelances unloaded themselves or discharged into the comrades of their former owners. The falling and fallen corpses prevented the ranks behind from moving up to get a good shot.
Eventually, we got close enough for true discomfort.
Our pace slowed as the ground was suddenly... unstable before and around the Qunari organ guns, which stood mute and abandoned. Many of the fallen Qunari were not dead at all, just grievously wounded. It was like walking on an unstable plastic float in a pool, or to use a metaphor more Thedosians might understand, standing up in a small boat and moving about on it rapidly. Except the water is corpses or near-corpses.
A deep horn blew up from Qunari palisade, so loud that you could feel the vibrations in your body and your ears rang for a few seconds afterwards. The enemy before us began running like crazy back towards their camp. My gaze turned upwards towards the battlements of mud-filled sandbags and stakes, rising like a pyramid in front of us.
And there he was. The Arishok, standing beside a larger man blowing into a giant bronze horn stationed at the corner of the fortification. The hornless former Sten.
The gruff bastard was gripping the edge of the short wooden wall, looking like he was going to put his head through it. He was scanning the battlefield in front of him, and it didn't take very long for our eyes to meet. He stared, with no particular venom.
But no one can be so unflappable in the face of such destruction, and my heart soared to see him. A grin split my face. I pointed straight at him, and then down at the ground beside me.
He snarled something in Qunlat, and withdrew out of sight.
Only one guess as to what he had just ordered. The combat high rushing through me, I immediately dropped to my knee and brought my weapon's sights up. Sure enough, a trio of Qunari firelancers appeared at the parapet, hauling their large blunderbusses onto the edge.
A burst each put them down as fast as they had appeared, two of their weapons falling over the edge and another discharging uselessly over our heads. The owner of the former slumped over the wall, bleeding down it profusely.
"Any chance I could get a firelance like that?" Marcus remarked from beside me, before sending a lightning bolt at a Qunari convert that peeked over the top again.
Thinking that this was possibly him testing whether or not I trusted him, I grimaced. What a moment to try this. It was out of the question to give the Tevinter a modern firearm. Luckily, I had a convenient and truthful reason to turn him down.
"Nope," I replied flatly, reloading, "Running out of ammunition."
The urge to storm up the slanted wall of sandbags was making me itch all over, but I wasn't stupid enough to just do it. I looked around.
Mike and Soprano's troops were advancing rapidly to either side of the troops with me. I could see the Grenadiers formed up and firing off towards the start of the pontoon bridge, which I couldn't see because it was behind the Qunari camp walls. I couldn't hear or see anyone else shooting down at us, though there was a lot of smoke and noise of fighting coming from the distance, from the pontoon. What was the Arishok playing at?
I wasn't going to take any chances.
"Prepare grenades," I commanded, "We're going up."
The orders were distributed, and the Rangers began reaching for their belts for the stick-grenades and flints.
We began to creep up the sandbag glacis-wall, avoiding the areas where our artillery had split them open, which had become a mudslide. It wasn't particularly steep, the purpose of the thing was to keep out cannonfire, not people scaling it. Just before the top, we sat our asses down, aiming directly at the edge above.
I gave the nod to the platoon nearest me, and they began to light the stick-grenades. The flints were struck and the fuses that ran through the middle of the handles to the explosive in the metal head at the top began smoking. Within the space of a minute, a hundred or so grenades were being tossed over the parapet onto and below the platform that ran along behind it.
The Qunari reacted immediately, knowing what the hell was falling among them.
They had been hiding just below the lip of the wall, ready to jump us as we hopped over. We would've found ourselves surrounded by ox-men with blades. Instead, they rose in a fearful stumble to avoid the grenades and attempted to charge us. The Rangers and my bodyguards were ready for them. The slow enemies got killed by the grenades, detonating amongst them. The fast enemies were shot down in batches, almost none of them clearing the parapet in time to trade their lives for those of my soldiers.
Very few were armed with firelances. But of course I was unlucky enough to be in front of one of them. A particularly big guy jumped from a crouch straight onto the top of the parapet, bringing his firelance to bear. My combat high turned to raw panic, but my training kicked in just in time.
The thing sprayed shrapnel at us. It ripped down the space between myself and Marcus, most of the balls slicing the sandbags apart. Both of us caught some flying lead down our sides however, my left shoulder's small silverite pauldron battered and my side gouged. Marcus' samurai-style armour fared even worse, and he caught a ball in the hip and another on the back of his right thigh.
Spitting and shouting with pain, God only knows what I was saying, I was already lined up to dump a magazine into the guy.
I steadied the weapon under my arm, holding it tight, and held down the trigger. My assault firelance ripped through its ammunition in seconds, sending thirty full-metal-jacket bullets through the bastard, turning the offending Qunari into a fuckin' pasta strainer. And killing two guys behind him that had survived the grenade attack.
I practically sawed him in half just below the ribs, and his body barely managed to stay in one piece as it fell forwards and slid down the mud-chute that he had created with his own shot.
My heart was thumping so hard in my chest that it was the only thing I could hear, and my breathing was so rapid that I could feel my throat getting dry. I looked to Marcus, whose helmet was off and whose face was screwed up in an image of pain. I wasn't calming down, I just slumped forwards against the sandbags, trying to control myself.
It wasn't until two of my bodyguards, more Tiberian legionnaires, went to Marcus and I to see if we were alright. Marcus was immediately enveloped by the bright glow of healing magic. I watched blankly until the mage attending me shoved mashed elfroot into my mouth, filling it with the taste of mint, sweat and sulphur.
That sure as hell woke me up. I shook my head and spat the mixture out, scraping my tongue with my teeth.
"My lord, you need to ingest it!" the legionnaire said, offering me the bottle, "We can't heal you with magic!"
Pissed off but returning to clarity, I nodded and grabbed the bottle, swigging the mashed elfroot pulp into my mouth and chewing it. It went down easier without someone else's fingers to add flavour. Someone slapped a poultice on my sides, shoving it under my fatigues. I slapped the hand away and fixed the damn thing myself.
Now I was angry. I stood up, stumbling at first, before holding my weapon over my head.
"To the top!" I shouted, "To the top!"
I climbed to the parapet and vaulted over it onto the walkway beyond. Straight into ankle deep blood and bodies. The grenades' work. I spared it only a passing glance and twinge of annoyance. Between the pain in my side and the sight of the camp sprawling out below me, I had more to worry about.
There was much to see.
Within the camp, there was a great buzz of activity. Tall tents were parked in neat rows, with a larger one with a tall tower and a mustering point in the centre; a classic military layout. All around the central space, there were qunari and elves throwing things into fires. Documents, it looked like. Troops were pouring in through two tunnels, cut from the rock, redeploying from the fight against Mike to defend the place.
Beyond, on the river, I could see the fighting on the pontoon.
Cannonfire whipped through the air from the longships and the Navy carrack Camille, the latter having sailed up the river and anchored downstream of the bridge. The enemy had spread out into the swamp itself to try and bring as many firelances into the fight as possible. The Marines had done the same on a smaller scale, but the Qunari had sent four regiments up against two half-strength regiments of ours.
Tracers flowed from the point on the bridge near where the swamp met the river. Ciara and Armen were laying down withering fire on the Qunari with the Earth weapons, giving equal attention to each part of the enemy line as best they could. The organ guns they had repositioned were also given a hosing down every now and then. Marines stepped forward to shoot when the tracers stopped, to keep up the fire in the centre whenever Ciara was reloading the heavy Earth firelance.
Yet still, the Qunari came on, attempting to advance at all costs, the swamp slowing the forward movement to a crawl and the pontoon itself too dangerous to use.
I grit my teeth, misunderstanding what was going on. I thought the Qunari were preparing to pull out and were attempting to clear the exit. It was madness. With the Camille in place, attempting to cross the bridge would be a desperate move.
But it wouldn't be the craziest thing that ever worked, and it put Ciara and Armen in far more direct danger than I liked.
"Open fire!" I commanded at the top of my voice, "Independent fire at will!"
The Rangers had stayed off the walkway and instead stood behind the parapet for protection, and levelling their weapons over the edge began killing anyone they could in sight. Their famed accuracy began to take its toll immediately; the people burning documents below were the first hit, scattering bodies, blood and paper all over the dusty ground. My Tevinter bodyguards whipped magical lightning across the space, the air tearing loudly with each discharge.
My insides stirred with a little guilt. I probably should have taken those people alive. But then, it was unlikely they'd allow that to happen anyway.
"Shoot the troops first!" I ordered, before noticing a certain feature of the battlements to my right, "Runner!"
One of my runners, a sixteen year old called Édouard jumped down beside me, cringing at his boots being covered in ichor but approaching nonetheless. I pulled him down behind the fencing as a stray Qunari firelance raked the walkway nearby, saving him from injury.
I pointed at the horn blowers and Qunari banners on the eastern battlements, to our right.
"Go tell Colonel Girondin to kill the hornblowers," I commanded, "And to tear down the Qunari banners and raise the national colours."
Édouard gave a single nod, unaware at how dangerous that task could be. But he wasn't stupid. Instead of running down the walkway, in front of our own troops shooting and where sporadic Qunari fire was slamming, he began climbing back over the parapet lip and onto the glacis, running behind the Rangers to reach the far right of our line.
It was a test of sorts. The Qunari had not broken despite casualties that would've sent any other armies running long before now, including our own. I needed to know if fighting them was going to be an Okinawa every time.
The shooting continued for a time, the fort turned into a deathtrap. I watched, rather than join in. There was one more thing I needed for the test of the Antaam's resolve. But my target was nowhere to be found. The Arishok was somewhere, I knew, but as Minié bullets perforated every piece of concealment including the large command tent, I couldn't believe the leader of the Qunari forces would remain hidden for long. Yet he persisted in hiding.
I began to wonder what the hell was happening.
In the mean time, the banners of the Qun came tumbling down in the east, the giant signalling horns cut off their mounts with axes and shoved down the sides of the outer wall. Our colour guards had fought their way through the remaining signals troops. The tricolour of Troy and the light-blue flag of the United Nations of Earth were raised up, bullet holes in them but flying nonetheless.
Still, the Qunari did not yield. And it was their doom.
On the right flank in front of the pontoon bridge, it was inevitable that the combined efforts of McNulty and Isewen would bear deadly fruit. The Grenadiers had gotten into action at last, pouring volleys into the Qunari lines, stopping only to allow the Lancers to charge in and withdraw. With their melee troops more or less all dead, and with their numbers reduced, it only took the second round of this cycle for the enemy line to break.
As I searched for the Arishok, trying to end this, the sight of Isewen's Lancers finally breaking through into the enemy rear was a great relief. Once it was possible, the cavalry rode through the line and continued to attack any other targets of opportunity. The remaining crews of the organ guns and the rear of the Qunari defence lines to the east of the fort were charged from behind. 'Turned into a popiscle'.
The Grenadiers charged forwards to take advantage of the chaos, sweeping aside the remaining Qunari infantry in a bayonet charge and wheeling onto the pontoon bridge.
Now the enemy was completely trapped, either on the bridge or in the fort.
The Qunari command and control was clearly still intact though, because only after all this had happened did the Arishok's position become clear. Elvhen runners converged not on the command tent, to my lack of surprise given the amount of fire the thing had taken, but rather a less ostentatious one in the north-east corner of the camp. Asala and Tam's intelligence on the deceptive behaviours of the Arishok on campaign was good.
"Rangers, hold position! Watch your fire!" I ordered, before turning to Marcus and pointing to the corner in question, "The Arishok is there. Let's go get him."
Marcus grinned from under his helmet, and waved the mages and Avvar firelancers under his command to join us. They jumped into the filth of the walkway with us, reloading and awaiting the order to advance.
I switched channels on my radio. "Soprano, you have general command now," I said over it, "I'm going to try to neutralise the Arishok. See if we can't get them to surrender. Mop up the rest if that doesn't happen."
"Understood," replied Soprano, "Good hunting."
With that out of the way and a gesture to Marcus, my bodyguard unit hopped over the inside railing of the walkway and slipped down the sloped wall of sandbags like it was a kid's slide. When they confirmed it was clear, Marcus and I did the same, getting ourselves properly dirty. Good. Now I felt like infantry again.
"Straight up the middle," I ordered.
The bodyguard unit formed the hedgehog formation, weapons and magical staves pointed in all directions, as we advanced through the ranks of empty and burning tents. The ground crunched beneath our feet, the surface layer having been cooked by the heat that was now thankfully dying down.
At one point a straggler jumped out at us from the side, having been waiting in ambush in a pile of canvas. A survivor of the assault up the glacis, reading by their vitaar. They were shot down with lead and lightning immediately upon revealing themselves, the huge knife they brandished falling forward onto my boots harmlessly. I felt sorry for the fanatic, for a brief second, before waving everyone on. We didn't have a lot of time.
By the time we reached the central space, the north-west corner of the camp was seeing heavy fighting as troops under Mike began an assault up the sandbags there. The enemy defending that section hadn't noticed us, and why would they with thousands of people trying to kill them. We stopped in front of the fake command tent, to make sure we weren't going to be hit by an ambush from inside it.
I picked up some of the documents scattered on the ground, out of curiosity.
It was correspondence. Some between the Arishok and the Prince of Starkhaven, of all things. Most were reports from Kont-aar, on readiness.
"Interesting," Marcus thought aloud, having done the same thing I had, "If we can collect all this up, it could prove very useful."
"One thing at a time," I said, shoving the documents in my hand between my uniform and my armour.
We began to move out when a shout came over the radio.
"The Arishok!" Asala said loudly in my ear, "He's leaving the tent, moving towards stairs with a large group of bodyguards! He means to flee!"
I couldn't see anything myself because of the smoking ruins of the tents between my position and where the Arishok presumably was. No way we were making our way direct, and if we followed the paths of the camp, we'd miss him or end up boxed in by his guards. I felt fire burn up through my throat. I wanted him captured or killed, and it was infuriating that he was so close to escape.
Before I knew it, the rough wood of the central tower was in my hands as I climbed the thing directly, not even bothering to run around to the other side where the ladder was. It was easy enough, there were support struts along the entire length.
Getting to the top, I finally made the Arishok. He was walking at a brisk pace towards steps at the centre of the camp's northern wall, the tunnels apparently made unsafe by the proximity of the Trojan cavalry and dragoons. Can't fight your way out of a deep hole when the enemy has grenades, after all. Even Isewen's Lancers carried them, as they were by far the cheapest weapon we could produce.
The Arishok himself was in the middle of a cloud of about fifty soldiers, most of them bigger than he was. He was easy to spot, because he was the only hornless Qunari among the group. At the front of the formation was a hulking saarebas in plate armour, its head encased in a metal box. The mage was being directed by chain, the other end of it being in the hands of another viddasala, Asala's replacement in the ranks of the Qunari priesthood if I'm not mistaken.
The anger in me burned out into excitement again, making me feel jumpy with joy.
I took a breath to calm my heart, flicking the selector switch of my firelance to single-shot, and lined the Arishok up on the aiming reticle. I remember thinking that I would've preferred the large precision firelance for the job.
I pulled the trigger, sending a bullet straight at the side of the Arishok... just as one of his bodyguards transposed to block the shot. The latter had spotted me, and had moved to protect his leader.
The bullet hit the bodyguard on the left upper torso, bursting with blood so much that it indicated a hit to the heart or arteries branching off of it. The man struggled to stay up as the wound sapped his strength, and was unable to shout to warn the rest.
My jaw clenching up, I began tapping out rounds downrange, keeping the Arishok as my target for each one.
The first few actually hit the man, but the bodyguards moving him and jostling him along meant that I only managed to wound him in his hand and lower torso. Nothing lethal or enough to significantly slow him down.
The rest of the shots killed or mortally wounded the guards, as they literally fell over each other to get in the way of the shots. I was down half a magazine by the time they reached the steps, which fell under the protection of a magical barrier thrown up by the saarebas. The giant stood with its hands raised like it was praying, a bubble barrier glowing around it, the viddasala helping the Arishok onto the first step.
"Motherfucker," I cursed through my teeth, flicking my weapon into burst fire.
I sent twelve bullets at the saarebas, three at a time, aiming for the 'triangle of death' above the collarbone. If I could knock the mage out, the Arishok would be a sitting duck on the stairs as there would be no way for the bodyguards to cover his upper body as he climbed.
What I got in return was probably to be expected. Qunari mages are ill-treated, and despite much talk about duty and responsibility to their people, they are weighed down by this reality.
At Hearth during the Qunari raid there, I had turned one mage into an abomination simply by breaking its head-bucket.
This time, the bullets penetrated the barriers after the first burst, and unlike at Hearth, it didn't take the entire magazine to break the full iron-mask. I must've hit a lock on it, because it fell off in two parts, cleanly. You could almost see the look of amazement as it looked up at the bright blue summer sky. Freedom in its eyes.
The look haunts me today more than anything else I saw that day... as I had already shot the next three bullets.
They slammed into its lower jaw, shattering the poor mage's face. That was all the invitation it needed. The viddasala left the Arishok and tried to grab up the pieces of the mask, not paying attention as the saarebas transformed beside her. Spider's legs sprouted from its back, the jawless face boiled up six more eyes, the skin turned from pale grey to deep green, and the monster began to levitate.
A Fear demon had arrived. It was able to make the transition to reality through the Qunari mage with ease, the Veil had been so weakened by the mass slaughter. A fact that would have interesting implications during the Coryphean War.
The thing floated straight into my firing line, preventing me from taking the shot. I cursed and reloaded, hoping the thing would kill my target or distract the enemy long enough for me to do so.
No such luck.
The bodyguards around the Arishok immediately took action, surrounding the demon as best they could on a stairway. The viddasala and another brave soul grabbed at its dangling legs, attempting to drag it down to the blades of the others before it registered their existence. It worked, somewhat.
The Fear demon screeched and growled, flailing at the two Qunari with a grip on it, stabbing outwards with its spider limbs to try and clear the way. The blades of the antaam fell upon it rapidly, swiping at its body, black-green blood pouring from the wounds. The thing responded with a Fade step directly upwards, slipping out of corporeal existence in a swirl of freezing smoke, splinters of ice wounding many of the bodyguards.
I could barely see the Arishok stumbling over the steps behind this commotion, only two others with him now. The anger returned to me in a hot flashes. I couldn't have him get away. The Qunari couldn't get a report of exactly how we defeated them. We needed them to keep making mistakes of doctrine we could exploit.
The demon seemed to shimmer for a moment as I took aim at it, summoning somethings into existence from the Fade. I can't explain what I saw. They were incoherent balls of darkness, shifting and moving constantly, even when stationary. I'm told they are Fearlings, minions of the Fear demons, and you see whatever creature you fear most. Evidently the Fear demon can't read my mind due to my immunity to anything unnatural, so I saw what the things really look like.
I ignored the Fearlings and took on their daddy.
The seconds to the Arishok ticked down as I filled the demon with copper-jacketed steel and lead. It twitched and swayed with pain, the power of the bullet and their origin in a world anathema to magic simply annihilating sections of its body. Each discharge of my weapon sent more of it surging off back into the Fade in a twirl of green energy.
Our eyes met as it understood who was attacking it, and its arm stretched out, shooting icicles at me in reply. It's hard not to want to avoid something like that,
Just as the Arishok jumped over the parapet beyond, out of view.
Yet I sighed rather than exploding with rage and frustration over missing my chance. My single-minded determination to kill my target had given me some tunnel vision.
Mike's assault on the fort was proving very effective. In the north-west corner, the dismounted Dragoons were storming over the parapet, shooting the enemy point-blank. The Qunari troops were sent running along the camp wall and hopping down outside, heading north for the swamp, joining their Arishok.
The bridge was now closed to them, as McNulty's Grenadiers smashed the centre of the Qunari attack, sending the wings fleeing into the river to try and cross. The Marines had split their fire, shooting at the Qunari now wading or swimming into the river, desperately trying to make it across. You could see the splashes as the cannons of the longships joined in. Not many of the enemy were making it.
The Alba was not the sort of stream you could swim underwater, holding your breath in one go.
In the midst of this chaos all around, the Arishok finally came back into view. Soldiers and whole units separated and retreating were rallying to him directly north of the fort. They were shedding what armour they had, as well as any remaining firelances. They were making for the water. If they could get across the Alba and into the treeline beyond, their escape was practically guaranteed.
The feeling of cold water going down my spine hit me, despite the high summer heat. That possibility could not be entertained. Biting my lip hard enough to draw blood, I changed channels on my radio once more.
"Isewen, rally and charge!" I commanded, "North of the fort! The Arishok!"
I didn't hear any acknowledgement, because I was already bringing my weapon back to readiness, taking aim. I let off a round at a time, carefully aiming. The Arishok was still well within range, but the number of people in the way had increased. Over the next minute or two, I'd manage to down a few of his followers, but not the man himself.
I zoned in on trying to hit him so completely, that I was still firing when the inevitable happened.
Isewen's Lancers came in on top of the Qunari group, a pincer from the rear and another from the side, lances levelled and at top gallop speed. I just about managed to miss them with my last few shots, no doubt the whip-crack of the near misses ringing in some of their ears.
The Arishok disappeared in a wall of horses, lances and kicked-up dust.
Firelances puffed smoke into the air, delivering the coup de grace on whoever was left. The Lancers circled the spot they had engaged, watching for further movement. I felt relief, both that I had not seemed to shoot any of my own troops in my enthusiasm to get the Arishok and in the fact that he was almost certainly dead.
And with that, the battle was more or less over.
I ordered the entire cavalry division and the dragoons, under Blondie, Mike and Isewen, across the river at once. It was only afternoon and it was the longest day of the year, there was plenty of daylight left for the stragglers to escape back to the Qun. I wanted the world to know I had crushed the Qunari, but I didn't want the Qunari to know exactly how. Many hundreds more were killed in individual engagements in the six hours afterwards.
The dreadnoughts and troop transports that had been docked at Hercinia or beached to the north of the city did not move to support their army, but withdrew with all haste. The Arishok had known the battle was lost when his centre was broken, and decided to preserve his realm's naval assets.
The Qun could lose an expeditionary force, it had tens or hundreds of thousands more troops, but losing a fleet would threaten Kont-aar, Seheron, even Par Vollen itself.
That said, it was the greatest defeat on land the Qunari had ever suffered up until that time. It remains the second greatest, outshone by a battle that was fought nearby, less than ten years before I write these very words. The plain and beaches south of the river are called the Field of Bones for a reason. But these volumes will not discuss the Second Battle of the Alba.
It was also the most costly battle for our forces up until that time.
Two thousand five hundred killed in action. Another seven thousand wounded in action. Our massive superiority in magical and physical medicines and surgery would make sure almost all of them were back in action, as had been the case with the Hafter and other battles. Practically no one had been wounded or killed by melee weapons, though we lost a good number of horses to spears.
Once the cavalry was across, I sent Soprano's division across to surround the city, and Fisher sailed the Navy's galleons to anchor off the docks. The city was invested, but there was to be no siege. The city had long outgrown its walls, and the walls themselves were crumbling.
The cities taxes were not used on defence; its mercenaries and its large palatial estates gave its robber-barons the notion that they didn't need walls and towers, like it was Sparta with more money.
The rest of the army was set to work gathering our wounded and dead, building a giant funeral pyre in the midst of the Qunari fort. The logistics corps brought the downed trees from the operation to pull the longships through the forest for the task. Grand Cleric Brandon came to say some words of sorrow that felt empty, and The Minstrel Boy was played as the gigantic pyre crackled mightily at sunset, eventually glowing brighter than the .
After that, the troops and the cleric were sent back to Troy via the eluvians for the night. That was perhaps our greatest advantage in possessing the elvhen mirror portals: a Trojan army could deploy and go home the same day as a battle, to rest and recuperate. Though we had to have a clear rotation so no one felt they could just stay home, though this problem was lesser in those days than it is today.
The Hercinian mercenaries and recruits were taken as prisoners of war, but they would not remain that way for long. I decided the Free Orlesian Army could use the reinforcements. Briala and General Le Carré was happy to hire them, though a number had to be executed for crimes committed in Jader during muster.
Julie, having watched the battle from Fort Gibraltar through a telescope, would paint a depiction of the battle for the pontoon bridge, with Ciara laying down heavy fire into the Qunari attack that came closest to her position. That part of the battle has become immortalised as the key moment, writing the Marines and Ciara into our history.
Ciara would gain a moniker of sorts from her participation, one which I will refrain from repeating at this juncture, as those who know it will know it would become formal at a later date.
I spent the night after the battle sleeping in Fort Gibraltar, waking early the next morning. I couldn't face Julie or Tam. They had watched the battle, but returned to Troy to rest by late evening. I needed space to process the fight. To take off the mask of war.
Soprano had the situation well in hand outside of Hercinia, so I had free time before our move on the city.
I mounted Bellona, alone, and rode out of the fort to the battlefield. I wandered across the field to where I saw the Arishok disappear, the stretch of mud and bare stone north of the fort, now a burned wreck of a funerary mound.
The Qunari corpses lay where they had fallen. I had forbidden their removal. It was the last thing I wanted was to spend the troops' energy on. We took the weapons and armour for evaluation and scrap metal a little later, but as I rode past, they were still there too. Another reason not to let the army camp anywhere near the place.
Hence, the Field of Bones.
The temperatures had dropped considerably in the night and the sea breeze was strong, so the smell wasn't unbearable, but the sickly-sweet rot was still in the air after the heat.
If you're wondering what I was doing out there, you weren't the only one.
I heard hoof-beats behind me. I turned in the saddle, discovering Armen and Ciara riding out to me.
"Sam... are you okay?" Armen asked, "What are you out here for?"
"The Arishok," I replied, "It occurred to me when I woke up that I never saw him die. Not really."
"So you're out looking for the body?" Ciara said, "You should be resting."
"If I don't have a body, then he could still be out there," I stated, turning back to look at each corpse as we passed, "If he returns, he could change how the Qunari think about war for the better. Can't take that chance."
"Then shouldn't you order a regiment out here to look instead?" Ciara continued, "Why do you need to be the hero?"
This was getting annoying... but I was touched by their concern. No need to be impolite when a deflection would do just as well.
"Here I thought you were the hero," I smiled in return, "Holding that bridge was no easy task. The Qunari would've gotten away without you."
Ciara looked away, towards the still-intact pontoon bridge.
"It's not like I was alone," she said, "Twelve men died protecting me. A thirteenth lost an eye. Each time we stopped to reload, the Qunari were waiting to shoot."
I stopped Bellona for a second. I hadn't known that the Qunari were so close that people had to step in front of Ciara to stop their fire killing her.
"We'll have to honour those sacrifices," I thought aloud, "Medal of Honour."
"Medals won't bring back the dead, or Sergeant Jerome's eye," Ciara stated flatly.
"No, but they remind people why they were made," I replied, returning to my search, "If you object to me being out here alone, stick around and help. We'll get done faster."
The two said nothing, but spread out a little and we walked the field, east to west. I found the viddasala's body, shot in the back. She was face down in the dust, but recognisable from the copy of the Tome of Koslun strapped to her hip, no doubt recovered from the tent she had been in with the Arishok before they tried to flee.
It was Armen who found the Arishok in the end, a little closer to the swamp than I had thought.
He lay on his back, a lance tip shivered off straight through his chest. His eyes were shut and his hands were around the lance, as if he was trying to pull it out of his body. Blood pooled around him, dry now, staining the pink-brown dirt a deep red.
Thus, we found the hornless Qunari who had travelled with the Hero of Ferelden as a sten, protected the world from darkspawn, rose to the highest rank attainable by his people and caste, replacing a man who had been stupid enough invade a southern Thedosian city so far from his supply lines and base of support with a man. I wondered what it would've been like to travel with him, before he commanded armies, if only because I was sure others would wonder the same about me.
The simple days of my companions and I travelling without an entourage of troops on the road were long gone, recreated only by desperate necessity on occasion.
I dismounted and stared at the man for a few minutes, making sure I remembered the sight for the future. His body was worth seeing.
And then I looked up, at Hercinia.
"Onto business then."