Edrian watched as the Sergettian horsemen formed up on the flanks, five hundred on each side. They were light cavalry, armed with sabres and pistols, and no mach for Spikethorn's horse on the left, or the Mace's heavy cavalry in the centre, even with the advantage of numbers. Most of them had seen their first taste of battle at Fort Aspen, and none had more than a month of dedicated unit training.
But still, the light cavalry weren't meant to charge into the thick of things. Their job was to encircle and pick off any elements of Hahn's army that could be isolated. Or, at least, that was what Marius had said. To Edrian, it looked painfully like they would simply be smashed aside by Spikethorn and slaughtered by Grieger's crossbows.
The rest of the plan made sense, though. Hahn's deployment was weighted heavily to the west, with almost six hundred horsemen between Spikethorn and the Mace mustered there ready to sweep up the Sergettian army from the flank inwards. The eastern flank was comparatively weak – Grieger's spear-fronted crossbowmen arrayed against the light cavalry and a spattering of infantry with a mix of spears and swords.
Marius had deployed most of the Sergettian handgunners – a full fifteen hundred – along with a good six hundred spears and pikes onto the western flank, and they were just now forming up into the dense formation that would hopefully shatter the Chalonii cavalry charge. That, and the incline that the horses had to climb. The centre of the Sergettian army was home to the majority of the infantry, with over four thousand men arrayed in rough ranks, each armed with a hooked spear and a short sword and armoured in stout leathers under their royal purple surcoats. A long line of the remaining handgunners stretched across the front, ready to fire and retreat as soon as the Chalonii approached close enough.
By any estimation, it should be a slaughter. Edrian was half surprised that the mercenaries hadn't abandoned the battle already.
Marius, it seemed, was undecided on the issue. While organising the army and laying out his plans, he had been adamant that the Chalonii were not to be taken lightly, and now instead of commanding, he was standing at the forefront of the army, bedecked in his full armour, that sword drawn and by his side. Despite his words on his arrival, he appeared to be content to let Edrian call the orders.
Which was not an entirely welcome decision. Edrian was no battle leader, and he knew it. Until a year ago, he had been a farmer, idly imagining what the great battles that floated down through history would have been like. Now he was there on the field, it suddenly didn't seem so romantic and heroic anymore.
The signalmen were behind him; drums firmly grounded, trumpets shining and ready, runners mounted. He gestured vaguely behind him without looking, and someone placed a looking-glass in his hand. He brought it to his eye, and the Chalonii leapt into focus.
They were a ragtag bunch, for the most part. Grieger's men had a vague coherence to them – dark greys and browns were the predominant colours to the east – and he could see the crossbowmen driving stakes hurriedly into the ground in front of them in reaction to the light cavalry opposite them. Of course, from their distance, they would simply be cavalry to them, with no way of telling if they were light or heavy. He spotted Grieger himself, still wearing his wide hat, pacing impatiently in the middle of his men.
At the very back of the Chalonii was Hahn, surrounded by a gaggle of advisors and messengers. The distance was too far to see clearly, but the general's flame-coloured hair was distinctive enough that he didn't need to see any closer to know who it was. With him stood a dozen grey-robed figures, each one tall and willowy. Stormweaver and what had to be her acolytes.
He swept the glass down and onto his own army, seeking Marius. The general was walking up the line of infantry, his mouth moving animatedly. A speech. Edrian had never understood the need for speeches – every man knew what he had to do, and he went and did it, and hopefully most of them came back alive; a few fancy words at the beginning seemed superfluous – but over the battles and skirmishes of the last year, he had learned that his vie was not universal. A good speech saved lives and won battles.
When Marius was done, he turned and looked up at Edrian's position. He raised his sword-arm, then dropped it down. Edrian half-turned towards the trumpeters. "First signal," he ordered. "One."
A loud blare went up from the trumpeters behind him. The sound echoed over the battlefield, and the light cavalry on the western flank spurred their mounts into action. The rode out towards the Chalonii horsemen, five hundred lightly-armoured men with pistols approaching almost double their number of heavily-armed dedicated men who made fighting from their saddles into a career.
They approached at a canter until they were in pistol range; then, almost as one, began a sweeping, fluid turn eastwards to bring themselves back into the Sergettian lines in a gallop. As they passed the Chalonii, each man unloaded his pistol, and a cloud of smoke obscured them before they were all past.
Through the looking-glass, Edrian could see the damage done to the Chalonii cavalry was minimal, at best. Five hundred men firing at long range from moving horses had caused perhaps fifty casualties, including horses. Mostly amongst the Mace's heavy cavalry; Marius had instructed them to avoid dealing heavy damage to Spikethorn's band out of hope that the mercenary might see sense before the battle was over. Dead mercenaries were no good to anyone.
The physical damage, however, was not the intent. Though they had managed to restrain themselves for now, the mercenaries were raging. He waited until the light cavalry was back in position.
"Second signal," he ordered without turning. "One."
Once again, one blast went up from the trumpeters. Once again, the light cavalry on the west delivered a smoke-wreathed ripple of lead into the Chalonii. They would have to move soon. Hahn wouldn't let his cavalry be shot down without retaliation.
"Third signal. Two."
This time, two blasts sounded. The western cavalry started out again, but this time those on the eastern flank moved too. Not towards Grieger's men, but westwards, across the front of the line.
True to Marius' prediction, at the third repetition, Hahn let his cavalry loose. Spikethorn and the Mace led their horsemen out towards the approaching light cavalry with a roar that was audible even over the distance. The light cavalry swerved back, so that they were racing the Chalonii towards the Sergettian lines.
When they reached the musket lines, they split, half moving almost directly west around the lines, the other half going east across the front of the infantry. As the two halves peeled apart, the front rank of handgunners took aim. One rank would fire, then kneel to reload while the rank behind fired, then they would do the same while the third rank fired, then the fourth, by which time the first rank would be ready again. With the pikes in support, Hahn's cavalry would be decimated, and then the eastern light cavalry would arrive to sweep up the remains.
The Chalonii cavalry entered handgun range, riding hard. They knew as well as he that it was charge or be damned at this point. The call went up from the midst of the handgunners to fire-
And then what felt like a wall of solid air struck all across the Sergettian lines like a hammerblow. The moving light cavalry were all but bowled over, with barely a handful able to keep their saddles as the horses stumbled and fell. The handgunners staggered back under the impact, a cry going up-
The Chalonii cavalry hit.
The Mace's lances and Spikethorn's long spears stabbed down with all the force of horse and rider at full gallop, smashing a wedge deep into the infantry formation. Off-balance pikemen couldn't get their weapons down in time, and were ridden down as the mercenaries switched to swords and axes. Handgunners were caught defenceless and slaughtered.
Stormweaver. It had to be her. Not even Marius had suspected she could do something that big, and they were paying for it.
He turned frantically. "Four!" he shouted to the trumpeters. "Four!"
Four desperate hollers echoed out. The order to charge. If they could get into Hahn's infantry, then his cavalry wouldn't be able to ride through them. If. It was a long way to go. Maybe too long. If the Mace and Spikethorn finished with the western flank before they got there…
If they could get to Stormweaver, they could turn it back around.
Lightning crashed, the sky suddenly boiling with clouds, and the grass turned to mud beneath the Sergettians' feet. More winds battered at the charging infantry. They outnumbered Grieger by more than four to one, but it didn't look like they were going to get to him anywhere near intact enough to use it.
Casting the eye of the looking-glass over the charging infantry, Edrian could see Marius at their head, running through the mud as if his armour didn't encumber him in the slightest, no matter that he should be struggling to lift one foot after another between the sludge and the steel. His face alone showed utter stillness; that same calm, unreadable expression on his features despite the headlong charge.
He lowered the glass and looked left, in time to see the last handful of handgunners ran down by the Mace's heavy cavalry. The swarming horsemen regrouped into a vague order; Aulen Spikethorn at the head of his riders, Bredick the Mace to the fore of his own mob of lancers. A dozen from each group had dismounted, and were hurriedly scurrying across the bloody field retrieving any lances and spears still in working condition.
He glanced back at the charge. Almost there. Stormweaver's ethyric gales made them fight for every step, and shrubs and grasses scythed about, tripping soldiers and entrapping limbs. Grieger's crossbowmen sent wave after wave of quarrels into them, scything down rank after rank after rank.
To the west, he glimpsed the Mace raise his huge weapon into the air, with a roar that was faint across the distance. He brought it down, and his cavalry leapt forwards around him, followed after a moment by Spikethorn's. Forwards, straight for Edrian.
The Sergettian infantry reached Grieger's crossbowmen. The stakes stopped most of the impact of the charge, and Grieger's spearmen matched the rest, meeting the Sergettian infantry with a wall of steel blades. Here and there, Edrian saw Sergettians break through the spearmen, only for them to be blasted apart by lightning that cracked down from the sky in blinding white forks or battered to the ground by howling winds and ground that suddenly turned to marsh beneath their feet.
They had begun the day with seven thousand, to Hahn's two thousand. Now Hahn had barely lost half his army, and Edrian would be stupid to hope for any more than three thousand Sergettians left alive on the field. More likely it was even less, and growing more so every second.
And the Chalonii cavalry were mere seconds away from him. Briefly, he thought of sounding an alarm on the signals, but he knew that any distraction now would only rob his infantry of the small chance of survival that they had. The Chalonii weapons glinted dangerously, slicked with Sergettian blood, but Edrian wouldn't let himself be responsible for killing more of his own men.
Then the cavalry hit, and a lance took him through the neck.
Marius batted aside a spear haft, and sliced his khopesh back across the mercenary's chest, feeling it cut through the tough leathers the man wore. He drove his knee into the man's gut, and pushed himself past the doubled-up spearman, his blade whipping back to hamstring him on the way.
He found his next opponent; a tall, well-muscled man holding an old halberd; and dodged to the side to avoid a heavy downswing. The blow clanged off the armour of his thigh, and he turned with the impact, khopesh slicing out and down. The curved blade hit the halberdier neatly across the wrist, drawing a ragged line of red that made the man cry out, his grip loosening on his weapon. Marius took advantage of it, and slammed his free fist into the side of his skull. The halberdier crumpled.
More pressed in from every side, but Marius refused to let pessimism have any hold over him. He could feel Stormweaver's magicks coursing around him, over him, through him, and a thrill went through him at the thought of someone with that power so close to him.
He hacked his way through the melee, paying no attention to those he killed. He had to reach Stormweaver.
Chisan Hahn watched as the Sergettians were slowly worn down by Grieger's men. Grieger himself was somewhere in there; he didn't know if the mercenary was dead or alive, and didn't particularly care either way. Behind them, the cavalry had finished mopping up the Sergettian commanders and had begun their charge back down into the infantry.
Beside him, Stormweaver stood in the centre of a circle of her acolytes, arms upraised. Her hair lashed in a wind that touched nothing but herself, and her eyes glowed with a baleful blue-white light. The grass around her feet rose to waist height, whipping about in the same wind that caught her robes and hair.
The sheer scale of the destruction she had wrought was impressive, and appalling. Impressive, because she had almost single-handedly turned the tide of the entire battle; and appalling that one person could control so much power. He had almost not believed her when she told him that she could do this, and now he was sincerely grateful that he had listened and planned accordingly.
His eyes returned to the melee in front of him, and he started when he saw a red figure pushed to the front. His armour was dark crimson, stained darker with blood, and a curved, scimitar-like sword flashed in his hands. His face was uncovered.
He should have been at the back, slaughtered with the other commanders, not in the thick of the fighting. How he had managed to survive Griger's spears and Stormweaver's winds was an impossibility, but there he was, slicing his way through man after man towards them.
He threw a glance at Stormweaver, but she had already seen. Her eyes flicked down to Marius, and a roaring blast of air hammered into his chest. The Sergettian general staggered, then straightened. Stormweaver frowned, then renewed her attack; sending more lances of air at him and rending the ground around his feet.
Marius' face twisted in a laugh, and the magical attacks rolled off him. A darkness seemed to well up around him, pushing the winds and the roiling earth from his path.
Stormweaver gave a small smile. Lightning stabbed down at Marius, and for all his magical darkness he was forced to dive forwards out of its path. More bolts of lightning cracked out from the clouds at Stormweaver's call, and Marius broke into a roll, coming up roughly in a sprint, the interlocking plates of his armour clanking with his movements.
Four steps, and he was to them. His strange blade cut down two of Stormweaver's acolytes before they even registered he was amongst them, and he had its curved edge against Stormweaver's throat before Hahn's sword was out of its scabbard.
Marius nodded to him. "General," he said cordially, then turned to look at Stormweaver. "Mage. Stop the winds."
Stormweaver's eyes lost their glow, fading back to their blue-shot grey. The gales billowing her robes and hair died. "You are not just a general," she said.
"I am not," he nodded.
"You act surprisingly arrogant for someone who is in danger of being smashed like a child's toy. Even my acolytes could do that."
"Try it." There was no challenge in the words, just a flat statement. "My arm is faster than any of your magicks. You would still die."
Stormweaver was silent for a moment. "Then why don't you kill me now?"
Hahn eased his sword slowly from its scabbard, trying to make as little noise as possible.
"Because I have more important uses for you."
"Important enough that you can lose your entire army?"
Hahn whipped the last inch of his sword from its scabbard and held the blade up to Marius' neck. "Now, Marius," he said. "Back down. You may not be just a man like me, but I can sure as hell kill you like one. Your army is dying as we speak. Surrender."
Marius looked at him. "No."
"I warn you Marius; it is surrender or death."
Marius cleared his throat, ignoring Hahn's blade there. "There are more important issues rearing their heads than the petty squabbling between insignificant princedoms."
"Issues," said Hahn flatly.
"Yes. I need you. I cannot stop the events that are gaining momentum by myself. An army is too noticeable. Four can move faster, and unnoticed."
"Four? And what makes you think we'll go with you instead of just killing you here and now?"
"Because if you don't, I will kill you," Marius said. "Believe me when I say this is bigger than Chalon or Sergetti or any one realm. When she unveils herself once more, the whole world will tremble. And after the invasion from the Wastes, the world cannot fend her off."
"She?" Hahn asked. None of Marius' words made sense.
"The Queen of the Night."
"Never heard of her."
"No," said Marius. "You wouldn't have."
Abruptly, Stormweaver spoke up. "I know the title," she said. Hahn seemed to be the only one who paid any attention whatsoever to the raised swords. "I will go with you."
Marius nodded. Hahn looked at her in disbelief.
"And you, general Hahn?" Marius asked.
"No! I will not give up my life to go on some quest with my enemies, general Marius."
Hooves from behind made him turn. Aulen Spikethorn rode up, his spear still in hand. The blade was covered in blood. "The Sergettians have surrendered," he reported, ignoring Marius.
Hahn threw a hand out towards Marius. "Kill him!" he ordered, and thrust with his sword.
The blade stabbed through Marius' throat and out the other side in a welter of thick blood.
Marius reached up and pulled the sword away from his neck. He turned his head slowly to Spikethorn. "Good. The Mace is dead?"
Spikethorn nodded. "I killed him myself."
What the hell? Marius should be lying on the ground, not talking calmly to Aulen Spikethorn.
"Now, Hahn," Marius said. "Last chance. Stay here with no army and no supplies until Prince Dhiram sends another force to kill you, or come with us."
Hahn grimaced. "Fine," he growled. "I come."