The following is an excerpt from The Burning Tower.
Part Two: Erimasran
By noon, with the sun beating down, the heat made it difficult to see far, but a strange, faint rumbling sound could be heard by all. It was not thunder, but Sandun could not have guessed what made the noise.
“They are coming,” Kagne said simply.
Everyone took their places. The scouts followed their own practice and covered their faces with mud. They stuck twigs into their belts and baldrics. Sandun, Basil, and four scouts were on the south side of the camp; Kagne and the other scouts could not be seen amid the rocks and hard shadows on the northern slope.
Again, the waiting. Sandun’s mind filled with thoughts and inner debates. Was it coincidence that the Issedonian raiders had come? Was this just a raid to steal livestock, or were they looking for the expedition? If two hundred or more Issedonian raiders found them, death was all but certain.
Sir Ako and Sergeant Torn were both sitting in the shade, sharpening all the weapons they carried: swords, daggers, hatchets, even the mace spikes were touched up. No one said anything. Sandun thought about burying his notes under a rock. Too late for that now. Must concentrate. He practiced archery in his mind, thinking about the lessons Basil had been giving him.
Now Sandun could see dust and hear the sound of trotting horses. A small group of men, more than twenty and less than thirty, came up into the valley. This was the first time Sandun had seen the savage eastern Issedonians. They were all bearded, and they were covered in dirt, perhaps deliberately. Their clothing appeared to be a mix of cow leather and deerskin. Most had short bows, though he saw two with very long bows.
Almost immediately, they spotted the camp. Their leader rode forward; he had a tall helmet decorated with two long, curling ram’s horns.
Sir Ako put on his helm and took up his sword and shield. Sergeant Torn, similarly armed, took position just a little behind him.
The Issedonian leader spoke. Sandun had heard the language before; many ships from Issedon sailed down the coast to trade at Seopolis. With difficulty, he could understand what the man was saying.
“A knight in armor, at the edge of the Tirala Mountains. Explain yourself.”
Sir Ako raised his visor and responded with the foulest oaths Sandun had ever heard; a growing fury was in his voice as he slapped his sword against his shield. Insulted and enraged, the Issedonian drew his sword, lifting it up to the sky. And then he let out a great cry of pain as an arrow pierced under his upraised arm and into his chest. He toppled from his horse and fell to the stony ground with a thud like a slab of meat dropped onto a kitchen floor.
All the other hidden archers fired their bows, and nearly every arrow found its mark. Horses reared and cried in pain and terror as arrows struck their bodies. Sir Ako and Sergeant Torn yelled, “For Kelten!” and charged into the suddenly chaotic mess. The surprise was total.
“No quarter!” bellowed Sir Ako as he hewed down men who had fallen off their horses and were struggling to switch from bows to their shortswords or daggers. Two horsemen at the rear suddenly turned and galloped away. An arrow hit one horse in the haunch, but it kept going. Sergeant Torn, with savage efficiency, slammed raiders to the ground with his shield and then bashed their heads in with his mace, which was soon covered in blood and gore.
Abruptly, the fighting was over. A few moaning Issedonians were quickly silenced with expert dagger thrusts into their eyes, and that was all. Two horses remained unharmed, most were dead, and a few had galloped off—riderless—into the plains. The ground with covered with blood and offal.
The men all gathered together at the scene of the fighting. No one was injured. “More will come,” Kagne said grimly. The mules, smelling blood, were braying and pulling at their traces. Sergeant Torn had some men drag the bodies off into a pile beside a large boulder north of the camp. Everyone drank water and gathered unbroken arrows. They threw most of the Issedonian weapons and the few pieces of armor into the stream bed.
Sir Ako gathered Kagne and Torn to plot the next fight. “What will the next group be like?”
“They don’t know our numbers,” Kagne replied. “The two cowards that fled will spend hours seeking more of their allies. They will tell a tale of how they were defeated by a sudden attack of thirty or more archers hiding in the rocks.” He smiled grimly at the other scouts. “If they are searching for the Archive Expedition, then they may gather a hundred men before coming back. I doubt that all will gather to attack us, for fear they are missing the real expedition as opposed to an unknown diversion.” Kagne continued, “When they come, I think they will spread out, form a line, try to drive us off the hillsides and down into the valley, which will then become a killing field.”
“We could go into these hills, defend that hilltop for example.” Sir Ako pointed to a rounded hill about two miles northeast with a commanding view over the plains below.
“I don’t like that. The hilltops here are mostly barren, without trees or bushes. Even the rocks are small up top. With no protection, we could be showered with arrows while the Issedonians are hidden behind good cover from below. After several hours, with all of us injured and some killed, they would charge, and the end would be certain.”
“What if we keep going in the mountains?”
“If we move fast, we leave tracks clear enough to be followed. If we move slowly, we don’t have enough of a head start to lose them. We cannot go faster than the raiders. They catch up when we are tired, lost, and on ground that none of us knows. Again, the ending is certain.” Kagne’s words painted a picture the others could easily see in their minds.
“So, we are dead men?”
“Maybe not. If the raiders are looking for us, that means they are not attacking the villages. My people will not sit idly while Issedonian raiders head south. Swift messages will be sent to Sirosfeld, and likely they were sent days ago when the raiders first crossed the border. So we can expect the Kelten cavalry to arrive sometime. Further, the villages will send out hunting parties of their own to find out what the raiders are doing and where they are going. The land may seem empty of friends, but they are out there, and in numbers.”
Sir Ako came to a decision. “Another surprise, then. We shift north, hiding our supplies among the rocks here. We leave the noisy mules where they are. We concentrate, hidden in the next valley. If the raiders haven’t found us by nightfall, we move into the plains west. With Sho’Ash guiding us, we attack them from the rear.” Sir Ako outlined his plan with broad sweeps of his arms. Everyone gathered around him and muttered agreement.
“A bold plan, Sir Ako.” Kagne pulled at his mustache, considering the idea. “I would not expect it. They will not expect it.”
“After the fight, if any of us are alive, return here to the camp,” Sir Ako commanded.
Four hours later, as the sun was gleaming red against the horizon, a large line of riders appeared in the plains heading toward them. The expedition was two miles north of the camp that morning, strung out along another ridge, hidden amid the manzanita and deer brush. Thunder had been booming faintly in the afternoon, and the barest hint of rain was in the air, a few drops blown far from the taller hills. Riders were approaching from the southwest, heading for the battle site.
Basil, using his farseeing glass, counted seventy mounted men and at least two more at the nearest edge who were on foot.
“They will not find us before the night falls. Look, they are stopping. Here come some scouts.” In the next few hours, as the sun set, the raiders sent scouts into the valley; they came out again and conferred with a small cluster of men near the center of the line.
A low horn sounded, and gradually the line of men moved forward into the darkness. It was getting very hard to see, but it appeared that many of the raiders had dismounted and were walking ahead of their horses.
Kagne whispered to the others, “The moon will not rise for another three hours.”
Sir Ako told everyone, “Soon we move out. Stay low, stick together. We attack them from the north. A pure night fight. Their numbers will count for nothing!” There was a light in his eyes that Sandun had seen before, in the faces of some of the knights before the great battle of Agnefeld.
Basil said to Sandun, “I hate hunting at night. Can’t aim properly.”
One of the oldest scouts, Padan, replied, “We train for night fighting, sword and shield, shield and sword.” The scouts were armed with shortswords and small shields in addition to their preferred bows.
Damar, the cowherd from Sun House, said, “At least we can tell who is who in the dark. These dog-loving Issedonians stink to high heaven, not like the soldiers of Fiodroch.” He fingered his sword
While Kagne kept watch on the advancing raiders, Sir Ako gathered his men around him. “Men, hear now the last words of Sho’Ash.”
One of the men raised his hand. “Yes, Kinot?” asked Sir Ako.
Kinot said, “Sir, I have something to confess.”
“Go on. It does us well to hear the words with a clean heart.”
“The last night in Sirosfeld, I cheated at cards. I, ah, humbly beg your forgiveness. If I live, I’ll make amends, I promise, especially you, Farrel,” he said, turning to another scout. “I didn’t spend it all on that black-haired lady, but she was worth it.”
“Not luck after all,” Farrel grumbled. The red-haired man lifted his bow and sighted towards the horizon. “You can repay me by acting as my shield while I shoot the bastards this night.”
Sir Ako continued, “Before Sho’Ash took the spear and strode into the throne room of the Black Terror, he gathered the faithful around him, and he said to them, ‘Although I go to face that which no man can face, I believe.’”
Here all the men joined him: “I believe good will triumph. With faith, I will defeat evil. With courage, my spirit will live forever. And I will join the shining company of heroes. So it was, so it is, so it shall be.”
With that said, the group headed silently west out into the dark plain, circling around the end of the line of the enemy, which was advancing slowly east into the hills that they had abandoned.
Soon, they guessed they had passed the line of Issedonian raiders. Sir Ako called a halt. He whispered urgently, fiercely: “Now, we hit them from the rear. We will drive them before us like wolves drive sheep. In the night, one man seems like a score. We will panic them, and they will fly from our wrath. Do you believe it? Do you believe it! For Kelten!”
A night fight was one of the most dangerous military engagements. Most commanders would rather face three-to-one odds in the day than risk a night battle. In the dark, men panicked easily. A man was just as likely to kill a friend as he was to attack a foe. But they were in a compact group, and the enemy were spread apart. For a while, surprise would be on their side; however, unless the Issedonians broke and ran, their numbers were too great. They would surround the Archive Expedition, and it would die.
Still, Sir Ako’s confidence was infectious. He seemed completely convinced that they would defeat the raiders. Sandun thought Sir Ako must harbor doubts, but if he did, he did not show them, did not acknowledge them. He sounded supremely confident. Sandun wondered: perhaps Sho’Ash felt the same way before the end, fearing defeat but not wanting to show his fears to the faithful. But that was ridiculous—Sho’Ash was a god.
The first raider went down without a sound. He was on foot and not paying any attention to what was behind him. Kagne crept up on him like a mountain lion and then covered his mouth and cut his throat at the same moment.
The next man in the line was riding slowly, his body clearly silhouetted by the faint light lingering at the horizon. Three scouts used their bows, and all three arrows struck the raider at the same time; he fell, making little noise. The Issedonians paid no attention and kept moving. The man’s horse, seemingly used to men falling from its saddle, simply stopped. Ten more raiders were killed in similar fashion before the enemy captains figured out what was happening.
Now would be a good time for them to panic, Sandun thought, but if some fled in the night, he could not see it.
The raiders lit torches, but their light gave Basil and Farrel targets to shoot at. Four more raiders were hit with arrows before they abandoned the torches. The Archives group heard shouted commands, and it was clear the enemy were organizing, trying to pin down and surround the Kelten warriors.
“Time to attack,” Sir Ako said. “For Kelten!” He charged into the darkness; Sergeant Torn and the others followed him, swords in their hands glinting in the night. They all yelled as loudly as they could, hoping to intimidate the enemy, trying to making darkness and fear their ally.
The rest of the fight was hard to piece together even after it was over. Sandun stayed close to Basil, stabbing any raider who came in range. Basil shot arrow after arrow into the melee. Sandun saw Maklin charge into the fray with his axe swinging, but his strong swings, useful for chopping wood, left him exposed to counterthrusts, and he went down after a minute. Kagne appeared once next to Sandun and Basil, his hands gripping oddly shaped daggers, his arms dark with blood. He said something that made no sense and then vanished into the night. He looked wild, almost feral.
Sir Ako and Sergeant Torn fought as well as Sandun had seen any pair of warriors fight. Sir Ako seemed to sense blows before they were made, his metal shield deflected cuts and thrusts, and he beat down men with his sword, then his axe, then his mace. Sergeant Torn stayed by Sir Ako’s side, defending him from the rear and dispatching the men Sir Ako had knocked down. Their years of training together allowed Torn to guess when Sir Ako was going forward to attack and when he was pulling back to lure the enemy into a deadly riposte. Sergeant Torn was remarkably skilled at tripping attackers with blows to their legs and feet, and his attacks were nearly impossible avoid in the darkness. Sandun killed at least three men who had been knocked to the ground by Torn’s sneak attacks.
Then Sergeant Torn was down; Sandun didn’t see what happened to him. Sir Ako fought on alone; the rest of the scouts kept out of the range of his powerful swings, but they were fighting with him. Sir Ako seemed unstoppable, a lion in the night, smashing faces, breaking spears, cursing his enemies with a stream of foul oaths.
Then a new group of men appeared, shouting, “Kelten! Kelten!” Sandun guessed these men must be from the Tokivanu villages—one of the hunting parties Kagne had mentioned earlier. Now all the men of the Archives Expedition again started yelling, “Kelten! Kelten!”
Another minute of confusion and screams, and suddenly the Issedonians were running away. The village warriors who had joined the fight followed them into the darkness. Surrounded by crying men and moans, Sandun found Sir Ako kneeling on the ground beside Sergeant Torn. The sergeant’s sword arm was nearly severed from his body, there was blood all around his waist and legs, and he was motionless. Sandun felt Torn’s neck and found no pulse. Already his skin felt cold. Sir Ako kept repeating his name, over and over. There was nothing to be done.
Sandun went to find Maklin. The young man was alive, but he seemed unaware of the world; he didn’t respond to his name. By starlight Sandun could see the scribe had been stabbed by a spear or javelin through his thigh, near the knee. Sandun took some clean cloth he had brought with him and tightly wrapped it above the wound as a tourniquet.
Out of the night, the other members of the expedition appeared by twos and threes. All were injured: Norris had lost several fingers on his right hand. Eki, supported by two of his comrades, had a dagger in his back. He cried out in pain as Sandun removed the blade and jammed clean linen into the gaping wound.
Looking around, Sandun realized the fighting had taken them close to the entrance of the small valley where they had camped that morning. Without saying much, they carried Torn’s corpse and Maklin’s unresponsive body back.
Kagne appeared, his hair a mess of blood and grass. More blood dripped down the side of his face. At first, he spoke to them in a language none could understand. Seeing their incomprehension, he shook himself and sat down.
“The warriors of the northern villages are hunting down the remnants of the…of the…” He slapped his face with his bloody hand. “They tell me the cavalry from Sirosfeld is fighting with another large group south—on the other side of those hills.” He pointed. “We can’t see it. Anyway, the mark’s soldiers will win. The word will go through the north, spread like wildfire, and more men will come out hunting. None of those filthy…none of them. Not one of them will live to see Issedon again.” He stood up and howled like a wolf.
Sandun thought the people who lived here in spite of the raids from Issedon had to be as fierce as the raiders.
Sir Ako told Kagne, “Torn is dead. Maklin, Norris, and Eki are wounded.” Then he stood up and in a loud voice said, “We won. Outnumbered seven to one, we beat them. They broke and ran from us like the whoresons they truly are. And why? Because we are best warriors in Kelten!” Everyone cheered. “Bring out the wine, all of it. Tonight we honor our dead and celebrate our victory.”
As they bound their wounds with strips of linen, some of the men went to the hidden packs and pulled out all the bottles and skins filled with Zeres wine and brought them back to the fire pit. Others gathered up the scattered firewood and soon built up a massive blaze. And they drank.
Sandun felt half-drunk already, giddy, torn between powerful emotions: relief, joy, fear, and sorrow all mixed up. But they all drank for hours deep into the night, toasting their success, yelling out challenges to the night sky. After midnight, Basil was puking the wine back out, and Kagne lay on the ground, staring up and muttering words in his northern language. The other scouts were sprawled about the camp, wrapped in stained blankets or slumped against stones.
Only Sandun and Sir Ako were still talking, singing snatches of songs, draining the last bottles.
In his drunken haze, Sandun finally asked the question that had been lurking in the back of his mind ever since Sir Ako had first ridden up to the door of the Archives. “Tell me…tell me what it’s like. Yes, tell me what it’s like to be married to that golden-haired goddess.”
Sir Ako nodded as if he fielded that question all the time. “It’s great. What a beauty. What a figure on that woman.”
Sandun thought he detected a lie. Maybe he was drunk—actually, he was drunk—but Sir Ako’s words rang false.
“Don’t believe you. I don’t believe what you are saying. That is a lie. Tell me the truth. Didn’t we face death together? I demand the truth! What is it like to be married to the most beautiful woman in Kelten?”
Sir Ako wiped his mouth with his injured hand and grimaced. “Oh. You demand the truth, do you? Brothers in arms we are, and you demand the truth? Well, I’ll tell you the fucking truth!” He stood up and peered down at Sandun with bloodshot eyes. “She treats me like a fishmonger! She treats me like I’m not worthy to touch so much as the hem of her dress. She looks around our small manor with our three house servants and she thinks—‘Why did I marry this pauper knight!’
“Never, never marry a beautiful woman. Oh, wait. No, you can marry a beautiful woman, if you are the fucking king! Or my brother. His wife can’t match my Lilly’s looks, but she’s fine. And she worships the ground he walks on. It’s always, ‘Yes, my lord’ and ‘As you wish, my lord,’ and she means it. Yes, she means it. Maybe, just maybe, she means it because one day, my father, His Lordship, will die from a stroke or break his neck hunting, and then she will be a great lady, the Earless of Agnefeld.
“But my Lilly, she thinks she has nothing more to hope for. Ah, there’s a dim chance I’ll advance. I might be elevated to the smallest, most minor barony in some desolate county, perhaps here in glorious Erimasran! But only if there’s a war, and I’m a bleeding hero in it, and I don’t get skewered by some shit-eating peasant. No, odds are I’ll never be more than I am, and she hates it, she hates not getting a new dress every month, she hates living in Agnefeld instead of living in a blasted mansion in Seopolis. And she hates me—because she thinks she could have married better.”
He spat on the ground and then sat down. He was breathing hard. Sandun offered him the last of the wine. Sir Ako drained it and threw the bottle off into the night. It smashed against some rocks.
“And who is she? No better than I, lower even. Her father was a knight, a lesser knight. But two years as the queen’s fucking handmaiden spoiled her rotten. With half the men of Seopolis come to see her every day. Men like you, eh, Master Sandun? Great lords praising her long honey hair. Queen Joaris showering her with dresses and gifts. By Saint Pererline’s tits, the way she carries on now, you’d think she was the daughter of a bloody earl, with a vast estate as her dowry. As Sho’Ash is my god, I wish she’d married someone else. Then I could have found a woman who actually wanted to be my wife.”
Sandun had nothing to say.
“I volunteered for this command,” Sir Ako said quietly. “Told her it would bring me fame, bring me the notice of the king.” He paused. “I did it to get away from her.” Sir Ako struggled to stand up but failed and slumped onto his side. “Why am I still awake? Is there any more wine?”
“Go to sleep, Sir Ako,” said Sandun. “Go to sleep, you great bloody hero.”
Sandun rose unsteadily to his feet and, although his mind felt clear, he found it hard to walk. He checked on the other men. Maklin’s wounded leg was covered in dried blood, but the tightly wrapped bandage seemed to have halted further bleeding. His breathing was shallow but even, so Sandun thought he would survive. Everyone else was asleep.
Lastly, he came to the body of Sergeant Torn. They had arranged his body and covered all but his head with shields and broken weapons to keep off any scavengers in the night. Sandun stood looking up at the black sky dotted with stars as a cold wind blew down from the high mountains to the east. He wondered about Sergeant Torn. Did he have a wife? Children? His spirit was gone, and what had he left behind in this world? A body, soon to be nothing more than dry bones buried at the edge of civilization. Sandun shivered.
He thought to himself: Who will mourn me when I am dead? No wife, no children. A sister whom I rarely see. My parents are dead. If I die, as seems likely in the coming months, I will have accomplished nothing of note. Even in the Archives, my name will be remembered for a perhaps decade, no more.
He walked back to the camp and wrapped himself up in blanket. I will succeed, he vowed. I will find the path to Serica. I will return and marry and raise my children.
But a coldly logical part of his mind replied, And what if you fail?
He said aloud, “Then I will die in the attempt. Sho’Ash will know I did my best.”