"They're back there, all right, Sir," Sergeant Evauhlt said.
The Golden Vale armsman was perched in one of the sturdier trees, peering back to the east through a spyglass at a winking point of light. The long-barreled glass was much heavier and clumsier than the Axeman double-glass in the case hanging from Sir Fahlthu's weapons harness. It was, however, almost as powerful and far cheaper, and Fahlthu had no intention of trusting his prized glasses to any clumsy-fingered cavalry trooper. Even a signaler like Evauhlt.
"How many of them?" he asked, gazing up into the oak.
"The scouts say six or seven score, Sir," Evauhlt reported, still watching the flash of the heliograph from the steep hill further into the swamp. The lookouts atop it could see over the trees sheltering Fahlthu's troopers and their waiting position to the line of hills beyond. They'd been diligently keeping watch on their crests since dawn, in anticipation of his scouting parties' return, and passing their reports to the signal post located far enough down the hill for the swampland's low-growing trees and brush to hide its heliograph's flash from anyone to the west.
Fahlthu grunted in acknowledgment of Evauhlt's report and drummed the fingers of his right hand on the hilt of his saber. That estimate of the enemy's numbers was higher than he'd hoped it might be when the scouts watching his back trail first reported that his tracks were being followed. On the other hand, the other side thought they were still chasing mere horse thieves. They didn't know the rules of the game had changed. . . .
"Well, Master Brownsaddle," he observed to the man beside him. "So much for hiding our tracks."
He knew the criticism implicit in his tone was less than fair, but he really didn't care very much at the moment. The more he saw of "Brownsaddle," the less he liked. Not because the man wasn't competent—in fact, he was almost irritatingly capable. Indeed, much of Fahlthu's unease where "Brownsaddle" was concerned stemmed from the fact that the man was too capable for who and what he claimed to be. Fahlthu had the instincts of a successful mercenary, and they insisted that "Brownsaddle" proved there was even more going on here than Sir Chalthar had explained when he issued Lord Saratic's orders.
"If it were still raining, that would be one thing, Sir," Darnas Warshoe replied—respectfully, but with enough patience in his voice to show his opinion of Fahlthu's critical tone. "As it is—" He shrugged. "You can't hide the tracks of that many horses in weather like this, whatever you do. All you can do is try to put them somewhere no one will look for them—like the bottom of a ravine."
Fahlthu grunted again. This time he sounded remarkably like an irritated boar as he considered his options. Those same instincts which distrusted "Brownsaddle" urged him to avoid any closer contact with his pursuers. It wasn't as if that would be difficult to do, although Sir Trianal had made considerably better time to this point than Fahlthu had anticipated. The boy had reacted quickly and pressed hard, the Golden Vale armsman acknowledged. Not hard enough to tire his horses as much as Fahlthu had hoped for, unfortunately, but that might be Sir Yarran's doing. And however quickly they'd gotten here, and however fresh their mounts might be, Sir Fahlthu still had the advantage of position. Not to mention guides who knew their way through this miserable, mucky swamp. Still, Trianal's force was considerably larger than Halnahk had anticipated when he issued the detailed instructions which gifted Fahlthu with responsibility for this initial operation. Fahlthu would have been far happier if the youngster's command had been closer to the small, isolated scouting forces he'd expected to encounter during the opening phases of the new campaign.
Unfortunately, now that contact had been made at all, Halnahk's orders—and, worse, Sir Chalthar's—were explicit.
* * *
"Milord, there's something wrong," Sir Yarran said.
Trianal turned in the saddle, eyebrows arching in his open-faced helm.
"What?" he asked his adviser.
"That's more than I can say," Yarran replied slowly. He frowned and swiveled his head, sweeping the steadily approaching belt of woodland with his eyes, wondering what had set his instincts so abruptly on edge. "It's just—"
Then he had it, and his eyes narrowed.
"Look there, to the left!" he said urgently. "There—by that clump of oaks!"
"Which oaks? The ones on that hill?"
"No, Sir—further left. Another thirty yards!"
"All right," Trianal said. "What about them?"
"Look at the birds," Yarran said, waving one hand at the small flock—no more than ten or fifteen—which had just launched into the air and now gyrated sharply above the trees. Trianal looked puzzled, and the older knight shook his head.
"Lad," he said, forgetting formality in his need to make the youngster understand, "something made them decide to take off just now. Something that spooked them."
Trianal looked at him, then back at the trees from which the birds had come, and his mind raced. There might be any number of perfectly ordinary explanations for their behavior, including an abortive pounce by one of the wildcats who made the Bogs their home. But he couldn't discount Yarran's veteran distrust of coincidence.
Yet the trees were a good hundred yards from where the ravine entered the woodland. If there was someone in there, then they were a long way from the only reasonably clear path through the tangled brush. But the oaks weren't very far back from the edge of the undergrowth. Just far enough for the dense brush and saplings to screen anyone hiding behind them, but not far enough to prevent a horseman from forcing his way out of them . . .
"Bugler," he snapped, "sound 'Column, Halt'!"
* * *
"Damnation!" Fahlthu muttered viciously as the sweet notes of a bugle sounded and the column trotting down the bank of the ravine slowed in instant response. He slammed his right fist down on his kneecap, hard enough to startle a twitch out of the horse under him, but it was too late to change his plans now. The underbrush which had concealed his spread-out troops from his enemies' approaching scouts also prevented the quick lateral passage of orders down the length of his formation. He'd had to give his men their instructions before he sent them to their positions, and he couldn't change them now—not without using his own bugles, which would have given away the game just as surely as what was about to happen.
And not in time to stop it, anyway.
* * *
Trianal watched his column of fours slow to a walk, then stop. His lead scouts had already been sixty or seventy yards in advance when the bugle call sounded. Now they were almost to the edge of the woods, still opening the gap, and he saw two of them turning in their saddles to look back towards the main body even as they continued trotting forwards.
And then a deadly storm of arrows exploded out of the brush.
* * *
Darnas Warshoe didn't curse. He was too disciplined for that, despite the provocation, but it was tempting. He couldn't really blame Fahlthu's men. They'd had their orders, and they'd obeyed, firing as soon as the lead Glanharrow scouts reached the specified range. But the bugle call which had abruptly stopped the main column had opened the interval between them and the rest of their force. Not a single scout survived the sudden, overwhelming onslaught, yet their very proximity had drawn a heavy concentration of fire away from their more distant comrades. Coupled with the greater range to the column, that meant the main force's casualties had been far lower than they ought to have been.
Even more irritating from Warshoe's perspective, it meant the range to Sir Yarran and Sir Trianal was much greater than it should have been. Still, there was a chance, he reflected, and tucked the butt of the arbalest firmly against his shoulder.
* * *
Wounded men and horses screamed under the sudden, surprise onslaught, and Trianal's heart seemed to stop as he watched the wall of arrows sweep his scouts from their saddles. At least a dozen warhorses were down, as well, half of them screaming and kicking, and his mind seemed stunned into frozen immobility.
Which made it even stranger when he heard his own voice barking orders.
"Sound 'Fall Back,' then 'Skirmish Order' and 'Guide on Me'!" that voice which sounded so much like his own said. Something whizzed viciously past him, but he paid it no heed. "Standard, follow me!"
The bugler began to sound the commands, and as the sweet notes flared behind him, Trianal turned his horse and sent the stallion thundering back up the hillside they'd just ridden down. It wasn't easy. Every instinct shouted for him to press forward, get in among the trees and find the archers who had just slaughtered his scouts and were still firing at the rest of his men. But from the sheer volume of fire, plus the wide frontage from which it had come, the force in front of them was obviously far larger than the one they'd been tracking . . . and there was no way to tell how much larger.
He didn't know if the trail they'd followed had been designed from the beginning as a bait to lure them into a deliberate ambush, but that was what had happened. If he tried to drive a charge home into that kind of terrain, against a possibly superior force of prepared archers spread out over such a wide frontage, all he would achieve was the massacre of his own command. And if he spurred forward, joining his men as they fought to obey the bugle's commands, he would simply be one more armsman—one more target for the hidden archers.
He needed to stay out of that confusion and chaos if he meant to exercise any sort of control. And he had to keep his standard—the visual orienting guide his troop commanders would look for as they pulled back into their new formation—out of those plunging, screaming horses and cursing armsmen.
He pulled up, turning his horse once more, as he reached the military crest of the hill, and his jaw clenched. The bugler was on his heels, with the standard-bearer just behind him, and the blue-and-white gryphon standard writhed and danced. The wind of the standard-bearer's passage blew in through the large, open beak of the screaming gryphon's head, and the silken, wind-tube body flared wide and proud to its pressure. Sunlight glittered on the gryphon's golden head in a splendid show of martial glory, but the truth was hard and cold beyond its bearer.
All of Trianal's scouts were gone, and at least twenty more men lay scattered where the head of his column had been ravaged. With the scouts added, that was almost a quarter of his entire command. Many of those men lay motionless, but others writhed and screamed, curled around the arrows buried in their flesh. He wanted, more than he'd ever wanted anything in his life, to ride to their aid. They were his men, his responsibility, and he should be down there, seeing to their wounds, not abandoning them.
But he couldn't throw away still more lives, and he forced his jaw to unclench as he saw the rest of his command falling back as he'd ordered. The column had unraveled, but not into the confusion and rout such an onslaught might well have produced. And that, he realized, was because of the brief warning his command to halt the column had given his men. His troopers hadn't known what was about to happen, but they'd been warned that something was not as it ought to be. That warning had blunted, however slightly, the surge of panic which even the most experienced armsmen must feel under totally unexpected attack.
His order to fall back in skirmished formation had been the right one, too, he realized, although he still had no idea whether reason or instinct had prompted him to give it. In either case, it had opened the column, making it a more spread-out target, less vulnerable to massed archery, even as the same order pulled it back, opening the range. And, just as importantly, it had been proof there was still someone in command, someone providing the authority to hold them together as a cohesive force.
Now he had to find out what he'd held them together to face.
* * *
This time, Darnas did swear, albeit in a deceptively mild tone. He hadn't missed by much, but his arbalest bolt had gone flashing by the figure in Balthar's colors which had to be Trianal Bowmaster. At that range, even the powerful arbalest would most probably have been defeated by the youngster's breastplate . . . but it might not have been, too. And it almost certainly would have penetrated if it had hit anything but his cuirass or helmet.
There was nothing Warshoe could do about that now, so he pulled out the crank of the cocking windless built into the dwarvish arbalest's stock and began respanning the steel bow. It wasn't a speedy process, but that was all right with him. He had no intention of getting directly involved in what was going to happen next.
* * *
Sir Fahlthu jerked a hand angrily at his bugler, and the armsman raised his bugle. It sang out, sounding the command to mount and advance, and his outsized company and the three troops Lord Dathian had assigned to him moved forward.
It wasn't what Fahlthu wanted to do. Not without having killed more of the enemy, or at least broken them as an organized force, before he engaged. But his orders from Chalthar and Halnahk left him no choice. He doubted that there was any real chance of killing every single one of Trianal's armsmen, whatever Lord Saratic wanted. Yet he could hardly pretend he hadn't attacked them, and the men he'd already killed had upped the stakes enormously from simple cattle or horse-stealing raids. Now that he'd effectively declared war on Glanharrow, his orders left him and his "brigands" no option but to kill as many more as he could.
* * *
Sir Yarran's belly muscles tightened as he watched the woodline spawning armsmen in the plain, unmarked leather and cuirasses of outlaws or unemployed mercenaries—if there was a difference. There were far more than there'd been in the party they'd been pursuing. At least ten-score, he estimated, and possibly as much as half again that number. Even without their opening losses, Trianal's men would have been seriously outnumbered.
He darted a look at his commander. The youngster had reacted with more speed than most grizzled veterans would have shown. And he'd done the right thing by halting the column. Maybe not the perfect thing, but the right thing. Yarran knew Trianal would always blame himself for not having halted the scouts, as well. In his position, Yarran would have blamed himself just as bitterly, but stopping them in their tracks would have been unjustifiable with no more than disturbed birds as the vague indicator of something possibly out of the ordinary.
The critical thing was that Trianal had held the command together. Many a formation would have shattered like glass on an anvil under that sudden attack. If it had been composed of veterans, their troop commanders and sergeants would probably have rallied them . . . eventually. But in the meantime, their attackers would have sought to take ruthless advantage of their confusion. Yet Trianal's orders had stilled that automatic, instinctive urge towards flight before it could take effect, and the armsmen Baron Tellian had sent with him to Glanharrow were hand-picked veterans themselves. Like Yarran's own men, they knew the difference between an officer who had a firm grip on his command and one who did not, and they were responding to Trianal's mastery like the well-drilled troops they were.
Now to find out if the young man beside him knew what to do with them.
* * *
Trianal watched the main body of his men spread out as they fell back towards his standard. Sothōii tactical doctrine had taken over, and each troop commander knew exactly what to do. His troopers swirled in what anyone who had never faced Sothōii cavalry would undoubtedly have thought was utter confusion, but Trianal's eye saw the underlying pattern. His men had their bows out now, and they sent their own shafts hissing back in reply to their attackers.
The ugly, bickering battle which had sprung so suddenly into existence was developing into a classic clash between light cavalry units. All was movement and speed, bursts of archery followed by sudden wheels away from the enemy while another twenty-man troop dashed up to rake the flank of anyone who followed the withdrawal too closely. Neither side was scoring a high percentage of hits now, for galloping horses, swerving evasively, were difficult targets.
Half a dozen of his troopers who'd been dismounted when their horses were wounded or killed were racing back towards his standard on foot. He saw some of their still-mounted companions swoop up beside them, reaching down a helping hand and offering them a stirrup as they galloped further back from the front of the combat. Riderless horses were also galloping back from the fray. Many of them, as well trained to the bugles as the riders they'd lost, were falling back, not simply running in panic. His double-strength command troop, which formed his only real reserve, let the panicked beasts go, but Captain Steelsaber had detached a sergeant and half a dozen men to scoop up the others and add them to the company's remounts. Trianal wondered if he ought to order them not to, to stay concentrated. But the way things were going, he thought grimly, they were probably going to need every horse they had.
"Pigeons!" he snapped, and a wizened little trooper appeared as if by magic at his elbow. Soft, anxious cries and the flutter of worried wings came from the wicker carrying cage on the other man's packhorse, but he laid a hand atop the cage and made soft, soothing noises to its inhabitants.
Trianal fumbled a block of thin, expensive paper and a stubby pencil out of his map case. He gazed out at the intensifying battle—damp as the ground was, dust was beginning to rise here and there, a thin haze breathing into the air as pounding hooves dashed back and forth over the same dryer pieces of grassland—and made himself think hard for several seconds. Then his pencil scribbled furiously. He had to make the best possible use of the few lines for which he had room, and he wrote quickly, then paused long enough to reread what he'd written. He grunted in satisfaction. It wasn't perfect, but it would have to do.
"Send it," he said, and handed the tightly folded message to the pigeon-keeper. The wizened man had already coaxed one of the pigeons out of the cage. Now he quickly but carefully fitted Trianal's message under the band on the bird's leg and threw it into the air. It circled twice, then headed off, straight as an arrow, into the west.
Trianal had no time to watch its flight. He had turned back to Sir Yarran even before the pigeon-keeper launched the bird.
"We'll fall back towards Shallow Cross," he told the older knight quickly, stabbing the air towards the northwest as he spoke. "I don't want to let them force us into a close action, but I don't want to break contact completely, either."
Sir Yarran glanced at the swirling wave of combat falling steadily back towards them. Although horses were moving at breakneck speed in every direction, the actual westward movement of the combat itself was much more gradual, moving little more quickly than a single horse might have covered the same distance at a slow trot. That would probably change once the other side was completely free of the tangled underbrush and could begin to make its full numerical advantage felt, but both sides were Sothōii, and no one was better than the Sothōii at this sort of fight. The attackers would be wary of pressing too hard, too quickly, of letting themselves be drawn into fighting piecemeal. They would settle for a more cautious pursuit, using their greater number of bows—and, even more importantly, the greater number of arrows so many men could carry—to wear down Trianal's command. They would nibble away, killing and wounding men and horses, exhausting the remaining mounts, and forcing Trianal's troopers to expend their own arrows beating off attacks until, quite abruptly, the moment would arrive. The moment both sides would recognize, when mounting casualties, fatigue, and lack of ammunition shifted the momentum suddenly in the stronger side's favor and the time came for it to finish its opponents off.
The only true counter to that eventual outcome was for the weaker side to break contact and pull away as quickly as possible. He knew it, and so did Trianal. But he also knew what the youngster had in mind, and it might just work. The odds were against it, but Trianal had the audacity of youth, and the superb quality of the troopers under his command might just let him pull it off.
Sir Yarran Battlecrow weighed the options and alternatives, considered his responsibilities as Trianal's adviser and mentor, and made his decision.
"Aye," he said grimly. "Shallow Cross should do fine, Milord."