Wind Rider's Oath David Weber

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Chapter Thirty-Eight

Sir Fahlthu broke out of the undergrowth and guided his own horse up the northern bank of the ravine to the grassland above. It wasn't the best vantage possible, but it meant he could finally see at least some of what was happening with his own eyes. He pulled his double-glass from its case and raised it, adjusting the knurled wheel between the twin tubes until the standard at the crest of the hill to the west snapped into focus. He couldn't make out as much detail as he might have liked, even with the double-glass, but the figure on the tall, black stallion beside the standard wore the blue and white of Balthar, and the white bow and crimson-headed, green-fletched arrows of the House of Bowmaster showed clearly against the breastplate of his blackened cuirass. That had to be Trianal. And the other rider beside him, the one in the gray of Glanharrow and the plain, battered breastplate, was probably Yarran.

He lowered the double-glass and let his unaided eye sweep the seeming chaos of galloping horsemen. Trianal and Yarran would have a much better view of the action from their higher location, but Fahlthu was experienced enough to read the tempo of the battle from the smaller portion of it he could see. And as he absorbed it, he smiled grimly.

The fiery young hothead on top of that hill had made a serious error. Perhaps he'd underestimated the total strength Fahlthu could throw at him. Or perhaps he'd simply reacted with the stubborn inflexibility of youth. Either way, he'd made the wrong choice. He ought to have fallen back immediately, riding hell for leather to break contact while Fahlthu's greater numbers were still occupied making their way clear of the tangled brush and woodland which had concealed them. Instead, he'd accepted battle. No doubt he'd hoped the numbers were close to equal, or—depending on his optimism—even in his favor. In either case, he'd clearly believed he could skirmish successfully, even against superior numbers, and break off if the engagement grew too hot. But this was a game Fahlthu had played before, and he began giving orders to his bugler.

* * *

Trianal could see the moment when the enemy commander began once more asserting control over his troopers. Trianal couldn't actually hear the bugle calls across the noise and tumult of the battle between them, but he could see a third or so of the total opposing force falling back in response. The other two-thirds continued to press the attack, volleying arrows from their powerful composite bows and taking slower, more deliberate return fire from Trianal's men.

It was impossible to form any precise assessment of his own losses so far. Only one troop's swallow-tailed guidon had disappeared, but most of those which remained had less than the original twenty men following them, and troopers continued to fall by twos and threes on both sides. At a guess, he was down to perhaps a little over a hundred men, but by his rough count, the attackers showed at least a dozen guidons, which meant they had over two hundred—probably closer to three. So the other commander could afford to pull a third of his men back, resting their horses and conserving their ammunition until the critical moment, while the other two-thirds kept the pressure on Trianal's troopers and forced him to expend his own arrows and exhaust his own horses.

He felt a moment of almost paralyzing doubt, then gave himself a savage mental shake.

If whoever that is knew what I really had in mind, he wouldn't have pulled back a reserve, he thought. He'd have thrown everything he had at me and accepted his losses to overwhelm me quickly. He can still win this kind of running battle—and more cheaply than a frontal assault, if it goes his way. But if he's willing to let me prolong it . . .

"I wonder if they know about the pigeons," he said to Sir Yarran quietly while the sounds of distant combat became less distant by the minute.

"Likely not," the older knight said back, just as quietly. "Dathian probably knows at least a little about 'em, but this fellow's too aggressive to be one of Dathian's commanders. Besides, this whole ambush—and that's what it was when we got here, Milord, whatever the other fellow might have intended when he set out this morning—is something Dathian would avoid like the plague. Open warfare with Baron Tellian? He'd never agree to that—not if he thought it could ever be traced back to him, any road. And s'far as I know, nobody outside your uncle's riding knows he's been trying out the birds."

"We can hope, anyway," Trianal grunted, then looked the older man squarely in the face.

"I'm going to need all the help you can give me, Sir Yarran," he said frankly. "Maybe I should have picked a spot further east than Shallow Cross, but I don't just want to drive them back into hiding and leave us to find them all over again." He shrugged. "I know what I do want to do, but I don't know that I have enough experience to pull it off. If you have any suggestions—or if you see me making any mistakes—tell me. And be as loud and as blunt as you think necessary!"

He finished with a tight smile, and Sir Yarran returned it in kind.

"Milord—lad—you've done just fine so far. I'll be ready enough to fetch your head a clout, if it seems necessary. But for now I've little to suggest . . . unless it might be as it's time for you to be pulling a mite further back."

"You're right," Trianal agreed, but before he moved, he beckoned to Yardan Steelsaber.

"Yes, Sir?" the captain of his command troop said in a voice which Trianal strongly suspected must sound much calmer than the other man actually was.

"You and your men, and anyone who gets back here on foot to remount, are our reserve," Trianal said bluntly. "You don't commit any of them without my personal approval, or Sir Yarran's."

"Aye, Sir."

"For right now, though, I need three messengers. I want them to go out into that mess and find Sir Rikhal, Major Helmscrest, and Sir Kallian. Tell them we're falling back to Shallow Cross and that I want them to stay oriented on my standard and keep those people following us until we get there. We'll fight a slow retreat to the top of the hills, get their teeth set into the notion that they're pushing us, we're not pulling them. Then, once we clear the hills, on my signal, it's time to show them just enough of our heels to keep them chasing us. Is that clear?"

"They're to keep contact and fall back to Shallow Cross. Slow retreat up the hills, then go to a gallop at your command. It's a feigned retreat to draw 'em after us. Aye, Sir, it's clear," Steelsaber acknowledged, striking his breastplate with a fist in salute. He seemed remarkably composed for someone who'd just received the orders of a lunatic, Trianal thought. But if anyone could get couriers through to his three senior subordinates, Steelsaber would get it done.

"Very well, see to it. And after you've sent the messengers, I think we'll pull back to that cluster of aspens on the far side of the hill. But slowly! I want our people to see the standard on the crest line here long enough to know we're falling back, not running!"

* * *

Fahlthu watched the standard of Balthar retreat towards the very top of its hill, then disappear over the crest. Any hope he might have had that the opposing force would dissolve in the belief its commander had abandoned it quickly faded. The troops of armsmen continued their intricate dance, giving ground steadily, but in a controlled retreat that sent stinging counterattacks to punish any of Fahlthu's own men who got too far ahead. The loss ratio was in his favor—it had to be, when even the portion of his force actively engaged outnumbered the enemy almost two-to-one—but not by very much, and his own losses were painful enough. On the other hand, the young fool's stubbornness might give him the opportunity to carry out his orders for a complete massacre after all.

He grimaced at the thought. Some of his men had already balked at finishing off Trianal's wounded. Indeed, one sergeant had flatly refused to obey the order, and his own captain had cut him down for mutiny. Fahlthu understood the necessity, and he was prepared to be as ruthless as his orders required, but he didn't much care for them himself. And he detested what a campaign like this was likely to do to Third Company's discipline.

And now that we've begun slaughtering the enemy's wounded, he thought grimly, it would be a very good idea not to lose. Funny how it's the armsmen who carry out the orders, not the lords who gave them the orders in the first place, who always seem to end up paying the penalty for "atrocities" after the campaign. Still, the money's good, and I can always use the kormaks.

"What the hell does Captain Hathmin think he's playing at?" he growled aloud, shrugging aside his morose thoughts in favor of fresher irritation as he watched the captain's troop go charging up a steep slope toward the enemy's left.

"I don't know, Sir," his standard-bearer replied to the rhetorical question, then cringed under the look Fahlthu gave him for his temerity. The company commander glared at him for a moment longer, and then turned the same glare on the distant Hathmin. It wouldn't do any good, but at least it made him feel a little better.

He could see why Trianal had been willing to weaken that flank, for the hillside was wet, watered by a series of springs the seasonal rains had filled brimfull. Its sodden grass had been largely churned to slick mud by the Balthar and Glanharrow horsemen who'd already ridden over it two or three times, and Hathmin's horses' footing wasn't good. They floundered, forced to move at little more than a walk, and two troops of Festian's men poured fire into his flank as his advance slowed. And then at least another troop worth of archers, all in Balthar's colors, came sweeping up from the back side of the hill and sent a horizontal hail of arrows sleeting into Hathmin's face.

The Sothōii horsebow was a powerful, deadly weapon, and men screamed as point-blank fire punched pile-headed arrows through leather armor, and even breastplates, at such short range. Horses shrieked as they took arrows of their own, and kicking, writhing warhorses went down on the awkward slope as Trianal's men closed with the saber to finish off the remnants. None of Hathmin's troopers got free, and Fahlthu swore vilely as the last of them fell, dead or wounded, in a pointed illustration of why pushing ahead too recklessly was . . . unwise.

Still, the other side had expended a lot of arrows massacring Hathmin, and that was the other side of the equation. When their arrows were gone, they were doomed, for why should Fahlthu close to saber or lance range when his bows could still fire and theirs couldn't? And at this rate, it might take even less time than he'd originally hoped.

He watched the reserve which had finished off Hathmin pull back across the crest of the hill. Then he grunted and sent his horse cantering forward, his chastened -standard-bearer and bugler at his heels, following the carpet of dead or writhing men and horses back the way Trianal Bowmaster had retreated.

* * *

"Sound the gallop!" Trianal commanded as the main body of his dwindling command topped the line of hills and headed down their western face towards him.

The bugle calls rose perfect and forceful, as if their insistent beauty had nothing to do with the carnage and stink and blood littering the ground between the hills and the Bogs. But the officers his messengers had reached understood what he intended, and they wheeled their men quickly. Their horses were less fresh than they'd been when the engagement began, but they answered to their riders' demands and came pounding down the hillside dangerously quickly. At least one horse and rider went down with a smashing impact and rolled in an ugly, mutually lethal heap. But most got clear, and he exhaled a deep breath of relief as he watched his winnowed troops following the narrow, forked banners of their guidons clear of the slope at last. Only the very front ranks of the enemy's skirmishers had topped the hills behind them by the time his men were settling back into formation, reorganizing on the run as they thundered into the west.

"And now," he told Sir Yarran, swinging his own horse and urging the stallion to a gallop, "we see how fast Golden Vale horses are!"

* * *

"They're up to something," Fahlthu heard someone say, and turned his head. "Master Brownsaddle" had appeared out of the chaos, like the proverbial bad kormak, and the knight glowered at him.

"Of course they are!" he snarled back. "They're trying to get out of the chamber pot they shoved their heads into! And," he continued in a grimmer voice, "to kill as many of my lads as they can in the process."

"That's not what I mean." Darnas Warshoe grimaced impatiently, cantering along at Fahlthu's side. "They started out fighting a serious rearguard—now they're galloping away like hares before hounds, when they must know our horses are fresher than theirs are."

"Do you always have to look for the crookedest possible answer to any question?" Fahlthu demanded disgustedly. "Did it ever occur to you that they may simply have had enough? That they've seen enough of their friends killed that they're breaking at last? Men who finally panic and rout seldom stop to think about whose horse is freshest!"

"Milord," Warshoe said as patiently as he could, "if they were going to panic, they should have done it at the outset. And if their morale's finally broken, why in all the gods' names did it happen simultaneously for their entire formation? Hasn't it been your experience that when a force routs, it usually at least begins breaking one subunit at a time?"

"And just how in Phrobus' name do you know they didn't start breaking that way?" Fahlthu demanded harshly. "I couldn't see through the solid top of a hill to watch the exact pattern of it—could you?"

Warshoe ground his teeth together and managed not to scream at the idiot. Gods above, this fool wouldn't have lasted three months in the King's Own! He's made his mind up about what's happening, and he's not about to let any inconvenient little facts interfere now.

"Milord," he tried once more, "what if it's a feigned retreat?"

"And what if it's Hirahim Lightfoot's long-lost mother?" Fahlthu shot back sarcastically. "No, Master Brownsaddle. You tend to your responsibilities—whatever they really are—and I'll tend to mine. And right now, mine are to go finish off an overconfident young whippersnapper who let guts and determination get the better of good sense!"

He urged his horse from a canter to a gallop, and Warshoe let his mount fall back. He watched Fahlthu spurring up the hill, waving his sword and shouting at his more laggardly men, and shook his head.

It was always possible Fahlthu's analysis was correct and Warshoe's was wrong. In that case, the cavalry commander had more than enough men to finish off Trianal and Yarran, and Warshoe could leave the brute labor up to him. Even if Fahlthu was wrong, it didn't necessarily follow that Trianal's plan—whatever it was—would succeed. But whether it did or not, Warshoe had no desire to find himself embroiled in the sort of melee that was going to ensue when Fahlthu finally closed for the kill. He was a specialist these days, not a common trooper. And if Fahlthu failed—or even if he succeeded, but Trianal himself escaped death—a specialist in the right place might accomplish more later on than all of Fahlthu's cavalrymen put together in the wrong place could manage now.

Or, for that matter, a specialist might be required to see to it that Fahlthu himself wasn't around to . . . discuss his orders with Lord Festian or Baron Tellian. It would be most inconvenient for Baron Cassan if the Golden Vale captain were to be taken alive, and Darnas Warshoe wasn't in the habit of inconveniencing his patron.

He smiled unpleasantly at the thought and began dropping back from the front ranks of the pursuit.

* * *

Trianal Bowmaster's entire body ached. He supposed that he'd probably been nearly this tired sometime before in his life; he just couldn't remember when.

He drew rein, and the stallion beneath him blew harshly, a deep, heaving sound of fatigue and gratitude. The warhorse's nostrils flared, patches of crusty lather splotched his dark shoulders and flanks, and Trianal could feel the powerful muscles quivering with exhaustion. He leaned forward, patting the coal-black neck and whispering endearments. If he and his surviving men were reeling with fatigue, their horses were even further spent, and every one of them owed his life to his mount.

Not that there were very many of them, he thought bitterly.

He turned and looked back. The enemy had pursued them doggedly for almost three hours now, and the sixty or so of his troopers who remained couldn't stay in front of them much longer. It was fortunate that they'd come so close to breaking contact when they fell back across the hills. That blessed pause while the enemy's main body came up had let them open the range still further. Even more important, it had allowed Trianal's battered troops to reorganize themselves on the fly. Holes in the chain of command had been plugged, formations had been beaten back into order, and his entire surviving force had emerged as a compact formation readily responsive to his bugle commands.

And it was as well that it had, because the grueling pursuit had been even more costly than he'd allowed himself to believe it might. Captain Steelsaber would not send any more messages for Trianal; he lay somewhere miles behind, with an arrow through the base of his throat, and eight of his troopers lay scattered along the track of their retreat with him. Nor had Trianal been able to stay out of the fray, whatever Sir Yarran would have preferred. One of his two saddle quivers was completely empty; the other contained his last five shafts, and at that, he had more arrows than most of his men.

The moment had come, he thought, looking back at the irregular lines of horsemen sweeping across the grass behind him. The sun was sliding down the western sky as the short, northern spring day wound towards twilight. There was no more than an hour and a half—two hours at the outside—of daylight left. Long enough for a fight to the finish before darkness let the weaker side escape, but only if the fight began soon.

And it would, he told himself grimly. One way or the other, whether his desperate plan worked or not. His men's mounts were stumbling, and their quivers were empty. They were a beaten force, fleeing at the best pace their stumbling horses could still maintain while the reserve the enemy commander had pulled back and ruthlessly maintained gradually accelerated its pace. Its horses were scarcely what one could have called fresh, but despite their fatigue, they were far closer to that than the staggering creatures under Trianal's men, and they were pounding closer with every passing moment.

Trianal gazed at them for a moment longer, then sent the stallion back into motion. The big horse responded with a gallantry that made Trianal want to weep, but there was no time for that. His tattered survivors' wavering course was leading them directly towards a shallow river valley.

It wasn't much of a river—little more than a large creek, which normally disappeared entirely at the height of the summer. For now, it still chattered cheerfully in its shallow, gravel bed, singing with the strength which was the gift of the final rains of spring. Its valley was at least a bit more impressive than the "river" itself, if not a lot. It was little more than fifty yards across at its widest, narrower in most places than the ravine they'd followed that morning, but willows and short, brushy trees marked its course, drinking thirstily from the stream. The slope down into the streambed was shallower on this side, and steeper to the west, and Trianal could almost feel the triumph which suffused their pursuers as they realized what that steeper bank would mean for the exhausted horses they pursued.

Assuming that any of Trianal's men made it to the top of the far bank, they would at least have a long, gradual downslope on the far side. Not that it was likely any of them would make it up out of the valley before the pursuit caught up with them.

Trianal leaned forward into his horse's mane like a jockey, urging the stallion on with hands and voice, melding with the driving motion of the powerful, straining muscles between his thighs. Feeling the horse's gasping fight for air as the stallion's eyes blurred with exhaustion and he ran his mighty heart out at his rider's demand.

The sky was clear, yet for a moment anyone with the concentration to spare would have sworn that he'd heard thunder. Then it came again—a dull, rolling, throbbing sound, more sensed than heard . . . but not imagined. Never imagined.

Trianal looked up, his eyes wide with sudden hope, and then the western bank of the streambed disappeared under a line of galloping horses.

* * *

Sir Fahlthu didn't hear the thunder, but he saw it. Saw the rolling storm of cavalry coming straight at him. They must have had observers perched up there, waiting, timing the moment perfectly. He didn't know exactly how the terrain laid out beyond the river, but he knew it had to break downward to the west. It was the only way the oncoming troopers in the colors of Balthar and Glanharrow could have gotten their mounts all the way up to a full gallop without being seen.

How? he wondered almost calmly. How did the little bastard get word to them? They're still an hour's hard ride from Glanharrow Keep. How could they possibly get here in time—and with their horses rested this way?

And the fact that those horses were rested was painfully obvious as the charging horsemen came down the bank like an earthquake. The shallow water of the stream exploded in white wings of spray under the driving hooves of their mounts, bugles sang wild and fierce, sounding the charge over the deep, hungry bay of voices shouting Trianal's name like a battle cry, and Fahlthu's pursuit slithered to a halt in broken bits and pieces.

Some of his men turned in a vain effort to flee back to the east, towards the illusory sanctuary of the Bogs. But they would never reach the safety of the swamps, and Fahlthu knew it. The tables had just been brutally reversed. However much fresher than Trianal's staggering mounts his horses might have been, they were nowhere near so fresh as the rested, galloping warhorses coming towards them. Warhorses under vengeful troopers who were also fresh . . . and who had full quivers.

He stared at his company's onrushing doom, watching the gryphons at its head—blue and white of Balthar, and the gray of Glanharrow—writhe and dance, and despair was bitter in his mouth. There was no point trying to surrender his men, not after the way they'd massacred Trianal's wounded, and he knew it. But it was impossible to escape that thunderous, vengeful wave, either, and he loosened his saber in its sheath.

He was still staring at the dancing gryphons when the arbalest bolt smashed through the backplate of his cuirass and shattered his spine.

* * *

Darnas Warshoe watched from his motionless warhorse as Fahlthu tumbled from the saddle. He grimaced in satisfaction, then dropped the heavy arbalest, wheeled his horse, and went racing away. He would miss the weapon, and only its long range had let him take the shot from so far behind the Golden Vale captain, but his horse would miss its weight even more, and at this particular moment, that was what mattered. Warshoe was far enough back to have an excellent chance of staying ahead of the pursuit until darkness, especially if overrunning the rest of Fahlthu's men slowed it up a bit.

He might have to run his horse to death to do it, he reflected philosophically, but new horses were easier to find than new heads.

* * *

Trianal sobbed for breath as the rolling-thunder onslaught crashed past him. It seemed in that moment as if there were literally thousands of armsmen in Balthar's blue and white and Glanharrow's gray. There weren't, of course. There were only the other six troops he'd brought from Hill Guard and the seven more in Lord Festian's service. Only thirteen troops—scarcely two hundred and sixty men—all told. But they might as well have been a thousand as their fresh, tight formation smashed into the men who'd pursued Trianal for so long behind a hurricane of arrows.

"We did it!"

It took him a moment to realize that that exultant scream of triumph had come from his own throat, and when he did, his face blazed with humiliation. But even as he cursed the outburst as a sign of his own youthful lack of maturity, he heard someone laughing uproariously. He turned his head with a glare, and found himself face to face with Sir Yarran. Somehow, the older knight had managed—along with Trianal's standard-bearer and bugler—to cling to Trianal like a cocklebur, and now his face wore an enormous grin.

"Aye, we did, lad—you did." Yarran shook his head. "Truth to tell, lad—I mean, Milord—I thought you'd maybe one chance in three of pulling it off. But you did. You actually did!"

Yes, I did—we did, Trianal thought, gazing back the way they'd come at the swirling cloud of death as the relief force rampaged through their exhausted pursuers like a battering ram. He brought the stallion down from a hard gallop to a walk, and he could hear bugles, screams, even the crash and clash of steel.

We did it. But we only managed it because of the carrier pigeons, and my own estimate of the odds was lower than yours, Yarran. Gods, how I wish there'd been some way for Lord Festian to tell us he'd received the message in time!

"Let's get the men together and the horses cooled, Sir Yarran," he said, meeting his mentor's eyes, and the older man nodded with almost paternal pride.

"Aye, Milord," he said. "Let's be doing that."

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