:: Sunday, November 06, 2005 ::
Damned weather, thought Sir Baigent ap Pelegaunt as he followed with his eye the trails of smoke from the burning tents, rising fast into a clear morning sky that was blue to the west and golden to the east as the sun rose. All those days of riding through dank, cold, wet days when the sky was nothing but clouds; all the rain and that one, great storm that had very nearly killed them -- and now that clouds and dark would actually be of use, there was clear sky and sunshine. Sir Baigent absently rubbed his side, pushing the pain from the wound down deep. There would be time for pain later...much later. He lowered his gaze and took up his position with Murron's line of so-called archers.
"They'll be coming now," he said.
"Of course they will," Murron snapped as she turned to face her recruits. "Listen, you -- these aren't rabbits. You're not shooting something for the pot. You're shooting at men, and you're shooting to make sure they don't get up again."
There were distant shouts then -- but not distant enough. Men were coming through the camp, looking for prey. A group of mounted men came around a corner, about twenty paces away from where the defenders stood. Murron of the Arrows did not hesitate.
"Loose!" she shouted, and her band of archers let their arrows fly. There was the rolling thud as all those bowstrings snapped at once, followed by the hiss of arrows in the air. Some of the arrows struck men, some struck the mounts, and some hit nothing at all. Of the men who were hit, only two actually fell; and only one of the mounts came down, the one that Murron had shot herself. She had nocked and loosed two more arrows before she realized that the others were merely looking on their handiwork. "Keep shooting!" she shouted, and the others finally returned to the moment and began shooting again, just in time for the footsoldiers who were now streaming out of the camp behind their mounted chargers.
The air is too damned clear, Sir Baigent thought. The smoke isn't enough. Their only hope was for the fires they'd set to create confusion amongst Maxen's men and provide cover for themselves, but there was precious little of either. Beside him, the Druids stepped up with their blow-tubes and shot darts at the oncoming attackers. More fell, but still not enough.
"Murron!" Sir Baigent shouted. "Fall back!" Hugydd stepped in beside him.
"This is not the finest of plans," the knight-turned-Druid said.
"Fine plans, fine armies," Sir Baigent said. "It seems we are doomed to be without such luxuries."
The plan was simple, on its face: engage Maxen's men near the edge of the camp and then fall back, drawing them farther in -- and then falling back again, and again, for as long as they would follow. The fires would be hotter and the smoke would be heavier, deeper in the camp; chaos and confusion would grow. It was their only hope. The problem with relying on confusion, of course, was that the side trying to inflict it was even more susceptible to it than the other. A well-trained, disciplined force would never rely on chaos and confusion in battle. It was a tactic only for the very desperate.
"Shoot the horses, not the men!" It was Murron shouting. Her archers had been trying to hit the men, as opposed to the mounts. Now they obeyed and did as they should have been doing all along, and the results were good: three horses fell almost immediately. Now the attackers were close enough that Sir Baigent could make out their faces.
"Stand and ready!" he shouted, his muscles tensing and his sword-hand flexing. Maxen's men had recognized the source of their threat and were now charging. Sir Baigent could hear their coarse laughter as they realized that they were fighting a ragtag collection of farmers and displaced villagers, and savored the easy kill. Murron's archers brought down four more horses, and the air filled with the sounds of laughter and screaming horses. Sir Baigent saw that they had at last achieved something of the desired effect: a barricade of sorts, formed by dead or dying horses and their riders who were trapped beneath them.
"Murron!" Sir Baigent shouted.
Murron took her cue perfectly. "One last round!" she shouted. "Aim low!"
Her archers did just that, loosing one last volley of arrows at the encroaching marauders and striking many of them squarely in the legs, bringing them down behind the horses. Then Murron shouted, "Fall back!", and the archers fled backward into the camp, accompanied by the blowdart-wielding Druids.
Sir Baigent looked to the fifty or so men he had beside him: Hugydd and Estren, wielding swords; twenty Druids with clubs, and the remainder comprised of farmers with farm-tools. More men awaited them at their first fall-back position; the task now was to strike a quick blow and then get back to that position. Lifting his sword, he yelled "Camyrdin!" as loudly as his voice would allow, and then he led the charge. He closed the distance to his first man in three long bounds, removing the man's head in a single stroke, and then turning to face the next man before the first had even fallen all the way to the ground. His impromptu war cry was picked up by the others behind him, most loudly by Hugydd.
This fight lasted only a few moments, until Sir Baigent looked up and saw that Maxen's reinforcements had arrived. It was time, whether Murron had the next line ready or not.
"Fall back!" Sir Baigent shouted. "To the next line!" He swung his blade, bringing down a particularly large club-wielding brute and then he moved to disengage. The other men joined him in the retreat, and taking quick stock he saw that they had only lost four men in the initial clash, which was less than he had expected. As they fled deeper into the camp, they left behind a pile of writhing horses and bodies that would hinder the progress of Maxen's men -- or so Sir Baigent prayed.
"Move!" he shouted. These men did not run fast enough. Behind them, four of Maxen's men broke through and made pursuit; Sir Baigent, Hugydd and Estren killed them all. The harper, it turned out, was indeed a fair hand with a sword. Again there was a pause in the pursuit, and this time it was enough for them all to get far enough away. Sir Baigent ran last, grabbing a nearby torch and dropping it onto a line of pitch they had poured just minutes before, across the lane. The line of fire that erupted was only knee-high -- not much of a barrier, and it would burn out in only a minute or two, but it might give them valuable seconds.
A few at a time, he thought. A few at a time, until we've got their number down to where it's a fair fight.
He ran into the smoky haze that was finally settling over the camp.
Though neither man could have known it, the name of Camyrdin had been Lord Matholyn's battle cry almost at the same moment it had been Sir Baigent's. Matholyn shouted it over and over again, but the tide of men kept pressing forward, his throat became hoarse, and rage and vengeance in his heart gave way to fighting for survival. And not only his survival, but that of the men beside him and behind him, the men who followed him and rallied around him as the Battle of Bedwyn surged.
A man beside him fell, his skull split open by a Gwynedd war hammer. Lord Matholyn turned to the left and struck Cwerith's man dead with his sword. There was no scream, just a thud. Matholyn found little satisfaction in the killing. It was just one more man amongst thousands who would die today. Death had little meaning here, in this place. He was fighting for a King he did not know, in memory of a city now dead, and in defense of a still-living city not his own. This man he'd just killed -- perhaps he had been a mercenary, or perhaps a farmer from the hills above Caer Mastagg. And perhaps so had been all the men he'd already struck down, and all those still doomed to die beneath his blade before it was all done.
The fighting immediately around him suddenly lulled, and Matholyn hazarded a glance at his surroundings. Ahead of him, a group of Cunaddyr's men were near to capturing a small rise of no consequence other than that it was a definite feature in the field to be won, and a company of Gwynedd soldiers were already coming forward to meet them. Matholyn spurred his horse and cleared the distance to the hillock in seconds. He managed to take Cwerith's men from behind, killing four and throwing the rest into disarray. Thus the hillock was taken, but no cheers went up. The taking of such a small thing in battle only meant that those who had won the moment would now turn their attention to defending it -- or, if they were fortunate, beginning the next advance and the taking of the next rise or dip. The men there simply moved on, digging in to defend a rocky rise that in normal times should have been crowned by crops or wildflowers.
Matholyn looked across the field to where Cwerith was watching the battle and directing the progress of his armies, the spot easily picked out by the size of the banner fluttering above it. Horns sounded now and again, telling one company to advance and another to fall back. He can't be too happy with what he has seen thus far, Matholyn thought as he stole a sip of water from a flask before returning to the fighting. A company of Bedwyn archers was already making for the hillock just taken, from where they would -- it was hoped -- be able to rain down some arrows on a particularly troublesome part of Gwynedd's army.
Cwerith's aim, at the outset, had been to take the field by one massive thrust of overwhelming force, but Duke Cunaddyr's smaller army had proven at least partly adequate to the task of holding ground, and now -- just two hours into the battle -- they had actually regained some of the field they had initially lost. But it still might not be enough. Cwerith had calmly shifted his focus from total defeat to gaining position for his archers, so they would be able to send coming down upon the Bedwyn forces from two sides -- and eventually perhaps even send flaming arrows over the city walls and into Bedwyn herself.
That was all Matholyn could see of the strategy that was shaping the battle. Somewhere to his right he heard a trumpet call sounding a charge that was led by Sir Jules. Matholyn could not tell what objective Jules was trying to achieve, or how this charge would be of import or use now, but it was no longer his place to see such things. Duke Cunaddyr was back by the city gates, and it was his duty to respond to Cwerith's strikes and feints by directing his own men to and fro. Cunaddyr had asked Matholyn to remain at his side to offer wisdom, but Matholyn had insisted on riding to battle himself. "I can offer little wisdom this day that is not better delivered by the edge of my sword," he had said. And thus it had been.
There was a pair of shouts then, coming two spearmen attacking him from behind. Controlling his horse with a deftness of hand that caught the two brutes by surprise, he was able to get around the first spearman before he could compensate, and his strike went wide. An easy thrust of his sword, into the man's face, was all Matholyn needed. He pulled his blade free and turned toward the other man. The spear struck the horse, but the animal's pivot fortunately made the weapon strike only a glancing blow. The horse shrieked and lashed out with its hooves, pounding the man solidly in the chest as it reared; and when it came back down again, it trampled the man to death.
Matholyn decided it was time for a new horse. This one was already fully lathered, and now it was wounded as well. Turning away from the battle, Lord Matholyn rode across the field back to the main gate where he would be given a fresh mount. Then he would go out and fight again. Glancing down at himself, he saw that he was covered in blood, dirt and filth. So much blood.
"May the silver light of the Goddess shine upon your path, all the way to the feasting hall of Annwn."
Brother Malcolm finished saying the Blessing of the Dead, and then he removed the prayer bead from the old woman's forehead. Two of the apprentices in the Chambers of Healing came forward to bear the body away, while another stepped in to take up the bedding and carry it to the fires. Brother Malcolm glanced at the woman's husband, but the poor man -- himself thin and weak -- only turned and hobbled away. He will receive the same blessing before long, Malcolm thought as he looked around to see if there was anyone else needing his services just now. Seeing no one, he decided to go for a moment to one of the Temple's four sanctuaries. He had said seven Blessings of the Dead in the last two hours, and there would be more. Just now he needed to see something other than death.
He walked out into the hall and followed the white stones inlaid in the black tile floor. Those white stones formed a path leading to the two sanctuaries in the lowest level of the Temple, which were kept open for the regular use of the people of Bedwyn. Malcolm, being a sworn member of Dona's Priesthood, would have been allowed into the Prime Sanctuary at the center of the Temple, where Father Terryn, as Lord Priest of Bedwyn, would have held official ceremonies, or even in the private Sanctuary on the Temple's top floor, which was for the use of the Priests and Priestesses of the Temple alone. Malcolm, though, actually preferred the plainly-adorned simplicity of this small public sanctuary. Upon entering, he walked past several worshippers to the center of the Prayer Wheel, where he stopped. He had meant to pray, but none of the ceremonial prayers seemed adequate. He was not even sure of what to ask of Dona -- safety for the people of Bedwyn, or victory in the war, or the success and safety of Gwyn in her mission. Perhaps he should ask for all that…he was still considering it when Father Terryn entered.
"There you are," he said. "Come. I have need of you."
He said no more than that before leaving, and Brother Malcolm had to rush to catch up to him.
"What has happened?" Malcolm asked, but he received no reply. Instead, Father Terryn led him into a new corridor and down a set of spiraling stairs, through a heavy iron door which swung open when Terryn tapped it three times with his staff. Now they entered a very dark series of stone passages that smelled of earth and moisture. The way was lit by a glowing jewel atop Father Terryn's staff and a series of small torches, little more than candles, set in the wall every twenty paces or so. Despite the oppressive darkness, Father Terryn moved very quickly. Eventually they came to a junction of such passages, where six strong-looking Adepts waited, each holding a large bundle wrapped in cloth.
"What is this?" Malcolm asked.
"These passages were built two hundred years ago," Father Terryn said. "They provide a secret way in and out of the city. That one goes to a spot just outside the main gate."
"You're sending me to the battlefield," Malcolm said.
Father Terryn nodded. "You will be of use there."
"To say blessings?"
Father Terryn chuckled humorlessly. "The dead will number far too many for you to bless them all," he said. "We need as many to bind wounds as we can spare. You are from Tintagel -- a hard place -- and you have been an itinerant priest, so you have some knowledge of healing." He placed a hand on Malcolm's shoulder and leaned closer. "We who serve in Dona's Priesthood are not often seen as men of strength, but you and I know the truth of that matter. I wish I did not have to ask this of you."
Brother Malcolm nodded. "I serve with all of Dona's grace."
"And you walk under her light," Father Terryn replied.
Brother Malcolm followed the Adepts up the new tunnel. Sparing this many Adepts for the battlefield would leave the Chambers of Healing ill-equipped to deal with the sick and the dying in the city, but that would matter little if the city fell.
To Malcolm's surprise, he heard nothing except for his own footsteps and those of the Adepts -- until they reached the stone door sealing the tunnel's outside end, and the strongest of the Adepts shoved it open. That was when Brother Malcolm first heard the sounds of war, and when he first saw its sights. His heart froze. It was as if he had come to the shores of a lake of blood.
Which, in some sense, he had.
Gavidd pointed to the Giants' Dance, several miles distant. Hanging in the air above and around the Dance was a great deal of smoke.
"Mercy of the Goddess," Jonn whispered. They were too late. The attack had begun. He cursed himself for not realizing sooner what Maxen had planned to do. "Ride, men!" he shouted to his companions as he kicked his horse into a gallop.
The men of the Finders made no effort at all now to conceal their coming. The time for stealth, for quick attacks under cover of night, was done. Now they would attack their enemy by the light of day, with nothing else to hide them. And though Jonn was mostly terrified by this idea, part of him was also relieved that it should be so. We come, Gareth, he thought as he urged his steed faster.
"Burning the camp?" Gareth said, incredulously, as she handed the baby back to its mother. "Well, I suppose it is a time for desperation."
"When has it been otherwise?" Matt growled. "We should be fighting with them, or damnation take me."
"Aye," said Calloch. He, too, had been annoyed when Gareth had commanded them to remain with her to help these people flee.
"Hush!" Gareth snapped. "You are frightening these poor folk. I am sure you will both see fighting soon enough." To the poor woman, she said. "There, mother. Do not move from this place unless you are bid so."
"I can fight!" It was the woman's son, a boy of nine who had not bathed in far too long. To illustrate the point, he brandished an axe handle.
"Then wait to do so until your family is threatened," Gareth said. "And not before."
They had moved away from the camp, away from the Dance, but it would be of little help once Maxen's men came after them. The frozen streambed they followed offered little by way of cover, and once the attackers realized that the people had fled they would be quickly spotted. Delay was all that one could hope for when victory was impossible.
"Keep moving!" she shouted. "We must not stop, even for a moment! It is our only chance!"
An old man in front of her slipped on some ice. Even from her distance, Gareth heard the crunching sounds of his bones breaking. When she came to his side he was moaning in agony, and his ankle was pointing grotesquely in the wrong direction. Two men came quickly to lift him and bear him away, but Gareth shook her head as they did so. He would be dead soon enough.
"In the name of Seren Goleuad!" Calloch cried. "What is the point of all this? The Promised King is going to emerge from that Dance and find a plain full of dead people and an army waiting to kill him!"
Something in his words made Gareth stop in place. It wasn't possible. It couldn't be...but it was.
Gareth had wondered at the incongruity of Maxen's attack, at this very time and place. She had assumed it the poorest of fortunes, but now she realized the truth and she felt herself becoming very cold.
He had known.
Somehow, Maxen had known. He was not attacking a random collection of his King's enemies, nor was he marauding upon the helpless, unleashing his wrath upon the most pathetic opponents he could find.
He was here to kill the Promised King, even as he emerged from the Giants' Dance.
Gareth looked back to the Dance, and the camp now burning around it; she looked at the clouds of smoke now rising into the icy blue sky. And at the very heart of the Dance itself she saw a light, small at first, but soon growing to a white and brilliant gleaming. That light was accompanied by a new wind that whipped the smoke above the Dance into a cyclonic spiral.
It was happening.
Sir Baigent struck the man squarely on the head with the flat of his sword, stunning him, and on the follow-through he ran his sword through the man's neck. Somewhere to his right Hugydd was fighting, his sword dancing impressively for a man who had forsaken his life of the blade and more impressively, in fact, than Sir Baigent remembered him ever fighting before. As he and Hugydd carved a path through the attackers, Estren and the farmfolk came in behind, taking advantage of the small amount of confusion that the two experienced fighters were able to create. Meanwhile, Murron and her archers were able to keep Maxen's cavalry at bay. For now, at least, it was all working. They were holding their ground. The fires had served their purpose.
And yet, Sir Baigent thought as he fought off yet another attacker, Maxen had to know what manner of resistance he was facing here. He was no fool. After the first success of the defenders, Maxen had held his cavalry back. It was tempting to think that he did so because of the damage Sir Baigent's hasty defense had wreaked, but the element of such surprise was gone and the defenders now had their backs almost up against the Dance itself. Maxen had to know that he was facing a group of Druids and farmers and villagers, and not a disciplined company of soldiers. He had to know that there was no way that this ragtag group could defeat even his relatively small number of mounted knights. To these peasants, it would be as a full cavalry charge, and they would break in the face of it. Sir Baigent knew that if he were in command of such a force against such an opposition, he would order the charge. So why was Maxen waiting?
A gust of wind came up at that moment, pushing smoke from the fires into Sir Baigent's face. Coughing, he turned just in time to almost dodge an attack by a club-wielding brute; the club landed on his left arm, nearly breaking it. Sir Baigent killed the man with a single sword thrust and then staggered away. That was when he saw the brilliant light gleaming in the heart of the Dance. He wondered what it could mean, and then he realized what it was, and hope filled his heart -- hope that was dispelled when Maxen's horns at last sounded the charge.
He knew, now, why Maxen had waited.
"To the Dance!" he shouted, over and over. "Murron! Defend the Dance!" He yelled it as many times as he could as he began fighting his way back toward the Giants' Dance, from where the Promised King was about to emerge into the midst of an attack -- and Gwynwhyfar would be with him.
He heard a new chorus of shouts and screams. More of Maxen's men were streaming forward. Sir Baigent's blood froze.
"Merciful Goddess!" Hugydd said.
They had tried to reach the Dance in time, but they had failed. All of Maxen's men were now upon them, their task dreadfully clear: to hold these commoners in place, killing them slowly while Maxen's men on horse faced the one who would soon come out of the great stone circle.
"They are fighting well," Fflud observed. "We should send in the rest of our men."
"Not yet," Maxen said, holding up a hand. It would not be long now. He felt it stirring within him: desire, dark and lusty, for blood and death. He felt the presence of the Power that had come to him in the form of a great silver wolf.
Pain -- wonderful, wonderful pain -- began to smolder in his left wrist. It was coming. It was--
"Look!" Fflud cried.
It was here.
The wind blasted Maxen, but he took no notice of it at all. What commanded him was the light, burning and terrible, that radiated at the center of the Giants' Dance and the shape that stood at the center of that light. The Druids had done it. They had brought him back. But it did not matter, for in wielding the strength of that Power that had come to him in his hour of darkest need, he would undo what the Druids had made this day.
"Sound the call," he commanded. Fflud relayed the command. Maxen wound the reins around his left forearm. He was unconcerned about the horse remaining true, for he knew that it would. There was no reason for concern. He drew his sword for the moment that was to come, when he would kick his horse in the flanks and ride with a silent war-cry toward the task that, in the moment when his onetime life ended, would become his.
When he would ride to slay the Promised King.
King Cwerith ap Cellamma looked out over the battlefield at the city of Bedwyn beyond. His initial push for the field had stalled, but now his armies were gaining position for a rallying push, and he could see that the armies of Bedwyn had been spread out too thin across the field. When the time came for him to order the next full thrust up the center of the field, poor Cunaddyr's forces would not be able to repel him a second time. It was already decided, and all that remained was the playing out of the drama. Bedwyn was showing more resistance than had Caer Camyrdin, but still they would fail. Cwerith allowed himself a smile. Today, Prydein would be his.
Across the field came a horn call that was cut short; one of Cunaddyr's trumpeters had been struck down, and one of Cwerith's own trumpeters returned the call.
"A page returns, My Liege," Lord Varing said.
King Cwerith nodded, and he turned to face the boy who had come running from the nearby hills: one of Cassion's pages.
"What word?" he said.
"I have come from Father Cassion," the boy said, confirming what Cwerith already knew. "He bids me tell you: it has begun in the north."
Cwerith nodded. "Go and get water, boy," he said. "We will have word for you to take to the field."
"Yes, My Liege," the boy said before staggering away.
Cwerith turned back to the battle. One of his companies had broken too far to the east and would have to be summoned back; another had suffered heavy losses and was about to give way entirely. But overall, the battle was going well.
"Sire, I am wondering -- what is happening to the north?"
"The greater part of our victory," Cwerith said. The greater part, indeed...he wished, not for the first time, that he was able to commune with the Power that was the source of Cassion's strength and wisdom. One day, perhaps -- if he showed his fealty...if he showed his worth as King....
Brother Malcolm tied the bandage around the man's thigh. It was a deep wound, but clean; perhaps he would walk again, although he was more like to lose his leg. Malcolm handed the man a cup of water, and the man swallowed a sip or two before lapsing into unconsciousness. Then he moved on to the next, and even one so unfamiliar with wounds of battle as he could recognize a death-wound when he saw it. A sword, or an axe perhaps, had opened the man's torso so that his body was naught but blood and mangled flesh between the chest and the legs. The man's breaths were shallow, rasping; by what cruelty this man should still be breathing at all was beyond Malcolm's imagination. He whispered something, a snippet of prayer, before re-covering the man and moving on. He had now lost count of the men to whom he had only been able to offer farewell. It all became a blur, a horrible blur of blood, bile and defecation and death.
Later he was helping to restrain a soldier whose arms had been taken off at the elbow as an Adept cauterized the wound with a hot iron. The man's shrieks, piercing despite the rag stuffed into his mouth, drowned out the horns that sounded from Cwerith's army. It was just as well. Brother Malcolm would not have recognized those horns for Cwerith's secondary push, even if he had heard them.
But someone else had heard those horns. "They are coming," that someone said.
Sir Baigent ignored the pain in his side from the old wound and the pain in his left arm from the new -- and the cut on his forehead, and the twisting of his ankle when he had stumbled over a corpse. He never allowed his blade to stop moving, not for a single second, as he fought through the throng of louts before him. He had no time for pain now, and all the men he killed took on a singular aspect, no longer appearing as separate warriors but just parts of a single, larger foe. He had to fight through. He had to win. But there were still too many by far, and he would not be able to thwart the mounted warriors who now attacked the man who had just come forth from the Dance.
That man was tall in the saddle, tall and impressive -- but at the same time he was somehow smaller than Sir Baigent had envisioned, and from the distance of fifty paces or so he looked even smaller. This is the Promised King, Sir Baigent thought with dismay as the first two of Maxen's mounted knights moved to engage him. Sir Baigent brought his own sword about, beheading an attacker, and then he had a moment in which no one was coming at him, a moment for him to watch what came next. He saw the two mounted men lift their swords, and his heart sank. Everything we suffered, he thought. All of it, to end here, like this.
And then Sir Baigent saw the Promised King lift his own sword.
It was a weapon the like of which he had never before seen. This sword reflected the light of the sun so brilliantly that to Sir Baigent it appeared as though the Promised King held a blade wrought of a piece of the sun itself. He reflexively lifted his hand to shield his eyes, but still he was able to see the Promised King ride forward, straight at the attackers. That bright blade flashed twice with amazing speed, and the two knights fell dead from their saddles.
The Promised King peeled away and circled back to the spot where he had begun, to await the next attackers. Again they came, and again the King rode to meet them, and again the attackers were slain. Something stirred in Sir Baigent's heart. Once more the name of Camyrdin burst forth from his lips, and he rejoined the fight. The numbers against him were still desperate, but perhaps -- just perhaps -- they might be able to win this day. Then he heard the pounding of hoof-beats, and he thought for a moment that Maxen had sent his cavalry to attack the villagers and defenders, until he heard the new war cry:
That cry was followed by the sound of a clay object hitting the ground, and Sir Baigent threw himself down just as the explosion blasted in the midst of Maxen's men.
The Finders had arrived.
Rage, black rage, filled Maxen's heart as the explosion ripped through his men. How dare these damned wretches--
It does not matter.
The voice was familiar, and it calmed him. He touched the maimed tissue of his left wrist and pressed on it, savoring the familiar pain. Of course it did not matter if these people came now, with their damned globes of fire. It didn't matter if every one of his men fell here today, so long as this Promised King never left the field alive.
Ride with my strength, Maxen of Caer Mastagg.
The words, spoken in the voice of the silver wolf, soothed him. He looked up to see the King with the blazing sword strike down another man, and the world seemed to him to slow as he spurred his horse forward and began his own ride to the attack. He lifted his sword, and the blade actually began to burn as though it was made of flame instead of steel. The strength of the Power that had saved him -- the strength of the silver wolf -- surged through him as he rode, and his burning sword met the blazing one at last.
"Break away!" Fflud shouted. "Stop those men!"
He shouted his command again and again, until the remainder of the mounted knights turned from their attack on the man with the blazing sword and moved instead to counterattack these damned bandits who had found them once again. Fflud lifted his own battle axe and likewise rode to attack, to trample and behead and maim and kill these enemies who had been so flagrant in their refusal to serve the rightful King of Prydein. What luck, what unbelievable fortune, that these fools would be here as well, fighting in the open and under sunlight at last, without the cover of darkness and fire and smoke to protect them.
And there in the front of all the fighting was the bastard from Camyrdin who had taken the mantle of Champion for that whining bitch and maimed his Captain. Easily selecting his target, Fflud steered his horse toward that man -- Baigent was his name -- and positioned his axe for the blow that would send this man to join his countrymen.
Out of the corner of his eye, Sir Baigent could see that the men on horse had swung about to attack the Finders. They would trample their own men, the way they were riding. Amazing -- and even worse, Sir Baigent would be among them. He could not disengage from the men he was fighting soon enough. The horses were almost here -- and then there came the unmistakable rush of air as twenty or so arrows flew over his head, into the charging riders. He heard the voice of Murron of the Arrows, shouting in the distance, but he could not make out her words. Glancing about, he saw Hugydd swing his sword, killing a man who died with an expression of shock that he should be struck down by a Druid.
One of the Finders rode by, his horse trampling three men as the rider dropped another fire-globe. The explosion threw more bodies into the air, and Sir Baigent waded into the resulting carnage, using his sword to carve through leather, flesh and bone. Then he heard a bloodcurdling scream, and when he looked up he saw another horseman -- an immense mountain of a man, wielding a gigantic axe -- bearing down upon him.
Fflud, he thought, having only time enough to recognize the man before Maxen's second-in-command was upon him.
In his ears Maxen heard the baying of wolves as he arrived upon the Promised King. The King's blazing sword flashed with astonishing speed, but Maxen's burning blade moved with equal speed to parry the blow. He saw the expression in the other man's eyes, and he was confused by what he saw there: calmness, anger and a small amount of fear, but also sadness. He knows he is here to die, Maxen thought. But still this warrior fought bravely and gallantly, almost without fear. After another exchange of sword-strokes, the Promised King moved beyond Maxen's reach and dismounted, moving with a litheness of foot that Maxen found surprising. Nevertheless, such skill would not save this man who fought with the power of a fading Goddess while he, Maxen, fought with the power of the fading Goddess's rising Brother.
Maxen swung down from his own saddle and rushed to the attack. He did not wonder how this man had known he would likewise dismount, for that mattered not at all. He savored the grunt that the Promised King made when he met Maxen's first blow. It would not be long now.
Wolves howled for him, and he drank in the Dark God's power and majesty.
::..permanent link to this chapter..::