Theirs was a professional army, well disciplined and capable in battle. When the generals gave the command to form ranks, the order was followed quickly and professionally. They moved off the road, onto a small rise and into parallel lines, the summit to their back and one continuous like of shields in the front. Archers and ballistas occupied the summit, while the cavalry held in reserve.
They stood and waited, wondering what might happen next, staring across depression between the foothills, the place that the road cut through the mountains. They waited, knowing that whatever happened, whoever was out there, ready for an attack, the enemy was to come from across this great field form the woods beyond.
For a contingent this size, the sound was unexpectedly quiet. Varden would have expected rough sound of metal-on-metal, signaling a shift in weight by some soldier, far down the line. Or he would have expected mutterings about strategy or even some of the perpetual chattering common enough among troops on campaign. Finally, he would have expected to hear the sound of the pack animals and the war animals to bray or at least stir and cut into the quiet. But the hilltop was quiet, watching and waiting for some form of advance, even a slight one.
Time slowed, despite the light movement of the cool air out of the mountains, the field became stuffy. Their breath caught in their throats, more out of impatience than fear, though that was certainly present enough. Eyes scanned back and forth, trying to pry the secrets from the woodlands, to learn what foe might be foolish enough to challenge so great a host.
A rider emerged. His mount was impossible. It was no horse. It was some, thing. Varden, if he had been asked to describe it might have tried likening it to a wolf, or perhaps a giant hog, but neither would have been correct. The steed, for lack of a better term, looked more swine than hound, but it clearly could not have been either. It was covered with fur, coarse and black, and boasted a pair of tusks, thick ones, at least as long as Varden's fore-arm.
The rider's look was entirely alien. His skin was a patchwork, here light, here tan, here charcoal, and here blue. He was clad in strange armor. It had a wooden feel to it. It was not the formed plate or the interlocking rings that they were so used to, but even from this distance, it was clear that even if it were metal, it was not something you could ever polish smooth. It was too rough, and the colors were too inconsistent.
He emerged from the undergrowth, from the trees across the valley, that impossible valley. The rift had grown so large in the last several minutes, that the rider now seemed forever away. He was only a dream, a distant one, holding the attention of all standing there on that sun-bathed hill that spring morning. He moved back and forth. Perhaps checking the lines for weakness, perhaps he was just there to keep track of them. All the while the army stood, watching.
Suddenly, he yelled. The sound was loud and biting. It hit the men like a slap in the face or the crack of the whip. It pushed its way across the battlefield and caused a shiver in the army, even among Varden's company. Animals brayed and the horses whinnied. And the long line of riders emerged from the wood.
There were more riders in that throng than Varden had seen in his entire meager existence. He could not get a reasonable count — there wasn't time for that — but he had the feeling that for every man the empire had brought, for every swordsmen, for every captan and general, there was at least one rider emerging from the wood.
The army remained frozen. These odds were not good, even if they had not split in two this battle might have resulted in a little less than a draw. With half of the army trying to give these people chase, they had managed to stumble on the foe without effort.
The scout, or perhaps he was their general, began barking towards his army, and, for a moment, all seemed still. The air was hot, but still light. This was not an imposing heat, not like Varden had seen in the desert campaigns. There was still a bit of breath to this. There was a sweetness about this almost hopeful valley. Birds circled above, gliding on the currents, casting the occasional shadow on those below. The soil was firm but yielding, and clearly fertile. A thousand wildflowers littered the sides of the road that split the armies. It was as if the earth were waiting for some farmer to come by and stake his plot, to take up the hoe and make this into a field of life. Instead of a battle, the land asked to be tilled and nurtured.
But that was not to happen. In the coming hours the field would be littered. Men and creatures would stain this wilderness with gallon upon gallon of precious life force. Years later this would be called the valley of blood, and perhaps the village elders would remember this day. Perhaps their actions would live on: in some far off land a local musician would be asked for a song, and he would tell the story of the Red Fields of Muirén. Or perhaps their story would be forgotten. This army, this host, was poised to sweep down on their position and utterly blot them from existence. There was only the faintest breath of a hope that they could survive even the initial onslaught, but when the empire launched a third wave, then maybe, maybe. Maybe there was a chance. Maybe this was the day that they would buy themselves eternity.
The scout finished, paused, and then gave one final cry. This one was long and powerful. Even though it was aimed at his army, the echo still came over clearly, loud and imposing in the heat of that late morning. It was sustained and barbaric, a fierce cry of command, the command for our destruction.
It was echoed over the hills and then it was echoed by his troops. The impossible number of riders cheered and hurtled forward on their grotesque steeds. They pounded on the ground, ripping it, displacing it, tearing it up in large clumps as they barreled towards us.
"Fix spears" the command repeated down the line. Each unit forcing the butt end of the spear as deep into the earth as they could manage. These beasts would face a wall of spears and shields, a line of uncompromising men trained in the essence of primeval warfare. Yet even with this training, and even with this proven tactic, there was doubt.
The archers, well protected behind the lines, began sending forth a barrage. A thousand of those small bolts, those tiny winged spears, flew over the heads of the spearmen. A thousand bolts, providing yet another wall of spears, screening the soldiers in the front and making it that this charge, this almost vulgar number of opponents, would thin before crashing into the front ranks.
It was of mixed effect. Some of the war-hogs were pierced, angering them, and distracting them, making them a danger to their riders and all that were around them, but not too many, and not enough to make a difference. Some of the riders died in their saddles, and some died and fell, but this made little difference. The hogs had been sent and they continued to follow their last orders.
Ever charging, charging. Here they came. The hearts of the soldiers raced.
Ballista fired, sending veritable tree-limbs into the hearts and limbs of the oncoming onslaught. Ripping the hogs apart, obliterating riders, sometimes even two at a time. Some hogs were even forced to crash into neighbors, or would simply collapse in their tracks, blocking any of the stragglers and adding yet another obstacle in the middle of the battlefield.
Breath quickened. The sound of the oncoming wave was a deafening roar now. The spearmen held their spears tightly in the earth, bracing themselves against the coming assault.
In one last infinite moment, the millisecond before the riders finally reached the line, Varden gave thought to his wife, his children. He wished he were home. He wished he had kept to the life of his father, and his fathers father. He wished he was anywhere but here.
The riders crashed against the front line, and they broke through. They came with such force and such violence that spears snapped as their hideous steads penetrated the shield-wall, sometimes getting three or four rows back. The beasts then began their berserking frenzy, smashing with all limbs their and goring with their tusks. One beast by itself would have been enough to deal with five soldiers, but this many, this vast number of the foul beasts smashed into the line and the line crumbed into chaos.
Men tried to organize. They were well trained and highly skilled and they tried to form ringlets, circles which could be used to stay the attacks. There were too many enemy, and there was not enough time. The hundred decibel chaos made communication impossible, and their numbers were too few.
Suddenly, the riders pulled back. It was clear that they were prepping for another charge, one that would likely finish them off this time. Horns to his left signaled that the cavalry, his army's cavalry, had been brought in to try to disrupt these riders while they were trying to reorganize.
Closer and closer they drew to the riders, and each foot was another droplet of hope for the soldiers. The foreign creatures and continued their slow pace away from the soldiers. There was a chance, a brief chance that…
First Varden saw movement from the trees. There were more troops there, he knew it. He knew that there would be some new, more terrible thing that happened in this slaughter of a battle, something that would bring even greater hopelessness and despair.
Ten thousand arrows flew from the tree line. Thick, black arrows lifted, arched, and then plunged down into the advancing horsemen. Men and animals dropped, collapsing with the force of impact, their lives rent from them by the blackened wood. Soon it was no longer a charge, it had collapsed like an ill-built structure in the midsts of a flood, and it turned into a retreat.
The retreat turned into a route. The archers turned, fled, dropping all of their equipment. Not one of them saved a quiver or even an arrow to go along with it. Bows were discarded, abandoned. The horsemen withdrew as fast as they could.
Varden, and his men, for their part fought valiantly. They stayed strong after the initial charge, and even had some success against these hell-beasts before them. They were able to regroup, organize, and form their defensive ring. They swallowed their fear and stood strong against an overwhelming foe, but the foe was overwhelming.
The battle drums, so faint among the barrage of hooves on turf, were clearly signaling a withdraw. The leadership very obviously wanted to salvage some form of order, but the effort was futile. The men scattered; even men that had persevered through many a campaign, men that Varden had drunk with in many corners of the empire, men whom would stand up against a dozen men given the chance, blanched and broke before the new, more terrible charge still gathering on the field of slaughter.
Some of his men stayed, but most fled. He was left with perhaps a score of men, though he was not sure of the number, or even which of these were his, and which had come from other companies and cohorts. There was such chaos and the brave were clinging to leadership like those cast adrift in rough seas might cling to even the smallest piece of driftwood in the impossible hope that they might make it to safety.
Varden spent his early life in a small village overlooking a small harbor. There he would play along the high cliffs the sea. He played at being a soldier, he played at being a trader, and an explorer. And sometimes he would just sit and watch the waves come in. In and out they would move. It was tranquil, it was joy, peace.
One afternoon he was far away on the cliff, well out in the open on the moor, and a squall came in suddenly. First it was calm and almost cloudless, and then the sky darkened and grayed. The calm breeze that came out of the sea was replaced by a fierce and angry gale. The rain did not so much start as a giant cataract opened in the sky. The depths grew angry and their normally tranquil relationship with the land turned into one of total abuse and destruction. There was no time for him to get to shelter, for the squall was upon him.
There he saw, in the distance, the fury of the god of the oceans pouring forth upon the harbor, taking vengeance for some slight, some offense that they had committed against him. Waves, normally no more than a foot or two, turned into fierce berserkers, growing to the size of four, five times the size of a man. They smashed into the trading vessels gathered there, upset them, and left them as so much kindling, transforming it to so much flotsam.
These were Varden's thoughts as the riders charged again. Some had survived the initial onslaught, yes, but he was about to be consumed by this wave of riders before him. There was no stopping, there was no slowing, there was only the massive total destruction which was going to fall upon them in but a few seconds. He could see there was no fighting these brutes, not this way. Maybe if they could regroup, if he could take as many as he could with him when they withdrew, if they could keep some semblance of order, maybe, maybe.
And when the line was less than a dozen heartbeats from crashing into them once again, he gave the command. "Just when they get here, turn aside," he screamed, "let them pass through, and strike them in the flank." The men seemed slow in response, or maybe it just seemed that way in the hyped adrenaline of the battlefield, but just as the line was about to strike at them, and decimate them again, the men split, taking the spaces between the approaching cavalry. There they hacked and stabbed, trying to inflict at least some damage before the beasts could withdraw and strike again.
This time they were more effective. Where in the first charge it took twenty men to fall one of these beasts and their rider, this time it only took five. They were still being cut down in droves, they were still being butchered: they were little more than livestock in tin cans before this host, but this was at least some sort of improvement.
The beasts withdrew again. They were preparing to turn, to lead one last assault on their position. Varden could see so many were fallen, and those that were left were split into the tiniest pockets on the battlefield. He knew that there was no way to save all of them, there might not be a way to even save most of them, but there was a blessed chance for his troop to withdraw, to follow the commanders and possibly regroup, and maybe even strike again, harass the enemy, pick them off in the wilderness. He knew that if this horde reached the capital, even the old capital, everything would be lost.
They fought. They fought and they bled and they fought. They fought until the grass had been dyed by the blood of their countrymen. They fought until their ears were filled with the din of their heartbeats, beats so fast that they seemed to hum. They fought until their lungs protested, claiming that it would be better to surrender and die than continue at this pace. They fought and they fought.
It was late in the day, or maybe the early evening, that Varden and his men, that desperate rear guard, managed to find shelter in the nearby woods. They were outmatched and outnumbered, but they stayed, hoping to protect the few soldiers who weren't fleeing in a blind panic, not even as capable as the eyeless beasts that make their homes under the earth, at least those foul creatures would be crafty enough to avoid capture and exposure.
Though, perhaps, they did not so much find shelter as the the attackers abandoned them. They battled beast after beast, wounding many, but only slaying few. As they reached the edge of the woodlands the number of riders had diminished substantially. Most had simply returned to the other side of the valley, some with captives who would be slaves, others with trophies of various sorts, some more gruesome than others. Their last opponent was that same scout from the morning. From this distance Varden could see he was a veteran from his scars — there were straight, clean ones, ones more likely to be made by a blade than a mace or instrument of bludgeoning. These decorated his arms and face as if drawn in some bizarre, macabre tattoo. But the largest, most pronounced one was the product of some great violence in his past. At some point he had been left without guard or armor for long enough to earn a massive distortion on the right side of his face. It was a twist of knots and not something anyone would recognize. And in the center of this rat king of a scar, there was one empty socket. Varden considered that it was a strange wound for a scout, to have half of his vision removed.
The fight with this rider started as just another trial of the day, just one more anonymous soldier attacking, just a final point where they would either prove themselves or perish. There were but twelve of them left by then, twelve from one hundred. The few remaining to fight were being picked off by individual riders, and it seemed that this one intended to do the same, to obtain another dozen scalps for his morbid collection. They were twelve against one, but they had little strength left. At best it was a draw, but so long as they were out of the woods, exposed in this field, any draw would become a loss. On the other hand, these beasts would have difficulty attacking in thick underbrush. They were bigger than horses, which means that they would have even more difficulty once these few made it beyond the edge of the forest.
Unfortunately, it seemed that their tormenter was also aware of their nearing sanctuary. He positioned himself to cut them off, to make it so that the one ton beast stood between them and salvation. They would need to push through him or around in order to withdraw. Varden and his men strove to stay together, to save themselves as a unit, but in the end, he realized that this hope was futile. Finally, feeling that there were no other way, he looked straight at the face of the scout and gave the command to scatter.
They were to regroup in the woods, however many were left of them. The riders were strong and fast, but Varden thought that most of them would survive. After all, how could one rider slay more than one or two in a heartbeat? He could save them.
They divided, half to one side, half to the other, and Varden stood his ground, staring down this man and his beast. Up, well above where he could reach, Varden saw the sneer on the scout's face, perhaps a reflection of his own. The rider saw his men moving, turned his face towards one group, and began to raise his long needle of a sword. Varden could see that he would skewer them, as no more than a fish in a stream. He had seen too many die under his command today, he could not let this rider take even one more. So he opened his mouth and bellowed,
"I am Varden, of the Eguate Cliffs. You will take no more of us today."
His scream seized the attention of he opponent. His face turned back, scowl birthed from sneer, arm still poised to strike, though this time with a new target. The rider gave the beast a kick, likely intending to have it take Varden's life, but Varden was too fast. In one final move on that battlefield, one final action before escape, either to the afterlife or to the forests, Varden leapt.
It is not clear how he managed this leap — perhaps it was one last surge of adrenaline, boosting the hormones and turning muscles into pistons, or perhaps it was some long-forgotten spirit of that place, now satiated on the sacrifice offered in those fields — but his feet left the ground and he soared. He soared over the great tusks of the beasts and plunged his sword deep into the creature's eye.
It bucked, and it screamed, a deep, guttural sound, a sound that showed both soldiers that the beast knew his end was near. It bucked and rocked. It thrashed its head, as if somehow shaking would provide enough strength and force to dislodge the blade.
Varden could see what was happening. He considered pulling his sword free and then thought better of it. Instead he let go and dropped, maintaining just enough balance to land on his feet.
An injured beast of that size is a terrible thing, and often more terrible to its rider than anyone else. Varden scrambled to get out of the way, and then looked back. The soldier on its back would be occupied for some time. Varden knew that now was the time to join his last platoon in the woods.
He turned to follow them but had not gone more than a few yards when he heard a bang, and felt a sudden pain in his shoulder. Briefly, he saw white. He looked and saw not a spear, but a sword cutting through one of the joints in his armor. It cut deep, all the way to his collar bone, and then sagged and dropped. Blood started coming out behind his armor in bursts. He tried to see where it could have come from. They were alone, he knew they were alone, and then saw the beast was dead, and the scout had freed himself from his predicament. He walked towards Varden.
Varden realized that if this man caught him, if he didn't manage to escape pursuit immediately, then he would surely die. He could not fight, not any more, and he wasn't going to be able to outrun anyone in his condition. His head was already swimming in pain and blood loss.
So he fled to the only sanctuary that he had seen at all that day. He ran for the nearby woods, making a direct line for the thickest underbrush. He didn't see his men, but if they went into the woods, he knew that they would have followed the same path. They'd be able to surround and destroy his pursuer, if they were there.
He got to the boarder of the wood and called out. None answered. Surely someone must have survived, right_? Still, none answered. Finally he felt that he had no choice but to try to hide and then somehow ambush the man following him. The plan was a decent one, and it might have worked, but he was losing too much blood to think of another, and unless he could get this armor off and stop the outpour of blood, he was going to have a problem.