It's Sunday and I don't feel like writing much of anything, so here's an excerpt from my novel that's coming along.
The sky screamed of steel and the air tasted of blood. In the valley of Aleutha, too pretty a name for the work being done there, rivers of the redness ran beneath men's feet as they shuffled, dancing, swinging, striking blows in the deadly dance of combat. Spears were thrust, swords slashing and axes hacking into flesh. Men yelled in the face of brutal chaos, hurling themselves at one another with deadly efficiency.
Jared Longheart roared, raining blows onto another man's helm. The other man, the enemy, folded to the ground and Jared reversed his grip, stabbing downwards. His eyes were fierce. Blood covered him from head to toe. He looked for another foe. It wasn't difficult to find, a pale-faced man with an axe who was charging straight for him. Jared turned, ducking under the axe, spinning around behind. His sword found the back of the man's neck and blood spurted out like a fountain. Jared wiped the redness from his eyes but took too long. A man's spear took him in the gut.
Bareath Damod's axe took twenty-seven lives before another man took off his head. Kent Brenner's steel sent ten men to the grave before an axe took his leg and then his heart. Gerend Tamalde, a vicious dwarf who would have stories told of him long after the battle was over, led a group of men deep into the enemy ranks, slaughtering left and right, until him and those with him were struck down by lightning from a raised hand. A kid barely the age of a man fell underneath a large corpse and drowned in bloody mud.
Bows twanged, crossbows thrummed, arrows sunk into flesh, and bolts punctured armor. Battle cries became cries of agony and pain and death. Men lived and died in mere moments.
Mott Thanson, a lowly boy until the War, was frightened out of his mind. But he fought, because to do anything else was to die, or worse, become one of the squealing and dying on the ground. So he ducked a spear thrust and returned with the sharp edge of his sword across the other man's neck. And he parried the next man's sword, turned it, kicked the man and brought his sword down. He killed, and he killed, and he killed again. He killed until his legs ached, his back burned, his arms were weary. His hands bled from calluses ripped open by the leather grip of the sword. And still, he stabbed one in the back, another in the chest, and ripped open another's belly, spewing steaming intestines onto the ground.
This was not the fight Mott had imagined in his mind. He'd seen himself and his comrades fighting cruel men, men in dark robes, snarling and hateful. Fighting evil and succeeding. Becoming a hero, beating the odds and saving the world. These men did not wear dark robes, in fact the two opposing sides looked more alike than different. It wasn't right. The other side, the mages and their allies, were evil, had caused destruction and chaos upon the world, and yet, they looked like normal men and worse, they died like any other man. Mott saw no evil in the enemies' eyes when he thrust his sword into them, they were the same as any other man, full of pity, sadness, anger and shock at the finality of their own end. This wasn't what he wanted.
But it didn't matter. He couldn't think about it. All he could do was act and react, an instinctual need to survive pushing him and pushing him. All he knew was that he did not want to die. Not here. Not now. Not like this. And so he fought and killed. And when the horns called out, when the two sides fell away from each other, chests heaving and breathing labored, Mott knew it wasn't over. He was going to have to kill and kill again until one side lost or gave up. It wasn't over. Who knew when it would be?
The two sides pulled back as the sun fell in the sky. It was the nature of large battles with many, many men. You push and push and surge forward, and eventually the surge subsides, lessens and finally the waves pull back. Both sides form a mutual unspoken peace, or perhaps a better word for it, agreement, a time of rest, to gather the dead and fallen of your own and then wait for the next surge.
And so the next part of big battles began, as terrible as the last, perhaps worse even. As the ache and weariness grows and grows throughout your body, you have to lift and carry your dead and dying. Pull them back, save those few you can, put those you can't out of their misery. You no longer have the distraction of fighting for your life, now you can't ignore the screams and shrieks of your own friends and comrades.
Mott's mind was blank as he went about his tasks, his body robotic, simply going through the motions. Most of the men's eyes were staring off into some other world, dazed, though the many veterans simply shrugged it off and yelled at the others to 'get a goddamn move on about it afore the enemy rides down upon all arr heads.'
There was another surge before night finally fell. Men roared, fought, killed, and died. A cooling rain fell as the sides once again pulled away from each other. Tents and sentries were set up, campfires lit despite the light drizzle, bland and boring food cooked and eaten. Mott did not think he would sleep, yet his mind remained an easy nothingness, and his exhaustion quickly took him away from consciousness. He did dream despite his weariness, nightmares filled with men being slaughtered and squealing like pigs, and always, Mott was the one who held the killing weapon.
During this night, other things were happening, and on the morrow, things would happen that would cause the boy Mott much worse nightmares than these which he had now.
In his own camp, there was a light coming from the High Lord's tent. It was a tent only slightly larger than any of his soldiers, room for only a small cot, table and a couple chairs. Right now a large map lay open on the ground, rocks on the corners and small markers set in certain places on the map. It was very well detailed, made by Elves in fact, and showed the region around the two armies nigh perfectly. The High Lord, called only 'Leaan' or 'Leader' by all, sat upon the ground, chin on a hand, pondering the map before him. A torch set in the ground provided the tent with flickering illumination. Another man, Leaan's Second stood behind Leaan, hands on his hip, scowl on his face.
"We should attack in the night. Tonight. You know it to be true," The Second said.
"Attacking at night is a scoundrel's tactic, and a foolish one," Leaan replied.
"And do they not use dishonorable tactics? Do you forget they use magic?" The last word was spit out as much as it was said. "The coward's weapon? Evil and dastardly and the cause of all our problems?" His voice grew louder with each word until he was nearly shouting.
"Calm yourself." Leaan's voice was steel. "I understand them better than you know. Any commander worth his salt knows to keep his most hardened and alert men as night sentries, to guard and alert to any such attack. The men know to sleep with their armor and weapons close at hand. It is nigh impossible to move a large amount of men softly and quietly through the night. Sentries give the alarm, the defenders quickly rise up and become the attackers. And if we should send men in the night and kill their sentries without alarm, what of it? You said yourself they use magic, do you not think they will have wards up? Spells of warning should a foot make a step too close to the camp?"
The other man looked away, into a shadowy corner of the tent. He did not speak.
"A night attack is a fool's tactic, at least in the situation such as we are in. I would hope we would be attack this night, for we are more than ready, but I know Angun." Leaan sighed. "He is no fool."
"No," the other man said softly, "just a betrayer."
"Enough! I will not hear you speak ill of him. He simply made the wrong choice. He chose the wrong side. He does not understand. He could have slit my throat in my sleep, caused chaos and destruction in the ranks before he left but he did not." Leaan remembered that day. Angun had simply told him he could no longer fight for him and was leaving. He climbed upon his horse, a great white beast of a horse, and began trotting away. Leaan could've ordered him caught, killed or taken hostage, but he held his tongue. He had let Angun go. It was the honorable thing to do.
"You let them have one of our great commanders for nothing. That was ill-decided, Leaan."
"It was not for nothing, Calwer, it was for honor. Remember that." Leaan gave Calwer a stern look, then turned back to the map. Calwer was a great fighter, but all bluster and glory-seeking. He did not think things through, and was not a keen strategist. Leaan almost regretted promoting him to Angun's position, but there was naught else he could have done. Calwer was stalwart and loyal and had been with him nearly as long as Angun. Leaan rewarded loyalty, he had to. If you did not have loyalty, you had nothing. Leaan leaned closer to the map.
It showed a vast forest surrounding a large open valley, in which the various stone markers stood. The forest was Lelandrial, Leaan knew it meant Forest of The Lights, but most simply knew it as Forest of the Elves, or the Elven forest. Leaan's army had chased the mages through this forest and into this valley. The valley butted up against an enormous lake, the north of which was off the map but Leaan knew what was up there. Red stone markers stood on the valley near the lake, the enemy encampment. Blue markers curved around the red ones, showing Leaan's own army. There was nowhere for the enemy to retreat to. Perhaps they were building boats, ready to flee across the lake, but Leaan doubted it. The lake was a wild one, buffeted by heavy winds from the cold Northern mountains, with high waves, and where would they flee to? North of the lake were high rocky bluffs, even if they could find a landing for their army, there would be nowhere to go but up into the mountains, where orcs, goblins, and giants resided, not to mention the cold, and though Autumn was barely starting, a cold chill would be growing across the land, colder this far North. No, it would be a mistake to flee across the lake. Leaan felt, no, he knew Angun would make his final stand where he was, with his back against the lake, like a dog in a corner, and Leaan knew a dog backed into a corner was a very dangerous animal.
"Tomorrow we end it. We attack at dawn." It made sense, charging with the rising sun. "Go, Calwer, sleep. You will need it."
"Very well, Leader." Calwer patted his fist against his chest in one swift motion. "Ah-stahn." He left.
Ah-stahn, a saying that simply meant 'I stand'. "Ahl-stahn," Leaan said to himself. "We stand." He did not sleep that night.
Across the valley, as a pale sliver of a moon rose up in the sky and a cold wind blew through the cloth of tents making torches sputter and flicker, Angun Silverbeard stood in a large white tent with six other men, each dressed in colorful robes and Angun in simple leather and wool. He was arguing with fools and he knew it. At times, he regretted joining the mages, but he simply could not follow a leader who would kill a man simply because of how he was born. It wasn't right, but Leaan couldn't see it, wouldn't see it. And so he had left, thinking he would be taken hostage or killed before his horse let a hoof fall outside the camp, but Leaan had led him go. And now he was here, the commander of the army of the mages, and it was hard, but it was his duty.
"We will not attack at night and that is final!" Angun bellowed, his voice loud and powerful, silencing the robed men before him. Between the men stood a table, and upon the table a map, crudely drawn, of the surrounding regions. If the Elves had agreed to help them...but they had refused. The mages and their army had fled to the Elven forest expecting aid, indeed Elves were widely known as a deeply connected race, more connected to magic than humans and dwarves and yet they had refused. Leaan and his army of men frightened them and they had dared not risk his anger, much less open war. The dwarves had given Leaan warriors, crafters and builders, and the Elves had given them maps and knowledge of their surroundings. It seemed the mages were on their own with an army of supporters, and that was it. It would be a difficult battle to win.
"We should flee across the lake. Why do you not have men building boats?" One of the robed ones asked.
"Because it would take half a week, meanwhile we faced attack after attack after attack with men tired from building." He almost added 'you fool' but managed to hold his tongue. It would not help matters to piss off these sneering wizards, the so-called lords of the mages in this army. He shook his head. He did not like explaining himself to those who knew little of battle, did not like explaining himself to anyone at all for that matter, but he needed these men and their magic. "Now, tomorrow, will you wear simple leather and armor, as I have asked you?"
Five of them sniffed in annoyance. "Should we dress as simple soldiers?" One of them sneered, and a couple tittered.
"Yes, you should." The titters stopped, and the one who spoke sputtered in surprise. "Alcoth was wearing his signature green and red robes." The mages looked elsewhere, anywhere but Angun's eyes. They could not block out his stone cold voice though. "That did not stop a bolt from going through his throat. Each one of you that wears robes gives the enemies archers a target, a beacon on the battlefield that draws fire. It is your choice, however."
There was muttering but no one spoke up. Angun sighed. That was settled. Good. He pointed at the map. "We will not make boats and we will not flee. We will stand here and fight. Is that understood?" They nodded reluctantly. For all their stubborn arrogance, they knew he was the best commander they had.
"If we wish to win with the least amount of casualties, withdraw your restrictions, sir." This one was Lavathin, robed in blood red. "Give us freedom to do as we will and the battle will be over after the first foray."
"Nay," Angun replied, shaking his head. He did not raise his voice but it had a deadly softness. "I will not have masses of men butchered and burning in agony. You know what I allow."
"Parlor tricks and pathetically weak demonstrations of our power. We would have them running if only-"
"I said no. If you wish to keep me as your commander, you will do as I say." Angun doubted the enemy would run no matter what was thrown at them. They had The Leader, after all. He waved a hand dismissively. "Leave me. You will have battle plans for the morrow soon."
The six mages left the tent with heads held high. They were weavers of lightning, masters of fire, and lords of awesome destruction. They did not like being told what to do. Two robed men broke off from the rest, walking together.
One was Lavathin Teallin, a name that would soon be remembered for long time to come, a tall severe man with dark eyes. "I will not wear leather like some lay man." His voice was smooth and slippery and filled with anger.
The other man, short and balding and wearing purple robes, spoke up with a high whiny voice. "But Lord Silverbeard makes a good point..."
"Silence. He is no lord, just a simple soldier who does not understand our power. Tomorrow, he will. They all will. I will send them running like dogs."
Angun stood over the map, looking at it, strategies forming in his mind. He thought of Leaan, and what he knew of the man, and just what Leaan might do. Angun closed his eyes. He knew what Leaan would do. He would attack at dawn, and Angun would meet him. They would push against eachother as ocean waves beat against the shore. It would be an honorable but bloody battle, and at the end, one side would rise victorious. Angun nodded. Very well. No tricks or sneaks. He had mages, true, but he had restricted them to healing, strengthening his troops, and spells of lightning. Lightning was clean and quick, at least. Just bloody brutal fighting. He stroked the silver beard that gave him his name. It was the only name he had. In the times of chaos, he had been lost and afraid, but Leaan had found him. Had raised him up and formed him into a man. And now, now he would face him on the battlefield. "So be it." Little did Angun know there would be no honor in tomorrow's battle, not after what Lavathin planned. Angun found no sleep in his cot that night.
The gray hour before dawn found Mott tightening his leather and pulling on his armor. His hands shook and memories of the nightmarish dreams of the night before echoed in his head despite his attempt to ignore them. Dawn was coming and it would soon be time to kill again. There was no time for extraneous thoughts or mulling over actions. He picked up his sword, and though it did not shine, it was clean. Not for long, though, not for long at all. Soon it would be red with blood or he would be dead.
The Leader rode amongst his encampment on a gray armored horse, his full plate on, dull and hard. He was not one for shine and polish, no amount of shine and polish would make the armor stop a blades edge any easier. The men saw him in his plain armor and helm hiding his face, and felt courage in their hearts. Here was a man like them, but better than them, strong and wise, who would lead them to victory just as he had saved them from their individual hells during the time of chaos. They would fight hard for him. They would fight to the last.
Breakfast had been cooked and eaten, armor was being strapped on, weapons wrapped around waists. Nobody rushed, but they all moved with swift surety. One day of battle was over and another was about to begin. The veterans accepted it stolidly, just another day, another battle, while fresh-blooded soldiers simply tried not to think about the day before or the one ahead.
Time passed without Mott realizing it, and suddenly the two sides were joined, crashing and clanging together. Swords flashing and axes swinging. Mott found himself facing a giant bear of a man wielding an axe. Mott ducked and dodged as best he could, unable to attack as he simply tried not to get split in half. The axe whistled by but the big man's foot came out of nowhere slamming Mott in the chest and laying him on his back. The breath was knocked out of him and his sword went flying out of his grasp. Gasping for breath, he struggled to move but the boot came down again, slamming him back down and holding him as the big man stood on him, axe raised. Mott did not think but he moved. He pulled a dagger from his waist and stabbed it into the man's ankle. There was screaming from the man and yelling from Mott as he stabbed again, this time higher up the leg. The man's foot let up but he sent his axe blade crashing down. Mott pushed the foot away and rolled, axe slamming the ground behind him. Mott pushed himself to his feet, looking for a weapon, anything other than a tiny dagger. He found a spear as the big man limped after him. He slammed the butt of the weapon into the man's hurt leg, felling him with a scream of agony and finished him with a spear thrust into the throat.
Lightning flashed, not in the sky, but on the ground, flashing into men and dropping them in a moment. Lavathin sneered at the pathetic attacks. This was not true magic, true power. True power should not be restricted or withheld, it should be used and shown. He grinned, surveying the battle from a hill far back from the front lines. Most of the mages stood back, sending brief flashes of lightning, healing the wounded who'd been pulled back, or using magic to bolster the soldiers' strength. These were what Angun allowed.
"It is past time this is over," he said, raising his hands.
"Wait, what are you going to do?" The purple robed man now wore leather and armor and looked quite awkward. His voice however, remained annoyingly high-pitched.
"What I should have done yesterday."
"But wait, they're pulling back..."
It was true, the two sides were pulling back for a moment of respite, but Lavathin didn't care for the idiotic unspoken rules of battle. There were no rules, only winners and losers. He could feel his Connection, strong, perhaps stronger than any other alive. He pulled from it, twisted it, used it to do his bidding. Bright flashes of light erupted from his hands.
And suddenly, as Leaan's men were retreating, pulling wounded off the frontlines, the enemy surged forward. It was not right, to attack when one was healing the wounded or taking care of the fallen, yet they came. Mott's eyes widened as the other men charged, bellowing with a strange sudden energy. Their eyes and movements were wild. They attacked with no thought to their own safety, simply throwing themselves upon the enemy.
Angus whirled on his horse amid his men. "What are you doing? Fall back, I said, fall back!" But his cries fell on deaf ears, as his men attacked like animals.
The sound of warhorns arose. Leaan bellowed. "They come! Fight! Fight I say!" He eyed Angun with anger, but realized the man, once his closest friend, had lost control of his men.
Mott parried and parried again, but the man in front of him would not relent. There was red in his eyes, a madness that spurred him on even after Mott had taken an arm and a leg. The man crawled, reaching and biting. Mott finished him and then another was upon him, knocking him to the ground.
"What have you done?" The bald man shrieked as Lavathin laughed.
"Turned the tides, my weak-willed friend, turned the tides to our favor."
The other man sputtered as he spoke. "But you've driven them insane!"
"Bloodlust, fool. If you have less men than the enemy, you must even the odds somehow." Lavathin felt the power within him bubbling and boiling up. "And now, it is time, to end this." He pulled on the power and unleashed hell.
Fire exploded across the front lines, burning friend and foe alike. Burning men alive, cooking them inside their armor, blistering skin and bone alike. Men became ash. In moments it was over, the fire was gone, leaving charred bodies, ashes, and men still alive screaming in the worst agony of their lives. Both sides seemed stunned by the destruction. Miles upon miles of smoking corpses. The smell of burnt flesh was overpowering, and smoke drifted over the battlefield. The shrieks were loud and unending and ashes were carried on the wind.
Men looked upon the vast death and destruction wrought and felt fear. Nobody could fight this, nobody could stand against something so overpowering as this. And still, the screams went on.
"And now, they run." Lavathin smiled.
The other man looked horrified. "What have you done?" He whispered. "What have you done?"
Lavathin sneered. "I have saved us, fool. We've won. Watch as they flee my power."
Mott, lying on the ground, heard an explosion of sound and felt heat searing his back, filling the air above him. As the heat dissipated, he pushed himself up, surveying a sea of cooked corpses and screaming burning men who had survived, though not for long. Mott did not see. He refused to see. He stumbled around in a daze.
"Ah-stahn!" The cry came, bellowing out from a loud voice, a strong voice. "Ah-stahn!" Men turned, uncertain, looking for the source.
It was Leaan, riding his horse, gesturing with sword in hand. "I stand!" He bellowed. "Who stands with me?"
The cry was thunderous. Men stood, they picked up their weapons and raised them high. "Al-stahn!" They cried out. "We stand! We stand!"
Leaan spurred his horse forward, pointing his sword at the enemy. He charged, and his men followed. They stepped over their still-smoldering comrades, they ignored the stench of crisped skin and the screams and followed their leader. Mott found himself following with the others, caught up in the excitement of the moment. He could taste ash in his mouth as his boots pounded through puddles of blood.
Lavathin snarled. "Very well. If they want more, then they will have it!" He lifted his arms wearily, ignoring how tired his previous Drawing had made him. "If they want to burn, then they will burn."
"No, Lavathin, it's you who will burn," a voice spoke from behind, and then the point of a sword ripped through Lavathin's stomach, point emerging in a burst of blood.
Lavathin and the bald mage beside him looked at it in sudden surprise.
"In hell," Angun said, withdrawing the sword. Lavathin collapsed and Angun turned his attention to the other mages. He butchered four before one managed to capture him in air and stab him with a dagger.
By then it was over. Leaan's forces broke the stunned enemy with ease and fell upon the mages with a reckless vengeful brutality. They were struck down as they fled.
That was the battle of blood and ashes.