Читать книгу A Hero's Justice - Paul B. Thompson

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Paul B. Thompson,Tonya C. Cook

A Hero's justice

Avalanche on Level Ground

General Lord Relfas, mounted on a massive roan gelding, watched six streams of dust rise into the warm morning air. Widely spaced in an arc from north to south, the six dust streams were converging on his position. His aide, Lord Fracolo, spoke the obvious: “Scouts returning, sir!” Relfas didn’t bother to reply. Fracolo might be a Rider of the Great Horde, but he could make no claim to nobility, while Relfas was of the wealthy house of Dirinmor. Instead, Relfas turned to stare at the view behind him. It was a sight to stir the blood, and one he never tired of.

Fifty thousand mounted warriors were drawn up in perfectly ordered ranks, iron armor gleaming and crimson cloaks spotless. The First Fifty of the Great Horde of Ergoth filled the bottomland of the Solvin River, as far as the eye could see to the north, south, and west. So named because they were the first to be summoned in time of war, the First Fifty comprised the cream of Emperor Ackal V’s fighting men. None was younger than twenty, nor older than thirty. Relfas, at forty years of age, was the oldest among them.

Horde standards rose proudly among the shining host. Each flag bore the symbol of the fighting men behind it. There were thunderbolts, stars, skulls, axes, and a veritable menagerie of animals: dragons, panthers, bulls, bears, and serpents.

Directly behind Relfas was the greatest standard of all, the arms of the House of Ackal. The crimson banner emblazoned with a golden sun over a pair of crossed sabers had a proud history. First carried by the empire’s founder, Ackal the Great, this emblem had journeyed into the far corners of the land, always returning in triumph. Those enemies who survived their contest with Ergoth said the banner’s color came from the blood of the untold thousands slain by the Great Horde.

To be here, leading such an army into battle, was the dream of every Rider of the Great Horde. Even before his days as a shilder, training with blunted weapons, Relfas had never doubted he would attain this pinnacle. Such accomplishments were nothing more than his due.

The scouts arrived, hauling their foam-flecked horses to a stop amidst clouds of thick yellow plains dust. The first man to reach Relfas was a Rider from the Stone Shield Horde, a contingent well known for its elegance and dash. Since all the scouts were covered with yellow grime, this particular Stone Shielder hardly lived up to that reputation just now.

“My lord!” he cried. “I beg to report the enemy has withdrawn!”

“More than a league beyond the riverbend!” added a second scout, arriving hard on the heels of the first.

“So, the lizards are running,” Relfas said, a smug smile on his handsome, red-bearded face.

He had brought the army here in a rush to contest the invaders’ crossing of the Solvin River, some twenty leagues east-northeast of the city of Caergoth. The news that the enemy had fallen back, even before his men could engage them, only confirmed what Relfas had long believed. The invader host might terrify peasants and nomad barbarians, but it stood no chance against the trained hordes of Ergoth.

Raising his voice he declared, “We will pursue!”

His subordinate warlords, gathered behind him, exchanged looks. Hojan of Hobor, who knew the Eastern Hundred well, urged caution. “We should not rush blindly into a fray,” he said. “There are other scouts still out. We should wait and hear from them.”

“Other scouts? What other scouts?” asked Relfas.

“He means the nomads, my lord,” said the Stone Shield rider, lip curling in disdain. “Curs! They take our coin, ride out, and don’t return!”

“The ones I hire do,” Hojan replied.

Relfas had no interest whatsoever in nomads, scouts or no.

“The first law of war, as set down by Ackal the Great, is to pursue a fleeing enemy until they are utterly destroyed,” he said. “Is that not so, Lord Hojan?”

Hojan grunted an affirmative, but added there was no proof the enemy was fleeing. They might simply be leaving the flatlands around the river, to take advantage of the better position provided by the Solvin Hills.

Relfas shook his head. “You give them too much credit. They’re little better than beasts.”

The casual dismissal left Hojan and several other warlords staring.

“My lord, in olden times the arkudenala nearly overran Silvanost!” Lord Dukant said.

The name, bestowed on the invaders by displaced nomads, meant “sons of dragons.” The arkudenala had landed on the empire’s north coast seven years earlier and begun driving inland, slaughtering all who opposed them. Peasant refugees, driven before the invaders like the bow wave of a great ship, made for the presumed safety of the empire’s southern cities, bringing with them confusing tales of their inhuman attackers. However, it soon became clear these arkudenala were not some new, draconic evil, but bakali, a reptilian race once thought cleansed from the world.

“Elves are not Riders of the Great Horde,” Relfas stated. “What overran them, we shall destroy! The order is: pursue the retreating foe!”

Most of the warlords, fired with pride and eager for battle, saluted their general and rejoined their respective hordes. Hojan and a handful of skeptics departed with more deliberation.

Lord Relfas’ command echoed through the lines. Drawing their sabers in one long thunderclap of iron on iron, the Riders roared, “Ergoth! Ergoth!”

Fifty thousand horsemen trotted out of the bend of the Solvin, advancing straight ahead. On either wing, Riders fanned out, opening the interval between them and breaking into a canter.

The river bottom, lush with newly leafed willows and a rampant tangle of blooming vines, gave way in less than a league to grassy land that rose in a series of low, step-like ridges. The sod was trampled and torn in a swath five leagues wide. The sheer breadth of the trail caused the Ergothian advance to falter.

“How many lizard-men are there?” asked Lord Fracolo, staring at the scarred ground.

“What does it matter?” Relfas snapped. He rose in the stirrups, lifted his saber high, and shouted, “Whether they be ten thousand or a hundred thousand, the lizards are showing us their backs and we shall sweep the land clear of them!”

He ordered the pace increased to a gallop. Most of the First Fifty surged forward, supremely confident of their own invincibility.

Before Relfas joined them, Lord Hojan steered his mount next to the general’s and spoke quickly. He reminded his leader of another time-honored precept handed down by Ackal the Great: when the enemy’s strength is unknown, hold men in reserve.

Although he did not share his warlord’s caution, Relfas ordered Hojan to proceed. Then the general galloped away.

Several warlords had held back when the rest increased their pace. At Hojan’s command, these formed up around his own Golden Helm Horde. Six hordes in all, the reserve continued to move forward, but at a walking pace.

Far ahead, the Riders galloping in the forefront of the charge reached the lowest step of the hills without catching sight of the enemy. They’d covered a thousand paces, and their mounts were winded. They slowed, and the formation became confused as faster riders trod on their heels. Still, the throng of mounted men continued their forward motion, beginning the climb up the first slope.

At that instant, a shrill screeching filled the steamy summer air. The Ergothians reined up, unable to trace or identify the bizarre sound. From the army’s edges, solitary riders broke off and rode swiftly away. They were clad not in iron armor, but buckskin or homespun. These were nomads, hired as scouts by the Ergothians, and they alone recognized this sound, knew exactly what it meant.

All along the rim of the ridge ahead, dark figures appeared. With the late morning sun in their eyes, the Ergothians could make out no details, only bulky, shapeless silhouettes, but the clatter of arms was unmistakable. Horns of warning bleated along the imperial line.

Relfas saw his men hesitate. Warriors of the Great Horde feared no mortal foe, but a charge up a steep incline at an entrenched enemy such as this was not a thing to be taken lightly. Relfas took personal command of the vanguard and roared the order to charge. Weary horses panted and gasped, fighting their way up the slope already torn up by the enemy’s passage.

Atop the ridge loomed a wall of green and dull metal. Spears swung down from the front ranks of the bakali host. Behind them billhooks and poleaxes cleaved the air in menacing circles. The enemy himself was not quite visible, only the seemingly impenetrable phalanx of shields and protruding spears.

Standing in his stirrups and whipping his saber around his head, Relfas led his men into the first clash. He was promptly unhorsed when his mount reared to avoid the spiny greeting the bakali had prepared. The animal toppled, and Relfas tumbled ignominiously down the slope. Around him, smarter horsemen kept low over their mounts’ necks and struck at the spearpoints with their sabers.

While the front ranks jabbed at each other, the second rank of bakali waded in with hooks and axes. With these they snagged unwary riders, dragging them onto the waiting spears of other bakali.

For most of the Ergothians, this was the first time they’d seen

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