Kaith felt the impact of something massive colliding against his shield. He’d braced his shoulder, and for a wonder his position held. Blows from weapons rarely made the bones and muscles of his shield arm vibrate so completely.
In more standard engagements, the largest danger came from clever strikes that forced the shield off its normal center of balance, maneuvering the bulwark to one side or another in an effort to create an opening in an otherwise solid defense. The sheer force of the impact made it clear that a body of some considerable weight had been thrown against him.
To his right, Lamwreigh’s shield came uncoupled from Kaith’s for just a moment. It wasn’t fear that had unbalanced Lamwreigh, merely the youth’s comparative weight when held up against the enemy that had rammed their shield wall.
“No, you don’t!” Robis said. His words were quickly delivered, though spoken with a surprising and bitter calm that knew nothing of age. He pulled back his glaive and set it diagonally against Lamwreigh’s back to brace him, preventing him from sliding any further. “I have you. Now dress that damned line!”
Lamwreigh didn’t have to be told twice. With a grunt, he shoved forward locking his shield into position between Kaith’s and Samik’s.
To his left, Kaith felt Valgar shift, rolling so his back was against Kaith’s left shoulder.
“Robis!” Valgar shouted, “Refuse the left! Get somebody over here to help me! There’s a damned horse breaking through!”
“Aye, I see it,” came Greggor’s voice. He was almost as calm as ever, but his words were slightly more clipped than usual as he raced along behind their line.
Kaith heard a grunt of effort, the clatter of hooves, and a sickly wet popping noise.
“Valgar? Your sword, if you please?” Greggor was both strained and insistent, despite the requisite understatement of his dry wit. He sounded as if he was struggling under a mighty weight.
“Kaith! Refuse the left. Close it up!”
“Refuse the left, aye!” Kaith’s response was swift and automatic. “Lamwreigh, stay the line.”
As Valgar took a step behind the shield wall; Kaith was already bending back, making the line’s flank look like the left side of a trapezoid. As he finished the act of repositioning himself; he saw what Greggor had done. Sir Reginald’s white warhorse (its chest mauled, dripping gore, and ribbons of flesh) had managed to lumber into their backfield. The men had decided earlier that day that the poor thing’s bulk was too heavy to effectively move into the moat with the other corpses. Now, it looked like all of them were paying for that decision.
Greggor’s glaive had penetrated the thing’s neck, and could now be seen poking out from the top of its head. Unfortunately, the wound didn’t appear to be doing more than inconveniencing the grotesque mount.
Valgar took a single step to Kaith’s left, Greggor’s right. In relative silence, Valgar brought his sword down just below where the glaive exited the top of the horse’s head. It took him several strokes before the animal’s head finally parted ways with its neck, but at long last, the creature collapsed.
“The heads!” Kaith shouted, “Take their heads and they’ll fall to the ground like any other thing in creation! Take their heads!”
“Glaives! Spears! Shift right!” Greggor barked.
As always, the men echoed the call, then executed the command.
The thing pressing against Kaith and Lamwreigh’s shields seemed to slip off to the left suddenly.
“Valgar!?” If Kaith was right, the thing that had been pressing against both shields with such vehemence was going to shift to its right, rushing straight toward Valgar’s turned back.
He needn’t have worried. Valgar spun, charged forward with his shield before him, and punched his shield upward, catching the beast’s lower jaw and knocking it off balance.
Wasting no time, he shoved the creature directly into the burning guardhouse to the left.
Kaith had been right, it had been a wolf – perhaps even a massive Winter Wolf – though not of the same coloring as he’d seen on Forester’s once-foe. Had been was certainly the operative phrase, now.
Seeing that gave him an idea. Kaith made his voice sharp to be heard clearly above the din.
“Valgar! Slot in!”
Valgar shouted his assent, backpedaled to stand on Kaith’s left, locked his shield in position, and waited to replace Kaith in the line.
Kaith disengaged once Valgar was braced, shouting, “Dress the line!” as he moved.
As always, the men echoed the order and executed the command. Once he was satisfied that Valgar was in place (which took all of an eyeblink) Kaith step back behind the line of reach weapons that made up the second rank, holding his sword aloft. It would serve to focus those who looked to identify who was giving the order.
If the enemy had archers, this would’ve been a foolish, if not suicidal decision: marking him as a prime target.
Speaking of archers, he heard more arrows being loosed overhead, toward either flank of the town: Yaru and Arafad doing their best to provide their war effort with missile support.
“Shield wall!” Kaith bawled, “Give me a wedge! Tip of the spear? Aethan, center! Samik! Left! Barnic! Right! Move-move-move!”
At once the command was echoed. In a matter of seconds, the men had formed themselves into a very small chevron shape.
Kaith saw Barnic move to cover the flank, dispatching more shambling creatures as range allowed. Jastar and his nine-foot spear slotted into position just behind.
“Alnik?” Greggor’s voice, loud but reassuringly in control.
The sound of his name stopped his uncertain shift toward the western flank before it’d really started. “Stand fast! Never move a step! You’re just where I want you: right behind Aethan!”
The brown-eyed constable (until recently Westsong’s only regularly armed man) nodded and reset both stance and spear. He looked as if he were managing well, despite being utterly out of his element.
He alone was unused to fighting within a larger force. Greggor had, therefore, wisely put him in the center of the pole weapons, where his eye could focus on targets in spear range, rather than trying to mentally contend with the entire field.
Normally, tunnel vision in combat was most deadly to the one seeing through it. In this case, however, Alnik had a force between him and the enemy. He couldn’t afford to be oblivious, but his lack of experience in small unit tactics and formations would do everyone far less harm with him near the center of the rear rank.
“Kaith?” Raun’s voice was full of uncertainty. He didn’t see it yet. Fortunately, Kaith had been drawing breath to give the next order, even as the bard was calling his name.
“We’re going to shove them into the fires! Keep reforming, keep dressing the line! Poles, make ready to brace the shields!” He drew a deep breath, took a step back to take in the field one final time, and gave the order.
“Shield wall! Advance by step! Step-step-step-step-step, line stop!” The men echoed his order, shouting the word step right along with him until the command to stop had been issued. He saw a dozen men and beasts undertake what could only be described as a shambling charge across the bridge.
He’d stopped his formation just in time.
“Brace!” He’d planned to say the word two or three times, as was the norm, but there hadn’t been time. They’d braced their wall of tower shields just before the dead things impacted. “Stay the line!” He fought to maintain the surety in his voice, despite the enemy grabbing at, and trying to dislodge the tight formation’s cohesion. “Stay the line!” He said again. There were only two more left to join the shambling, groping mob, and one of them was the ruined form of Sir Reginald. He hoped Robis’s vantage meant he would be spared the sight of his sire stagger-striding toward them, but hope was all he had time for. “Now! Into the fires! Now! Now! Thorion!”
Screaming as one, screaming “Thorion!” they obeyed.
“Who are you thinking about?” Raun’s voice, soft though it was, forced him back from the memory of that bloody cadence.
“Raun.” Kaith nodded as the man rode up beside him. “Kaith…” His voice held a hint of quiet annoyance for the formality, minor though it was. He let a minute pass in silence, their horses ambling along amiably enough. At length, he asked his question again.
“Who are you thinking about?”
“Does it matter?” Kaith’s voice was more defensive than he would’ve liked, but the words were already out of his mouth. He didn’t mind. He wanted silence with his thoughts, not prodding questioning…
“I keep thinking about Samik,” Raun said. “It’s hard to believe a mountain like that…”
Kaith’s voice was sharp as he cut across him. “Must we?”
Raun rode in silence, his face expressionless.
“I’m sorry.” Kaith said eventually.
“It’s fine,” Raun said. He sounded like he meant it, which made Kaith feel even worse. “I’m just trying to find the right way to honor them.”
“When the Falx comes…” said Kaith, beginning the old catechism.
“Burn the Falx!” Raun said. His voice was black and bitter, almost angry.
Raun cut him off before he could finish. “Falx, yes Kaith. Burn the damned thing.” Raun’s voice was the auditory equivalent of wrapping your bare hand around a thorn bush. “Burn it, hang it, throw it off a cliff!” He returned to riding in silence for perhaps a minute before resuming in a less agitated tone. “I’m not trying to make sense of their deaths, or their lives, Kaith. I’m not looking for a bedtime story that lets me lay them down in peace at last.”
“I don’t know,” Raun said, voice returning to its normal, softer tone. “Something to keep them alive.”
Kaith looked at him, uncertainty etched across his face.
“That’s not remotely what I meant.” Raun snorted. “I mean a statue, an entry in the great histories and sagas, I don’t know…”
Raun blinked hard, then hung his head, nodding. “Already tried, have you?” Kaith’s voice was low and sympathetic, was almost another apology.
Raun nodded. “It’s too big for me. I can set the stage, but everything that comes out after that, it’s just hollow. It doesn’t do the battle justice, nor the loss, nor the valor they displayed.”
“Well,” said he, “Maybe that’s enough.”
Raun eyed him. “Enough?”
“Yes, Raun. Setting the scene, taking everyone to the moment before the first charge; maybe that’s enough.” He paused for a moment, looking down and studying his horse’s mane as he collected his thoughts. “Before long, the whole county will know what happened at Westsong. There’ll be records of the Countess’s proclamations before the battle for both the living and the dead. There’ll be a library’s worth of information written down, and what’s written down is discussed and debated for years, decades, perhaps longer.”
“A song that takes everybody to the moment before they charged our line, however…” Raun trailed off, then nodded. “Maybe you’re right. Thank you, brother.”
Kaith nodded agreeably enough. After a moment he asked one final question.
“What will you call it?”
“Silver in the Skies, I think.”
Kaith cocked his head to the side, rolling the words around in his mind. Raun was eying him, trying to gauge his reaction. At length, he put the singer out of his misery.
“Silver in the Skies. I like it.” Kaith wrapped his fist around the silver chain he wore, meeting Raun’s eyes. “I like it very well.”