Taken from a fantasy novel I've been writing for a year. I'm desperate for feedback!
|This scene takes places roughly half-way into the story:
“We’ll take ‘em while they’re sleeping—nothing like a throat full of iron to wake you up dead. Ha!”
Avitas sensed Urucalla's excitement, but experienced none himself. He felt only the bitter air—icy and still. Faint moonlight slipped through gaps in the canopy to reflect on the snow that mottled the forest floor. They stood on a shallow ridge. Behind them, among the trees, the soldiers waited. Ahead, the river hissed.
A scout emerged from the shadows, gave the watchword, and reported to Urucalla.
“Camp’s deserted, Commander.”
“Shit. They must’ve seen us coming—probably scampered back home. You find their trail?”
“Two trails, sir, one upstream, one down. About a hundred men each way.”
“Different tribes. Fine, we’ll cross the river. There are Worsk villages within a day’s march of here.”
The patrol descended on the river, which narrowed at the ford to no more than fifty yards across, and men lit torches to guide the legionaries into the water. Avi waded in. Water rose to his navel, and he clenched his teeth against its touch. The deserted camp became visible by the torchlight—a collection of dark shapes on the far bank—as did the trees beyond. All stood still as if the forest held its breath. Sodden, he emerged from the river, shivering as the men formed up.
When the patrol had finally re-assembled on the north bank, Urucalla sent out scouts, and the soldiers set to making camp within the shell of the abandoned Louzt enclosure. It began to rain. Leaves quivered as the trees returned to life, and a deep rumble rolled through the forest.
“Thunder?” Avi said, addressing the soldier closest him.
“Too long for thunder.” The man stared into the canopy, as if searching for an answer hidden in the sky.
Men around them took notice too, and the camp fell quiet as work halted. The rumble rolled on, grew louder, and Avitas began to make out a definite rhythm.
“Feet and drums,” said the soldier. “That’s an army.”
It was true, Avi knew, the Louzt had lured them across the river. He heard Riano’s voice, although weeks had passed since the Nomad spoke the words: “War is deception.”
A horn sounded within the camp; others joined it, and men moved to defensive positions. Avi found Urucalla beneath his banner.
“Are the scouts back, Commander?”
“No. What in Perfid’s name is going on here? There must be bloody thousands of ‘em out there.” His eyes darted among the trees.
Marching boots, like thunder, shook snow from leaves and needles. The forest itself seemed to march on them as the rumble grew into a shuddering roar that enveloped the camp. The promise of death resounded in every drumbeat, hammering the mettle from Avi’s bones and pressing in on him from every side. Thousands of feet stamped their strength through the darkness, closer and louder until the roar became deafening, and Avi trembled with the force of every footstep, every drumbeat, every clash of sword on shield. Then, silence.
The forest, and the camp, stood still. Avi’s heart took up the beat of the war drums. Downriver, deep within the trees, a torch flamed into life—a single flame floating in the darkness. Another followed, near the first, and then another, this time upstream. Fires bloomed over and over in an angry line that arced around the camp, each flower of light revealing a war-painted warrior, and behind the bright faces, the dark shapes of many more.
“We have to get back across the river,” said Avi. Urucalla remained silent, his lips slightly parted. “Commander,” Avi shook him, “order the men back across.”
The commander's eyes focussed on him, his thoughts seeming to return from somewhere distant.
A horn blew from within the Louzt ranks; a single note, it climbed in pitch, then levelled, hanging above the forest for what seemed like forever until finally fading into the sky. The whine of an arrow split the returning silence, then cut off with a thud as the arrow struck earth within the camp. A second arrow found a target, the legionary falling with a grunt.
“They’re behind us, over the river!” a soldier called.
Avi peered across the river, saw shadows slip from the trees and form a wall at the water’s edge. Arrows fizzed from high in the branches, unseen killers infiltrating the camp. The drums beat.
“Signalman!” Urucalla jolted into action with the resumption of the drumming. He roared a series orders, and the signalmen blew them out across the chaos of the camp. Gaida and Trebilan met them beneath the banner.
“You two,” he said before they could speak, “lead an attack across the river, that’s our only way out. Captain Liboras and I,” he put a hand on Avi’s shoulder, “will protect your rear by holding the bank on this side. Questions? Then go!” The two captains ran to ready their assault. Avi turned to go too, but Urucalla pulled him back. “Speak to the men. Put some fight into ‘em.”
“What should I say?”
“Tell ‘em they should be pleased, they got what they wanted. Ha ha!”
The First and Fifth squadrons of the Imperial legion surged into the river, arrows piercing the water around them like iron-tipped rain. The Third squadron formed up in three ranks on the north bank of the Prant before Danu's Ford. A line of fire closed in around them; behind it, the warriors of the Louzt tribes seethed. Avi and Urucalla took their places in the third rank of men. The bank of the river sloped gently into the ford, and water lapped at their boots. Avitas spoke to the men around him.
“Those boys in the river behind are dying for us, lads. They’re fighting to make us a road home, so don’t let them down. When we return to Deudinium, you’ll buy them a drink for clearing the way, and they’ll buy you two for guarding their backs, so don’t waver, lads, there’s two drinks waiting at home for you.”
“Two drinks!” cried one of the soldiers.
Then Urucalla called out, “For the Empire!”, and the men shouted and cheered as the Louzt line charged towards them.
The front rank of legionaries drew their shields together, swords drawn back in anticipation. The first surge of screaming warriors, men of Cru’s Blood, hurled itself against the shield-wall thrashing with long-swords, spears, and axes. They battered at shields and helms in frenzy and jabbed and slashed at unprotected flesh.
“Steady,” Urucalla said, as the squadron absorbed the shock of the charge.
The legionaries in the front rank, all veterans of other wars, stood tight together, calmly dispatching death from behind their shields. Avi glanced around and saw that the First and Fifth squadrons had joined battle and now fought waste deep in the river. Bodies floated downstream on the black water.
Cru’s Blood pressed in about the third squadron trying to force their way between the shields, but every time a man fell, another took his place and the ranks closed—a wall of imperial blue. Bodies, dead or dying, piled at the feet of the front rank, the shallow water lapping at their wounds as the fight raged.
A soldier shouted, his voice betraying panic:
In the torchlight, Avi saw the shape of a man striding through the throng; Louzt warriors jostled to clear him a path to the river. Naked, but for a loincloth, his body shaven and tattooed with Louzt script, the limb-taker stood a foot taller than any other man. He carried a wooden shaft with wide curving blades at each end—the weapon almost as tall as he. Clasping it across his chest, he ran, steadily gathering pace, head down like a charging bull. With a leap, he hit the front rank, the force of his body knocking down two men, the swipe of his blades two more.
Men stepped forward to fill the hole, but the Louzt pushed in quicker than the legionaries did, using their fury to force a way in. A pocket of Louzt warriors bulged within the imperial formation.
“Hold! Hold! Hold!” Urucalla struggled to be heard above the tumult as the ranks threatened to break.
Avitas could feel the formation straining to hold together like a timber frame that might collapse under the weight of one more stone.
“Lads, this is it,” said Avitas through the clash of metal. “We wanted a fight, well, we’ve got one. Push!”
Urucalla took up the call.
“Push! Push them back—close order!”
The third rank pushed forward, pressing onto the backs of the second; the second pushed onto the first. Those caught in the press raised their shields as best they could. The imperial soldiers pressed against the un-armoured warriors of Cru’s Hand, forcing them to give way, squeezing them out from among their ranks. Imperial boots trampled those that could not retreat.
Only the limb-taker stood his ground, and with arcing slices from his double blades, he scythed men down about him. Legionaries crowded in, too close for him to swing his weapon at them. They cut at him from every direction, and the giant howled in anger as they forced him down and slaughtered him.
The imperial line was shorter now, and in the brief lull Urucalla re-organised them into two ranks. Avi looked behind him and saw that the Louzt still held the far bank. A confusion of bodies and blades heaved at the water’s edge.
“Here they come,” Avi heard someone say and turned back around.
Cru’s Heartsmen, mailed and bear-skinned, advanced at a walk through the forest. Avi’s breath steamed, he tried to slow his breathing with a long inhalation. His mind went to Cru’s Crossing, Praetan's dead eyes, the bloodstained snow. He raised his voice.
“Show these cunts no mercy, boys!”
The men cheered and shouted, taunting the oncoming foe.
“Come and get some you bastards!”
“We’ll be fucking your wives before morning!”
Cru’s Heart, implacable, kept a slow and steady pace, a dark host baying behind them. The torches of fallen warriors threw flickers across their helms. Without charging, they reached the imperial line and battered at it. Shields bent and snapped under clubbing blows; the front line faltered as the assault forced them back.
“Together!” Urucalla urged his men to keep closed ranks.
A man in front of Avitas fell to an axe blow which broke through the top of his shield and smashed his jaw. Another stepped forward to take his place. Avi ordered men from the second rank to fill the holes fast appearing in the first. He slashed at Louzt limbs and faces as they emerged through gaps in the line. A Heartsman forced his way through, but stumbled and fell. Avi plunged his sword into the back of the warrior’s neck and felt him die on the end of the blade. He saw another Heartsman retreating under heavy blows from Commander Urucalla, but in the next instant, a warrior charging from the crowd drove a spear straight through Urucalla's breastplate, the point exiting his back and causing his cloak to bulge behind him. As the commander fell backwards, clutching the spear shaft, the front rank dissolved.
Some of the remaining legionaries turned and ran into the river; others were unable to disengage from the fight and remained behind, imperial islands in a barbarian sea. Avitas stood between the two, finding himself in unexpected space. A roar went up from deeper into the forest, and more Louzt rushed forward to join in the carnage. Avi felt death moments away. He grasped for any way to stay alive among the mayhem. I’m in command now.
“Hol…” His voice trailed off as if it fled from the Louzt charge. He tried again. “Hold a line in the river! Fall back and reform! With me!”
He waded into the river. Passing a bewildered signalman, he took the man by the throat.
“Blow the fucking order. We hold here.” The horn sounded. “Hold! With me! Hold!”
Avi looked across the river—still they thronged at the far bank. There’s no more time. Come on, move.
The remaining men of the third squadron, numbering less than two hundred, formed a ragged rank in the water. Some Louzt ventured in, but confronted with the line, decided to wait until they could assemble for a strong charge. A few soldiers still died where the first line had stood, fighting for every second of terrible life. He looked along his single rank of men waist-deep in the river.
“When they come again, fall back in formation—slowly. One step for every blow of the horn, we have to give the others more time to break through. Otherwise, we’re all dead.”
A man at the far end of the line turned and ran for the far bank, falling and spluttering in the water. The Louzt gathered on the near bank, just yards away. The man beside him began to shake uncontrollably, then dropped his sword and turned. Avi caught him by the arm.
He looked into the man’s eyes: glazed and pale with fright. Without fear, there is no respect, without respect, no discipline.
The fright in the man’s eyes softened into sadness. He looked as if he might speak, and then started to go. Avi pulled him back and thrust his sword under the soldier’s ribs. He gasped and slid beneath the water.
“If the man beside you wavers, kill him!”
Shrieking, the Louzt poured into the river. The water sucked momentum from the charge, but Avi did not think they could stand for long.
“With the horn!” It blew, and the line shuffled back a few paces.
Avi ducked behind his shield as a bare-chested bloodsman jabbed a spear at his face. The Louzt pressed forward falling over one another in their enthusiasm. Avi lashed out aimlessly.
Now the water rose to his chest. The line fought and fell back, fewer men standing with each blast of the horn. Behind them, the Louzt still held the south bank, and they were almost on top of the struggling mass of men.
Avi ordered the signalman blow again, but the note died as a spear lodged in the man’s shoulder. A cheer erupted behind him. Shield raised against the onslaught, he looked around and saw Louzt scattering before imperial troops—Gaida and Trebilan had taken the riverbank.
The men on either side of Avi broke away. A blow struck his shield and he lost his footing; water filled his mouth and nose. His vision disappeared; sound slowed to a dull groan. He flailed, panicking, his spirit shrieking against death; his head emerged from the water; sound and sight exploded back into being. Men surged around him. The riverbank lay ahead; he ran, the water resisting each stride. A hand grabbed his cloak. No sword. He swung his shield without turning and felt the jolt of contact. Around him, men raced for the bank, Perfidian and Louzt. He broke free of the water’s grasp, clambered over heaped bodies, and scrambled onto dry land. A legionary ahead of him slipped in the churned mud; Avi trampled over him, his boot pushing the man’s face into the ground. He looked only ahead as he escaped into the black forest.