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Authors: James Tallett

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BOOK: Breaking an Empire
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“They won’t be the only ones set back a generation if they win. What of Bhreac Veryan? What of us? Our empire crumbles if we lose Niam Liad. It’s the city we use to hold all the land on this side of Yn Brydio Ad. Without it, the linchpin is pulled from the empire, and the other cities will fall just as easily. We need to win this war more than they do.” Locsyn was feeling particularly sour this morning.

“We’ll win it. Did you see that lot break and run at Miath Mhor? They’ve got nothing for us in combat.” Gwyth grinned.

Taflen broke into his schoolteacher voice. “The Lianese are well aware of that, which is why they are trying to defeat us by lack of food, rather than skill of arms. They are poor soldiers compared to us, but they may have hit upon a strategy which can overcome our superior forces if those forces are weakened and taken from the field of battle before the battle commences.”

“Taflen, Locsyn, Gwyth, shut it. We’re here to look for food, not plan the whole campaign. We can’t control the strategy, so worry about finding the supplies we’re out here to look for and then haul it back to camp.”

Rhocas was the only member of the five who had not spoken, and he continued to march with his head down and his shoulders slumped, looking as if he would rather be any other place than where he was. The battle had taken something from him, and he struggled with that loss. Perhaps he would come out of it; certainly, the hope of this foraging was that Rhyfelwyr and the others could pull him from his shell, but there was such a gap in age and experience between the veterans and this novice soldier that the sergeant worried Rhocas would wander through the war depressed and uncertain of his position.

A low whistle from ahead caused Rhyfelwyr to raise his hand, gesturing for the squad to to hunker down behind a low rise. Slipping over that rise came Llofruddiwr, making a gesture for ten. When he settled in next to Rhyfelwyr, the sergeant whispered. “Ten soldier patrol?” Llof nodded, not saying anything. “Can we go around, or is this a case of going through?”

“Through.”

“Damn it. Do you have any suggestions?”

“Kill them?”

“Thanks.” Rhyfelwyr gestured for the others to group about him. “We’ve got a ten soldier patrol ahead, and Llof says we have to clean up. Gwyth, you take right flank, Locsyn left. Taflen, Rhocas and I will charge.” Rhocas leaned over and mumbled. “Llofruddiwr not fighting?”

“You see him here?” Rhy chuckled.

Rhocas glanced around, realizing that Llof had disappeared.

“He’s the one who’s going to cause the most trouble. Just wait.”

Several minutes passed, and then Rhyfelwyr pulled the two soldiers with him to the top of the mound, lying flat on their stomachs. There were two standing guard, with the other eight sitting down and having a light meal, their midday pause before the end of the patrol. Presumably, the Lianese had scouted the disposition of the central arm of Glanhaol Fflamboethi, and were returning with information, in which case it was even more imperative they be slain.

“Prepare yourselves, should be any minute now.”

“What are we waiting for?” Rhocas asked, nerves showing in his voice.

“Quite down and wait, and follow me in.” Taflen nodded, but Rhocas had a wild look in his eyes, a prey animal who has just seen a predator. Rhyfelwyr sighed, placing his hand on the recruit’s shoulder.

Llofruddiwr burst from the ground not five yards from the campsite, his two favourite longknives in his grasp. A quick slash with one cut the throat of the nearest picket, and he charged into the mass of Lianese soldiers, his blades flickering from left to right, catching incoming thrusts and deflecting them aside as the Veryan soldier tore through the camp at a full sprint, wounding several soldiers and killing two. Those still standing made to follow, grabbing their gear and chasing after Llofruddiwr, who fled directly towards where Rhyfelwyr was waiting. As the Lianese soldiers burst into a run, Gwyth and Locsyn slammed into them from either side. Gwyth’s heavy shield sent one soldier flying into another, knocking both into a tangle on the ground, while Locsyn feinted a shield slam, pulling up at the last moment to deliver a short stabbing blow with his sword, ripping through the leathers over his opponent’s thigh.

Rhyfelwyr hoisted Rhocas up, and the three soldiers sprinted to join the battle, Llofruddiwr turning to join them. A dagger flew over Rhocas’ shoulder, and the young man glanced back in fear, but it was the assassin’s throw, and the knife protruded from the thin collar armour of the leading pursuer. Gwyth and Locsyn were sore pressed now, two against six Lianese. Discomfited as they were by the strange tactics of their opponents, the Lianese had not taken full advantage of their weight of numbers.

Llofruddiwr danced, lunging with lightning fast thrusts, hunting for an opening in the guard of his enemy. With quick stabs he would leap around one of the Veryan soldiers, strike, and be out of range before the counter could begin. Gwyth stood as a wall, facing two enemies and laughing while battering their attacks aside through sheer size and brute force, his countering blows driving foes to their knees as they sought to catch his axe on their shield.

Locsyn fought in the traditional style of a Veryan soldier, round shield held high in front of the face, one-handed sword stabbing from beneath it to strike or catch a blow. He was using all the years of combat to his best advantage, and a quick lunge sent a knee crushing into a Lianese groin, staggering his foe and making the follow on attack easy. Rhyfelwyr arrived in the fight with a sideways strike towards the kneecaps of his enemy, and when a sword swept down to intervene, his shield’s edge snapped up and crashed into the helmet, knocking the Lianese soldier backwards and almost off his feet. Rhyfelwyr pressed the attack, but a thrust from the staggering soldier bounced off the edge of his shield and caught the sergeant across the thigh, leaving a deep red gash that began to bleed. Backing away with his shield held to protect his wounded lead leg, the sergeant was forced to let his opponent recover.

Taflen moved into battle with precise form, each strike a cut taken exactly from the training regimens of the Veryan army. That was not to say that he was predictable, for each cut may have been from the book, but they followed one another in such a vast profusion that his opponent appeared stunned by the rapid strikes. Rhocas was to cover Taflen’s right flank, but the recruit hung back, his sword arm low and his shield held high, an entirely defensive posture. Seeing the opening, a Lianese soldier charged into the side of Taflen, sending the historian sprawling and following with a mace strike. Taflen’s shield came up to block, but the force of the blow cracked the shield, and he knew he could not survive another such attack. Rhyfelwyr cried out and sought to lunge towards his downed squadmate, but the wound in his leg took the speed from him, and he would arrive too slow to save Taflen.

The strike that would finish Taflen began to descend, and tears sprung to Rhyfelwyr’s eyes, for he had known Taflen many a year, the two men growing old and surviving battles together. He had always worried one of his squad would die in combat, but he had been blessed that he and these other four had been able to keep one another hale. It appeared now, in this place and after all this time, that Rhyfelwyr would lose one of his friends.

It was then a great shout rent the battlefield, and with it a burst of fire leapt forth to intercept the incoming strike, blasting it backwards and searing the arm of the Lianese soldier clean away, the flames blue from their heat. The sergeant halted in amazement and looked over to see tears pouring down the face of Rhocas as he gestured with one hand, the fire streaming from the air about him to build a shield of scorching heat over the downed form of Taflen.

Seizing the opportunity, Taflen rolled away, keeping himself low and under the flame until he stood next to Rhocas, the billowing cloud of cinders making the Lianese shrink back in fear. Not one to be stunned by any turn of events, Llofruddiwr took advantage of their distraction to plunge his longknives into the backs of two of his foes, and with that strike, the battle resumed. It was over, however, for the sight of the fire had heartened the Veryan soldiers and stolen the morale of the Lianese.

Soon it was that Rhy, his leg bandaged, was standing over the only living remnant of the Lianese patrol, who had surrendered unhurt after Llofruddiwr had chased him down when he sought to flee.

Before questioning the prisoner, Rhyfelwyr glanced over to where Taflen and Rhocas sat, talking quietly to one another. That was a mystery that needed to be explored, and quickly. The sergeant saw Locsyn shake his head, wondering at the new revelations. All of the patrol was stunned by the realization that Rhocas was a firemage, although untrained. Firemages were something to be feared, their rank high above that of the common soldier, and yet here was one wandering around on patrol. Trying to clear his head of the thoughts that whirred about, Rhyfelwyr turned to the prisoner, who was bound and sitting on the ground.

“So, what brought your lot out here? Scouting our army?” The prisoner glared back in response, his jaw clamped firm.

“Make it hard on yourself if you’d like. If you aren’t going to talk, I’ll hand you over to Llofruddiwr and his longknives. I don’t have the time to wait around for you to warm up to me.” The prisoner’s head swivelled to where the assassin was sitting on the ground, polishing his weapons with bits of cloth taken from the Lianese he had slain. Llofruddiwr didn’t look up in regards to the scrutiny, just kept examining the blades until he had each one shining perfectly.

Rhyfelwyr smiled. “Yes, the ghost over there. He’ll be as nice to you as he was to all of your fellows.”

The prisoner glared once more, then spat on the ground. “I get it. What do you want?”

“What were your orders?”

“We were shadowing your army for a few days, and then on the way back to report. Been keeping an eye on you, is all.”

“Right, right. And where are your forces located?”

The prisoner looked around and closed his mouth, clearly not willing to talk. “Llof, you busy? Might need you in a second.” Llofruddiwr looked up, then loudly and deliberately scraped a sharpening stone across his longknife.

“They’re forming up around Horaim. I’ve been out in the field a week, so I don’t know if they’ve moved or not since then.”

“Good enough. Locsyn, I’ve got a present for you. Keep this little bundle of joy from scarpering for the rest of the day, can you?”

“I’m touched.”

“We’ve still got a job to do, so lets move.”

The patrol gathered itself and what little it had taken from the enemy squad, and moved across the land in search of food. The first places they searched were bare ruins, but they found a cache hidden under one of the outbuildings in the fourth farmhouse. The building had collapsed, but Taflen noticed the edge of a trapdoor in the rubble, and with Gwyth doing the heavy lifting to clear the burnt timbers, the latch was soon broken. Rhyfelwyr and Llofruddiwr descended into the dark below to find themselves in a square earthen chamber, with several barrels of grain and dried meats stored away. Sending Gwyth to hoist each of the containers out of the ground, Rhyfelwyr then detailed Llofruddiwr and Taflen and Rhocas to hunt up whatever forms of transportation might be available.

The squad couldn’t carry all of the supplies, and with a prisoner, Rhyfelwyr knew they couldn’t send a runner either. Cursing at the officers for sending them out here without more men or a wagon, the sergeant waited for the return of his three men. A grunt sounded nearby, and Rhyfelwyr spun, to hear Taflen call out. “Send us Gwyth, damn you!”

The sergeant gestured at the large man to go help, and shortly a wagon came around the corner, with the traces draped over Gwyth’s neck, his legs churning to pull the contraption along. Taflen and Rhocas were pushing at the wagon, which slowly settled to a stop in front of the outbuilding.

“Where’d you find this thing? I’d thought they’d all been ruined or taken.”

“Some farmer left it out in a little dell in a field about a mile away. Must have panicked and fled.”

“Good work Rhocas, Taflen. Now get the barrels on top. And Locsyn, keep an eye on your present, he’s looking shifty. Poke him with a sword if you have to to keep him from being too active.”

With that, Rhyfelwyr grabbed one of the barrels, hoisted it onto his shoulder, and then over the side of the wagon into the bed. Gwyth followed, shrugging a barrel onto either shoulder and flipping them into the wagon. With the others helping, soon all of the supplies were loaded, and they were ready to turn for home.

“Right, Locsyn, get him into the traces. It’ll stop him from trying to escape, and we need the muscle anyway.” This next was to the prisoner. “And if you think about taking a break from pulling, well, the big guy will be pushing at the back, and you’ll get run over, so step lively until I call for a halt.”

The prisoner spat at the ground in front of Rhy’s feet. The sergeant waved at Locsyn in response, and his friend shoved the prisoner into the traces, settling them over his head. With a slap to the prisoner’s skull, Locsyn set the man pulling. Gwyth, Rhocas, and Rhyfelwyr chipped in at the back, breaking the inertia of the heavy vehicle, before letting Gwyth take the first stint pushing. The others would rotate in pairs to free Gwyth up. The sun was near to setting, and the sergeant hoped the wagon didn’t slow them down so much that they would be forced to camp for the night.

***

The squad was exhausted when they stumbled into camp, an hour after the sun had set. Rhyfelwyr had thought of stopping as the sun’s light disappeared, but the next rise had shown a field of small fires, and so they had pushed on. The Lianese soldier was sagging in the traces, only standing upright because they held him so. He had had no breaks, whereas all of the squad had rotated in short shifts.

An officer came to see the prisoner, and took the report of the day’s actions from the sergeant. With a few words of praise, he dismissed the squad, and led the exhausted, groaning Lianese soldier away as quartermaster troops swarmed over the wagon, inventorying the find.

BOOK: Breaking an Empire
2.74Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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