Chapter 41 Hat

        Sennary and the other commanders had been told where to expect the ambush, but the ranks remained ignorant, too great a danger of enemy infiltration. Justan had deliberately crossed the Erva at a highly convenient break in the Messenger's defences, which led him through onto the Purasan plains - lands pocked throughout history with the sites of countless battles. That the Messenger had lured Justan there was beyond doubt - indeed, it was so obvious that The King had stated openly that he regarded himself as having accepted a formal invitation. The only part of the festivities to be settled was the party's exact venue.
        Painstaking intelligence work had finally provided the clue. The enemy generals had apparently been so impressed by Justan's Akrean chariots that they wished a similar line-breaking weapon of their own. The only source available to them at short notice was that of the barbarian Guelish tribesmen, who roamed the lands south of Elet. Advance reconnaissance units, which Justan routinely despatched to watch the Messenger's border marches, had observed the movement of large numbers of scythed chariots, and had reported the information by comsphere. To operate effectively, chariots need flat land, and the only suitably level ground on Justan's route to Dreimen was slightly east of a hamlet called Danza. The Messenger could easily have arranged for fields to be evened off elsewhere, of course, but, when they learned that Danza had been razed, Justan's agents were certain. The King's army would have to veer east to avoid marching through rubble, and that's where it would be hit.
        Danza was now two hours away.
        Sennary knew little about The King's tactics, but he did have clear orders: when the ambush at Danza came, he and his Estavian light horse would line up on the far left of the battle order, alongside the Davian cavalry. He wasn't too happy about that, knowing what fate befell the Davian infantry at the Erva, but, objectively, he ought to be well away from trouble out there. His brief was to follow the enemy's right wing if it spread out, and prevent its outflanking Justan's forces. Particularly vulnerable if that happened would be the supply carts located towards the rear - guarded only by inexperienced conscripts. If the Messenger could break the main baggage trains up or fire them, it would probably delay any further advance by Justan until the Spring. The King would obviously prefer victory now, when he was confident of success, rather than have to wait another five months while the Messenger recruited allies and subverted Estavian units with his poisonous holy evangelism. Sennary's job, therefore, was not without importance.
        It was mid-morning, sunny, and the army had reached Ganeizna Green, a grassy heath where nomads took their sheep to graze in Summer. Something here, though, was plainly wrong. Sennary could see it, but more, he could sense it: the ground had been prepared - prepared for warfare. It wasn't levelled, but it had been cleared of bushes, other obstructions that might slow horses. Done in the night, then. Our spies were wrong? He began moving his people out to the left, didn't wait for orders.
        Worse soon followed. His field comsphere glowed, informa- tion: scouts, sent on ahead earlier, were reporting the rapid appearance of huge troop concentrations in the south and west; others could no longer be contacted. Battle position, immediately.
        Concerned, Sennary shielded his eyes from the glare of the sun, forgetful of his antidazzle lenses, peered towards the horizon. Coming into view was a wide line of cavalry, cantering, arrogant. It's a real ambush!
        But there was something else, he felt the dread. Not just the location, but the enemy, far too...
        The horde was drawing closer, its massive size becoming ever more frighteningly apparent; there were maybe thirty or forty thousand of them - five times the number Justan could muster! Yet the Messenger could call on even fewer, perhaps only four thousand cavalry at the most. So -
        Morale crashed, as the fact that the Holy Army had allies impacted on the minds of Justan's invaders.
        Sennary was trying to make out banners. Where had these reinforcements come from? How had they escaped detection? By sea? Yes, he could see Panavian Northic battle-standards. And those silken flags - they looked Talian! How - by river, yes, of course, ferried in on wide barges along the Schaaldt. Or maybe overland, through secret passes? The Guelish chariots would have diverted Justan's spies, attracted them further to the east, yes. Damn, if the chariots were revealed deliberately, the Messenger meant Justan to expect an ambush at Danza all along. What carnage has he plotted for us here?
        Justan rode out in front of the army, no behind-the-lines safety of a tent this time. He was shouting orders, pointing, encouraging, rebuking, until eventually, slowly, his stunned soldiers reacted. The lightest infantry pulled ahead, faced off the bulk of the Messenger's cavalry, ready to harry it with javelins, slings, shortbows. Heavier units waited immediately behind, with more holding steady further back, guarding, ready to plug holes. Justan's mounted brigades were already split into two groups: Sennary's on the left flank, Zovia's on the right. Sennary could now read The King's strategy: the army would advance diagonally and to the right, Zovia leading the way, in an effort to leave the level ground, reduce the effectiveness of the enemy horses. And The King had just thought of that? Hot!
        The Talian general realised what was happening too, moved to circumvent the action. The Messenger's line began to curve, as light cavalry units swung round on the left to engage Zovia. Sennary yelled a few supportive words behind him, to stay in line, look out for traps - concealed spikes, pits to disable horses. Wait and watch. Then, it started: the enemy charged.
        It was too early for serious magic, helplessly being timed for an ambush outside Danza. Some mages did have offensive spells priming, ready for this kind of emergency, but precious few. Not enough to make a difference, Sennary assumed, pessimistically. He was wrong.
        When the first back-up loosed his zip, the effect on the rest of Justan's troops was one of complete astonishment, followed by a torrent of hope. Sennary stared in amazement as, one after the other, three crimson projectiles arced, comet-like, into the air, exploding above the advancing Talians. Liquid flames rained down on the Messenger's allies as they strove to control their panicked mounts, fire searing into their flesh. Only a fraction of the wave was affected, and the assault continued with unabated vigour, but it was enough to hint at possibilities. Although to the enemy the missiles were just the first of many expected magical attacks, to Justan's zip-aware soldiers they were absolute stunners: no-one had seen anything of their like before - this was a new weapon! What other secret spells were waiting to be unleashed? If they could just hold long enough to find out...
        Sennary smiled; so Porett had brought The King listings as well as trinkets.
        Zovia's cavalry took the brunt of the charge, but Justan had already brought up heavy Akrean infantry behind it. Skirmishing was now inevitable, but the sheer weight of Talian numbers meant the Galurians would be pushed back unless they had the foot soldiers to shore them up. Moving the Akreans in had necessarily exposed defences elsewhere, though, would pull the focus away from the right flank.
        Suddenly, from the middle of the enemy line, the Guelish chariots erupted, wheels swirling vicious blades, singing to war cries, drivers naked, daubed in red clay. Sennary gaped: stupid! Another trio of fire-hailing missiles shot in their direction, but fell behind as the barbarians accelerated towards Justan's light infantry. Sennary could hardly see what was happening, heard screams as people were trampled and scythed, but the defenders were well drilled, opened ranks, let the attackers ride through, speared them from behind. He looked over his shoulder, saw some had penetrated to the open centre, but they were being taken out by the conscripts guarding the supply wagons.
        The Guels had clearly served their purpose, had been neatly disposed of so they wouldn't need paying. What kind of man is this Messenger?
        On the right wing, the Talians were stretching the line to their left, trying to use their superior numbers to outflank Zovia, or, if she spread to stop them, to thin her defences until they self-breached.
        It was then that Justan, having picked up his royal horse guard elite, charged out to Zovia's left. It happened so quickly that Sennary didn't at first realise what was going on. Suddenly, he saw it - the Talians had extended themselves too far in their efforts to encircle Zovia, and there was a weak point in the Messenger's line. If Justan could -
        The King's lancers hit with the power of a tidal wave, sweeping aside unwary Northic tribesmen, smashing them to splinters. Inspired by their king, all of the Muraki foot regiments surged forward, sucking the other heavy units with them, to assail the opposing cavalry. The sky was whistling with arrows, slicing down on the enemy horses, felling their riders, death with feathers.
        But the enemy's right finally reacted. Hoping to catch Justan's infantry from two sides, the Purian general threw his own cavalry into attack. Sennary raised his arm, signalled engagement. Our turn now.
        He met the first Purian with his spear, thrown. Barely time to draw his sword before the second was on him too. A clip to the head despatched her, and then it was combat on all sides. His enchanted blade swung, slashed, cut, sparked oblivion to rider and horse alike. Bodies tumbled to the ground, there was shouting, movement, screaming, everywhere the red of blood.
        He sheared a Purian sabre as it swished towards his head, dealt its owner a counter stroke that sent him dead to the floor with a sharded skull. Steady, no need for power blows. Another attacker to the left, twist round, parry, parry again, shield up, hit the knee, hear the death-yell.
        There were too many of them, his Estavians were being bunched back into a tighter and tighter knot. Only auxiliaries behind, if the Purians break through they'll massacre, can't give them any more ground. Where are the reserves?
        Zovia must be holding on the other front, what about Justan? Pursuing the shattered Northic force. Hot, it's getting rough here, there are Herans in with the Purians now, they'll do for us.
        "Lord Sennary, some Voths have broken through the Muraki line, they're attacking the supply carts!"
        "Leave them, we have to hold here. The reserves can handle it." If there are any! The Akrean chariots are still back there, maybe they can do something? Can't let these Purians cut through us, whatever.
        Another, Heran, crazy eyes, killed a lieutenant already. Using an axe, hacking down, shield it aside, lunge. Damn, another, stand in the saddle, swing diagonally, he'll parry, but his horse will buy it. Arrow, hell, where did that come from? Point armour took it. Hard to tell whose blood is whose, nothing hurts, just aches.

        "They're breaking the Davians, sir!"
        "Pull back further, keep packed, don't expose the Davians' rear." How long? Ten minutes before we're totally swamped?
        A searing white light skimmed the heads of the Purians, paining Sennary despite his lenses. Horses reared up, dazzled like their mounts; combat degenerated; confusion. Sennary glanced about him, slow, like in a dream, saw everyone, foe or otherwise, reeling in the panic of their personal darkness, hostilities suspended in blind terror.
        Justan's cavalry tore into the Purians with the ferocity of blood- raged wolves. It was slaughter of the first magnitude. Those who weren't spiked as the charge struck were trapped immobile between the two walls of horse, unable to manoeuvre, waiting their turn to die.
        Eyesight was returning, but Justan couldn't use another of Porett's discs at such close quarters. Sennary was able to see The King now, radiant in his golden panoply, downing the enemy with his ultra-grade swordplay. Justan was uncanny, his bravery was raising the entire army, a marvel. The battle had caught his followers flat-footed, but they now saw their leader as a man of such courage and genius that it didn't seem to matter any more: they were going to win this one!
        Sennary began to push forward, forcing his way through in front of his Estavians, trying to rally them to him, following Justan's example. If The King were wounded at this stage, the enemy could regain the initiative, counter-attack. His Technologies sword hissed relentlessly, swathing a path through the muddled mass.
        Those Purians who could were fleeing, the Holy Army bleeding them in profusion from this open wound in its side. There was one such unit penned in, doomed, their commander realised it, ordered them to risk all to take out Justan. Sennary saw him point, knew that The King didn't. For love, they might succeed!
        He discarded his shield, battered to crumples anyway, Porett's transparent metal wasn't up to standard. Reins in one hand, longsword in the other, he started his drive for Justan.
        Desperation beaded his brow, he was taking some hits, mainly pokes on the left from Herans as they tried to leave the field. Justan was still unaware of his peril - Sennary shouted, but the mayhem dragged his voice to the ground. He spurred his horse, pressed onwards.
        Justan looked up, saw Sennary signal, twisted, raised his shield, glanced an arrow over his shoulder. A captain slid forward to guard his rear, and The King turned to face the oncoming Purian death squad. Sennary drew alongside, and for the first time thought of his own unit, spared them a look. They were routing the remaining opposition, making progress through to join him: he'd have to cover Justan for maybe sixty seconds.
        He never imagined a minute was so long. Time and again, the cornered Purians attacked, heedless of their injuries, knowing they were dead anyway, intent on snatching Justan with them. Repeatedly, Sennary or The King cut them down, fighting as a pair, backing one another, speaking no words. Sennary flicked a sword aside as it sliced towards Justan's neck; moments later, The King's speeding blade deflected a mace blow that would have turned Sennary's shoulder into mash. There were notches in the zipped sword, it seemed to be losing its crackle, but Sennary didn't care, he just held on, grim, trusting his Estavians to arrive. No time to think, just to kill.

* * *

        He couldn't understand it, where was the next one? He looked around. Davians, Galurians, his Estavians, where was the enemy? Justan faced him, cool as frost, said, "Mop up," and reined left. He disappeared, took the royal guard with him.

* * *

        Afterwards, Sennary learned that the melee on the right flank had been going indecisively, until the MSR had finally brought some shortcast magic to bear. Illusions at first, to frighten the horses, then some kind of metal-freezers Sennary had never heard of before. That had broken the deadlock, the Talians had cracked, and Zovia had minced them as they'd fled.
        The magnitude of the day's events were clear to him in the abstract, but emotionally were just beginning to hit. The Messenger had thrown everything against The King, bolstered by expeditionary armies from the half dozen other powers of any significance. They'd planned a perfect ambush in minute detail, sprung it with devastating surprise, and yet had still lost everything. There was no force now to stop the victorious invaders. By winning this battle, they had won an empire.
        Or rather Justan had. His warriors knew it, his officers knew it, the civilians knew it. Without his leadership, they'd have been utterly crushed. The Messenger was clever, without doubt - he'd really hit them with that sudden attack - but he was a thousand miles away, scheming in cowardice, letting others fight his battles. Justan was right there, on the spot, out in front, valiant and deadly. The opposition had no-one to match him, were doomed, dullards defeated by flair.
        From thenceforth, the nations dubbed their king "Justan the Great." He professed not to like it, but he didn't decree against the practice, either.

* * *

        Evening: Sennary was strolling back from the MSR section of camp. He'd remembered Ansle's words a while back about meeting some caster called Vyval, so he'd dropped in on the regiment as he was passing. It seemed Vyval was dead, an accident during the fighting. Trying some kind of new body-wrecking spell on the Talian commander, blew himself away. Transcription error in the spell listing. When he found out, Ansle would instantly assume Porett was somehow responsible; after some consideration, Sennary also tended towards that particular view.
        Justan stood before him. "Lord Sennary, the battle is now won, but there is still much work to be done. Until the Messenger is dead, there is a danger that the Holy Army will regroup, and go underground; it could attack us forever when we least expect it, and refuse to allow us peace. I must therefore march on Elbienau, to drive the Messenger from his capital. I will consequently need three marshals, to secure our new territories: individuals who can dig out resistance, deal with corruption, and enforce a just set of laws - ones not based on the whim of religious proclamation. I want leaders who can help the people of these ravaged lands recover from years of tyranny. Lord Sennary, I would like you to be one of the three."
        Sennary blew out: he had not been expecting this. It was clearly Justan's way of rewarding his bravery in the battle, but still, a marshalship was a highly prestigious appointment, and Justan's choosing Sennary over other candidates could probably harm The King significantly. But am I even qualified for the post?
        "You don't have to accept immediately; think about it."
        "It is a great tribute that you pay me, sir, but, if you don't mind my asking, I need to know who are to be the other two marshals?"
        Justan held his hand to the side, began walking; Sennary followed, next to him.
        "You will be marshal of the Purasan plains, between the Erva and the Tiszenta. Lady Zovia will control the Northic, Purian and Nairadi homelands, between the Tiszenta and the Meck. West of the Meck goes to General Falker."
        "I see. So I have usurped General Nolley from a position that should rightfully be hers."
        "Nolley can remain as protector of my kingdom in Cala; the garrisons are intensely loyal to her - she recruited most of them personally. You have the qualities I need to subdue the Purasans without provoking them into revolt. Remember, the Messenger only conquered them after much blood-letting, so you have a hard task before you to ensure that we do not have to resort to similar tactics. However, I think it is a job for which you are ideally suited. Nolley will have to wait a while longer before returning to more active duties."
        "Until you've defeated the Lowlanders?"
        He looked away, paused. "And why do you say that?"
        Sennary squirmed. "Well... I thought..."
        Justan faced him, arms folded. "You thought that since I chose you in General Nolley's stead, I must be looking for an excuse to be rid of her for a while. Searching for an explanation as to why I would desire her absence, and not knowing the woman yourself, you drew on numerous barrack rumours you've heard and composed a hypothesis in the following manner. It is well known that General Nolley has been in the army all her adult life, and that her abilities have usually placed her alongside people several years her senior; also, she is clearly dedicated to her work. People commonly suggest, therefore, that she has had no romantic experiences with men, and that were someone of sufficient stature inclined to take an interest in her she could be easily manipulated. As the Lowlands are reportedly stuffed with princes toting sacks of potent aphrodisiacs, it would accordingly make sense to avoid sending her there. Thus, if I'm purposefully keeping her from the front, then sometime in the near future I must intend to attack the Lowlands."
        Sennary was open-mouthed, eyes wide. "That... is correct." Magic?
        The King smiled. "You don't have to show you're clever by making bold statements torn from the far end of your reasoning chain - if I want that kind of clever I can get it by the cartload from the colleges. There are other qualities I value much more in my commanders: integrity, bravery, and flair - especially while under pressure. You have all these in abundance, and it is for this reason that I have offered you the position of Purasan marshal."
        "In that case, sir, I am honoured to accept."

Copyright © Richard A. Bartle (
21st January 1999: isif41.htm