The rain had been pelting down for hours, and in a strange, twisted sort of way it washed and anointed the bodies lying on the battlefield. Mud and blood were mixed in puddles forming around the soldiers; most of these men were dead, others were slowly stirring, struggling with their personal pain and horror. Many men had already left the field – crawling, hobbling or walking; they numbered in the hundreds. Horses were among those who had fallen, and scores were aimlessly wandering the periphery of the field, still wild-eyed and frothy-mouthed from the battle that had taken place only minutes before. Despite the rainfall a wispy layer of mist hung a few feet above the battlefield due to the concentration of body heat of those tangled together. It made the men look otherworldly, as if their spirits had been taken and placed on display before Helwyer, god of death. There was something else permeating this large clearing on the northern side of Owerling’s Gap – a low level sound, a collective hum of pain from those who were not dead or unconscious. The downpour could not mask their suffering.
Crows were already gathering on the nearby rocky outcrops, chatting among themselves about the feast that lay before them. They were patient, their cold, yellow eyes focused with intense interest on what was happening at the far end of the clearing, where what remained of the Sundra mercenary army was forming a last stand.
The soldier started to choke, as he inhaled water from a dirty puddle, stirring him from his pain-wracked faint. After he had coughed out the gritty, bloody water he could hear the groans of a man lying behind him, and through his half-closed, swollen eyes, he saw a dead horse only a few feet away from his face with its mud-matted tail laying limply on the soaked earth. He painfully picked himself up from the ground, using the horse as a support, and shakily got to his feet. The soldier didn’t feel like he was hurt badly, but he ached all over and was unbelievably exhausted – nothing in his past compared to this moment.
The strength in his legs suddenly gave way and he collapsed painfully to his knees.
His studded leather armour felt as if it weighed as much as three men, and he had no choice but to sit back on his calves, clawing at his helmet, flinging it weakly onto the muddy ground, for fear of it dragging him down to the mud and muck again. Even the light cladding on his forearms and his water-soaked clothing encumbered his actions. A hoarse curse passed his swollen lips.
He raised his eyes and surveyed what had transpired around him. The rain stung his eyes, but he felt little of it. His senses were numbing. The soldier wasn’t a large man, but even in his kneeling position he saw all of the battlefield, albeit through a hazy mist and the lack of focus in his sight. Closing his eyes tightly, he willed the blurriness of his vision to disappear, and when opening them again, found greater clarity. He sighed with relief as he now was sure he was not wounded badly.
Now there was an opportunity to scan the rain-drenched field properly. To his left, to the south, was the three hundred foot high ravine that formed Owerling’s Gap. It was here where Duke Edmund had fooled Berech, general of a thousand horsemen and five thousand foot soldiers, to unwittingly march into a trap. It was a masterful strategy. Peasants were gathered from far and wide, willingly agreeing to ride fifteen hundred of Edmund’s three and a half thousand cavalry horses. They also wore the cavalrymen’s cloaks and carried sticks or farm implements underneath, to give observers the impression they bore weapons. The Duke waited for a rainy day, and when it came this morning, Berech’s spies predictably reported seeing nearly half of Edmund’s men journeying to the west, presumably to find a way through the difficult mountain ranges and attempt a flank attack on the invading mercenaries. Berech committed his entire force to a rapid counterattack through the Pass and met a thousand spearmen behind barricades, and a completely unexpected feint from two and a half thousand waiting cavalrymen.
The kneeling soldier smiled. The plan had worked perfectly. He was one of the cavalrymen who found himself on foot, and as Berech’s horsemen charged toward his line he just had enough time to see Edmund’s cavalry sweep swiftly into the enemy’s right flank and cut deep. It was too easy, as spears sliced into man and horse, collapsing Berech’s disciplined formation, scattering many of the mercenaries in panic. The rain could not drown out Berech’s battle-cry to his foot soldiers, who then rushed in. That was when the great melee commenced.
The soldier suddenly stopped smiling, as he remembered how he leapt over his barrier and rushed with the other cavalrymen into the fray, swords and shields ready. Berech’s mercenaries were seasoned veterans, efficient killers of a hundred battles, but Edmund’s plans placed all the advantage on his Arlen army, tactically and in terms of morale.
The final stage of the plan that ensured success was carried out by one of Edmund’s chief lieutenants, Maelwyk, the young but mystically talented alchemist, who waited for Berech’s army to pass completely through Owerling’s Gap. He used his Gift to cause the high eastern face of the ravine to collapse and block any possible retreat by the invaders.
The soldier’s face turned grim when remembering the last hour of the rain-drenched battle. He had little idea how the fight was progressing; all he could do with his fellow cavalrymen was hack and stab their way forward, bodily pushing and shoving the mercenaries back, hoping that the enemy would break and flee, and more importantly, praying to Rydon and the other gods that he was not going to die.
He turned his attention to the north, where the barricades had been constructed, and where he was first posted for battle. It was then that he realised the final chapter of the conflict was not over. Sundra mercenaries were fleeing in every direction, but three noblemen remained, surrounded by scores of Edmund’s men. Sundra noblemen did not surrender – they died fighting. One of the men wore fine armour and by his colours was the mercenary army’s general. This was Berech, and by his movement, and his posture, he seemed grievously wounded. The fighting stopped and Edmund’s men shifted in the mud to open a corridor to allow their Duke to face Berech.
The general suddenly found some hidden, untapped strength and charged Edmund, but the Duke deftly parried Berech’s lethal strike and thrust his blade deep into the general’s chest. The two other noblemen then attacked, screaming above the din of the rain, but they were cut down in seconds by Edmund’s bodyguards.
The kneeling soldier smiled again. He had just witnessed the end, the final glory of the battle. It was so very satisfying, although he could not explain exactly why.
He felt a twinge in his left side, and he looked down to where his cuirass met his breeches. There was a trail of blood running down his leg to the pool of water he was kneeling in, mingling with the awful pink colour that was everywhere. He didn’t see the blood running too swiftly and he had suffered worse wounds in the past; again he was reassured that his situation was not dire – not like some of the poor souls around him.
The thought of his mortality overwhelmed him when he turned his mind to his family back home in Highwater, the seat of the Earldom of Arlenmoor, a part of the greater land called Arlen. He missed his beloved Alyra and their two infant boys. He imagined holding his boys, the warm and comforting smell of their hair seemed so real to his senses; and then he thought about holding Alyra, her soft, sweet skin against his – again his senses were immersed. There was no desire in him, only a need to be in her arms. He missed them so much he began to weep.
The soldier was one of Earl Oloryk’s overseers of the nobleman’s lands, and led his Lord’s hunts. It was natural to join his Liege in Edmund’s call for arms, and he knew that his family would be provided for if he perished in battle. But these were grim times, and this battle was only the first in a long war, one where the homelands of Duke Edmund’s Arlen were threatened by a larger army than what was conquered here. He needed to be alive, to be sound of limb so that he could return to his family and protect them.
His sense of urgency was so profound, so fundamental, he felt some of his strength returning to him, and he defiantly raised his head and let the rain wash directly over his mud-stained face, allowing the drops to sting his eyes.
His thoughts turned to Duke Edmund of Arlen, the Lord of his master, the general of the Battle of Owerling’s Gap, the leader of the civil war against his brother, King Eglund of Waymoor. Some of the soldiers who he journeyed with to the Gap directly served Edmund and they worshiped the ground he walked on. Nine days ago five hundred cavalrymen from Arlenmoor – the kneeling horseman included – joined Edmund’s expeditionary force. He didn’t initially know what to make of the Duke, but it didn’t take long before he liked the man. Edmund was a true leader, was able to talk to the troops as if he was one of them, and yet inspire the hearts and minds of an entire kingdom. What became profoundly clear to the soldier was that the actions of the men in battle today was the true reflection of Edmund’s character.
They fought for him, and for his cause, and lifted themselves against the hardened skills of the Sundra mercenaries. They died for him. They placed Edmund’s orders impossibly before their waiting families – their loved ones who needed them to return.
He wondered why he had done the same as so many of the men in battle this rainy day. Why he took the risks and extended himself for his Duke. He wondered if it was Edmund’s charisma that had caused this. He pondered this notion and concluded that it wasn’t the case. Edmund’s magnetism contributed to it, but it wasn’t the core reason. He returned to thinking about his family, waiting in Highwater, and then it dawned on him what caused him to risk his life for the Duke – because Edmund knew what the fighting was for; he was perfectly in tune with what ordinary folk needed for their survival, and he therefore represented the hope of Arlen, including his homeland of Arlenmoor. The Duke was their saviour, and for the kneeling soldier Edmund was also his family’s saviour. When Edmund thrust his blade through Berech’s heart, life was given to Alyra and their two sons.
This thought, this insight made him feel content, and he raised his head again, looking at the rain-drenched battlefield with wiser eyes.
He felt a wave of exhaustion wash over him, stronger than ever, and for a moment he thought he heard his youngest son call out to him.
Two figures slowly made their way among the fallen and the maimed, followed closely by chirurgeons and soldiers giving aid to those who could be helped. The Duke pointed to the kneeling soldier. "Maelwyk, look! Let us help this soldier to his feet and carry him to shelter."
The robed figure ran to the Arlenmoor cavalryman and then stopped short, shocked by the site he had just seen. "Your Highness, I am afraid it is too late. This man has bled to death while he was kneeling. It must have taken a great effort to get up as far as he did. Poor soul, may the gods embrace his passing to the afterlife."
The Duke knelt before the dead soldier and studied his face. "Maelwyk, I have seen many battles and witnessed countless deaths, but I have not seen anything like this. His face is not downcast, it is straight and facing the battlefield. And look at his expression – it is neither pained nor peaceful, as the dead usually are. He seems exulted. As if he witnessed some great event, or understood some great truth."
"Curious indeed, my Duke. Nevertheless, this is a sad sight."
"True, Maelwyk. True." Edmund shook his head and clasped Maelwyk’s shoulder, and they continued their way among the bodies lying on the field.
The rain was still falling and hard drops of water hit the lifeless eyes of the kneeling soldier. They did not sting at all.