“You’d better be right about that.” Valon had positioned himself towards the rear of his force, safely ensconced with the rest of his men behind the barricade. He’d been caught off guard by the Azarowans’ decision to flush out his ambush attempts and burning down part of the forest. It had left him with pitifully few by his side, many had deserted him, continuing to run back to Caledonia, where the Azarowans wouldn’t pursue them. Valon’s own second in command had been killed by the hands of his opposing leader’s battle commander, and he’d been forced to retreat to the safety of this town, their base from where they could assemble their attacks from.
Less than a dozen men had slipped into the country almost three years ago, slowly building their numbers, flourishing into a small town before branching off into other more remote parts of the country to start with and slowly creeping their way closer, gaining greater power until they finally struck. They had planned it out so well, or so Valon thought.
The Caledonian general had waited for the return of a number of his associates, but at this stage only one had come. The man was quite young, a little too much to his eyes to be leading such a cunning plot. The one thing he appeared to have was confidence, the moment he had made his presence known he had assumed control of the situation, and barking orders to each and every one of Valon’s officers. But the way in which the man assumed command ate away at Valon, he had worked his way through the ranks for his position and now someone still wet behind the ears felt like they could take control of proceedings and he hated the man for it. They might be allies but that didn’t mean that the moment he could remove the man that he wouldn’t.
“I should think so, things seem to be progressing as planned. Everything is under control from our point of view” the man said easily. He grinned at Valon, who was now seething with fury, he’d busting his breeches all day managing a battle, and this huckster had swaggered his way in here and was now acting like it was all fun and games, he bit back the angry retort that sprang to his lips, there was a time and place for that and he would see to it that this man got what he deserved.
There was the inconsistent hissing of arrows streaking across the sky, the younger man had commanded them to fire in altering locations to keep the enemy tense, he’d learnt the tactic several years ago and he found it to be successful. There would be a randomly selected point where he would signal for them to fire a ragged volley to deter any further attempts, it seemed to work in keeping the enemies at bay, while slowing thinning their numbers.
“There is nothing to worry about, they’ll try something soon, and when they do, we’ll be ready for them” he said, smug written all over his face. Again the increase in shots was noted, but this time they didn’t stop. Nothing to worry about, the man thought to himself. “Perhaps they’ve had enough of playing games” he proposed.
Cries of panic spread along the tops of the wall, men were repositioning themselves, the barricade was being peppered by a steady stream of arrows coming from below, on such an angle, only one thing could have happened, they had reached the doors. “What do you think is going to happen now?” Valon snapped, the commander sneered at the man, “this is where the fun begins” he answered.
Bang, the first assault had started, apparently they had some sort of siege weapon, the commander thought. Valon moved with his associate down towards the barricades, beckoning his men to form up. A squad of men had been set up in the central open area of the town, placed for this exact purpose, they were men that Valon trusted, men that had been with him since the beginning, they weren’t mere criminals, these were hardened soldiers, some were renegades he’s met along his journey and brought in to help, others were high ranking officers from Caledonia, men who had the same reason for being here. There were only two dozen, but Valon knew they would put a greater fight than any number of his other recruits. Another thud, one of the wood logs that had been fastened into place began to shift, another was cracked, shards of splinters threatening to break away. “Brace the gates” he called.
Every last man was in position now, Valon was worried, he’d drawn up his last twenty-five archers into two files, they would fire the initial set of arrows and then break to cover the more exposed sides of their men to keep the enemy from breaching. A gap was beginning to form in the wall. His frontline troops were ready, “Archers to the fore” he ordered the move without hesitation, most were his personal guard, capable bowmen, all of them were experts as rearguards and provide the necessary protection if he needed it.
Two more strikes were made, and the structure began to stagger, buckling under the weight. “Draw!” he called, the rasping of arrows of the wood on leather from twenty-five quivers was the only sound made. “Steady, wait for my signal”. Valon licked his lips, waiting for someone to rear their ugly head, he would make sure he had every last one of them killed, he promised himself he would see to it, and he would enjoy the moment of triumph.
One last strike broke through the barricades, shattering the defenses and widening the hole, two rough looking timbers came flying in the air, collecting three Caledonians in the front line, knocking them down, with it came the first rush of Azarowans, screaming their war cry looking to gain a foothold over the Caledonians. Valon called the order to fire, and to his horror saw his mistake unfold before his very eyes.
Three reinforced shielding doors forced its way into view, each buffeting the archers’ attempts to bring them down, moving with the first group, proving cover for them while they spread out into the town. The area was thriving with the clanging of swords and arrows ricocheting off the makeshift shields their enemy had appropriated. Valon had nestled himself in the middle of his men, but he began to push forward those around him, determined to see off his attackers.
Calling forth his own retinue of men, they leapt forward to shove back the attackers, their attack took the front row of Azarowans by surprise, many fell before the blades of Valon’s men, leaving them in bloodied heaps on the ground. Valon cut to the side, taking a man in the back who had hoped to cut down one of his men with his back turned, Valon pirouetted and slashed back at the man he had engaged, hitting low on the crosspiece and sending a jolt through the other man’s elbow and finished him with another side cut. The battle was turning now, they were holding the Azarowans back, preventing them from gaining any ground inside the town, but the pivotal moment was coming, “Archers, stop your firing and hit them from the right side” he called, he hoped that would be enough, the pincer move was the last roll of the dice for him, if they break through, they had no cover to fall back upon, but if the archers provided the surge he was after, they could hold on.
“Move up!” Aaren’s bellow was heard around the cramped area. He had been fifth in line through the broken wall, behind three of their strongest and most capable swordsman wielding the shields. Eamonn had followed him through and they along with the other men had wedged into the enemy lines, sweeping and stabbing and forcing their ways past. Two men had been tasked with widening the gap in the wall, quickening the rate of reinforcements.
Aaren watched as his men fell, having been mutilated by the arrows that tore through them. Their figures lay on the ground, blood seeping from their wounds. Armed with the shield he pushed and shoved his way, knocking aside some and using his long knife when needed to kill others. It had been Eamonn’s idea to use the smaller weapon, it was much easier to manage in the cramped environment they found themselves in.
Aaren looked around at their progress, they had made some serious inroads, he stepped aside, allowing his men to move past his position in the line to take stock of the situation, for the time being, they were held in the courtyard, Aaren knew he needed to break free and to spread out. Eamonn stepped aside as well, he was sweating freely despite in the warm night air. The sun had set now, and the overcast sky had taken over, the heavens were threatening to open.
“We need to move out into the rest of the town, grab a dozen men and move through the town, this shouldn’t take too much longer” he told his apprentice pointing to the fight. The boy did as he was instructed and called to those nearest him to follow. “Send word if you’ve managed a full sweep before I catch up to you” he yelled after his student.
The Aylesburian weighed up the situation again, superior numbers were becoming more apparent by the second, his men had penetrated through the first wave of enemies, striking down those who dared to oppose them, swords fell from dead hands as his men continued on. Gradually men were backing up looking for some breathing room to continue the fight, others simply ran, but his men kept on, and he saw the final push was near, then they were hit by the brutal force of Valon’s retinue, smashing, hacking and shunting back against his men, cries of pain could be heard on both sides. Aaren hit the man closest to him, but the man was quick, he parried his stroke, threw out his fist and sweeping his own sword through, Aaren ducked easily under the punch and deflected the sword stroke with his heavy shield, the next stroke hit him like a battering ram, lifting him off his feet to come crashing down in a heap.
Aaren rolled to the side to avoid the next attack, “where do you think you’re going?” the man scoffed, “I’m not done with you yet” and he hit Aaren with another heavy blow. Aaren pulled the shield over himself, protected like a cocoon, the man yelled in disgust, forcing one foot on top of the shield, crushing the shield down onto Aaren, he lifted the sword high above his head and thrust down, again, again and again, blunting his sword. Angrily the man threw his sword javelin style at the man closest to him, hitting him square in the chest and pulled out a replacement and thrust downwards again, Aaren rolled onto his back now, a straight crack had formed in the shield, and he waited for the next one, felt the crack widen, waiting for his own attack, the next thrust hit, splitting the shield clean into two pieces, Aaren swept his short blade in a circle, collected the sword with it.
The man, thinking he’d drive his sword into this cowering little man’s heart met nothing but air and fell forwards, onto his back and then the searing pain of Aaren’s own weapon, the Commissioner had recovered quickly, got to his feet and threw everything he had into one last effort, the Caledonian grunted once and then the life drained from his eyes. Now it was time for Valon, Aaren decided.
The men were standing firm, Eamonn met the resistance head on as he forced his way through the camp, it didn’t take him long to realise that these men were seasoned fighters, they were confident in their actions and knew what they were doing. Four of his men went down in the initial brawl, but they managed to take three defenders with them, they might have been experienced fighters, but numbers would eventually tell in these sorts of battles.
“Move up” he called, echoing his mentor’s words. He had been given command of thirty men to secure the rest of the town, flushing out anyone who had tried to hide away and bring them out, but first they would have to contend with Valon’s men, Eamonn checked his cartridge, forgetting that he had just loaded in a fresh one, he began scanning for targets, men that he could pick off before they had a chance to enter the fight. Three men suddenly rounded a corner, he pivoted and shot three bolts at them, the first hit the leading man in the thigh and he fell to the ground, clutching at the wound, the second man took the shot in the shoulder, he staggered momentarily but kept on coming and hit the back of the fight, the third arrow embedded itself into one of the wooden support beams on a nearby shop front.
The Caledonians were stubbornly defending, more and more of the Azarowans forced themselves onto them, however the more they threw at it, the more the Valon’s men seemed to be throwing back at them. The whirring sound of axes vibrated through the air, buzzing like bees as they clobbered anyone who came near them, Eamonn saw an opening though, they weren’t particularly inventive when it came to the combinations they were using, the sweeps and cuts they were performing were standard, they were effective in cramped areas like this with a large number of enemies nearby stumbling over themselves to back away, but there was an easy ploy to overcome it.
Eamonn drew a throwing knife that he’d grabbed some from his kit when he’d regrouped with the others, and in one smooth motion stepped forward, bringing his arm back and bringing it back through and drew another, not even bothering to see if the first was successful and released the second knife, the first throw hit the center point of the axe-head, sound a loud clang, startling the wielder, the second throw hit the still startled man squarely in his chest, burrowing into the chainmail chest plate and beyond and he fell to the ground.
Seeing this, the Azarowans yelled their war cries and surged ahead again, met equally by the yells of the Caledonians. Eamonn drew his sword and charged at the nearest man, aiming a high thrust, a second blade came in to take the blow, Eamonn looked up and found himself staring into the eyes of Valon.
“I think it was time you learnt a lesson in combat boy” he spat, throwing an overhead cut at the youth. Eamonn had barely enough time to pry his eyes away from Valon’s, parry the villain’s first attack when the next was on its way. Valon continued to hit Eamonn like a ton of bricks, side-cuts, back-hand, underhand, overhand, overhead, thrusts the man came on, putting everything he had into it, finally beating away the younger man’s sword, he snarled in triumph, “And now I win” he declared.
But like Aaren had, Eamonn rolled to his side, kicking out his feet, catching the Caledonian lord’s and bringing him down with him, his desperately nudged his toe in the way of the other man’s sword, pushing it out of reach, then ramming his right boot hard into Valon’s head leaving him dazed on the ground giving him enough time to get to his feet and scramble to retrieve his sword. The world swayed for the Caledonian as he got to his feet, nearly falling over as he picked up his sword, and turned once again to meet the challenge of Eamonn.
Eamonn saw his men envelope the last few of Valon’s men, he wanted to reason with the man, putting an end to the bloodshed, “we don’t have to do this, look around yourself,” he gestured to the overwhelming number of Azarowans overcoming the Caledonians, “there is no point to it now, surrender and put down your sword” he suggested. Valon looked down at the blood stained edge of his sword, and around himself now, his men were finally exhausted, the Azarowans were beginning to break away into smaller groups and head off searching for any stragglers in the rest of the town, he was defeated now, nothing was left for him to do, they would soon encircle him and arrest him, he would be tried and likely executed, or worse, imprisoned for life. That was no way for a general to spend the rest of his days, he clenched the hilt of his sword tighter, he would take one more with him.
“No” he said simply, “I’m done with this, my men have failed me and I’m not going to spend eternity in that god forsaken hell hole you call a prison, keeping me locked up like some kind of animal” he yelled.
“I’d listen to the boy if I were you.” It was Aaren, his sword raised as he came from behind the Caledonian, “as the boy said, put down your weapon and it all ends now” he reasoned. Valon glared back at him, his lips curled in disgust, “I will not be chained up to the end of my days” he rebuked, Aaren thought on it for a few seconds, then came to a decision, “So be it” he replied, then thinking that Aaren was stepping forward to attack, Valon charged forward, sword raised overhead, blinded by his rage and hate for the men who had thwarted his plans, he failed to see the throwing knife concealed by Aaren’s side, nor did he see Aaren’s left arm come through in an under-hand throw and nor did he feel the knife slice through his breastplate, one moment Valon was in a headlong charge, the next the world was turning dark, and he fell to the cobbles, and breathed his last breath.
Aaren and Eamonn came together over the still body of Valon, “are you alright?” Aaren asked, the boy shrugged, his thigh still ached from his earlier wound and he unbuckled the belt he’d placed there to hold bandage, he grimaced as he felt the blood surge through and his leg relaxed after over an hour of constriction, “I should be fine” he answered. Aaren called forward one of the officers to set up recon groups to continue scouring the town.
In a few short minutes they were the only once around. A small cascade of pebbles fell down a narrow slope some twenty meters away, then a body came with it. Aaren rushed to the man’s side, Eamonn fell, stricken by cramp as his leg seized on him as he made to follow his mentor. Aaren could see the blue emblem of the Harrier bird on the man’s left breast, showing he was an Azarowan. A slow clap began nearby, “Aaren” that was Eamonn, getting his mentor’s attention as the older man looked up, finally noticing the small stage-like platform set a meter or so above the rest of the town, it had been used for the Caledonian leader to pass out announcements to his people, now it was a stage for a mid-sized man dressed in an ornate set of armour, there was something familiar about him, something that struck Aaren, it was the voice that finally solved his problem, only to replace it with a deep feeling of dread.
The man was slightly covered in the shadow of the dusk, the figure moved forward now into the brighter light. After a moment the figure removed his helmet, and spoke in his all too familiar voice. “Well, well, well…Aaren. Haven’t you been busy today?” Standing before Aaren, was Marlow, Aaren’s former companion and fellow member in the Ayleserowan Royal Commission.