Naturally it was the Varitai who reacted first, two full battalions, probably kept awake to guard against a surprise attack, forming up to bar his path with their customary efficiency. They stood in two ranks, the first kneeling and presenting a hedgerow of spears. However, for all their unconscious discipline, even they were not immune to the sun. Vaelin saw many lowering their heads as the sun rose free of the mountains. It caused a certain ripple in their ranks but was not enough to disrupt them; for that he required something more.
The first spear-hawk streaked past his ear, close enough to feel the wing-tip brush his skin, dozens more following on either side an instant later. They struck the centre of the Varitai line in a tight black swarm, streaking out of the blinding sun too fast to dodge or duck. The centre of the Varitai’s line became a roiling mass of thrashing birds and men, the hawks rising from the melee trailing blood and flesh from their steel talons, hovering for a brief second then diving back down. By the time the wolves joined the struggle the Volarian ranks had already been broken.
Vaelin took Scar directly through the chaos, seeing a Volarian officer dragged down by a trio of wolves, his throat torn out in short order. The Volarians had formed more battalions beyond the Varitai, Free Swords standing in much-less-well-ordered ranks. They seemed younger than the Volarian soldiery he had fought before, many youthful faces betraying shock and outright terror at the sight of the horde of beasts wreaking havoc before their eyes. The bulk of the wolves tore into them without pause, the closest battalion falling to pieces under the onslaught in the space of a few seconds. The neighbouring formation fared better, forming itself into a tight defensive circle and managing to cut down many of the wolves that assailed it. They had no answer to the spear-hawks, however. Having dealt with the Varitai, their shamans re-formed their flocks and sent them against the Free Swords, streaking down in a black rain as the wolves continued to attack, running forward in pairs to fasten their jaws on the legs of the Volarians and drag them from the ranks.
Vaelin caught sight of a battalion commander on horseback nearby, sword raised high as he rallied his men, veteran sergeants running to his side and barking orders. He angled Scar towards the commander, Astorek’s wolves loping ahead to bring down his horse. The man leapt clear as the horse screamed amidst a welter of blood, coming to his feet in time to turn and take Vaelin’s sword full in the face. He galloped on to scatter the partly rallied men, cutting down a sergeant who unwisely chose to stand his ground.
Vaelin reined Scar to halt, glancing around to find Iron Claw pounding an unfortunate Volarian to death with his massive paws, Wise Bear appearing almost comical as he bounced on his back. Beyond him Vaelin caught glimpses of a vicious fight as the tribesfolk tore furiously at the northern perimeter. The tumult arising from the south and west indicated the plan had worked, at least initially. The Volarians were now assaulted on all sides and their ranks broken in the east. But the camp was not overrun and they were still fighting, too many regiments were formed and moving with the automaton rhythm typical of Varitai. This battle was far from won.
He looked to Mishara, finding her standing stock still, low to the ground and nose pointed at the centre of the camp where the densest mass of Varitai could be seen. He wheeled Scar about and spurred him to a charge, hearing Iron Claw’s eager growl as he followed, the wolves soon striking out ahead, ignoring the wounded or dazed Free Swords wandering about.
The spear-hawks re-formed once more, circling the Volarian centre in a dense mass. They were fewer in number now, but their ferocity seemed undimmed as they rose and fell in a ceaseless, deadly spiral, raining blood as eyeless men staggered from the ranks, Free Swords screaming and Varitai lashing out at thin air in dumb obedience to their conditioning.
Vaelin saw them then, a knot of men at the heart of the Volarian ranks, flickering glimpses of red amidst the roiling black. He angled Scar towards them, the wolves massing around him to tear a hole in the wall of Varitai. He struggled through it, parrying spear-blades and hacking down any who strayed too close.
The first two red men appeared before him as he slashed his way clear of the throng, both mounted on tall warhorses and wheeling in a tight circle, their swords blurring as they cut spear-hawks from the air. Vaelin charged straight for them, the closest whirling towards him, face livid with hate-filled recognition. He spurred his horse to the left whilst his companion went right in a coordinated attack. Vaelin leaned low, half-hanging out of the saddle as they closed, parrying the stroke from the left as the other missed by inches. He regained the saddle and wheeled, hauling Scar to a halt as the two red men turned for another charge. They paused, seemingly puzzled by his immobility, staring back as he waited, meeting their gaze in turn, fixing them.
Iron Claw reared up with a bellow, both claws raised high. The red men tried to spur their horses aside but too late as the claws came down, digging deep into the spine of both animals. They screamed and thrashed as blood fountained, the red men rolling clear of the carnage, coming swiftly to their feet before being brought down by Astorek’s wolves. They struggled in silence, each held fast by four wolves, their jaws clamped on each limb. They stared up at Vaelin with all the malice he remembered, malice that turned to outright terror as Wise Bear climbed down from Iron Claw’s back.
They begged and screamed in unison, both uttering the same pleas and guttural exhalations as the shaman knelt and pressed his hands to their foreheads. The shuddering ceased in an instant, both red men falling silent, then blinking in confusion as Wise Bear removed his hands and retreated. They gaped at each other then at Vaelin . . . then the wolves.
“Brother . . .” one said, looking up at him in white-faced entreaty.
Vaelin turned Scar about as the wolves did their work, deaf to the brief screams rising above the chorus of snarls. Mishara was at his side once more, nose pointed to a dense mass of battling figures near the western edge of what remained of the camp. A brief survey confirmed most of the field was now in their hands. The southern flank had been completely shattered under the weight of the Wolf People’s numbers. He could see the warriors moving through the mist, long spears held low, bunching occasionally to deal with small clusters of resistance. To the north the tribesfolk had surrounded what appeared to be the remnants of the Volarian cavalry, a few hundred mounted men hemmed in and trying vainly to break free. He watched rider after rider falling to the mountain people’s flailing axes, their ingrained disunity seemingly forgotten now.
Vaelin ducked instinctively at Orven’s shouted warning, something flickering past his head too fast to see. He dragged Scar about to face three men running towards him through the haze, each lightly armoured and bearing a sword in each hand. Kuritai.
Orven blocked the charge of the leader, crouching low to sweep his sword at the slave-elite’s legs. The Kuritai leapt the blade easily and whirled in midair, his blade aimed at Orven’s neck. The captain, however, was no novice and parried the blow, jabbing his own sword into the Kuritai’s face, then bringing the sword up and around in a swift and near-perfect riposte that left the man staggering with a gaping throat wound.
He turned to engage another as the third dodged past them and made for Vaelin, leaping with twin swords raised high. Mishara met him in midair, fastening her fangs on his head and bearing him to the ground, shaking him until his neck gave an audible crack.
Vaelin spurred Scar forward, seeing Orven being hard-pressed by the remaining Kuritai, the twin swords delivering a swift and complex pattern of blows that forced the guardsman to his knees. Vaelin was still ten feet short of them when the Kuritai sent Orven’s sword spinning from his grasp and raised his blades for the final blow, then abruptly stiffened, head snapping up as Lorkan blinked into view, arm extended to thrust a dagger into the base of the slave-elite’s skull.
The Gifted withdrew the blade with a distasteful grimace and looked up at Vaelin as he trotted closer. His face was streaked with blood from a cut somewhere in the dark mane of his hair, obliging him to continually wipe it from his eyes.
“You have to come,” he said, swaying a little as he pointed his bloody dagger to the raging struggle nearby. “It’s Alturk.”
The wolves went ahead of him, tearing apart the ragged Volarian line of wounded and part-blinded Varitai, allowing him to charge through with Wise Bear and Iron Claw close behind. He saw Alturk twenty yards ahead, war club whirling as he spun and dodged amidst a circle of red men. The Sentar were attempting to come to his side but were being held back by a company of Kuritai, Lonak and slave-elite locked in a vicious struggle as the Tahlessa fought hopeless odds. But still he lived, cuts on his arms, face and legs, but he remained standing as the red men danced.
Vaelin urged more speed from Scar but the warhorse was tiring now, foam covering his flanks and mouth, his stride laboured and shuddering with effort. Vaelin watched as Alturk dodged a sword and brought his club around to slam into his assailant’s side, deliberately avoiding the killing blow to the head as Vaelin had instructed. The red men, however, had clearly allowed the blow to land to draw Alturk forward, two of them dancing closer to slash at his legs. He sidestepped the first stroke but not the second, the blade biting deep into his thigh and sending him to one knee, teeth bared in a grimace.