Frentis knew this was a gamble; he could only hope the Volarians’ fury would blind them to questioning why their enemies had chosen such a poor spot for a campsite. However, Lekran saw scant risk in the plan. “Volarians see slaves as less than men,” he said. “Incapable of true reason. Trust me, Redbrother. They’ll swallow it whole and we’ll make them choke.”
Lekran nodded to where Vinten’s archers crouched among the rocks just back from the canyon’s northern edge, surrounded by bundles of tight-bound gorse. Frentis began to clamber down from the boulder. “I’d best take my place. Remember to let a few Free Swords escape.”
He made his way to the far end of the canyon, finding Illian overseeing preparations. “I told you to make ready the main camp, sister,” he said in annoyance.
“Draker has it well in hand,” she replied, meeting his gaze with little sign of contrition. “And since I have trained these people, I am unwilling to let them face battle without me.”
He fought down the urge to order her gone. She was becoming less deferential by the day, exercising a certain flexibility in interpreting his orders and often more than willing to argue her case. It was not necessarily a bad thing, he knew. There always came a point in the Order when novices stepped from their masters’ shadow, but he had hoped it might take longer for her; she still had much to learn and he feared the consequences of her ignorance.
“Stay close to me,” he said. “No more than an arm’s length away at any time. Understood?”
Her defiance softened a little and she nodded, hefting her crossbow and notching a bolt before clasping a second between her teeth in what was now a recognisable pre-battle ritual.
“Brother!” Dallin stood atop a rock pointing to the canyon’s west-facing opening where the Volarian cavalry had appeared.
“You know the plan!” Frentis called to the others as they made ready, hefting their assorted weapons and arranging themselves in a loosely ordered line. They were mostly his original fighters from the Urlish mingled with the more able recruits gathered on the march, Weaver and his Varitai among them, laden with ropes and cudgels. All had tied dampened cloths around their mouths, something he hoped the Volarians would interpret as an effort to avoid recognition.
“We have to hold the first charge,” Frentis went on. “When their lines break, pair off and cut your way to the centre of the canyon.”
The Volarians came to a halt a hundred paces away and began forming up. There was clearly an animated discussion taking place in the centre of their line, Frentis recognising the tall figure of the commander’s son as he bickered with the burly sergeant, gesturing impatiently at the waiting rabble of miscreant slaves. Charging uphill on horseback over broken ground, Frentis mused, watching the sergeant being shouted down before the commander’s son drew his sword, pointing it directly at him. Your father really would have been ashamed, Honoured Citizen.
Frentis turned to Illian as the Volarians spurred into a charge, stones scattering as they laboured up the slope. “The big fellow next to the tall man, if you would sister.”
The bolt flew free barely a second after she brought the crossbow to her shoulder, rising and falling in a perfectly judged arc to smack into the sergeant’s breastplate before the riders had covered half the distance, the burly form falling from the saddle to lie limp on the rocky ground. Illian moved with an unconscious speed to reload the crossbow, grunting as she braced the stock against her midriff, slamming the next bolt into place and biting down on another, all in less than three seconds, a feat Frentis had never seen anyone match. The crossbow string snapped again as the riders came within twenty paces, a Free Sword tumbling to the ground with a bolt protruding from his helmet.
Frentis found himself nurturing a reluctant admiration for the way the commander’s son came on, spurs digging into his horse’s flanks as he strove to get to grips with his father’s murderer, blind hate and rage writ large on his face, seeking to wipe away his shame with courage, a courage that made him oblivious to the fact that the ground had disordered his company and he had outpaced his men to charge alone.
Frentis ran towards a nearby boulder, the hate-filled Volarian now no more than ten feet away, veering to intercept him. He leapt atop the boulder, bringing him level with the son, whirling to deliver a slash that connected with his long-bladed cavalry sword, the Order blade shattering it above the hilt. The Volarian hauled his horse to a halt and tried to wheel it around, fumbling for a spare short sword strapped to his saddle, then arching his back as Illian’s crossbow bolt slammed into it.
She ran in as he fell, pinning him to the ground with a boot to his neck and raising her dagger. “Leave him,” Frentis said, striding forward to slam his sword pommel into the Volarian’s temple, leaving him senseless. “We’ll see what he has to tell us later.”
He surveyed the fight unfolding around them, feeling an indulgent pride in the way the Volarian charge had been successfully blunted, the fighters leaping from rocks to unhorse the riders, whilst Weaver’s Varitai tripped horses with their ropes or dragged the cavalrymen from the saddle before closing in with cudgels flailing. It was done in a few moments, a dozen riderless horses trotting back into the depths of the canyon, every Volarian killed or captured. Their own casualties had been light, four killed and ten wounded. But of course the real battle was yet to begin.
The Varitai came on with a typical indifference, although the slaughter meted out to the Free Sword cavalry had clearly alarmed their officers from the way they spurred their horses to the rear of the column whilst ordering the battalion onward. The Varitai spread out to form an offensive line, four companies deep, each of four close-packed ranks, the first advancing with their unnerving, faultless rhythm, broad-bladed spears held level at waist height.
When the Varitai had covered two-thirds of the canyon’s length the archers rose from their hiding places to begin their work. Although few in number their skills were all well honed by now, the arrow storm thin but deadly as it claimed a dozen Varitai with every volley, but, as ever, the slave soldiers barely seemed to notice, coming on with their unfaltering stride, only the slightest ripple of discord in their ranks.
The first bundle of flaming gorse arced down from the canyon wall to land directly in front of the first rank, white smoke billowing, quickly followed by more until it appeared as if the sky were raining great flaming hailstones. A pall of smoke soon covered the canyon floor from end to end, the Varitai concealed by the choking mist.
Frentis fixed the dampened cloth over his mouth and raised his sword, turning to address the surrounding fighters, “Fight well and may the Departed guide your hand!”
They charged forward in a dense knot, running blindly through the smoke to slam into the lead company of Varitai, the momentum of the charge enough to carry them through all four ranks, Frentis and Illian moving in a circular dance, cutting down Varitai left and right. All was soon a confusion of clashing metal and screams of pain or fury. Sometimes they would find themselves in a crush of opponents, shoving and stabbing as they stumbled over the dead, at others all opposition would disappear leaving them isolated in a world of shifting white smoke as the cacophony of battle raged unseen on all sides. Frentis caught glimpses of the freed Varitai at work, dragging their enslaved brothers down and beating them unconscious. But most sights were scenes of slaughter, the Garisai going about their task with all the skill and fury earned in the Varikum. Frentis found himself momentarily distracted by the sight of Ivelda and two other Garisai being lifted by their fellows and thrown over a line of Varitai, twisting in the air like acrobats at the Summertide fair to land and assault their enemy from the rear.
Illian’s warning came a fraction too late, Frentis whirling to confront a Free Sword officer charging out of the smoke on horseback, too close to dodge. He leapt forward instead, grabbing hold of the horse’s bridle and wrapping his legs around its neck. The animal reared as its rider hacked at Frentis. The blow was poorly aimed but left a shallow cut on his forearm, forcing him to lose his grip. He landed hard on the rocky ground, the air forced from his lungs by the impact. He rolled, trying to rise, dragging smoke-laden air into his throat and choking. The Free Sword was far more skilled a rider than the commander’s son and brought his horse around in a swift display of excellent horsemanship, spurring forward with his sword drawn back for a decapitating swipe at Frentis’s neck.
Illian’s throwing knife smacked into the rider’s face just above the chin guard, forcing him to veer away, though his horse’s flank still connected painfully with Frentis as he managed to gain his feet, sending him sprawling once more. He gulped more tainted air and forced himself upright, searching frantically for the rider but finding the saddle now empty. His eyes caught a vague flurry of shadows in the smoke a dozen feet away and he ran towards it, finding Illian confronting the now-unseated rider. Despite the knife embedded in his cheek the Volarian was assailing the sister with a series of expert blows, his long cavalry sword a blur as he advanced, bloodied face snarling. Illian blocked every stroke and leapt to deliver a kick to the side of his face, driving the throwing knife deeper. The Volarian staggered back, blood flowing thick from his mouth as he sank to his knees, staring up at Illian, all fury faded as his eyes held a desperate entreaty.