"You scared?" I asked Titan as we stood with Athala in the middle of the road leading towards the village.
"Not really," Titan shrugged. "Is that strange?"
"I suppose," I answered.
"Were you before your first battle?"
"I, uh," I stopped short. It occurred to me this was my first battle. Athala and I'd been fighting practically non-stop since stepping foot in the Eisenberge but those had been skirmishes where the goal wasn't winning but simply surviving. We never had to beat our foes, merely escape them. But this was an actual, real, pitched battle. Surviving and escaping wasn't enough; we had to win and that did frighten me.
"Yeah, you could say that," I said, swallowing hard.
"I am excited," he said, voice pitched up just a bit.
"You are excited to kill people?" Athala answered, a quizzical expression etched on her face.
"Well, no," he said. "But for once, I am really good at something and I am looking forward to using my talent."
Athala and I exchanged a confused look and a shrug. We'd battled enough to know fights were little more than an exercise in avoiding a horrible death.
Yet Titan did seem excited. The lanky teen was bouncing on his toes as he waited the army coming our way. Clad all in black except the steel-gray bracers on his arms, he was an intimidating sight with his hood shading his eyes and the black veil covering the lower half of his face. I was glad to have him on my side.
"Remember the plan?" I whispered.
"Of course," Athala snapped back. "We have only rehearsed it a dozen times! Why are we whispering?"
"I don't know," I tried talking normally. "It seemed like the smart thing to do."
"Well, it looks like we are going to find out how good it is," Titan gestured ahead. "Here they come."
We heard the tromping before we saw them come around the bend. Two figures rode on horses, the first I'd seen in the Eisenberge, at the head of a massive column of identically armed soldiers, armor glinting in the scattered light and spears bristling like a massive hedgehog. Shaking off the growing nerves, I stepped forward to face them.
"Stop!" I commanded sharply. "You may not pass any further. The towns of the Immergrün are under my protection."
The two riders trotted forward slightly. "Yet they are under my jurisdiction," Aidan observed casually.
"Not any longer," I informed the sorcerer. "They have decided you are no longer fit—Baasha?"
I stared in shock, recognizing the bulky Alkite knight as the second rider. "What are you doing? This guy was going to kill you?"
"We had a difference of opinions on how to rescue the princess," the Alkite replied with a cold smile. "But we've coming to an understanding, one that involves killing you."
"You know the only way you walk out of here with Ariadne is to sell yourself to Katrina, right?" I demanded. "You'd basically hand Alkilion over to her."
Baasha shrugged in his saddle. "So long as I'm king and you're dead, I don't really care."
I was stunned. Baasha was an egotistical, self-centered jerk but I'd never thought of him as a traitor. "Are you under a spell?"
"No, actually," Aidan answered for his compatriot. "None was needed. He willingly sought me out and proposed this deal. Believe me, I am as shocked as you."
"Titan!" I commanded, refocusing my astonishment into anger at the traitor.
Beside me, the warrior knocked an arrow and fired, sending the projectile whistling towards Aidan. The sorcerer calmly held up his hand."
"Schütze!" he cried and the arrow shattered as if it had slammed into a brick wall.
"Adorable," Aidan smiled keenly. "Now it is my turn: Tot sie!"
A confused and irritated look flashed across the sorcerer's face. "I said, Tot sie!" he repeated, more forcefully this time. Again, nothing happened.
"Is that supposed to mean something?" I asked.
Aidan turned a murderous glare on Athala. "That is supposed to be impossible!" he yelled. "How did you, how could you have undone my spell?"
"I guess I really am the more powerful sorcerer, if your spells can so easily be defeated," she taunted back.
"Defeat this!" he snarled. "Feuer!"
A flash of flame leapt from his hand and suddenly the air in front of him exploded in a brilliant shower of white flame and sparks. Even knowing what was coming and looking away, my eyes still throbbed from the stunning flash. The horses reared up, panicking, and tossed Aidan to the ground while only Baasha's years of training managed to keep the dazed knight in his saddle.
"As I was saying," Athala continued to mock, starting her retreat.
"Finish them!" Aidan ordered Baasha.
"Excuse me?" Baasha, still blinking the stars out of his eyes, gave Aidan an annoyed look. "I don't take—"
"I said finish them," Aidan thundered savagely, fixing Baasha with a wild glare. "You wanted to kill him, go get him!"
"Again," I whispered to Titan, who fired another arrow at the distracted sorcerer.
"Schütze!" Apparently he wasn't as distracted as I thought.
"Athala is mine!" The sorcerer turned with a flourish and chased after Athala as she disappeared into the forest.
Baasha's expression was a mixture of surprise, annoyance, and resignation. While not the smartest knight, even he could see our obvious ploy to pull Aidan away from the coming battle. Yet the sorcerer was so blinded by anger and hate, he blundered after Athala anyway.
"You really want to be working for that guy?" I asked my rival.
"I'm not working for him," Baasha retorted angrily.
"Doesn't look that way to me," I rebutted.
"He's a means to an end," Baasha snapped back.
"He's not the one you need to worry about," I answered.
"I'll deal with her when the time comes," he replied. "First, I have to deal with you and your friends in the woods."
"Did you really think I would believe it's just the two of you against all of us? Come now Zimri, even you're not that stupid," he said.
"Debatable," I answered back, internally noting that I'd spent the last two months pretty much doing exactly that.
"Perhaps," he shrugged. "Shield wall! Face the woods!"
With precise synchronization, shields overlapped and the outside columns pivoted to face the forest. Titan and I exchanged a worried look as our ambush began quickly unravelling.
"Fire!" Titan thundered at the forest, knocking another arrow.
A dozen or so arrows materialized from behind the trees but for the most part, they skipped harmlessly off the ready shields of the soldiers. One managed to find its mark, dropping a soldier two ranks deep.
"Fire into the center!" Titan ordered, firing his own missile right at Baasha.
The Alkite knight batted the arrow away with his shield and leveled a withering glare at Titan.
"Coward!" he snarled, spurring his horse into a charge.
Titan fired another shot, which Baasha deflected again and raised his scimitar for the killing stroke as he bore down on the Eisenbergian. At the last minute, I stepped in the way, raising my shield to ward off the blow. Baasha slammed down with all his prodigious strength and my whole arm shivered with the impact.
"I could have handled that!" Titan yelled at me while Baasha ran past.
"I know," I nodded, shaking the feeling back into my shield arm. "But he's an Alkite so he's my responsibility. Besides, you need to handle that." I pointed to the growing chaos.
Our battle plan had completely fallen apart by now. The townspeople were still firing arrows but the soldiers had simply put their shields over their heads.
"You need to break up their ranks somehow," I told Titan. "If our people charge now, they'll be skewered."
Titan nodded and dashed off, leaving me alone with Baasha.
"I've been waiting a long time for this," Baasha's eyes gleamed murderously and raised his sword.
"So have I," I returned, raising my own weapon.
Baasha charged again, spurring his horse into a gallop. Holding my position to the last moment I hopped to my right and swung my blade at Baasha's thigh. Instead of trying to strike me with his sword, Baasha swung his shield back, slamming me across the side of my head. His forward momentum canceled out a lot of the force of the blow but it was still more than enough to toss me to the ground and leave me with a ringing headache.
"You'll never beat me on foot," Baasha pointed out, checking his horse and turning about for another charge.
"Then fight me fair or are you too much of a coward for that?" I shot back, trying to steady myself.
"I'm a pragmatist, Zimri," the knight retorted. "Besides, you are so far beneath me, you don't deserve a fair fight. You're little more than a peasant and you'll die like a peasant."
Anger flashed through me at the slight, true as it might be. "Then finish it!" I challenged, desperately trying to figure out a way to unhorse with my rattled brain.
Baasha charged again. I got ready to fake right and jump to my left. But three meters from me, the horse suddenly screamed, rearing up and tossing Baasha a couple meters before collapsing, an arrow protruding from its flank. Behind stood Titan, bow in hand.
"Titan!" I shouted incredulously. "Have you no honor?"
"Honor does not win battles and you are taking too long," the Eisenbergian retorted. "I need your help so finish him and let us go!"
I looked at Baasha who lay sprawled on the ground. He didn't look conscious and probably had a broken rib at the least. It would be so easy for me to go over and slit his throat. After all the bullying and abuse he'd heaped on me and others, I was sorely tempted. I thought about Shala and wondered if she was okay. He certainly deserved no less.
But I couldn't do it. Shaking off the rest of the cobwebs, I ran up to Titan.
"What do you need?"
"You are just going to leave him?" Titan asked, drawing another arrow and aiming it at the downed Baasha.
"No!" I cut him off, pushing down the bow.
"You sure?" Titan gave me a curious look. "Leaving him alive is not a good idea."
"We can't just murder an unconscious man like that," I shook my head. Titan opened his mouth to protest but I cut him off. "He'll keep. What'd you have in mind?"
"Use the woods to break up the shield wall. We are going to attack, then retreat back into the woods, pulling them with us. That will break up the shield wall and we can overpower them," Titan explained quickly.
"Divide and conquer," I nodded. "Risky, especially given our lack of training but that sounds like our best option."
"Glad you agree," Titan replied. "I need you to take the right wing while I take the left."
"You know a lot of people will be killed?" I asked.
Titan tensed under the black cloak, then sighed. "Ya, I know. We knew not everyone was coming back when we started. That is the price of victory, is it not?"
"Yeah, Lord Omri would say something like that," I replied. "Well, good luck. See you when this is over."
"Ya, you too," he said and then hurried off to the left.
I found the townsfolk armed with pitchforks, pickaxes, axes, and sickles. As someone used fully armed knights, this was a truly disheartening sight. Most of them looked terrified as they watched their arrows, the only real weapons they had, ping harmlessly off the impenetrable shield wall.
"Zimri, this is not working!" Rolf said, fear tightening his voice. "What do we do?"
Drawing my sword, I put on the most confident face, knowing many were about to die at my command. "We attack," I declared cheerfully while swallowing the bile rising in my throat.
"Attack?" Raban squeaked. "That is suicide!"
"We're not launching a sustained assault," I amended. "Just a brief attack on their outer ranks and then we are going to fall back into the forest. Hide behind trees and pick them off as they pass by. They won't be able to maintain cohesion in here."
I guess my confident attitude was infectious because they all started nodding, gripping their "weapons" with a purpose.
"Alright, who's with me?" I called, raising my blade over my head.
"Aye!" they shouted in return and we stormed from the woods.
Of the many problems facing soldiers who don't feel is that shock and awe is totally lost on them. We exploded out of the woods only to find the soldiers calmly waiting for us as if this was completely expected. So we crashed against them like waves against rocks.
Around me, I heard grunts and screams of pain. Across the road I saw Titan burst out, slamming uselessly into his side of the force, eliciting another round of screams. Focusing on my own survival, I evaded a thrust from a spear and slashed my sword at the owner's throat, blade biting deep. With a shove of my boot, I dropped the corpse and with a backslash, I decapitated the soldier to my right.
"Zimri! Now!" Titan called from across the way, already pulling back. Around him lay a half-dozen bodies.
"Retreat!" I called. "Retreat!"
My "soldiers" needed no encouragement as we fled back into the woods. I did a quick scan, looking for Rolf but my heart dropped when I couldn't see him. But I didn't have time to focus on that; I had to rally my men and women together.
"Quick, behind the trees!" I shouted to them. "Stand firm! We've got them right where we want them! Archers, stand ready!"
Some stopped and ducked behind the trees; most kept running. With a curse, I chased after them. Grabbing the nearest one, I spun around Raban.
"What are you doing?" I demanded.
"Running away!" Raban yelled back. "This was a terrible idea! We cannot beat them. Did you see what they did? They skewered us like piglets. Rolf…Rolf did not even get a chance to use his sword. The soldier just…he just ran him through. We are getting out of here before we get run through too!"
I felt sick hearing Rolf's fate. I hadn't even seen him charge in, which made me feel worse. But I couldn't think about that right now. If we all ran, we'd get cut to ribbons, either here or in the village.
"Where are you running to?" I asked him. "Where are you going to go that they won't find you? What of the women and children in the village? What do you think will happen to them if you don't stand and fight now?"
Raban shook with fear. "But…we have already lost. So many killed. The battle is over."
"No, it isn't," I shook my head. "The battle is still going according to our plan."
"It was your plan to get all those people killed?" Raban shrieked.
"People die in battle, there's no way around it," I told him. "And it's okay to be scared. I'm scared. But remember what you're fighting for; remember who you're fighting for."
"Does it matter? How can we win against that?" Raban's shoulders slumped.
"Because we don't have a choice," I answered. "They're fighting because they're programmed to; we're fighting because we have something worth fighting for: our friends, our families, our freedom. We can and we will win."
Raban looked up, meeting me in the eyes for the first time and he nodded. "You believe that?"
"I do," I said, surprised that I truly did mean it. "Now come on, help me rally the others. We'll need everyone."
Raban's shoulders straightened and turned back to the approaching battle.
Looking back, I saw the army approaching. They were spread out and those that stood and fought were making some headway. If I could rally my troops, we would win. But time wasn't on my side and I need to do something and quick.
"Eisenbergians!" I shouted. "Stop your running! Will you flee with victory at hand? Look at your brothers and sisters! Look how they stand and fight and are triumphing! Think of your families and the life you have a chance to offer them. You're not fighting to survive; you're fighting to thrive! Brothers and sisters, I stand and fight as one of you and I will win your freedom. Stand with me and we will finish these tyrants! Follow me!"
Raising my sword high, I turned and charged into the fray. I'm not sure what exactly possessed me but I fought like a demon. Maybe it was the fear or the determination or the simple fact so spread out, the soldiers weren't nearly the challenge they were as a unit. Around me, my soldiers rallied around me. Their crude weapons did remarkably well, in particular the pickaxes which punched through the helmets.
I don't know how long we fought; I just focused on the man in front of me. Around me, I was dimly aware of the shouts and screams as my troops battled on. I knew some of those screams were of the dying. I had to keep my troops encouraged and focused.
"Come on!" I shouted. "We're pushing them back!"
In truth, we weren't. We were winning but another drawback to facing soldiers whose emotions have been drained is that they don't ever retreat. This battle was going to be fought to the last man.
My momentary lapse in concentration was nearly fatal. A soldier charged me and drove his spear at me heart. I deflected it with my shield but only from my chest. Instead, the weapon drove into my gut on the right side. Pain like nothing I'd ever experienced before exploded as the force drove me to the ground. A scream escaped my lips as the point was jerked free, tearing my flesh.
Hot blood soaked my tunic and spilled out of the hole in the ruined armor. My vision was hazy as I strove to maintain consciousness. Up, I thought, I have to get up. My troops' courage was hanging by a thread as it was and if they saw me go down, I knew they'd break and run. But I couldn't move my muscles; just breathing was hard enough.
Through my fuzzy vision, I saw the soldier raise his spear for the killing blow. This was it, I realized, I was going to die here. Surprisingly, my thoughts weren't of Ariadne. Instead, I thought of Athala, wishing she was here; wishing for one more kiss.
A shadow passed over me and the soldier was flung back, then struck down.
"Zimri! Zimri!" Raban's voice sounded through the fog. "Are you okay?"
"Help me up," I grunted out.
"What? No, you are bleeding out! You need to get taken back to the village," Raban was by my side.
"No, they need to see me on my feet and fighting," I croaked out. "Help me up."
I felt Raban place his hands under my arms and hoist me to my feet. I bit back another scream of pain and nearly passed out. Sucking in a few deep breaths, I refocused myself, weakly raising my blade.
A cheer went up as my soldiers saw me on my feet. Weakly I pressed forward with Raban at my side. A soldier charged us. Raban blocked him for me while I struck back, slashing his throat. Another cry and my people charged around me, attacking the soldiers with an abandon.
The strike had taken all my strength and I slumped against Raban, who held me. Another soldier found us and this time, I knew we couldn't fight off another attack and I resigned myself to my fate. Again, I wished I was with Athala one last time, while also glad she wasn't here to die.
But just as the soldier raised his spear, his head was suddenly swept off. His body dropped and Titan stood behind him.
"We finished our side early and decided to help you out," Titan explained. "You look awful."
"Yeah, I feel even worse," I nodded, looking down at the gaping wound in my side. "How's the battle going?"
"We are winning," Titan replied. "You rest and we will—"
A scream and violent explosion shook the ground and I slumped to the ground.
"What the hell?" Titan looked around.
Darkness began closing around me. "I hope," I labored to breathe out. "Athala is okay."