The Crimson Shield: Chapter One

Sarvic turned to run. A Vathan spear reached for him. Gallow chopped it away; and then he was slipping back and the whole line was falling apart and the Vathen were pressing forward, pushed by the ranks behind them, stumbling over the bodies of the fallen.

For a moment the dead slowed them. Gallow turned and threw himself away from the Vathan shields. The earth under his feet was slick, ground to mud by the press of boots and watered with blood and sweat. A spear point hit him in the back like a kick from a horse. He staggered and slipped but kept on running as fast as he could. If the blow had pierced his mail he’d find out soon enough. The rest of the Marroc were scattering, fleeing down the back of the hill with the roars of the Vathen right behind. Javelots and stones rained around him but he didn’t look back. Didn’t dare, not yet.

He slowed for a moment to tuck his axe into his belt and scoop up a discarded spear. The Vathen had horsemen and a man with a spear could face a horse; and when at last he did snatch a glance over his shoulder, there they were, cresting the hill. They’d scythe through the fleeing Marroc and not one in ten would reach the safety of the trees because they were running in panic, not turning to face their enemy as they should. He’d seen all this before. The Vathen were good with their horses.

Sarvic was pelting empty-handed down the hill ahead of him. They’d never met before today and had no reason to be friends, but they’d stood together in the wall of shields and they’d both survived. Gallow caught him as the first Vathan rider drew back an arm to throw his javelot. He hurled himself at Sarvic’s legs, tumbling them both down the slope of the hill. Gallow rolled away, turned and rose to a crouch behind his shield. Other men had dropped theirs as they ran but that was folly.

The javelot hit his shield and almost knocked him over. Another rider galloped towards them. At the last moment Gallow raised his spear. The Vathan saw it too late. The point caught him in the belly and the other end wedged into the dirt and the rider flew out of his saddle, screaming, the spear driven right through him before the shaft snapped clean in two. Gallow wrenched the javelot from his shield. He forced another into Sarvic’s hand. There were plenty to be had. ‘Running won’t help you.’

More Vathen poured over the hill. Another galloped past and hurled his javelot, rattling Gallow’s shield. Gallow searched around, wild-eyed and frantic for any shelter. Further down the hill a knot of Marroc had held their nerve long enough to make a circle of spears. He raced towards them now, dragging Sarvic with him as the horsemen charged past. The shields opened to let him in and closed around him. He was a part of it without even thinking.

‘Wall and spears!’ Valaric? A fierce hope came with having men beside him again, shields locked together, even if they were nothing but a handful.

Another wave of Vathan horse swarmed past. The Marroc crouched in their circle, spears out like a hedgehog, poking over their shields. The horsemen thundered on. There were easier prey to catch but they threw their javelots anyway as they passed. The Marroc beside Gallow screamed and pitched forward.

‘You taught us this, Gallow, you Lhosir bastard,’ Valaric swore. ‘Curse these stunted hedge-born runts! Keep your shields high and your spears up and keep together, damn you!’

The Vathan foot soldiers were charging now, roaring and whooping. As the last riders passed, the circle of Marroc broke and sprinted for the woods. The air was hot and thick. Sweat trickled into Gallow’s eyes. The grass on the hill had been trampled flat and now gleamed bright in the sun. Bodies littered the ground close to the trees, scattered like armfuls of broken dolls where the Vathan horse had caught the Marroc rout. Hundreds of them pinned to the earth with javelots sticking up from their backs. There were Lhosir bodies too among the Marroc. Valaric pointed at one and laughed. ‘Not so invincible, eh?’

They reached the shadows of the wood and paused, gasping. Behind them the battlefield spread up the hill, dead men strewn in careless abandon. Crows already circled, waiting for the Vathen to finish so they could get on with some looting of their own. The moans and cries of the dying mixed with the shouts and hurrahs of the victors. Before long the dead would be stripped bare and the Vathen would move on.

‘Got to keep moving,’ Gallow said.

‘Shut your hole, forkbeard! They won’t follow us here.’ Valaric picked up his shield. He kicked a couple of Marroc who’d crouched against trees to catch their breath, glared at Sarvic and headed off again at a run. ‘A pox on you!’ he said as Gallow fell in step beside him. ‘They’ll move right on to Fedderhun and quick. They don’t care about us.’

But they still ran, a hard steady pace along whatever game trails they could find, putting as much distance as they could between them and the Vathen. Valaric only slowed when they ran out into a meadow surrounded by trees and by then they must have been a couple of miles from the battle. Far enough. The Marroc were gasping and soaked in sweat but they weren’t dead. There wouldn’t be many who’d stood in the shield wall on Lostring Hill who could say that.

The grass was up to their knees and filled with spring flowers and the air was alive with a heady scent. ‘Should be good enough,’ Valaric muttered. ‘We rest here for a bit then.’ He threw a snarl at Gallow. ‘This is the end of us now, forkbeard. After here it’s each to his own way, and you’re not welcome any more.’

‘Will you go to Fedderhun, Valaric?’

Valaric snorted. ‘There’s no walls. What’s the point? Fedderhun’s a fishing town. The Vathen will either burn it or they won’t and nothing you or I can do will change that. If your Lhosir prince wants a fight with the Vathen, I’ll be seeing to it that it’s not me and mine whose lives get crushed between you. I’ll be with my family.’

There wasn’t much to say to that. Old wounds were best left be. Gallow’s own children weren’t so many miles away either. And Arda; and they’d be safe if the Vathen went on to Fedderhun. He touched a hand to his chest and to the locket that hung on a chain around his neck, warm against his skin, buried beneath leather and mail. He could have been with them now, not here in a wood and stinking of sweat and blood. ‘I’m one of you now,’ he said, as much to himself as to Valaric.

Valaric snorted. ‘You’re never that, forkbeard.’

Gallow set down his spear and his shield and took off his helm, letting the air dry the sweat from his skin. ‘It’s still your land, Valaric.’

But Valaric shook his head. ‘Not any more.’

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