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All things must pass . . .
loves, lives and innocence.
Ralph studied the narrow valley mouth with no little anxiety. Though less than a furlong from one steep-sided wall to the other, it didn’t appear at all narrow when considered in terms of keeping a determined enemy bottled up and at bay with only two hundred and sixty-three soldiers, not all of whom were in their prime.
Each of you must think in terms of having only six feet of ground to defend, Birin had told them, before they had stretched themselves, fingertip to fingertip, in three lines ten feet apart, across the mouth of the valley. It sounded all very good in theory, but reality, as usual, bore little resemblance to wishful thinking. The instant they lowered their arms, when that tenuous but reassuring contact was broken between outstretched fingertips, the defenders were automatically hit by the realization that six feet of open ground lay to either side of each of them, that the imaginary divide between their positions vanished from perception altogether.
Ralph felt his confidence turn to an ugly knot in the pit of his stomach, even as the yawning divide opened between himself and his lateral companions, neither of whom he knew. The most daunting realization was that, while a soldier armed with a sword needed room to swing his weapon, without interfering with his fellows on either side, he could only defend one side of his position or the other. The second and third lines were there to contend with any Goblins who managed to make it past the first line of defence, and to shore up the gaps left by fallen defenders, but they, too, were subject to the same limitations. This raised the hideously plausible prospect of the enemy assaulting their position en masse, causing each individual defender to strike out to the right or left, while on the undefended side the enemy would slip through as easily as though their wall of soldiers were nothing more than a widely spaced line of wooden pickets. Should this come to pass, their two lines would more resemble a sieve than a wall.
True, their numbers were augmented by almost eighty archers; women and older children who had been instructed to keep their distance from the ranks, whose purpose it was to pick off any of the enemy that chanced to break through the lines. But if the rest of the soldiers were reassured by their presence, Ralph was not. He didn’t cherish the thought of a stray arrow striking him or anyone else in the back, and like many of the soldiers, he was very much against the presence of women and children in the arena of war.
All morning, Birin had been riding from one end of their thinly stretched lines of soldiers to the other, as though through a act of sheer will or expenditure of his own energies he could somehow increase their strength and numbers. His demeanor, Ralph noted, had changed considerably as he had fully assumed his position of command. All present had assumed what Ralph thought of as their “professional face.” The camaraderie was thankfully still there, but it had also taken on a formalized character which Ralph found it difficult to share in. Strange, he mused, that such things he had once dismissed as unnecessary pretence, or outdated formality. For the first time in his life, he was able to see the necessity from which such behaviour arose, and in the same breath, gained a startling new perspective on what he suddenly became aware of as being his old life.
Until Malina had come into his life, the only necessity he had known was an empty sort of subsisting, without any redeeming sense of purpose, goal or future. How ironic, that now that he had all of these things, that he would have to fight for them, perhaps at the cost of all he had to give. He though bitterly of the words, “die a happy man,” and considered the idiocy of such an utterance.
As the day wore on, the unnatural winter deepened. Heavy wet snow began to fall, sending up a concealing mist from the warmer earth. The effect was to make the defenders seem even fewer than they were: as one looked down the line to the left and right, less and less could be seen, as though more than just the resolve of the defenders was dissolving into thin air.
Ralph checked the strap on his shield, unnecessarily readjusting the buckle once more. The broadsword he carried at his back had been made by his own hand, out of the same material he had used to fashion arrowheads. It should have given him some degree of satisfaction to realize that all of the defenders now possessed weapons made by him, but his mind was distracted by the fears they all shared: What if they couldn’t hold the enemy back? And what if the enemy somehow found another way past them? There had been rumours of Goblins from the Outcasts, and it was well known that the Goblins had not come from this direction. And with this suspicion came the unthinkable: was Wel’adai truly safe?
Gannet, who stood nearby to his right, three soldiers down the line, made a poor companion. He spoke seldom, and bore more than his usual perpetual grimness, if that were possible. Still, it was he who had supervised Ralph’s forge work where the swords were concerned, including the one he himself now bore. Every arrowhead, every glaive and spear point, every helmet and shield and piece of armour, had grudgingly passed his inspection, checked for heft, balance, and general workmanship.
When Ralph had mentioned some concern over Gannet’s appraisal to Birin, Birin had smiled grimly in response, and said, ‘Gannet won’t really respect you until you’ve actually tasted battle. Even then, don’t expect his attitude towards you to change dramatically. In his eyes, one skirmish does not make a soldier.’
Ralph heard a runner making his way down the line, an Elf boy of perhaps fourteen years. The runner stopped when he reached Gannet.
‘Ware. The scouts are returning with tidings. The enemy has been sighted.’
Gannet nodded, and the runner left.
Ralph started in surprise. He had not expected the fighting to begin so soon. As the others were doing, he got down on one knee and planted his shield upright before him, so that like the others, only his helm could be seen. Heart pounding, he reached over his shoulder and drew his sword from the harness at his back.
He became conscious that he was breathing heavily with fear, a fact that he couldn’t conceal. Venturing a glance up and down the line, he saw the vapour from the others’ breath, and relaxed fractionally, realizing that he was not alone in his trepidation. Noting, with a mixture of awe and annoyance, Gannet’s deep and regular breathing, he unconsciously tried to match the big Elf’s composure.
The ghost of a movement through the snow and mist struck him like ice-water, sharpening his senses and tightening his gut with fear. There was no mistake: the enemy began to rise up out of the gloom, a great black wave that was growing, cresting towards their position, becoming darker and clearer with each thudding heartbeat.
The moment he could make out distinct shapes, the advancing line seemed to fall to the ground. Behind them, lines of archers instantly formed-
The air was suddenly full of the whistle and thup of arrows. A few strangled cries belied that some of the missiles had found a mark. Several of the black darts thudded squarely against Ralph’s shield; one grazed the top of his helmet, making him duck even lower.
At once, there came a great roar of Goblin voices that hit the defenders like a physical blow, resonating off their swords, shields, and helms, and amplified in rolling, thundering waves off the valley walls.
‘Prepare to engage!’
Ralph could only watch the stunning ferocity of the approaching Goblins with a sort of detached horrified fascination, as he tried in vain to mentally prepare himself to start fighting for all he was worth; in the same breath he had to force himself to realise that this was no dream.
As the dark shapes in the mist drew near, they not only grew darker, but seemed to grow more numerous, more real, and infinitely more deadly. At the last moment, there was no time to think . . . only to react . . . to fight or die. Despite his training, Ralph’s sword suddenly felt strange and awkward in his hand as the enemy closed the last few yards at a frenetic pace. Gritting his teeth, trying to clamp down on his terror, he raised his shield to fend off a serrated Goblin scimitar, before lashing out at his attacker with all the force he could muster
All down the line, the frenzied blackness was halted in its tracks by white raging fire. Black, serrated iron swords rang as they were broken, fierce Goblin eyes were daunted as they were cut down, helms cloven, shields riven, bodies rendered broken and bleeding.
Nothing could have prepared Ralph for the actual sounds of battle, nor the physical reality of maiming, death, and dying. A killing blow sent both enemy and defender alike falling to the ground like a puppet with its strings cut. Everything seemed caught in a distorted and paradoxical web of unreality, made up of frenetic frenzy and slow-motion, as though time itself had become a thin membrane, stretched to the limit and about to rupture.
Part of Ralph’s mind dimly registered the way his glaive hewed attacker after attacker like black wheat cut down by a scythe, the impossibly sharp blade cutting effortlessly through metal, leather, wood, bone and sinew; the warm, gouting life’s blood that spattered and sprayed in slashes with each stroke; the insane, undaunted frenzy of Goblins who seemed immune to fear . . .
It took Ralph a moment to realise that the enemy had broken off the attack. Breathing heavily, he backed up with the other soldiers in his line until they were in the rear.
Harsh, brazen horns began to sound, and the enemy broke off the attack to regroup. For an instant, Ralph felt his spirits lift, until he looked around him. The lines of defenders were perceptibly thinner. On the ground, before the line of black, broken, hewn bodies, lay several Elves, many of whom struggled desperately to regain their feet, despite physical agony and the extremity of their wounds. They would not be able to hold their ground for long. He caught Gannet’s eye as the big Elf, too, surveyed the carnage.
‘Positions! Field assistants, begin collecting weapons! Leave nothing behind! After the next assault, we will prepare to withdraw!’
Ralph couldn’t believe what he was hearing! They were retreating already?
Kneeling once more, he glanced up just long enough to note how much closer the Goblins archers were, and how many. They seemed only a stone’s throw away, at least three deep! Ralph felt his flagging reserves of confidence deserting him altogether.
A dense black hail of enemy arrows filled the air, striking with bruising force this time, slamming into the defenders’ shields like a sickening, irrythmic drum roll. It occurred to Ralph that their plans were falling apart, that the Thane and any others who followed would find their only means of escape cut off, the defenders either killed or driven off.
The savage rain of missiles abruptly ceased, followed once more by the deafening chorus of barbaric voices.
‘Prepare to engage!’
As the defenders got to their feet, the enemy executed a perfectly timed ballet of horrific butchery. The charging lines of Goblins fell flat, exposing lines of deadly archers who fired without hesitation.
There was no time for orders; only to react-
Ralph fell to his knees, stunned, knowing he’d been hit several times, feeling that something painful had stuck in his throat. His hand encountered the bloody stump of a black-feathered arrow protruding from his neck, his gore pulsing wetly from the wound. He clutched his side where another arrow protruded, trying to draw breath, his breathing a hoarse, bloody gurgle. He tried getting to his feet, only to discover that he’d been struck in his right calf as well.
Head down in agony, he sensed through the ground the enemy’s charge, and somehow managed to lurch brokenly to his feet to meet them. There were too many! He couldn’t single out any one to engage. Ignoring the pain, spitting out that the blood that choked him while trying to draw breath, planting his legs and holding his shield before him like a wall, he waited until several Goblins thudded into his shield, tried to overpower him.
Past the point of desperation, past the point of hope, or even caring, he fought back with utter abandon, thinking nothing of trying to hoard his last reserves of strength.
Light-headed from shock, quivering with exhaustion, choking on his own blood and breathing stertorously, he became dimly aware that the defenders’ line was broken, that the enemy was everywhere and all around him. Suddenly he was on his knees, his head ringing sickly, a Goblin standing over him, sword upraised with both hands for the final, triumphant, killing blow.
The sword came down . . . and was slammed aside at the last instant! Ralph saw, in slow-motion, the surprised look of the Goblin as it turned to see whose sword had intervened . . .
Somehow, the Goblin fell dead. Ralph was sure that he too was dying as he slumped to the ground. As in a dream, he began rising into the air, as though he were part of the mists that floated above the field of battle; as though from a far and receding distance, he could hear the desperate sound of horns blowing wildly, the roar of horses’ hooves, and a deafening babel of voices shouting . . . the screams of the maimed and dying . . .
. . . and then, he knew no more.