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The Battle At Land’s End Pt 4: Rules Of Engagement

Wise Tooth lowered his mono-focus and spit into the grass. He wondered how long he had to live. He was approaching fifty. Most of his friends were dead. He had no wife. He had no son. He had no daughter and now he had no place.

He sat his horse and he knew what Bear had felt, but Bear was dead. It was Bear’s job to know the minds of the gods. Maybe there are no gods, or if there are maybe they just don’t care. One thing he did know: the minds of men were changing.

The world was not what it should be. Rocks were alive and water bore demons. The air was sick with the belching of the earth. It was a good time to die.

Death is a mystery, he said to himself. It does not begin life; neither does it end it. It is not an absence of life nor are they opposites. Life is not death, though without death life is a burden. Nothing that lives will end until the world has ended. Why do we fear death?

Wise Tooth did not fear death.

It was not true to say that in the thick of the battle the fear of the blade or the hammer or the firebrand did not quicken his feet, but those days were ended. He would not fight Lord Taros and Sky Crier knew it, so he sat his horse on the highest hill and wondered when the lance would come to end his solitary wait.

“He does not fear you,” said Far Talker.

“He was a War Chief!” spat Sky Crier, “He fears not death itself!”

“Yet he is a traitor.”

Sky Crier drew his knife and flashed it in his lieutenant’s face.

“He is no traitor! He who says it is guilty of lies and will answer to my sword!”

Sky Crier would not have his army divided by falsehoods and accusations.

As the sun lit the salt flats Cheiron and his cavalry charged down the savanna. They came screaming and throwing knives with all the force of the charge. They found their targets and went clean through them, often killing a second behind. The Gimric died with the sun in their eyes and Wise Tooth sat his horse.

Sky Crier knew then that Wise Tooth had seen them coming. He sat his horse on high ground but did not sound the alarm. In a rage Sky Crier threw his lance with all the strength in his arm, body and soul. Out of the sun it came. Wise Tooth did not see it coming.

Taros saw him fall. He was trying to decide if it was Fearbringer, as he called the man, who sat his horse and did not sound the alarm. As the lance found Wise Tooth’s heart he had no more doubt about it.

The sun was showing a half-disc as Cheiron rode a circle to open land. The moans and cries of the dying lingered in the air. Half, two thirds, three-quarters, and then he saw nearly all of his cavalry returning. With the sun not yet over the horizon he ordered a second charge.

Antallean cries chilled the Gimric heart. Brave men stumbled in their retreat, suddenly aware that the gods did not sanction their fight. War hammers broke heads still reeling from drink the night before. The sun was not yet up and the Gimric were in defeat.

Sky Crier rushed to the fallen Wise Tooth. Pushing him from his horse he mounted the steed and sat high in the saddle so all could see. He pulled his lance from Wise Tooth’s heart with a cry as furious as heard that day and he galloped into battle on Wise Tooth’s horse.

The second charge went much like the first. The Gimric did not die cowards, but they died, and far too many of them to give hope to the living. Cheiron and his cavalry rode ahead of Sky Crier who was screaming like a banshee, but he did not follow them far from his men. As he rode back to the Gimric line they saw the rage cut into his face.

The casualties were enormous. One hundred dead and dying. Two hundred wounded. One hundred of them couldn’t fight. Fifty of them wouldn’t live out the year.

The blow to their morale was even bigger. First Bear and then Wise Tooth had warned them not to fight Lord Taros. Both had died by Sky Crier’s hand so perhaps Sky Crier was the demon.

Cheiron rode back with a grin from ear to ear. They had killed or wounded ten times their number while losing two onager and one guard, and he to the hooves of his own mount. There were cuts, bruises, burns, breaks and concussions, but nothing life threatening. It was almost unbelievable.

“We owe our lives to Cybele this day,” said Cheiron.

“Be sure to thank Fearbringer as well,” advised Taros, “He sat his horse. He did not sound the alarm. For that he has died.”

It was all the more frightening to the Gimric because the Antalleans were singing and shouting their names.

Sky Crier had a thousand men on the field but there were thousands more with their families, flocks and possessions fleeing the destruction of the Nilos River Valley. Taros could see them with his mono-focus as they scurried over the rocks to the west of Land’s End.

He knew then that he would win the day if he kept a steady hand and ruled with an iron fist. The Gimric on the field were all there were. Head for head he outnumbered them four to one. If each person, man, woman and child, stood their ground the strongest of wills would prevail. There was none stronger than the will of Taros Antallis Cronos.

On the peaks above the savanna five watchers saw the charge.

“Our captain fights wars with women and children,” announced Aeonius.

“What do you see?” asked Epimedes, because he could take from their minds far more than could be seen by any glass.

“Taros has dug in for a siege,” he replied, “He has food and some water, he has made engines that defy description and he has hurt his enemy with the Sword Master’s charge. I, for one, say it’s time for breakfast.”

“Twenty minutes,” added Persea, “No more.”

“Splendid idea,” agreed Jasius, who began unrolling his roll which was the largest of them all and filled with all the right things.

There was a lightweight table with collapsible dowel legs on beaded leather lashings.

Persea couldn’t believe her eyes and she was wishing she hadn’t agreed to breakfast.

Once the table was erected he unfolded the smallest x-frame canvas chairs that would seem possible for a large man to sit in. He covered the table with a white cloth and set it with silver settings, all in less than five minutes, while Idas found wood and built a fire.

Ten minutes later tea was served with pickled eggs, sausage and cheese, and the four sat down for a well earned repast.

“I can’t believe this!” cried Persea, “Taros is fighting a war and you’re having tea on mountaintop.”

“You really ought to join us,” replied Jasius.

“We don’t know when we’ll get our next meal,” agreed Aeonius.

“Or if,” added Epimedes.

Idas said nothing and ate.

They finished in a little under twenty minutes.

Leaving their table to the eagles they rode off to battle, but battle was done for the day.

Dusk fell as the Cabeiri crossed the flats and rode into the grove. Battlements were in place, caltrops deployed and engines built, primed and loaded. Boulders were gathered, rocks piled, dogs muzzled, carts upended, officers chosen and refugees told what was expected of them. They would fight but not to the last. If their leaders fell they were to run as fast and as far as they could go.

Taros had pigs roasting on spits. The wind carried the aroma to the hungry Gimric and then he led them in singing.

“Our captain has quite a voice, don’t you think?” asked Epimedes.

“If a drunk, three legged dog is quite a runner,” agreed Aeonius.

“I propose he sing to the Gimric,” added Jasius, “It is the surest way to end this war.”

“Do you suppose they would run like cowards from his croaking?” asked Aeonius.

“If not, Cybele would strike them dead to get him to stop,” Jasius replied.

“Do you guys ever give up?” asked Persea.

“No,” replied Idas.

“Yes,” said Jasius.

“Whatever for?” wondered Epimedes.

Listen and learn, little sister, thought Aeonius, and she heard him like he was talking in her ear. She looked quickly his way and caught the barest smile.

There is more to a Cabeiri than meets the eye, he thought again, and then she began to understand.

Sky Crier charged at dawn. Taros prayed for wind. As the archers loosed their first volley the wind rose and took their arrows deep into the charge. Those in front kept coming, but those in the rear stumbled over the fallen, dividing their ranks.

“Our captain commands the very wind!” cried Aeonius, for it was a god’s magic.

The Gimric came screaming with their lances held high as if the ditches weren’t even there. The looks on their faces were of surprise and Taros learned an awful truth: Sky Crier hadn’t told them. He was betting that those who followed would climb over the impaled.

Buckets of oil were overturned and the flood filled them to the ankles of the Gimric. Then he ordered it set alight.

Burning men ran in all directions. Those who could not screamed in their places. Any who fell into the grove were bludgeoned and beaten to death. Sky Crier saw it happen through the Athenian’s mono-focus; the one he had given to Wise Tooth.

Not many Gimric lived to fight but the battle was far from over. They had committed a few hundred men and some of them were wounded.

Taros will think he rules the day, thought Sky Crier, and I will rule the night.

“He will attack when the moon is high,” said Aeonius.

“That’s hardly fair, my mind reading friend,” observed Epimedes.

“Fairness is not his strong point, is it Idas?” asked Jasius.

“He will come in two files, the weaker and larger will meet us head on, the smaller and deadlier will march from the south. They will form a three-tiered fusillade,” added Aeonius.

“He’s good,” said Jasius, shaking his head in awe.

“He’s more than good,” agreed Taros, “We’ll need pigs and dogs, and let’s hope they don’t have nets.”

Billowing smoke from Antallis Peak fell in a white ash all over the savanna. In the grove it was less miserable than on the open field, and then rain began to fall.

It was a bitter, iron rain and hot to the touch. Those who tasted it spit it out. Dogs and goats wouldn’t drink from the pools it made, which were yellow and reeked of sulfur.

To Daedalus it was a gift from the gods.

“Gather the water in tureens,” he said.

“For what purpose?” asked Taros.

“We’re not going to drink it, I assure you,” answered the Athenian, “And gather white ash in linen. Open the stores and bring me a dozen jars of oil and two hundred eggs. We have the makings of a new sort of war.”

“What sort of war?” asked Taros, skeptically.

“Ash soaked in sulfur water and permeated with oil and eggs makes a soap that burns on contact and is almost impossible to rub off,” answered Daedalus, “If that doesn’t stop them we’ll throw fireballs at them and they’ll go up like brazen bulls at the Athenian Revels.”

Taros was stunned.

“I’m not going to do that,” he said at last, “Unless I absolutely have to. Get to work.”

The rain had changed Sky Crier’s plans. It would not be possible to deploy efficiently on the wet ground, and the yellow pools could take the prints right off your fingers.

“They will not attack tonight,” Aeonius told his captain.

“But they will attack,” added Taros.

“Undoubtedly,” agreed Aeonius, “but soon the rising sea will reach the savanna. If we can survive until then we may watch them drown.”

The Nilos river had truly become a sea. The lava dam that sheltered the Gimric could not hold it back. It flooded the basin to River Bend, and the lowest parts of the savanna were under feet of water. It was slowly encroaching upon the graves of the Gimric.

Antallis peaked poured lava into the sea that made it an island. Not everyone had left the peak; some were infirmed and some unwilling and others were not found. Some were left as panic grew and overwhelmed them. Some were looters, staying to the last possible moment to take the treasure left behind. Others were children, orphaned and lost, whom no one cared to help.

As Mount Scylla did in the north, Antallis Peak did in the south. The Cabeiri watched helplessly as a great gasp of steam and ash erupted from her caldera.

Then came a wall of searing, crackling, billowing powder and gas. It flew across the straits to the north of the peak just as an east wind came ripping across the desert.

They came together as the mountain’s breath touched the far shore of the straits. From the defenses it looked as if the oncoming cloud was lifted high and then toppled into the wind, which took it across the graves of the dead, unearthing and revealing every one.

“Cybele’s hand has cleaved heaven and swept destruction away,” said Jasius, in awe.

“To what end,” replied Taros, “She is a cat. Perhaps this is her game.”

Sky Crier saw it from the hill where Wise Tooth died. A twisted smile grew from one corner of his mouth until it screwed his face into madness. He saw the wind take the flow and toss it to the clouds. Where it fell a wall of smoke erupted from the graves of the dead.

He imagined he could see their fiery souls rising to do battle but it was not to be. The spirits of the dead did not come to stoke the fire in their eyes.

He saw the savanna behind him. The wall of smoke had claimed high ground and was creeping across the grass. The east wind was all that held it back. Sky Crier knew the sea was rising. Perhaps the sea would douse the fires.

“We will attack tonight,” he told Far Talker, “When the moon is at it’s highest.”

“An attack will come tonight,” said Aeonius. He knew it would come even before Sky Crier said it. He was coming to know his enemy’s mind.

“May it be the end of this!” spoke Taros.

Cheiron deployed his cavalry in the shadows north of the grove. There was little room to fight, but if he was to fight there then the battle was already lost.

Taros deployed his archers behind the south wall of the ditch, where it was built the highest and the moat dug the deepest. This was filled with oil every night and every day until it soaked the ground and turned it colors.

It was there that Taros caused the pigs to be corralled.

Pigs in Antallis ran feral and they had long tusks. They were a skittish breed, smart but high strung and prone to panic, so much so that panicked pig stampedes were a feared and deadly part of Antallean life.

Dogs kept the pigs in check. It was a relationship that evolved over the many hundreds of years that descendants of Antallis the Archer lived in that part of the world. For Taros that relationship carried certain military advantages.

The moon was at it’s height when the Gimric attacked. The stakes were cleared of bodies and the ditches cleaned as well, but they knew about them now. Coming behind them was Sky Crier and his cavalry on the largest war horses the Cabeiri had ever seen.

“Now it begins,” said Taros, bending for a handful of ash. He rubbed it in his hands and felt the sweat leave his palms. Then he saw what he feared most: chains.

They were coming ever closer, stretched across the field like a great reaping scythe, and reap they did, finding rocks, branches and whole trees and tossing them from the path of destruction.

When it looked as if nothing could thwart the charge Taros saw his advantage. The Gimric who followed were slowing. There was just enough time to re-deploy in front of the ditches, and in a mad rush he did so.

Taros turned to face the few professional soldiers he had.

“We are the Antallean Guard!” he shouted, his sword flashing high over his head, “We are Antallean Steel! We do not fear iron! We do not fear an enemy who makes it his weapon! Slam the chain! This is how you do it!”

Taros cut a circle in the air with the Sword of Theosadartis. He brought it down hard on the imaginary danger. In theory it should rip the chain out of their hands. The strongest arms took point. The rest stood ten yards behind to kill the survivors.

The chains came with the cries of the damned. Hardened Gimric hunters saw death in the steel that flashed in their faces. It took their chains to the ground and some hands almost went with them. The hard steel fell with the weight of the earth and there was nothing to do but fall with it. When it was done the Antallean Guard ran to safety behind the ramparts. The chains wrapped themselves around the stakes in the ditch, adding another layer of obstacles to the deep and bloody moat.

Just as the swordsmen re-deployed the wave of Gimric hit the ditch. This time they did not impale themselves on the sharpened stakes.

They had ladders which they forced across the ditches to make bridges. When one was toppled another took it’s place until Taros ordered the moats to be filled with oil and the fires lit.

Cries from the midst of the flames enraged the Gimric as Lord Taros knew they would. In their anger they threw their lances blindly, and though a few found a victim most clattered across the rock providing the refugees with more and deadly weapons.

As the battle raged on the west flank, the south flank became a melee. Crack Gimric lancers fanned out from the column and quickly formed three rows. The lance bearers took up positions behind so that the volleys would be unceasing.

Knowing this, Persea and the archers were to target the bearers first as Idas loosed the pigs. Jaius was to hold the dogs until Epimedes should give the order.

“Now!” cried Epimedes as the Gimric drew back their first volley. Before they could bring their arms forward the pigs came squealing at them, chased by the barking dogs.

The Gimric volley collapsed in a melee of pigs, dogs and hunters as the lancers gave ground to the creatures of the earth.

“Now!” cried Persea and the archers loosed their arrows.

Lancers fell to be trampled by pigs, and hunted by dogs, as a rain of deadly arrows fell from the moonlit sky. Volley by volley the arrows came like an unrelenting wind. Sky Crier and his cavalry could not make their charge over the detritus of war. The weak western front had failed to dent the Antallean wall.

Sky Crier looked high. The moon was falling behind the mountains to the south so he turned his horse and led them back to the open field.

“Scriiiiiieeeeeeeeee!” he screamed, his braided beard laced with spit and pig’s blood, and sounding like a demon that comes out of hell.

“They’ve broken off,” said Aeonius.

“They’ve the lost the light,” agreed Taros.

Fires burned in the ditch where one hundred Gimric had died. They were the old and wounded, sacrificed to the gods most likely. Taros shook his head at the waste.

The battle on the south flank hit the Gimric hard. The Cabeiri’s timing was perfect and so was Persea’s. She was not a part of their little crew but she’d gained the respect of Epimedes. Her cool head in the face of the best lancers in the world made her a candidate for the army of Father Time.

The savanna to the south was strewn with her handiwork. Graphic descriptions of the dead were told by those sent to capture the pigs, an almost impossible task on open savanna, but with the clever use of nets they corralled many of the feral creatures.

On the edge of the desert Idas saw danger; tawny eyes of death peering through the tall grass at the eastern end of the aquifer. Beyond was the dry bed of the lake that made it, gone but for the salts it left behind, stretching for hundreds of miles as it became the alluvial plane of the great Nilos river before plunging south to the plateau that was Egypt.

Sky Crier knew his enemy’s strength. The knowledge had cost him the wounded, the sick and the dying. He would not have to waste his advantage to support them. He had eight hundred warriors aching to fight. As long as the east wind blew there was time enough to make war.

“We have seen their defense,” he shouted with scorn, “Dogs and pigs! What hunter fears a pig? What hero is afraid of the groans of the earth? Be frightened by the dishonor you bring to your grandfathers! They are dogs who run barking, afraid of the rocks!”

The cheer that followed was as fearful as the men who gave it.

Sky Crier settled on a two pronged assault. First the lancers would tear up the tree tops, denying his enemy shelter and a refuge from battle. Then he would march in a crescent from north to south, denying his enemy a certain knowledge of where he would strike.

The magic of Lord Taros was great. He seemed to know his plans, so Sky Crier vowed not to decide his next moves until they were almost upon him.

“He has learned our secret,” said Aeonius, “I cannot be sure what he will choose.”

At dawn the wind died. Sky Crier had one chance to do battle and it would fade with a westerly breeze.