Chapter 1: Broken Clockwork
The rain had not stopped for days. The road was under six inches of brown water. Everything was underwater. Roper’s horse stumbled and collapsed onto its knees; it was all he could do to stay in the saddle.
“Up,” said Kynortas. “You must be twice the man you expect your legionaries to be.”
Roper dismounted to allow his horse to rise before swinging himself back into his saddle. The legionaries behind had not noticed; they marched on, heads dipped against the rain.
“What effect will the rain have?” asked Kynortas.
“It will shorten the battle,” Roper hazarded. “Formations are easily broken and men die faster when their footing is unsure.”
“A fair assessment,” Kynortas judged. “Men also fight less fiercely in the rain. It will favour the Sutherners; the legions are more skilled and will struggle to assert their dominance in rain.”
Roper drank the words in. “How does that change our battle plan, lord?”
“We have no battle plan,” said Kynortas. “We do not know what we will face. The scouts report that the Sutherners have found a strong position to defend, so we know we must attack; that is all. But,” he went on, “we must be careful with the legions. They take hundreds of years to develop and because they will not run, they can be destroyed in a single battle. Remember this above all: the legions are irreplaceable. Preserve the legions, Roper.”
Marching at Kynortas’s back were close to ninety thousand soldiers: the full strength of the Black Kingdom. The column, lined with countless banners that hung sodden and limp, stretched miles back down the road and far out of sight. Even now they marched in step, causing waves to pulse through the flood water. There had never been a call-up so vast in Roper’s nineteen years. No man liked summoning all the legions beneath a single banner; the propensity for catastrophe was too great. As Kynortas had said, the legions were irreplaceable. Losing them was the collective fear of every echelon of their nation.
On this occasion, there had been no choice. Their enemies had gathered an enormous army that threatened to capsize the balance of power in Albion. The force, a composite of Saxon and Frankish soldiers, with mercenaries from Samnia and Iberia, was so big that nobody knew how many men their enemies commanded. But it numbered many more than the legionaries under Kynortas.
“Why do we not do as the Sutherners do, lord?” asked Roper. “Unify all our peoples under a single banner?”
Kynortas did not countenance the idea. “Can you imagine any king surrendering control of his forces to another? Can you imagine a dozen kings all agreeing to back the same man?” He shook his head dismissively. “Perhaps one man in a million could unify the Anakim. Perhaps. But I am not the man to do it, and neither will I surrender the legions to any foreign sovereignty.”
Roper could not imagine a lord greater than Kynortas. As strong in face and limb as were his faith and convictions. Straight-backed and stern, with a thunderous brow and a face as yet unscarred by conflict. His men regarded him; his enemies despised and respected him in equal measure. He knew how to court an ally, cow an enemy and read a battlefield like a poem. He was a tall man, though Roper almost equalled him in that regard already. Theirs was reckoned a strong house, with Roper a promising prospect as Kynortas’s heir, his two younger brothers indemnifying the lineage.
At the head of the mighty column, the Black Lord and his young heir crested a hill to reveal a great flood plain. Across almost a mile of wind-rippled water lay a ridge of extraordinary length. Whether a natural formation or some ancient battle-works thrown up in this scarred land was not clear, but it stretched almost from horizon to horizon. Its northern flank was guarded by a great forest and on it was arrayed the Suthern horde. Thousands lined the ridge. Tens of thousands; protected by the mangled and rain-slicked slope. Their banners were as wilted as those of the legions but Roper could make out halberdiers, longbowmen, swordsmen and some who shone greyly on the wet day and must surely be men-at-arms. At the southern edge of the ridge, a vast mass of cavalry sat malevolently.
It was to be Roper’s first battle. He had never seen one before. He had heard them, rumbling and crashing from afar like a heaving ocean beating against an iron-bound coast. He had seen the warriors return, most weary and bereft, a special few energised and inspired; all filthy and battered. He had seen the wounded treated; watched as surgeons trepanned the skulls of unconscious men or extracted slivers of steel from their forearms, thrown off by the clash of blades. His father had discussed it often, indeed talked of little else to his heir. Roper had studied it; had trained for it from the age of six. His life had so far revolved around this sacred clash and yet he felt utterly unprepared for what he saw before him.
Laying eyes on the enemy, the Black Lord and his son spurred out of the column’s path. Kynortas snapped his fingers and an aide trotted to his side. “Deploy our army in battle formation, as close as possible to where the flooding begins.” Kynortas rattled off a list of where each legion should be placed in the line, concluding with the observation that all their cavalry would be on the right, “save for those from Houses Oris and Alba, who take the left.”
“That’s a lot of orders, lord,” said the aide.
“Delegate.” The aide complied. “Uvoren!”
A mounted officer detached himself from the column and rode to join Kynortas. “My lord?” His high ponytail, threaded through a hole in the back of his helmet, identified him as a Sacred Guardsman. A silver eye was inlaid into his right shoulder-plate, his helmet covered his eyes and he grinned roguishly at his master.
“You know Uvoren, Roper,” Kynortas introduced them. Roper had heard of Uvoren; there was no boy in the Black Kingdom who had not. The Captain of the Sacred Guard: a role every aspiring warrior dreamed of playing. There could be no higher endorsement of your martial capability than appointment to such an office. Over his back was slung his famous war hammer: Marrow-Hunter. It was said that Uvoren had had Marrow-Hunter’s gorgeous rippled-steel head forged from the combined swords of four Suthern earls, each put down by the captain himself. When hope had seemed a distant memory at the Siege of Lundenceaster—the greatest of Albion’s settlements, far to the south—it had been Marrow-Hunter which had at last cleared a foothold on the wall. At the Battle of Eoferwic, its great blunt head had broken the back of King Offa’s horse and then smashed the downed king’s head like a rotten egg, crumpling his gilt helmet.
Yes, Roper had heard of Uvoren. Playing in the academy far in the north, Roper had always pretended to be Uvoren the Mighty. The little stick he wielded had not been a sword but a war hammer.
Now, he nodded silently at the captain, who beamed back at him. “Of course he does.”
“Captain of the Sacred Guard and model of humility,” said Kynortas acidly. “Uvoren: parley. Roper will accompany us.”
“You’ll enjoy this, young lord,” said Uvoren, curbing his horse next to Roper and gripping his shoulder. Roper did not respond beyond staring wide-eyed at the guardsman. “Your father’s good fun when treating with the enemy.”
The three of them rode together down onto the flood plain, accompanied by another Sacred Guardsman bearing a white flag. “Carrying a white flag comes naturally to you, Gray,” Uvoren called to the guardsman. Gray’s reaction was merely to stare unsmiling at his captain. Uvoren laughed. “Stay calm, Gray. And learn to laugh.” Roper looked to Kynortas to see what to make of this, but the Black Lord had ignored the exchange.
They splashed into the flood waters which proved to be no more than a foot deep. Beyond the water, atop the ridge, a group of horsemen detached themselves from the Suthern army and rode out to them. To Roper, there seemed a significant disparity in power between the two groups. He, his father, Uvoren and “Gray” numbered four; riding against them were close to thirty. Three unhelmeted lords led the party, accompanied by two dozen knights in gleaming plate armour, visors down and horses billowing in embroidered caparisons.
“Will this be your first battle, little lord?” Uvoren asked of Roper.
“The first one,” confirmed Roper. Being taller than most already, he was hardly little but the term did not feel strange from a man as elevated as Uvoren.
“There is nothing like it. Here is where you will discover what you were born for.”
“You loved your first one?” asked Roper. He was not accustomed to struggling with words, but stuttered slightly when addressing Uvoren.
“Oh yes,” responded the captain, beaming again. “That was before I was even a legionary and I bagged my first earl! Fighting these Sutherners is not hard; look here.” They were drawing close to the group of horsemen.
Roper had never beheld a Sutherner before and their appearance shocked him. They looked like him, just smaller. Though all were tall among Anakim, not one of Roper, Gray, Uvoren or Kynortas stood below seven feet in height; even on horseback they towered above their enemies, who were on an altogether smaller scale. The disparity in power vanished.
Now Roper came to inspect them more closely, there was something different about the faces of these Sutherners as well. They were somehow child-like. Their eyes were expressive and their emotions and characters stood out on their faces with a clarity that made them almost endearing. Their features were softer and less robust. By comparison, Kynortas’s countenance might have been carved from oak. These Suthern faces put Roper in mind of something domesticated, like a dog. Something far from the wild.
Kynortas raised a hand in greeting. “Who commands here?” Though he spoke good Saxon, he delivered these words in the Anakim tongue. The knights shivered slightly as the speech of the Black Kingdom washed over them.
“I command here,” said a man in the centre of the group in a halting, accented version of the same language. He rode towards Kynortas, seemingly indifferent to his size. “You must be the Black Lord.” He sat straight in his saddle, wearing a suit of plate armour so bright that Roper could make out his own reflection in the breastplate. He had a dark beard and a mane of curly hair. His face, what could be seen of it, was reddened by drink. “I am Earl William of Lundenceaster. I lead this army.” He gestured to his left. “This is the Lord Cedric of Northwic and this,” he gestured to his right, “is Bellamus.”
“You have a title, Bellamus?” demanded Kynortas.
William of Lundenceaster answered for him. “Bellamus is an upstart without any sort of rank to his name. Nevertheless, he commands our Right.” Earl William regularly substituted Anakim words that he did not know with the Saxon equivalent, knowing that Kynortas understood anyway.
Kynortas looked intrigued at the earl’s words and Bellamus raised a hand in acknowledgement. He was good-looking, this upstart, with a touch of grey at the temples of his dark, wavy hair and he appeared prosperous. He alone of the Sutherners present was not dressed in plate armour but instead wore a thick jerkin of quilted leather, with gold hung at his neck and wrists. His high boots were of the finest quality, so new that they looked as if they might rub. He wore a rich red-dyed tunic beneath the jerkin and sat on a bearskin draped over his horse. He also had the two outermost fingers missing from his left hand. Next to the austere, armour-plated lords, it was the upstart who stood out.
The Black Lord looked back at Earl William.
“You have invaded our lands,” said Kynortas, his voice harsh. “You crossed the Abus which has been a peaceful border for years. You have burned, you have plundered and you have raped.” Kynortas advanced his horse, bearing down on Earl William. His huge physical presence was more than matched by his implacable bearing. “Leave now, un-harried, or I will unleash the Black Legions. If I am forced to use my soldiers, there will be no mercy for any of you.” He cast an eye over the ridge behind the Suthern generals. “In addition, I doubt you can bring an army like this here and have left anything to defend your homelands. You have violated our peace and once I have decimated your army here, I will advance to Lundenceaster and strip it to the bone by way of reparations. The violence,” he leaned forward, “will be extreme.”
Uvoren laughed loudly.
“We could withdraw,” suggested Earl William, who had not flinched as Kynortas advanced. “But we’re very comfortable here. We are well supplied; we have a strong position. And the reason you even offer us the chance of withdrawal is that you do not want to lose soldiers. You value them too highly and they are too dearly replaced. You do not want to attack us.” Earl William had a slight squint. He gazed frankly at Kynortas, who waited for the offer that was about to be broached. “Gold,” said the earl softly. “For the lives of your legionaries. Thirty chests would make our time worthwhile. That and the meagre plunder we have already taken from your eastern lands.”
Kynortas did not respond. He just stared at Earl William and allowed the silence to stretch.
Roper watched. Thirty chests was an absurd figure to propose. The Black Kingdom’s wealth was not based on gold; it was based on harder metals, beyond the manipulation of the Sutherners. They could not provide thirty chests of gold, as Earl William would surely have known; not if they scoured the country from meanest hovel to most magnificent castle. The earl had also been provocative in his demand of the tribute, though not obviously so. All of which led Roper to one conclusion; he did not want his offer to be accepted, but was trying to pretend that he did. The Sutherners had some kind of plan and had already decided how they wanted these negotiations to play out. Roper suspected Earl William was trying to goad Kynortas into a rash attack, where the legionaries could be killed trying to scale the mud-slicked ridge.
Kynortas himself—wiser, battle-hardened and more experienced—had no such suspicions. Foolish, ignorant Sutherners. “We have no value for metal of such limited use,” said Kynortas at last. “We do not have thirty chests to satisfy your greed for things that are soft and impotent; nor would we supply you with them if we did.”
Kynortas suddenly jerked forward, leaning out of his saddle in a great creaking of leather harnesses, and seized the top of Earl William’s breastplate. Earl William’s face reddened still further and he leaned backwards desperately, trying to pull his horse out of Kynortas’s reach, but the Black Lord had him fast. The Sutherner was panicking, terror transparent on his face as Kynortas’s alien hand touched his flesh. With a mighty wrench and a screech of yielding metal, Kynortas tore the shining breastplate clean off, causing Earl William to spring back like a willow-board. Beneath his armour was revealed leather padding, soaked in sweat, and Kynortas snorted as he flung the breastplate aside. It had all happened so fast, Earl William’s knightly bodyguard had had no time to do anything more than look shocked. Earl William himself quivered, thunderstruck.
“Worthless,” said Kynortas, sitting back in his saddle. “And beneath, a feeble sack of bones. You cannot fight my legions. They will cut through your plate like carving a ham.” He smiled bleakly at Earl William, who had drawn his right arm across his vulnerable chest as though violated. The upstart Bellamus was looking across at his general with eyes crinkled in amusement. The two were evidently not friends. “Your last chance, Earl William. Withdraw, or I will release the legions.”
“You use your precious bloody soldiers, then,” boomed Earl William, his voice quivering with rage. “Watch them flounder and die in the filth!” He dragged his horse away from the encounter as though he could not bear to be in Kynortas’s presence a moment longer. The Black Lord stood his ground and watched the retinue file away until it was just Bellamus staring back at him. The smaller man broke the silence first.
“Being blessed with bone-armour, I cannot imagine you know how it felt for Earl William to have his defences taken so contemptuously from him. Before this battle is over, I will show you how that feels.” His Anakim was flawless; he might have passed for a subject of the Hindrunn had his stature been less mean. He had spoken mildly and nodded at the four Anakim before clicking his tongue to coax his horse away and back up to the ridge. He rode slowly, raising an arm in retrospective salute.
“Do negotiations always end like that?” asked Roper as the four of them turned back to their own forces, still assembling on the plain.
“Always,” said Kynortas. “Nobody negotiates in negotiations. It’s an exercise in intimidation.”
Uvoren snorted. “Your father treats negotiations as an exercise in intimidation, Roper,” he corrected. “Everyone else goes into it genuinely hoping to avoid battle.” Uvoren and Gray laughed.
“They didn’t want to negotiate anyway,” said Roper.
Kynortas cast a glance in his direction. “What makes you say so?”
“The way he phrased the offer; the fact that he’d have known it was beyond our means anyway. He was goading us into attack.”
Kynortas brooded on this. “Perhaps. So they’re over- confident.”
Roper stayed silent. Who could be over-confident going into battle against the Black Legions? There must be a reason for their belief. They must have a plan. But Roper did not know the way of these Sutherners. Perhaps their numbers gave them confidence. Perhaps they were just a confident race. Roper did not know and so stayed quiet.
“Stay with me,” Kynortas said to Roper. “Watch as I do. One day, you will be responsible for the legions.” The Black Legions were advancing into the flood waters. Holding the right wing, with the vast majority of the cavalry, was Ramnea’s Own Legion; the elite soldiers of the Black Kingdom, second only in martial repute and prestige to the Sacred Guard. On the left was the Blackstone Legion; veteran, battle-hardened and with a reputation for savagery. Some men said the Blackstones were even more efficient than Ramnea’s Own as line- breakers. Most of those men were Blackstones themselves.
The legates—the legion commanders—had each ridden out in front of their legion. On horseback they presented themselves to their warriors and held their arms high to the air as a pair of legionaries rode up behind them and invested each with a vast rippling cloak of liquid-brown eagle feathers. These were fastened over the shoulders, draping much of the horse as well, and flashed and glimmered as the legate dropped his arms. Clad in this holy raiment, they rode along the front of their advancing legions, holding out before them a branch of holly, an eye woven from the pointed leaves at the top of the branch. The eye looked over the ranks, inspecting their courage for the combat to come and blessing those who were worthy.
Roper and Kynortas trotted behind the battle line, a clutch of aides following in their wake. Kynortas sent them streaming out in all directions with instructions to hold fast, keep the line together, discharging regards and advice to the legates. He was so calm, the Black Lord. So still. His confidence, his faith in the legions, radiated around him like the ripples his horse made in the flood waters. Roper watched his father, hoping to absorb his presence and character by looking. Even when they had advanced into the shadow of the ridge, when longbow arrows began to spit into the waters around them, bouncing off the armour of two of the aides, the Black Lord appeared unfazed.
The Sutherners on the ridge above were chanting. Swords thumped on shields, polearms rattled together and the men screamed and jeered. Devils, the Anakim were. Demons. Freaks, monsters, destroyers. They worked themselves into a frenzy of drumming and screaming to drown the awful, gut-wrenching fear they had of the giants they opposed. “Kill!” screamed a lord.
“Kill, kill, kill!” roared his men.
“Kill!” the lord insisted.
“Kill, kill, kill!” bayed his men.
“Scream at them!” bellowed the lord. “They’re the murderers of the Black Kingdom! Scream at them!” His men screamed. “These are fallen angels, cast down from Heaven! God wants these demons banished from our lands! Do your duty this day by God!” The shields and pikes began to thump in time and the Sutherners stamped their feet. The sound, like a mighty drum being pounded, was enough to create ripples in the flood waters through which the Anakim marched.
The Anakim had their own drums, but they were not like their enemy’s. Each legion beat its own tattoo on the advance, the drummers standing in the rear ranks and driving their warriors forward. The noise was not feral and savage like the Sutherners’. It was mechanical and crisp; a regular wave of sound.
Thousands of banners rose forest-like above the Anakim ranks. They had the great squares of embroidered linen that the Sutherners flew, but also long tapestries of woven silk, held aloft by up to six standard-bearers and depicting ancient battles in stark Anakim colours. Next to these stood giant eyes, woven from leafy withies of holly, willow and ash, or perhaps a great stretched bearskin, or a pole suspended with half a dozen tattered wolf pelts that swirled raggedly in the breeze. Where the legates rode, enormous bolts of linen impregnated with eagle feathers were held aloft, rippling and flashing in the wind. All of these banners but the last would be dropped when their bearers joined combat.
The legionaries themselves did not scream or shout on the advance. They did not clash their weapons, as the Sutherners were doing. They sang. Low, eerie battle hymns spread across the line, clashing and swelling; growing in volume and emotion until the Sutherners were sick with the unfamiliarity of it all. The music reflected the tangled wilderness which surrounded them; the grey agitation of the sky above and forests that rustled and shifted on their flanks. The breeze was intensifying, as though the Sutherners were surrounded by Anakim allies who answered the call of that unearthly singing. This was Anakim land. The Black Kingdom: every inch as barren and unholy as the Sutherners had feared.
On the Suthern Right, Kynortas could make out the upstart Bellamus riding along the front of the line, roaring at his men. In his wake, men stood straighter and hefted their weapons. Kynortas took note: One day, he thought, I will have to face an army commanded by that man alone.
No sooner had this occurred to him, than the Suthern Right broke. Perhaps Bellamus had over-excited them to the extent that their officers had lost control. Perhaps, after all, he knew no more about war than his lowly station suggested and he was foolhardy in the face of his steady enemy. Whatever the cause, Sutherners had begun to flood down the ridge, slipping and sliding through the mud in a mad charge against the Blackstone Legion. They broke formation and so lost the only advantage they had held: the ridge. Thousands surged forward, screaming for Anakim blood.
Kynortas had not expected such an easy opening. Disordered and chaotic, the Sutherners would be shredded in open combat. “Release the Blackstones!” From a trumpet behind him soared three glorious notes, commanding the Blackstones, who needed no second invitation, to attack.
Once, perhaps a decade ago now, Kynortas had seen a mechanical clock. Envoys from Anakim-held lands to the south had sought an audience, proposing an alliance in which they were to act as anvil to the Black Kingdom hammer. To be wrought: the Sutherners’ central Ereboan territories. Into this alliance they had quietly rooted a trade agreement—favourable, they had said, for both parties. They had presented samples of the goods that the Black Kingdom could expect to flood their markets. A hull load of beautiful, dark timber said to be the best in the Known World for ship craft. Weightless sacks of eider down. Wine-red crystals that are precious to the Black Kingdom for the potent metal that can be extracted from them. And a mechanical clock; the first Kynortas had seen. In the Black Kingdom the length of an hour differed with each day of the year and was judged from the passing of sun and moon. If they needed to measure short periods of time, they would use a water-clock. They had no need of a mechanical timekeeping device and yet Kynortas had been entranced by the inscrutable object.
It was held together by an exoskeleton that laid bare its inner workings. It was half machine, half organism. Its heart was a little spring; perfectly weighted and animating the busy cogs with which it was enmeshed. There was no flaw in any one of its workings. It ticked and clicked with quiet order and, twelve times a day, a bell would chime out the hour. It was unnecessary, of course. A frivolous waste of good steel, but Kynortas was convinced that he had seen the future. One day, such craftsmanship could build a boat that would man itself, or a harvesting machine that could cut down an entire field if it were just set moving.
Now, he thought of his legions as clockwork. The epitome of flawless, synchronised cooperation. The Blackstone Legion armed itself as five thousand blades were swept clear of their scabbards. It surged forward in ten waves, five hundred abreast. Kynortas was extending his influence through the flood waters; they were his harvesting machine and he had set them moving. Two lines, one calm and ordered; one frenzied and chaotic, splashed through the flood waters to meet each other. It would be a slaughter.
The clockwork failed.
The Blackstones began to stumble and fall into the waters. Legionaries started to drop by the handful, with more and more falling until the front rank in its entirety had dropped below the surface, no longer howling but crying in pain. Those who followed met the same fate, staggering and plunging into the flood waters. Kynortas spurred towards his Left, straining his eyes at the scene. Why were his soldiers falling? Was the footing treacherous? But this was Suthern trickery; the water around the Blackstones was turning red with blood. Beneath the flood waters, a trap had been laid.
The Blackstone Legion had stopped dead in their tracks. Every man that attempted to advance stumbled and fell. The Sutherners on the ridge jeered and hooted and their charging warriors, who had seemed to be in chaos, stopped seventy yards short of the stricken Blackstones. They were longbowmen; so lightly armed and armoured that they would never have stood a chance against legionaries in open combat. They had charged to bait the Blackstones and now revealed their true strength: their great curved yew bows. These were unslung, arrows nocked to strings and deadly shafts poured into the legionaries. Their fletching whistled as they hurtled forward; a noise like a sky-full of whirring starlings. At this close range, some of the steel-tipped arrows were able to penetrate tough Anakim plate armour. The legionaries, unable to move in either direction, dropped into the flooding to try and limit the damage of this swarm of arrows. They cowered in the waters, seemingly completely mired. Kynortas was witnessing the near perfect destruction of one of his legions at the hands of the Suthern upstart, Bellamus. The Anakim Left was ruined and they had yet to kill a single Sutherner.
“Roper, with me!” bellowed the Black Lord. He spurred towards the Blackstones, shouting that the trumpeter should signal the halt. The Anakim line juddered to a standstill, so that they could not outstrip the mired legion and leave their flank exposed. But this left them vulnerable to the longbow shafts that rained down upon the line from the ridge. These arrows were more distant and so had less force, but they still withered the Anakim ranks.
Roper and Kynortas sped towards the Blackstones, Kynortas looking first for the problem, and then for a solution—any solution. But the Black Lord, so calm, so confident, had strayed. He feared for his legion and could not understand how the battle had escalated beyond his control so quickly. So he rode towards the problem, seeking a solution.
And a gust of arrows took him and Roper.
They struck plate armour with a clang like the splitting of a bell, the force enough to knock the Black Lord from his saddle and stagger his heir. Kynortas’s boot became entangled in the stirrup and he was dragged through the water by his bolting stallion, straight towards the Suthern line. His body left a trail of blood through the flood waters.
Roper, staggering and with an arrow protruding from beneath his collarbone, spurred his horse after his father. Kynortas was not resisting, lying limp as he was pulled through the waters towards his enemies and Roper spurred hard enough that the horse’s blood and his own mingled and dripped from his stirrups. Arrows spat into the waters around him and more clanged off his armour as his father was dragged further and further from his reach.
Blood-crazed Sutherners were swarming towards him. Roper drew his sword in anger for the very first time and hacked down. There was a ring of metal on metal and a juddering shockwave ran up Roper’s arm. He struck wildly once, twice, three times; his eyes always on the body of his father which had now been dragged into the heart of the Suthern mass. Men drew wicked knives and converged on the body to claim the rich prize: a fallen king. The Black Lord was dead and his son was dying.
Roper was spraying vile curses at the men between him and his father, trying to drive his horse onwards. A hand seized his boot and dragged him from the saddle. He crashed into the flood waters and for a moment could neither see nor hear as he was engulfed. There was an awful, puncturing sensation in his thigh and he knew he had been stabbed. Panic lent him strength and he thrashed to the surface, finding his sword still in his hand and sweeping it from the water. He was pinned to the ground by a spear thrust into his leg but he could still swing his sword and aimed it wildly at the Sutherners who surrounded him, blocking attacks as best he could. One lunge made it through and smashed into his head, where it opened a gash to the bone but went no further. Whilst Roper’s head was ringing, his vision a clouded white, another thrust hit his chest, puncturing his plate and through to his bone-armour where, again, it was stopped.
Roper had no idea of it but he was screaming; a vile shriek of distress and ferocity as his sword flailed through the air, seeking to strike back at someone. He was alone in these waters, which were steadily turning pink with his own blood. He could barely see the sky, the view blocked by lunging Suthern bodies. There was no noise at all; he was enslaved by the overwhelming instinct to keep himself alive for a few seconds more.
An improbable freedom had descended upon him. His self-doubt was gone, his mind wiped clean for one great, dynamic effort. His vision, which no longer felt like vision in the ordinary sense, had become tunnel-like and responded to motion alone. He could not think, he had no control; Roper was stripped to his core. He was a cornered wildcat. There was nothing in him beyond his hauling lungs and swinging blade. Dark shapes were pressing in on his prone form.
And then there was a break in the wall of flesh which surrounded him. The light of the grey skies poured down on Roper.
A dead Sutherner had crashed into the waters at his feet in a spray of blood and there was a shout of alarm. A flash of light carved through another two Sutherners who were hurled backwards and an enormous shadow stepped into the gap they had left. The figure raised its great light blade again and sparks sprang away from it as it swept along a Suthern weapon, taking the top of a man’s skull off as if it were an apple. Like rows of wheat, the Sutherners were falling before this harvester until Roper’s final two attackers fled, splashing away through the waters.
A hand seized Roper’s collar and dragged him up and out. Roper screamed again as the spear was ripped from his flesh but his rescuer took no notice, hauling him from the scene. The shock almost made Roper drop his sword, but his groping fingers managed to just clutch the pommel as he was hauled away. “My lord father!” he roared as he was dragged back. “The Black Lord! He’s there! Get him!”
More hands seized Roper and Anakim swarmed around him, flooding between him and the Suthern ranks. “Release me!” he shouted. It was the Sacred Guard. The finest fighting unit in the world had arrived, honour-bound to preserve the blood that surged through Roper.
Roper received as little mercy from their treatment as had the Sutherners. His protestations were ignored as he was dragged from the front line and violence erupted all about him. He was allowed to collapse at last, dazed and bleeding, into the waters forty yards from the melee. His eyes focused on the man who had held his collar and who had surely rescued him from death. It was a Blackstone, though Roper did not know his name. He demanded it of the man.
“Helmec, my lord.”
The words “my lord” jarred with Roper, though he could not have said why. “I’ll make a guardsman of you, Helmec.”
Helmec stared. Enough sense was returning to Roper for him to be able to take in some of the man’s face. He must have been young, but it was difficult to tell beneath a mask of scars. One of his cheeks was so shredded that the interior of his mouth was visible through the old wounds. He held himself with the demeanour of a veteran: weary and assured, though there had been no weariness in his defence of Roper. “My lord…”
There it was again. Lord.
Men were gathering around Roper like lost sheep, though seemingly not daring to ask anything of him. A vague sense of responsibility began to press against him.
“A horse,” murmured Roper. Perhaps things would be clearer on horseback. One was brought to him and when he could not mount on his savaged leg, Helmec was there again to help him into the saddle. “Obliged,” he muttered, turning the horse towards where the Sacred Guard had turned the flood waters a boiling red.
Uvoren was in the thick of the fighting, Marrow-Hunter in hand. Roper watched him take a great overhead swing at a Sutherner, dismissing the feeble block raised against him and flattening his opponent. The rest of the Sacred Guard were shredding the lightly armoured longbowmen they faced, but outside this martial mismatch the Anakim were in dire trouble. The Blackstone Legion appeared to have dissolved into the flooding as arrows continued to rain down on them, and the rest of the army was scarcely in a better position. Still stationary, they endured the sting of arrows from the ridge without shields to hide behind. Bone- and steel-armour were limiting the damage but the effect on morale was worse. The Sutherners had not advanced, content to let their arrows work for them.
“Lord?” said a voice behind Roper. He turned to see half a dozen mounted aides staring at him. Roper nodded at them and turned back to the battle. Almighty god, what now? It did not feel as though there was any way back from here. His Left could not advance; something beneath the water was preventing it. If the rest of the army moved forward, Roper was not even sure that they would be able to climb the slick ridge. They would take many casualties; that much was certain and their Left would be exposed to flanking attacks. But what is the alternative? What if we retreat? He could hardly breathe. Or maybe it was just that his breathing had ceased to be effective.
“Lord?” Again, more persistent. Roper was trembling now. His mouth formed several words but none of them made it past his lips.
What now? Almighty, help me! What now?
Preserve the legions, Roper.
“We retreat,” said Roper, inflecting the order as though it were a question. “Retreat,” he said again, agitated. “The cavalry are to cover us.” He almost added: I think.
The aides stared at him. “Lord?” said one, confused. “That isn’t…”
“Retreat!” insisted Roper. “Retreat!” A thought struck him. “Keep the cavalry clear of the waters around the Blackstones.” One of the aides nodded and pulled his horse away, signalling to a trumpeter. The others followed suit and the trumpet sounded. The legions juddered into life again. Discipline will save us, thought Roper as the legions about-turned and began to march away, arrows still spitting into the water around them. As the Sutherners saw the forces of the Black Kingdom begin to turn away, there came a great cheer and howl of derision from the ridge. A rumbling began, so deep that at first Roper thought it was distant thunder. Then he realised that the Suthern cavalry had begun to surge after the legions.
Then Uvoren was by Roper’s side. He was on horseback and began snarling orders, sending aides scurrying across the battlefield and a string of trumpet notes blasting out. The cavalry was called into action and rode forward to cover the legions’ retreat. Uvoren glanced at Roper. “You have an arrow in your shoulder, Roper.” Almighty god. Roper swayed in his saddle. Uvoren stared for a moment, seeming fascinated.
Across the waters, behind the Blackstone Legion that was staggering away from the battle leaving behind as many as were able to retreat, Roper saw a familiar flash of steel. Earl William was there on horseback, surrounded by his knightly bodyguard, and he had found a new breastplate, quite as magnificent as the one Kynortas had torn from his chest. His horse stood among the longbowmen who still peppered the retreating Blackstones and he was gesticulating at a trumpeter, who appeared to be pulling the strings of the Suthern cavalry. Bellamus was nowhere to be seen; it seemed Earl William had assumed command of this corner of the battlefield.
Suddenly, there was screaming from Roper’s right. He turned just in time to see a figure bolting through the flooding; a dark blur of striking rapidity. Alone, this warrior was charging for the Suthern ranks, changing direction violently and somehow sprinting right through the first line of soldiers. Sutherners were pushing towards him, trying to stop him but always left swinging at thin air as the figure seared through their loose ranks. Roper’s mouth fell open; the warrior was heading for Earl William. It was a Sacred Guardsman, his ponytail exceptionally long, single-handedly charging the Suthern leader. In his wake he left a trail of spray and bamboozled Suthern warriors and he hurtled right through the enemy ranks and into the clear waters behind.
Uvoren had seen him too. “Make room for your lictor!” The Sacred Guard obeyed, surging forward once more and driving a wedge into the Suthern line. They were evidently seeking to open a return path for the nameless warrior who was now nearing Earl William.
Earl William’s bodyguards had spotted the radical. Half a dozen armoured knights, lances lowered, charged. The guardsman changed tack, heading for the outside of the formation and drawing his sword. It was the work of an instant and a whirl of metal: the figure, dwarfing the riders he faced, had beaten aside two lances and slipped between the knights. He was through, with nothing standing between him and Earl William. The latter had realised the danger he faced and desperately pulled his horse away, attempting to spur for safety.
He had left it too late. The guardsman was upon him before his horse had taken more than a few strides and he had seized Earl William’s boot, dragging him from the saddle to crash into the water. The blade rose high and then plunged into the obscured form in the water; twice. The guardsman straightened up and held up something soaking, turning around to show it to both Suthern and Anakim army.
Earl William’s head.
His long curls were held in the guardsman’s enormous hand and water and blood trickled from beard and neck. The guardsman cast it aside contemptuously and turned back to the knights, who had now turned and converged on him. He disappeared from Roper’s view, hidden behind thrusting horses.
Somebody smacked Roper in the back of the head. He turned and Uvoren rode past him. “Move,” he called over his shoulder. “Pryce has given us some time. We’re leaving.” Pryce? Roper looked back to the guardsman who had slain Earl William and could scarcely credit his eyes when he saw that he had re-emerged. Two horses lay in the water, screaming in pain. Another one had no rider and the remaining knights were not pressing their attack, wary of the guardsman who had begun to run again. The Sacred Guard had opened a corridor for him in the Suthern ranks and held it as the lone hero returned.
So this is war.
The Black Legions were in headlong retreat. They were marshalled into columns by their officers, who threw confused looks at where the Almighty Eye of the Sacred Guard flew and where they knew somebody must be in command. Thousands of Anakim bodies lay in the flooding, arrows protruding from their flesh and bodies weighted down by armour. Only the Sacred Guard had shed Suthern blood and that because they had been forced to in defence of Roper. Trumpets were pealing out across the battlefield as the Anakim army condensed and the Suthern cavalry tore after them, searching for an opening. They were being held back by the Anakim cavalry, which was charging and re-charging, using their discipline to extricate the legions.
Pandemonium. Hundreds of Blackstones were half crawling, half swimming after the retreating soldiers. The other warriors, no longer in neat ranks but wading as quickly as they could through the flooding, were streaming away from the ridge where the Suthern infantry had begun to advance.
The Sutherners were after them.