Drustan desainCoid wiped another man’s blood from his eyes. Gods, it was hot. Not yet noon and still the sun beat down upon the ragged shieldwall holding the ridge. The grass in front of the Karisae line was churned up, muddy, lubricated by blood and other bodily fluids, despite the baking heat of summer.
He gazed at the broken stub of his sword, which had snapped close to the hilt against the edge of a Vascanar shield. He should have stayed away from this land. Another summer day, Marisa’s body against his… He snarled and threw the useless hilt over the edge of the ridge.
It tumbled in the air, twisting, falling towards the Vascanar infantry disengaging from the battle line.
They would be back.
He lowered his shield to the ground, released his arm from the straps, and shook out the ache in his shoulder. One more Vascanar attack repelled, so the Karisae defenders would live a little while longer. He should have stayed away, away from… No, no more of that; he had chosen this fight.
The slope of the ridge fell away sharply here, but still the Vascanar had driven their infantry assault up into the line. Thereby, they pinned the bulk of the Karisae army in place, while other units attacked the shieldmen in the valley on the left flank.
Dust caked Drustan’s lips. Sweat trickled through the blood and dirt plastered across his face. His breathing calmed and his heartbeat slowed as he recovered his composure after the ferocious fighting. Her eyes on his in the sunlight. Her body arched. Her—
‘Water,’ a wounded Vascanar begged from the pile of dead and dying enemy in front of him.
Prayer scars ripped across the wounded man’s face, cut with his own hand in a brutal act of religious devotion. The long-healed scar on Drustan’s face, slashing from above his right eye and across the bridge of his nose and on into his left cheekbone, was an injury received on the field of honour — when he still believed in such things — not a self-inflicted wound to worship rapacious gods. Marisa weaving her magic with the others, healing his face and weeping as she did so. Drustan’s jaw tightened until his teeth ached.
‘Water,’ the Vascanar begged again. His bloody hands cradled his stomach, holding his bowels inside a gaping wound.
‘Here,’ Cullain said.
Drustan took the offered spear, hefted it, nodded satisfaction at its balance, and drove it down through the Vascanar’s throat.
‘He should’ve stayed home.’ Cullain looked down at the twitching corpse.
‘Vascanar don’t have a home.’ Drustan jerked the spear free and the corpse slackened into death. The Vascanar never settled, never took a homeland; like locusts they simply arrived, devastated a land, and left. Drustan stretched his neck. ‘Damn it’s hot.’
‘Rain’d be nice. Best keep hold of that spear.’ Cullain rolled his massive shoulders and gestured down the slope. ‘It’ll take ’em a while to regroup, but they’ll be back.’
Lifting a hand to shade his eyes, Drustan studied the Vascanar formations on the coastal plain below the ridge. Their red and black tower shields lay upon the ground in front of the shattered remnants of Barstow town, while the Vascanar infantry knelt and drank from bowls the priests held up to their lips, praying to their foul gods.
Barstow was destroyed, all of its people fled or tortured to death when the Vascanar landed on the Island of the Lake. The shield hall, temple to Vulcas, god of war, caster of the spear Deathbringer, burned within the tumbled palisade at the centre of the town.
Beyond the town, Drustan could see the tangled trees of Mornas Marsh. More a wetland forest than a marsh, but still enough to force the Vascanar along this route, along the Shrine Road towards the centre of the Island of the Lake; and so they had to take this ridge.
The Karisae, too, had prayed, but their gods had not come. The heroes from the Sunlit Land, who did the gods’ bidding, had not come. The kingdom of Symcani stood alone against the predatory Vascanar and their voracious gods. The King and his priests had not succeeded in their prayers.
Ships smouldered on the beach beyond the devastated town. Drustan dropped his hand to his side and balled it into a fist. ‘Burning their ships was stupid.’
‘Aye, so you said.’ Cullain chewed his beard, looked at the ships, and shrugged. ‘King wanted vengeance for Barstow. Figured it might call forth Vulcas Deathbringer.’
‘It cost him a quarter of his force for bugger-all gain.’
‘Burned the ships.’
‘Vulcas, god of battle, did not come. Scepteras, king of the gods, did not come. Even Henath, judger of the dead, did not come. So all he did was trap the damn Vascanar here. Now we have to kill every last one of the whoresons.’
Cullain grinned. ‘Gotta hold ’em first.’ He nodded to the Vascanar cavalry milling around opposite the left flank. There was no point sending horses up against the defended ridgeline, but the men on the flat of the valley were taking a battering.
Drustan returned his old comrade’s grin. Could the Karisae defenders hold against the Vascanar? Did it matter? There would always be wars to fight and money to be made. This wasn’t his homeland anymore. Marisa had made sure of that. His hands tightened around the spear. Because of her betrayal, they’d broken his sword and cast him out. Now the sword he’d bought to replace it had broken too. An omen? He shivered. ‘Why in all the hells did we come back?’ he asked.
‘For the gold.’
‘We’re earning every damn piece.’ Drustan spat dust-caked saliva onto the ground. They had made him a mercenary, a sell-sword, when they broke his sword on the altar of Vulcas. Marisa’s betrayal had torn him from this land and still he returned. What kind of fool was he? He spat again and sneered. ‘We should have stayed in that tavern across the Salt.’
‘Aye,’ Cullain agreed. The old warrior stretched his back, looked along the shieldwall and bellowed, ‘Clear out the dead, lads!’ His face so battered and scarred that his original features were barely discernible beneath his heavy beard, his powerful body clad in leather and chainmail, and his dark, dangerous eyes, were all the authority he required. ‘Throw ’em down the slope.’
The soldiers — who had been farmers, fishermen, labourers, and woodsmen before the call to duty came — grumbled, but did as they were told. Dropping the large round Karisae shields upon the ground they worked in pairs, throwing the dead down the slope to bounce and tangle upon rocks and bushes, creating an extra obstacle to the next Vascanar attack.
‘Water!’ a boyish voice yelled. ‘Who wants water?’
‘Over here, boy!’ Drustan drove his spear into the ground, undid his helm, attached it to the hook on his belt, and pushed back the chainmail coif covering his scalp. He wrenched off the padded arming cap and stuffed it into his belt next to the helm. The breeze was cool across his sweat-soaked hair.
Staggering under the weight of waterskins slung across his shoulders, the boy, who looked about twelve, picked his way between the wounded and dead.
‘Here, milord,’ said the boy, handing him a full waterskin.
‘Don’t call me that,’ Drustan snapped.
‘But them boots.’ The boy pointed at Drustan’s feet. ‘Them’s noble’s boots.’
Damn boots. He should have thrown them out with the rest of his gear, but good boots were so hard to come by — like good women. Drustan poured water over his head and face. He swilled out his mouth. The clean, cold taste of the spring water washed away the stench of battle for a moment. Spitting the cleansing water across a discarded Vascanar shield emblazoned with a red and gold flame upon a black background, he lifted the waterskin again and drank deeply.
‘That there’s Drustan,’ Cullain said. A murmur swept through the men near enough to hear; they hadn’t known who fought beside them.
‘Drustan the—’ the boy caught his words behind his teeth. ‘Drustan the Bright Blade.’
Drustan poured the last of the water over his arms, shoulders and neck, washing away the worst of the battle grime from his steel vambraces, leather cuirass, and the chainmail mantle across his shoulders. ‘Drustan the Kinless,’ he said and threw the empty waterskin into the boy’s chest. The boy caught it. ‘I mostly kill for gold these days, but I’ll make an exception if you’re still here when I open my eyes.’ He smiled at the boy and closed his eyes.
When he opened them again, the boy was dodging away between the wounded and the dead.
‘Could’ve done with some water,’ Cullain said.
‘You gossip like a baker’s wife.’ Drustan glanced at the men around him, farmers made into soldiers with heirloom weapons and rough-cut shields. Some of the men met his gaze and nodded their respect, but others would not look at him; would not look at the noble who had lost his place and left the isles in disgrace.
‘You should’ve thrown away them boots,’ Cullain said.
‘Get the men sorted.’ Drustan ran a hand through his wet hair. ‘Their armsman died in the last assault so they’re ours now. I’ll send you water.’ He picked up his shield, yanked his spear from the ground, and walked away from the line.
He could hear Cullain behind him as he clambered up the rise to where he could see the entire battlefield. ‘Right then, lads, stop gawping. Aye, that’s Drustan desainCoid all right. The Bright Blade. And I’m Cullain Strongarm. Ah, you’ve heard of me too, ain’t you? Good. Let’s see if you can learn to act like soldiers then, instead of like farm boys fresh from tickling your mothers’ teats. When those Vascanar whoresons come again, close up the damn line. There’s more god-cursed holes than in your mothers’ skirts. You … aye, you. On the next attack, don’t wave your spear around like your wife’s darning needle. Stick it in, twist it, pull it out, keep on doing it ‘till the whoreson falls. Don’t stab the man in front of you, stab the man to your right. Them damn tower shields of theirs ain’t no use if’n you stab ’em in the swordside. Use your shields as sommat more’n sommat to quiver behind. Protect the man on your left, coz them Vascanar know about shieldside and swordside too. And aim low — if’n you can’t kill the whoreson, at least stop him bloody breeding.’
Drustan grinned as Cullain’s voice faded away into the general noise of an army preparing to defend its line. He spotted a different water-boy and told him where to find Cullain, before climbing the hill to look out over the battlefield.
[Edit: Updated after the final copy-edit of the novel.]