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Canto of Blood
by M. Keaton

 

Opus 1c

The Sinari vanward was beginning to amass just out of arrow range. Ria vainly wished again for artillery engines, even a few scorpions, to push that line farther back. Battles were won and lost in this initial placement.

When she had first begun her training to be Warlord, she had been caught up in the ideal of fast, clean battles with generals giving lots of dramatic orders and fancy maneuvers. In order to cure her, Reese had taken her away from "official" histories in the Mirish libraries and set her to studying the journals and diaries held within the vaults below the city. She was initially surprised that Reese had placed as much stock in an infantryman's field diary and letters home as in the guilded journals of previous Archmages and Warlords.

What she had learned was sobering: once the battle was joined, there was very little that could be done to affect the outcome other than just fight like mad. Wars were won and lost in the planning; battles, in the trenches.

The Sinari vanward was forming for a rush. Catayarsh riders were swelling into loose ranks on either flank while row upon row of infantry amassed in a long line between the two mounted clusters. Ria was extremely pleased to see the footmen milling about with no set regiments or uniformity of weapons. Even more heartening was the Sinari's continued disdain for armor and shields.

She felt it before she saw it, and Ria added her own voice to the involuntary gasp of the United armies. A black shadow slid across the battlefield like an eclipse of hope, blotting out the sun and casting an icy pall: the damned city of Annenayea hung in dire silhouette above them, where previously there had been only clear sky.

The base of the city was ragged, shattered spurs of rock and long dead roots thrust down like millipede legs, dampened and obscured by the frigid mists of the river which poured from its lip and never reached the ground. A scintillating eggshell of power encased the city, colors twisting translucently about like a soap bubble, and black tentacles of mercurial lightning slithered through the arcane shield. Ria could catch glimpses of the upper city through the glow. Great towers of stone and quartz reached like giant fingers to clutch at the heavens, spanned by soaring bridges and cozened by great crystal buttresses. In places, the spires and towers had fallen or been broken off and lay propped against their brothers, a megalithic tumble of splintered grandeur, crushed skeleton of an acropolis. In the distance, through the shadows and light, she saw things move, dark leather winged forms that leapt and flew among the ruins, and she was afraid.

"Dun-Ri! Dun-Ri! Dun-Ri!" The chanting was faint and scattered; Ria looked down to see her army edging back in fear, units pulling apart, men edging on a rout. But in the Conscripts, from a handful of men, the chanting grew and spread and the lines of the militia were solid again as they chanted for their commander--the man who, perhaps for the rest of their lives, would be their god. Her own men caught up her name and Ria thrust her fist into the air, in that moment, borne up by the strength of those around her greater than any desert deity.

The chants became a roar, a wordless cry of defiance by men who would not bow before fate, who would defy man, beast, and god in defense of their homes and of their dreams, and as some sixty thousand men cried out, with one voice, with one goal, it was the Sinari who quailed; and then, as if sensing the battle slip away before it had begun, as a swarm, they charged.

This was the cavalry's moment. Even as the Sinari began their run, the heavy mounted, Caladyn at their head, thundered through the gap in the footmen and swept right, in front of the Royals, to crash into the Sinari infantry like a great scythe, felling the wheat of running men, the front ranks gone before they knew that the pale horses of death rode among them. The Catayarsh riders nearest tried to turn centerward, cutting in front of their footmen, hoping to engage the cavalry and pin it against the Sinari foot. Instead, as they rode clear of their runners, the entrenched longbows throbbed with a single pulse and a hail of black-shafted death fell upon them. Men fell from their mounts and were trampled by the weight of riders behind them. Catayarsh screamed in feline howls and lashed about in pain, blindly striking at their fellows. The bows thrummed again and the Sinari mounted became a boiling pustule of screams and blood and chaos.

In the United center, Labon had followed the cavalry's rightward strike with a forward charge of his own and the two infantries rushed together like long separated lovers, eager to embrace. The crash of their meeting shook the earth beneath them and great clouds of dust billowed into the air as the battle for the center became a reflexive fight for survival.

The Sinari cavalry facing Ria's left surged then drew to a halt, facing the cavalry block she had positioned there. The two mounted columns seemed to be locked in a battle of stares and will, neither willing to commit and give the other an opening.

The archers of the right fired again into the frenzied Catayarsh and fell silent. Ria sent runners to order their return; the bowmen were too valuable for the coming siege to risk from here on in the battle.

As the horns blared within the bowmen ordering their withdrawal, the heavy cavalry disengaged, riding back, not to the gap, but to reform on the right flank, next to the entrenched Royals. Those who did not, or could not, died.

In the center, both sides held firm, but the sheer mass of Sinari was beginning to take its toll. Already, the Sinari had recovered from Labon's counter-charge and was moving to envelope. Soon, the gap between the heavy foot and the Conscripts would become a liability.

Ria need not have worried; Caladyn had chosen his unit commanders well. Even as the first cavalry block withdrew, the final reserve cavalry hit the gap. The Sinari infantry braced for the charge, this time forming close and setting spears, and as she watched, a fierce grin split her face. Labon had predicted this and now, the combination of Cedonian discipline and Milakanur experience would yield fruit.

The reserve cavalry were light skirmish units armed with light crossbow and short blade rather than lance and axe. They rode hell-bent for the waiting Sinari spears and then, less than twenty yards away from the line, they caracoled right, across the Sinari front. Most made the tight cut but some fell, their horses collapsing beneath them as they lost footing. Men died beneath flailing hooves or crushed by a ton of rolling equine.

The front wave of skirmishers fired their crossbows almost point-blank into the Sinari line, then fell back to reload as the next wave and then the next repeated the maneuver. The Sinari foot, unarmored, was shredded under the unrelenting fire. As they were, Caladyn led his regrouped mounted into the remains of the Sinari left Catayarsh.

With the Sinari left broken, the Dun-Ri's militia closed the cavalry gap and tried to hold Labon's right. On the United left, the two mounted units continued their standoff.

Caladyn's men regrouped again. Less than one-third remained after routing the Catayarsh. The fragmented Sinari left foot broke ranks and launched a ragged surge toward the skirmishers. The two United mounted units rushed past each other and the heavier cavalry fell upon the broken infantry as easy meat.

Ria turned to Shadis beside her. "Send a runner. The light mounted are to withdraw across the bridge." Another unit to valuable in the long conflict to risk now, especially since they were almost certainly low on bolts, she added mentally.

Unlike the armored infantry, the Dun-Ri's Conscripts were no match for the more experienced and more numerous Sinari. They had prevented the Sinari from cutting into Labon's flank, but only that. The cost was extreme and now, as the armored infantry fell back toward the entrenched Royals, the surviving Conscripts fought among them.

It was the Royals, unchallenged until now, who would face the brunt of the Sinari as the Regulars fell back. For a moment, the two armies pulled apart as the Sinari regrouped for a counter-attack. Labon made good use of the pause, pulling his men back in a withdrawal that bordered on a rout.

Like an angry serpent, the Sinari foot coiled and struck, breaking against the entrenched Royals in a wave. Once, twice, three times they crashed and were repulsed. A fourth time the heavy infantry pushed them back but now many of the earthworks were torn down and there were gaps in the Royals' lines.

The left United cavalry, almost forgotten in the standoff, charged the Catayarsh fronting them. Before they reached them, the Sinari mounted broke and fled the field.

The Sinari foot struck for a fifth time, pouring over the dykes and into the trenches, pushing the Royals before them, when the now-unopposed cavalry struck their right rear.

Labon rallied his Regulars and, with the remains of Caladyn's heavy cavalry, pounced on the Sinari left.

Ria saw the field develop into an almost classic double envelopment, but only if the crumbling center could hold long enough to pull the noose tight. If the Sinari foot could push through the sagging Royals or if the Catayarsh should regroup before the Sinari foot was broken, the United forces would collapse.

"Shadis!" she shouted. "Assume my command! Coterie! To me!"

It was insane to think the five of them could turn the battle, but what else did she have? She dare not commit the Army of Observation or the Sinari could cut them off from the bridge and slaughter them to a man. The power of a coterie was legendary; it was time to find out if Reese's training was enough. Mentally, she felt the cold touch of other minds as Michelle reached for them, weaving the coterie into a single unit, touching the three anchors in Unnirand as well, placing it all at her will.

Which is faster, magic or a rock? Reese had asked her that years ago. The answer was 'yes'. The great power of a coterie was twofold. They were warriors as well as magus; their armor strengthened; reflexes faster; bodies stronger; weapons sharper and more deadly; their magic turned inward rather than outward in simple follies of fire and ice. And their power as an individual was the power of the whole. The strength of one of them was not just their own, but the composite power of the entire coterie, even the anchors, fed into each action and each blow. As Michelle wove them together, time slowed and Ria's vision expanded. Power rushed through her and she felt her body flush as a red haze roared behind her eyes. Somewhere in their rush, the coterie had abandoned their horses, running now faster than any beast.

Ria, Jen, and Dworkin struck the Sinari rear more abruptly and more deadly than any sudden desert storm. Aelric and Michelle hung back, protecting their connection with the anchors. Ria was four ranks deep in death before she consciously realized she was fighting, seven more before the Sinari knew she was there. She hesitated a moment, fearing the inertia of their attack would drive the Sinari through the Royals' weakened center. She saw the line stiffen as panic set in among the trapped footmen and resumed her slaughter.

So easy; she began to laugh as rank after rank of men collapsed. She was swinging her broadsword with one hand now, striking out with the other unarmed, the force of her gauntleted hand enough to collapse ribcages and snap necks. With each death, the power raced back to her two-fold. Life was in the blood and power was in the life. With each kill, she drank it like a cloying wine.

The earth rose up to strike at her then fell away. She landed like a cat and saw at once the entire field.

Great meteors of fire and tar the size of a man rained down from the floating city above, striking and exploding, spraying a clinging fire on United and Sinari alike. The smell of burning meat, the sizzle of fat and screams of agony so intense they became inhuman, panic reigned supreme-Sin-Alb had finally joined his war, tossing hellfire carelessly among the combatants and the bridge. Even through her fog of bloodlust, Ria felt the silver stab of fear as a trio of meteors smashed into the bridge, their only line of retreat.

The falling stars never struck. Reese stood before the bridge, arms upraised, parallel, before his face. He caught the missiles on his forearms and his human appearance burned away like a coating of wax. The Eerith swelled into a column of white intensity, pinions of blue lighting stretching from his back to shelter the bridge, and the blazing light bleached the battlefield white, black smoke rolling like living shadows across it.

"GO!" she shouted, power coursing through her voice, carrying her roar across the field like the snap of a mountain breaking. What had once been a battlefield became a plain of running mobs, thoughts of war temporarily supplanted by the frenzy to survive.

No more, she thought, and pulled the strength of the coterie into herself. She willed her power toward the city and reality bled into a nightmarish vision of arcane energy and death.

The damned city sat like a flower upon a stalk; a stalk which was the pulse of power sucked from the dead and dying below; a black heart feasting on the fear and pain, a dark necromancy too elemental to be denied, too beautiful to resist, too ruthlessly pragmatic to be other than human in origin.

She struck at the stem, wrenching away a portion of the pulse, feasting on it herself, growing, grappling now with an unseen enemy to feed her hunger. And, as she did so, Ria brushed its mind.

a jewel of power, an untapped fount of throbbing in the earth, the power of a god and more, calling, pulling, as natural as a river to the sea, this present power so small, a trivial distraction, a stepping stone to glory, an aching hunger, hanging like a sentence unfinished, a jewel of power hanging out of reach in the dark, a need, divine beyond divine, a god of gods, reaching

Ria fell, cold earth striking her face, acrid smoke binding staring, unblinking blind eyes, a burning tearing within her chest. She lay prostate, clenching bloody dirt in her fists, almost too tired to breathe.

***

It was raining. As she stared at the slate grey sky over Unnirand and felt the sky cry tears she could not shed, for now, it was enough.

Forty thousand United dead or missing. Estimated Sinari losses three times that. Unnirand bridge sapped. The Dun-Ri in bed with a sprained ankle and a broken nose. Labon, ambulatory, but with scarring burns to his chest and neck. Aelric, dead.

"I've set crews to logging and Caladyn is overseeing construction of artillery engines personally," said Reese behind her.

She answered without turning. "Thank you, friend."

"For Valor, Warlord," he replied gently.

She nodded. "No regrets."