Friday, March 26, 2010

Chapter Four

A red sun dawned, bathing the plains in a sanguine light. Crows cawed fitfully as they landed to feast among the bodies of the dead. They made no distinction between human and Slandra – to the birds, they were all delicacies in their feast. The crows’ calls seemed like a final bugle sounding the retreat for the escaping humans.

Johnsa glanced back at the descending avian cloud a few miles from her position. The site of the battle, the abandoned resting place for so many of her men. Those remaining were weary and bloodied, trooping along the outer edge of the forest they had fallen back to. After being ambushed by the vicious Slandra warriors earlier in the night, her men were in no condition to fight. She sighed, and then grabbed a soldier by his arm right before he collapsed from exhaustion. As she asked him if he was all right, she paused to survey the ragged line of her troop.

“How did it come to this?” she thought to herself.

Johnsa had joined the force of human warriors that had been growing since late autumn to combat the Slandra raiders that had left their mountain homes. Johnsa had proved her skill as a commander early on, with several decisive victories to her name, earning her the commanding rank of Ramadan. Her quick wits hadn’t helped her during the night, even against the smaller Slandra force.

Reflecting back on the skirmish, Johnsa felt confident there was nothing else she could have done to avert the silent death that had descended upon the army without warning. She was only glad she was able to save as many as she had from doom, though it did little to ease her mood. They were now far fewer than they had been, all because the army had not had enough intelligence on the enemy. The few scouts that had returned had quoted a roughly accurate number, but Johnsa somewhat petulantly thought those who survived had been cowards who did not survey the Slandra closely.

The Slandra had caught the humans in a pincer attack shortly before dawn. The snakes had dispatched the outriders and perimeter sentries more quietly than Johnsa could possibly have imagined, and then they were in among her men, slaughtering them in their sleep. If it hadn’t been for one injured man who set a Slandra on fire, the silent foe could have possibly destroyed the entire company. As it was, the commander of the army had been killed, slain in his tent. It was only after desperate combat that the humans managed to escape the trap and force an opening in the Slandra lines. Johnsa had sounded the retreat, and she and her men had fled toward the forest bordering the plain. They were walking along that border now, heading north and hopefully towards sanctuary.

The column ahead of her stopped, and even she was grateful for a rest. She had her surviving scouts leading the group, and she trusted them to find a safe place for a few hours so her men could rest. It suddenly occurred to her that they were all her men now.

A messenger jogged quickly down the lines towards Johnsa, carrying a message from the scouts. They had found what they thought was a respectable campsite, and by her leave, they should begin to ready a camp.

Johnsa walked up the line, giving encouragement and praise to soldiers as she passed, helping those who stumbled, and showing a confident attitude. She knew, as a leader, that her attitude could make or break the army. When she reached the column’s head, she surveyed their resting place. It was a small hill, bordered on the plains side by several fallen trees that had fallen away from the woods and into a natural cleft in the earth. Johnsa scrambled over them, wincing as the bark bit into her skin, and finally determined they would provide an adequate defense. The hill wasn’t particularly tall and so would not give a big advantage of high ground, but it would do. She called to the bugler and told him to give the signal to stop and make camp. He blew three short notes, and Johnsa heard her entire army give a sigh of relief.

It was another hour before everyone managed to get situated on top of the hill, and it took Johnsa a quarter hour to find soldiers who were in a good enough condition to stand watch. When everything was finally ready, she pitched her own tent. Using a wet cloth, she wiped the bloodstains from her armor, oiled her sword and finally laid down to a few hours of much needed rest.

Noon came and passed, and Johnsa slept on. Only the clamor of pots and pans finally roused her, and even then it was not easily. Sitting up groggily, Johnsa spent the next few moments rubbing the sleep out of her eyes before finally standing from her bedroll. She strapped on her armor briskly, splashed some water on her face and pulled her hair back with a leather thong. Walking from her tent, she surveyed her remaining men preparing their meal after their short respite.

Upon her exit, the man standing guard over the flap addressed his commander.

“Ramadan, the men were lax. On my patrols, I found two asleep and the others did not even detect me. They should be reprimanded.”

Johnsa shook her head sadly. Though her second-in-command was smart and eager, sometimes he was too keen to deal out punishments for minor infractions. “That will not be necessary Lens. I will speak with the men, of course, but reprimands are not needed. After our ordeal last night, everyone is tired. Besides, everyone knows you walk lighter than a winter-starved mouse,” she joked.

Lens made as if to object, but then thought better of it. Though the Ramadan seemed to be in an understanding mood, he knew how quickly that could change and did not want to anger her. “By your will, Ramadan,” he replied with a crisp salute. The doubt in his eyes did not escape Johnsa’s attention.

Johnsa watched him move off to the food lines to bring her breakfast, considering his future. If he could learn tolerance, he might just make a fine commander himself, he was already a splendid tactician, but she recognized a brutality in his nature that would be difficult to conquer. Realizing she had duties as commander to attend to, she put him out of her mind and began a quick assessment of the camp.

The sun was a few hand spans above the horizon when Johnsa felt that her men were rested enough to continue their march. They would march until sunset just to put more distance between them and the ambush site. She ordered her captains to begin packing, and soon every tent was taken down and the ranks formed up. Johnsa watched the proceedings with a small smile, proud of her men that they could perform well after the bloody massacre of the night before.

The thought made her grimace, and several of her men frowned with worry. She was their commander, their Ramadan. They were very protective of her and often chided her when she tried to take on too much. Lens approached silently behind her, and those same worried faces became stony replicas of each other in an instant. They were protective of their Ramadan, but they did not feel the same sentiments for her lieutenant.

“Ramadan, your men are ready to move out. Should I sound the march?”

“So ordered, Lens.”

He saluted Johnsa’s back as she continued to study the column, and moved off to the buglers. A barked order had them lifting their horns and the army began moving. With their divisions reformed, her men looked like a fit fighting unit once more.

Her small smile returned, and grew a little bit more when she saw her men visibly brighten under her proud gaze. She had not fought long with these men at her side and under her command, but their fights had been hard. She knew most of them personally and had been in major combat with all of them. She knew their strengths and weaknesses, their skills, and most importantly their limits. It was this intimate knowledge of her men that allowed her, in her opinion, to command them as well as she did. They trusted her, and she them, to get through any situation.

Mounting her tall chestnut stallion, Johnsa looked out once more across the lines of troops before trotting to her position in the middle of it all. She had discovered that positioning herself in the midst of her men not only made her feel more comfortable, but also made it much easier to coordinate actions should they be assaulted.

Gently nudging her way into the mass, she filed into next to Lens. As the military zealot he was, Lens never moved with the army unless he was at his designated place. His training had been so ingrained that his rigidity would hamper him should he wish to seek a command of his own. It would very likely get him killed.

“Maybe he knows that,” she thought to herself, glancing at her second. “Maybe he doesn’t move without the army around out of cowardice.” That sentiment slipped its way into her thoughts before she could even react, and she shook her head to clear away such doubts in her lieutenant. She knew he was not the bravest of men, but he had certainly shown courage the evening before. No, he was not coward, merely prudent. She glanced once more at Lens before allowing her horse to carry her forward.

Though everyone felt uneasy along their march, they were not attacked. Nightfall came, and the army had made good speed down the forest’s border. Johnsa called the halt when her scouts informed her of a defensible grove of ash trees a little further into the plains. The men crowded into the small glade among the trees, posted scouts before pitching the horse lines, and set up camp in a circular pattern around the Ramadan’s tent. Johnsa could feel the general agitation and doubled the patrols around the camp perimeter. She was disquieted by their unhampered march, and was not about to allow the snakes to surprise her again. When she finally felt her men were as protected as well as they could be, she crawled into her bedroll and puffed out her candle. Although she lay in her sheets for what seemed like an eternity, sleep evaded her.

Shortly before dawn, Johnsa finally gave up and rolled out her sheets. Donning her armor and weapon, she walked out into the cool darkness. Standing outside her tent, she took a deep breath and relished the crisp air prickling her throat. She closed her eyes and focused on her breathing, taking in the cool air and all the sounds of the camp. Opening her eyes, Johnsa judged it was nearly dawn, for the moon had disappeared already, and only the stars blinked down at her. Though the night was pleasant, Johnsa felt an itch between her shoulder blades that she couldn’t shake. It had been nagging her all day and even her breathing exercise didn’t lessen her irritation.

“Always darkest before dawn,” she muttered. She walked out to the perimeter and looked for her men. She only spotted one or two, and although this did not surprise her as the men were generally excellent at hiding themselves, warning bells screamed in her mind. She knew the perimeter lay out and should have been able to pick out at least one sentry, but to her eyes the perimeter was empty. She took two steps back still facing the perimeter, and then turned and sprinted back to her tent. She would not risk another ambush. Rushing inside, she kicked open one of her trunks and pulled out a small but well-used roll of vellum. It had been some time since she had used this particular tool but its worth was immeasurable. Unrolling it, she drew her dagger and dragged it across the palm of her hand with a wince. She pressed the vellum to her bleeding hand, allowed the blood to seep in for a second. She cleared her mind and spoke.

“As night meets day, and sun dispels the dark, so show me the way.”

This was a small magic she had learned long ago from her grandfather, who had been a hunter in the southern mountains. It allowed her to see with stunning clarity her surroundings within a mile radius. However, this ability could only be used once a month and Johnsa rarely withdrew the vellum from its protective shell.

Gazing outward while still holding the bloody sheepskin, Her mind flew above her body, giving her an eagle’s perspective and she looked down at her camp and the territory beyond. Shock momentarily held her in a vise grip. She saw her patrols, and though they looked intact, she doubted they would remain so for long. Not very far from them, hidden in the trees and in the troughs of the plains, was the Slandra attack force that had caught them unaware…and it had grown.

Feeling her mind return to her body, Johnsa rushed out of her tent and ran to the alarm bell. Three loud strikes gonged through the camp and she charged off to Lens’ tent.

“Get everyone up NOW! We’re under attack!” she yelled to her subordinate. Lens wasted no time with questions and immediately issued orders while donning his armor. Bugles sounded the scouts to fall back, and before most of the men could even rub the sleep out of their eyes, spears were planted, swords were drawn, and arrows nocked in a tight circle around the tents.

Still holding the vellum, Johnsa allowed her mind to fly upward once more and noticed that the enemy force had not advanced yet. She called for her men to relax momentarily and quickly rearranged her formations. She pulled her small core of berserkers back to the top of the hill to be thrown into the line as she needed, and she ordered her archers to continuously shift along the lines to maintain a steady stream of fire against the enemy. Johnsa tried to view the enemy one more time, but the vellum had cleared, and Johnsa cursed loudly for the short duration of the spell. At that moment, a cold wind blew through the whole camp, and a howl broke the tense silence.

The Ramadan looked out at her men once more, thinking this may be the last time many or all would fight together. It brought a tear to her eye, but she brushed it away hurriedly. Grabbing a horn, Johnsa shouted out to her forces.

“Friends, comrades, I will give you the truth. We are surrounded. The Slandra have us in a corner.” She saw many startled looks at this news. “This may be our final battle together. How will you fight?” She paused and surveyed the men arrayed around the encampment. She saw fear in many eyes, but some too held hope when she looked out at them. “We will make them pay for what they have done to us,” she continued, her voice echoing out to her men. “They will pay for all of the friends we have lost. They will pay in blood. I mean to live through this night and make them taste my steel.” She ended in a shout that every man heard without the horn, and they cheered with her. They cheered even during the Slandra charge that broke upon their blades like waves against the cliffs.

Dawn broke over a bloody field, yet the fighting raged on. The Slandra were bloodied, but the human forces were nearly wiped out. Every man and woman who bore arms lifted them wearily, often painfully. Three quarters of the men who had stood in defense of their lives and their captain now lay dead, sprawled across the hill and under Slandra scales. But the Slandra came on, a teeming, undulating wave of death that crawled toward the final defenders.
Of the human commanders, all but one lay dead outside the protective circle. Lens had gone down after killing five of the snakes protecting his Ramadan, and his efforts allowed Johnsa to fight her way back to the safety of her men. Now, as she looked out at the overwhelming number of Slandra and her dead companions, she felt a wave of despair. Death was almost assured for her and her men. But when she looked out once more at the bloodied, mangled corpses of her men, a feral snarl erupted from her throat. Her eyes turned a deep red, and every man near her felt his hair stand on end.

Johnsa tossed away her shield, and hefted a curved Slandra scimitar. She pushed her way through her men, stalking toward the oncoming Slandra as if she were Death incarnate. Some of her men tried to stop her, but she heard nothing. All she knew was she would rain death and destruction down upon her enemies as long as she drew breath and none would stand in her way. Her men joined her, and when she shrieked in primal fury, they answered her call. Before the sun cleared the horizon, death reigned over the grove.

It was the sound of scavengers tearing into rotting meat that finally aroused the sleeping figure. The person was covered in cuts, their armor all but shorn from their body. Their fiery hair stood on end. Sitting up, the person was surrounded by the bodies of men and Slandra alike. Looking down at the weapons in her hands, at the blood of both man and snake staining the blades, a scream ripped out of Johnsa’s body that sent every scavenger haring away. The knowledge of what she had done powered that scream, and it went on for an eternity. Darkness fell again before Johnsa collapsed again in the circle of death she had created.

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