Trianal looked at him, then back at the trees from which the birds had come, and his mind raced.
There might be any number of perfectly ordinary explanations for their behavior, including an abortive pounce by one of the wildcats who made the Bogs their home.
But he couldn’t discount Yarran’s veteran distrust of coincidence. Yet the trees were a good hundred yards from where the ravine entered the woodland.
If there was someone in there, then they were a long way from the only reasonably clear path through the tangled brush.
But the oaks weren’t very far back from the edge of the undergrowth.
Just far enough for the dense brush and saplings to screen anyone hiding behind them, but not far enough to prevent a horseman from forcing his way out of them . . . “Bugler,” he snapped, “sound ‘Column, Halt’!” * * * “Damnation!” Fahlthu muttered viciously as the sweet notes of a bugle sounded and the column trotting down the bank of the ravine slowed in instant response.
He slammed his right fist down on his kneecap, hard enough to startle a twitch out of the horse under him, but it was too late to change his plans now.
The underbrush which had concealed his spread-out troops from his enemies’ approaching scouts also prevented the quick lateral passage of orders down the length of his formation.
He’d had to give his men their instructions before he sent them to their positions, and he couldn’t change them now—not without using his own bugles, which would have given away the game just as surely as what was about to happen. And not in time to stop it, anyway. * * * Trianal watched his column of fours slow to a walk, then stop.
His lead scouts had already been sixty or seventy yards in advance when the bugle call sounded.
Now they were almost to the edge of the woods, still opening the gap, and he saw two of them turning in their saddles to look back towards the main body even as they continued trotting forwards. And then a deadly storm of arrows exploded out of the brush. * * * Darnas Warshoe didn’t curse.
He was too disciplined for that, despite the provocation, but it was tempting.
He couldn’t really blame Fahlthu’s men.
They’d had their orders, and they’d obeyed, firing as soon as the lead Glanharrow scouts reached the specified range.
But the bugle call which had abruptly stopped the main column had opened the interval between them and the rest of their force.
Not a single scout survived the sudden, overwhelming onslaught, yet their very proximity had drawn a heavy concentration of fire away from their more distant comrades.
Coupled with the greater range to the column, that meant the main force’s casualties had been far lower than they ought to have been. Even more irritating from Warshoe’s perspective, it meant the range to Sir Yarran and Sir Trianal was much greater than it should have been.
Still, there was a chance, he reflected, and tucked the butt of the arbalest firmly against his shoulder. * * * Wounded men and horses screamed under the sudden, surprise onslaught, and Trianal’s heart seemed to stop as he watched the wall of arrows sweep his scouts from their saddles.
At least a dozen warhorses were down, as well, half of them screaming and kicking, and his mind seemed stunned into frozen immobility. Which made it even stranger when he heard his own voice barking orders. “Sound ‘Fall Back,’ then ‘Skirmish Order’ and ‘Guide on Me’!” that voice which sounded so much like his own said.
Something whizzed viciously past him, but he paid it no heed. “Standard, follow me!” The bugler began to sound the commands, and as the sweet notes flared behind him, Trianal turned his horse and sent the stallion thundering back up the hillside they’d just ridden down.
It wasn’t easy.
Every instinct shouted for him to press forward, get in among the trees and find the archers who had just slaughtered his scouts and were still firing at the rest of his men.
But from the sheer volume of fire, plus the wide frontage from which it had come, the force in front of them was obviously far larger than the one they’d been tracking . . .
And there was no way to tell how much larger. He didn’t know if the trail they’d followed had been designed from the beginning as a bait to lure them into a deliberate ambush, but that was what had happened.
If he tried to drive a charge home into that kind of terrain, against a possibly superior force of prepared archers spread out over such a wide frontage, all he would achieve was the massacre of his own command.
And if he spurred forward, joining his men as they fought to obey the bugle’s commands, he would simply be one more armsman—one more target for the hidden archers. He needed to stay out of that confusion and chaos if he meant to exercise any sort of control.
And he had to keep his standard—the visual orienting guide his troop commanders would look for as they pulled back into their new formation—out of those plunging, screaming horses and cursing armsmen. He pulled up, turning his horse once more, as he reached the military crest of the hill, and his jaw clenched.
The bugler was on his heels, with the standard-bearer just behind him, and the blue-and-white gryphon standard writhed and danced.
The wind of the standard-bearer’s passage blew in through the large, open beak of the screaming gryphon’s head, and the silken, wind-tube body flared wide and proud to its pressure.
Sunlight glittered on the gryphon’s golden head in a splendid show of martial glory, but the truth was hard and cold beyond its bearer. All of Trianal’s scouts were gone, and at least twenty more men lay scattered where the head of his column had been ravaged.
With the scouts added, that was almost a quarter of his entire command.
Many of those men lay motionless, but others writhed and screamed, curled around the arrows buried in their flesh.
He wanted, more than he’d ever wanted anything in his life, to ride to their aid.
They were his men, his responsibility, and he should be down there, seeing to their wounds, not abandoning them. But he couldn’t throw away still more lives, and he forced his jaw to unclench as he saw the rest of his command falling back as he’d ordered.
The column had unraveled, but not into the confusion and rout such an onslaught might well have produced.
And that, he realized, was because of the brief warning his command to halt the column had given his men.
His troopers hadn’t known what was about to happen, but they’d been warned that something was not as it ought to be.
That warning had blunted, however slightly, the surge of panic which even the most experienced armsmen must feel under totally unexpected attack. His order to fall back in skirmished formation had been the right one, too, he realized, although he still had no idea whether reason or instinct had prompted him to give it.
In either case, it had opened the column, making it a more spread-out target, less vulnerable to massed archery, even as the same order pulled it back, opening the range.
And, just as importantly, it had been proof there was still someone in command, someone providing the authority to hold them together as a cohesive force. Now he had to find out what he’d held them together to face. * * * This time, Darnas did swear, albeit in a deceptively mild tone.
He hadn’t missed by much, but his arbalest bolt had gone flashing by the figure in Balthar’s colors which had to be Trianal Bowmaster.
At that range, even the powerful arbalest would most probably have been defeated by the youngster’s breastplate . . .
But it might not have been, too.
And it almost certainly would have penetrated if it had hit anything but his cuirass or helmet. There was nothing Warshoe could do about that now, so he pulled out the crank of the cocking windless built into the dwarvish arbalest’s stock and began respanning the steel bow.
It wasn’t a speedy process, but that was all right with him.
He had no intention of getting directly involved in what was going to happen next. * * * Sir Fahlthu jerked a hand angrily at his bugler, and the armsman raised his bugle.
It sang out, sounding the command to mount and advance, and his outsized company and the three troops Lord Dathian had assigned to him moved forward. It wasn’t what Fahlthu wanted to do.
Not without having killed more of the enemy, or at least broken them as an organized force, before he engaged.
But his orders from Chalthar and Halnahk left him no choice.
He doubted that there was any real chance of killing every single one of Trianal’s armsmen, whatever Lord Saratic wanted.
Yet he could hardly pretend he hadn’t attacked them, and the men he’d already killed had upped the stakes enormously from simple cattle or horse-stealing raids.
Now that he’d effectively declared war on Glanharrow, his orders left him and his “brigands” no option but to kill as many more as he could. * * * Sir Yarran’s belly muscles tightened as he watched the woodline spawning armsmen in the plain, unmarked leather and cuirasses of outlaws or unemployed mercenaries—if there was a difference.
There were far more than there’d been in the party they’d been pursuing.
At least ten-score, he estimated, and possibly as much as half again that number.
Even without their opening losses, Trianal’s men would have been seriously outnumbered.
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