Vol.1, Ch.3, P.6
“‘Rises’… ye say? The river?” said Raakel. “What’s this ’bout, muscle-pate? Waggin’ that tongue ‘gain, are we?”
“Nay!” I shot back. “We cannot tarry! Our men, they must fall back immediately! Lest they—!”
“Rolf! Tame yourself…!” Emilie soothed with urgency. “None here can issue such an order. You know that…!”
…She was right. Absolutely so.
Losing my composure was ill enough. Losing it here, upon a blasted battlefield of all places, however…
Little wonder that Rolf Buckmann, addle-pated prodigy, remained yet a swain, a cur-pup pouncing at shadows.
With a deep chestful of air, I stilled the storm inside.
“My Lady. The waters have risen by half a digitus. Little, true, but it won’t stop there—no, it only rouses the currents all the more. The forders will soon find themselves fighting the flow rather than our foes. Left as they are, the waters will surely claim them.”
Just having water up to his knees is enough to sweep a man off the ground. The forders were no different. The river had crept up to their rear guard’s thighs. And the front? Up to their waists. I had no doubt: they would surely be rooted in place, resisting the rising depths, and when the waters surge at last, they would be left to vanish into the murky rapids.
And along with them?
“If there’s any meat to your maunderings, then I would have you explain yourself at once,” Tallien hissed.
“The proof lies in the risen waters,” I answered. “Sir, the tributary—it’s been dammed.”
The mareschal’s brows furrowed. “…Dammed?”
“I must away!”
I bolted from the Owlcranes’ company and slid down the hilled overlook’s slopes, tumbling as I went. Landing at its base, I bolted forth once again. My destination: the Des Ailes Greatbridge.
The war council.
I should have realised it then.
Also drawn upon it was a tributary cutting away from the Erbelde and running through Nafílim territory. Damming it would feed the main river, fattening its girth and flogging its flows into a frothing frenzy—a foul manoeuvre that would pen the end to the tales of Felicia and her fellow forders.
Behrmann was there.
Under-Mareschal Francis Behrmann of the 1st.
Relaying the situation to him won’t do. Time was scant. Only the head of the whole knightly host could suffice. Mareschal Tiselius—with her direct order, the forders would surely pull back, no questions asked.
This was it.
After sprinting with great dispatch, I arrived at the bridgehead. Death and desperation reigned here, damning every soul into an unceasing whirlwind of violence…
Voices demanding coordination.
Voices requesting treatment.
Voices reporting situations.
Voices screaming for the vulnerable wounded.
A palpable, heated cacophony, one that immediately struck and offended each of the senses.
The frantic fighters here—only a moment before was I speaking of them from so high and safe a perch, as if they were curious little ants to be fancied.
‘You pretend well the touting pontiff.’ Truer have Gerd’s words never been, and they now bit all the more balefully.
How ashamed I was.
But shame greater still awaited me were I to tarry any longer.
I threw myself onto the veritable wall of knights, forcing my way through their bristling ranks. ‘Sorry’ wasn’t enough for intruding upon their life-wagering war like I did. Yet those same wagers, and those of each and every forder, had fallen to my very hands.
“Yield the way! Yield!” I yelled over the tumult. “The mareschal! I must speak with the mareschal! An urgent matter! Urgent!”
Through the bridge I struggled, pushing aside the knights of the 1st. Where my way was shut, I pried them from whence they fought and squeezed my way through—at no worse time could the inconvenience of being so large a man rear its ugly face.
Bathed in the growls and gripes of the victims of my haste, I somehow alighted at her presence: there she was, Tiselius, fresh from stepping back from the frontline, her blushing platinum hair a rare splash of beauty against the death-drab of battle. Her voice was raised high, dictating the next movements of the frontline fighters and handing orders down the ranks further behind.
“Damned waif!” came a bitter roar. “This is no playground!”
Paying him no mind, I raised a roar of my own.
Her gaze darted to me. “You… why, you’re the swain from the 5th!” said the hero-dame, puzzled but for the slightest moment. “Leave it for later!”
A suitable reaction. Who could blame her? The surrounding war-storm demanded her fullest attention at every instant. There was no time to coddle this cur of a swain. But this time was like no other: it was an emergency.
“Later is late overmuch! The river, Mareschal!”
“It surges! Soon!”
Her eyes widened.
“Spare us your fanciful spitting! Any more and I’ll cut you!” came Lindell yet again with a gashing threat.
The river’s climb had clearly eluded his ken. Even now, it was rising. Steadily, but higher still—a full digitus since I last inspected. But Lindell was not alone in his unknowing. Far from it. It wouldn’t have been strange for even the forders themselves to be oblivious to the creeping peril.
Yet no moments were left to spare before the straw would break the camel’s back. Water is fickle. Rivers even more so. In the blink of an eye, a slender snake of a stream can swell into a surging, sundering serpent.
Such was not lost to Tiselius, who peered down to the Erbelde. Fright then flashed across her face—she saw, and knew.
“The enemy has dammed the tributary! There’s no time; the forders must retreat!” I loudly pleaded again, and her sword answered. Up it rose, high, for all the 1st to behold. From her lungs to her lips erupted pure thunder, a voice more vast than her figure could seemingly conceive.
“Forders, all! Heed me now! Withdraw at once! I repeat, all forders! Withdraw at once!”
Shock beset the entirety of the river crossers, their eyes stretched round in light of the sudden order—Tiselius’ vociferous command had reached them, it seemed. The exigency in her voice impelled them to action: the 1st’s forders initiated their withdrawal, with the rest soon following suit.
For her part, Tiselius wasted not a grain of the hourglass. Her mind back to the battle, further orders flew from her lips.
“6th Squad, onward! 4th Squad, pull back and recover! 3rd sorcerers, make ready! The paling must return upon the next shift!”
Yet those same lips would be lightly bitten, an expression betraying the question that now roiled within her: ‘Why hadn’t I noticed sooner?’
But time was up.
The fates sneered upon us.
The Erbelde’s grip was fast about the forders’ legs—they could move no further. The columns’ rear guards, once wading through the shallows, also found themselves barely able to budge, for the shallows were shallow no more.
Only a scant few minutes prior were these souls making headway across the river. Now, they were all of them halted, with their swords and staves thrust into the riverbed for support, to better bear themselves against the burgeoning flow. Unease seized their faces, but the tide, teeming and teeming still, spared them no solace.
The forders were now trapped.
To be washed away was inevitable, should they choose to stay and resist the river. But what else was available to them? They could not move. And now the Nafílim were keen upon their plight. Arrows and magicks were made ready as scythes, and the forders were as wheat for the coming harvest, for they could neither raise their shields nor wave their wands in resistance any longer.
The yield was bloody and bountiful.
The mere sight of it left the bridge-stationed brigades aghast. For half a minute, they stalled, struck. These knights of the 1st were all valiant fighters, unebbing in their efforts to hold the line for so long a time.
And so to stand there, bewildered as they were, was a blunder soon to be unforgiven.
The end of that fleeting, frozen moment found the Nafílim presence thinned upon the bridge. Time slowed to a crawl as I witnessed all that followed.
The foes began to fall back from the frontline. None of ours endeavoured a pursuit. In the wake of our enemy’s retreat were crates.
Crates of wood.
A whole array of them, sitting upon the bridge.
I pushed through the knightly crowd, and to the frontlines began a desperate sprint.
‘Spellwaters, to the front,’ I heard.
She was close behind, equal in her haste, yelling, yelling.
Too late. Our foes have all fled the bridge. Arrows flew aflame, aimed straight at the wooden boxes.
My feet neither halted nor turned heel. Rather they took me further, over and past those crates, pushing me further into the unmanned span. Ardent arrowfire formed a glowing canopy overhead. With all of my strength funnelled to my legs, I rushed under and past it.
There were others behind me with the same idea. Tiselius amongst them, of course. Of the others, I could not discern. There was no time to look back and know.
And the crates.
Thinking further of their purpose was useless. Their contents were no mystery either.
Black powder. Serpentine. Quickfire.
The boxes were explosives.
All of them.
The air coughed. The sound of flaming arrows finding their marks. My ears heard. My heart sank.
Thinking further of what would follow, too, was useless.
Eternity shrank into an instant. An instant stretched on infinitely.
From behind me flashed an ear-splitting sound, a rush of heat, a wall of air.
I catapulted through the air, thrown like some ragged toy, only to land upon where else but the enemy banks. Chips and splinters of timber showered down upon my entire being—pieces of the Des Ailes Greatbridge.
Bites and stings harried every nook and corner of my body. A creature by the name of ‘pain’, but it was no carrion bird—not yet a corpse was I.
Death had not taken me.
If this be his mercy, then there was still much to do.
My body quivered all about in my laboured attempt to get back on my feet. This was the opposite bank, the den of our foes. No good would come from just lying about.
I scanned through my surroundings, finding little, hearing less. I was in the thick bowels of a great shroud of dust, and an incessant ringing screeched at my ears. Nothing could be gleaned.
Desperation took hold as I rose and wiped the blood coursing over my eyes. Disoriented, I peered across my environs once more, my glances wending every which way. Just then, there appeared for an instant a break in the occluding dust. Through it was revealed a vista—one that I dreaded the most.
The bridge was no more. Shattered. Unmade.
The brave souls of the 1st that once fought upon it were now as vagrants, vanquished and left to scatter to the four winds.
The floundering forders were yet fixed against the riverflow’s fury, their fate it was to be either swallowed by the waters or shot to pieces by our enemy.
The knights of Londosius.
None could feign a look upon the scene and so much as whisper any doubt that the day was lost.
(plural: digitī) A unit of measure used by the ancient Romans, taken from the width of a finger. 1 centimetre is equal to 0.5405 of a digitus. A digitus, therefore, can be roughly equated to 2 centimetres.