A test of honor, p.23
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       A Test of Honor, p.23

           Justin Hebert
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  Chapter 23

  "It is better to win a battle through trickery than to lose it through stupidity."

  - Quendon Franklin, 23 Joon, 1788 AC

  It was another two hours before they took up position on an opposing hill, and by that time Aidan saw that they were all wearing the Crest of Kiefernwald, which surprised him. He had been expecting the bloody bear's paw of Meadows. Yet, it was Lord Kiefernwald whose claim he was challenging, and if he had been declared Marshal, that was good news for Aidan's ramshackle Redtail army. Lord Kiefernwald is not known for his prowess on the battlefield.

  A young lad no older than thirteen dressed in ragged clothes bearing the Tigers' Crest - a red encircled set of white feline jaws on a black field - sprinted by his horse, and Aidan whistled for him to stop. He gave him orders to find Rodrig, Connel, and Ygretta from the central formation and have them meet him in front of the battle line. The boy swore at him at first, but Aidan reached for his mace, and the boy scampered to obey, asking everyone he came across where he could find such people. Aidan wouldn't have really hit him of course, and he felt guilty tapping into a fear instinct potentially given to him by abusive authority. But this was no time for insubordination.

  "Not as many as we figured," Rodrig said. "Could be a trap."

  "Perhaps. The arrangements could have fallen through, or some of his vassals and allies may have met with disasters of their own. All we know is what lies before us."

  "Aidan, I thought you said this wasn't going to be easy?" Ygretta laughed as she trotted up to him and Rodrig. "If this is the best Meadows can do, perhaps we ought to march on Wishon after liberating Barrowdown?"

  "One battle at a time, Lady Ygretta," Aidan said. Then his voice grew serious. "I will see Wishon returned to your family's custody. Even if I have to fight the King himself for it."

  She nodded, her eyes welled up a bit, but she sniffed away the tears and sighed. Aidan felt suddenly ashamed that he hadn't considered the Deumars and their sacrifice but a few times during this whole ordeal. How would their House be restored? Was their father even still alive? Marke and Ygretta had proven his closest confidants and friends in joining his rebellion, and he had not spared a single thought to wonder how their own Duchy was surviving without them. Or whether it had already been occupied by their own Lord Kiefernwald.

  First, Barrowdown. Then Wishon. If they won handily today, they could press on to Wishon easily enough, especially if Marke and his Cavalry ever found them. Since withdrawing the sentries in preparation for combat, Aidan had grown nervous about their arrival. He was still confident they could defeat the troops arrayed opposite them, but losses would be considerably smaller with five hundred Cavalry to harry the enemy with heavy charges and harassing missiles and Plaz.

  "Shall we call parlay?" Aidan asked his friends. These three had been chosen as his parlay retainers, Ygretta for the protection provided by her Nobility, Connel and Rodrig because they knew their way around any weapon they held. Aidan had asked Charlene, but she laughed and admitted that she wouldn't be able to resist teasing some pompous Lord about his manhood. They're already provoked enough, Marke had said. We want them just angry enough to make a mistake, not so angry that they inspire courage in their men.

  Aidan raised his hand to a nearby banner bearer, who held his pole aloft so that it stretched nearly as tall as the trees behind them. He opened his mouth to order the raising of the parlay flag, a triangular banner bearing three red stripes on a white field, when Rodrig and Connel gasped. Their eyes were wide with shock and mouths still agape at the horizon. Aidan looked and nearly dropped his helm as he saw a second army emerge from behind the large group that displayed Kiefernwald's Crest. They took up position on a wider hill adjacent to the initial group, and Aidan counted their number; there were at least a thousand. They were mostly heavy Footmen with Plaz pikes, but a good number of fully plated Cavalry guarded their flanks.

  "Sir," Rodrig said, "I don't understand."

  "I do," Connel said, pausing to spit before he continued. "It's the Hidden Eel formation. They line up far behind the main force and send out sentries to guard against spies. The arrow our man took was probably from one of those bastards."

  Connel pointed to the left flank of the larger army, and Aidan noticed the conical tasseled hats and unstrung bow staves. Dressed in the style of the raiders of years long passed, these bow Horsemen were part of a tribe of the Mardoni called the Menkhál who lived on the Wild Plains and hunted game. They usually fought against the King's men, but in recent decades had turned mercenary and would take up the cause of anyone with enough coin.

  "That complicates things," Aidan said, putting the situation mildly. Constant hails of arrows would make fighting more difficult even for the fully armored among them, and threaten to kill what few horses they had. He put on his helm and zoomed to examine this new threat. The Crest they displayed was still blurry at this distance, but he clearly saw some kind of large lumpy mass near the bottom of its circle and four smaller lumps dotting just over its top. There was no doubt in his mind that it was a bear's paw: the Crest of House Meadows.

  We meet again at last, Aidan thought, remembering their last encounter. The man had shot him directly in his helm-covered face with a Plaz pistol, hard to forget such an experience. As the incident painted itself fully in his mind, he remembered what lesson it taught him. Direct your anger, or it will direct you. He had allowed the clever old bear to goad him into rash action, even to the point of taking up arms against Royal Guards. He scanned the Deputy's troops, but did not see the King's Crest among them. It gave him little comfort as he considered their odds.

  "They raise a banner, M'Lord." Rodrig pointed to the large army led by Aidan's mortal enemy and the red-striped white triangle banner of parlay that flapped in the wind above them.

  "Charlene!" he called. She trotted to them on her small bay and took off her helm. Her braided hair fell out, and she flipped it to the side as it breathed the midmorning air. Even in Kannitick Plate, she is more beautiful than any silk-decked princess. "I leave command to you, Lieutenant, until we return."

  "Aye, Sir," she saluted, for once knuckling her forehead without a hint of irony or mockery. She looked him in the eyes and gave a reassuring expression, as if saying, I am with you.

  "Deputy Meadows is a clever man," he told the parlay retainers and Charlene, "but is bound by the honor of chivalry. More than likely, he is not planning to assassinate us, but if he does," he looked Charlene fiercely in the eye and her serious expression only cracking a little, hinting at worry, "take the army into the woods and disperse!"

  Charlene opened her mouth as if to protest, but he spoke before she had the chance.

  "That is an order, Lieutenant! If we don't survive this parlay, you run." He pointed to the tree line for emphasis. "Take the Soldiers and seek refuge in the forest. Run and don't look back."

  Aidan and his retainers galloped to around the halfway point between their band and the two armies arrayed against them. They waited for what felt like a long time, and their horses began to snort and shuffle as they grew nervous in turn. As Aidan was about to give the order to withdraw, two armored Horsemen galloped across the front of the larger force, joining with two likewise armored and mounted Soldiers in front of Lord Kiefernwald's troops. The four rode quickly to meet them, and Aidan patted Midnight's neck as the beast breathed quickly beneath him, eager for battle.

  The enemy negotiators slowed as they approached, holding up empty hands to display that they were unarmed. While Aidan was certain that any underhanded attack would stain Lord Meadows' reputation enough to warrant his removal as Deputy, he wasn't eager to give his life for that cause. Let me at least die armed, he thought, feeling with his right hand at the empty space at his side.

  All of their opponents had opened their faceplates save for one bearing the Meadows Crest. Aidan was fairly certain that the older Saukasi man was the Lord himself, his chin and jaw heavy with white whiskers and his armor
bearing the Kiefernwald Crest. The squatter who's been sleeping in my father's bed. His round face was twisted with contempt, and the rounded shape of his Kannitick Armor indicated that he was a heavy man, but he shifted every few moments in his saddle as though uncomfortable with military life.

  "My conditions are as follows," Lord Kiefernwald said, leering. "First, that you renounce your claim to Barrowdown and recognize my own. Second, that you swear yourself to one of the Orders and thus relinquish your right to own land. Third, that your army disband. If you swear an oath to these ends right now, you and all your friends will be pardoned."

  Aidan scoffed at the ridiculous demands. They aren't even bothering with bribery any more. Still, he knew that his best strategy was to delay the conflict as long as he could. Every second brought Marke and his Cavalry closer to them, or so he hoped. I have to believe they are coming.

  "Here are my conditions," Aidan said, deciding to rebut the claim with equally ridiculous demands. "First, that you renounce your claim to my family's ancestral home in which we've lived for seven generations. Second, that you and the Deputy lay down arms and return to your homes. Third, that I be allowed to bring suit against both of you to the King himself, as is my Noble right."

  Lord Kiefernwald laughed and shook his head while the helmed Soldier sat perfectly still. Aidan smiled. They underestimate us. Good. Pride can be a strength or a weakness.

  "You're just as crazy as he says," Lord Kiefernwald said, jabbing a thumb at the helmed warrior.

  "This is fruitless," the helmed man said, finally speaking for the first time. "We will let the gods decide."

  "Why do you speak to me from behind your faceplate, Sir?" Aidan asked, pretending he was uncertain that the armored man who bore the Meadows' bear paw Crest was anyone other than the House's patriarch.

  "I show my face only among equals," he chided, jabbing an armored finger at Aidan. "You and your rabble are beneath me."

  "You should also know," Lord Kiefernwald said, smiling as though about to devour a dinner feast, "that even if you should somehow prevail against us, Barrowdown has been secured. Your agent died cursing you."

  Rodrig's face blanched, and Aidan felt his own stomach threatening to empty. They all knew that Woodsen may lose his life, but to hear this man bragging about killing him like this was more than they could bear.

  "Ferguson's head now hangs in a cage over the North Gate." Lord Kiefernwald sat back and grinned, clearly enjoying the effect his words were having on them. Aidan breathed a sigh of relief, sad for Ferguson but glad that Woodsen had somehow escaped the Guardsman's noose.

  "He was a good man," Rodrig said, huffing and turning crimson as he spoke, "and you are nothing but a pimply barnacle on the Deputy's ass."

  Lord Kiefernwald scowled at the base insult, and Aidan held back a chuckle. Ygretta and Connel shook their heads with amusement.

  "We are finished here," the Deputy said, speaking first to Lord Kiefernwald and then turning to Aidan's group. "We give no quarter to outlaws."

  "Your men had better pray that we do," Aidan said, pointing to Lord Kiefernwald accusingly, "because I recognize neither your right to squat in my family's estate and rob its citizens," he jabbed his finger at the Deputy, "nor your right to sit at the King's right hand and use your office for personal gain. Both of you are outlaws to me."

  Aidan's enemies spurred their horses round and laughed as they galloped back as though he had told some terribly funny joke. His anger burned so hot he felt he might roast under his thick coat of armor and padded Kevlan burgeonet. He and his retainers flew to their own battle line, and Charlene greeted their return.

  "Why do you all look so sad?" she asked, handing him his mace, dagger, and short sword. "Our enemies shall soon plant funeral trees."

  "We haven't won the battle yet," Aidan growled, pulling his faceplate firmly down and shouting a command for everyone to make ready. Each division commander passed the order to their Captains, who shouted them at their platoons. Archers strung their bows, crossbow Marksmen carefully gathered their deadly elemental bolts and steel quarrels as well, and Musketeers loaded their weapons and locked back the hammers. Melee Soldiers drew their weapons and began beating their shields, and Aidan drew his own mace, but first adjusted two pistols he had acquired on his right hip, both prepped and needing only a trigger squeeze to discharge one of the two shots they secretly carried. Here's hoping our little surprise makes a big difference.

  Lord Kiefernwald advanced his troops, who looked to Aidan to be mostly armed with melee weapons just as the scouts reported. Does he really think he'll win without muskets or bows? Perhaps he expected the Deputy to support his Footmen, but Lord Meadows' troops held their ground.

  "Shouldn't we be getting a rain of arrows by now?" Connel asked, shoving his helm onto his head and fastening the gorget. "What the hell are the Menkhál waiting for?"

  Aidan wondered this as well. Horse Archers were invaluable in a situation like this: The defenders would be less than eager to risk expending their own Cavalry early in the battle, when they may use them to hammer the pressing force's flanks. Menkhál raids a thousand years ago were one of the driving factors behind the development of Kannitick Armor, or so the legends told them. But only around half of Aidan's army had fully functioning suits, the others settling for plate or hardened leather.

  "A misstep," Aidan replied. "Perhaps the Deputy has grown over-cautious in his later years." But even he didn't really believe it. Perhaps the King had given some condition for his larger force's engagement, or maybe House Kiefernwald had made itself a nuisance and he had his own designs for Barrowdown. None of that mattered now, though, as the full-armored Footmen reached the place on the field where Aidan and his retainers had so recently parlayed.

  "Have the Archers make ready, and tell the Musketeers to check arms." Ygretta relayed the messages to runners who hastened to inform the division commanders, and soon Aidan was hearing the commands echoed across the line by the Sergeants. Soon the melee Soldiers were trudging up the hill, holding their shields tight in a firm wall as expected.

  "You designed this defense," Aidan said to Ygretta, who smiled proudly at his recognition. "Take command of it."

  She nodded, then told her runners to give the order to fire. Soon enough, the enemy line erupted with Plaz discharge, purple-red flames bouncing off the shields. The enemy line was unaffected, but this was exactly as planned. She had trained the platoon commanders well enough to know she didn't need to give the order a second time. As soon as the advancing Footmen dropped their shields, the Plaz erupted against their armor and knocked the front three ranks backward on top of each other.

  There was confusion in the enemy ranks, and Ygretta shouted a new order now: Daggers. The Shieldmen protecting the Redtail's frontline pulled their heavy targes to the side and between them rushed light-armored troops bearing the hip daggers Aidan had taught them how to use so well. The next few moments were terrible; Kiefernwald's men were slaughtered mercilessly as they struggled to stand and were instead dispatched by the troops which Aidan himself had trained so many months ago to do just this. It made him sick to his stomach, but he told himself it was necessary. Battle is ugly, and should be avoided. Katisha's words were never more true.

  The Sergeants gave the order to pull back, but one young man was struggling to remove his dagger from a dead Soldier's throat, the blade stuck between the gorget and breastplate. He pulled it free, but was stabbed in the back by an enemy swordsman as he tried to escape the now-recovered line. They pressed forward, this time meeting with the phalanx-style defense of Aidan's frontline.

  "Cavalry flank," he said, and Ygretta called out the order. Lightly armored and unarmored horses grouped together behind the battle line and went toward the enemy host's left flank. They circled around and, not unlike the times many of them had used the herd hunting technique that Charlene had coined, they rode in a concave formation to encircle a small isolated squadron of the enemy who had become separated
from their main body. The besieged enemy troops fell quickly, attacked from two places at once.

  The Horsemen circled around again and this time carved a small group out from the rear who hesitated to join in their fellow Soldiers' charge. Aidan was watching their right flank, eager to counter any Cavalry who dared tried to use their own tactic against them. Screams of horses erupted from where their platoon of Horsemen had been slaughtering enemy troops, and he saw that they had been countered by the Kiefernwald heavy Cavalry, who put them to flight. A few fled the field completely, but three circled around and returned to their position behind the line. The others were all slaughtered. In the distance, Aidan saw movement from the Deputy's great host, but it was only a small contingent of the Menkhál horse Archers who departed, likely to hunt the cowards who had abandoned Aidan's cause.

  More explosions of Plaz erupted, this time from just behind the enemy battle line. The platoons' Musketeers had placed their weapons in the small valley created by theirs and the enemy shields and fired. Now they fired again, and the air was thick with the horrid sounds of men screaming and moaning and crying for help. It was said, Aidan remembered, that the sound of an enemy screaming is a symphony for a warrior. Somehow he didn't feel like singing along.

  Despite the fact that only fifteen of the Redtails had fallen between the countered Cavalry and the careless young Daggerman, they were being pushed back. To Aidan's left, their battle line exploded when Grenadiers tossed their deadly ordnance deep into their ranks. The left flank was collapsing as a result, drifting behind the main line of battle and threatening to allow an envelopment.

  "Follow me!" Aidan yelled to his platoon of War Council members and bodyguards.

  "Aye!" yelled Rodrig, drawing his short sword.

  Though they were ten, they rode as one, galloping quickly behind the line, Aidan praying they didn't arrive too late. They circled around the edge of the collapsing left flank, Connel and Charlene screaming encouragement as they went. Aidan saved his strength, certain he would need it to prove himself against the Kiefernwald heavy Cavalry.

  They rode behind the enemy line and spotted the small squad of Grenadiers who had devastated their left flank with their deadly explosives. They were preparing for another toss, twisting the small bloated cylinders and holding them behind their bodies so that their torsos faced Aidan and his warriors.

  "Plaz!" he yelled, his left hand crossing his body to draw one of his pistols. Charlene had been faster, her staff's crescent head now resting against her shoulder as she discharged the explosive Plaz right into the Grenadier closest to them. He stumbled back and dropped his grenade, and Aidan and the others fired their weapons a split second afterward. There was an explosion that he'd only seen rivaled by the terrible cannon fire he'd seen in the War in the Heavens. The memory's shadow gave him a small pause to thank his House gods again that he had not dreamed the night before.

  Their left flank appeared to recover, and he was about to give the order to fall back to their place behind the line when Connel called out, "Horsemen!"

  Aidan looked and smiled behind his faceplate as he saw the approach of the Kiefernwald heavy Cavalry, swords and spears drawn and ready to fight. He waved at their own line and saw the faces of the reserve troops turn their attention to him. Watch this, he thought. I am about to show you how we will win.

  He aimed his pistol and fired at one of the mounts of a charging Horseman, choosing one of the bastards holding a spear similar to how they held lances at the tourneys he'd fought in so long ago. The animal erupted in flame and blood and screams, and the man fell. Because Aidan was focused on him, his Kannitick Armor focused its enhanced hearing and as the man fell there was a great cracking and snapping of bone and ligament as his fellows compacted his corpse into the mud beneath.

  The others used the secondary blast of their Plaz muskets to fire upon the armored horses and kill the riders, leaving only ten of their original thirty left. Aidan put his empty pistol back at his hip, feeling the magnetic pull when it came within a finger's space. He considered using the other, but felt he needed a more visceral outlet for the battle rage that welled up within him. He felt like a caged animal hurling its body against the bars of its prison. He drew his mace and called for a charge and although Midnight was apparently so eager for battle that he charged ahead of the others, though he could not hear the steady cadence of their hooves thump-crumping on either side, he knew they were with him. He held his mace far out to his right side and smashed it right into the covered face of the first Horseman he encountered. The Kannitick helm crumpled beneath the rage of his swing and speed of his mount. Its wearer went slack and fell from his saddle.

  The others met with good fortune in their charges as well, though he had to help Rodrig fend off a Horseman who possessed that rare combination of size and speed. The man was as tall as Erick at least, and nearly as wide. But even he couldn't fend off two attackers for long, and when Rodrig disarmed him he jumped from his horse and sought the protection of the crush of Footmen to their right. Rodrig cursed, but Aidan shouted for joy. All around him, with regular rhythm, the enemy falling beneath the Redtail pole-axes that jabbed at them from the valleys between shields as well as the bills the younger Soldiers thrust under those great targes and tripping them.

  "We should return," he said to his retainers, and they all nodded except for Connel.

  "I think we ought to hit them in the flank," he pointed to the nearest cluster of Kiefernwald's Soldiers who all had their backs turned to them. "Drive the victory home."

  "If we faced only them, I would say yes," Aidan said, nodding at Connel with approval. "But the Lord Deputy still waits, and we must reform our battle line if we have any hope of victory still."

  Connel appeared to consider this for a moment, then shrugged and nodded. They circled their horses back behind their line, yelling encouragement to the left flank who appeared to have gained a new eagerness at the example Aidan and the other Cavalry had given them. Ygretta reported that the muskets had been reloaded and were ready for another double volley, only waiting for Aidan's order.

  "I see no reason to prolong this any longer," Aidan said, smiling at his army's discipline. "Another two shots should send them running, or get them near enough."

  "Aye, Sir!" Ygretta had never sounded more enthusiastic. She shouted for muskets to make ready, waiting until she heard the command echoed and saw most of the Musketeers place their deadly blasters right on the crest of the shield valleys. When they were ready, she gave the order to fire. The Musketeers took a quick step forward, just enough to ensure that their weapons' muzzles were just over the enemy's shield wall, and exploded with the deadly purple fire that now completely collapsed the enemy line. The next time they fired, it was into the backs of routed Soldiers.

  The warning signs were there, and Aidan meant to prevent disaster. He gave Ygretta strict orders to ensure that the Soldiers didn't become too eager and chase after the routers. Still, some began sprinting after, and before it could be stopped they were already looting the bodies of dead enemy Soldiers. Aidan and the retainers rode to the front of them, and Aidan fired his Plaz pistol in the air with a terrific snap-bang!

  "All of you back to the line now!"

  "But they ain't even moving!" one of the Tiger Soldiers yelled, a big dark fellow with a curiously light-brown hair and beard.

  "Back to the line, or you will suffer the consequences!" Aidan aimed his pistol at the man's head, and his target flinched as though certain he was about to be granted a fiery death. There was a tense few moments when the other men who'd run out for a quick loot glowered at him, some of their hands moving as though toward their hips for weapons. Aidan couldn't help but remember the mutiny that he'd helped put down when fighting on New Mongolia. He had cursed the commanders for allowing it to happen, and here he was pointing a weapon at one of his own Soldiers' heads. This is the way it has to be. This is the way it has always been.

  Slowly, steadily, the looters with
drew back to their position on the line. Aidan put his pistol back on his hip, unclicking the hammer so that it wouldn't discharge by accident. Ygretta was yelling commands directly to the platoon commanders, who could all hear her as an almost restful quiet descended over them. She pulled up her faceplate and looked expectantly at Aidan.

  "You all fought well," he began, "and I am proud to be called your leader. The Lord Deputy told me that he considers us all outlaws. Now that I have fought by your side, it is a title I bear proudly!"

  A quick cheer went up from the army, and he held out his hand to silence it after a moment.

  "There is still work to be done." He glanced at the Deputy and his great host, still more than twice their number. Why do they wait? Perhaps the Deputy thought Aidan foolish enough to try and attack his heavy entrenched Soldiers. But if they thought we were fleeing ... it was worth trying. "Fall back quickly to our secondary position behind the battlements!"

  Trying to give them an example to follow, Aidan spurred Midnight, and he galloped hard for the tree line. The platoon Sergeants shouted encouragements, and the entire army ran, as quick as jackrabbits, to behind the palisade, spikes, and hidden pit-traps that awaited any foolish enough to charge heedlessly. Division commanders stood near the pits to make sure they were given a wide berth. Aidan relayed orders through his Lieutenants, telling Rodrig to place their forty remaining Cavalry behind the pit on the left wing and the allied outlaw bands behind the pit on the right. Ygretta shouted for Musketeers to reload and anyone with a pistol to have their weapon cocked and ready. A few shields were replaced after suffering damage from grenades, Connel went up and down the line yelling for Archers to make ready and crossbows to load elemental bolts.

  Aidan watched the enemy. They continued to hold their position on the far hill, but even from his great distance he could see the Soldiers were bored and confused. Finally there was movement on their right flank - their four squads of heavy Cavalry, at least fifty Knights in each, began trotting down the hill and advanced on their position. Aidan breathed a sigh of relief; the ruse had worked. No doubt thinking he had left behind some troops to cover their retreat, these young Nobles were likely eager to claim the reward attached to Aidan's life and improve their position.

  The rest of the army began walking, slowly to save their strength. The mounted Knights had reached the midpoint between their two forces and now whipped their reigns so that their horses began a full gallop, steadily gaining speed as they approached their position. He prayed to his House gods that his trickery and obstacles would be enough to survive at least the initial crush. He was still uncertain whether he ought to boldly pray for victory or humbly pray for survival.

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