He hadn’t made it home in time to see her. The thought tormented him, even as he lay in a field of other torments: the cold mud under his elbows, the pain in his wounded sword arm, his fear of the akor’mari making birdcalls across the valley. His sergeant had allowed them a brief rest before they were to march across the ford at the bottom of the valley, and Keelath’s thoughts had turned, as they always did, to Mirium in the lull.
Tyrric had passed the message for him, of course, and passed back the return message of Mirium’s profound joy and gratitude. His euphoria had not even been dampened when his father had found out the true identity of their charity case. Sar’Kata’s luck was instead with him, as Keelon told his son how proud he was for his compassion shown to the truly needy regardless of their station.
That luck seemed to have run out now, unfortunately.
The sergeant was calling them to attention, and Keelath raised himself out of the mud with a groan. With just a hand signal, the line began marching down the steep rocky slope.
As they drew closer to the hidden akor’mari, chitin-trimmed arrows shot between the branches of the evergreen trees. They pinged off Keelath’s mail harmlessly, though he kept his head down and raised his shield to protect his face. The metal surface was tiring to hold up in that position, and naturally the wuyon’mar soldiers began to rotate who led the charge across the stony brook and then up the mountain to their enemies, giving each other a rest.
Keelath’s voice was hoarse as he cried his battle chant, and he winced as he used his hurt arm to plunge his sword into the gray-skinned akor’mari they found, over and over again. They had underestimated the size of the akor’mar clan that had been squatting here, and they were outnumbered. Keelath couldn’t afford a rest or slip. As it was, one of the akor’mar’s pikes pierced his defenses and caught him in the throat. His runed armor defended him, its wards flaring into light and turning the pike so it only left a scratch, though he had to duck a few seconds later as arrows swarmed after him like moths drawn to a candle at night.
The other wuyon soldiers closed around him swiftly, offering their own armored sides to defend him until his mail’s enchantment could recharge. The night went on like that, pushing and pulling back across the slope, and Keelath could barely lift his shield by the end of it, and his sword arm began to ache and sting without his even raising it.
The akor’mari were finally beaten back to yet another hill, and the sergeant called a rest. Keelath sat down amidst the grumbles of the other men. How long could this go on? they groused. The mountains were endless, and so, too, seemed the numbers of their dark cousins.
Keelath listened to the other soldiers, but he didn’t join in the unhappy talk. He felt sorry for them, as they didn’t have what he had to fight for: a beautiful fiance waiting for him at home. Thoughts of Mirium sustained him as he closed his eyes to snatch a swift nap.
They were marching again the next day, stumbling through talus and half-melted snow on the mountain’s side. Though the air was chill, Keelath sweated in his armor. His arm seemed to have only cramped up worse through the night, and he had discarded his shield so he could use his sword in his off hand.
They came down off the side of the mountain in the late afternoon, the men cursing and slipping in weariness. Keelath was too sore to even try to sit down as they came to a stop and the more limber flung themselves down around him. He instead walked stiffly to the sergeant’s side, peering down with him into the vale that opened beyond their feet. The sergeant said nothing, only after a moment slapping Keelath’s good shoulder and turning to join the other soldiers.
Keelath felt a chill that had nothing to do with the mountain weather; usually the sergeant had some comment or another for him when the fighting was good. His silence spoke of more being wrong than just their weariness.
He could see dark shapes moving down below, and suddenly he wished Tyrric was at his side. Tyrric had another year to age before he was eligible for the military, but he was eager to follow in Keelath’s footsteps and that of their father. Keelath had tried to convince him to apply for the officer corps instead; Tyrric had a wit and a quick tongue that’d serve him well as a deviser of tactics. Now that he has seen the full fury of battle himself, Keelath also hoped to save him from the front lines. Tyrric was hardy enough, but he was no rank-and-file, not by Keelath’s estimation. Even still, his exuberance would have been comforting in that moment.
In the end, the sergeant seemed to think their scrap of a mountain slope was as good a place to camp as any. They had a few hours to sleep; the daylight was still strong, and the akor’mari were unlikely to attack until the sun set and the darkness favored their keener eyes. As Keelath volunteered for the first watch, he heard the others speaking hopefully of a cavalry unit due to reach them by the next morning, as well as hopes the akor’mari wouldn’t notice they were here. Judging by the furtive movement he saw along the valley floor throughout the day, Keelath wasn’t so sure, but he kept the gloomy thoughts to himself. The others needed all the hope they could get.
The night was quiet, uneasily so. The akor’mari seemed to relish their growing nerves, letting them toss and turn and worry themselves awake. They attacked just before dawn.
The sergeant ordered his troops into a ring formation, but it seemed the akor had crept up the slopes during the night, and they now sent mini-avalanches of boulders and smaller rocks to crash into the wuyon from above. Their armor’s wards were meant for arrows and blades, not heavy stones, and their line soon broke under the assault.
Keelath leapt on one tall akor’mar from above, his weight and momentum sending them skidding down into a thicket of trees at the base of the mountain. Even using his off hand, the ragged akor was no match for Keelath’s enchanted sword, and Keelath took the ‘mar’s head with one hard swipe. The slide had also saved him, as the main force of the akor’mari battered their way into the army above him, overlooking the single wuyon lost in the trees below.
Keelath hesitated, not wanting to abandon his companions, but the screams up the slope told him his help would be worse than useless. Instead, sheathing his sword, he crept through the brush, cursing the shine off his armor that likely gave his position away even among the tight branches. He reached a gap in the thicket and hesitated, warring with the fear he’d be seen and the dread he had miles to march home if he did manage to get away.
The screams up above suddenly changed their timbre. They grew shriller but also more horsey, and suddenly the fearful voices of the akor’mari joined them. More stones and gravel trickled down the slope and around him, but it was not the work of the akor, but instead increased activity up above.
Keelath looked up, and his heart leapt high even as a wuyon’mar horn sounded, and seven horsemen burst out of the brush around and above him. The rinaani they rode were as sure-footed as deer, leaping across the rocks without fear, wheeling on a given inch to surround the akor’mar bandits and ride them each down.
Another horn blast came and went, and a great black rinaan, bigger than the others, crashed through the trees just behind him. Its flared nostrils were red, and its wickedly sharp horn glinted in the light of the coming sun. It glanced at Keelath from the corner of its eye as it ran past, and heartened, Keelath drew his sword and ran after it.
Its rider checked it before it could trample the rear flank of the bandits, but that didn’t dissuade the rinaan from rearing, tearing at the combatants with sharp cloven hooves and horn. Keelath had heard stories of some of the great rinaani, bearing horns so long they fenced with them in battle, but he had never seen one until now. There was an intelligence in the beast’s eyes as it weaved and parried as cannily as an old squire, and the knight on its back seemed more like a passenger in comparison.
Keelath threw himself into the fray behind it. He was wary of coming behind the rinaan’s rear, for its lesser equine cousins would have reflexively kicked out at him, but in the press he had little choice. He stayed on the rinaan’s flank, using his sword to parry more than thrust, as the enraged akor’mari circled around them both.
The rinaan shrilled a challenge and reared. Keelath wasn’t sure if its rider fell or was shot off first, but the plated figure dropped to the ground with a jarring crash that Keelath could almost feel. The rinaan snorted and bobbed its head in frustration, and Keelath found himself pressed against its sweaty hide as the akor’mari around them grinned and jabbed their spears at him.
The rinaan looked at him again sidelong, and Keelath saw that its reins had caught and tightened around its saddle’s cantle. The tension on its noseband prevented it from fencing as it had before. Keelath hesitated — he would have to drop his sword to correct the foul-up, but it was better than waiting to die without the rinaan’s aid.
The akor’mari stabbed out at his legs as he pulled himself into the saddle. He was just barely atop the rinaan, reins now safely in hand, when the black beast suddenly wheeled under him, nearly flinging him off. He dropped the reins and grabbed for its mane, and the rinaan stilled for just an instant as if it recognized his plight, before plunging on again as soon as it felt Keelath’s hands on its neck.
The rinaan’s charge burst through the trolls’ circle. It impaled at least one on its horn, thick neck muscles rippling as it turned its head aside to let the body slip from the tip. Keelath clung on for dear life as it rejoined its fellows on the hill, bellowing challenges to any akor’mar that dared get in its way.
Although the arrival of the rinaan cavalry had put a dent into the akor’mari’s numbers, it was not enough to win the battle. The wuyon’mar horn sang out again, and Keelath could swear he saw the rinaan’s ears prick before it joined the others in a swift but well-ordered retreat. Keelath felt secure enough to sit up again, but without his sword, he could only sit and watch, as the akor’mari and the last men standing among the infantry disappeared behind the rise of the mountainside.
Grief choked him, and the rinaan seemed to react in kind, pausing at the crest of the hill and whinnying out a query that went unanswered. With a blowing sigh, it turned without Keelath’s bidding and picked its way down into the next valley and to safety.