This is the second chapter of the story.
21 Ascending Water
“Pass the order,” Rafan called down the line to his subordinate officers. “When they attempt to circle the High Blades we run to the creek and bury them in a storm of arrows.”
There were quick nods of assent, it was all going to plan. The rebels, knowing they had to win here or be destroyed when the rest of the Twelfth arrived in two days, had taken the bait. The main body of their assault, unwilling to face the heavy armor of the High Blades, was circling to meet a weaker line to the right, never realizing that Rafan had a full dragon of archers below the slope ready to shoot them from the other side of the creek and the high ground.
Suddenly a youth, one of those teenage southern boys who served as a Legion runner, charged up to the dispersing officers. “Dragonlord!” he gasped, wheezing and gulping for breath.
Rafan knew bad when he saw it, and a runner that tired was almost always bad. It was something anyone who'd spent time in the Legions simply understood instinctively. “Here!” he acknowledged. “Spit it out boy, what's happened?” There was no time for courtesy.
“Wing...lord,” the boy struggled to say the words. “Winglord Deshral, has withdrawn.”
“What?” Rafan thundered, and he spun, eyes gazing to the knobby hill behind his force, the hill Deshral's infantry was supposed to be occupying. He saw no force of troops in matching legion army in battle lines, only brown-cloaked rebel skirmishers scuttling back and forth. “Deshral withdrawn?” the soldier's mind shifted, picturing, as it always did, a mental map of the battlefield, drawn up from real maps assembled hours before. He could see the positions, the terrain, where the men were supposed to be, and what would happen now.
We're flanked...he processed, watching the chain of events unfold in mental vision. The rebels take the hill, then pour through behind his archers, the heavy infantry, committed to the trap, would not be able to redeploy, not with enemies in front, and their position would soon be enveloped. One talon lost and now eight dragons lay in desperate straights. “Why did Deshral withdraw?” Rafan demanded, needing to know, and needing to buy a moment to think, to determine what to do. “He should have been able to hold that hill against a thousand men!”
“He advanced to break a disorganized skirmish force,” the messenger managed, repeating what he had been told, nothing more. “Then a larger body overtook his unit.”
That simpering Ragara dolt! He's ruined us all! The soldier looked at the hill, and matched the ground to the map in his mind. A single, inevitable conclusion emerged. “We can't loose that hill,” he said aloud, low and soft, but clear. “We can't.”
Rafan rose to his full height in an instant. “Second!” he shouted, drawing the attention of his immediate subordinate, a mortal man, but a thirty-year veteran who'd commanded archers in the legions his whole life. A man he could trust to do the right thing. “The trap is lost. We must hold the flank at all costs.” He was consigning the infantry in front of him to a bloodbath, the dragonlord knew, but he had no choice. Besides, he was about to set his archers to worse. “Pass the order, bind bows and up swords. You are to advance in a wedge and take that hill.” He pointed, extending the whole arm. “And then hold at all costs.”
“Sir,” the veteran saluted, there was nothing more to be said. Both knew sending the archers into melee, with simple swords, poor armor, and little training, meant losses would be immense. They also knew questioning was pointless. “And you sir?” the follow-up was quick and effective.
It was time, Rafan knew, to do what he was truly here to do. Not simply lead and command effectively, any skilled mortal could do that, if perhaps not so well as a dragon-blood, no, it was now that he must stand as a hero. For the men, for the Realm, and for the rest of Creation. It was a duty the soldier understood and accepted. He was a prince of the earth, it was in these moments that it was proven.
If only he wasn't forced to prove it to save them from another exalt's incompetence!
“I'm going to buy you time,” he drew his exquisite jade powerbow. “Pass the word to the infantry, we can't help them,” Rafan gave his final order of the day. “Up swords!”
“Swords!” five hundred throats echoed the call, but the dragonlord was already turning, already running towards the hill, and the enemy. Alone.
His men were behind him. The path must be cleared. There was no time for hesitation.
The map in his mind plotted the course. Three quarters of a mile to the top of the hill, rugged scrubland terrain, but no serious obstacles. He could already place a line across his vision of when he would hit a reasonable range.
Pushing his muscles for everything the dragonlord ran hard, boots pounding over the terrain, the leather slashing against rocks, thorns, and clay, but he called on no essence. He'd need all he could acquire in time. The ragged rebels were already beginning to congeal into a unit on the hill, with advanced squads of their ill-ordered horde gathering.
I have to stop that, Rafan knew. It was the critical component. His archers could break through a loose mob, but with their limited weapons and armor had no chance of striking through any sort of formation. Got to keep that hill clear!
His boots scrapped a cluster of pebbles and skidded across the point he had marked. Two hundred and fifty yards.
He drew an arrow to the mighty powerbow, took quick aim, and fired.
The dragonlord did not pause to watch the arrow strike, trusting in his skill and experience, but ran forward again, reaching, grabbing, and notching a second arrow. He slid across the clay and fired again, and then repeated, advancing in stutter-stop motion at the call of his arrows.
Screams broke the air and heads turned as arrows found flesh and claimed lives. Gray-cloaks swirled on the hill, and there was much pointing and milling in panic.
Rafan's bow claimed two more lives before the fools finally dropped for cover.
He made no more moving shots, but charged hard, closing the remaining distance to leap up onto a random boulder in the center of the hill.
Rebels in gray drew swords, clubs, and odd polearms as they advanced. They grunted cries of death to the Realm, to the exalted, and anything else they thought would steel their resolve against this foe.
Rafan figured the odds at fifty to one or worse.
A knife split the air before him. He sidestepped, but more missiles followed, sometimes no more than stones.
Now the exalt let free his essence, throwing power into motion, quickness, and perception, letting his body flow and flicker between the many attacks, stepping around them all.
Even as he dodged and wove Rafan fired back, his bow snapping with brutal speed, sending broadhead shafts with all the force of mystic jade and perfect form through all-too-frail mortal flesh. He jumped from the boulder, ran right, then left, and then backward, zigzagging to confuse his foes and prevent them from rushing him.
Men went down, red blood staining their dark wraps, and few would ever rise again after those strikes, but they came on. Elemental power poured off Rafan as he continued to draw on his supernatural energy to evade, scurrying and scuttling faster than any lizard had ever crisscrossed those stones. Spiny burrs snapped through the air, a swarming cloud of hard-surfaced barbs to express his fury and the power of the elemental dragons within him.
The rebels, not mad, fell back before him, and for a moment Rafan believed he'd succeeded.
Then he ran out of arrows.
“Hell,” he groused when he hand went back to find both quivers empty. He looked about for one moment, noting the absence of any decent vegetation. “The curse of the south,” he spat. In the next instant he strapped his bow to its back harness.
“Rush him!” some nameless rebel officer shouted.
Head snapping around to recognize the voice, Rafan flipped forward, unleashing more power to strengthen limbs and energize muscles. His hands planted and he blasted up and over an astonished swordsman, clearing at least twenty feet in the air.
His pull dagger, drawn from the thigh holster, ripped open the officer's throat.
Then a dozen rebels charged from all sides.
The swarm of burrs thickened and spat wrath as more power burst free, empowering Rafan's motions with superhuman grace, the sword an extension of not simply his arms but his thoughts as he parried and struck, cutting and thrusting with the nasty little double-edged blade. Not a master swordsman, the dragonlord was still an expert, and these were but novices, not able to compete with his skill and overwhelming essence force.
They tried to get behind him, he dove forward, blasting through the mob, letting glancing blows patter uselessly against the formidable green jade lamellar he wore.
Powerful though Rafan's charge was, his essence was not limitless, and the press closed about him, restricting movement. Now enemy officers shouted orders, coordinating the rebel assault, and he could not find room to strike back, could only hold to guard, breathing furiously.
Men got too close, and burrs lashed across their flesh, feral spines cutting deep, drawing out hideous bleeding wounds, as the expression of the dragon's blood claimed its own victims.
One man, tall and cruel, with a jagged scar above one eye, saw this and kicked the back of a fellow, propelling him inexorably into Rafan.
The rebel died without ever being touched by a blade, but his corpse had force all its own.
It was but a split-second pause to shove aside the dead weight, but that was one flickering instant too long.
A spear bit into Rafan's back.
He spun and cut it off, willing the wound to close, barely feeling the pain, but knowing more injuries would come if this continued. He was swiftly being surrounded by bodies, and they pressed against his feet. Soon he would fall, and that would be the end. Got to get free!
Drawing on the last of his essence, Rafan barreled into the scarred man, letting the sword cut, simply hurling his body forward to ruin the blow, trusting his exalt-made armor to secure him from injury. He felt steel slide against the jade plating, tearing and squealing in metal anger, but it failed to penetrate.
The man's eyes went wide as he took the exalt's charge, and was thrown back, unable to fall for his fellows behind him.
Rafan's dagger went in beneath the center plate of his armored buff jacket, and as the man's eyes died before him the exalt threw his left leg up onto the handle of that blade and jumped with all the power remaining to him.
A burr-shrouded bolt in the air, countless seeds cast upon the wind, the dragonlord passed over the press and landed facing his foes, who yet turned to see their enemy behind their focus.
“He's unarmed, kill him!” multiple officers called, recovering from shock, and the mob surged, wriggled, and moved to charge.
“For the Realm!”
Boots thudded past Rafan as two men opened ranks just enough to slide by their commander and run on, as a wedge of drawn swords plunged into the unprepared mob that had forgotten their coming.
Rafan took one second to grab a breath.
Then he swooped to the clay, grabbed a sword from among the fallen, and moved to join his men in battle. It was time to clear this place and hold the line. Exhaustion could wait for later.
* * *
“We should not have trusted in the auxiliary troops,” the speaker used perfectly pronounced High Realm, with excellent diction and a pace that spoke to considerable practice in public speaking. “Their failure to spring the trap as planned resulted in unacceptable casualties among the legion proper.”
The speaker was Ragara Deshral, winglord. He was the exact same commander who had idiotically lost his hilltop position only hours before. At his words several of the legion's senior veteran dragon-blooded openly rolled their eyes.
Rafan heard these words and his blood burned. He'd been off that hill for less than four hours, and the red haze was still in him. Not from the enemy, but from the cost. His second was dead, and three hundred men would never see another sunrise, and he'd be lucky to preserve fifty more from infection. The rebels had brought their best against them to turn that hill, and he'd held until there were no more arrows and then two charges extra.
The dragonlord looked to his general, Nellens Hiraut, and waited for a rebuke. None came.
Political connections, a part of Rafan's mind knew, Deshral's father was among the most important in the exceedingly wealthy house, his general a minor scion at best. To complain was politically impossible.
At that moment, politics didn't matter to the dragonlord, he was well past that.
“Unacceptable casualties?” he shouted, and heads turned. Eyes went wide in surprise, for Rafan was known to avoid infighting, to focus on technical matters. “Unacceptable casualties were caused by the auxiliaries?” He was advancing in slow steady steps on Deshral, steps he was not even conscious of taking, but the winglord was blank-faced in utter surprise. “We lost eight hundred men today, out of seven dragons, legion and auxiliary.” Rafan's words were cold and biting. “Eight hundred out of thirty-five hundred.” Bad casualties by any standard, surely, never mind that they'd faced four times their number. “Three hundred came from one dragon of archers, but if it hadn't been for that one dragon, for those auxiliaries,” he said the word so strong he tasted blood on his lips. “We'd have lost everything! The auxiliaries gave their lives to save this legion! And yet now, I hear the very officer, who by his own abject incompetence made that sacrifice necessary, claim the auxiliaries failed the legion? Caused 'unacceptable casualties?' An officer who couldn't complete the childishly simple task of holding one strongpoint against enemy probes?”
Deshral's eyes narrowed, and his countenance grew dark, he was not used to being challenged, but he was copper-skinned with the touch of Fire, and his emotions ran high.
At that moment Rafan's ran far higher. “I will not hear it!” He thundered. “I will not! You will apologize and admit your mistake Winglord, for disparaging the Barbed Fangs!”
“You lying bastard!” Deshal's eyes flared, and flames burst up around him. “You will take back your insults or I'll carve them from your outcaste hide!”
There were gasps from the assembled officers, for no greater insult could be leveled at a legionnaire graduate of Pasiap's Stair, as Rafan was, than to claim he was outcaste, a dragon-blooded of no loyalty who was outside the Scarlet Empire.
Rafan's blood ran from hot to ice cold in an instant. He pulled himself up to his full height, greater than Deshral's by a full three inches. “I will never take back the truth when it concerns the Legions,” he spoke every word with slow, cruel clarity. “If you cannot say the same you don't belong in this camp or any other.”
“Challenge!” Deshral shouted, and ripped his crimson-fringed daiklave from its back harness. Flames of essence rippled free from his body, and the air burned with furnace heat and rage.
The blade came across and down with blinding speed and strength, the full rage of a Burning Sword unleashed.
Yet it was without guidance or reason, and Rafan saw this clearly, knew exactly what Deshral was doing, and took a single step in anticipation.
The daiklave swept behind him with burning wind as the dragonlord stepped inside the blow, his face a hairsbreadth from the dynast's.
Rafan's pull dagger snapped up in his left hand and drew a long, jagged, red line across the winglord's face, a hideous, unnatural wave wrapping round across the forehead down to the lower edge of the jaw.
Even as the first screams of pain burst from Deshral's throat, Rafan's blade pushed hard against the copper-skinned veins there. “Shut your mouth weakling,” Rafan hissed, pushing just enough to enforce compliance. “The blood of Hesiesh flows in you, and it gives you a strength that one day, perhaps, the Realm may need, so I won't spill it all over the floor. Remember that, because if you do not find a way to give something back, the next failure may not be met with such mercy.”
Terror left the dynast sobbing and quivering, and Rafan threw him roughly to the ground, hearing the daiklave clatter from his hand.
“General, the dragonlord assaulted me!” Deshral pleaded with Hiruat next. “I want him court-martialed!”
“Winglord Ragara Deshral,” the general spoke in a carefully level and deadpan voice. “You have attempted to assault a superior officer in front of witnesses. According to the Thousand Correct Actions I am obligated to punish you, not Dragonlord Geralse Rafan. I urge you in the strongest possible terms to consider this carefully before saying anything further.”
Deshral's mouth opened, then closed, and his face filled with fear.
Silence encompassed the command tent, and the general let it linger for a time before filling it up again. “As the wounds have apparently cut too deep to preclude proper debriefing for now, we will reconvene this council in the morning. All are dismissed to their commands to fortify our current position.”
The dragon-blooded officers saluted and left, but Rafan knew the matter had not ended there. He might outrank the dynast on the battlefield, but once the swords were sheathed the situation reversed, and there would be consequences to come. I wonder if I can get decent odds on the first assassin's arrival? He thought wryly, not even close to regretting it yet.
* * *
There are fewer places grimmer in Creation than an army surgery after a battle. The air inevitably reeks of blood, puss, and death, and fills with the screams and moans of the wounded. No sense can escape the assault, even the tongue is infected by the metallic taste of iron from loose wounds.
Rafan braved it anyway, it was his duty. He had learned field medicine in early days, years before, when his command was much smaller, but he had not forgotten the craft, and with no enemy in sight he would not deprive the wounded of an extra pair of hands. Especially not hands that could draw on the power of the elemental dragons to banish infection at a touch. The power of the wood dragon could heal as well as harm, and though Rafan wielded but the least of these charms, this was enough to save a man struck through the gut, who mortal medicine, and even thaumaturgy, almost always failed.
So he labored on, even though his essence was but barely recovered from the ordeal of battle. How could he give less than everything, when a life was saved each time?
It was terribly late when the dragonlord had done all he could and returned to his own tent to doff his bloodstained armor and feast upon miserably cold stew and flatbread. Fifteen years in the south and I still don't like the food, he thought with such amusement as could be managed.
To his surprise there was a missive resting on his desk, one bearing the general's seal.
He read it quickly. Then paused in disbelief and read it again, slower.
“Damn it all!” Rafan slammed a fist into the desk hard enough to crack the delicate camp furniture, and winced at his lack of control.
His punishment had come faster and fiercer than he had ever expected. “Take a scale of men to Harborhead and recruit additional archers and slingers locally?” It was not an assignment, no matter that casualties might demand new blood for the legion, it was exile. The general was throwing him out, no doubt hoping to preempt any reprimand sent forth from the Deliberative by Deshral's well-connected relatives. Rafan suspected the general thought he was doing him a favor, as such a distant posting might well dissuade the dynast from even bothering with assassins at all.
The dragonlord didn't see it that way. Fifteen years he'd given the Twelfth Legion, and he'd thought to give many more. He stood below only the general and quartermaster now, a rise greater than he'd ever hoped when he'd arrived, and he could not imagine forsaking his duties. There's no one else to command the auxiliaries, he was only too aware of that truth. None of the dynasts, and few of the found eggs, cared much for the secondary troops, thinking them little more than fodder or support for the occasional defense.
There was no fighting the order, and he'd never dream of doing so in any case. Hainaut was his superior, and the order was legitimate, if wasteful. So, I have to go to Harborhead and build up a new army. It was a foolish duty in the extreme, and Rafan knew men would die here because of it. He had talents no replacement would match, that was simply the nature of the exalted. A solid mortal commander could build an army out of new recruits, the legion needed every dragon-blooded on the battlefield in these times, but he could only do the duty he was given.
I hope Deshral can hurry up and get himself killed without taking too many good men with him, Rafan thought, and for the first time regretted his earlier actions. Only this time, he regretted not killing the dynast. The dragon-blooded must save the Realm, and yet some simply wish to poison it.
These dark thoughts kept him awake until exhaustion finally claimed him for sleep.
The Twelfth Legion is deployed northwest of the Lap at this point, fighting a rebellion among local states there.