Battle at the Narrows

The sun bloomed on the horizon, heralding the start of a new day. Soft light thinned the wispy clouds, streaking the pink sky above the mountains. Birdsong broke the dawn silence. The smell of fallen pine needles was sharp, fresh, and new. Amongst the low foliage, creatures foraged, hesitantly venturing forth from protection. The light caught cascading water and refracted, the colours prismatic and bold, making art of the water’s fall. This should have been the start of a good day.

Artumus shuffled barefoot out of the water. Reaching wearily for his boots, he struggled to pull them on. Putting his hands in the familiar grooves of his normally light staff, he pulled it towards him, looking for comfort. He sat, staff in hand, praying that the inevitable would not happen. Why did it have to come to this? A signal flared from the higher cliffside across The Narrows valley that fell below him. 

He stood, fretful, needlessly checking the bonfires that he had built in rows. At the pile nearest to him, he stretched his staff’s end until the Blackstone tip rested amongst the wood. Summoned energy poured through the stone. He compressed the dense throb of power until the growing heat siphoned out to light the kindling. Removing the staff, he moved to the next pile.

The sun had risen high enough in the sky to light up the valley below before he had finished lighting the last pile. Satisfied that his work was done, he returned to the river. Putting the butt of the staff towards the edge of the falls, he drew Shimmering from the turbulent water, replenishing the depleted staff. The first bonfire’s flames had started to dance high above the pile as he came to stand before them. He waited.

 He heard the sound first, a rumble of hooves mingling with steel on steel, growing in volume like an approaching thunderstorm. A horseman appeared bearing a standard with the colours and sigil of Loumos. Behind him, squeezed into the valley ten abreast, the cavalry came. He couldn’t see an end to it and the sight of it clutched at his breast like a murder of crows come to peck away his heart.

Thousands, and that’s just the cavalry. 

 He couldn’t even see the start of the infantry or archers. Dread coupled with adrenaline seeped into his veins. A rider had forced himself through the tight formation, passing the standard-bearer. Artumus forced his shoulders back, feeling doubtful despite his resolute stance, and walked to meet him.

 ‘I am Thanith, servant of our lord Loumos and Supreme Overlord of Weloume’s chosen.’ Confusion dappled the rider’s brow as he stared past Artumus. Searching and finding nothing, he turned his attention back to the man standing before him. ‘Where are your armies?’

 Artumus’ wild laughter burbled, and he fought hard to control it. How he wanted to respond and how he actually did were two very different beasts. His attention snapped taut as the gravity of the situation bore down upon him.

‘I am Artumus, defender of Kincardin, keeper of the Glow and servant of Stratera.’ He paused for a sign of recognition, but the man’s face only twitched. Despite his capabilities, or maybe because of them, his voice held a tremor as he continued. ‘There is naught here for you but death. I beg you to return to your homes. The Glow is not for you.’ 

Thanith leaned forward, lowering his voice, ‘There is no need for you to die, be reasonable.’ When Artumus failed to respond, he loosed his sword from its sheath and raised his voice. ‘If you don’t move, I will cut you down, and you can go to the worms like the other non-believers.’

 Artumus’ throat felt constricted, and his hand trembled as he raised his staff. He tried to still the shaking, not sure that he had succeeded as he held the other hand up and pointed the staff towards Thanith. His words were strong and clear. 

‘You have me mistaken. I believe. I believe in the gods. I believe in the balance that we are blessed with. I do not believe in the false priests and power-hungry rulers in Weloume who have sent you here to die… now please,’ Artumus’ voice cracked, ‘turn back. Go to your homes, raise your families, grow your crops. There is nothing but sorrow for you here.’

‘Poetic,’ was Thanith’s simple reply. He raised his sword as he spurred his horse forward. At speed, he leant sideways to cut his opponent down. The blast, when it came, threw the mounted soldier backward. One heel caught in the stirrups, making him spin through the air. His feet came free as his lifeless body left the saddle, soaring over the standard-bearer, ploughing the earth as it landed.

The bearer turned, youthful mouth working uselessly, eyes wide, standard falling from his useless grip. The mangled armour and crumpled body of the Overseer Thanith lay bloodied and twitching at the feet of the first row of horses. He looked towards the Commander of the First Legion for guidance. The stout man pulled his polished helmet from his head, his eyes like saucers as they stared at the spasming corpse. Fumbling fingers regripped his helmet as he thrust it back over his now resolute face. Pulling his sword from his scabbard, he turned around in his saddle and raised it above his head.

‘For Loumos! For King! For Country!’ On the last pledge, the Commander roared.

No hesitation. No time for it. Artumus needed the Shimmering. He grabbed at the reins of Thanith’s unsettled horse and swung himself easily onto the saddle. Digging his heels into its sides, he urged it forward, the short distance devoured as he rode hard for the bonfires. A roaring cacophony came from behind him as he swung down from the horse next to the first bonfire, slapping its rump. Using the staff, he called the Shimmering forward from the blaze, the flames shrinking in response. Artumus turned to meet the oncoming soldiers, power building at the tip of his staff.

The standard-bearer had reclaimed his flag, waving it wildly as he came out of the valley and veered to the side. Artumus flicked his staff in his direction. Energy suddenly set free of its binding, hurtled toward the charging army, the earth blackening in its wake. Horses and men reversed direction, their formations torn apart as the force ploughed into their ranks. Smoke spiralled skywards from the scorched earth.