Paul B. Thompson, Tonya C. Cook
The Wizard_s Fate
Soldiers and Diplomats
Raising a tin cup to his lips, Tol of Juramona took a sip. The water was warm and brackish, but it cut the thick coating of dust from his throat. He spat, noting it was tinged with red.
“Are you well, my lord?” asked his comrade, Darpo.
Tol had taken a hard knock from an enemy horseman. The blow had left his jaw black and blue and loosened a couple of teeth. The plainsman who landed the blow was with the gods now. Tol had separated his head from his shoulders.
During this brief lull in the battle, Tol and his men had ridden into a shallow draw to down bread and water. Wine would have been more welcome, but after ten years on campaign, wine was in short supply.
Tol removed his helmet. Beneath the heavy iron pot his long brown hair was soaked with sweat. He untied the thong at the back of his neck, letting the breeze blow through his hair. The wind off the bay was cool-too cool. Winter was coming, and life in the open on the Tarsan coast would soon be even more difficult.
Through the swirling dust, Tol spied a rider galloping toward them. His company drew swords and interposed themselves between their commander and the approaching stranger. When they saw he wore Ergothian trappings, the warriors relaxed.
“Dispatch coming,” Frez announced. A spearman of great repute, Frez was one of Tol’s companions from the early days in Juramona.
When Tol first came to that provincial town as a mere boy, twenty years before, Frez and his fellow foot soldiers had been in the pay of the Marshal of the Eastern Hundred. Since then, they’d all come far, in station and location. Tol, the farmer’s son, was now Lord Tolandruth, Champion of the Empire; Frez and Darpo were his chief lieutenants.
The young dispatch rider hauled his mount to a skidding stop. “Message from Lord Regobart!” he cried, voice cracking.
Tol dismounted and made his way to the rider, parting his men’s horses with easy shoves. Not a big man, he was compact and very strong. Taking the dispatch from the messenger, he saw the youth’s hands were shaking.
“Nervous, boy?” he asked, not unkindly.
“The enemy has sortied, sir!” The messenger’s fist spasmed, drawing the reins tighter and causing his sweat-streaked horse to prance in a half-circle. “They mean to break Lord Regobart’s position!”
Tol studied the missive. His reading skills had improved over the years, but the abbreviated script used by Regobart’s scribe was hard to decipher. Frowning, he held the square of parchment up to Frez and Darpo.
“Does that say twenty thousand, or thirty?”
Frez, less literate than his commander, merely shrugged. Darpo, a well-traveled former sailor, pushed blond hair from his face and peered at the writing. “Thirty thousand,” he said firmly.
Tol’s face split in a fierce grin. “They’ve come out at last!” he said, spirit rising in his voice. “Anovenax has committed the garrison-the Tar sans have come out!”
He strode back to his horse and leaped into the saddle. “To your positions, men! At last we can carry out the plan!”
By the dispatch rider Tol sent message to Lord Regobart to hold on. Tol and his men were coming hard and fast.
Before departing the young warrior bared his dagger in formal salute. “My lord! I have long prayed to Corij for this day!”
“So have we all, son.”
Tol’s retinue broke up, each man riding out to resume command of his horde of one thousand men. Only Frez remained close by his commander’s side. The two of them rode down the ravine, toward the battlefield where eighty thousand warriors and sixty thousand horses had churned, screamed, fought, and died.
The Imperial Army of Ergoth had battled its way to the very gates of Tarsis. Behind its thick white walls, the city’s thousand spires gleamed, despite the haze of dust drifting overhead. Beyond the spires lay the Bay of Tarsis, dotted with numerous ships of the Tarsan fleet. The normally placid blue water of the bay was dotted with whitecaps. A strong offshore wind churned the water and kept the great galleys, crowded with highly paid Tarsan marines, from reaching land.
Tol squinted against the sunlight. Three, perhaps four, hours of daylight remained. The battle must be concluded before sunset or their great gamble would fail.
He and Frez guided their mounts to the ridge above the ravine. On their right, battle raged between Lord Regobart’s thirty hordes and the city’s army. The Tarsan commander, Admiral Anovenax, was bold and brave but not much of a tactician-very like his opponent, Regobart. The admiral had marched forth from the city with his entire garrison thinking to smash the Ergothian army and enable the Tarsan fleet to dock. With the Tarsan forces thus united, the imperial hordes would be outnumbered and cut in two. All that would be left to them was ignominious retreat.
However, the admiral’s plan had not brought him the swift victory he’d expected. Foiling his triumph were the inhabitants of a cluster of tents set up on the rolling dunes two leagues from the city. There, priests employed by the empire worked the powerful and prolonged wind spell that held the Tarsan fleet at bay. Twice the Tarsans had tried to destroy the clerics; first, in a night raid that failed, and then with magic of their own. Their hired magicians had called forth a flock of fire-ravens, living birds made of flame. Imperial spellcasters countered with torrential rain, and the fire-ravens were extinguished before they could do serious damage. Now Anovenax was concentrating his attack on the tents.
Sixteen hordes were under Tol’s command, the six thousand horsemen and ten thousand infantry which made up the Army of the North. All lay flat on their bellies, the riders’ horses likewise down. Rolling dunes screened them from the sea and from sharp-eyed city sentinels.
The preponderance of foot soldiers in Tol’s command was unique in an empire forged by the Riders of the Great Horde, hut Tol had made a specialty of leading men on foot. He and his tough, well-trained, highly loyal force had won many signal victories. In the past decade they had marched all the way from Hylo in the north, fighting eleven battles large and small, to arrive at this place, where they hoped to end the war that had raged so long between Ergoth and Tarsis.
Tol drew his saber and lifted it high. “Rise up!” he cried. “Now is our time! For Ergoth!”
Sixteen thousand men rose as one. Shouting “Ergoth! Ergoth!” they came streaming over the ridge. The horsemen spread out to confuse the enemy about their true numbers; the footmen marched in close order to convey overwhelming strength.
As the first block of spearmen reached him, Tol got down from his rawboned gray mount and tossed the reins to a surprised Frez. “I’ll fight this battle on my own two feet,” he said.
He accepted a spear from a nearby warrior, telling Frez to remain in the saddle, the better to bring the news from other fronts. Frez dismounted anyway and sent both their horses cantering away.
“After the battle, you may flog me for disobedience, my lord,” Frez said to his glowering leader. “But now, shall we fight?”
The going was hard-the soldiers had to slog through loose sand while burdened by the weight of scale shirt and leggings. In addition, each man had an eight-foot spear ported on his right shoulder and a brass and wood shield slung on his left arm. Tol was glad he’d taken the time for water, brackish or not.
The din of combat grew louder with each dune they crossed. A vast melee was boiling under the walls of