Chapter 5

“Make sure the men are fully warmed up before the duel ends,” I looked at each of the officers gathered around me in the eyes. “The next man spraining his ankle will find himself with one less boot.”

The sun was well above the horizon by the time Haron and I reached the men. The officers, all grinning in anticipation for the loot at the end of today’s battle, were all brigand leaders turned hired swords. As the officers returned to their respective companies, my mercenary army shifted their battle formations: four 100-men companies standing abreast in rows of three at the frontlines, a single company of elite mercenaries at the center of the second column and two cohorts of 350 bowmen in loose formation in the third column.

The duel quickly began soon after messengers were sent to both parties and terms for victory were confirmed. The first duel was between a young guardsmen officer rising through the military ranks against a veteran swordsman from the rivaling counts’ army. Noticing that the veteran was actually quite aged, the young officer sneered in contempt. However, within three swift moves, his expression quickly turned sour as each of his slashes and thrusts was easily repelled by the veteran’s blade.

Clicking his tongue in annoyance, the young officer’s attacks became more reckless and this opening was immediately taken advantage of when he overextended a thrust, but the veteran sidestepped and countered with a quick slash across the opponent’s neck.

Morale for Count Abel’s soldiers plummeted as they saw the young officer’s drowning in his own blood and collapse for the last time. The mercenaries were not unaffected either even though, like vultures, they joined Count Abel’s army for the gold he has. In truth, they were probably merely hired as fodders against whatever the opposing army could throw at them.

“Looks like we need to step in, men. Wouldn’t want our count’s army to piss their boots now, would we?” I mocked. In situations like this, mockery is the divine cure for fear and cowardice. It was better to humiliate soldiers into anger rather than trying to rouse their morale with boring speeches like nobles normally do. Most of the count’s conscripted soldiers should probably be thinking of deserting when the actual battle starts anyway. “The count has promised two gold coins for the next brigand who wins the duel!” I lied. He could have possibly intended to considering the men’s visage.

There was a wave of excitement in the air from the cheers of my mercenary army as a sturdily built man armed with a battle-axe in one hand and buckler in the other pushed his way into the dueling grounds.

The mercenary’s opponent was a spearman from one of the counts’ retinue; the spear he wielded was two meters long, already giving him an advantage in weapon reach. The moment the duel began, the mercenary roared and charged at the spearman before he could brace himself, slapping the point of the spear away with his buckler and shoulder-slamming his opponent into the ground. Before the spearman could make any moves, the mercenary lifted his battle-axe with both hands and swung it down, ending the duel almost as soon as it started.

Amidst the confusion and stunned silence, warhorns abruptly blared throughout the counts’ army, sending a wave of 7000 men into a frenzied rush.

“Brace, men!” I commanded,”Archers ready, loose!”

The mercenary infantries in the front line hastily braced against their bucklers or shields and lifted their weapons above their heads, all the while shouting in anxiety and excitement for the blood about to be spilled on the battlefield. Warhorns erupted twice from my own army, rallying the men and signaling defensive positions. Small banners littering the field were raised high, displaying the location of officers within the army and larger ones representing the commanders’. Others who were stunned by the sudden development – especially Count Abel’s troops – managed to fumble and even drop their weapons by mistake.

After the first volley of arrows was released upon the incoming enemy troops, I let the lieutenant take charge of the archer cohort of about 700. Already, screams of pain and agony were filling the air with dozens from the wave of men dropping to their deaths from the fletches of arrows protruding from their bodies. At 200 meters, another volley of arrows was let loose and the counts’ own archer cohorts finally retaliated with a volley of their own.

Before the archers could manage a third volley, the counts’ army finally clashed against my own and the impact rippled across the frontlines. I, who was with my elite mercenary band and the infantrymen at the second column immediately moved towards the right wing of the formation which was already about to buckle due to the enemies’ charge.

“Hold, men! Hold the line!” I cried, counter-charging a group of swordsmen breaking through the wall of mercenaries. “Charge – !”

Stories told in taverns and sung by bards normally tend to exaggerate the actual events, saying the battle lasted for three days and nights without rest as the hero – wielding his legendary blade forged by god himself – relentlessly and bravely fought against his beastly enemies all the while dodging arrows and slashes by a hair’s breadth, when the battle honestly lasted for half a day at most and the ‘hero’ was truthfully stomped on by his men more than his enemies attacks did as he forgot to tie his boots properly before the battle and tripped more than once because of that. There is neither chivalry nor honor in fighting as men scramble to kill or, failing that, running away or hiding from the opponent to scrounge for the next opportunity to stand at death’s door. Only through deception and lies can men truly survive battles, and in this case, my trusty boot.

“Goddamn it!” growling, I heaved myself up from the blood-stained ground. “Where is my fecking boot?”

I could taste the rust and earth in my mouth as I wrestled over corpses, looking for my boot, all the while parrying an enemy’s thrust and barely kicking him in the jaw with my bare foot. A sudden blast of warhorns resounded throughout the field and Count Abel’s banner began approaching the front lines. Trying to steal all the glory eh? I muttered. Finally putting on my muck-pasted boots, I dodged a swing and chopped off the wrist of the enemy swordsman with my blade, feeling the blade grind against bone where the joints met and made a wide arc creating a slit along his neck.

“Charge!”

At the sound of my command, the mercenaries grinned maliciously. This was the command they have been waiting for. In all honesty, piles of sticks would do better than the men when it comes to maintaining a defensive stance. These gathering of misfits is better suited to raiding towns, ambushing caravans and torturing men for entertainment in the first place, getting them to stand still was already a major achievement.

All hell broke loose when the bloodlust-filled mercenary infantries roared and broke formation, charging recklessly into enemy lines and going berserk. Small axes and hatchets flew across the field, killing the unsuspecting enemy and my men began their counterattack. The remaining elite mercenaries rallied to me and we headed straight for the two larger banners across the field, stopping briefly only to cut down the troops blocking our way.

Bodies and viscera were already starting to litter the battlefield behind us as Count Abel’s men entered the fray. Eventually, we reached Count Lucas’ personal guards of 50 who wielded heavy, two-handed blades.

“Cut them down,” Count Lucas ordered and his men fanned out towards us, attempting to divert our attention from their lord.

“Haron!”

Haron nodded, turning to his squad of bowmen following closely behind us. Swiftly, they pulled on their bowstrings and aimed at the guards – but screams and cries suddenly came from behind me. The enemy guards were abruptly wary as they pointed the tip of their swords against the beastly growls in my background. I raised my sword and breathed in sharply before turning.

Shite, right as we were about to end this battle, I thought.

Then, darkness filled my vision.

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