Needle Ash – Chapter 1, part 2

Read Chapter 1, part 1

Michael paused beside Gadero, his sergeant major, on the hill and looked out over the battle plain. Calot, as he called his destrier, was anxious and padded the ground beside Gadero’s lighter horse, which was placid, almost sad. The rain was lighter now, a mere sprinkle, and though the sky was leaden he could see clearly the main infantries of the Artallan and Ferrallese armies as they played their lines in the mud. He watched a shield wall fold in the Ferralla line, watched as Johan’s infantry pushed into the gap, only to fall back as they were surrounded by the rear lines.

The battle, oddly, was going too well for his side. The Ferrallese were not pushing hard enough, and though their infantry had proved subtly superior in previous engagements, it was not advancing as planned, but instead pulling a series of formation maneuvers that left the center of the field empty but made their shield wall stronger against the light cavalry and dragoons that harried the north and south sides of the field. The Ferrallese cavalry had proved inadequate, and Michael’s knights had found little sport in the chase of the Ferrallese cavalry back to the archery lines.

The best Michael could guess was that General Ballaco was betting heavily on his mage corps, formed of a small line of mounted units in light armor, to do the work of their cavalry. There were some fifteen staffmen that Michael could see through his spyglass, more than half of them possessing the light frames and height of women, which was a serious force, even if most of them seemed by display of skill to be novices rather than adepts. The unit of mages moved about between the infantry formations, attempting to lob fire, upend the earth, or otherwise confuse and disorient the Artallan infantry. It was working, but not well enough to to push the Ferralese army into a solid advance as Butler had predicted.

“What think you, sire?” Gadero said. His dark face, weathered in a way that diminished his minor battle scars, was relaxed as he gazed westward. Michael handed him the spyglass and removed his helmet, letting the light rain cool his face.

“Mayhap we won’t need to do any fancy stratigizing,” the old soldier said, focusing on one of his closer infantry units, which was holding its own against a solid shield wall and harassment from a group of enemy horse archers. “We could just hammer these fools home anyhow.”

“I’m concerned with their mage company.”

“If that’s what you want to call it. They’re not doing much.”

“That’s what concerns me. In the last skirmish they were devastating. It took Towler and two more senior mages to counter them. They’re holding back, maybe trying to save their energy or focus – whatever it is for mages – for something else.”

Gadero put down the spyglass and nodded. “They could be waiting for our reserves.”

“That’s what I was thinking, but…” Michael grunted. “I have an uneasy feeling.”

“Ain’t no easy feeling on the battlefield, sire. Thirty years and I still feel the sickness in every swing.”

“It’s something other than that, Sargeant. But you’re right, it’s probably nothing.”

“Begging your pardon, my prince, but that is not what I said. I never said it was nothing. I said there ain’t no easy feeling on the battlefield.”

“Johan might prove otherwise.”

Gadero grunted softly, then said, “I’ve lived through some hells, sire. Those gut feelings sent me in plenty of places that made me live. I don’t feel it though, sire.”

Michael nodded. “Well, we shall have to see. Have the second dragoons and third heavy cavalry move to that empty spot over there. That maniple is misshaping their shield wall. I think we could punch through and do some damage, if they won’t do what what we want. Then have them fall back. The Ferrallese will have to reform closer to our objectives and our other maniple there. We may yet get this plan on foot.”

“I’ll delay that order for a moment, sire.  Here comes young Palsay.”

Michael saw the young man riding full steam from a break in the light wood, his horse foaming at the mouth. He was bleeding from scratches on his unhelmed face and streaked with dirt. He reigned in as he pulled up.

“Michael! Uh, Marshall… your highness, sir!” he stammered as his horse tossed its head.

“Enough with the titles, get on telling us how you lost your helmet, soldier,” Gadero said. “And where you got a horse.”

The young man wiped his face and took a breath. “Yeah. Sir! I’ve just been over the Northern rise, sir. Scouting, sir, my orders, sir. My helmet fell off. This was a dragoon’s horse, sir. I hated to take it, but, sir-”

“Come off and just tell us man!” Michael said, seeing the shock in Palsay’s eyes.

Palsay nodded. “The Farallese have assembled and are marching down the northern ravine.”

“How many?” Michael said.

“I would say… Fifteen-hundred men. Most of their reserves.”

“Shit,” Gadero said, then looked to Michael. “Pardon, sire.”

“They aim to flank us, sire,” Palsay said.

“They won’t be flanking anything out there,” Gadero said. “That’s miles north and east of the army.”

Michael shook his head. “They’re looking to press our forward camp, where the rest of the legion is waiting in reserve, along with a good deal of our supplies, or what’s left of them. And our entrenchments are weak on the northern side.”

“What about our companies?” Gadero said. “Our men were supposed to be running that ravine to harry the back fold of their army.”

“Don’t know, sir,” Palsay said. “Like I said, I just saw them assembling and heading out. You think our two companies can stop them?”

“No,” Michael said.

“Even with Angelico leading them?” Gadero said.

Michael shook his head. “It’s a numbers game. Angelico is good, but not that good. What types of units were assembled?”

“All sorts. Cavalry and heavy infantry. A group of old-looking men and women,” Palsay said.

“Women? Must be Sorcerers,” Gadero said.

Palsay shrugged.

“Relay that information to Butler and the king,” Michael said. “Get a fresh horse on the way if you can, on my orders. Go!”

Palsay whipped the horse with the reigns and sped off.

Turning to Gadero, Michael put his helm back on. “Scratch my last orders, sargeant. I want that cavalry unit and the dragoons to meet me over yonder, near the wood.”

“Sir?” Gadero said, raising an eyebrow. “What about the general’s plan?”

“No wise man follows a plan beyond hope of victory. Besides, those are our men out there, and I’ll be damned if I let them die without reason or hope of salvation.”

“Fine,” Gadero said. “But let me lead the sortie, sire. Your place on the battlefield is in command.”

“Not today, sargeant. You aren’t a cavalry officer. I am. If I know how to do anything, it is lead a mounted force.”

“That ravine is too narrow for cavalry maneuvers, or so you said, sire.”

“If the enemy is bringing horse, we can too. And that’s our strength, Gadero. Always play to your strengths. You know the infantry better than any man on this battlefield, myself included. You’re in charge while I run this sortie, understand?”

“Understood, sir. Give the bastards my best. And by that I mean crush a few skulls.”

“As you wish!” Michael said as he bounded down the hill. In his ears he could already hear the harsh voice of Gadero gathering messengers and relaying orders.

The wind dried his face, and he felt a rush of fear and excitement. Hold on but a little while, Angelico, he thought to himself. Just a while, and I know we can hold victory together!


Michael’s lance, held upright by a brass fitting on the rear of his saddle, knocked against the tree limbs of the drooping oaks. The knights surrounding him, as well as the light cavalry behind him, suffered the same annoyance, and his force, pushing through the wood at a trot sounded like a massive wave of rolling thunder.

Michael pulled to the side to let a few men go past, then fell back in line, wanting to get a better view of his dragoons, off to the left with their shorter, lighter lances.

“Maybe they’ll confuse this ridiculous racket with thunder,” said a light airy voice to his right. “Or think it’s magic. Either way I doubt the prince considered it.”

Michael lifted his visor to and locked eyes with a young round-faced woman, holding a staff and armored in light mail and a help that was too large for her.

“Oh, your highness,” said the woman, give a hasty salute with her free, left hand. “I mistook you for someone else.”

“Obviously. What’s your name, mage?”

“Sharona,” she said, bowing her head slightly. “I was called up from the Calasora corps last month. Sorry for not knowing your armor, sire.”

“I had it built for function, not so I could be easily identified as commander of a Artallan legion. Tell me, Sharona, how are you?”

“I’m well enough, considering I’m in a battle, haven’t had a bath in three weeks, and am likely riding to my doom. I’m talking to a prince, so that’s a positive point.”

“I mean, how are you with magic?”

The woman cocked her head. “Magic?”

“That’s your purpose here, is it not?”

“Well, yes, but I’ve never had anyone just ask me. It’s more like, ‘You’re doing that wrong.’ ‘This isn’t like lighting a fire, you know.’ ‘That’s too much!’ ‘How did you manage to get in here?’ That sort of thing.”

“So your sargeant was surprised you made it into training?” Michael said with sigh.

“No, he was surprised I got into his office without unlocking it.”


“I’m a woman.”

“You are to address me as ‘sir.’ Grim’s bones, didn’t they teach you anything about military discipline in basic?”

“Not really, no,” Sharana said. “I was called up only a week in, and I tend to forget things rather easily. Sorry. Sir. Sire.”

“Forget it,” Michael said.

“Yes, I do that.”

“I see. How are your skills with magic?

Sharona looked away and sighed. “Um… pretty good, I suppose. I know a fair number of offensive spells. I can crack a man’s femur bone using a chicken bone and linking enchant. That’s quite interesting to watch.”

“Excellent.” Michael thought for a moment. “You thought to bring some chicken bones, yes.”

“Um, no. Sir.”

“Well, we’re going up against Ferralla’s senior mages. Can you do anything to mitigate the threat of magic?”

“Oh, lots. But the best thing to do with mages is just kill them, I think.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Michael grumbled. He spurred his horse forward to the front of the column.

Within a mile the canopy of trees opened up and lifted a little. The river that cut through the ravine slowed and the trees thinned out, replaced by wet grasses, and the soldiers could move with much greater speed. The annoying knocking of spear on tree limb also quit. Soon, Michael could hear, however faintly, shouts from up ahead.


Angelico leapt free of his horse, which collapsed, full of arrows and half burned.

“To the south! To the south!” he shouted. “Get to high ground and away from that river!”

It was no use, amid the sounds of battle and magic pushing through the ranks, nobody could hear his orders. Two infantry platoons were desperately trying to form up a shieldwall, but without clear command were leaving a massive gap between them.

Angelico ran for them, feeling pain in his left leg where a poleax had hit him.

“No! No! Fall back!” he shouted.

Into the gap ran five or six heavily armored knights, bearing long-bladed lances. The had the flank quickly and jabbed into the gaps. Several men went down. Angelico reached the gap and ducked under a lance strike. On the ground he found a broken spear and dove for it, rolling just past another strike from a lance. He quickly tossed the broken spear at the horse in front of him. It cut along its flank, and the beast whinnied in pain.

Angelico leapt forward and grabbed at the stirrup of the rider. With a great heave, the saddle slid and the knight toppled, striking Angelico on the breast with a warhammer even as he fell. The shield wall formed around him as Angelico drew his dagger from his belt and slammed it downward onto the knight’s gorget, where it stuck in the overlapping plates. The warhammer was pummeling his left side, but he barely felt the blows.

Angelico slammed his fist onto the wide, flat pommel of his dagger, driving it home. He did not have time to consider the kill, for even then he felt a lance strike his left pauldron and slide, scraping along the back of his breastplate, knocking him forward and into the mud.

He felt a hand pulling at his torn cape.

“You alright Lieutenant?” It was Doboro, an infantry sergeant and (he remembered suddenly clearly) a mean card player.

“I’ll live,” Angelico said as he staggered to his feet.

“I don’t know if I’d go that far.” Doboro pointed at the enemy infantry lines, forming up under the trees. The heavy cavalry was retreating, and they heard the unmistakable sound of dozens of bows being loosed.

“Shields up!” Doboro shouted. He pulled the lieutenant toward him, into the small shelter of his great scutum, which he held aloft. Several arrows struck the reinforced wood.

After the sound dissipated, Angelico heard something else: the unmistakable sound of cavalry.

“They’re behind us!” Angelico shouted, looking back along the wide river plane between the woody shoulders of the ravine. He drew his sword.

“How did they do it?” Doboro said, then shouted. “Rear attack! Form up!”

Angelco laughed aloud and nearly dropped his blade as he saw the Artallan banner of a pot on a field of blue waving among two throngs of horsemen, one on each side of the river.

This post is part of a project to write and publish a book in a month, as part of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). If you enjoy this story, consider buying my other fantasy novel The Water of Awakening.


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