Dreams of Days to Come
Part Five – And The Jungles Spilled Forth
Hanetsi, Sun Queen of Metsheput, looked on with wide eyes. A chill had settled upon her slender limbs, one that neither cloak nor blazing fire could dispel. She could see that she was not alone in that condition. All along the lines of her gathered army that self same fear had taken hold.
She had brought her army to that place in response to the drums, the deep pounding drums that had sung out from the jungles, to meet the wild men at last in open battle.
She should have realised that such an open invitation heralded the unexpected. Little had they been ready for, or foreseen, the hordes that had swarmed forth from the jungles, a sea of bestial faces, thousands upon thousands. The ape like wild men in their rough hides beat at the ground with their crude clubs or shook stone tipped spears in the air. They thumped at their chest and screeched and hollered their inhuman cries. Not just the menfolk had come, but the women and children too, gibbering from behind the hunters and warriors of the tribes. It was as if the jungles had disgorged every last wild man, all feuds set aside for this one moment, to sweep across Metsheput in a tide of blood and fire.
At the heart of the horde, surrounded by the chiefs of the tribes who were bedecked in armour scavenged from the fallen and by shamans in their feathers and paints, was the man who had whipped the wild men into the frenzy. Even from a distance Hanetsi could see that he was, in truth, a human, tall and straight limbed and not kin to the apish wild men. He stood out from the rest, riding a chariot that was pulled by a pair of steeds summoned up from the depths of the earth, wild maned and fiery, leaving a trail of flames in their wake, flames that curiously did not engulf the chariot nor its rider.
“The mercenary failed in her task it would seem,” Haneti’s Kurushu general noted, readjusting the fall of his lion skin cloak, an action Hanetsi took as a sign of the nerves even he was feeling.
Hanesti responded with a soft sigh. “I felt sure that she was the one. The dreams announced it and they have never failed my family.”
“What now, my Queen?”
“We fight. What else is there to do?”
The general nodded grimly, his face a sombre reflection of that truth. There was little else that could be done. Either they fought there and then, or they fought later, after the south of Metsheput had been ravaged by the wild men hordes. At least in fighting sooner they gave themselves a chance that they could win and the south could be spared, or at least the effect of the ravaging limited. The general did not see how victory could be likely with the sheer numbers assailing them though.
The land in that region ran flat and wide and open, down to the broad though shallow river that marked the southern border of Metsheput, a river easily forded. To one side lay the fields of Metsheput, while to the other were the steaming, impenetrable jungles. The only feature of any note was a low hill, and there the Metsheputi army gathered to await the onslaught.
The Kurushu general arrayed his footmen in a half ring halfway up the hillock, with the Metsheput spearmen intermingled with the mercenaries. Behind them and slightly further up the hill waited the archers and slingers, most of whom were ebon-skinned mercenaries from the far south, ready to unleash their missiles over the heads of the infantry towards the oncoming enemy. The nobles in their chariots, as well as Hanetsi, were deployed at the top of the hillock, ready to be let loose when the time was right, or, as was more likely, when Hanetsi needed to be escorted away safe.
The Hashalite horsemen rode forward on their wiry mounts, right to the edge of the river, and there they began to shoot upon the wild men with their horsebows. Feathered shafts sleeted through the air to rain down on the enemy hordes, leaving many to fall to the ground transfixed. The wild men responded in kind, though their own crude bows were far outranged by the powerful composite recurve bows used by the Hashalites, and the arrows, for the most, fell short, rippling the surface of the river.
Denied their response, the wild men surged forward, crashing into the river in a great wave of ferocity and hate. The arrows continued to flicker among them and soon the waters ran red with blood as a trail of dead and dying were left behind as the Hashalite harassed them.
Hanetsi shivered as she watched. Despite the losses the wild men suffered, staggering in their numbers, they were but a drop in a vast ocean. The Hashalites could not stop them, merely sting them. Never before had the wild men attacked in such a manner. ways before they had preferred the art of ambush, seemingly unwilling to take much in the way of losses. Now they came up like creatures possessed, mindless to the losses they suffered.
Finally the first wild men surged up out of the water, hollering and yelping, shaking their weapons. The Hashalite horsemen, their quivers empty and arrows spent, wheeled about and galloped back to the waiting army to restock.
The wild men came on towards the waiting Metsheputi army, accompanied by the beat of drums and the blare of crude horns that curdled the blood, while screams rent the air. The infantry readied their weapons, gripping them tight, and raised their shields before them to receive the charge that bore on towards them.
As the masses grew closers, the archers raised their bows at a command and drew back arrows. At a second command they loosed a volley, sending it sleeting over the heads of the infantry and down into the wild men. Another volley followed and then another. The wild men fell in droves, scythed down by the arrows and yet they pushed on despite the losses, unconcerned, as if driven by a greater fear than that of the shafts that impaled them. The slingers soon joined in the barrage, whirling their slings around their heads and unleashing their stone missiles to whistle through the air and crash into targets.
The wild men returned missiles from their own bows as they ran forward and the air became dense with arrows raining down in both directions. Men upon the hillock began to drop beneath the barrage. Then the wave of wild men crashed into the waiting wall of the infantry.
The two forces met with a savage collision of swords and spears and clubs. The wild men recoiled from the ferocity of the defence, leaving behind many dead on both side, but then they flung themselves forward again. They showed scant regard for their lives as they scrambled to engage the human defenders, trying to drown them beneath the weight of sheer numbers.
The resilience of the defence held back the wild men for some time as the ferocity of the conflict wound on. Men staggered back from the lines or fell as they were struck down. The wild men were soon forced to scramble and clamber over the bodies of their dead and wounded. The exchange of arrows continued until the ground all around was peppered with shafts and the bodies of the fallen.
The Hashalite horsemen cut in at the flanks of the wild men, loosing their arrows or slicing away with sabres and lances before darting away again. Time after time they made their slashing runs, leaving the dead piled in their wake.
Despite their stubborn defiance, the men of the army of Metsheput were forced to give ground, retreating back up the hill step by step. Their flanks were forced to extend as the wild men began to threaten to lap around them, to force them into a death ring from which there could be no escape.
“You must flee now, my Queen,” the Kurushu general implored Hanetsi, “Before all is lost.”
“If we do not stop them here and now, General, then my kingdom is lost. I would rather die here with it, and those that gave their lives to try and save it, than to flee and live out my life in shameful exile.”
The ring of the wild men pressed on to enclose around the peak of the hill, with the mercenaries and the Metsheputi soldiers forced tighter and tighter about the nobles on their chariots and Hanetsi. The slingers and archers had been forced to give up their weapons and join in the vicious hand to hand contest to replace the ranks of the many fallen. Only the Hashalite horsemen remained alive of those outside the ring, continuing to make their lightning hit and run attacks on the rear of the wild men.
Hanetsi looked on from the top of the hill as her army withered away, across the fields strewn with a trail of dead to the river, to the very edge of the jungle, where the enemy who commanded the wild men sat on his chariot, far from the battle. She wished she had some means to strike down the foe that had brought her kingdom to the edge of destruction and no doubt was also the darkness in her dreams, but it was not to be.
Then, to her surprised and watchful eyes, she spotted a disturbance among the wild men chieftains and shamans clustered around the man in the chariot. From among the jungle emerged a band of hardened warriors, led by the woman with the fiery auburn hair, Peregrine of the Aedring. They fell upon the wild men, their weapons hacking down with savage fury.
Bursting through the struggling figures that were locked in combat, Peregrine sprung up onto the chariot, a bloodied sword held high. The sorcerer turned to meet her, a knife fashioned of obsidian in hand. The two blades met in a crash of sparks, pressed hard against each other as the both sought to overbear the other. The sorcerer reached out with his free hand to try and grasp Peregrine by the throat but she was too quick for him, her own hand catching him by the wrist. There they stood, locked together, straining and unmoving.
Peregrine’s head slammed forward sudden and unexpected, catching the sorcerer across the bridge of his nose. His attention wavered and she followed up with a swift sweep of her leg, taking out his from beneath him. As he fell, her sword rose on high and came crashing down like a bolt delivered from the heavens, burying deep in his head. He twitched for a moment before he was still.
At the death of the sorcerer, the chariot and the fiery horses that pulled it dissolved away into a black mist that was caught up by a breeze and blown away. More so, the grip on the minds of the wild men that had held them to the sorcerer’s will also dissolved away. The wild men wavered in their assault as their senses returned to them. Then they were turning and began to stream back across the open fields towards the safety of the jungles.
At this the nobles of Metsheput in their chariots were at last unleashed, and they thundered down from the hill top to hunt the fleeing wild men, with bows and javelins. Many were trampled beneath the hooves and wheels, while others were cut down by scything blades attached to the chariots.
Only a small portion of the wild men hunters and warriors who had emerged out of the jungles to assault the lands of Metsheput made it back into the steaming depths. Hanetsi knew that it would be many years before they were of sufficient numbers again to trouble her lands, long after she was gone. Events had transpired as the dreams had foretold and now her days were truly numbered. Yet Metsheput had been saved and that was all that mattered. She could join her ancestors at peace.
From across the river and the fields laden with the dead came Peregrine and her bloodied band, only half of those that had set out with her remaining, and all of those bearing wounds from their fearsome struggle around the sorcerer. Hanetsi sent word for Peregrine to be brought to her.
“You have saved us,” Hanetsi announced when the Aedring sword-maiden at last stood before her. “Whatever you wish, it is yours. I will raise you high, to land and privilege and nobility should you but ask.”
Peregrine gave an easy laugh. “The only land that I desire is the far off cold one of my home, to which I yearn to return some day, though that time is not yet. If you must, then gold is of use in my travels.”
“Then you shall have it, as much as you can carry,” Hanetsi promised.
Blade, the tall, dark haired man who accompanied Peregrine, smiled faintly. “That may end up being more than you can imagine.”
“However much it is, it was well earned.”
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