Wisdom From The Ashes
Part Eleven – With Dawn Comes Death
The night was long and cool, with a crisp and clear sky. A scattering of stars were strewn bright across it, pinpoints of brilliant cold light against the sable. Zethar stared up at them, his breath misting. There was a sense of peace there, just watching them, avoiding thoughts of what was to come.
With dawn would come his death. He had accepted that fact, and indeed part of him almost welcomed it. His life had ended on the day that Harmur’s men had come to his farm and destroyed his family. All that he had done since then was to delay the inevitable, for longer than he had expected. The only regret he still carried was that he had never been able to discover the fate of his daughters.
There was movement around him. The small band of rebels and former gladiators had risen before the coming of dawn, making ready for the coming fight. Last checks were made on armour and weapons before a last, simple meal was shared, of bread and cheeses, dried meat and dried fruits. Their water skins were emptied of what little remained in them.
Zethar felt that he should say something, being the one who had brought them to this place. The words that he wanted to say didn’t come out, and he stumbled over his thoughts as he spoke. “My friends, I am sorry that I have heaped these troubles upon you. I had hoped that our prospects would have turned out better; that we could defeat Harmur, but I underestimated what we were up against. In this I have failed you.”
Katako smiled wryly. “We followed you here willingly, Zethar.” Around him rose a murmur of agreement.
Zethar nodded slowly to Katako, grateful for his words, and unsheathed his sword. “Let us do this then. Harmur has seen his last night.”
The band began to make their way down the hill, their course a slow one. They took great care to be as stealthy and quiet as they could, headed towards where Harmur’s men camped. Surprise was the critical key to their attack. Even with it, Zethar knew they were not coming out alive, but with it they could inflict serious damage on the enemy and if things went well, they could perhaps even behead the snake, Harmur.
The first rays of sunlight were almost spilling across the tops of the hills as they reached a position close enough to commence their assault. Zethar steeled himself, preparing to order the attack.
A sudden blaring of horns shattered the quiet of the morning, coming from the far side of the camp. Across the far horizon shadowy figures began to appear, spilling forward in a large, unruly mob, armed with scythes and hammers and spears and any other implement they could get their hands on and use as a weapon. Zethar looked up at them in shocked silence, seeing at the centre of mob a giant horned figure, a maul resting across his massive shoulders. He raised the maul and bellowed a deep throated challenge, as loud as any horn. Then he charged, cloven hooves slamming into the ground. The mob followed after him, streaming down upon the startled camp.
“It is the Kwaza!” Katako called out, eyes brightly joyous.
Zethar let out a loud cry and started to run forward down the slope towards the camp, followed by a pack of screaming warriors. Soldiers in the camp began to stumble to life in response, grabbing for shields and weapons. Their response to the oncoming threat was slow, hampered by having been rudely awakened from their slumber by the horns and the shouts.
A mercenary stumbled into Zethar’s path, fumbling for his shield and spear. Zethar sent his sword slashing down and the man fell. He pushed on, racing towards the centre of the camp where a large tent had been erected. Harmur’s tent. There was only one through on his mind, to get to the tent, to find Harmur and to have his vengeance at long last.
Across at the far side of the camp, battle had been joined and for the first time he could see the awe inspiring sight of Nhaqosa in action. He had heard the stories, but not until now that he saw the minotaur in action could he understand them. The great stone maul rose and fell in vicious strikes, crushing men beneath it. Bloodied and mangled corpses were left in a trail behind Nhaqosa.
In the centre of the camp, the defence began to stiffen. Harmur emerged from his tent, a bear of a man with a thick black beard, barking orders. Around him were gathered a small, picked band of his hardiest warriors, men with broad shields and the segmented armour in the style worn by the Legions of the Empire. Spotting Nhaqosa as the greatest threat, Harmur led his guards towards the minotaur.
One of the guard ran screaming at Nhaqosa, spear poised ready to stab. He was met by a backhanded swing that lifted him off his feet, chest and armour caved in by the force of the blow, his spear torn from his grasp. The maul came back up again, and the down, crushing a second man beneath it.
With a loud bellow Nhaqosa barrelled into the pack of guards, stomping and smashing, the ferocity of his attack breaking their formation apart. Bodies reeled away from the onslaught.
Seeing the carnage being inflicted as Nhaqosa waded through his guard, and sensing that this was an implacable foe he could not face, Harmur made to run.
Zethar pushed his way through the fight to try and block the man’s path. With a scream of rage he hacked a two handed blow viciously down. Harmur’s sword came out and effortlessly blocked it, launching a swift riposte.
Zethar leapt back in desperation, trying to avoid the blow. Harmour pressed forward, unleashing a flurry of attacks. None were able to get through with a decisive strike though Zethar found himself marked with minor nicks and cuts, sweat stinging as it rolled into the fresh wounds.
A sudden thought came to Zethar, that the man before him was the better fighter, forcing him to defend, and to defend only, with no chance at revenge. He ducked beneath a slash and stepped back, watching the man closely. There was a cruel smile on Harmur’s lips. He could not but know who he faced, the leader of the rebellion against his rule. He knew that he held the advantage as well, and it was only a matter of time before Zethar made a crucial, fatal mistake.
A quicksilver strike drove for Zethar’s leg and a reckless, mad impulse came upon him. He ignored the attack. The blade slid into his leg and pain blossomed, blood pouring down his trousers. Twisting his leg, he trapped the blade in it. Harmur’s eyes widened, startled by the actions. He tried to wrench the sword free, each tug causing fresh waves of pain to shoot through Zethar.
Zethar screamed as he hacked down at the man. The sword chopped deep into Harmur’s chest, cutting though armour to lodge in his body. Blood frothed at his mouth as Harmur fell, eyes blinking in disbelief. Zethar lost the grip on his sword as Harmur collapsed backwards to the ground.
Reaching down for the sword in his leg, Zethar slid it free. Hobbling over to Harmur, he raised it with a two handed grasp and drove it down. The blade slid home, through Harmur’s body, pinning him to the ground and ending it all.
The death of their leader saw a change come across the battlefield. A sense of mortality and fear swept across his men, their resolve wavering. They began to break and flee, leaving the field of victory to the rebels.
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