A Wolf Slayer Saga #4
Valka the Wolf Slayer tumbles into the underground kingdom of Agartha. The Master of Masters asks him to battle a black magician plotting to usurp his position. Fighting the dark forces the magician sends against him, Valka breaks his sword. He must descend still further to the underworld forge of Wayland the Great Smith. Wayland and Valka construct a new sword from the fragment of a star. Armed with the star sword, Valka faces the magician in an epic battle to the death.
After climbing most of the day, Valka paused and glanced worriedly at the sun slipping below the horizon like a red eye slowly closing. Its last rays reflected off range upon range of snow-shrouded crags above. He looked below at the blue haze spreading ominously over the vast stretch of drifting sand extending all the way to the setting sun. The horse he rode to death when he crossed that desolate waste earlier lay out there somewhere, providing a feast for vultures and jackals.
His grey eyes were bleak as he thought back to the dawn…
* * * *
Like a mighty lion shaking its mane, the blazing sun surged into the cobalt blue of a cloudless sky. Sunlight rolled in a golden wave over the grassy steppes, revealing two armies facing each other in battle formation. Their lines extended over the plain, stretching from the Caspian Sea in the south to snow-swept mountains in the distant north. Valka commanded the auxiliary cavalry on the north flank of King Illyumachus’ army of seventy-five thousand men. Facing east, it confronted the host of King Salamand, numbering no less than one hundred thousand warriors.
Curbing his black charger with a tight rein, Valka glanced apprehensively down the line at King Illyumachus’ forces. They were made up of an assortment of tribes from the northern steppes—Scythians, Sarmatians, Alans and Dacians. Sunlight ran like blue fire over scale and chain mail and glinted off spear tips, sword blades and war axes. Tatars and Huns in hardened leather cuirasses, peaked leather caps, carrying re-curved bows reinforced with buffalo horn, sat sturdy steppe ponies on the flanks.
Mounted on huge chargers chomping at their bits, the heavy cavalry held the center. The knights were encased in scale mail and helmets with visors and wielded long, heavy-tipped lances. The infantry—stolid warriors in leather harness, lighter lances and short swords—stood in ordered ranks behind the heavy cavalry. At the far end of the line, the second contingent of auxiliary cavalry guarded the southern flank.
Ranging behind the lines on shaggy ponies were Tatar bowmen and lean, brown-skinned Assyrian slingers. Deadly marksmen, once the battle was joined, their task was to concentrate on taking out the enemy commanders.
On a rise far to the rear, King Illyumachus stood in his canopied chariot surrounded by his court nobles. His suit of gold scale mail glittered in the morning light, and the purple plume cresting his gold helmet waved bravely in the breeze. Valka’s wide mouth thinned at the sight of the king’s pale skin and soft hands. They were the marks of a monarch who spent too much time lounging in his palace and dallying in his pleasure garden and not enough time in the field training with his troops.
Valka shrugged, thinking of the gold paid him to command a contingent of the king’s auxiliary cavalry. His eyes narrowed with concern, however, when he turned away from the monarch and swung around to consider the enemy host facing them across a half-league of waving grass.
A regiment of war chariots, each drawn by a brace of spirited horses, occupied the center of King Salamand’s line. In each chariot, a hawk-eyed warrior in turban and black robe, armed with a long bow of yew-wood reinforced with buffalo horn stood beside his charioteer awaiting the commencement of battle. Positioning his chariots in the center allowed King Salamand to move his heavy cavalry to the flanks where it faced the much lighter horsemen of King Illyumachus’ auxiliaries. Behind the cavalry and chariots was armored infantry carrying lances, maces and swords. The light cavalry, armed with spears and bows, served as skirmishers on the far flanks.
Valka noted that not only did King Salamand’s forces outnumber those of King Illyumachus, but they were more heavily armored and positioned so it would be almost impossible to break his line. The emphasis on bows meant that he could decimate King Illyumachus’ army from long range.
The deep boom of kettledrums and the shrill blare of trumpets cut the air as the two armies prepared to engage. Generals shouted battle orders down the lines.
Valka gripped the war axe resting across his saddlebow with one hand as he fitted a bronze helmet over his shoulder length black hair with the other. Chain mail encased his body from neck to thighs, and a round bronze shield protected his left arm. His curved sword hung from a leather strap down his back. He preferred the axe for massed battle because a sword was too easily broken in such situations.
Electricity crackled in the air as the armies glared at each other across the plain. Standards of the various divisions—panthers, wolves, bears, eagles—fluttered bravely in the wind. Warriors shouted, sang battle songs and performed war dances to transform themselves into fierce beasts of prey. The commanders of both hosts eyed their kings for the signal to attack.
Valka glanced back at his troops and saw the same worry in their eyes that he felt when he evaluated the enemy forces. They knew that once the fighting started a squadron of heavy cavalry would strike them and very probably overwhelm them.
Standing in his stirrups, he lifted his war axe above his head and glared fiercely at his troops. “This is our moment, brothers,” he shouted, his deep voice riding the breeze. “Today we achieve victory and glory.” He pointed to the opposing forces. “They cannot stand against our strength and courage. We will slice through them as a blade cleaves rotten wood.”
His troops roared and waved their weapons in the air.
Valka cast a grim eye at his standard-bearer, a young warrior encased in scale armor sitting beside him on a chestnut charger. Attached to a pole in his left hand, a pennant emblazoned with Valka’s personal totem, a black dragon rampant on a crimson field, fluttered in the wind. “Stay beside me, lad,” Valka said. “And be sure to hold the pennant high so the men can rally around it. Today is not the day to let our power sink into the dust.”
“Yes, My Lord,” the young man answered in a voice quavering with fear.
Kettledrums boomed, trumpets blared, generals called out commands, and thousands of throats shouted with blood lust as the two armies launched themselves at each other. The earth shook as thousands of hooves and feet pounded the dirt. The sky went black as a rain of arrows shot from both sides blotted out the sun.
King Salamand’s chariots raced in the vanguard; the black-robed bowmen fired arrow after arrow without pause into King Illyumachus’ oncoming cavalry. As his horse pounded across the ground, Valka leaned forward and held his shield over himself and his horse’s head to protect them both from the shafts. Although his charger wore leather armor over its head and chest, he took no chances.
When his squadron collided with the heavy cavalry, his world shrank to a red chaos of blood and carnage. His horse reared and screamed as Valka lashed out to right and left with his axe. Blood saturated the air and fell like rain on the thirsty earth. Grinning heads leaped from mailed shoulders, severed arms and hands—some still gripping swords, axes and maces—flew through the air, pelting men and horses. In the pandemonium of battle, the screams of horses, the cries and shouts of men, the strident clash of weapons and shields pounded like a hammer against Valka’s skull. The air was foul from the rank stench of spurting blood, torn bodies and voided bowels.
Swept up in the frenzy of battle, Valka went berserk. His eyes became blood-gorged and distended. His hair shot straight out from under the rim of his helmet. His teeth were bared in a snarl of fury. Following Valka’s example, his men stormed among the enemy, cutting, slashing, stabbing. The battle surged back and forth across the plain like a storm-tossed sea. Sunlight was a crimson spray glistening off bloody swords, spears, axes, helmets and shields. Torn, broken bodies of men and horses piled like cordwood in the backwash of the red, churning tidal wave of destruction.
Although submerged in a maelstrom of slashing swords, chopping axes and thrusting lances, Valka kept track of the battle. He was able to evaluate how things were going from the shouted commands of the generals. His heart sank as he realized that the momentum of the confrontation was turning against the army of King Illyumachus. Although his dripping axe rose and fell like a butcher’s cleaver and bloody bodies piled like storm-drift around the gore-crusted hooves of his horse, it was not enough.
His auxiliaries were cut to shreds before his eyes, and the whole line was being forced back. Casting a fevered glance across the battlefield, he saw King Illyumachus’ army being decimated. They were out-generaled and out-fought. Over the bodies of his fallen comrades, Valka watched King Salamand’s infantry hew a red path straight for the monarch who, deserted by his nobles, stood in his canopied chariot watching the slaughter of his army in frozen horror.
The standard-bearer beside Valka went down with an arrow in his throat, and the dragon pennant carrying his power was trampled in the mud by stomping hooves. A collective groan went up from the last of his men. With the destruction of the pennant, they lost their will to fight on, and the enemy cavalry overwhelmed them.
King Salamand’s army washed over King Illyumachus’ forces in a red tide. Like wreckage after a storm, the mutilated bodies of countless dead warriors and horses littered the plain. Unable to absorb all the blood, the churned earth became a gruesome red swamp of half-submerged body parts.
Valka was the last survivor.
He cast a despairing glance at the monarch’s chariot, where King Illyumachus was being dragged away by enemy troops. Reining his charger around on its hind legs, Valka slapped it in the flank with the flat of his axe and galloped north across the steppe.