Sword of Empire

A Wolf Slayer Saga #8

by Richard Dawes

While carving out an empire on the steppes above the Black Sea, Valka the Wolf Slayer receives an urgent message from an old flame, now a queen, asking him to come to her aide against an evil witch plotting to usurp her throne.

Valka moves his army northward to rescue the queen, only to find himself confronted by an overwhelming force. In the exciting climax he faces the witch herself in a battle of power.


Excerpt

Chapter One

Valka reined his black stallion to a rearing halt on the crest of a rocky crag and looked out over the steppes. A blustering wind driving up from the Black Sea transmuted the vast plain of tall grass into an emerald ocean that undulated from one horizon to the other. Grey-rimmed storm clouds scudded across the sky. Streaks of lightning scorched the grass and tinted the air a ghastly yellow.

Lifting a scarred hand from the double-bladed axe laying across his saddle bow, Valka brushed his shoulder length black hair out of his face and instinctively touched the leather-bound hilt of the long curved sword that hung by a strap down his back. The piercing grey eyes with which he swept the plain smoldered with a deep, indomitable fire, like flames flickering beneath a layer of ice. The lightning highlighted the diagonal scar that ran from the right side of his broad forehead, across the bridge of his aquiline nose and ended on his left cheek beside his wide, thin-lipped mouth. The scar gave his bronzed features a sinister, even demonic cast. The choker of interspersed bear claws and fangs strung on a thick gold chain encircling his corded neck heightened the impression of barbaric power. A shirt of black chain mail extended from his neck to his thighs, and bronze greaves girded his shins.

Harking to the thunder that rumbled across the sky, he commented in a deep, clear voice, “The Sky God has seen fit to honor us with his presence today.”

“Aye, Wolf Slayer,” grunted Alaric, the yellow-haired giant sitting his charger beside him. “I doubt not that we will need his help this day.”

Alaric’s hair cascaded in golden waves over massive shoulders. His thick beard was red, and his eyes were the deep blue of northern seas. As with Valka, black chain mail covered his muscular chest, shoulders and arms, and a war axe hung from his thick wrist by a leather thong. Unlike Valka, however, who only used the axe in massed combat where the sword was easily broken, the double-bladed axe was Alaric’s preferred weapon, and he wielded it with uncanny skill.

Valka grinned at his second-in-command, then glanced beyond him to the standard bearer sitting his horse to their rear. It always thrilled Valka to see the Black Dragon rampant on a field of crimson fluttering in the wind. The Black Dragon was his personal totem, his power and, by extension, the totem of the Black Guard.

“Look there, Wolf Slayer...”

Valka pulled his gaze away from the standard and shifted his attention to where Alaric was pointing.

Turanian forces were materializing out of the billowing clouds of dust roiling the eastern horizon and rising in a vast grey curtain to the clouds. Although he had disciplined himself to show nothing but what he wanted others to see, Valka drew in a sharp breath and shifted uneasily in the saddle.

“By the gods!” he muttered. “There must be seventy-five to a hundred thousand men out there!”

To the strident blare of trumpets and the deep rumble of kettledrums, the Turanians shifted into battle formation. Dominating the center was a squadron of war chariots, each drawn by a brace of magnificent steeds. The sprays of osprey feathers tufting their harness ruffled bravely in the wind. A leather-clad driver stood in each chariot to handle the horses. Beside him stood a proud Turanian nobleman in black flowing robes and crimson turban, carrying a long, curved bow. Raised from infancy to war and the hunt, these tall, lean, black-eyed warriors could shoot a stream of arrows and hit a target no larger than a man’s fist from fifty yards.

Behind the chariots marched three divisions of heavy infantry. Each man was encased in a bronze helmet and corselet, carried a long rectangular shield and wielded a ten-foot, bronze-tipped spear. Their close-packed ranks resembled a stream of molten bronze flowing across the steppe. Behind them marched two divisions of light infantry, carrying small round shields and shorter lances.

Valka’s eyes shifted to the flanks guarded by auxiliary archers and slingers. The archers were Kipchaks and Tatars garbed in tufted leather caps and padded felt jerkins, mounted on the small, sturdy ponies of the steppes. Their short, re-curved bows, constructed of yew wood reinforced with buffalo horn, could drive an iron-tipped arrow through an inch of oak at forty yards. The slingers were tall, lean Assyrians who could throw a stone or a lead pellet almost as far as a bow could shoot an arrow and with equal accuracy.

A flash of lightning illuminated a golden, canopied chariot cutting diagonally to the north toward a grass-covered knoll and coming to rest in a stand of beech and maple trees.

“King Juguruth getting into position,” observed Valka.

“Aye,” responded Alaric, running a thumb along the blade of his axe.

Pulling his attention away from the enemy, Valka glanced at his own force of fifty thousand men. At the base of the crag where he and Alaric sat their horses was the Black Guard. The Guard was an elite band of chosen fighters, a thousand strong, who answered only to Valka. Clad in black chain mail and black leather trousers, the Guardsmen sat their horses in three columns, awaiting Valka’s orders.

Beyond the Guard, spread out in a long line from north to south, facing east, was the rest of Valka’s forces. They were made up almost exclusively of cavalry—heavy cavalry in the center and light cavalry guarding the wings. The cavalrymen were massive yellow-haired warriors from the northern steppes—Scythians, Sarmatians, Alans and Mitanni. Having lived their lives in the saddle, they were gifted horsemen, so it was natural that they would fight as cavalrymen. Their predilection for horses fit well with Valka’s battle tactics. He favored the mobility of cavalry over the slower-moving infantry.

Mounted on long-haired steppe ponies, Valka’s archers and slingers ranged impatiently back and forth behind the lines. Tatars and Turks, they wore animal skins and steel helmets and wielded the same re-curved bows as the Turanians. Their task was to support the flanks and to act as trouble-shooters. Throughout the ranks, standards of the various divisions fluttered in the wind—eagles, bears, wolves, panthers and stags. Each totem carried the power or spirit of that division.

“Well…” Valka glanced bleakly at Alaric. “At least we positioned our troops before dawn. They are rested and ready.”

“Aye.”

 

"Sword of Empire" by Richard Dawes

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Fantasy
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