Ring of Fire 23: These Are The Walls of Sparta
From the personal letters of Lady Vanerin of Reddingvane, later donated to archiving and translation.
I remember seeing the first of the panicked, bleeding farmers that fled to Reddingvane. I recall the heartrending sight of a seemingly ceaseless wave of suffering—of naked babes cradled to frightened chests, of limping and stumbling elves reeking of fear, of the scent of despondency and panic.
I thought of snarling teeth and rabid maws, of the Wulfen come anew.
I was hit by confusion, at the sight of the arrows that stuck out from flesh, embedded in the wounded. Fierce, well-wrought arrows, plumed at the end. Not like the rugged missiles fletched clumsily by Wulfen in their tents.
And I remember falling to the ground, struck by the hammer-blow of despair, as the shrieks and howls of the approaching refugees reached my ears.
The Gandoryn turn on us! We are lost!
Realisation, at last. Before, I knew that we were abandoned. Now, I knew that we were betrayed.
It was as if something within my spirit had been shattered. The carefully crafted spell that the Naimuril wove over the Red Elves that constituted the rugged, uncouth, low-born masses across the empire had been broken.
They had taught us of rank and birth and caste, of how the Goddess had placed each one in his or her place to best serve the empire. They persuaded us that our place was to work the land and bring forth its fruit, and to feed the empire along with the Sorrfen; in return, they promised us the protection of their spears and swords as befitted their rank. They dangled promises before us, of the possibility of ascension beyond our station, perhaps even service in Selenthis someday should we prove ourselves worthy. It was an endeavour to which I gave much of my youth, poring over tomes and texts with a mind to face the Imperial Examination, until marriage and the duties of township took over.
Now I knew the truth. Now I saw Amber for what it truly was. We were nothing more than cattle. To be used, to be exploited, and when needed, to be culled and discarded. We Red Elves would never be seen as their equals, never be respected as creations of Naimu. When the hammer fell, the Naimuril would protect themselves, and themselves alone.
The Gandoryn of Mezun had lost the field. Now, they sought to scorch the land—and us with it.
The Silver Elves came for Reddingvane.
We were the enemy.
I don’t know how long I lay upon the cold ground, until I felt a strong hand beneath my arm, lifting me up gently, but firmly. I turned and looked into old, familiar eyes.
“Rise, and stand, Vanerin.” Rivvik kept his arm around me. “The people look to their lady. Rise, and take charge.”
Rivvik had been my closest friend and the most trusted retainer of my family. In times of doubt, he provided clarity; in times of weakness, strength. Now he faced the oncoming storm of destruction with the same firm strength that had weathered three wars on the western frontier.
“Rouse your people.” He pointed me towards the gate, at the masses within. “Prepare them for battle. Calm their fear. Lend them your strength. Your place is there.”
On the horizon, pillars of smoke raged. And dust clouds approached, whirling in the wind—churned up by the hooves of approaching horses.
“Then—what will you do, Rivvik?” I asked. The noble lady had disappeared. I was once more a child, and I looked to the elf that had protected and comforted me since I was no taller than his thigh.
“My place is here.” He gripped his round shield with practised ease, as his right hand hooked the infantry spear under his arm. “I will cover the gate until the wounded can get inside.”
“You will fall.” I could not believe it, still. Would not. The world was ending, and yet Rivvik answered my pleading gaze with a wan smile.
“I will, my lady. But these noble elves will come to know just how dearly a Red Elf can sell his life.”
“Go.” He smiled at me, a ray of light against the darkness that threatened to engulf my world. “Go, Van. And fear not.”
I left, feeling in my heart that this was the last time I would see the face that had comforted and protected my family all these years. Left him standing there, with spear and shield, facing his own death with the calm assurance that had defined his life.
Seventh day of Matrun, in the second year of the Living Goddess Queen Ethiriel
Southern Gate of Reddingvane
Two hours following the Battle of Mordant Plain
The Red Elf was clad in a simple tunic and trousers, unarmored except for a footman's round shield and a steel helmet.
He was Rivvik, of Clan Hakon, a distant hill tribe from the northern mountains. He had begun his journey down from those misty heights two hundred years ago, as a peasant levy for the Naimuril in their war against the Sabiri. He remembered his first battle, pressed into the throng of trembling pike infantry, awaiting the rush of Sabiri cavalry.
He had survived. And fought again, and honed his skills. From expendable peon, he rose to attain the position of Spear Master, commanding his own century of spear warriors. The charge of cavalry, the cold sweat of anticipation, the thunder of hooves, were all as familiar to him as rain. He had outlived the war and been discharged with a modest pension, before finally being employed as a retainer to the family of Lady Vanerin. The turmoil of war had been replaced by the stability and placidity of being a personal bodyguard—and to Lady Vanerin, almost an adopted uncle.
The elf smirked beneath his helmet, basking in the memory of those fond years, and mused on the peculiarities of fate. The death he had so dreaded long ago was coming for him at long last, two hundred years overdue. How ironic that it would not come by the slash of Sabiri scimitars, or Azure stabbing swords, but at the lances and arrows of those he once served as masters.
Rivvik knew the most pragmatic approach for survival. Retreat to the gate, form a shield wall with some of the village guard. Hunker down and hold the chokepoint. Against trained Gandoryn, it would just as likely fail as succeed, yet even war horses would hesitate to charge into a wall of pikes.
But in so doing, he would shut Reddingvane to all who flee towards its shelter. He would condemn those helpless refugees outside its walls to die—nay, he would be using them, to buy time for the town’s defence—and be no better than those who had now betrayed the Red Elves’ trust.
So Rivvik knew his place. On the field, fighting desperately, using his very life to buy time for another farmer, another family, another child, to reach the safety of Reddingvane. Until he gave up his spirit, and hoped that his sacrifice would atone for his failure to do more.
Rivvik twirled the spear around his shoulder, testing out its weight. He swung his shield around his body, feeling out its range of movement, loosening his wrist. All around, the terrified elves continued to rush past him into the town, but Rivvik remained focused on the task at hand.
He was not going to be fighting as part of a formation—the conservative, disciplined combat style that relied on soldiers to the right and left of him. Besides, the rest of his armor was behind the walls, in the Noble Manor; it might as well be across the ocean in Azure itself. It was too late to send for it, and besides, the additional weight would only hinder the style of fighting he had in mind.
As a single, lone warrior, he would bring the fury of a berserker, aiming to take as many of them down with him into the underworld. The Gandoryn were longer-lived, better armored, better equipped, and numbered in the hundreds. Rivvik’s death was sure. But he was equally sure—he thought, gripping the shaft of his spear—that he would introduce humility to at least a few of them before the day was done.
He could feel the hooves already, in the distance. And hear the screams cut short—the confirmation that the horse archers were killing their way to Reddingvane.
Ahead of him, he saw an elven girl. Her dress tattered and splattered with mud, bleeding from a gash on her forehead. She paid no heed to her loss of modesty, or the milky-white flesh of her naked breasts that were exposed to the world. Merely pressed onwards, desperately fighting fatigue. The animalistic, base flight of a living creature divested of all thoughts save those of survival.
Behind her, Rivvik spotted the first of the elven archers, at a range of eighty paces. The unarmored horse was draped with the colors of the Mordant garrison, and its rider wore the distinctive lamellar armor of Naimuril nobility.
Whatever little doubt he still had was banished.
The Gandoryn were the enemy. It was true.
Rivvik advanced towards the mounted archer with a slow jog. He counted on the inexperience of the archer Gandoryn, who after all were used for skirmishing and raiding sorties, not engaging infantry head-on. He was close enough that he could see the desperate, wide-eyed gaze of the elven girl. And hear the indistinct yell from the horse archer in pursuit.
An arrow slammed into Rivvik’s shield. The elf grimaced with satisfaction. The archer had switched targets.
Rivvik strode past the girl, who continued to run. He spared a thought, a hope to the gods that she would make it to the gates. Gripped his spear with practiced ease. And dredged up every bitter, resentful, raging memory of the arrogance of Gandoryn knights during his service, of late nights spent cleaning latrines and suffering jeers and abuse.
“Get fucked, you whoreson,” Rivvik muttered.
He blocked the second and third arrow with his shield, protecting his head. The horse archer was fifteen paces away, drawing another arrow, when Rivvik broke into a charge.
He shouted the first thing that came into his mind.
“Vanerin and Reddingvane!”
He heard the cry of panic. Felt the hiss of the arrow going wide, over his shoulder. It was the last thing the mounted elf would have expected, for his quarry to counterattack. Behind the rim of his shield, Rivvik heard the high-pitched metallic song of the cavalry blade leaving its scabbard.
But the Red Elf had closed the distance. With practised strength, Rivvik thrust his spear forward.
The Silver Elf made to block the thrust aimed for his face, and raised his sword. Realised, too late, that it was a feint. In mid-air, Rivvik arrested its momentum, withdrew the spear, and then drove it into the unarmoured flank of the war-steed.
The horse shrieked, and collapsed on its side, spilling its rider.
The Red Elf avoided its kicking hooves, and circled around to the felled Gandoryn.
Rivvik withdrew his spear easily. He had long since trained himself to use only the necessary force in each thrust—too enthusiastic, and he would slay his opponent but render his weapon hopelessly embedded in flesh, bone, or armour.
There was no wasted effort now. With the same economy, Rivvik strode towards the dazed rider and stabbed into the narrow gap between the knight’s helmet and breastplate.
“Fuck you,” he spat at the corpse. With Lady Vanerin out of sight and out of hearing, the dignified formality of a noble retainer had been replaced by the uncouth profanity of a common infantryman. Which suited Rivvik just fine.
For a moment, Rivvik basked in the thrill of momentary victory. Allowing his dread to slip, giving way to the base warrior satisfaction of having bested a foe.
White hot pain lanced his thigh and dispelled it immediately.
Rivvik grunted as he felt his leg go limp below the hip. Dimly, he registered the plumed shaft protruding from the bleeding wound even as he raised his shield. Around him, he heard more hooves beating the ground. Jeers and triumphant cries, swords rattling in their scabbards, and the clinking of stirrups.
He cursed his stupidity. Cursed the lapse in concentration. And banished self-reproach with a renewed surge of rage.
He counted five Gandoryn, circling him with bows raised, and knew that his time had come. His wounded leg was all but useless, unable to bear weight.
He took heart in his imminent death. The Silver Elves would amuse themselves first, and every minute they spent tormenting him before the end was another precious minute for the throngs of fleeing peasants to retreat into the town.
He tossed the shield aside. He would not die a coward, cowering like a child hiding from a thunderstorm. He would die a warrior, and in spilling his blood would prove that nobility and courage flowed in Red Elven veins.
Rivvik gripped his spear with both hands, placing his weight on his good leg. Summoned up the harshest, foulest, most profane curse he could muster.
“Come and fight, you fucking limp-dicked cunts!”
A sound echoed across the plains.
Unfamiliar and unnatural, like the barking of some forest beast, or the thunder rumbling in broad daylight. It rolled across the sky, and Rivvik’s fierce fatalism gave brief way to curiosity.
The foremost elf screamed.
Blood erupted from a gash in his head. A horrible wound, a hammer-blow that had almost split his skull in half. Frantic, trembling hands struggled to grip the ruined meat hanging from shattered bone, even as the knight rolled off his horse.
Thunder roared again.
A harsh, metallic crunch boomed to Rivvik’s right. Rivvik looked up to see a stunned Gandoryn looking down at her breastplate. The smooth, expertly-wrought metal had caved in its centre, dented in as if by a giant’s mace. The elf continued to stare, at the irreparably crushed ribs and macerated lungs, and knew she was dead even before she collapsed off her mount.
Rivvik’s mind pushed curiosity back. This was an opening. The wondering peasant elf disappeared, the warrior took over.
The Red Elf lunged with his spear, ignoring the pain in his wounded leg, towards the nearest remaining elf. The surprised Gandoryn turned in the saddle, still in shock, as the spear point buried itself deep in his unprotected groin. Driven by the force of the thrust, the Silver Elf collapsed on the ground even as his mount fled in panic.
Rivvik withdrew the spear. A masterful strike into the vulnerable seam between the faulds and greaves, piercing the femoral artery. Not immediately fatal, but the elf would live only if both hands were engaged in pressing firmly on the bleeding vessel—thereby neutralising his ability to strike back.
Another boom rang out, and Rivvik saw yet another elf struck off his saddle. The final, remaining elf had recovered from his panic enough to nock an arrow. His shield discarded, Rivvik was unprotected.
It was unorthodox, clumsy, and as likely to fail as succeed. But, Rivvik thought as he cast the spear like a javelin, it was certainly effective.
The spear struck the elf in the centre of the torso. It was an infantry spear, and lacked the light weight and aerodynamics of a javelin, but it hit with respectable force. Enough to fracture at least a rib, Rivvik thought, but certainly not fatal. Most importantly, the Gandoryn had lost his grip on his bow.
Rivvik crossed the distance, sheer battle-fury drowning out the pain lancing his thigh. The short stabbing sword slipped easily out of his leather scabbard.
He had spent many sleepless, resentful, bitter nights polishing the soiled armor of Gandoryn nobles fresh from a day of fighting. And in so doing, had come to know every inch of it intimately. Most importantly, he was aware of the weakness beneath the arm, unprotected by plate and impossible to cover fully with lamellar scales.
The short blade struck like the stinger of a scorpion. Under the elf's still-outstretched arm gripping his bow, into his armpit. Plunging between armor plates through a flimsy layer of fabric, and into his heart.
Rivvik stepped aside, panting with exhaustion, as the dead elf rolled off his horse.
He scanned the horizon, seeing no more mounts. He had won a reprieve, if only for now. It was only a matter of time before another squad of horse archers rode past him in their mad rush to raze Mordant and its fields.
Rivvik rested his spear on the ground. Rifled through the rucksack of the nearest felled Gandoryn, and found a roll of clean bandages. Tended to his wound best as he could, though he decided wisely to leave the arrow in its place.
He had begun throwing the third layer over his leg when he heard footsteps from behind.
Rivvik was calm. Somehow he did not feel that these steps belonged to an enemy.Gandoryn, after all, did not walk when they could ride.
His security was vindicated at the sight of one of the strange newcomers who had come to Reddingvane’s gates a few hours before. A short fellow compared to an elf, only little taller than a Sorrfen, with a stockier build and darker skin. Rounded ears, strange to his eyes. Clad in khaki, drab and unremarkable.
In his hands was a strange implement. Much than a spear, lacking any blade or point. But Rivvik knew a weapon when he saw one. Somehow, Rivvik did not find it impossible to imagine that such a weapon had inflicted the terrible wounds on the Silver Elves from afar.
The stranger spoke. His words were lost to Rivvik’s ears, but the companionable spirit behind them was not.
“Good fighting, kawan,” Rehan said, brushing dirt from his SKS. “But we’ve got a long way to go before the day is over.”