The Blackswords: Episode 3

Click here to read Episode 2

Umbaral rode scout to the port, handing his lance to another rider and stringing his bow; being an archer usually let him keep a safe distance from the enemy, which was why he’d specialised as one, but there were other times when it condemned him to the van. It was a fair trade-off, he supposed, but it didn’t feel very fair right now. Luckily, in the confusion of the battle, nobody would be looking for their detachment, and he didn’t anticipate ambushes, but he was still alert to every alley and side turning that might let him leave the fight to his comrades if the situation looked alarming. The Suluf were large and ferocious, and he had no desire to cross swords with one if it could be avoided.

He didn’t ride far in advance of the main party, but kept in visual contact, beckoning them on as he found each street clear. The clamour grew louder, even as they rode away from it, but the city seemed deserted. Packed clay streets, dusty in the dry summer, punctuated with small trees and herb bushes; yellow houses, shuttered and locked; no smoke from the chimneys, although most were doubtless occupied, townspeople trembling in their cellars like mice. Umbaral wished he was alone, thinking of the valuables that were clearly waiting to be looted, and he wondered why Ukhand didn’t throw in with the pretender; he guessed that with the battle already won the enemy would want revenge for their losses of the day before, but still, the Blackswords were trusted in the city, and they could probably catch a brace or two of valuable officers to trade. He tried not to let regret for Dorna’s riches distract him from his task, watching every corner as he edged his horse towards it.

The battle was moving faster than he anticipated, and he found the main road between the gates and the port blocked by fierce fighting, managing to halt their column before they came into view of the defending forces, whose commander would doubtless demand their support. The fighting was between them and the sea, leaving them to find a route through the unfamiliar convolutions of the tannery quarter, where any road might as easily end in a yard filled with pits of stinking ordure as find its way out the other side. Umbaral hailed from Suridn, in the Temple Cities, where the population bathed daily, sewers ran underground, and noxious trades took place in the countryside beyond the walls; the stink of the piss and dog-shit in the tanning pits made him retch, even after years spent in stinking Kraikh and Roganid towns, and on battlefields. Ukhand came forward and led with him, judging that enemy forces would have no reason to enter the tanneries. The route was hard to find, and they retraced their steps several times before they emerged onto a major thoroughfare.

The street was clear, although they could hear fighting nearby, and there were roofs burning; Umbaral led them across, and into the smaller streets that separated them from the dockside. The streets were broad enough to ride four abreast here, so they shortened the column to avoid getting strung out around the frequent turnings; he scouted carefully now, as there were many hiding places. The fighting was close, and the area was inviting to looters, with many pleasant squares and prosperous houses. His care was rewarded, and he was able to edge back unseen when they came to a square filled with Suluf lancers, milling about on and off their horses. He held up a hand for silence, his heart pounding, and walked his horse carefully back to consult with his commander.

‘How many?’ asked Ukhand.

‘I’m not sure, I got my head back as sharp as I could, but no more than a score, I’d say.’

‘And there’s a dozen of us. What are they doing?’


‘Fair enough. Let’s have a look on foot.’

Maghîllin also dismounted, and the three of them went forward to peer around the corner, Umbaral with a shaft nocked on his bowstring. The Suluf were distinctive, most of them six foot or more, with their long yellow braids hanging from their helmets, and their knee length mail byrnies. More than half of them had dismounted, and opened up two or three houses, one of which was either a tavern or a brewer’s home, because a barrel of ale had been brought out, and a townsman was dipping leather tankards, staggering around to serve the lancers; blood was pouring from his head where his left ear had been sliced off. Three women had also been brought out, and were being raped over a bench while more Suluf waited their turn, laughing and joking loudly. All three men made a head count and agreed on eighteen; there might be more indoors, but they didn’t see more horses than men. They backed away from the corner.

‘As I recall, there’s no other good route to the docks from here,’ said Ukhand.

‘Cross the square, two hundred yard, there’s the sea,’ agreed Maghîllin. ‘Otherwise, long way, little roads.’

‘Or, if we go back to the main road we just crossed, that takes us back to the Water Tower, and then we could come along the seafront…’ Umbaral stumbled into silence when he saw how the other two men were looking at him.

‘When I want your opinion, lancer…’ Ukhand drew his sabre and inspected the edge. ‘Think we can take them?’ he asked Maghîllin.

‘Surprise makes good the numbers,’ said the Shallu, smiling. ‘Some of us be dead, but all of them.’

Ukhand considered a moment. ‘Very well. Umbaral, don’t mount up: on my signal, step out and start sending arrows at them. As soon as you do, we’ll ride round you and charge, as far over to the right as possible; keep shooting as long as you can, then draw your sword and join us. Get your horse afterwards, leave it tethered here. Maghîllin, you understand? Get the men ready. We need to do this fast.’

Umbaral sighed. Getting into a fight at this stage was not his idea of good sense, but he fancied his chances of escaping Dorna better with the Blackswords than alone, not least because there was a ship chartered for the company, and he doubted he could afford to buy a berth on any other vessel with the city already half fallen, and its richest burghers doubtless on the docks with all their gold. He tethered his horse to a plane sapling and unlaced his quiver; two dozen arrows, including the one in his hand. He checked the flights methodically, and inspected his bowstring for fraying, but it was in perfect condition. He slung the quiver on his back so he could draw new shafts over his shoulder, and loosened his sword in its scabbard. Then he began to check the straps on his armour until the others were ready; checking his gear was the best way he’d found to avoid thinking about battles before they started, and he was practiced at it now. No other thought would enter his mind. Ukhand gave him the signal.

He eased around the corner; the Suluf were too busy to notice him, thinking the battle for the city already won. His first shaft he sent at the horse of one of the mounted men; the animal reared, screaming, and he sent his next through the throat of a man who had removed his helmet. Still none of them had looked his way, until the third shaft was nocked; this he left standing in the chest of another horse, which charged across the square in panic, scattering men before it and throwing its rider. Two of them spurred their horses towards him as the Blackswords rounded the corner; the distance was too short to get up to a full charge, and Umbaral could see the lancers were using their lances to stab when they closed. The Suluf didn’t even manage to set their spears, but drew swords, unhooking shields from their pommels if they had time. Umbaral thanked the Mother for his companions’ good discipline, as they left open a clear lane for him to shoot into.

The fighting was brutal and rapid in the close quarters of the square. The Suluf horses scattered or were killed and injured in the first few seconds. Umbaral focussed on the directed tension and release of his archery, keeping good form, and focussing only on his pull and his aim; he hardly noticed the savage, improvised fight. Men were wrestled from their horses; helmets were kicked away and booted feet stamped on skulls until they split; guts were spilled below a mail byrnie, hanging down in grey coils as their owner roared in confusion; pommels were driven into faces; and arrows punched through steel rings as Umbaral closed the gap between him and the fighting. And then the last remnant of the Suluf were running, bloodied, leaving most of their comrades broken and screaming behind, reeking of what should have been inside them.

Umbaral stumbled on a body, and looked down to see that it wore black armour, and only half a head, but enough of a face for him to recognise an eager youth from Maiagefos that he’d fleeced at dice a few hours earlier. Ashurra, Maghîllin’s twin, seemed to have lost the use of her shield arm which hung loosely at her side; Irtain’s mouth was a ruin, blood and teeth in confusion on his jaw, but he seemed still to be riding steadily; another black clad corpse lay by the bench where the women had been raped, he couldn’t see who. Of the three women, or the man who’d been serving ale, there was no sign. He went to get his horse.

When he came back to the square the throats of the injured had been cut, and Ukhand was doling out ale from the open cask, looking each man in the eye and thanking him. Even Umbaral wasn’t immune to Ukhand’s leadership, to the respect he showed his men, though he despised himself for every twinge of loyalty he felt. Three Blackswords were transferring their tack and gear onto Suluf horses. He approached Ukhand.

The commander smiled at him, and nodded at his sabre. ‘I see you managed to avoid drawing your sword,’ he said, dipping a flagon in the barrel and handing it to him. The beer tasted good, and he began to tremble as he drank it, only now realising that he’d lived through another fight. He tried to banter and joke, but words wouldn’t come. Ukhand patted his shoulder.

‘We’ll be quick here, as soon as we’re all remounted we’ll be away. Good shooting, lancer.’

‘Thank you, sir. We should…’ He pointed to the bodies, thinking of their gear and valuables. He could buy a nice house in Suridn for the gold the mail byrnies alone would fetch.

‘There’s no time,’ said Ukhand. ‘By all means look for coin: you can keep what you find.’

‘Thanks.’ Umbaral stumbled away to his looting, his legs wobbling as though he were drunk.

He recovered three arrows more or less intact, and found a little coin, along with two finely made daggers in nice sheaths. None of his companions seemed to be bothering with the bodies.

‘Lancer!’ Maghîllin was regarding him fiercely. ‘Where lance?’

He groaned. He’d taken it from the man who’d held it for him, and leant it against the wall where he tethered his horse, before the fight. He’d not given it another thought.

‘I left it,’ he said, pointing vaguely. ‘I’ll go and fetch it…’

‘You’ll go and fetch it,’ Maghîllin parroted, belligerently, taking his horse’s reins.

Umbaral dragged his feet. He felt a black cloud of dread settling over him; when he rounded that corner alone there might be anyone waiting for him. A contingent of Suluf come to counter-attack; a random patrol of the pretender’s invading forces; or just one big bastard with a sword or an axe, waiting to maim him. He felt like voiding his bowels, but he made himself plant his feet in sequence. To die now after surviving two fights in two days would just be irritating. It seemed like a two mile hike to the corner, his blood rushing and pounding in his ears.

He rounded the corner and recovered his spear without incident, and they continued to the docks.

As Maghîllin had said, it was little more than two hundred yards to Dorna’s wharves. They had barely left the square before the shouts and crashes of battle were drowned by the hubbub from the waterfront, and they emerged onto the quayside between two tall and richly decorated merchants’ houses, into chaos.

There were only three ships still tied up with their gangplanks down, but several more stood a little way offshore, still anchored, with a busy stream of lighters flitting between them and the shore. Further beyond them two warlike galleasses flew the hibiscus flag of Megano, presumably to forestall any opportunistic acts of piracy. Small comfort for those stranded on the land, thought Umbaral, riding now in the body of the troop, beside Irtain, who was holding a swatch of red dripping bandages against his mouth.

The quayside was an impenetrable mass of bodies and baggage, civilians hysterical with fear, desperate to escape before the Suluf were let loose to claim their reward. People were brandishing all manner of valuables, shouting all manner of promises, but by now a sack of diamonds would not have helped to reach the front of the crowd, or to attract the attention of one of the lightermen. The ship they had chartered, the Yellowbird, was still moored at the dock, but it seemed to be crowded already, and Umbaral was unsure how they were going to reach it. Then he saw Ukhand and Maghîllin, at the head of the column, bend their elbows and begin to beat at the crowd with the butts of their spears.

Umbaral tried not to look. He saw an elderly matron, of obvious wealth, staggering semi-conscious, her face a bleeding mess, and glanced away to see a young artisan fall under the hooves of Maghîllin’s horse. Then they were pressing into the crowd, and he was beating at hands that grabbed his outside leg, then beating indiscriminately at their owners, trying not to see what damage he was doing. Had the crowd not been so bent on escape, each individual so intent on his or her own benefit, they might have turned on them, and no amount of armour and weapons would have saved them; but those that weren’t in their way barely noticed them, and as they neared the edge of the quay the crowd had to scrabble aside or be driven into the water.

The Yellowbird was the largest sort of caravel, over eighty feet in length, with three lateen rigged masts; her lines were graceful despite her size, and although she had a tall aftercastle like a carrack, her prow was low and sleek. A man stood at the head of her gangplank with a stout cudgel in his hands, while another crew member stood on the quay haggling with a group of potential passengers; her main deck was crowded with bewildered looking townspeople, and the crew was making ready to sail, several men readying long sweeps at the rail.

‘One side,’ said Ukhand loudly, ‘we’ve chartered this vessel to Tua, and there’s little time to get underway.’

The man on the gangplank, who might have been the mate by his bearing, and his relatively fine clothes, shook his head.

‘The captain says all bets are off: we’re taking what passengers we can, and sailing. There’s no room for you now.’

Ukhand didn’t reply, but spurred his horse up the plank, knocking the mate sprawling with his lance. Maghîllin followed, shouting to the others to follow him; the ten of them were soon on the deck, mounted, dropping their remaining lances and drawing their swords. Passengers scattered in panic, and the Yellowbird wallowed under them; she was already very low in the water. Crewmen looked around in confusion, some of them drawing knives, but most preparing to scramble to safety. The captain was on the poop deck talking to some wealthy passengers; he opened his mouth to shout an order, but seemed unable to think of one.

Ukhand dismounted, and ran straight up the steps, his sabre held before him. The captain raised his hands carefully away from the hanger at his own belt, as Umbaral watched his commander close with him; then Umbaral also dismounted, and nocked an arrow. He aimed at a crewman who seemed to be contemplating assisting his captain, taking several paces towards him to make his meaning as clear as possible. His companions also dismounted, occupying commanding positions about the deck; knives were re-sheathed, as the reality of ten fully armed soldiers on board became apparent.

Ukhand approached to within a few paces of the captain, and threw a heavy pouch at him, hard; the man caught it against his chest.

‘That’s your pay, as agreed, for our passage to Tua. Our contract was for twenty men and forty horses, but we come with only ten of each, so you should find it a more than handsome reward.’

The captain found his voice at last. ‘On any other day,’ he spat. ‘Today I can name my price for passage.’

‘Indeed you can,’ Ukhand replied. ‘Whatever space we don’t need you can sell at a premium; luckily for us both, we have already agreed our price, and you hold it in your hands.’ He took a pace forwards.

The captain licked his lips. ‘The ship is well laden…’

‘Then un-load it. Make space in the hold for our horses, and space below decks for my men. We arranged two cabins for myself and my officers.’

‘I have already taken payment for…’

‘Then return it!’ bellowed Ukhand, closing the distance between them by another pace. ‘And make it fast: the battle is not far behind us.’

The captain scowled and cursed, and began to issue orders. Sailors ran to obey, bringing travelling chests up from below and throwing them to the shore, while their owners shouted in protest. One of the wealthy passengers on the poop deck began to shout and gesticulate at Ukhand, who punched him hard in the mouth with his mailed fist, knocking him senseless. Umbaral returned his attention to the activity around him, watching the crew intently, keeping a shaft nocked and his back to the starboard rail. Poorer passengers were herded back towards the gangplank: some resisted, but bared steel quickly changed their minds. The sound of battle began to be audible above the sound of the crowd on the quay.

When enough goods had emerged from the hold, two men led the horses below. One of them soon came running back up the ramp, shouting angrily.

‘Captain Ukhand, there’s no bedding down there, and no fucking feed!’

Ukhand turned furiously on the Yellowbird’s captain. ‘We loaded our feed aboard in Tua before we even came here, you bloody rogue! Where is it?’

The captain looked regretfully towards the rail. ‘We had little reason to suppose you’d be back to take passage,’ he said, ‘at this late stage…’

Ukhand balled his fist, and raised it halfway before he mastered himself. To humiliate the captain further, in front of his crew, would do no-one any good.

‘Any horse that is dead, or unfit for war, when we dock in Tua, you will pay for. Is that understood?’

The captain nodded, opened his mouth to speak, and left it open. Something was wrong. Something had happened.

Umbaral looked around, unsure why, but certain there was some new danger. Then he realised: the battle sounds had stopped. The crowd noise died away, panic replaced by a new, more terrifying anxiety. The crew worked in relative quiet, still unloading goods to compensate for the weight of their horses. The ships to fore and aft of them cast off, and drifted out into the harbour, seeking the current and a breeze. The lighters stopped returning to the shore, their crews climbing aboard the ships they’d been serving, which began to weigh their anchors. Much of the crowd remained staring stupidly at the vessels on which they no longer had any chance of finding a berth, but people began to stream away from the quay into the streets around it.

Then they heard screaming, sharp, intense animal panic; a wedge of Suluf horsemen drove into the crowd from the east, hacking with swords and axes. The crew cut their mooring lines with axes, but the vessel remained hard against the quay, a gentle current keeping her in place. The Suluf began to cut their way deliberately towards them; the Blackswords took positions along the rail, with shields and swords ready, but the enemy were well over a hundred strong. Irtain pushed the gangplank away, but it looked an easy enough leap to the deck regardless. Crewmen hefted the long sweeps that were kept aboard for manoeuvring in harbour, pushing against the quayside with all their strength. Then Ukhand ordered the Blackswords to drop their weapons and assist; black water opened up between the rail and the wharf as the prow swung out; two young Suluf dismounted and leapt the gap, beginning to climb the aftercastle as their leaders pulled up their mounts where the gangplank lay on the dock. Umbaral leaned out over the rail and put an arrow in one; the other lost his grip, and his byrnie dragged him under the water. Still low in the water, the crew throwing travelling chests overboard as they drifted, the Yellowbird was under way.


Click here to read Episode 4


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