Vinnah Region, Southern Alloria
It was a warm day, and the vineyards that had made the Vinnah region so prosperous were heavy with fruit. The sprawling countryside on either side of the Wine Road should have been swarming with workers busy harvesting, but as the Ninth Legion passed village after village, there was not a soul to be seen. It was unsurprising, given the flood of refugees that had descended upon the Allorian capital of Caldoa. It had been almost a week since there had first been word of the Vahc invasion, and the sacking and torching of two of the border towns further south. The entire military force of Caldoa, ten Legions made up of ten thousand men, had been dispatched to repel the hordes. It was a rare occurrence for a Vahc raid to warrant such a massive defence effort, but this had been no ordinary raid. A warlord had arisen among the hordes, a man known as Desturum the Cruel; a fierce warrior with aspirations of glory and the means to achieve it. He had been the first to unite the hordes in such a fashion; no small accomplishment among a race that were as prone to fighting each other as they were any external enemy. And yet here they were. Their numbers were believed to be close to six thousand, and reinforcements were likely to join the war effort after word of Desturum’s successes early in the campaign spread southward. Though there was yet to be a large scale conflict between the two sides, the Vahc had overrun the small militia stationed on the Vinnah border, and plundered the land unchecked.
So it was that Lieutenant Arkus Galarus, leader of the Ninth Legion, after having served a dozen years within the Legion itself, came to be marching southeast. The thousand soldiers that served under him, five hundred heavy spearmen, three hundred swordsmen, and two hundred lightly-armoured macemen, knew him as one of their own, and, despite being young for a lieutenant, only thirty years old, he was more than capable. He was taller than most, and broad; his entire life had been spent in or around the Legions, and relentless training had made him strong. He had short, brown hair, brown eyes and a strong jaw covered in stubble. There were few who did not like him, and none that did not respect him to some degree or another. It was only recently that he had been promoted to the position of lieutenant, and the campaign to defend the Vinnah Region would be the first true test of his command. That is, if he and his men were to see any of the fighting at all.
The Ninth Legion marched alone, under the orders of Raenan Galarus; General of the Legions, and father to Arkus. While he did not doubt the capabilities of his son, the Vahc hordes were not an enemy to be taken lightly, and the General would rather not have seen him on the front lines. Instead, while the main body of the Caldoan army marched to meet the bulk of the hordes, believed to have made their way as far north as central Vinnah, Lieutenant Galarus had been dispatched to investigate reports of a secondary raiding party. They had yet to see any evidence of this.
‘We should have found something by now.’ Observed a gruff voice at the Lieutenant’s shoulder. It belonged to Sanas Placatas, some fourteen years older than his superior, one of the spearmen of the Ninth, and a close friend of Galarus. The pair had fought side by side since the younger man had first enlisted, and Placatas had always kept an eye out for him.
‘These places have been deserted for a reason.’ Galarus replied. ‘The Vahc cannot be far away.’
‘We keep going much further and we’ll end up in the Inner Sea. There’s not a lot of land left to the east. Another village or two, and a third further south. Beyond that are the Vahc wastes, and nowhere I’d like to travel with less than an army with me.’
‘Those are our orders, Placatas. We wouldn’t have been sent out here for no reason.’ Galarus said with a tone of finality. He was very fond of the spearman, but he was not in the mood to be reminded of the fact that he had been sent out on a scouting mission, while the rest of the Legions fought a full scale battle for the defence of Alloria. Regardless, Placatas was not wrong; there seemed to be a distinct lack of any activity in the lands around them, which was perhaps more unsettling than if there had been.
‘We’ll camp here tonight.’ Galarus instructed his men. ‘Get some rest, and we’ll press further east in the morning. If we find nothing by the end of tomorrow, we’ll move to rejoin the rest of the Legions.’
The men of the Ninth, set up tents and established a guarded perimeter and the predetermined rotation of watchmen began. The cool night was as quiet as the day, and there was little sound other than the low hum of the conversations of tired legionaries. Galarus spent much of the late evening in his own quarters, re-reading the same reports he had gone over numerous times already. He was almost to the point where he knew them word for word, but he still felt it necessary to remind himself of his orders. Not long after the initial reports of Desturum’s main force crossing into the Vinnah region, there came further sightings of Vahc from a group of refugees further east of the main horde. Many of the villages there had declined to flee northward, believing instead that Caldoa was the primary target of the Vahc, and that remaining where they were was the far safer option. It was these sightings that Galarus had been instructed to verify. Though never in excess of several dozen men, the enemy raiding parties would continue to ravage the southern lands of Alloria unless stopped, and, not wishing to take the chance that these parties might number in the hundreds, an entire Legion had been sent to do just that.
Galarus leant back in his chair, kneading at his eyes with the palms of his hands. The torchlight he worked by flickered as a breeze whipped under the door to his tent. He had argued with his father over the mission he had been given, and insisted that he be allowed to fight alongside the other Legions, in what was to be a far more important venture than the one he had been tasked with. The General had refused, and the importance of his son’s assignment reiterated again and again. Galarus pushed himself to his feet and made his way outside. He took a deep breath; the scents of the night clung to the air about him. It was difficult to believe that the Vahc could be nearby, given the stillness of the landscape. The following morning, however, put an end to that.
The soldiers positioned to the east of the temporary encampment of the Ninth were the first to see it; a dark cloud of smoke hovering over the horizon, framed by the golden sunrise. The alarm was sounded immediately, the men roused from their beds and briskly ordered by their lieutenant to don their armour and prepare for battle. Their camp was left intact, it being a needless waste of time to dismantle it, and the Legion was on the march within minutes. As they neared the settlement from which the plume of smoke issued forth, the occasional breeze carried with it the rank stench of burning bodies and buildings, and the screams of the victims mingled with the eager, bloodthirsty cries of those that beset them.
When the outermost buildings of the small village came into view, a sight came with them that sent a chill running down the spine of every legionary there. They had managed, finally, to locate the raiding party they had been sent to find. The size of it, however, had been somewhat underestimated. From all the reports he had studied in excessive detail, Galarus was prepared for an enemy force numbering in the low hundreds, at the very most. What sprawled before his eyes now was an army that dwarfed such estimations, and even outnumbered the men of the Ninth. A second full scale invasion, easily made up of another two thousand Vahc warriors at least, had crossed into the Vinnah region without the knowledge of Caldoa, and was plundering its way northward, separate from Desturum’s horde.
‘Well…’ Placatas shrugged. ‘At least things have gotten a bit more interesting.’
He was not wrong. Upon coming face to face with this new and numerically superior adversary, the Ninth had stopped in its tracks. There were several moments of inactivity, as each side stared across the stretch of plains that separated their lines; the Legion, still in a marching column, and the Vahc forming a crowded mass on the outskirts of the village.
It was the invaders that were the first to react. Already filled with the thrill of plunder, they were more than eager for a challenge. As word spread through their numbers of the appearance of the Ninth, they began a hurried charge, howling and brandishing weapons in the air, racing each other to be the first to engage the newcomers.
‘Form up!’ Galarus shouted, determined to set an example for his men. ‘Spearmen on me, two ranks deep. Swordsmen! To the flanks and three ranks deep! Macemen at the rear! They must not flank us!’
That was easier said then done; the Vahc lines, while ragged, unfurled to more than twice the breadth of the Legion’s. If they became surrounded, it would be extremely difficult to effectively repel an enemy of these numbers. Galarus scanned the ground before him; it was mostly flatlands and plains, with nothing larger than a hillock to break its surface. Any hope of a tactical advantage from the terrain was extinguished. The Vahc, not known for their restraint or tactical thought in battle, charged as a singular mass toward the armoured legionaries.
‘Hold the position!’ Galarus ordered. ‘Let them come to us! They will tire from the charge, and we will hold them! We are the only thing stood between this army and our city, our homes and our families! Defend the men beside you, and they will defend you. Fight hard, and we will test the strength of Allorian steel against the flesh and bone of the hordes!’
Cheers greeted his words, and the legionaries rang their weapons against their armour and shields in a tumultuous din. The Vahc responded with howls and roars of their own, their pace quickening as they hurtled across the plain towards their enemy.
‘Hold!’ Galarus repeated, the hordes growing ever closer, waiting for the perfect moment. ‘Hold!’
There were only metres between the two sides now, and the front ranks of the Ninth hunched behind their shields, their boots firmly planted into the ground and the shields of the second line in their backs, all of them braced for the impact of the charge.
‘Macemen! Now!’ Galarus bellowed above the thunderous noise. Two hundred macemen streamed out from behind the lines of swordsmen, fanning out to extend the breadth of the Ninth Legion’s formation. The Vahc, eagerly pressing to attack the flanks of the legionaries, were caught off guard by the sudden movement of their enemy. The macemen led their own charge, smashing into the advancing hordes with as much pace and force as they could muster. Steel slammed into flesh and the first screams of the dying soared into the sky, and blood began to pool on the ground.
The bulk of the hordes slammed into the shields of the spearmen and swordsmen, the impact sending tremors through their bodies. Weapons battered against the solid wall of legionaries, hacking high in an attempt to reach the faces that grimaced behind visored helmets so closely in front of them. The front rank withstood the charge, and once the momentum faded, the Ninth were able to fight back. The spearmen fought in expert rhythm, their short spears stabbing low under their shields, crunching into the feet of their opponents. The second row thrust over the shoulders of their allies in front, skewering the screaming Vahc as they fell.
Galarus’ heart was pounding in his chest, so violently he was certain it could be heard by the men around him. He had killed three men already, and in quick succession, though it was hard not to hit something with the press of bodies on the other side of his shield. An axe clattered off of the top of his helmet, briefly making his vision swim, and he hunched lower in an attempt to protect himself. Placatas was on his right, and was happily stabbing furiously into the legs of the men before him. Galarus felt his spear sink into flesh, twisted, and wrenched it out again, drawing a desperate wail from his victim. The Vahc warrior fell to the ground with a heavy thud, and the lieutenant drove his spear forward again, this time into his opponent’s chest, silencing him for good.
On the flanks of the spearmen, the swordsmen had a far tougher fight on their hands. Lacking the same heavy armour as their front line companions, they found themselves on a far more even field with the Vahc. While their skill and training kept them alive to a point, the ferocity and sheer numbers of their enemy were impossible to resist forever. Dozens of the Ninth’s swordsmen had fallen already, thinning their ranks considerably, but they fought on bravely, making sure they took two, sometimes three of their opponents with them, driving forward alongside the spearmen in a desperate attempt to break through the ranks of their enemies.
At the very edges of the Caldoan lines, the macemen were making good headway. The impact of their charge on the Vahc had been visible in the damage they had wrought before their pace was slowed by the press of the hordes. The legionaries hammered down upon the shields and bodies of their foes, crushing bones and shattering shields with the weight of their spiked weapons. Each of them was splattered heavily with blood, either their own or their enemies, it mattered little as adrenaline carried them further into the battle, and the Vahc flanks finally began to waver. Almost simultaneously on both the left and right, the macemen found themselves fighting only a thin line of enemy warriors, and as a single unit surged toward them, the sense of victory almost overwhelming. The outermost horns of the Vahc force were shattered, reduced to a mass of dead and wounded that stained the battlefield red. Having failed to outflank the Legions, they were forced to fight man to man against the more heavily armoured Ninth. Relentless, the macemen in turn moved to engage the Vahc flanks, and assist the swordsmen in their defence.
Increasingly outnumbering their enemy, the legionaries rallied themselves and redoubled their attacks. The Vahc now fell in droves as their flanks collapsed inward, and the remaining warriors relinquished the attack and frantically attempted to keep themselves alive. Some fled, in the direction of the village they had been plundering before the appearance of the Ninth, but most foolishly stood their ground, determined to fight to their last breath. They were cut down mercilessly, their blood pooling deeply about the feet of the victors.
As the last of the attackers died, his ribcage caved in by a zealous maceman, Galarus turned his attention to the routers.
‘Chase them down!’ He ordered, gasping for breath after the exertions of battle.
The macemen and swordsmen, wearing lighter armour than the spearmen, set off at a run, while their companions saw to the aid of their own wounded, and the dispatch of the enemy’s. The defeated Vahc, enraged at their loss on the battlefield, had begun to take their frustrations out on the village and its occupants. Any buildings that remained were hurriedly set alight, and the few inhabitants that had survived the first assault were brutally murdered. The legionaries entered the village to find few still alive, and the Vahc still present. Those that remained were hunted down, chased from homes and storehouses and put to the sword. Galarus arrived shortly after the macemen had begun clearing out the hordes, and he charged down the main road, little more than a track in the dirt, hearing the sounds of nearby battle and eager to fight on.
He rounded the last house on the street, and to his disbelief saw a boy, alone, fighting off several invaders. A handful of bodies already lay around him, and the Vahc blade in his hand was heavily coated with blood. The lieutenant charged, as the young lad expertly parried and countered, opening up an opponent’s face. He howled in pain and staggered backwards, and was quickly carried away by an ally at the sight of Galarus’ approach.
The boy, who could not have been much older than fourteen, stood, sword lowered, and watched them leave. The lieutenant, arriving at his side, placed a hand on the teenager’s shoulder.
‘Are you alright?’ He asked. The boy appeared to be unscathed, though his breathing was ragged, and tears had begun to fill his eyes. He said nothing.
‘Quite the mess we’ve got here!’ Placatas exclaimed, grinning, the visor of his helmet raised, as he approaching Galarus and the boy. ‘This your handiwork lieutenant?’
Galarus shook his head, still struggling to comprehend the abilities of someone so young, and presumably untrained, despite the ease with which he had defended himself.
Placatas was equally surprised. ‘Quite the little swordsman, aren’t you lad?’
Again, the boy remained silent.
‘Alright then.’ He turned to Galarus instead. ‘Congratulations on your first victory, lieutenant!’ He clapped his superior upon the shoulder. ‘The Ninth did a fine job here, and I’ll make damn sure everyone in the city knows about it! People won’t be forgetting our story anytime soon!’
‘Hmm.’ Galarus grunted. ‘We are not done yet.’
‘The Vahc won’t attack again.’ Placatas explained. ‘The battle is won, lieutenant.’
‘This battle, perhaps.’ Galarus replied. ‘But Desturum and his horde still pose a threat to the city.’
Placatas grinned again. ‘Now you’re talking, sir! One victory is never enough!’
‘How many casualties did we sustain in the fighting?’
‘Around two hundred and twenty.’ Placatas estimated from the bodies he had seen upon the battlefield. ‘Another forty wounded.’
‘Instruct the men to move the wounded into the village.’ Galarus ordered. ‘Have another forty men remain here to tend to them and defend the villagers should the Vahc survivors think about returning. The rest will march west, and assist in whatever way we can.’
Placatas saluted and hurried to spread the orders to the Ninth. He smiled to himself as he moved off at as fast a jog as his armour would allow. The young lieutenant had done well. He had seen the resolve of more experienced men fail in the face of smaller challenges, and yet this one was eager for more. Galarus would do alright, he thought to himself, and hoped he would be at his side to see it all happen.
Galarus afforded the Ninth Legion little rest after their victory, assembling the seven hundred men capable of fighting that would accompany him on the road along which they had first travelled, and led a forced march westward. Every last one among them was weary from battle, but were buoyed by the example of their lieutenant; no less tired than they and sharing in every hardship that they suffered.
By his own estimation, Galarus believed the main force of the Caldoan army to be slightly north of central Vinnah; only several days travel from their current position. That was, at least, where Desturum was believed to be headed with his Vahc warriors, and likely the location at which the General would seek a pitched battle.
The progress of the Ninth was slowed somewhat by their need to break the camp they had established the night before. It was done hastily, but gave the men a chance to gather themselves after a tough battle. With the job done, he pressed them even harder on the march, setting the pace himself. None among his company complained; they knew to where they were heading, and the price that might be paid should the Legions require the presence of the Ninth. Only the oppressive shroud of darkness halted their march, barely leaving them enough light to set up their tents, and dawn signalled their return to the road.
Two days and nights passed like this, and they made good progress. Before noon on the third day, the Legion was called to a halt. A runner had appeared ahead of them, increasing his pace as he spotted the column of legionaries, dashing toward Galarus as soon as he recognised him.
‘Lieutenant!’ He breathed heavily, but managed to speak clearly. ‘Thank goodness I have found you. And so close.’
‘Out with it, man.’ Placatas encouraged him, arriving at Galarus’ side.
‘The General sent me. He is in need of you; Desturum’s men were not alone. The Legion’s tracked the main horde down, but reports have come in of another force, two thousand strong, that are threatening to outflank us.’
‘Ha!’ Placatas interrupted. ‘You’re a bit late. We’ve already taken care of them!’
The messenger looked at him, a mixture of confusion and frustration on his face at having been spoken to in such a way by this spearman. ‘Impossible.’ He explained. ‘You are travelling from the east; this force is moving from the southwest. Lieutenant, your father is surrounded.’
Galarus gritted his teeth. ‘How far away is the army?’
‘A day’s march at the most.’
‘Travel ahead and inform the General that we will be with him before midday tomorrow. We will follow as quickly as we can.’
The messenger nodded, and swiftly returned the way he had come.
‘A third arm of the Vahc hordes.’ Placatas mused. ‘Who knew they had that much military forethought. We were fortunate that the ones we fought weren’t disciplined enough to remain hidden.’
Galarus ignored him, and instead waved the ranks of the Ninth forward, resuming the pace he had set before, and the lines of men behind him rippled into motion. His brain kept going over the same thoughts again and again; they could not afford any delays if they were to make it to his father in time, but the legionaries that followed him were in dire need of rest if they were to be of any use in another large scale battle. It would be necessary for them to stop tonight, despite the urgency of the situation, and Galarus hoped above all else that the Ninth could rejoin the remaining Legions before it was too late.
He barely slept that night, despite having pushed the men and himself to once again march late into the evening, reluctantly making camp, and with every intention of setting off by dawn the following morning. The few hours he had slept had been plagued by thoughts and dreams as dark as those that hounded his waking mind. He gave in, eventually, and lay on his back and stared at the ceiling of his tent, until the darkness gave way to the grey hours of early morning.
It was fortunate, he thought, that the legionaries that followed him were as eager as he to re-unite with the General and the other Legions. Without a word the camp was disassembled and the men took to the road once more. If the messenger’s words were still accurate, and the main army had not moved, the Ninth would reach them in only a few hours. Whether or not that would be soon enough would be discovered shortly. After three hours forced march, the distant sounds of battle, the ring of steel and screams of the wounded, drifted toward them in snatches; as they travelled closer, such noises became clearer and clearer. The course the Ninth followed led to a small ridge in the landscape; one of few that marred the evenness of the plains surrounding Caldoa.
Galarus was nearly at a run as he reached the base of it, charging to the very top in order to gaze down at the flatlands below. What he saw froze the blood in his veins. The men of the Ninth hurried to join him, fanning out along the summit of the ridge, each of them showing the same look of horror and dismay upon their faces. Upon the plains before them, the sight the lieutenant had been dreading would greet him unravelled in front of his eyes. They had arrived too late to join the Legions before they had been engaged in battle, and now the men of Caldoa were almost entirely surrounded.
From what Galarus could make out, the Legions had been engaged by Desturum’s initial army in a pitched battle, and held their lines. The secondary invasion force, whose existence was only uncovered too late, had then attacked from the west, forcing the General to divide his troops and fight on two fronts. The situation did not look good. The shining ranks of steel had been buckled in several places, as the horde tore into them, particularly on the flank, where the shock of the secondary attack had taken its toll. Galarus watched as the Vahc warriors began to spill into the sides of the legionaries, and the ranks began to collapse under the relentless pressure of the assault. A singular bulkhead remained in the centre, holding strong against the onslaught of the horde. Galarus had no doubt in his mind that his father was rallying men to him there, in a desperate attempt to break through the Vahc warriors and turn the tide of battle.
‘Charge!’ Galarus bellowed as loud as his voice would allow.
What remained of the Ninth Legion roared, their battlecries resounding down the ridge before them, and they charged. Led by their lieutenant, and with no concern for rank or order, the seven hundred sprinted toward the enemy massed below. Their shouts attracted the attention of the Vahc on the edges of the conflict, who turned to face this new threat. They would not be enough to stop the rage and fervour with which Galarus and his men threw themselves desperately into the fight.
Almost hoarse from shouting, the lieutenant met the first of his enemies; a small man confidently wielding an axe. Galarus brought up his shield and ran through him, knocking him into the sodden ground and feeling his boots crush over him. Placatas was once more at his side, and his legionaries swept into the Vahc like a wave rolling over the shore. The speed of the charge carried them forward, through two ranks of the horde, flattening men with shields. Galarus speared a second attacker in the face, and a third rose to meet him. Still running, the lieutenant swung his shield across his body, connecting with his assailant’s jaw, sending him reeling to the ground unconscious. His spear lodged in the torso of a fourth, and he drew his sword, hacking maniacally at the press of bodies around him.
With the appearance of allies, cheers erupted from the main body of the Legions, and a fresh counterattack began. The Vahc, overconfident in their victory, were forced on to the back foot, as sword and spear and mace bit into their numbers, and the grass beneath them became sticky with the blood of the invaders.
Galarus and his men surged forward, eager to remove the hordes from their lands. The lieutenant headed for the bulkhead of legionaries in the centre, where the fighting was hardest and numbers thickest. The flanks began to reform as the Vahc began to fall back under the renewed strength of their foes. Only surrounding the General, and, presumably, Desturum, did the conflict rage proper. Galarus was not wrong. With the abandonment of formation, the legionaries in the centre now fought a brawl; one on one with Vahc counterparts. He and a handful of the Ninth had managed to fight their way into the messy skirmish, and could see the General himself, valiantly fending off attackers. The horde fell about him in a chaotic maelstrom of bloody death and torment, as every one of them focused their murderous intent against the one man that was holding the Legions’ defence together. On either side of the General his men tried to keep up, defending their commander as best they could. That was, until Desturum appeared.
The warlord was a large man, all muscle, and carrying an enormous poleaxe. With one clean swipe he felled two of the General’s men, and clattered the broad blade off the shield of the General himself, sending him staggering to one side.
Galarus fought his way through a pair of Vahc that tried to stand in his way, slicing through the neck of the first and driving his blade into the chest of the second. Finding open ground he charged at Desturum, only to be knocked easily to one side by the haft of the warlord’s poleaxe. The weapon rose into the air, and in one swift movement fell toward the downed lieutenant. In a flash, his father was stood above him, shield raised, and the blade rang off steel. The warlord swung again, but the General was ready, parrying the swipe to one side and countering with a quick riposte. Desturum slipped past it with ease, and took a step back to steady himself. Galarus scrambled to his feet and took a position at his father’s side, shield raised and sword ready.
The warlord hefted his poleaxe in his hands, and swung mightily at the officers. Galarus ducked under it, and his father met the blade with his shield once again, slashing down upon its shaft with his sword, severing the weapon’s head. Galarus, staying low, slashed his sword into Desturum’s right leg, cutting it to the bone, bringing the Vahc leader to his knees. The General was instantly stood over him, staring deep into his eyes. Without a word, his blade sank into the warlord’s neck, easily sliding deeper through his body. Blood bubbled upward, as all around him the Vahc horde crumbled, and all that was left to do for the battered but victorious Legions was to mop up the remaining invaders.
Galarus straightened his back, blood-drenched and exhausted, at his father’s side. The Vahc invasion had been repelled, but at a dear cost. Many of the legionaries had been killed, and a substantial number wounded. The Ninth stood proudest amongst the survivors, some of them barely able to keep on their feet for the fatigue that consumed them. They had lost more men in the fighting, fewer than before, no more than fifty, but Galarus was saddened by the death of each and every one of them. The Ninth had single-handedly reversed the fortunes of the Caldoan Legions, and, after two monumental victories, expelled the Vahc invaders from their lands. They would not be forgotten for this; Galarus would make damn sure of that.