This was noisy; it was meant to be. The noncombatants with the baggageâdrovers, cooks, personal servants, the odd whoreâwere screaming in fear and fleeing in all directions, adding to the noise. There didn't seem to be anyone with enough authority back here to get so much as a fire brigade organized.
The Hawks charged through the fires and the frightened, milling civilians, and headed straight for the rear of Kelcrag's lines. Now Kethry and the mages had dropped back until they rodeâa bit more protectedâin the midst of the Sunhawks. They would be needed now only if one of Kelcrag's mages happened to be stationed on this flank.
For the rest, it was time for bow work. Kelcrag's menâarmored cavalry here, for the most part; nobles and retainers, and mostly youngâwere still trying to grasp the fact that they'd been hit from the rear.
The Hawks swerved just out of bowshot, riding their horses in a flanking move along the back of the lines. They didn't stop; that would make them stationary targets. They just began swirling in and out at the very edge of the enemy's range, as Tarma led the first sortie to engage.
About thirty of them peeled off from the main group, galloping forward with what must look to Kelcrag's men like utter recklessness. It wasn't; they stayed barely within their range as they shot into the enemy lines. This was what the Hawks were famous for, this horseback skirmishing. Most of them rode with reins in their teeth, a few, like Tarma and Jodi, dropped their reins altogether, relying entirely on their weight and knees to signal their mounts. Tarma loosed three arrows in the time it took most of the rest of her sortie group to launch one, her short horse-bow so much a part of her that she thought of nothing consciously but picking her targets. She was aware only of Ironheart's muscles laboring beneath her legs, of the shifting smoke that stung eyes and carried a burnt flavor into the back of her throat, of the sticky feel of sweat on her back, of a kind of exultation in her skillâand it was all over in heartbeats. Arrows away, the entire group wheeled and galloped to the rear of the Hawks, already nocking more missilesâfor hard on their heels came a second group, a thirdâit made for a continuous rain of fire that was taking its toll even of heavily armored menâand as they rode, the Hawks jeered at their enemies, and shouted Idra's rallying call. The hail of arrows that fell on the enemy wounded more horses than menâa fact Tarma was sorry aboutâbut the fire, the hail of arrows, and the catcalls inflamed their enemy's tempers in a way that nothing else could have done.
And, as Leamount and Idra had planned, the young, headstrong nobles let those tempers loose.
They broke ranks, leaders included, and charged their mocking foes. All they thought of now was to engage the retreating Hawks, forgetful of their orders, forgetful of everything but that this lot of commoners had pricked their vanity and was now getting away.
Now the Hawks scattered, breaking into a hundred little groups, their purpose accomplished.
Tarma managed to get to Kethry's side, and the two of them plowed their way back through the burning wreckage of the baggage train.
Iron-shod hooves pounding, their mounts raced as if they'd been harnessed side by side. Kethry clung grimly to the pommel of her saddle, as her partner could see out of the corner of her eye. She was not the horsewoman that the Shinâa'in was, she well knew it, and Hellsbane was galloping erratically; moving far too unpredictably for her to draw Need. At this point she was well-nigh helpless; it would be up to Tarma and the battlemares to protect her.
An over-brave pikeman rose up out of the smoke before them, thinking to hook Tarma from her seat. She ducked beneath his pole arm, and Ironheart trampled him into the red-stained mud. Another footman made a try for Kethry, but Hellsbane snapped at him, crushed his shoulder in her strong teeth, shook him like a dog with a rag while he shrieked, then dropped him again. A rider who thought to intercept them had the trick Tarma and Ironheart had played on Duke Greyhame's sentry performed on him and his steedâonly in deadly earnest. Ironheart reared, screaming challenge, and crow-hopped forward. The gelding the enemy rode backed in panic from the slashing hooves, and as they passed him, his rider's head was kicked in before they could get out of range.
The battlesteeds kited through the smoke and flames of the burning camp with no more fear of either than of the scrubby shrubbery. Three times Tarma turned in her saddle and let fly one of the lethal little arrows of the Shinâa'inâas those pursuing found to their grief, armor was of little use when an archer could find and target a helm-slit.
Then shouting began behind them; their pursuers pulled up, looked backâand began belatedly to return to their battleline. Too lateâfor Lord Shoveral had made his rare badger's chargeâand had taken full advantage of the hole that the work of the Sunhawks had left in Kelcrag's lines. Kelcrag's forces were trapped between Shoveral and the shale cliffs, with nowhere to retreat.
Using her knees, Tarma signaled Ironheart to slow, and Hellsbane followed her stablemate's lead. Tarma couldn't make out much through the blowing smoke, but what she
see told her all she needed to know. Kelcrag's banner was down, and there was a milling mass of menâmostly wearing Leamount's scarlet surcoatsâwhere it had once stood. All over the field, fighters in Kelcrag's blue were throwing down their weapons.
The civil war was over.
Kethry touched the tip of her index finger to a spot directly between the sweating fighter's eyebrows; he promptly shuddered once, his eyes rolled up into his head, and he sagged into the waiting arms of his shieldbrother.
“Lay him out thereâthat's rightâ” Rethaire directed the disposition of the now-slumbering Hawk. His partner eased him down slowly, stretching him out on his back on a horseblanket, with his wounded arm practically in the herbalist's lap. Rethaire nodded. “âgood. Kethâ”
Kethry blinked, coughed once, and shook her head a little. “Who's next?” she asked.
Kethry stared askance at him. A Bluecoat? One of
Rethaire frowned. “No, don't look at me that way, he's under Mercenary's Truce; he's all right or I wouldn't have let him in here. He's one of Devaril's Demons.”
“Ah.” The Demons had a good reputation among the companies, even if most of Devaril's meetings with Idra generally ended up as shouting matches. Too bad they'd been on opposite sides in this campaign.
Rethaire finished dusting the long, oozing slash in their companion's arm with blue-green powder, and began carefully sewing it up with silk thread. “Well, are you going to sit there all day?”
“Right, I'm on it,” she replied, getting herself to her feet. “Who's with him?”
“My apprentice, Dee. The short one.”
Kethry pushed sweat-soaked hair out of her eyes, and tried once again to get it all confined in a tail while she glanced around the space outside the infirmary tent, looking for the green-clad, chubby figure of Rethaire's youngest apprentice. She resolutely shut out the sounds of pain and the smell of sickness and blood; she kept telling herself that this was not as bad as it could have been. The worst casualties were under cover of the tent; those out here were the ones that would be walking (or limping) back to their own quarters when they woke up from Rethaire's drugs or Kethry's spell. They were all just lucky that it was still only overcast and not raining. Sun would have baked them all into heatstroke. Rain ... best not think about fever and pneumonia.
With no prospect of further combat, Kethry was no longer hoarding her magical energies, either personal or garnered from elsewhere, but the only useful spell she had when it came to healing wounds like these was the one that induced instant slumber. So that was
job; put the patients out, while Rethaire or his assistants sewed and splinted them back together again.
Poor Jiles and Oreden didn't even have
much to do; although as Low Magick practitioners they
have Healing abilities, they'd long since exhausted their powers, and now were acting as plain, nonmagical attendants to Tresti. That was what was bad about a late-fall campaign for them; with most of the land going into winter slumber, there was very little ambient energy for a user of Low Magick to pull on.
Tarma was out with Jodi and a few of Leamount's farriers, salvaging what horses they could, and killing the ones too far gone to save. And, sometimes, performing the same office for a human or two.
Kethry shuddered, and wiped the back of her hand across her damp forehead, frowning when she looked at it and saw how filthy it was.
Thank the gods that stuff of Rethaire's prevents infection, or we'd lose half the wounded. We've lost too many as it is.
That last sortie had cost the Sunhawks dearly; they were down to two hundred. Fifty were dead, three times that were wounded. Virtually everyone had lost a friend; the uninjured were tending wounded companions.
But it could have been so much worseâso very much worse.
She finally spotted apprentice Dee, and picked her way through the prone and sleeping bodies to get to his side.
“Great good gods! Why is he out here?” she exclaimed, seeing the patient. He was half-propped on a saddle; stretched out before him was his wounded leg. Kethry nearly gagged at the sight of the blood-drenched leg of his breeches, the mangled muscles, and the tourniquet practically at his groin.
“Looks worse than it is, Keth.” Dee didn't even look up. “More torn up than anything; didn't touch the big vein at all. He don't need Tresti, just you and me.” His clever hands were busy cutting bits of the man's breeches away, while the mercenary bit his lip until it, too, bled; hoping to keep from crying out.
“What in hell got
friend?” Kethry asked, kneeling down at the man's side. She had to have his attention, or the spell wouldn't work. The man was white under his sunburn, his black beard matted with dirt and sweat, the pupils of his eyes wide with pain.
“Someâshit!âbig wolf. Had m' bow all trained on yer back, mâlady. Bastard come outa nowhere n' took out m'leg. Shouldâa known better'n t' sight on a Hawk; 'specially since I
âbout you havin' that beast.”
Kethry started. “WarrlâWindborn, no wonder you look like hacked meat! Let me tell you, you're lucky he didn't go for your throat! I hope you'll forgive me, but Iâcan't say I'm sorryâ”
The man actually managed a bare hint of smile, and patted her knee with a bloody hand. “Thatâsâgah!âwar, m'lady. No offense.” He clenched his other hand until the knuckles were white as Dee picked pieces of fabric out of his wounds.
Kethry sighed the three syllables that began the sleep-spell, and felt her hands begin to tingle with the gathering energy. Slow, thoughâ
was coming to the end of her resources.
“But why did you come to us for help?”
“Don't trust them horse-leeches, they wanted t' take the leg off. I knew yer people'd save it. Them damn highborns, they got no notion what âis leg means to a merc.”
Kethry nodded, grimacing. Without his leg, this man would be out of a jobâand likely starve to death.
“And th' Demons' ain't got no Healers nor magickers. Never saw th' need for âem.”
“Oh?” That was the root and branch of Devaril's constant arguments with Idra. “Well, now you know why we have them, don't you?” She still wasn't ready. Not
yet; the level wasn't high enough. Until she could touch him, she had to keep his attention.
“Yeah, wellâkinda reckon ol' Horseface's right, now. Neat trick y' pulled on us, settin' the camp afire wi' the magickers. An' havin' yer own Healers beats hell outa hopin' yer contract âmembers he's s'pposed t' keep ye patched up. Specially when âe's lost. Reckon we'll be lookin' fer recruits after we get mustered out.” He grimaced again, and nodded to her. “ 'F yer innerested, mâladyâwell, th' offer's open. 'F not, well, pass th' word, eh?”
Kethry was a little amused at the certainty in his words. “You're so high up in the Demons, then, that you can speak for them?”
He bit off a curse of pain, and grinned feebly just as she reached for his forehead. “Should say.
Kethry was wrung with weariness, and her mage-energies were little more than flickers when Tarma came looking for her. She looked nearly transparent with exhaustion, ready to float away on an errant wind.
The swordswoman knelt down in the dust beside where Kethry was sitting; she was obviously still trying to muster up energies all but depleted.
The mage looked up at her with a face streaked with dried bloodâ
Thank the Warrior, none of it hers.
“Lady Windborn. I think I hate war.”
Tarma agreed, grimly. Now that the battle-high had worn off, as always, she was sick and sickened. Such a damned wasteâall for the sake of one fool too proud to be ruled by a woman. All that death, men, women, good beasts. Innocent civilians. “Hell of a way to make a living. Can you get loose?”
“If it isn't for magery. I'm tapped out.”
“It isn't. Idra wants us in her tent.”
Tarma rose stiffly and gave her hand to her partner, who frankly needed it to get to her feet. The camp was quiet, the quiet of utter exhaustion. Later would come the drinking bouts, the boasts, the counting of bonuses and loot. Now was just time to hurt, and to heal; to mourn the lost friends and help care for the injured; and to sleep, if one could. With the coming of dusk fires were being kindled, and torches. And, off in the distance, pyres. The Hawks, like most mercenary companies, burned their dead. Tarma had already done her share of funeral duty; she was not particularly unhappy to miss the next immolation.