We could retreat, but that would leave them in possession of the woods, and they would win this without a fight. That was unacceptable. Is there enough room on the top of this ridge to flank them?
He didn't want to divide his force if he could help it, and he'd have to if he wanted to use a classic pincer maneuver. That wouldn't be a good idea anyway; one that the ground didn't encourage. He'd have to send his men to fight against both ends of the enemy ambush-line in a way that would only allow one or two fighters to close in at a time; that would put them at an immediate disadvantage.
Finally Kyrtian decided on something truly unorthodox; waiting until the enemy commander was frustrated enough to come looking for him. Short exploration by Horen produced the place where any opposing force was most likely to descend from the ridge. After careful deliberation, he set up an ambush of his own.
Of course, the weakness of this plan was that the opposition might not decide to come down on this side of the ridge. That would leave him, in his turn, waiting to spring an empty trap. Still, the occasional murmur of voices through the hush of the forest told him that his opponents were getting tired of waiting.
Probably they had been in place ever since his own force had entered the woods. Horen went out again to spy, so that Kyrt-ian's troops would at least know if the foe moved off in some other direction. Kyrtian settled into his own position and held off boredom by making an informal bird-count based on the calls he heard.
Time crawled past, but his patience was finally rewarded. Horen slithered back to take up his weapons. Kyrtian pumped his fist in the air once, and heard a faint rustle of leaves as his men caught the signal, relaying it down the line, and readying themselves for action.
He had chosen his own place perfectly. Another faint rustle of leaves and the occasional snapping of a twig warned that the enemy was on the move, and shortly after, the men appeared filing cautiously down the slope below them, flitting from bits of cover to their next position. Kyrtian waited until he was certain that all of the enemy skirmishers were immediately below their own position, his nerves so taut that his skin tingled, muscles were afire, his pulse pounding in his temples and his ears.
Wait for it—
If he sprang the ambush too soon, his own men would be surrounded. He didn't know exactly how many men the enemy had, so he couldn't count heads....
Wait for it—
He didn't dare permit his force to be outflanked.
His throat cracked with a yell as he broke out of cover and charged, his men streaming down the slope behind him. The startled skirmishers whirled to face them.
Kyrtian skidded to a halt on the slope as he nearly ran into a fighter who was considerably taller than he. In that moment, as was always true for him once the fighting started, everything narrowed to this single opponent. Their swords clashed together, his opponent countered with a clever parry that sent him leaping away lest the fighter try to grapple with him. Next the man tried to circle him, but that was the last thing that Kyrtian was going to allow—at the moment he had the slight advantage
of being uphill, and that was the only advantage he really had over this bulkier opponent.
Kyrtian retreated as fast as the other advanced; nothing was going to force him to turn if he could help it. Somewhere in the back of his mind he was dimly aware of shouts, the clashing of metal, and all the din of battle, but he was too seasoned to ever be distracted from his own line of combat. Giving up on the ploy of forcing Kyrtian off higher ground, the fellow swung low, hard and wide, scything at Kyrtian's legs; Kyrtian used the opportunity to slash at the man's sword-hand as he himself skipped backwards.
He really hadn't expected the luck of a full strike, but his opponent had evidently anticipated a blow to the head rather than the hand. The fighter ducked to one side and didn't get his hilt up in time to deflect Kyrtian's blow.
The blade passed through the other's wrist, leaving behind a glowing line. The fighter cursed, transferring the sword to his left hand, tucking the "disabled" hand into his belt at the small of his back, as per the rules of combat. If he hadn't, he'd get a warning after the battle was over—and the second time he refused to accept a blow, the marked area or limb would truly go completely numb and useless until Kyrtian removed the magic that rendered it so.
He was by no means as good a fighter with his weak hand as Kyrtian was. A clumsy attempt at an overhand blow left his armpit unprotected, and the Elvenlord executed a fatal thrust. The blade vanished up to the hilt with no resistance, and the man jerked in reaction to the all-over tingle that the "death-wound" gave him as the sign that he was "dead."
Now the fighter glowed the color of new leaves all over; with a good-natured curse, he saluted Kyrtian, sheathed his blade, and removed his helm, joining five of his fellow "dead men" on the sidelines. All of them were glowing the same yellow-green, which meant they were all out of the enemy forces. Kyrtian made the mistake of allowing himself a brief pause to gloat without looking behind him.
A moment after that, a sudden electric jolt told Kyrtian that
he had been taken from behind. Ruefully looking down at himself, he saw that he, too, was glowing.
"Galkasht!" he cursed, in the Old Tongue, and heard Sargeant Gel's familiar laugh in answer. He sheathed his own sword in disgust, pulled off his helm, and went to join the other dead.
Gel did not get a chance to enjoy his victory for long; Horen rose out of a bush behind him and caught him across the neck as he turned. Gel swore even more colorfully than Kyrtian had, while his own men jeered and catcalled from the sidelines.
"Who is it has never been hit from behind?" called one, in feigned innocence.
"You owe me beer for the next moon, Sargeant," one of the others heartlessly reminded him. "And you owe Horen three night-watches."
"Don't remind me." The human pulled off his helm and threw it to the ground, glaring at them—but they knew they were safe. The "dead" could say anything they liked as long as the battle was on. That was another one of the rules, meant to be sure that no one turned mock-combat into a real fight.
"Temper, temper," scolded a third, as Horen vanished to seek a new opponent. "A true warrior never fights with anger."
"I'm not fighting," Gel pointed out sourly, his jaw clenched tight.
Gel picked up his helm after another scorching glare and stamped his way down the hill to the sidelines. Kyrtian hid his own grin, and gave Gel a commiserating slap on the shoulder.
"Too bad, old man," he said, with what he hoped was a good counterfeit of sympathy. "That's combat-luck for you."
'That's carelessness, you mean," Gel growled, as he ruffled his sweaty, grizzled brown hair to dry it. "Don't coddle me, Kyrtian; I got you when you stopped to gloat, then I was served the same dish. What's more, you ambushed me when I lost patience. You're going to win this one. I underestimated you."
Since at this point, those who glowed yellow-green outnumbered those who glowed red-orange by three to one, that was
fairly obvious, so Kyrtian held his tongue and tried assume a modest expression.
"I think we can count this experiment a success," he said instead. "I wasn't sure we'd be able to make the transition from arena-fighting and set-battles, but it's obvious this mode is going to work."