Anasind broke off from what he was doing and met his king halfway.
"Any word from the other side?" asked Ullsaard.
"Not yet, but it does not look good," said Anasind.
Ullsaard turned his gaze across the river. In the full morning light, the situation was revealed. The undulating ground sloping down to the river was filled with battle, stretching for almost a mile in a curving line to dawnwards. The hills were awash with Salphors, many thousands of them, a swaying mass that charged, fell back and charged again at the thin line of Askhans holding them back.
"We have to finish here quickly and get back across," said Ullsaard.
"Yes, but how?" said Anasind. He pointed at the battle between the Thirteenth and their foes. "We're only just getting the upper hand. I suppose I could pull back a few companies at a time as they become free, send them over as soon as I can."
"That won't help," said Ullsaard, shaking his head. "They'll just get fed into the melee piecemeal. We need to do something decisive to turn the battle."
Anasind looked lost for ideas, brow knotted as he watched the ongoing fighting.
"Sound the withdrawal," said Ullsaard.
It was almost impossible not to give ground under the relentless attack of the Salphors. Naathin was red in the face, his breath coming in gasps as he swung his sword at the next enemy, the blow cleaving into the bearded man's forehead. The First Captain wrenched the blade free, showering himself with blood. Spitting the fluid from his mouth, he brought up his shield to catch the spear of another Salphor.
There was no retreating, as had been decided. Despite that, his Seventh were slowly being pushed back. The Salphors were ill disciplined, but were fighting ferociously, defending their lands with their blood and lives. Every time his soldiers paused for a breath or faltered, the Salphors pressed on, taking a step forward for every backward pace by his men.
The Ersuan had to credit them for at least trying, even as he wished they had all surrendered peacefully and let him return to his wives and daughter. Another blow shuddered his shield. He thrust without looking, feeling the tip of his sword push into flesh, the blow eliciting a yelp of pain from the man in front of him.
"Move to the right!" he bellowed, realising that the companies on the flank were in danger of being pushed away from the rocky bluff that prevented them being flanked.
Javelins were still being hurled over the heads of the Salphors from the roving chariots, which loitered menacingly, waiting for the smallest break in the line to dash forward with a deadly charge. If they were allowed the get behind the companies, havoc would break out and the line would crumble; orders to fight to the last notwithstanding.
"Push them back! Regain the crest!" he roared, smashing his shield into the chest of his opponent.
"We're bloody trying!" the legionnaire to his left snarled through gritted teeth.
"Well bloody try harder!" the First Captain shouted in reply.
"What? Withdraw?" Anasind was horrified by the idea. "But we're winning. The Salphors will hound us back to the river if we let them."
"Which is why when they come after us you'll sound the counter-charge," said the king.
Anasind looked uncertain.
"Pulling back from engagement is not easy," he said. "We'll lose a lot of men if we time this wrong."
"We'll lose a fucking lot more if that line breaks," snapped Ullsaard, jabbing his spear towards the battle on the other side of the river. "You have your orders."
"Yes, king," said Anasind, bowing his head. He signalled for the handful of trumpeters to approach.
Ullsaard turned away and stared over the water, willing Donar and the others to keep fighting. The arc of the legions was contracting slowly, each fresh Salphorian attack pushing back part of the line as other companies retreated to keep the formation coherent. From this distance it was clear to see that the Salphors were concentrating their attack to dawnwards, at the end of the line not guarded by the river. Like a rod slowly bending under a smith's hammer blows, the legions were being forced into an ever tighter space, the far end of the line curling back towards the river.
Trumpet blasts split the air as the retreat was sounded. The signal was repeated three times, until all of the Thirteenth were falling back, still facing their enemies. For a while, the Salphors were taken aback by the move and a gap of a hundred paces or more opened between the lines. Faster and faster, the legion contracted, stepping back over the bodies of their own dead. Ragged volleys of arrows followed them, cutting holes in the tight ranks. Messengers and captains hurried to meet the retreating companies, bearing news of the plan to counter-attack.
"They'll be shot to pieces," said Anasind. "I'll have to sound the attack now."
"Wait!" said Ullsaard as the general lifted his arm to the musicians. "Just a little longer."
Anasind lowered his arm slowly and returned to his king's side. The shouts and yells of both sides could be heard, carried by the strengthening wind. Ullsaard glanced across the river. The Askhan line was still holding, though it was perilously close to breaking in places.
The noise of the Salphors recommencing their attack rumbled over the other sounds. Anasind again moved to raise his arm, but Ullsaard grabbed his wrist.
"Not yet," he said quietly. "We need to make sure the Salphors are fully committed."
"A legion doesn't change direction in a heartbeat," replied Anasind. "Too late, and they'll be caught anyway. We need to…" His objection trailed away as Ullsaard fixed him with a stare.
"In a moment," said the king. "This has one chance to work, let's not waste it."
Anasind fidgeted, arm still gripped by Ullsaard. In his head, the king was picturing the scene, obscured by the line of the legion. The Salphors had been no more than a hundred and fifty paces away. Allowing for the speed of their attack and the pace of the retreat, subtracting a little for the order to be enacted…
"Now," he said, letting go of Anasind.
"Sound the attack!" the general bellowed, raising and dropping his arm quickly.
The trumpets blared out. The Askhan companies came to a hesitant stop. As the signal rang again, they surged forward, meeting the Salphors head-on with a wall of bronze, a throaty roar drifting down to the river.
The line broke as some companies surged into the enemy while others met stiffer resistance. The soldiers closest to the river, where the freshest companies were found, swung inwards, sweeping away the Salphors in front of them. On the far right, the line was at a virtual standstill, while the centre advanced in determined fashion, the ring of weapons mingling with more screams and cries.
It seemed to take an age to Ullsaard, though in reality perhaps less than a quarter of an hour passed as the Askhan attack gained momentum. Having thought they were on the brink of victory, the courage of the Salphors crumbled quickly under the renewed assault, and they streamed away from the river in their dozens, leaving those fighting to their fate.
With open country behind and determined foes in front, the Salphor retreat spread into a rout. Here and there knots of Salphors fought on, their chieftains too brave, too stupid, or too trapped to run away. Some of the Askhans were pressing after the fleeing foe, and there was a danger of an ill-disciplined chase.
"Sound the recall," Anasind shouted to the musicians, just as the order was reaching Ullsaard's lips.
On the third sounding of the order, the pursuit was halted. Company by company, the Thirteenth came back in line and marched back to the river. A few companies detached as a rear guard, covering the withdrawal against a possible — though unlikely — resurgence from the fleeing Salphors.