Running down to the river, Blackfang slowed as she reached the water.
"Get in there!" shouted Ullsaard, slapping the reins against her shoulder.
The ailur tensed and then sprang forwards, splashing up to her belly. Ears flat, tail twitching, she pushed further across the river, until the water was up to Ullsaard's knees. She baulked as she met a swirl around a cluster of rocks, but moved on at Ullsaard's command. He guided her around the worst obstacles, and set the reins to her again as the river ahead cleared. Feeling the water growing shallower, Blackfang broke into a run, erupting from the water in spume. Anasind was waiting a few dozen paces from the river as Ullsaard rode up the gentle slope. The king jumped to the ground, one hand keeping a firm grip of Blackfang's reins as she shook water from her fur.
"What's the situation here?" asked the king.
"Our friends are getting brave," said the general. "Seems they were waiting for us to cross. The camp was a decoy; they were waiting downstream in the vegetation. No more than half a mile away and coming straight for us. At least four thousand."
Ullsaard made a quick assessment of the land. There was not enough time to get the companies back across the river before the Salphors arrived. He pointed to a rise in the ground about a quarter of a mile from the water.
"Set up your line on those hills," he said, speaking quickly but calmly. "Keep five companies here to guard the ford, you'll have their flank protected, and send for the other companies to cross over and reinforce."
"What's happening back there?" asked Anasind, looking across the river.
"Not really sure yet," said Ullsaard, following the general's gaze. "More Salphors. No idea how many. I think two legions should be enough to hold them off."
"You think this was their intent all along?" said Anasind. "Is this some trick of Aegenuis?"
"Looks like it," said Ullsaard, tugging at Blackfang's reins to pull her closer. "No point worrying about that for now. You sort out things here; I'll lead the rest of the legion up to the hills."
The king mounted again as Anasind signalled for his captains to gather. Ullsaard shouted out to the companies that were to follow and turned Blackfang duskwards. In the growing light, he could see the Salphors in the distance, approaching quickly. He reined in his ailur.
"Anasind!" The general looked back at his king. "Forget that plan, we don't have time. Form up here and get those other companies across!"
Anasind raised a fist in acknowledgement. Within moments, the spear companies were gathering in line, eight men deep, widening their frontage to counter the enemy's greater number. Ullsaard sought out the legion icon with the first company and rode up beside them.
"I hope these lying dog-fuckers have had breakfast," he called out to the legionnaires. "They're not going to survive to have lunch!"
Laughs and cheers came back in reply. Ullsaard bellowed for an orderly and dismounted.
"Think I'll fight with you lot today," he told the men of the first company. He pulled his spear and shield from the ailur's back. "I think you need the help."
This statement was met with good-natured jeers as a youth took the reins from the king and led Blackfang away. Ullsaard took up his place in the front rank, next to the icon. He glanced at the captain holding the standard.
"What's your name, captain?" said Ullsaard. "What happened to Venuid?"
"I'm Kassil, king," said the man. "Promoted from seventh company. Venuid got shot in the eye by a Salphor."
"That's a shame," said the king.
"Yes, bad luck for him," said Kassil.
"Good luck for you," said Ullsaard.
"Dead man's sandals, isn't it? It's the legion way."
"Works for kings too," said Ullsaard, bringing up his shield.
In the glow of the rising sun, the Salphors were only a couple of hundred paces away. Several hundred moved ahead of the mass, bows in hand. The warning was shouted along the line and the phalanx shifted, raising their shields for the coming volleys. Ullsaard peered through a gap and saw the first cloud of arrows lifting into the air. The king ducked back his head. A few tense heartbeats passed and then the arrows fell, bronze heads rattling against shields like heavy hail. Here and there came a cry of pain, but the line held firm.
There were a lot more than a few thousand Salphors pouring out of the woods into the early morning light. Donar sent a messenger running for First Captain Naathin of the Seventh, while he continued to watch the dark patch of men spreading from the forest.
The Salphors advanced with purpose though not precision. Their tribal groups were gathered about cloth standards in clumps of warriors rather than proper lines. With them came small chariots pulled by large wolf-like beasts with spiked bronze collars and coats of mail armour, two warriors in the back of each waving spears and javelins as they trundled past their foot-bound comrades.
They kept coming, horn blares signalling the arrival of three more tribes from duskwards. Donar guessed there were at least fifteen thousand of the barbarians, almost twice his own command. The general glanced toward the river, but was unable to see much at all past the glitter of the dawn light on the water. He could hear shouts and see clouds of arrows, but had not yet heard the clash of spear or sword on shield. The battle there was only just beginning.
He could not expect help from the king any time soon.
"What's the plan?"
Donar turned at Naathin's voice. The Seventh's commander was of a similar age to Donar, his skin less weatherworn, thin strands of blonde hair trailing from under his helmet. Naathin was a stocky man with a bit of a gut, but his arms were as thick as many men's legs and his chest bulged under his breastplate. Donar was surprised to see that he was smiling.
"What are you so happy about?" demanded Donar, jabbing a finger toward the Salphorian army. "Do you like unexpected visitors first thing?"
"Better to fight in the morning, it's going to get hot later," replied the First Captain. Naathin's expression turned solemn as he saw the extent of the enemy force. "Oh. I wasn't expecting that many guests."
"Let's thin out their numbers, perhaps then they'll think twice about spoiling our breakfast arrangements." Donar swept his hand from one end of the Salphaorian army to the other. "Form crescent line, left flank anchored to the river, right flank over by that bluff to dawnwards."
"Do you want the river or the bluff?" asked Naathin.
"Not fussed," replied Donar. "We'll combine our engines between the two legions and form a screen in front with a few companies. That'll stop the Salphors trying to press into the divide."
The jingling of armour and shouts of the second captains increased in volume as the legionnaires were brought to line around the two First Captains. A gaggle of messengers was gathering behind the pair, waiting for orders. Donar acknowledged them with a raised hand and looked at his companion.
"I'll take the bluff, if it's all the same to you," said Naathin. He looked down toward the river and patted his armoured belly. "Less of a walk, you see?"
Donar couldn't stop a laugh.
"If you're worried about getting out of breath, perhaps you should retire with the baggage? I think we're both going to get plenty of exercise today."
"Like I said, morning fights are better. Means I'm not tired before we start. General orders to hold?"
"Yes, just keep the line strong, let the spear throwers and catapults goad them onto our spears. Put four companies in reserve behind your front, ready to plug any gaps."
"And you should put your veterans next to mine at the centre to protect the machines," said Naathin, looking around as he examined the ground. "I think we should fall back about a hundred and fifty paces though, the ground levels out more."