Flags waved above the mass of men and bugle calls blustered across the open fields. The men stirred and repositioned themselves like the shifting pieces of an intricate puzzle. A second and third call rang out, and it began.
The staccato cadence of thousands of footsteps beating against the earth pounded into Melchior's chest. He watched as the Duke signalled his own men, and their ranks too, opened like floodgates. Bodies streamed past the archers and captains, filing down the slope toward the plateau below.
The Duke raised a hand, and a man waved a placard. Amidst the rumble of footsteps, the cry of orders could be heard as the ranks of those not yet moving bristled. Archers stepped into formation as the infantry passed them, and planted the iron tips of wooden shafts into the trampled dirt.
Rangers peered at the enemy ranks with steely eyes and turned from time to time to signal the distance they had reached. The head ranger put his bugle to lip and blew out a staggered call, to which the first row of archers responded by knocking arrows upon their bows.
“Fire!” came the order, followed by the unforgettable sound of countless whistling feathers, spinning behind a deadly point.
Melchior felt his heart tighten at the sound of it. It was not the sound of incoming fire, but anything resembling that of an arrow cutting through the air was enough to make his battered mind scream at him in fear. He reminded himself that their ranks were out of range of the enemy archers, and watched the cloud of deadly spines arch across the sky. They passed overhead of their marching men to crash down upon the advancing enemy formation. His eyes narrowed and with the knowledge passed down from his father, and that of experience in combat, he judged the effectiveness of the volley. “At least a hundred.” he said beneath his breath.
“What was that?” Les asked, forced to yell above the sound of men barking orders.
Melchior repeated himself, this time loud enough for Les to hear. “At least a hundred were felled in that volley. It's sad considering there are nearly a thousand archers behind us. That is a poor ratio.”
Les nodded and returned his gaze to the battlefield only to watch the enemy's arrows plummet into their advancing troops. His trained eye too, was capable of approximating the casualties as he watched the men fall. “Theirs was far more effective. I'd say that was a good two hundred and fifty to three hundred casualties.”
Melchior nodded. “Agreed.” As stern as he could be, his heart felt a pang of regret for those who stumbled into the dirt. Some would live. Others would survive with the burden of infirmity. Most would find their end at the point of an enemy's sword as they lay helpless; prone upon the plain. Melchior cringed. “I loathe this. Sitting on the line while good men lose their lives or livelihoods.”
With a shake of his head, Les leaned over on his saddle to pat Melchior on the back. “Orders are orders, even if they're from a coward like Thomias of Glenndale.”
A smile played on Melchior's lips. “Look.” he said, pointing his finger toward the field.
“Ah, the melee begins.” Les said, as he watched the two forces break into a sprint as they closed distance.
“No, not that Les, look at the Generals party.” said Melchior.
Les leaned on the horn of his saddle and shaded his eyes with one hand. “What on earth is he doing?”
All four horsemen turned to the sound of hooves breaking through the grassy plain. The Duke rode toward them in haste.
“Argh, now what?” said Blaine in lament.