Along the riverbank, the natural order of life played on. The drone of pine beetles somehow harmonized with the rustling leaves that shuffled with the southbound wind. A group of black herons shielded themselves from the sun with their wings as they hunted for fish. Ibis waded in the reeds nearby, and a plethora of insects of all sorts danced above the water's surface; backlit by the sun like dust in windowlight.
Les watched a dragonfly snatch an unsuspecting mosquito mid flight, and then plunge toward the water; only to be devoured by a fish who broke the surface in a splash. The small ripples lapped against his boot as he turned and peered through the brush. In the distance, he could see the chaos that was the egress flank. He listened to the echoes of steel clattering against steel, and he laughed to himself. "This is it. Isn't it?"
"What?" Asked Bishop.
"This is our natural order."
"I have no idea what you're talking about."
"Behind us, the insects devour each other; the birds skewer the fish and all is right with the world. Before us, we spill the blood of our neighbors, crush the skulls of soldiers who are but children and destroy the livelihood of thousands; and all is right with the world."
"We are not like insects or birds Les."
"How so? Who is to judge?"
Bishop shook his head. "Do birds engineer castles with towers that reach the clouds? Do they build cities that go on until they disappear beyond every horizon?"
"I have seen forests go on beyond all horizons. Are forests not the homes of animals?"
"Bah, your argument is weak. What of law; Order; Civilization?"
"Bishop, look to the field. Does that seem like civilization to you?"
Bishop was silent as his eyes wondered over the fighting men. "No ... " He took in a deep breath and let it out with a grunt. "I see Blaine, he's coming up on your right."
"Good, we can get on with this." Les said, lifting his feet from the muddy bank to grab on to the reins of his rouncy.
Bishop clasped a hand on Les' forearm. "I want to let you know that this debate is not over."
Les looked back at him with a wry smile playing on his lips. "I didn't think it was."
Blaine came through the brush with his horse and dismounted before she even came to a stop. "We have a clear path to the cavalry, but it will take time if we wish to retain the initiative. There is a faster way, but we'll have to get our hands dirty. What say you?"
Les turned to Bishop who shook his head and pointed at him, silently saying 'don't look at me'. Les frowned and thumbed his forehead in thought. "It's more advantageous if our actions remain obfuscatory. If Stahll's pikemen have even the slightest chance to prepare for our cavalry, we'll be cut down and ineffective. We take the slow path.”
The General's horse neighed and pranced backward. Stahll hissed at it and drove his heel into its side to return to his position.
“Is everything alright sir?” Asked one of Stahll's Generals.
“Yes Yvon, everything's fine. Send your boy to follow the men we're redirecting. I want word the instant that egress is breached.”
Yvon bowed, “Yes sir.” He had but to glance at Luke to delegate the task. With a nod, the young Knight next to him heaved his steed toward the riverbank and rode away. As his attention fell back toward the field, his eyes widened. “Sir look!”
Stahll peered across the field and watched as Melchior's band split apart. Three of them rode rearward beyond the crest of the hill while Melchior himself pushed forward. He laughed with such force that it quickly became a hacking cough. “Archer-” he coughed once more as he raised his hand, trying to signal his men. “Archers!” He said, the words finally escaping in a rasped voice.
As quickly as they could, the archers knocked their arrows and let fly a volley.
The General and his entourage let their heads roll back as they watched the shafts whistle through the air above them. Their eyes followed them toward the lone rider, and as they came spinning downward Stahll's heart skipped a beat. His eyes widened and a sick grin stretched across his cheeks. In anticlimax, the arrows disappeared into the grass as if they had gone right through him with no effect.
“No!” Stahll yelled, his horse bucking with a start. “How?” He looked around, as if searching for someone to blame.
“Don't worry your Highness, he's unlikely to survive that.” Said Yvon, pointing at the dark rider as he plunged into the melee. “I have no doubt he'll be dragged from his horse and torn to pieces in just a few minutes.”
They watched on for a time, their focus so tightly centered on the dark rider that they hadn't noticed the return of young Luke.
“Sir” said the Knight, speaking only to his master, and not to any of the other Generals of the entourage.
“Not now.” He said rather listlessly, his hand waving him away.
“But Sir, the Blackguard Brigade's cavalry-”
“What about it?” Yvon asked, his eyes still locked on the man in the melee.
“I can't seem to locate them anymore.”
His words were met with silence.
“Sir?” He watched as Yvon stared, almost completely still, toward the midfield battle. He soon noticed that it was not only Yvon, all the men in the Generals party, including Stahll himself, were facing forward with wide glazed eyes. He followed their gaze, and in the midst of the battle, was a beacon. Before he even set eyes on it, he could feel its intense pull. He wanted to see it, he wanted to lay his gaze on it and nothing seemed more urgent. But something was wrong. He slapped himself and tore his eyes away from center field before he fell completely under its spell. “General Hurst!”
“Yvon!” He yelled, panic fueling a blow that struck at the back of General Yvon Hurst's head.
“What on earth do you think you're doing?” said the General, nearly tearing through him with the accusatory glare.
“Sir, you were in some kind of -”
“Shut your gullet! Get out of my sight! You wretch, I should slay you where you stand!”
Stahll growled. “How did Melchior break through? Damn you all, you're all good for nothing!” He said, breaking into a raging tantrum, accusations flying in all directions before his finger settled on Luke. “You! What are you doing here? I told you to stay on the egress, wait … is it breached?” He asked, a glimmer of hope flashing across his eyes.
“No your Highness, it is not, but-”
“Then get back to your position!” Stahll was now bearing his teeth. He turned to Yvon. “You call this man a Knight?”
“I am inclined to agree with your disapproval.” Yvon said, looking down at the small contingent of men who raced toward them. “You should send out the guard, Luke can lead them.” He said, looking at the young Knight with eyes that whispered of disowning.
“Yes, he has only a few hundred.” Stahll said. “We'll watch him be cut down.” He turned to Luke. “I'll give you this chance to redeem yourself. Slay the dark rider, and you will earn a place in my court.”
Luke's heart sank. Not only did he have no intention of being in the self appointed General's court, but he had just witnessed his assigned target carve through at least ten men.
“Luke!” Yvon yelled. “You have your orders. Go.”
Luke bowed. He had no choice but to obey. Silently he moved his armored mount before the guard captain.
The captain nodded to the young Knight and ordered his men to drop their pikes and draw steel.
With a clatter, the tall pointed tree trunks fell to the grass, followed by the grinding hiss of countless swords sliding from their sheaths.