He slashed over and over with his sword, keeping a tight hold on it in the pouring rain. Strike left, heave the blade over the horse’s head, strike right, heave it back over, strike left. The steel bit through leather armor into flesh and bone underneath, and his muscles ached already as he pulled it free each time, raising it to strike again. He guided his horse with his knees and his free hand, clinging to the saddle as it reared and trampled the enemy in front of it.
The screams of the wounded and dying were accompanied by battle cries from both sides. The sound of steel striking steel rang in his ears, and the storm was a steady lashing all around him, broken by cracks of thunder now and then. He heard his name, the scream rolling over the other sounds.
He looked out over the battle, blinking away the rain streaming onto his face, to take note of the handful of riders that led his troops. It was difficult to distinguish between his foot troops and the enemy in the dark rain. Some of them still carried torches along with their swords, swinging them as clubs so the fire sputtered and bounced crazily in the throng of fighters. As he scanned the battlefield he caught sight of a mass of torches moving toward them from the hills.
A spear thrust toward him from the left and he threw himself back in the saddle so it slid past his chest, bringing his sword up and chopping down at the enemy fighter. The man fell into the mud, trampled by the horse of one of his troop leaders as it waded through the battle and rubbed alongside his own.
“Captain!” The man’s face was bloody on one side and he was holding an arm tight against his ribs. “They have reinforcements!”
“I see them! Call the retreat!”
He wheeled his horse around, blocking a sword stroke from his right and thrusting the blade into the man’s throat. He called back over his shoulder, “Do it! We don’t need to die here!”
The troop leader fumbled with a warhorn at his hip, bringing it up and blowing an ear-splitting, bleating call that rose over the clash of weapons and screams. He blew three long notes, his face red with the effort.
The battle shifted like a tide. It had been crushing inward, seething at the center and spreading into smaller skirmishes on the outskirts. Now the center washed back as the fighters tried to disengage. The enemy followed in a rush, roaring encouragement to each other.
He wheeled his horse toward the surge, screaming at his men as he cut down the enemy fighters trying to attack them from behind. “Get over the bridge! Go!” His horse climbed over the enemy in front of him, slashing with its hooves and stretching its neck forward to bite. He cut between his troops and the enemy, turning himself into a wedge to give them room to retreat.
His troop leaders joined him, riding back and forth in the growing gap between the two forces and holding the enemy back. Mud flew from their hooves and their swords gleamed in the lightning strikes and the scattered torchlight. His smaller force broke and ran for the nearby bridge lit by torches seen through a wall of scrub trees and rain.
The road funneled them through the brush, pushing them together and over the bridge. Beneath it the river rushed past, swollen by the runoff streaming out of the hills. The bridge, an old wooden cart bridge, was slick with rain. It creaked and groaned under the weight of so many men, the boards rattling under their feet. On the opposite side some of the men broke off and began loosening the blocks that wedged the supports in place. They had prepared for this.
He slashed at the fighters that pressed their horses back. A spear got through his defense and stabbed into his left arm, and he chopped down with his sword, cutting the opposing fighter’s arm so deep it hung limp as he fell back screaming. He reached up and yanked the spear out, tossing it aside and blocking a swordstroke from his right side.
The enemy pushed them back into the closer confines of the brush-lined road and he could hear the river like a dull roar behind him. He fought to stay in front, yelling at his riders to get across the bridge. One by one they turned and rode across, their hooves sliding on the wooden slats that were now slick with mud from the passage of the foot troops. The last two riders fought to either side of him, their horses backing to the edge of the bridge.
He shouted, “Go!”
“GO!!” He kicked his horse forward a few paces, pressing against the men choking the road. His sword rose and fell like an axe, but the blows were force rather than skill because his arm was heavy as lead. He risked a glance back to see the last two riders nearing the far side of the bridge. Putting a boot into the face of one of the enemy that tried to grab his saddle, he wheeled his horse around and kicked it into a canter across the rattling boards.
He crouched low over the saddle, eyes trained on the far side where his men were urging him on. He could feel the horse slipping on the muddy bridge as it ran, its hooves scraping the wood. He grit his teeth and clenched his hand on the hilt of his sword.
When the horse flinched and screamed in pain he tightened his legs and held onto the saddle with his injured arm. The animal pitched forward, hooves sliding out from under it, and its shoulder hit the surface of the bridge before it rolled. He felt the crushing weight of the horse on his leg first, then his breath was driven out as it rolled over him. The left rail of the bridge snapped like kindling and the horse pitched over the side, the stirrup dragging him across the edge. His hands clawed for purchase and he kicked free of the strap as the horse fell, its legs flailing as it screamed and twisted in the air before splashing into the river below.
He dug his nails into the boards, the rough edge of the bridge scraping the leather under his arms as he kicked his feet trying to find something to brace himself against. Rain hit his face like needles and he squinted to see the enemy flowing onto the bridge from one side, and a few of his troops starting back across, yelling his name.
He took a deep breath and let go.
The water hit him like a wall, forcing the air out of his lungs, and the cold made him gasp and choke as he was pulled under. He instinctively struggled against the current, trying to reach the surface. His leather armor, already soaked from the rain, weighed him down. At one point he felt something hard under his knee and twisted to push off against it. He shot to the surface and spluttered, getting one good breath before the water sucked him under again.
The river pushed him and spun him around, pulling him back under no matter how hard he tried to keep his head above the surface. Whenever he touched the bottom he pushed off, grabbing a breath or two before being submerged again. His arms and legs felt like they had stones tied to them.
His chest burned. He could see nothing in the dark water, and the only sound was roaring rapids above the surface or pressing silence underneath. Something hit his arm and he grabbed for it, wrapping numb fingers around rope as it pulled taut against the current. The water beat at him, choking him and pushing him under, and he felt the rope slipping through his hands. He twisted it around his forearm and it tightened painfully, but stopped slipping.
He didn’t have the strength to pull. The river stretched him out like a fish on a line and even when he found the bottom he couldn’t push himself up. He didn’t realize he was in shallow water until rough hands drug him to the surface and up the bank. They dropped him on hard ground and he coughed and vomited water, his arms shaking just holding himself out of the mud.
Torchlight came closer and he stared up through the rain, still gasping for breath. The faces sneering down at him were Noshurian. His numb brain had just enough time to register that he was in enemy hands before pain flared at the back of his skull and everything went black.