Luthien's Gamble by R. A. Salvatore

  But he could not. They were too fully committed to change their minds. All they could do was sit and wait, and watch.

  Another hour, and the rain picked up again, mixing with heavy sleet. Still no word from Caer MacDonald, though a plume of black smoke had risen into the gray sky above the city.

  Another single arsonist, Luthien told himself. Not a full-scale battle—certainly not!

  He was not comforted.

  He looked at Siobahn, and she, too, seemed worried. Time worked against them and their hoped-for ambush, for if the cyclopians were not attacking, they were likely gathering information.

  “We should try to get word to the Port Charley group,” Luthien said to her.

  “It is risky,” she warned.

  “They have to know,” Luthien argued. “And if the cyclopians move against the city, we must be informed immediately to get in at their backs before they overrun the wall.”

  Siobahn considered the reasoning. She, like Luthien, knew that if the cyclopians did indeed throw their weight on the city, no amount of forewarning would matter, but she understood the young man’s need to do something. She felt that same need as well.

  She was just beginning to nod her agreement when the word came down the line, anxious whisper by anxious whisper.

  “To the north!”

  Luthien stood tall, as did all of those nearby, peering intently through the driving rain. There was the black-and-silver mass, finally making its way to the south, a course designed to encircle the Port Charley encampment and cut off any retreat to the west.

  Luthien’s heart skipped a beat.

  • • •

  Belsen’Krieg thought himself a clever brute. Unlike most of his one-eyed race, the burly cyclopian was able and bold enough to improvise. His goal was Montfort, and if he didn’t get the city, he certainly would have some explaining to do to merciless Greensparrow.

  But Belsen’Krieg knew that he could not take Montfort, not now, with this second force on the field, and likely with more rebels flocking in to join the cause. And so the cunning general had improvised. He split his remaining eleven thousand Praetorian Guard, sending three thousand straight south on the eastern side of Felling Run, to use the river as a defensive position as the Port Charley folk had used it against him. This group was not likely to see much fighting this day, but they would hold the encamped army to the western bank, where Belsen’Krieg and his remaining eight thousand would make short work of them.

  The cyclopian main group had marched all morning, up to the north, then across Felling Run, and then back to the south, giving the enemy a wide berth so that they would not be discovered until it was too late. There was good ground west of the encampment, the cyclopian leader knew. He would squash this rebel rabble, and then, depending on his losses and the weather, he could make his decision: to go again against Montfort, or to turn back to the west and crush Port Charley.

  Now the enemy was in sight; soon they would understand that they could not cross the river, and by the time they recognized the trap and were able to react to it, they would have no time to go in force into the mountains, either. Some might scatter and escape, but Belsen’Krieg had them.

  Yes, the cyclopian leader thought himself quite clever that morning, and indeed he was, but unlike Luthien, Belsen’Krieg had not taken into account the cleverness of his adversary. As the cyclopian’s force pivoted to the good ground in the west, another force had even better ground, up above them, in the foothills to the south.

  • • •

  “This is not so good,” Oliver remarked to Katerin when word of the cyclopian move reached them. They stood together under a solitary tree, Threadbare and Riverdancer standing near to them, heads down against the driving sleet.

  “Likely they’ve got the river blocked,” Katerin reasoned, and she motioned that way—there was some movement on the fields to the east, across Felling Run. “We have to go into the mountains, and quickly.”

  “So smart,” Oliver whispered, honestly surprised. The halfling didn’t like the prospects. If the cyclopians chased them into the broken ground to the south, they could not hold their force together in any reasonable manner. Many would be slain, and many more would wander helplessly in the mountains to starve or freeze to death, or to be hunted down by cyclopian patrols.

  But where else could they go? Certainly they couldn’t fight the Avon army on even, open ground.

  A pop and flash, and a smell of sulfur, came out of the tree above them, and they looked up just as Brind’Amour, materializing on a branch above and to the side, found his intended perch too slippery and tumbled to the ground.

  The old wizard hopped up, slapping his hands together and straightening his robes as though he had intended the dive all along. “Well,” he said cheerily, “are you ready for the day’s fight?”

  Katerin and Oliver stared at the happy wizard incredulously.

  “Fear not!” Brind’Amour informed them. “Our enemies are not so many, and not so good. They are hungry and weary and a long, long way from home. Come along, then, to the horses and to the front ranks.”

  Oliver and Katerin couldn’t understand the man’s lightheartedness, for they did not know that the wizard had been watching through the night and the morning with far-seeing, magical eyes. Brind’Amour had known of the cyclopian pivot for some time, and he knew, too, about the secret friends perched in the south.

  No need to tell Oliver and Katerin, Brind’Amour figured. Not yet.

  Katerin brushed a lock of drenched hair back from her face and looked at Oliver. They exchanged helpless shrugs—Brind’Amour seemed to know what he was doing—retrieved their mounts, and followed the wizard. All the Port Charley camp came astir then, digging into defensible positions, preparing to meet the cyclopian charge.

  “I do hope he has some big booms ready for them,” Oliver said to Katerin after the wizard left them in the front ranks. The halfling stared across the open ground at the masses of black and silver.

  “They are not so many,” Katerin replied sarcastically, for the cyclopian force dwarfed them four to one, at least.

  “Very big booms,” Oliver remarked.

  It seemed fitting to them both that the storm intensified with a burst of snow just as the cyclopians began their roaring charge.

  To their credit, the hardy fisherfolk of Port Charley did not break ranks and flee. Word filtered down the line that a cyclopian group had indeed entrenched on the eastern riverbank, and it seemed as if the roaring mass of enemies would simply plow over them. But they did not flee. Their bowstrings took up a humming song, and the folk began to sing, too, thinking this to be their last stand.

  Brind’Amour stood back from the front ranks, his skinny white arms uplifted to the sky, head tilted far back and eyes closed as he reached out with his magic toward the storm, to the energy of the thick clouds. Many of those simple fisherfolk about him were afraid, for they did not know of magic and had grown up all of their lives hearing that it was a devil-sent power. Still, none dared to try to interrupt the wizard’s spell, and old Dozier, who remembered a time before Greensparrow, stayed close to the wizard, trying to comfort and reassure his frightened comrades.

  Brind’Amour felt as if his entire body was elongating, stretching up to the sky. Of course it was not, but his spirit was indeed soaring high, reaching into those clouds and grasping and gathering the energy, focusing it, shaping it, and then hurling it down in the form of a lightning bolt into the front ranks of the charging cyclopians.

  Black-and silver-clad bodies rebounded with the shock. One unfortunate brute took the blow full force, his metal armor crackling with blue sparks.

  “Oh, that was very good!” Oliver congratulated. He looked up to his right, to Katerin on Riverdancer, sitting much higher than him. She wasn’t watching the scene ahead, wasn’t even looking back over her shoulder at the wizard. Rather, she was looking left, over Oliver, to the south.

  “Not as good as that!” she replied.
  Oliver spun about just as the horns sounded, just as Luthien’s cavalry led the charge. The halfling spotted four plumes of black smoke as the dwarfs lit the logs, so soaked with oil that they defied the storm. Ropes had been strung around flat-headed pegs on each end of those logs, two dwarfs holding on to each end, running blindly, full out down the slope, rushing down with their rolling, burning rams.

  “Luthien,” Katerin whispered.

  “I really do love the man,” Oliver declared.

  “So do I,” Katerin said, under her breath, but Oliver caught every word, and he smiled, warmed by the thought (and more than a little jealous of his sandy-haired friend!).

  The cyclopian formation became a mass of madness. The brutes fell all over each other trying to get out of the way; many hurled spears or even threw their swords in sheer desperation.

  But the sturdy dwarfs held true to their course, came right up to the brutes before letting go of the logs, bowling down dozens of the one-eyes.

  Right behind the dwarfs, firing bows as they came, charged Siobahn and her kin and the many men and women of Caer MacDonald. There was no way to stop on the slippery turf, but the force had no intention of stopping, or even slowing. They barreled on, their sheer momentum trampling down many enemies and sending many more running from the battle.

  • • •

  Tucked in the center of the line near the back of the cyclopian formation, Belsen’Krieg watched in pure frustration. The ugly general had never dreamed that the humans would be daring enough to come out of Montfort.

  Another lightning bolt exploded among his troops. It killed only a few, but struck terror into the hearts of all those nearby. The battle had just begun, the folk of Port Charley hadn’t even joined in yet, but Belsen’Krieg recognized the danger. His soldiers were exhausted and weak from hunger. He had lost some to desertion during the night, something practically unheard of in the Praetorian Guard. They needed a victory now, and Belsen’Krieg had thought he would gain one, an easy one, against the small encampment.

  So he had thought.

  Another bolt from the skies jolted the ground near the cyclopian leader, close enough so that he was splattered with the blood of a blasted brute.

  The huge one-eye took up his sword. He focused on the battle that was drawing near; with typical cyclopian savagery, Belsen’Krieg decided to lead by example.

  He encountered his first enemy a minute later. A quick pass with his ponypig, a quick swipe with his sword, and the brute moved on, his weapon dripping blood.

  • • •

  Luthien’s group of a hundred and seventy cavalry were the first to hit the cyclopian line. Like those running behind them, the riders couldn’t hope to slow down on the slick slope, and so they didn’t try, using the sheer bulk of their strong mounts to run down the first ranks of one-eyes.

  There were no targets to pick, only a mass to slash at, and Luthien did just that, connecting on every swing, cleaving helms and skulls, turning his horse this way and that, stabbing at anything that moved below him. He heard the shrieks of terror to the east, the rumble of the burning, rolling logs, and the screams as the bearded folk loosed their fury. He heard the hum of bowstrings and the clang of steel against steel and knew that all his forces had come crashing in.

  A lightning bolt jolted the ground, another soon after, and Luthien, who had witnessed the fury of wizards, was glad that Brind’Amour was on his side.

  Then, from up front came more screams, more ringing steel, and Luthien understood that the Port Charley folk had joined. He thought of Oliver and Katerin, on Threadbare and Riverdancer, and he hoped that his friends would survive.

  But these were all fleeting, distant thoughts to the young Bedwyr, for the sea of black and silver churned below him. He took a hit on his thigh, a glancing blow that stung his horse more than it stung him. Luthien brought Blind-Striker whipping about, looking to pay the brute back. But the one-eye was already gone, had already moved along in the tangle. No problem for Luthien, though, for many other enemies were within striking distance. His great sword rushed down, smashing the side of a helmet with enough force to snap the neck of the creature wearing it.

  And so it went for many minutes. A third of the horsemen had been pulled down, but many more cyclopians than that were dead around them, and many more scrambled to get away.

  Luthien pressed on, followed the mass, hacking with abandon. Every so often he yelled out, “Eriador free!” and he sighed every time he was answered, every time he found confirmation that he had not been totally separated from his comrades.

  • • •

  It was not a long battle—not like the assault on Caer MacDonald’s walls, or even like the swirling mass within the courtyard after the gates had been breached. The cyclopians, their morale low, seeing an easy victory become something terrible, broke apart wherever they were hit hard, scattering, trying to re-form into some defensive posture. But each time, they were hit again by the fierce Eriadorans; each time, their pocket formations were blasted apart.

  By the time the cyclopians had come to fully understand the weight of the unexpected force from the south, several hundred were dead, and the presence of a wizard among the ranks of the fisherfolk, indeed a very powerful wizard, struck terror into their hearts. They had grown up under Greensparrow, the personal force of the wizard-king, and they knew.

  They knew.

  There was more organization and more determination wherever Belsen’Krieg and his mounted undercommanders made their appearance, but even the huge one-eyed general understood this disaster. He kept hoping that the three thousand across the river would join in, but that was not what he had instructed them to do. Belsen’Krieg recognized the limitations of his own race. The Praetorian Guard were fabulous soldiers, disciplined and brave (for cyclopians), but they did not improvise. They were led by a single figurehead, in this case Belsen’Krieg, and they moved as extensions of his will to direct and straightforward commands. Those brutes across the river had been told to dig in and hold the ground, and so they would, sitting there stupidly while the main force was massacred on the field.

  The cyclopian general spotted Luthien and the Caer MacDonald cavalry, chopping his ranks apart directly south of his position. As soon as he recognized the young Bedwyr, the crimson-caped man from the river, Belsen’Krieg understood who had precipitated this ambush. As Luthien had recognized him as the cyclopian general, so he recognized Luthien’s authority.

  The cyclopian was too filled with rage to tip his shining helm at his cunning adversary. He wanted to pound his ponypig over to Luthien and chop the man down! But Belsen’Krieg was smarter than that. His formation, the classic military square at the start of the charge, was no more, and he could not reorganize any significant portion of his frightened and weary force. Not now. Not with the press from two sides and a wizard hurling lightning from the skies.

  He thought of gathering as many as he could and charging straight to the east, toward the river, in an attempt to link up with his other force, but the scouts he sent out among the ranks came back shaking their ugly heads, for the main host from Caer MacDonald had come in at the southeastern corner and had already joined with the folk of Port Charley.

  Belsen’Krieg looked again to the south, spotted Luthien for just a moment, crimson cape flying, sword swinging high. That one again, the cyclopian thought. That miserable human has done this, all of this.

  The word came from Belsen’Krieg then, a command the Praetorian Guard were not used to following. “Run away!”

  • • •

  Luthien gradually came out of the mass of fighters, or rather, the mass gradually diminished about him. He had to work harder to search out targets then, and whenever he spotted a cyclopian, he kicked his horse into a short gallop and ran the brute down.

  He was bearing down on one such enemy, the cyclopian’s back to him, when the creature lurched over and groaned, apparently grabbing at its groin. Out from the side came a familiar, dashing h
alfling, the wide brim of his hat drooping low under the weight of snow.

  Oliver ran about the brute, stabbing it repeatedly with his rapier.

  Luthien was thrilled and surprised, so much so that he hardly noticed a second brute coming in at the halfling’s back.

  “Oliver!” he cried out, and he feared that he was too late.

  But the ever-alert halfling was not caught unawares. He spun away from the brute he was fighting, down to one knee, and stabbed as the cyclopian whipped its sword high above his head. The rapier tip sank deep, into the one-eye’s groin. Like its companion before it, the brute bent low and groaned, and Oliver’s next thrust put a clean hole in its throat.

  The halfling looked up then, as Luthien’s horse pounded by, the young Bedwyr finishing off the first cyclopian Oliver had stung with one vicious swipe of Blind-Striker.

  “I have lost my horse!” Oliver cried at his friend.

  “Behind you!” came Luthien’s reply as yet another Praetorian Guard, a huge cyclopian brandishing a spiked club, charged at Oliver’s back.

  Oliver whirled about and dropped; Luthien charged by, slicing his sword up at the brute. To its credit, the cyclopian got its club up to deflect Blind-Striker, though Luthien’s momentum as his mount passed ripped the weapon from the one-eye’s hand. The brute couldn’t block Oliver’s thrust, again low, aimed at that most sensitive of areas.

  Luthien turned and finished the defenseless cyclopian as it doubled over.

  “Why do you keep hitting them there?” demanded Luthien, a bit disgusted by Oliver’s tendency for low blows.

  “Oh,” huffed the halfling as though he was wounded by the accusation. “If you were my size, you would swing for the eyeball?” Luthien’s shoulders drooped and he sighed, and Oliver snapped his fingers in the young Bedwyr’s direction.

  “Besides,” Oliver said coyly, “I thought you were fond of cabarachee shots.” Luthien’s eyes narrowed as he caught the reference to Katerin that night in the Dwelf. “This one-eye,” Oliver pressed on, “perhaps he will fall in love with me.” The snickering halfling glanced down at the brute, dead on the field. He shrugged and looked back at Luthien. “Well, perhaps he would have.”

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