A lone horseman emerged from the darkness.
He was a strange and fearsome sight. He rode a gigantic black stallion with a shaggy mane and long, muscular legs, its body draped with sheets of studded leather. The rider himself wore full a suit of fine-linked mail. His greaves and vest were formed of interlinked square plates, all lusterless black. His helmet was dome-shaped, wrought of bronze and peaking sharply at the top. On his back was a shield shaped like an inverted tear drop, and the blade in his hand tapped impatiently at one stirrup as he wheeled his stallion around, considering his massed enemy.
Marcus recognized him. It was Andrei Pronin, Evgeny’s father. Another bitter revelation—the Kydonians had never expected peace at all, perhaps never wanted it. They had sent a soldier in an ambassador’s stead.
The bogatyr raised his sword high, and he bellowed, “Za rodinu! Za Nadiya!”
“ZA RODINU!” came the roar of innumerable voices. And all at once, the bogatyr came hurtling into the light.
What a sight they made. The elite of Kydona were a wall of armor and horseflesh a quarter of a mile wide—a thousand yards of thrashing hooves and snarling faces. Weapons of all kinds were belted to their saddles and sheathed at their waists. There were bows in their hands, arrows already nocked.
At some unseen cue, their line split in half and broke apart, curling on itself. Marcus watched, mesmerized, as the bogatyr’s charge transformed into two giant, galloping circles.
“Arrows!” Carpenter bellowed over the pounding of hooves. “Turtle up!”
The men quickly obeyed. Marcus sank to one knee, slamming the tip of his shield into the earth. Simultaneously, he felt the men behind shuffle close. The sky disappeared as they angled their own shields upward. The battle line became a barrier of interlocked steel—wall and ceiling both.
The sergeant’s order came just in time. Marcus felt his shield jar against his shoulder as if someone had given it a solid kick. Curiosity got the better of him; he peeked over the rim. He caught only a glimpse of the scene—twin roiling masses of black-armored cavalrymen riding in great arcs beyond the trench, steering with only their knees, unleashing arrow after arrow into the night sky. His shield gave another thud, and he dropped his head.
Back in the shelter, the anxiety was a palpable thing. Eyes were wide beneath helmets, teeth gritted. He could hear excited pants behind him.
“Vernon? That you?”
“Aye! That you?” his friend squeaked.
Marcus was about to reply, but then he felt Vernon flinch. “Fuuuuck! Mate there’s a fucking arrow sticking in the ground half an inch from your ass—”
“Move your shield closer to it then you selfish cock!”
“No way in hell!” bawled Vernon. “I need it more!”
But arrows were finding gaps elsewhere too. Just over the thunderous hoof beats and the metallic thuds, the first screams could be heard. Glancing back, Marcus saw two archers struggling to hold down a third one, who thrashed on the ground with a shaft protruding from his throat. Blood flowed freely, squirting with each pulse. Having seen all he cared to, Marcus looked away. With the arrows pattering against shields like rain, he wondered how long anyone could survive outside the shield wall.
But a lone, metal-tinged voice was shouting above the din, “His coming shall be a whisper, but yea, with his coming shall sound peals of thunder!” Chaplain Stallings strode along the rampart, his black armor gleaming in the moonlight, his mace clenched in one hand and cat-o’-nine in the other, paying no heed to the arrows sinking into the earth about his ankles.
“They shall hearken to his call, those righteous men! From the four horizons shall they come, and prostrate themselves before him—Ancel, the lord come again, wrath incarnate!”
Men gaped at him between the cracks in their shields. “He’s bloody mad!” Rich cried. None of them doubted the truth of it. But yet, the chaplain's armor didn’t have a scratch on it.
The bronze skull helm turned Marcus’s way. “Rejoice his coming, you righteous!” No sooner had the words left his mouth than the chaplain stumbled. The men groaned in dismay. But Stallings steadied himself. His gauntlet closed around the arrow lodged in his breastplate, then plucked it free. Growling, the chaplain snapped the head off the shaft and tossed the thing away with contempt.
“And you wicked,” he roared at the stampeding Kydonians, “tremble!”
They all cheered him at that—a poor display coming from a group hunched behind their shields, but still.
“Come on and fight, you bastards!” Jorel shouted. Soon the whole line was hooting and whistling in derision, egging the bogatyr on. And yet the enemy kept on circling, and the Watch stayed firmly behind their cover.
For what seemed like an hour, the two sides exchanged salvoes of arrows. Here and there an Elessian cried out and fell, pierced through. Out in the field, the archers found occasional victims. Horses tumbled earthward, throwing their riders or crushing them. But always, the bogatyr closed ranks, and their flow continued unabated.
Then, just as Marcus became convinced that it would never end, a deep war horn blew. The Kydonian horsemen reined their horses around, threw their bows around their shoulders, drew their swords—and all once came charging straight at them.