I've also uploaded a new edition of Kydona (Book 1). Give it a look! It's still available for free on all major online retailers.
Of course, I'd be remiss if I didn't give a preview, so here goes...
The night was peaceful as the king’s army slept. No cricket chirps, no rustling wind. Just the sound of his tent mate’s gentle breathing, and then, just above that… the sound of distant shouts. A horse had gotten loose, probably. The full moon always made beasts behave oddly, after all.
But there were more shouts joining in. Even at this distance, Marcus could hear the alarmed tones.
A trumpet sounded—a long, dolorous howl drifting over the camp. Again. By the third report, Marcus and Vernon were sitting bolt upright. More trumpets quickly joined the first, all blowing that same drawn out note. Even if the Watch hadn’t drilled it into his head already, Marcus would have known what the trumpets were saying.
“Arms!” he shouted, as everyone else was too. He wrenched off his blanket and launched himself out of the tent, grabbing his cuirass as he went. All around him, his brothers were doing the same. They scrambled from their canvas shelters, half-dressed and tousle-haired, each with that same wild look in his eyes.
“Arms! Arms! Arms!” the entire camp was screaming at the tops of their lungs, as if no one knew, and just like that, the men were throwing on their armor as fast as they could, cutting their fingers and scraping their faces on the bands of steel, cursing at the pain. Marcus cinched his sword belt on so tight he nearly pissed himself.
“Come on, Vernon!” he bellowed in the din. He wound his arm through his shield straps and hefted a spear. He glanced back. “Vernon!”
“I’m doing my bloody best!” Vernon yelled, his cuirass on backwards. Swearing, he took up his weapons and clambered after Marcus barefoot.
A deluge of men hurried along the avenues, the clanking of their hurriedly-donned armor merely adding to the cacophony. Some tripped over their scabbards or the butts of their spears, but the ones beside them grabbed them under the armpits and hauled them upright again. Marcus saw Sergeant Carpenter standing atop a wagon waving his sword toward the perimeter. “The walls! Find your spots! This is it! Ivan is here!”
The fright in the air was palpable as the soldiers made for the walls. Every expression was strained. Their breathing was agitated. No panic though. The Watch had drilled that out of them. Most were too frightened for their minds to operate on any higher level, but their legs knew where to carry them. So they moved—a flow of steel-encased humanity that were trained like dogs and herded like cattle for one excruciatingly simple reason: to kill their opposite number.
Above the bouncing helmets, Marcus saw the ramparts rising up ahead. There were men lining the top already, their spears angled forward, waiting for a charge that hadn’t yet materialized. A courier wheeled his horse back and forth in search of whoever was in charge. Overhead, flights of burning arrows went arcing into the sky, streaks of orange cutting into the black of night.
Marcus spied his company standard and moved toward it. His boots dug furrows into the earthen walls as he clambered up to his assigned position, shouldering his way through the second line. Steel rustled, men parted, and he got his first look beyond the wall.
Despite the full moon, there was little to be seen. The steppe was a sheet of dull purple. A couple hundred yards distant were small patches of burning grass that the arrows had lit, illuminating a broad band of ground. Beyond that, nothing.
“Maybe it’s a false alarm,” Hamo postured over the blaring trumpets, his youthful face full of desperate hope.
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.
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. 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.
“Spears!” Captain Rowley was behind the line somewhere. His trumpeter blew the corresponding set of notes, and the company obeyed. The whole line rippled as the chevaliers stood, lifting their spears out of the dirt. Legs braced. Row upon row of spearheads dropped horizontal, points glittering with menace.
Chaplain Stallings reared his head back and rejoiced to the heavens, “Lord Ancel! Watch your sons!”
The hooves were pounding closer, thunderous—or was that Marcus’s heart?
“Hasten to us the foe, o’ lord!”
The wave rolled over the pathetic fires the archers had set, stamping them into nothingness.
“That we may meet him, with steel in our fists!”
All around Marcus, soldiers panted with agitated excitement and barely-suppressed fear.
“With praise on our lips!”
The stampede was thirty yards away now. Marcus could see the horses’ rolling eyes, the riders’ snarls.
“With fire in our hearts!”
“For Ancel!” they all cried—spear tips pointed, aligned, and quivering.
In the handful of seconds he had left, Marcus tried to remember. These were the moments were epiphanies were supposed to strike, where his life was to flash before his eyes… his blissful childhood that memory couldn’t reach… the few tender moments he had shared with his father… the many he had known with his mother, only never recognized… his first ride with Breggo, getting drunk with Vernon… Kaelyn, Jacquelyn. And they did pass through his mind, albeit so fleetingly he had no time to grasp them. Just like that, they were gone.
He could only watch, paralyzed, as the bogatyr did away with the final yards between them. This close, he could see the gleaming chestnut coat of the horse charging him. The rider atop it wasn’t much older than him. His features were plain, unremarkable except for the eyes—clear blue.
The pike he held was aimed straight for Marcus’s heart.