Silently we awaited the signal from the Rattlesnake. A thousand bowmen wishing their bows and loosened arrows in their quivers; swords were readjusted, their hilts ready to the hand; men spat upon their right palm that their lance grip might be the surer. The night dragged on toward dawn.
The success of my plan depended upon a surprise attack while the foe slept. I knew that the Rattlesnake would not fail me, but something must have delayed him. I gave the signal to advance silently. Like shadows we moved through the orange groves and deployed along a front two miles in length, a thousand bowmen in the lead and behind these line after line of lancers and swordsmen.
Slowly we moved forward toward the sleeping camp. How like the lazy, stupid Kalkars that no sentries were posted at their rear! Doubtless there were plenty of them on the front exposed to the Wolf. Where they could see an enemy they could prepare for him, but they have not imagination enough to foresee aught.
Only the desert and their great numbers have saved them from extermination during the last hundred years.
Scarce a mile away now we could catch occasional glimpses of the dying embers of the nearest fires, and then from the east there rolled across the valley the muffled booming of distant war drums. A momentary silence followed, and then, faintly, there broke upon our ears the war cries of our people. At my signal our own drums shattered the silence that had surrounded us.
It was the signal for the charge. From twenty thousand savage throats arose the awful cries of battle, twenty thousand pairs of reins were loosed, and eighty thousand iron shod hoofs set the earth atremble as they thundered down upon the startled enemy, and from the heights above came the growl of the drums of the Wolf and the eerie howls of his painted horde.
It was dawn as we smote the camp. Our bowmen, guiding their mounts with their knees and the swing of their bodies, raced among the bewildered Kalkars, loosing their barbed shafts into the cursing, shrieking mob that fled before them only to be ridden down and trampled by our horses’ feet.
Behind the bowmen came the lancers and the swordsmen, thrusting and cutting at those who survived. From our left came the tumult of the Rattlesnake’s assault, and from far ahead and above us the sounds of battle proclaimed that the Wolf had fallen on the foe.
Ahead I could see the tents of the Kalkar leaders, and toward these I spurred Red Lightning. Here would be the representatives of the house of Or-tis, and here would the battle center.
Ahead the Kalkars were forming in some semblance of order to check and repel us. They are huge men and ferocious fighters, but I could see that our surprise attack had unnerved them. They gave before us before their chiefs could organize them for resistance, yet again and again they reformed and faced us.
We were going more slowly now, the battle had become largely a matter of hand-to-hand combats; they were checking us, but they were not stopping us. So great were their numbers that even had they been unarmed it would have been difficult to force our horses through their massed ranks.
Back of their front line they were saddling and mounting their horses, which those who had borne the brunt of our first onslaught had been unable to do. We had cut the lines to which their animals had been tethered, and driven them, terrified, ahead of us to add to the confusion of the enemy. Riderless horses were running wildly everywhere, those of the Kalkars and many of our own, whose riders had fallen in battle.
The tumult was appalling, for to the shrieks of the wounded and the groans of the dying were added the screams of stricken horses and the wild, raucous war cries of battle-maddened men, and underlying all, the dull booming of the war drums. Above us waved the Flag, not the Flag of Argon, but a duplicate of it, and here were the drums and a massed guard of picked men.
The Flag and the drums moved forward as we moved. And near me was the clan flag of my family with the Red Hawk upon it, and with it were its drums. In all there were a hundred clan flags upon that field this day, and the drums of each rolled out, incessantly, defiance of the enemy.
Their horsemen now were rallied, and the dismounted men were falling back behind them, and presently a Kalkar chief upon a large horse confronted me. Already was my blade red with their blood. I had thrown away my lance long since, for we were fighting in too close quarters for its effective use, but the Kalkar had his spear and there was a little open space between us, and in the instant he crouched and put spurs to his horse and bore down upon me.
He was a large man, as most Kalkars are, for they have bred with that alone in mind for five hundred years, so that many of them are seven feet in height and over. He looked very fierce, did this fellow, with his black whisker: and his little bloodshot eyes.
He wore a war bonnet of iron to protect his head from sword cuts and a vest of iron covered his chest against the thrusts of sword or lance or the barbed tips of arrows. We Julians, or Americans, disdain such protection, choosing to depend upon our skill and agility, not hampering ourselves and our horses with the weight of all this metal.
My light shield was on my left forearm, and in my right hand I grasped my two-edged sword. A pressure of my knees, an inclination of my body, a word in his pointed ear, were all that was need to make Red Lightning respond to my every wish, even though the reins hung loose.
The fellow bore down upon me with a loud yell, and Red Lightning leaped to meet him. The Kalkar’s point was set straight at my chest, and I had only a sword on that side to deflect it, and at that I think I might have done so had I cared to try, even though the Kalkar carries a heavy lance and this one was backed by a heavy man and a heavy horse.
These things make a difference, I can tell you out of wide experience. The weight behind a lance has much to do with the success or failure of many a combat. A heavy lance can be deflected by a light sword, but not as quickly as a light lance, and the point of a lance is usually within three feet of you before your blade parries its thrust—within three feet of you and traveling as fast as a running horse can propel it.
You can see that the blow must be a quick and heavy one if it is to turn the lance point even a few inches in the fraction of a second before it enters your flesh.
I usually accomplish it with a heavy downward and outward cut, but in that cut there is always the danger of striking your horse’s head unless you rise in your stirrups and lean well forward before delivering it, so that, in reality, you strike well ahead of your horse’s muzzle.
This is best for parrying a lance thrust for the groin or belly, but this chap was all set for my chest, and I would have had to have deflected his point too great a distance in the time at my disposal to have insured the success of my defense. And so I changed my tactics.
With my left hand I grasped Red Lightning’s mane and at the instant that the Kalkar thought to see his point tear through my chest I swung from my saddle and lay flat against Red Lightning’s near side, while the Kalkar and his spear brushed harmlessly past an empty saddle. Empty for but an instant, though.
Swinging back to my seat in the instant that I wheeled Red Lightning, I was upon the Kalkar from the rear even as the fighting mass before him brought him to a halt. He was swinging to have at me again, but even as he faced me my sword swung down upon his iron bonnet, driving pieces of it through his skull and into his brain. A fellow on foot cut viciously at me at the instant I was recovering from the blow I had dealt the mounted Kalkar, so that I was able only partly to parry with my shield, with the result that his point opened up my right arm at, the shoulder—a flesh wound, but one that bled profusely, although it did not stay the force of my return, which drove through his collar bone and opened up his chest to his heart.
Once again I spurred in the direction of the tents of the Or-tis, above which floated the red banners of the Kalkars, and around which were massed the flower of the Kalkar forces; too thickly massed, perhaps, for most effective defense, since we were driving them in from three sides and packing them there as tightly as eggs in the belly of a she-salmon.
But now they surged forward and drove us back by weight of numbers, and now we threw ourselves upon them again until they, in their turn, were forced to give the ground that they had won. Sometimes the force of our attack drove them to one side, while at another point their warriors were pushing out into the very body of the massed clans, so that here and there our turning movements would cut off a detachment of the enemy, or again a score or more of our own men would be swallowed by the milling Kalkar horde, until, as the day wore on, the great field became a jumbled mass of broken detachments of Julian and Kalkar warriors, surging back and forth over a bloody shambles, the iron shoes of their reeking mounts trampling the corpse of friend and foe alike into the gory mire.
There were lulls in the fighting, when, as though by mutual assent, both sides desisted for brief intervals of rest, for we had fought to the limit of endurance. Then we sat, often stirrup to stirrup with a foeman, our chests heaving from our exertions, our mounts, their heads low, blowing and trembling.
Never before had I realized the extreme of endurance to which a man may go before breaking, and I saw many break that day, mostly Kalkars, though, for we are fit and strong at all times. It was only the very young and the very old among us who succumbed to fatigue, and but a negligible fraction of these, but the Kalkars dropped by hundreds in the heat of the day. Many a time that day as I faced an enemy I would see his sword drop from nerveless fingers and his body crumple in the saddle and slip beneath the trampling feet of the horses before ever I had struck him a blow.
Once, late in the afternoon, during a lull in the battle, I sat looking about the chaos of the field. Red with our own blood from a score of wounds and with the blood of friend and foe, Red Lightning and I stood panting in the midst of the welter. The tents of the Or-tis lay south of us—we had fought halfway around them—but they were scarce a hundred yards nearer for all those bitter hours of battle. Some of the warriors of the Wolf were near me, showing how far that old, gray chieftain had fought his way since dawn, and presently behind a mask of blood I saw the flashing eyes of the Wolf himself, scarce twenty feet away.
“The Wolf!” I cried; and he looked up and smiled in recognition.
“The Red Hawk is red indeed,” he bantered; “but his pinions are yet unclipped.”
“And the fangs of the Wolf are yet undrawn,” I replied.
A great Kalkar, blowing like a spent hound, was sitting his tired horse between us. At our words he raised his head.
“You are the Red Hawk?” he asked.
“I am the Red Hawk,” I replied.
“I have been searching for you these two hours,” he said.
“I have not been far, Kalkar,” I told him. “What would you of the Red Hawk?”
“I bear word from Or-tis, the Jemadar.”
“What word has an Or-tis for a Julian?” I demanded.
“The Jemadar would grant you peace,” he explained.
I laughed. “There is only one peace which we may share together,” I said, “and that is the peace of death—that peace I will grant him and he will come hither and meet me. There is nothing that an Or-tis has the power to grant a Julian.”
“He would stop the fighting while you and he discuss the terms of peace,” insisted the Kalkar. “He would stop this bloody strife that must eventually annihilate both Kalkar and Yank.” He used an ancient term which the Kalkars have applied to us for ages in a manner of contempt, but which we have been taught to consider as an appellation of honor, although its very meaning is unknown to us and its derivation lost in antiquity.
“Go back to your Jemadar,” I said, “and tell him that the world is not wide enough to support both Kalkar and Yank, Or-tis and Julian; that the Kalkars must slay us to the last man, or be slain.”
He wheeled his horse toward the tent of the Or-tis, and the Wolf bade his warriors let him pass. Soon he was swallowed by the close packed ranks of his own people, and then a Kalkar struck at one of us from behind and the battle raged again.
How many men had fallen one might not even guess, but the corpses of warriors and horses lay so thick that the living mounts could but climb and stumble over them, and sometimes barriers of them nearly man high lay between me and the nearest foeman, so that I was forced to jump Red Lightning over the gory obstacle to find new flesh for my blade. And then, slowly, night descended until man could not tell foe from friend, but I called to my tribesmen about me to pass along the word that we would not move from our ground that night, staying on for the first streak of dawn that would permit us to tell a Kalkar from a Yank.
Once again the tents of the Or-tis were north of me. I had fought completely around them during the long day, gaining two hundred yards in all, perhaps; but I knew that they had weakened more than we, and that they could not stand even another few hours of what they had passed through this day. We were tired, but not exhausted, and our war horses, after a night’s rest, would be good for another day, even without food.
As darkness forced a truce upon us all I began to reform my broken clans, drawing them into a solid ring about the position of the Kalkars. Sometimes we would find a lone Kalkar among us, cut off from his fellows; but these we soon put out of danger, letting them lie where they fell. We had drawn off a short distance, scarce more than twenty yards, from the Kalkars, and there in small detachments we were dismounting and removing saddles for a few minutes to rest and cool our horses’ backs; and to dispatch the wounded, giving merciful peace to those who must otherwise have soon died in agony. This favor we did to foe as well as friend.
All through the night we heard a considerable movement of men and horses among the Kalkars, and we judged that they were reforming for the dawn’s attack, and then, quite suddenly and without warning of any sort, we saw a black mass moving down upon us. It was the Kalkars—the entire body of them—and they rode straight for us, not swiftly, for the corpse-strewn, slippery ground prevented that, but steadily, overwhelmingly, like a great, slow moving river of men and horses.
They swept into us and over us, or they carried us along with them. Their first line broke upon us in a bloody wave and went down, and those behind passed over the corpses of those that had fallen. We hacked until our tired arms could scarce raise a blade shoulder high. Kalkars went down screaming in agony; but they could not halt, they could not retreat, for the great, ever moving mass behind them pushed them onward; nor could they turn to right or left because we hemmed them in on both flanks; nor could they flee ahead, for there, too, were we.
Borne on by this resistless tide, I was carried with it. It surrounded me. It pinioned my arms at my sides. It crushed at my legs. It even tore my sword from my hand. At times, when the force ahead stemmed it for a moment and the force behind continued to push on, it rose in the center until horses were lifted from the ground, and then those behind sought to climb over the backs of those in front, until the latter were borne to earth and the others passed over their struggling forms, or the obstacle before gave way and the flood smoothed out and passed along again between the flashing banks of Julian blades, hewing, ever hewing, at the surging Kalkar stream.
Never have I looked upon such a sight as the moon revealed that night—never in the memory or the tradition of man has there been such a holocaust. Thousands upon thousands of Kalkars must have fallen upon the edge of that torrent as it swept its slow way between the blades of my painted warriors, who hacked at the living mass until their arms fell numb at their sides from utter exhaustion, and then gave way to the eager thousands pressing from behind.
And ever onward I was borne, helpless to extricate myself from the sullen, irresistible flood that carried me southward down the broadening valley. The Kalkars about me did not seem to realize that I was an enemy, or notice me in any way, so intent were they upon escape. Presently we had passed the field of yesterday’s thickest fighting, the ground was no longer strewn with corpses and the speed of the rout increased, and as it did so the massed warriors spread to right and left sufficiently to permit more freedom of individual action, still not enough to permit me to worm my way from the current.
That I was attempting to do so, however, was what attracted attention to me at first, and then the single red hawk feather and my other trappings, so different from those of the Kalkars.
“A Yank!” cried one near me, and another drew his sword and struck at me; but I warded the blow with my shield as I drew my knife, a pitiful weapon wherewith to face a swordsman.
“Hold!” cried a voice of authority near by. “It is he whom they call the Red Hawk, their chief. Take him alive to the Jemadar.”
I tried to break through their lines, but they closed in upon me, and although I used my knife to good effect upon several of them, they overbore me with their numbers, and then one of them must have struck me upon the head with the flat of his sword, for of a sudden everything went black, and of that moment I remember only reeling in my saddle.