Hugh retrieved the monkey for Theoson and excused himself to return to the work site. Though the sun was nearly starting to go down, everyone was still working hard. They erected large braziers to light the site as night fell. When the tower was complete, the workers set up camp right there and slept.
“They don’t have homes to go to?” Hugh asked Nikomedes.
“Homes?” he repeated back.
“They don’t go home to their families at night?”
“Families?” Nikomedes replied.
Hugh shook his head, patted Nikomedes on the shoulder and told him he would see him tomorrow. Nikomedes nodded and continued to wander about the site.
Hugh stopped at his forge on his way home and milled about a bit, looking for signs of Theora across the river. He didn’t see her and he was kind of tired, so he walked back to Walker’s estate to sleep.
He woke up to Henry shaking him and almost shouting in his face. “Hugh! The Otros are here!”
“Did I sleep for a week or something?” asked Hugh.
“No, they’re just… somehow they got here a week before we expected them. The armies have already been called up, we need you on the battlefield. Herbert wants you suited up and in his personal retinue to meet them.”
Hugh ate as he was suited up by two squires, first having a thick quilted vest put on and then a leather cuirass, which was ill-fitting and left much of the quilted armor exposed. They could find no helmet that fit him, but there was a bronze pot that fit well once a large towel was put inside. They used some rope tied to handles on either side as a chinstrap. While greaves were affixed to his shins, Hugh was polishing off the last of a whole ham hock.
“Where are the twins?” he asked.
“They’re already with their units on the battlefield. We’ve been trying to wake you for an hour now,” said Henry.
“Okay, let’s go,” Hugh said.
As Hugh was escorted up the river, he saw the largest group of people he had ever seen. As far as he could see, men were lined up, four or five deep, sometimes more. There must have been tens of thousands on their side. As they approached, Herbert rode up with a group of horseman, all of them armored, one of them carrying a large golden flag with a red rose.
“Hugh, are you ready to… what are you wearing?” Herbert pointed to the pot.
“It’s the only thing that would fit,” he said.
Herbert shook his head. “I’m sorry we didn’t have time to properly outfit you. I guess that will have to do. Come on, we’re going to go out to meet their vanguard and see if we can negotiate a peace.”
Herbert and his horsemen slowly made their way out to the middle of the no-man’s land with Hugh in tow. When they reached about the middle point, a group of horsemen on the other side galloped up to them. As they approached, Herbert sat up as straight as he could and told those around him, “I don’t want to hear anyone say anything, do you hear me?” he glanced around to see everyone nod, including Hugh.
When the Otros horsemen were within ear shot, they halted their horses. The two groups stared at each other for some time, what seemed to Hugh to be several minutes. Finally, the Otros horsemen started laughing, just a chuckle at first, but it grew to a chorus of uncontrolled guffawing.
One of the Otros walked his horse away from the others towards Hugh. They looked the other over, the horseman looking up into Hugh’s eye and Hugh looking back down at him.
“I am Jengo,” said the horseman. Hugh looked to Herbert, who nodded to him.
“I’m not sure which would make a better trophy, that pot or your skull,” Jengo said.
“I’m not done using either of them,” Hugh said.
Jengo laughed. “I like you, Hugh. Such a shame that you fight for fools.”
“I haven’t fought for them yet. Maybe you should go home.”
“Not until I get what I came for,” said Jengo.
“What did you come for, my head or the pot?” asked Hugh.
Jengo smiled. “No, my friend. I had no idea you were here. You are the biggest surprise of the year, actually. Even if you defeat us today, just the sight of you was worth the trip. No, I came for safe passage.”
“And you will not receive it,” said Herbert.
Jengo turned his horse to face Herbert. “I have no problem with you or your town. I wish only to pass through.”
“I can’t let you do that,” said Herbert.
“You can, but you won’t.”
Herbert remained silent.
“No one needs to die today,” Jengo said. “We could even work together, since we need a bridge constructed across –”
“We will not let you pass,” said Herbert.
“That is unfortunate. I would rather make you friends than corpses.”
“Good luck,” said Herbert, who turned his horse around. The rest of his horsemen followed him, leaving Hugh standing there, a bit confused.
“I hope to see you on the battlefield,” Jengo said, looking at Hugh.
“I don’t think you’ll be able to miss me,” Hugh replied.
“Too true,” said Jengo. “Good bye, my large friend.”
Jengo’s horse galloped off with his fellow Otros behind him. Hugh turned back to the Polity line and found Herbert.
“Where are the twins?” Hugh asked.
“I figured you would want to fight with them. They are on the far flank upstream. They also have your weapons. You should head there now.”
“Stay safe,” said Hugh.
“It’s not my job to stay safe,” said Herbert. “I will be where the fighting is thickest.”
He nodded, Herbert nodded back, and Hugh jogged upstream. He walked the entire length of the line, which must have been a couple kilometers long. As he saw the end in sight, he heard the shout of the giant.
“We forged this for you when you were asleep last month,” the dwarf said as he approached. The giant dragged an enormous maul, two meters long, with a haft thicker than a man’s leg. The head was thick and rectangular, as big as two men’s heads. Hugh lifted it and swung it one handed through the air a few times. The giant went back to a cart and brought him a large, slightly curved rectangular shield.
“Our job is to make sure no Otros get upstream of us,” said the giant.
“Shouldn’t be hard,” said the dwarf. “We just have to close in quickly around them and prevent them from breaking through our line.”
“We have to watch for a green flag,” the giant said. “When we see that raised down the line, we know to charge at full speed here on the end. As we close in, once we know we have out-flanked them, we can just march slowly in.”
“Are you wearing a pot?” asked the giant.
Hugh smiled. “I guess they don’t make helmets in my size. I know what I’m forging tonight.”
The giant shook her head.
A horn sounded and a green flag went up, so they ran at a slight angle towards the end of the Otros line. They were quite far off, and before long, everyone was getting tired, but they kept running. Another horn sounded and the green flag went down, at which point they all slowed to a walk.
As they got closer, the Otros sent ground troops out to meet them, spears up and shields in front of them. The Politian army held their shields in front of them, axes in hand, slowly advancing. Just before the armies met, the Otros lowered their spears and the dwarf shouted, “Throw!”
At this point, order disappeared. Some in the Politian line stopped while others charged forward, throwing their axe. Many of the axes shattered the shields of the Otros, while other axes became embedded in shields, skulls, arms, and legs. Many axes bounced off the ground and under the shields of the Otros, lodging deep in their chest, sometimes even hitting men two or three lines back.
Both lines had completely broken formation and chaotic battle ensued, with some individuals squaring off in what amounted to duels amid the fervor, duels which were often interrupted by the axe, spear or sword of another combatant, sometimes even just by accident.
Hugh rushed out in front of everyone near him and swung his hammer, sending half a dozen men to the ground or airborne. In one fluid motion, he swung it back around and down onto a soldier charging him, crushing him into a bloody pancake with twitching arms and legs.
The giant and dwarf both led with their shields, meeting the shields of Otros. The dwarf toppled the man across from him and stabbed him through the neck with his sword, while the giant continued to push against an unyielding foe.
“Cover!” shouted the dwarf. Not a second later, the sky seemed to get darker and Hugh looked up to see what appeared to be a swarm of insects.
“Hugh, shield!” should the giant, who had stepped back from her opponent and raised her shield above her head.
Hugh ducked low and raised his shield just as a hail of arrows hit. Many on both sides screamed in agony, and people began dropping to the ground in large numbers. After a bit more fighting, it appeared that all the ground troops on the side of the Otros had been defeated, while the Politians suffered heavy losses but were still standing.
There were some cheers until the giant shouted, “Horse archers!”
Hundreds of horsemen galloped towards them, unleashing arrows sporadically, not in waves. It seemed that each arrow fired hit its mark, dropping another Polity soldier. Hugh ran out alone to meet them with his shield raised.
The horsemen retreated, but the archers turned around and fired while galloping away. Hugh’s shield became feathered with dozens of arrows and he continued to charge, but he could not catch up with them.
“Hugh, fall back!” shouted the dwarf. “We can’t catch them.”
Hugh stopped in his tracks and began walking backwards, prompting the horsemen to turn back and re-engage. Before long, Hugh was back in line with the rest of the Politian survivors. The horse archers continued a series of charges and retreats, firing countless arrows into the Politian line.
From behind his shield, the dwarf turned to Hugh. “They want us to charge and try to engage them. The best we can do is sit here and wait until our cavalry reinforces us. The important thing is just to hold this line.”
Hugh nodded as another arrow hit his shield. Hugh glanced about and saw a large rock about the size of a man’s torso, and he had an idea. He set down his hammer, picked up the rock, and glanced around his shield. He picked an archer, stood up, and hurled the rock. He thought he had missed at first, but it looked like he either clipped the horse’s front legs or the horse’s back legs tripped over the rock, because it went down, sending the rider to the ground face first.
Hugh knelt back behind his shield and looked around for another rock, and moved towards one which was slightly smaller than the last. This time when he went to throw the rock, he was hit by not one, not two, but three arrows. On lodged in his neck, another in his thigh, and the third hit him in his throwing arm. Hugh still managed to throw the rock, but he missed the archer he was aiming for completely.
To be continued…