Lysander stood at the front of his army, sweat pouring off his face. He had called a brief halt, to allow the men to rest and drink water. He’d been marching them hard for over an hour. While his zeal to reap his revenge on the desert folk still drove him, he knew that his men would be no good if they arrived at the scene of battle too exhausted to fight. And he had no doubt there would be a battle. Even the women were ferocious fighters, as he could well attest.
They had taken refuge between two sand dunes, along a ridge. With the sun in the eastern sky, this valley was still shaded, and it provided some respite from the harsh desert sun. Even this early in the day, the temperatures on the open sand were brutal and oppressive, hammering on the men like a fist.
He took a deep drink on his water bottle, cursing the hot sun. He was sick of living in and marching through the desert. As he lowered the bottle, he caught sight of movement in the sky. It had to be Liam, returning from his patrol. Based on the intelligence they had received, Lysander figured they must be about half-way to the column of desert people. Assuming they had maintained their course. He assumed Liam would advise him of any changes.
Lysander craned his neck following the griffin’s flight. Instead of beginning a descent, as he expected, it continued to fly right over the column. “What the hell is Liam doing?” he asked no one in particular. The men around him swung their heads to follow the direction of his gaze, also watching the griffin in its flight.
The hairs on the back of Lysander’s neck stood up in sudden warning. Without knowing why, he drew his sword. Suddenly, a scream rang out through the column. “Attack!” The cry was repeated throughout the column, and the scrape of steel leaving scabbards rang out around Lysander. His eyes scanned the area around him and suddenly, the hills were boiling with movement as hundreds, if not thousands of desert men erupted around the enclosed column.
Lysander cursed loudly. He should have known better than to lead his men into an enclosed space like this. But the reports had said the desert women were still an hour’s march off. And from the looks of the attackers, these weren’t women.
Lysander couldn’t believe his eyes. There was no way these men could be here. But he wasn’t going to let something like impossibility cause him to lose his senses. “To arms!” he cried. “Form up ranks! See to yourselves!”
Lysander turned to face the oncoming attack, raising his blade to meet the first attack. Even as he retreated from the sudden onslaught, he noted with pride the quick reaction time of his men. Already, the interior units were forming up into orderly ranks. But many of those nearest to the attack were already hard pressed, and some had fallen.
The initial surprise gave the initiative to the attacking forces, but Lysander’s Imperial Infantry were quickly responding. He had faith that the superior training and discipline would win the day. And of course, he had the cavalry on his side. Assuming Liam ever organized them.
These thoughts fled his mind as he quickly felled two attackers in rapid succession. His earlier fury towards the desert folk was subdued as his instincts took over. The earliness of the day and the forced march had sweated last night’s alcohol from his blood. His mind was the clearest it had been in months, and that was probably the only thing that saved his life.
In his fight with the desert woman back in Dhetheru, he had underestimated the fighting prowess of his opponent. He wouldn’t make the same mistake again. Having survived the initial attack, his skills came to the forefront to keep him alive, and took a terrible toll on those who faced him.
Men on either side of him fell, but they were quickly replaced by those behind him in the ranks. His men were well aware that he was at the forefront of their column, and they were striving to protect him. One of those who faced him managed to slip a spear past his defenses and scored a long, but shallow cut, on his left arm. With his adrenaline pumping, Lysander hardly noticed it. But he knew this couldn’t last.
The desert men were skilled fighters, and they were better rested than his own men. While his men had superior training, long months in the desert had eroded their discipline, and many of the men were sleep deprived. The desert men were patient, and waited for the Infantrymen to make mistakes. Then they pounced. While Lysander and his men were holding their own, and had managed to stop retreating, the desert folk were taking a terrible toll.
Lysander managed to disengage from the fight and stepped back within the safety of his men’s line. Looking around, he quickly assessed the situation. Things were holding even, but he feared his men were outnumbered. If this went on too much longer, he wasn’t sure he or his men would get out of this alive. All thoughts of revenge were gone. Now, his only concern was saving as many of his men as possible.
With grim determination, he lifted his sword, and reengaged the enemy.