tagSci-Fi & FantasyDream Drive Ch. 10

Dream Drive Ch. 10

byOver_Red©

Author's Note:

Sorry about the extended wait on this one! Life keeps me busy.

Edited by Expoh, AnnabelleFalls13, Michael Scott, Zald, and I.C.


****


Vuntha stood at the top of the hill. Behind him, down the slope, lay the sprawling encampment of the People-Under-The-Mountain. The once-bustling tent city was emptied, devoid of activity but for the wind whipping at the cloth. Behind that lay the mountain, a black wall at their backs, the only defense protecting the women and children should they fall.

The sky was pale and endless, covered by a uniform cloud that obscured the rising sun. His breath fogged against the cold air. The wind was seeping into his clothes; his joints were stiff. A small piece of his mind panicked briefly, wondering if his hands would still move right once the iron men reached them. He shifted his feet and checked his grip, driving away the nerves.

In one hand, he held his spear. He concentrated on the feeling of wood under his fingers, experiencing the slight rises and smooth creases of his familiar weapon. He'd be needing it very soon. All the long, difficult days of training with his father now seemed far too short, wasted away talking when he should have gotten up again and sparred more fiercely, raked in one more second of practice.

Vuntha tied up the top knot of his jacket with his hand, tugging it close to his neck to keep the cold out. It was his leather war jacket, woven more for summer hunting than for wars in winter, but it would let him move easily. The tribes did not usually make war so late in the year.

Vuntha tried to embrace the cold. He told himself it was keeping him awake and alert. He feared the moment in which he'd be warm.

Hanta stood next to him. His father's gaze was locked on the flats that stretched in front of their position on the hills. They took in the view together.

The oncoming tide of the iron men was slow, but inevitable. Their dark green and black uniforms rolled over the browning grass of the plains. Their feet thumped with a mechanical precision, and their iron shields and armor shook in the same ponderous tempo. The sound echoed in the air.

Hanta gestured toward the end of the lines. "Watch for those ones," he said to the gathered men. "Elites, highly trained, extremely tenacious. Their weapons are incredibly sharp – some may be magicked by their mages. Do not try to block them. Use a long thrust when you strike at them, keep your distance."

Vuntha followed his father's hand with his eyes. The soldiers at the end of the iron men's formation were cut from a different sort of steel. Their armor was black; needle-spikes jutted out at the joints. They carried tall, hooked weapons, almost like a spear and an axe hammered together.

Past the assembly of spiked-armored elites that edged the line were their heavy cavalry. The horses kept a slow pace, staying in step with the footmen. Hanta had already informed them that this was part of their strategy. The mounted troops were primed to move easily, either to defend a weak point or strike where the tribes showed weakness. The hook-wielders would defend the flanks in their absence, allowing the main line to swing about and crush pockets of resistance.

Maybe it was because Vuntha had so much practice fighting and hunting that he could appreciate the army before him. The training and coordination required to move thousands of men as one was extremely difficult to achieve.

Knowing their strategy was different from defeating it. The wall of iron was very visible, but a spear wouldn't do much good against it alone. The tribes normally fought on the open plains, where they knew the land and could make an easy escape, hitting their target and running before they could be harmed themselves. This was different. They had to stop the enemy, right here, or their lives and their families would be in danger.

Vuntha brushed at his jacket, and brushed at it again. The sleeves and surface of it were plain, simple leather. The jackets of the men around him were far more impressive, strung with beads, sewn with feathers both white for counting coup and red for taking a life. His father's was most impressive of all, a full battle tale painted on the back by Vuntha's mother.

Vuntha's teeth rattled as the iron men grew closer. He wasn't sure if it was from the cold or the fear. He took up his spear in both hands.

Today, he would stain his war jacket. Or he would die. Maybe both.

A hand settled on his shoulder. Hanta had a serious sort of smile on his face. "You are my son," he said. "You'll be fine."

Vuntha just nodded. He was afraid his voice would come out a squeak.

Hanta patted him again, then moved forward slightly. They stood next to Jalak, the leader of the Three Hills tribes that had not abandoned their brothers. As opposed to Kunaya. Damn traitor.

A surge of anger swelled in Vuntha. This was all Kunaya's fault – him and Boonta. Hundreds were dead, and hundreds more were injured or dying. Vuntha grabbed the hatred, nurtured it, stroked it like a pet hound. It drove away the cold and the nerves.

The iron men were almost in range of their bows. Jalak raised his hand. A shout went up and down the line to nock arrows, and the warriors that had bows did so.

Vuntha heard shuffling behind him. He turned. He almost thought it was Chaki by her height, but the sharper features and broad ponytail marked her as Fenay. Vuntha nodded to her in greeting, and got a nod in return.

Hanta stepped back over. "Where is Chaki? She said she'd stand with our group."

"I don't know," Fenay said. "Secha – the skinny one, shorter." She gestured across her waist, indicating the girl's height. Vuntha nodded his head that he knew her. "She ran to my healing tent and told me Chaki was getting help. I divided the essence she gave us between the apprentices, but it isn't much. We might be able to repel one more of those big spells. Nothing after that."

"Maybe she's gone to see if Jackson has returned," Vuntha said. "The spirit guides don't know about the battle. They might not know how much they are needed."

"We can only hope she returns quickly," Hanta said. "Gather your strength, Fenay. We'll need it."

Hanta stepped out in front of the lines. Jalak gave him a questioning frown, but Hanta just nodded to him. He looked up and down the lines.

"I am Hanta, of the Windseekers!"

Hanta's voice was loud, carried along by the wind. He needed the help – the advantage that the tribes had over the iron men was numbers. By Vuntha's count, perhaps five or six thousand to their three thousand. More, if Kunaya had not taken half the Three Hills and stolen half their horses.

"We are not like them!" Hanta pointed to the oncoming march. "We are not mindless soldiers, shielding ourselves in shame from Mother Earth, hiding behind the very iron we stole from her belly! We are The-People-Under-The-Mountain! This is our home, our land, our most sacred ground! Shakhan is with us, watching over us!"

The men shouted. Spears were waved overhead. The bowmen, still holding their arrows ready, stamped their feet and called war cries, a mixed cacophony of shrieks and warbled notes that briefly overwhelmed the sound of marching feet.

Horns sounded from the iron men, as if in answer – high, exacting notes, blasting over the plains and commanding attention. The line of the iron men thinned slightly, stretched to accommodate the size of that formed by the tribes. The warriors fell quiet as they watched.

Hanta turned back to the line. "We don't have iron, like they do. But today they will find out something else. Our will and our spirits are stronger than any iron they can forge! We are going to show them what happens to those that step under the mountain without the word of the guardian at their backs!"

Vuntha felt the energy of the warriors collect like a tangible thing. He could feel it himself, his spirits rising. They were warriors, huntsmen of the guardian Shakhan, and this was their purpose – to protect and defend the lands Under-The-Mountain.

And he felt pride. That was his father. This was Vuntha's time. Time to prove he was a man, to prove he could take up Hanta's mantle in winters yet to come.

"Prepare to stain your war jackets with a story greater than any in a thousand winters!" Hanta shouted. "They will show no mercy! Show them only the end of your spear! Bowmen, draw your arrows!"

Hanta's last command was barely heard over the screaming and shouting of the warriors in response to his call, but the few bowmen that did drew and sighted up their foes. The others saw the movement, and the order went down the line.

Vuntha realized he was gripping his spear in both hands, holding it tighter than he ever had. He gritted his teeth and set his feet, pointing his spear out. This was it. He was ready.

Another horn blew. The iron men raised their shields above their heads in response to the knocked arrows. A wave of linked steel protected their heads.

"Their wall isn't perfect!" Jalak shouted. "They walk slow, weighted by iron! Aim carefully!"

The archers sighted down, adjusted. Some sniffed at the air, trying to feel out the wind.

"Hold!" Jalak said.

The iron men were almost in range. Vuntha wondered how they would respond. More lightning magic? Something else, something worse?

A horn sounded. The army ground to a halt.

Silence hung in the air. No one moved. Vuntha was almost afraid to breathe.

Jalak kept his hand held. "Hold!"

"What's going on?" Fenay muttered.

"Hanta?" Jalak said. "What do you think?"

"I don't know," Hanta said. "Something's not right."

"They raised their shields for our arrows, but now they've stopped." Jalak frowned. His eyes scanned the battlefield, hunting for some sort of sign.

"I feel magic!" Fenay said. "Some sort of spell."

"What magic?" Jalak asked.

"I don't see the lightning or the fire," Vuntha said.

"It's not that kind," Fenay said. "It's getting closer!"

The men milled, uncertain. The archers lowered their bows, glancing to the sides for instruction.

"Where is it?" Hanta asked. "What are they doing?"

"I'm not sure," Fenay said. "It's almost here!"

"Where?!"

"Right in front of you, and Jalak! There's more!"

Hanta and Jalak exchanged glances with each other, baffled. Vuntha glanced past some of the warriors. He couldn't see anything except grass.

Hanta sucked in his breath, eyes wide. He turned, starting to jog down the line. "Unseen!" He shouted. "They can't be seen! Ready spears! Spears up! Spears –"

Blood spurted from Hanta's side. He stumbled and fell to the grass, bleeding from his stomach.

Where none had stood a moment ago, there was now a man. He was naked but for the collar around his neck. His body was pale and scarred all over, rises and bumps and pockmarks from implements Vuntha had no name for. He held an iron axe in his left hand, now stained with Hanta's blood. His eyes were white – no pupils.

Faster than they could react, the scene repeated itself hundreds of times. Men at their front of the line cried out and fell, some losing limbs, others stabbed in the gut or chest. More men appeared, white-eyed slaves with twisted bodies. They shrieked and hollered as they became visible, then laid into still more men, mindlessly attacking despite being vastly outnumbered.

The man in front of them raised his weapon to finish Hanta off.

Vuntha was running forward. He wasn't going to make it. The axe came down for Hanta's head.

An arrow whizzed over Vuntha's shoulder. It took the man straight through the wrist. His strike was driven off course, thumping into the dirt next to Hanta's neck.

The creature roared, and, forgetting its axe, tried to fall on top of Hanta to get at him with its hands – but this time, Vuntha's spear was there. His weapon slammed home through the man's skin and pierced out his back. Vuntha twisted his weapon back and kicked the man free.

He glanced back over his shoulder. Fenay nodded to him. It was her arrow that saved Hanta from death.

Vuntha checked the lines of warriors. They'd been caught by surprise by the scarred men, but only until spears could find them. Still, it left them in disarray – and in the meantime, the iron men were marching forward, rapidly closing the gap. The bowmen hurried to ready their shots.

"Father!"

Hanta groaned. He rolled over onto his back, one hand on his wound. "Vuntha. I'm alright. Get me a bandage!"

Vuntha checked the wound and breathed a sigh of relief. It was mostly superficial. "You've got to get back behind the lines."

"I'm not leaving this field unless I die or they're all dead," Hanta shouted. "Bandage! Now!"

An angry growl and a hand wrapping around his ankle made Vuntha flinch. His foot was pulled out from underneath him. He hit fell hard, his spear pinned between his stomach and the ground.

The scarred man pulled himself over Vuntha's ankles. He beat at Vuntha's backside, pounding on his thighs and scratching at him with blackened stubbed nails. Vuntha pulled a foot free from its grasp and kicked out, striking him in the face and shoulders, but the only effect it had was to make the thing angrier.

Spears came down into the thing's back, more warriors coming to Vuntha's aid. It gurgled, twitched. And then it shrieked again. It clawed at all of them like a thing possessed, defiant of the four shafts of wood jutting from its torso. They withdrew their weapons and stabbed down again, and again, desperate to stop it from moving. Fenay stepped up, put a foot on the creature's shoulders, and shot an arrow straight into its head.

The creature collapsed. Vuntha kicked his legs free of its grasp and stood up. "Thanks, Fenay. Again."

Her ponytail bobbed a nod of acknowledgement. "Make sure you kill double that to repay me."

They both swiveled when they heard Jalak. He was shouting commands, but they were only partially heeded. The line was in a panic – their scene had replayed itself over and over, the invisible men going berserk until they were torn apart or their heads were caved in. The iron men were nearly upon them. A few bowmen were firing desperate arrows into their formation, but alone, they bounced harmlessly off their shields.

"Bowmen, keep firing!" Hanta shouted. He winced and bent slightly, keeping his bandage pressed over his wound. "Level your spears! Level your spears, now!"

Vuntha and Fenay scampered back into position. The warriors barely had time to lower their weapons, and the iron men were there.

The soldiers rushed uphill and into the spears, depending on their iron shields and their momentum to win the skirmish – and they'd caught the tribes in a barely-organized state. The tribesmen were shoved back, hard, their feet churning to stay balanced.

Bodies pressed together. Shields shoved against bare skin. Spears banged into armor and clashed against other spears. Warriors and soldiers alike shouted and swore and cursed one another in a giant wavering free-for-all. Vuntha didn't even have his spear down – he held it up, out of the way, just pushing against the back of five other warriors to hold the line.

Vuntha sighted an armored soldier pushed over by a nasty shove from the tribes. He fell underfoot of his own men. His armor didn't save him. He screamed until his neck was stepped on.

The smell of sweat and cold air was warmed with the stench of blood. Men were stabbed, cried out, fell. People were shoved into the empty holes they left behind, trampling any hope the injured had of recovery.

The tribesmen were being pushed back. Vuntha could see it. The metal shields were too useful, and their own leather armor was too weak to withstand a frontal assault – and the iron men knew it. It took a careful stab from a tribesman to make it through their armor, but they could simply bash forward and thrust their weapons haphazardly. They'd hit something eventually.

The soldiers were relentless, driving forward, maintaining the close-range shoving match that gave their armor the best advantage. The tribesmen were trying to get distance, line up their strikes – and so they were being walked back uphill, sacrificing their height advantage. Iron men fell in the mad scramble to keep up the constant push, but just as many warriors died to casual thrusts and arrows.

Projectiles from their crossbows were falling everywhere. Their own bowmen were launching far more arrows, aiming for the back of the enemy lines, but they were being peppered with waves of return fire. Vuntha saw a man next to him take a fat bolt one in the eye and collapse. It was as if the air was spitting blades.

The pileup in front of Vuntha surged, heaved. He was swept into the center of the pack like a leaf in a storm.

Arms flailed around him, mixed with screams and shouts and the cutting tips of spears. His own spear was stuck between himself and the warrior next to him, pinned down by the force of dozens of men pushing against each other. The soldier he faced was equally helpless.

Vuntha stared at the man's eyes under his helmet. He was young – younger than Vuntha expected. From a distance, they all looked like pieces of moving metal. There was a man in there, somewhere.

The soldier managed to wedge his shield between them. He rammed his shoulder against it, slapping against Vuntha's side. Vuntha grunted under the pressure, the blow knocking him from his reverie. He took another hit, and another. He felt dizzy.

He saw a flash of skin. A gap between the man's chest plate and his helmet. Vuntha's left hand was almost crushed between people, his fingers still weakly touching his spear shaft, but his left hand was free. He straightened his hand and jammed it into the man's neck.

The man coughed, spluttered. Vuntha jabbed in again and again, smashing the man's windpipe. The soldier's eyes bulged. Vuntha could hear his desperate wheezing. He raised his hand for another blow, intending it to be the last.

A sharp cut on Vuntha's shoulder drew his attention. Another soldier managed to get his spear across the pile to try to save his comrade, then promptly lost his weapon, having it torn away by a warrior three men to Vuntha's left.

The pile surged again. The warriors pushed this time, gaining back a bit of ground. Vuntha's left hand was suddenly free. The suffocating soldier was swallowed into the masses. Vuntha tried to push forward with the rest, but he was just as helpless. He churned his feet, just trying to keep his balance as his feet slipped through the blood and around corpses.

And then he was in the back again. He put his free hand on the shoulder of another warrior, lending his weight to the push. The motion was automatic, unfocused. It all happened so quickly. He hadn't controlled any of it. It could have been him that died as easily as anyone else.

A horn sounded. The iron men fell back.

The lines of churning men parted, like two waves that had smashed together and come apart. The distance was short, barely ten paces, but just that much seemed like eternity after the prolonged shoving match. The warriors swore at the iron men and called out in triumph from having repelled the first assault.

Everyone was heaving their breaths. Both sides looked exhausted. The iron men were disjointed and fractured, but so were the tribesmen. They eyed each other warily, staring over the gap of mud and dead bodies like angry hunters staring at each other over a bison, both claiming it as their kill.

As the pause started to prolong, the iron men began to reorganize. Vuntha looked around for his father, but couldn't find him. He felt like the bottom of his stomach had just dropped away. "Father!" Vuntha strode down the line. "Father!!"

"Spears ready!" Jalak was jogging down the other way. "Keep your spears ready!" The men responded to his words. They straightened their backs and fixed their weapons forward as he passed them.

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