Plaything of the Gods Ch. 07byLoveslust©
CH7. Blood, rage and despair.
We crept forwards in the shadows of the forest. Timing was essential. We wanted to attack their archers, their rearguard. If we could break their ranks and rout them, we could turn on the large army of barbarians and trap them between the warbands led by Zeuxis and us.
I was nervous. I lifted my shield and pressed the fingers of my shield arm on Ares' mark. I didn't know if I really felt something or just imagined it, but touching the mark seem to give me strength. I calmed myself, and I saw Eustatios' grin to me, an eager look upon his face. He would have his revenge on the archers, by facing them head-on.
A man yelled as barbarians moved up through the forest. They hadn't spotted us yet, instead facing Zeuxis' men. The barbarians yelled and taunted, and were greeted by the sound of Ares' warriors banging their shields together. The barbarians looked like a disorganized lot to me. Some carried sword and shield, some just swords or spears and I was sure I saw someone with a sickle. The first ones to step forwards were archers, though. They had seen Zeuxis' men would defend their camp rather than attack immediately, and tried to break the wall of spears and shields with arrows. I grinned at their stupidity. The round shield was part of every warrior's armor. All men were trained in using it to present a solid wall of shields. The barbarians took aim and fired at Zeuxis' men. I couldn't see them, but I was pleased to hear the clattering sound of arrows being deflected by shields. If the barbarians thought they would draw us out and weaken our line in such a way, they were surely mistaken.
Zeuxis ordered the men to move forward, advancing on the barbarians in formation. The barbarians on the battlefield shifted their tactics when they realized they were only wasting arrows, and instead decided to go for a direct charge. The main part of their army charged towards the shield wall Zeuxis' men presented. Suddenly, there was a sound in the forest nearby. Two scouts came into view, probably to spot for traps just like the one we currently used. Silent and cautious, I saw the skirmisher-warband move to take aim. One of the scouts died with three arrows in his body before he even spotted us, The other managed to make a yelp, but it was cut off when an arrow hit his face. I thanked the Gods for the skirmisher warband, and we continued to slowly move forward through the dense bush.
I heard metal clash against metal as the barbarians attacked the wall of shields from Zeuxis' men. Now was our time to get to action. Demostrate signaled for us to go forward. We kept in the cover of the trees, and ignored the main body of their army. If we attacked now, we would be flanked by the rearguard of their army. They had held some reserves back, and had their skirmishers and archers. If we did not dealt with them first, they would flank us and we would be trapped ourselves. We had to kill the ones they had hold back, if we wanted to successfully attack their army from behind.
We had come close to their rearguard before we were spotted. The guard who spotted us was killed by one of our archers, but not before he had screamed to alert the others. Demostrate gave the order. Now, it was time for our warband to move. Our warrior warband ran forwards, leaving the skirmishers behind. The thought of battle made me forget about the weight of the shield as I ran towards their rearguard. They had not expected an attack, and we charged them as a small, compact group.
I didn't slow down as I thrust my spear towards a surprised archer. The spear pierced his chest, killing him instantly. I quickly pulled the spear back to attack another man. I made a feint attack with my spear. He fell for the trick and tried to avoid my spear, but I had already changed its direction, planting it in his abdomen instead. I caught an arrow on my shield and then turned around to face an attacker that tried to flank me, but Photios' spear had already killed him before I could lift my spear again.
Demostrate yelled, ordering us to form a line. Our surprise attack had been effective: We had killed several of them before they had had time to reform. Some of their lighter troops had run as soon as we had charged them, and I trusted our skirmishers to deal with them. The other fighters of their rearguard had recovered from the initial shock, however, and were prepared to meet us. We advance at them in tight formation, presenting them our shields and spears. They were too few in numbers to present a real threat to a phalanx from the front, nor where they organized enough to have a better strategy. They fought fierce, but were no match for the greater reach of our spears, our shield protecting us from their attacks. I killed two more of them with my spear. As the last of their rearguard fled, we cheered, and turned around to watch the rest of the battlefield.
The shield wall of Zeuxis' man had not hold against the brute force of their army. As their shield wall had broken, every man had to fight for himself.
I touched Ares' mark on my arm as I prepared for battle again. I was shocked to found the mark burning hot. Something was wrong. Suddenly, everything seemed to become blurry, as if time itself was slowing down. I looked at the attackers. Some of them had realized they were in fear of being attacked from both sides and had turned around to face us.
I was aware Demostrate was shouting orders to get us in line again to attack them, but his voice was drowned, as if my general was very far away. I ignored him. I ripped off the straps that bound my shield to my arm and dropped it. I placed my free hand on Ares' mark, and laughed. My mark sent me a wave of strength, blood rage and hate. I filled myself with the sensation as I looked at our enemies. I drank in the energy emanation from the mark until I was drunk with it. My blood boiled hot. It seemed nothing mattered but me and the enemies in front of me.
I know someone shouted something, but all sounds seemed to be muffled. I took a step forward. My spear flew from my hand, over the battlefield, and pierced the armor and chest of one of the attackers. I suddenly wanted to yell. I screamed from the top of my longs and ran towards the place where the fighting was most intense. As I screamed an incoherent battle cry, and drew both my sword and my knife.
All became a blur before my eyes as I charged in. When I looked back at it later, I could not recall everything. Only certain moments and images had been clear. I had thrown myself into the battle as a man possessed. I hacked and slashed away, oblivious to anything but my enemies. My sword slashed open armor and battered aside shields as I fought. One scene was very clear to me, despite my blood rage. A giant of a man caught my attention, a battle axe in his hand. I killed the man that stood between me and the big man, and he turned around to face me. He swung his axe at me, and I jumped aside, narrowly avoiding it. He lunged at me, but this time I parried his axe with my sword. Instead of trying to win on strength, I twisted my blade, trapping both our weapons between us, and stabbed him several times with my knife before it slipped through a weak spot in his armor and between his ribs. I didn't bother to retrieve my knife from his chest, but instead picked up his battle axe.
I laughed out loud as I felt the weight of the axe in my hand. It took a moment to catch my breath before I threw myself in the thick of battle once again. An axe in my shield hand, my sword in the other, I attacked. The axe made me invincible. No one stood before me and lived. I used my sword to block attacks as I swung the axe effortlessly to kill. Shields splintered and helmets split as the heavy axe crashed down. I fought until I found myself surrounded by servants of Ares, and then changed my direction to find more enemies. I charged towards a place where men were still fighting. When I looked around me later, I could find no more enemies. I turned away from the battlefield. I swung the axe down into the body of an already dying enemy who lay heavily wounded on the ground, and left the axe there as I walked away from the battle.
I knew not what I was doing, only that I needed to get away from the battlefield. All thoughts were gone, and did not register what was going on around me. I felt dizzy as I walked towards the camp, and suddenly my stomach grumbled, and I fell to my knees and puked. I dragged myself to my feet again, and found the tent of my warband. I quite literally fell down on my bed and passed out.
I was awoken again by Demostrate. The veteran looked older than I had ever seen him, a strange look on his face. He was talking to me but I didn't understand him. I was sure my head was going to explode, and I groaned in response to his words. Eustatios came up to me, gently hoisted me into a sitting position and offered me a waterskin. I gulped down a lot of water greedily, before rolling over to puke again. Eustatios laid me down on my back again. I didn't fall asleep, but I couldn't focus on what happened around me either. Instead, I watched a great battle that was fought by shadows on the canvas of the tent. I realized the war drums of the canvas battle were one with the throbbing pain in my head, and finally fell into a restless sleep.
I woke when it was still night. My headache had lessened, but I still felt dreadful. About half of my Brothers were sleeping in the tent with me. I saw that Eustatios was still awake. He sat upright next to me, and I wondered what he was doing. I quietly asked him where the rest of the Brothers were. He said nothing but shook his head, pain in his eyes. Suddenly, all emotions seem to drain from me, only to be replaced by a nameless pain.
I didn't sleep for the rest of the night. I soundlessly cried. I cried for my dead Brothers, for the unfairness, and for all the miseries of life in general. I thought to myself it would have been best if had been killed in the battle, too. It certainly would have made things easier. I felt Eustatios' hand on my shoulder. The knowledge we shared the same pain did not lessen it, but it was good nonetheless. We said nothing. Words were irrelevant. There was only pain. Pain deeper than any physical pain I had ever felt or imagined. We had lost part of us when we lost our Brothers; With them gone, part of us was gone, a part that could never be replaced of repaired.
I heaved myself upright as Demostrate entered the tent in the morning. He asked me how I felt. "Shit" was the only thing I managed to say, and he nodded. I tried to stand up, but I hadn't got any strength in me. I wanted to do something, anything.
Demostrate told me I had been possessed by Ares in battle, and that I still had a fever. I knew from the way he spoke that he was blaming me for something. I wondered what it was, before I looked directly into the eyes of my old general. For the first time, I understood him as a person.
Demostrate had always been a simple soldier. He had followed orders and prayed to the Gods. He had been rewarded the rank of general for his endless loyalty, and had taught and trained young boys as he had been taught and trained. He had prayed dutifully to the Gods because he was taught to, but never had he felt their power as I had.
My return to the camp had rocked his world. He hadn't understood my vision, only seen that I was rude to the priest-commander. The burning mark had frightened him. As I had told, barbarians had come out of nowhere. I had ignored his orders several times yesterday, and my actions in battle had shocked him. I had to agree with him on that. Looking back, I despised myself for many of the things I had done in battle.
He had found the easiest solution: he didn't understand what was going on, but he could blame all the strangeness on me. I understood him, but did not know how to solve the situation. I sadly thought it was likely the end of our relationship.
Eustatios took care of me. He made me drink some water and gave me some hard crackers. I ate them, and then puked. He made me drink more water, and I managed to hold it in. I felt grateful for him. Eustatios had always been my favorite Brother, and he didn't seem to judge me. Some of my other Brothers had seemed oddly distant, and I thought we probably all needed time. Eustatios told me they would honor and burn the dead today. I asked him if he could help me be there, and he told me he wouldn't want me to miss it.
There was a ceremony led by Zeuxis. I was wrapped around in a blanket and could not stand on my feet. I leaned heavily on Eustatios as his strong body offered me support. I saw many warriors looking curious at me but ignored their stares, looking to Zeuxis and the pyre with the dead behind him. Zeuxis read the names of the dead servants of Ares and began an elaborate prayer to Ares, Zeus and Hades. Our dead had been prepared for the afterlife, and Zeuxis lighted the prayer with a torch. We all cut of a part of our warrior's tale to respect the dead, and threw the hair on the pyre. I hugged all my remaining Brothers, and knew we were one in our grief, at least.
There would be a feast that night to honor the dead and to celebrate our victory. I told Eustatios and my other Brothers to go, and went back to our tent. I finally had a moment alone. My fever had died almost out, my headache was almost gone and my stomach had been able to hold food. I still felt lost, confused and hopeless.
Zeuxis entered my tent and sat down in front of me. He studied my face, and told me he was sorry for my loss. It had been long since Ares had lost so many servants at once, and it would take some time to rebuild the warbands. He asked me if I did know what I would do once I was stronger. I told him I didn't, and dared to ask him why was not at the feast. He sighted.
He told me he had never seen a man fight like me. My enemies had either fled for me, or died. He told me the look on my face would have scared him, would I have stood before him. I clearly held Ares' favor, and many more of his servants would have died if I had not been there. Had I not warned them, they might have all died. He said he knew what it was like to be used by a God, and said I had given up all I had to Ares. The reason I was so weak now was because I had burned all my reserves while serving Him. He had spoken to the warriors at the feast, and they have honored me by praising me and drinking to my name. Songs might be written about me later.
I said I didn't want songs. He nodded slowly. He told me I was caught in a game of the Gods, and that I would have been killed if I had given more. He told me there was no escape from one's fate, but that I would need to learn more if I wanted to live on. He might be able to help me.
I considered his words. I told him I needed to complete my learning in Aphrodite's temple too, but that I would gladly study more after that. He grinned. He told me I had shown a lot of nerve by defending the women of Aphrodite to him earlier, and he apologized for insulting them. The way I spoke about it, he might need to revise his vision of them. He told me I seemed to bring change, and he needed to think on that. He wished me well before he left me, and said I could ask him for anything if I needed it.
I was a bit stronger next day. I helped in the camp, and had soft conversations with many of my Brothers. The experiences of the battle would change our relationships forever, but I knew the bond with my Brothers had been too strong to disappear completely. I told Eustatios I was thinking about leaving for the temple of Aphrodite. He nodded. He asked me about my girl. I told him I didn't even know I could call her that, but that I needed time to think. I needed to complete my instructions there, too. I didn't tell him Aphrodite had taken away my worries during the cleansing, and was hoping She could help. Eustatios told me he understood.
The warriors were preparing to go back to Thebe again. They would gain nothing by staying here. Our scouts have told us the fleeing barbarians had retreated towards the coast and it looked like they would board their ships and leave. Poseidon would decide their fate now. I send a note to Zeuxis saying I wanted to leave, said goodbye to my Brothers and started collecting my gear.
A warrior told me Zeuxis wanted me to join him. I followed him as he led me to Zeuxis' tent. Zeuxis said I needed a reward for my deeds in battle. I told him I had done my duty, but he refused that. He showed me a large pile of weapons and armor. He told me a victor can take the weapons of the men he killed in combat, and that I had the right to pick what I wanted. I found my shield and sword, inspected them and said it was all I would claim, as they were mine. Zeuxis shook his head. He told me that if I would head out again, I had at least to be prepared. He said I had dropped my shield to favor it for another weapon. I recognized the waraxe I had used in battle and picked it up. It was heavy, too heavy to wield with one hand, and I wondered how I could have ever used that.
Zeuxis saw me discarding the axe and asked if I had ever fought with twin longswords. I told him I had trained with them, and that I had quite liked them. He commented that all men are required to fight as one in a phalanx, but that it I was probably better as a solo fighter. He found the best twin longswords for me. They were thin but strong, and fit my hand well. They were longer than my usual sword, though, and would take some getting used to.
I left behind my usual sword, not needing a third one. I kept my shield, though. Before I went, I saw a richly decorated knife. I remembered I had lost mine, and picked it as well. Zeuxis was content with my choice. He told me I should sent notes if anything unusual happened, and bade me good luck. I said goodbye to my Brothers. It was a silent goodbye, as nobody knew what more there was to say. I hugged all of them and promised I would return soon. I picked up the horse Antiope gave me, attached my gear to it and rode off.