Chapter 72 of Quest for the Blue Crystal

Messick stood with his captains at the front of the battle line. At its closest point the line was fifty miles north of Hornblower, but it stretched from Anro Pass on the west to the Pheral Sea on the east. A hundred fifty mile front; sufficient to prevent any direct attacks on Hornblower, as well as any simple flanking operation. It was a long line, a thin line; his forces were stretched and success would depend on rapid deployment to the specific points the Rauders chose to attack. But Messick’s men had labored through the night to install other ‘special’ defenses that he had designed with Drake for just such an occasion. Defenses that should slow the Rauders down considerably and perhaps even render them ineffective as a fighting force. Messick smiled, dreaming of making history as the general that broke the power of the Rauders. He had hoped for this chance, though now that it was here he was both surprised and fearful. Testing ideas under actual combat was risky. Very risky.

There was a shout from one of the lookouts in a tall tower; Messick and the captains turned to follow the lookouts outstretched arm, and saw the dust cloud of the approaching Rauders. Drake had done some outstanding analysis in the short time he had been here. The Rauders were coming in on almost the exact path predicted by the mercenary. Fortunately that was where Messick had deployed most of his surprises.

The cloud of dust grew larger and the rolling thunder of thousands of horses could now be heard. The lookout reported sighting actual riders, and within minutes the fearsome warriors of the north were visible to all the troops. Messick had the men hold their fire. The Rauders had to be lured in closer. Closer. Now.

Messick signaled the attack, and the troops advanced. It was no charge, but a gradual, deliberate forward movement. The men in the front rank had bows drawn and arrows notched. But skilled marksmen with automatic assault rifles stood close behind, their weapons hidden but loaded and ready.

The Rauders were very close now, and moving very fast. Messick’s army heard the power of the war song, and fear tickled at their hearts. But Messick’s troops held firm, and the thin line continued the slow advance. The Rauders were only a few hundred yards away, and moving with a blurring speed. Their own archers pulled back on their bows.

Suddenly the first wave of the Rauder cavalry dropped from sight, disappearing into the ground amid cries of pain and confusion. The next wave, unable to stop in time, collapsed on top of the first.

“Your trenches are working admirably,” commented one of the captains.

Messick smiled. “Start the assault,” he replied. The captain gave orders and the figurehead archers dropped to their knees as the snipers took aim. The timing was perfect. The third wave of Rauders had just managed to stop their charge but could not withdraw against the pressure of the horses still advancing from the rear. The exposed Rauder cavalry offered ideal targets; the sound of popping gas discharges was soon joined by the howls of pain and frustration as more than a hundred Rauders and scores of horses exploded in bloody fountains of blood.

Messick noted one of the Rauders climb out of the trench, leap atop a horse and signal a withdraw. He was obviously a leader; he had an air of authority and his position at the front was consistent with the Rauder tradition of the chief leading the attack. But what made him sure was that he recognized this Rauder. The same chief that had battled his platoon when he was still a lieutenant in the Esaf’s army. Rangee.

It was information that might be of use to Kratia. Wizards sometimes had stockpiles of important information on their potential enemies. But for now, there was the follow up operation.

As expected the Rauders turned southeast seeking an end to the trenches. But they were hidden well from physical detection, and the general level of fear among Messick’s troops and the general populace made magical detection out of the question. In the melee of battle, magic was often impotent. So it was not surprising that the Rauders soon fell into another series of trenches. Messick’s troops repeated the tactics of the first skirmish on a slightly smaller scale.

Messick doubted the Rauders would just give up; they could be terribly tenacious when they had a particular objective in mind. He was right. The Rauders dismounted and begun advancing carefully over the treacherous ground. They put archers in the front, and a cloud of arrows abruptly darkened the sky.

Messick smiled again. The Rauders were becoming predicable, and this gave him the advantage. He signaled for the troops to dig in. The front line of Kratia’s army slipped quickly into nearer trenches and began to the fire at the advancing Rauders. The Rauders were forced to take similar cover and a tedious game of trench warfare began.

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