Both of the armies had moved closer to form a wide curtain wall around the impending battle. The large numbers of citizens, warriors and onlookers gave the impression of an arena of old. The space created in the centre was easily a hundred yards in diameter, plenty big enough for a battle between hundreds. Along one side, stood Lar flanked by Khan and Cainon. Behind them stood twelve, equally vicious looking warriors. Each of them wore their armour though every man had a different look to him. Some had leather caps on their heads, others full metal helmets and most wore something in-between. Cainon wore a heavy looking iron helm whilst Khan went bare headed. Whether it was down to not having a helmet big enough for his skull or down to sheer intimidation, wasn’t clear. Cainon carried his favoured flail whilst Khan had moved to a pair of curved swords. They were very much like the one carried by Synne, though these were embellished with details and stones as expected of a man so high in the ranks of his clan. All of the men’s armour was blackened with fire and from a short distance away they had the look of a horde that had climbed up from hell itself.
Stood at the front of the small army was Master Lar. He was significantly different in both the amount and quality of his armour. It was tight fitting and almost all made from blackened metal. Parts of the armour were faced in red paint or blood and a light red cloak hung from his shoulders. In his hands he carried a two-handed sword that looked almost identical to the one carried by Thrax. His arms and legs were covered in plated armour that was heavily decorated with runic symbols.
Facing this host was Thrax and fourteen other brave souls. He wore his normal armour though he had no armour on his head. In his hands, he held his trusted two-handed sword and on his belt hung a number of long knives, each one almost the size of a sword. Synne and Ulric stood to his left side, both armed with spears. It hadn’t been their first choice but Thrax, after seeing the warriors they had available, explained to them that they would have to rely upon discipline and co-ordination to beat Lar, as he had better warriors and better equipment. The spears were an easy weapon to use and when combined in a group could prove deadly. Each of them also carried a curved blade on their side for close quarter work. Synne wore the same armour as before though she had managed to find a pair of iron spaulders to fit on her shoulders. Ulric on the other hand had scavenged every piece of armour he could find so that he was protected in a loose assortment of plating that ran from his ankles to his head.
The group stood behind them include a mixture of the escaped prisoners from Haven as well as a few volunteers from the Trading Post that had some form of combat training. Three of them were warriors Ulric had trained previously. Anna had joined them as had Bara and Thrax’s two fencing students. Under normal circumstances, it would have been an impressive group but today, when facing the best that Lar had to offer it looked petty. Thrax had explained this would work to their advantage. Synne was less than convinced.
Jackson, now wearing less of his armour and more of his regalia marched out into the centre of the field. Some of the inhabitants of Horizon started to boo him, much to his chagrin. He stopped upon reaching the middle and turned several times to look at the crowds. He glanced at Lar for a brief moment before turning away as though he was embarrassed to show he knew the man. Synne and Thrax had already spotted this and were certain of his treachery. He lifted his hand in the air, signalling for silence. The crowd softened though a few continued to interrupt.
“A Contest has never been fought at Horizon before. This solemn event is usually reserved for when the great Houses of the League and the Brotherhood are in disagreement over leadership or major policy. Today the Contest will decide the future of this region and the future of these people,” he said as he waved towards the assembled fighters. It is a matter of honour and of the truce between all the Houses and clans that the result of a Contest is always obeyed. To refuse is to bring the enmity of all peoples in the alliance. Will you accept the result of the Contest?” he shouted to the crowds watching.
A roar of approval spread around the arena though how much was of fear and how much was hope was uncertain. At the very least, this battle would stop all the inhabitants having to be involved. Jackson turned to Lar and held out his hands to the man.
“Are your people ready?” he asked.
Lar said nothing, he simply nodded in agreement. Jackson then turned to Thrax, Synne and Ulric.
“Are your people ready?” he repeated.
“Of course we are, you asshole!” swore Synne.
Jackson was taken by surprise and for a moment had absolutely no idea how to respond. As he came back to his senses, he realised that although he was stuck between two groups of people who probably wanted him dead, right now, they were much more interested in fighting each other rather than him. He smiled to himself and then stepped off to the side.
“I need you both to steady the line. Keep them together, I will take my two students and work around their flank. Do not follow me, understood?” asked Thrax.
Synne and Ulric nodded and then turned and took their positions in the single line of warriors. Thrax remained at the front, right in the centre and as far as Lar was concerned, on his own.
“As the leader of this region, and the representative of the League, I pronounce this Battle of the Thirty legal and its result beyond question. You may start when ready!” Jackson shouted.
Half expecting both sides to explode into violence he rushed to the crowd and jumped amongst them to avoid being caught up in the action. In his haste to avoid the weapons, he stumbled and crashed to the ground. As he lifted himself up he realised he needn’t have bothered. Both sides stood waiting and so far, not one soul had moved.
Synne and Ulric stood with just a couple of warriors to each of their sides. In the middle of their group were another four warriors, all stood waiting with their spears at the ready.
“Are you ready, brother?” she shouted over to him.
“Always,” he said and turned to face the enemy.
They were still not moving, each of them waiting for the signal. Then it happened. Lar hardly moved, he simply raised his hand and sword in the air. At that signal, the entire line rushed forward save for Cainon, Lar and Khan all of whom stood their ground. The other twelve warriors raced forward, each waving their swords or axes and every one of them intent on killing as many of the lightly armed people as they could.
Thrax bounded backwards and into a gap specially made for him in the centre of the line. He made it just in time to turn and push his two-handed sword out like a spear in front of him.
“Now!” he shouted.
The whole line dropped the butts of the spears to the floor so that the end of the weapon rested against their rear foot. They lowered the tip to chest height and held the spear with their left hands. This kept their sword arms free and with these, they drew their axes and blades and held them, ready for the carnage. An axe flew close to Thrax but caught one of the men carrying a spear in the forehead and knocked him down to the ground. Thrax growled and pushed his sword out further so that it extended slightly further than the spears.
The line of Raiders crashed into the wall of spears and smashed past through the thin line. One took a spear point to the chest and head whilst Thrax stabbed his sword into the face of another. As he withdrew the weapon, he gave the order to release the spears. Most heard it and with their hands free started the vicious hand-to-hand melee with the enemy.
Synne struck down the first man. She feinted for his arm and then flicked her blade around to slash across the man’s throat. With a gap in their line, she leapt forward, followed by Anna. The two turned to attack the exposed sides of the enemy and between them managed to bring down two more.
A roar came from Lar as he unleashed Cainon and Khan who jumped into the fray, brushing the weapons aside and smashing anybody they could reach. Though both sides had settled down into a savage free-for-all, Cainon and Khan were staying close and working on one group at a time. The first man Khan reached was a lightly armoured man carrying a mace. He swung it at Khan who simply grabbed his arm and then lifted the man only to throw him into the line. The falling man hit the back of Anna who collapsed to the ground under his weight. Cainon moved forward and brought the full weight of his flail down onto the back of the unfortunate man before he could even try to move. Anna was trapped underneath him and the last impact stunned her completely. He lifted the weapon again but Thrax burst out from the line and barged his shoulder into the man. With a gap create, Ulric pushed through it towards Khan.
He slashed his short sword against the man only to be forced to duck from a wild cut launched by one of the other Raiders. The cut was shallow against Khan but it had done its job and grabbed his attention. Khan smashed one of the defenders out of the way with his fist and then cut hard against Ulric.
“Get down you bastard!” shouted Ulric as he slashed at the back of Khan’s legs.
The cut managed to catch him just below the knee where the armour was weakest. With a cry, he dropped to his knee. One of Thrax’s students jumped forward and stabbed at the injured man. Though Khan’s armour was thick it could only stop so much. In seconds there were three people cutting and stabbing at him.
“Get back!” shouted Ulric.
They ducked aside and continued their battle with the rest of the line as Ulric made to finish him off. Khan was bleeding from a dozen wounds but incredibly was able to stand.
“Is that it?” he shouted and with unnerving speed swung his left and right arm to bring both swords towards Ulric. He tried to avoid the cut but it was too fast. The first blade slashed open his shoulder and he only avoided the second because Synne had joined the fray. Parrying the blade, she hacked at the wounded man and continued attacking, striking at any opening she could find. The big man stumbled back, his wounds now seeming to take their toll. He turned back towards his own forces.
“Lar!” he shouted and then dropped to the ground.
Synne didn’t pause and placed her blade along his throat. She looked up at Lar and then yanked the weapon, drawing a mighty gash across the warrior’s throat.
“Bitch!” howled the leader of the clan.
Cainon heard the cry and pushed back Thrax long enough to see what was going on. At spotting his dying comrade, he roared and then punched Thrax hard in the face. The old warrior stumbled backwards and Cainon stormed towards Synne. Thrax’s students jumped in the way and cut at him with their swords. He caught the first sword in his flail and then grabbed the blade, ignoring the cuts it caused in his flesh. In his right hand, he pushed out the flail and then slammed it into the first man’s face, turning it to pulp as he crumpled to the ground. The second circled Cainon, shocked at the death of his friend and his confidence now failing, Cainon lowered his hand to his belt and pulled out a small but deadly looking knife. In one swift movement, he flicked the weapon forward and caught the student in the throat. He fell down, frothy blood gurgling from his throat.
From the side of the arena the crowd were completely ignoring each other, in many places the Raiders were now intermixing with the people of the town as they pushed ahead to find a better place to watch the bloody battle. Already nearly half of the fighters were dead or badly wounded and nobody could tell which way it would go. Jackson, still stood at the side was fidgeting, probably wondering whether he should stay or try to escape before a decision was made, one way or the other.
Thrax spotted the approaching Lar and pushing ahead the two warriors faced off against each other. Both men carried their massive two-handed swords and both were well aware of the abilities of the other.
“Thrax, old bastard. Perhaps we can come to some arrangement?” said Lar as he lifted his weapon high to his shoulder.
Thrax stepped forward with his right leg and pushed his own sword out like a spear tip, tempting Lar to attack his blade. Lar tried not to fall for it but the movement looked like a thrust. He swung down his weapon and tried to swipe the tip away. Thrax simultaneously pulled his blade out of the way and swung to around to the left. With a quick step, he struck Lar hard under his right arm, just above his ribs. Against anybody else it would have ended the fight, but the thickness and quality of Lar’s armour stopped any penetration and simply knocked him off balance for a moment. He staggered and then stood up.
“This is what happens when you have resources, Thrax!” he laughed as he gestured towards his armour.
“Armour won’t save you, it will just prolong your agony!”
He swung his blade from the left, slashed down and then stepped to his right and cut along the opposite angle. Lar was fast though and neatly stopped each attack with a similar cut. He tried to counter with a thrust to Thrax’s face but with a quick dodge to the side, Thrax simply struck Lar in the stomach with the hilt of his own sword and then twisted it around to bring the blade to his head. Again Lar managed to stop the attack and the two men faced off against each other with their swords locked together.
Synne and Ulric were struggling against Cainon and his group of five warriors and it was proving to be the toughest fight they had ever fought. Whilst this uneven battle continued, another from their group had been knocked out of the fight with a cut to the chest and one had simply run away. Bara was on the ground and trying the drag out the wounded Anna who was still pinned under the body of the dead warrior.
Ulric picked up one of the curved swords from the dead Khan and proceeded to weave an intricate and continuous sequence of movements around him. It was a system Synne had been reading to him of a long dead art form from a group known as Indians, though she had yet found out who they were. The Raiders pushed forward and two were quickly caught in the fast movements. One took multiple slashes to his arms and face whilst the second took a blow directly to the top of the head. Synne dodged a blow from Cainon and slashed at his right arm. The cut went deep, making his arm useless to the fight. She twisted the sword around in a figure of eight and brought it down again to finish him off but Cainon had other ideas. Grabbing one of the nearest Raiders he threw the man towards her and her sword. Neither of them had time to do anything and the poor soul crashed onto her blade so hard it pushed through the sternum and out through his back. She staggered backwards only to crash into one of the Raiders. She was now disarmed and quickly kicked and punched the man to force him away. Another stepped in, this one was wielding a double edged axe. He lifted it to strike and she glanced to the side, looking for anything she could use.
Ulric jumped out to the side and caught the axe on one of his own blades before the two men could take advantage of her moment of vulnerability. He batted the axe to the side and slashed the man from the forehead down to the chest. Then Synne leapt on the final warrior and smashed him to the ground. As they rolled on the dusty floor, Bara dragged out the unconscious Anna and seeing the man near her, moved over and stuck her knee into the man’s throat, whilst Synne continued striking the man. Ulric stepped in front of Cainon, his bloods dripping from his recent kills. His enemy stood motionless apart from lifting one of the spears he had just pulled from a dead warrior. He held it over his shoulder like a javelin and prepared to hurl it at Ulric. The two men stood facing each other, both daring the other to move. Whilst this standoff continued, Synne helped Bara to drag Anna out of the ring. As Synne reached the side, she noticed Thrax and Lar were still fighting though both were tiring from the epic fight between the mightiest warriors in the Contest.
“Won’t any of you help us?” she cried to those watching.
“Hey, if anybody enters the ring we all enter!” responded one of the Raiders.
Synne moved up in front of the man who straightened up to intimidate her. Synne looked down as though cowering and then as a sneer appeared on his face she slammed her fist hard into his nose. Blood spurt across his cheek and he stumbled backwards. A great roar of laughter spread around those watching. She turned back to see Thrax knocked down on one knee with Lar standing over him. Ulric and Cainon were now attacking and parrying with zeal though neither seemed to be besting the other. Grabbing a spear from the ground, she ran towards Thrax.
“Get down!” she screamed.
Thrax spotted her from the corner of his eye and instantly dropped to the ground, completely exposing the front of Lar. Synne threw the spear with all her might and it flew hard and fast towards the man. He tried to move out of the way but it still caught him in the right of his chest and embedded several inches into his flesh. As he stumbled backwards Thrax grabbed his great two-handed sword and slashed from left to right in a powerful horizontal cut. The blade bit hard into the man’s throat and sliced his head clean from the body. As the headless corpse slumped to the ground, Thrax turned to Synne and grinned.
“Good work,” he said before spotting Ulric who was in trouble.
“Help him!” he shouted.
Ulric was caught in a lock and was unable to move. Thrax and Synne rushed over and as he spotted the two, he dropped Ulric and started to swing his flail above his head. He looked about, spotting the dead and wounded that littered the field. Only the four of them remained in the fight and he was seriously outnumbered.
“Cainon, it is over, you can’t win,” said Ulric.
Thrax lifted his sword up to his shoulder whilst Synne picked up one of the many curved swords lying on the ground. She held it out in front and ready for the fight.
“What do you suggest?” answered Cainon sarcastically.
“Surrender and pledge your clan’s allegiance to Haven,” he shouted.
“Surrender!” he laughed.
Cainon made a few swings and light strikes with the flail. He wasn’t trying hard to hit them, just keeping them on their toes and unable to easily initiate an attack. Ulric stood directly in front of him whilst Thrax was on his right and Synne to his left.
“You’d rather die?” asked Thrax.
“Actually,” answered Cainon as he stopped swinging the weapon and dropped it to the floor, “I’d much rather watch you die!”
From his belt he whipped out two small throwing daggers. Before the three could try to respond, he threw them both at Ulric. The first he was just able to deflect but the second struck him low in the side. He cried out in pain and Thrax moved to catch him. Cainon turned to run, he was obviously hoping to take advantage of the situation by escaping in the confusion. Two of the Raiders at the far end had pulled up a horse and he was hurtling towards it. Synne chased after him and leapt forward, stabbing with her sword at the same time. She was lighter and faster than the hulk of a warrior and her blade slid in quickly though his shoulder blades. He tipped forward onto his stomach, still groaning but unable to move. Synne pulled out the blade and kicked him over so she could see his face before turning back to Thrax.
“Is he okay?” she asked.
“It’s alright, looks superficial to me, he was lucky, very!”
Synne sighed with relief before turning her full attention to Cainon. She lowered her sword and pushed out the tip towards Cainon. The crowd went silent, each waiting to hear the final words of the Contest.
“This is my last offer. Yield, or die?” she demanded.
He lay there on the ground, moaning in pain but Synne showed no mercy. She placed her boot on his stomach and pushed hard.
Cainon tried to lift his upper body but only managed to lift himself up a few inches.
“I, I yield,” he groaned before collapsing.
Synne stepped back and looked to the crowd. She sensed confusion, some were overjoyed and others looked as though they were waiting for fighting to break out. A few were already drawing weapons.
“Wait!” she shouted.
She turned to Ulric and Thrax who gave her a nod to continue.
“It is over. Lar and Khan are dead, and Cainon has submitted to our authority. These lands are forfeit to us and our leader, Ulric of Haven!”
Most of the townspeople started to cheer, the realisation that they were no longer under the thrall of the Lar and his alliance with the many Raiders along the border. A few of the Raiders, presumably those who had been forced to join against their will, removed their armour and marched over to the crowd on the side of the town. In just minutes, the number of Raiders had dropped to only a dozen hard-core fighters. They stood with their weapons drawn and expecting a fight to the death. Thrax shouted over to Synne.
“We’ve got a problem!” he cried.
Synne rushed over to find white foam coming from Ulric’s mouth. She dropped to her knees and rested his head on her leg. Ulric stated to splutter and cough, something was seriously wrong.
“Poison!” swore Thrax.
He tore at the material near the wound to find discolouration around the cut. Under normal circumstances, it was no more than a flesh wound.
“What have you done?” shouted Synne.
Cainon said nothing but simply continued to drag himself away from the arena and to his small band of warriors. Ulric coughed several more times and reached out to Synne, she grabbed hold of his hand, feeling the trembling throughout his body.
“Make him suffer!” he groaned and then with a final shake went limp and still.
Synne cried out in anguish and lowered the body of her brother to the ground. With the sword still in her hand, she stood up and faced the still crawling Cainon. He had reached his group and two of his warriors had helped lift him to his feet. He was in evident pain and his wound could easily be fatal.
“You murdering bastard!” she screamed.
As Synne started running towards him, one of his warriors stepped out and plunged his own sword into Cainon’s chest. As Cainon cried out in surprise, two more of the men joined in, each one stabbing at the giant until he collapsed in a heap on the ground. The first to strike dropped to one knee before Synne who had stopped just feet from him, her sword lifted high and ready to strike. The other eleven men did the same, each kneeling before her.
“We yield to the Lord of Haven!” the first man shouted.
Synne stood in almost in the middle of the arena, the floor littered with bodies and broken weapons and armour strewn around her. Bara and several of the others came out from the crowd and moved to Ulric and the other dead or wounded. Thrax approached the body of Lar and stooped down, lifting his fallen sword. He examined it carefully, recognising it as the brother of his own weapon, before moving to Synne. He held the weapon out to her. She took it from his hands and held it before her. Jackson emerged from the side, now content he was safe he presented himself to Synne.
“This matter has been settled, you may now return to Haven,” he said curtly.
Synne was not in the mood to be lectured by a wretch such as him and lowered her sword so that it pointed at his throat.
“Do not presume to order me about. Pack your things and leave,” she snarled.
Her voice was angry and her horror at the events that had just befallen her. She looked at those around her and realised it was time for something new, something better.
“As the victor of this Contest I have proven my right to lead the League. This territory now belongs to my family and I tell you all now, we are going to make changes. Starting today we start the struggle to end the strife we have seen across our lands!” she shouted.
Thrax moved before her and lowered his head.
“Will you serve as the Leader of the League armies?” she asked.
Thrax gave her an odd look at the idea she had even one army under her control, but understood it was as much for the audience as it was for her.
“My Lord, it would be an honour,” he replied.
“Jackson, come here!” ordered Synne.
The man stumbled towards her, his fear and confusion obvious for all to see.
“You will travel with two of my warriors. You are to take the word to the cities, guilds and clans of the League to assemble at Haven in three days.”
“With what end it mind?” he asked.
“Victory of course!” she shouted.
Turning back to the crowd, she turned so all could see her.
“I will unite the League and march on every single lair and fortress used by the Raiders and any of their allies, until all our lands are free and safe. Are you with me?”
A great roar rang out through the town as every one of the people recognised a chance for the never-ending struggle to be drawn to an end.
“Good people of Horizon, go back to your work. I will return within the week with warriors, anyone that wants to join me is welcome to fight alongside us!”
The crowd started to dissipate as some moved back into the town whilst a substantial number of the Raiders and prisoners stayed, wanting to be part of Synne’s plan. She walked up to Thrax who was tending to a wound on his arm. Bara stood nearby along with Anna who was holding a bandage to her face. To their side, was the body of Ulric, he was already on a stretcher, and covered with a blanket. Synne knelt down next to him and wept. The group stayed silent, none of them sure what to do. After several minutes, she wiped her face and stood to face them.
“My brother, take him and those we rescued back to Haven. We need to get things back to normal as quickly as we can.”
She then turned to Thrax and looked at him for a moment.
“My Lord. What are your orders?” he asked seriously.
Synne said nothing for a moment as she looked at the numbers of volunteers swarming around her and considered what she was about to do. In her left hand, she still carried the two-handed sword that he had given her.
“We march, we march to war!” she cried.