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Grimdark Magazine Battle-Off: A Spell of Swords by Robert Ryan

A Spell of Swords by Robert Ryan

This is an excerpt provided by the author for the Grimdark Magazine Battle-Off Competition

The remembered death rattle of a thousand throats rang in Brand's ears.

He shivered despite the hot sunlight and tried to shake off the soul-sapping fatigue of battle. The enemy, repelled many times during the morning, regrouped for yet another attack. He closed his eyes, but that only sharpened his recollection of the crash of sword on helm, the shouting of doomed soldiers, the cries of hatred and screams of pain, the begging for help while men writhed on the blood-streaked grass or sat wide-eyed and unnaturally still, their spilled bowels cradled in pale hands. He forced his eyes open.

King Gilhain commanded the army from the crest of a rise. His silver helm, burnished to a faultless gleam, sparked like leaping fire. The royal banner fluttered at the touch of an intermittent breeze, and his personal guard of thirty men, the famed Durlin, ringed him. Their chainmail glittered and the white surcoats they wore with legendary pride blazed under the noontide sun. It was not Brand’s first battle though, and neither the sight of his much-loved king, nor the renowned guard, stirred him. He looked away. The actions of the humble are more impressive than the show of the illustrious.

Just as it had all morning, the unnerving chant of the enemy swelled through the air.

Ashrak ghùl skar! Skee ghùl ashrak!
Skee ghùl ashrak! Ashrak ghùl skar!

He knew what it meant. So did all the citizens of Cardoroth City. Everyone learned those words in childhood – and feared them. They formed the battle cry of the elug nation.

Death and destruction! Blood and death!
Blood and death! Death and destruction!


Brand’s gaze drifted to Arawdan, the Durlindrath who led the Durlin. In that group of thirty men, the pride of the whole country was embodied. Each had sworn an unbreakable oath to protect the king. He was a brilliant strategist, and except for him, the enemy would long ago have plundered Cardoroth. The Durlin had defied sword, knife and assassin’s poison to keep the king alive. While he survived, Cardoroth endured. And that made him the target of innumerable attacks. It was only a matter of time before one of them was successful, but that never stopped the Durlin, and Brand knew it would never stop him, either.

A redheaded youth next to Brand followed his gaze.

“Is it true that Arawdan is covered in scars?”

Brand thought about it.

“He’s got his fair share. I was there when he collected the last. He took an arrow in the back that was intended for the king.”

The youth looked suitably impressed, though Brand doubted he had enough experience to appreciate the situation. Talk was easy, but few had the willpower and steadiness of mind to guard the king for weeks, months and years, wondering all the while when an attack would come. It was no way to live, yet Arawdan somehow stayed affable.

The youth gestured at the elugs with a freckled hand. “What’s going to happen next?”

Brand looked over the trampled grass, beyond the grotesque bodies of the slain, to the enemy.

“Keep your eyes on the shazrahad,” he said. “He’s the key to all that they do.”

The enemy commander signaled another attack while they watched. A line of soldiers trotted forward, and Brand felt the cold grip of fear in his chest, but ignored it. He was used to fighting. He would survive, or he would not, as fate and the skill of his sword arm dictated. What alarmed him was the sorcerer who stood by the shazrahad, the enemy commander. Why hasn’t he taken part in the battle?

The deep-throated war drums of the elugs voiced a faster beat and the elugs surged.

All around him, Brand noticed his men shuffle nervously and he spoke to calm them.

“Here they come, lads. Shall we give them another warm welcome?”

Talnar one-eyed, a veteran of many battles, thrust out a scarred arm and wriggled his sword.

“Aye! With cold steel in their bellies!”

Other men offered different suggestions, each more descriptive than the last, and Brand laughed. Battlefield humor had a charm of its own. It was also a tool that he used as a captain: the less a soldier’s tension, the better he fought.

The enemy line, a seething mass of warriors, approached. The shazrahad imposed scant order, but ferocity partially offset the lack of discipline.

Brand did not look at the faces of the enemy. Nor did he give a moment’s attention to their raucous battle taunts. Both were ways to lose nerve and become intimidated. Still, sweat moistened his palms, and he gripped sword and shield tightly. The war drums beat frenetically and the elugs charged.

“Steady, lads,” he said.

He waited for the right moment, as did all the captains along the line, and then gave three short blows of his whistle. He knelt like all the men while white-fletched arrows, shot from behind them, hissed overhead. Some of the enemy fell to the ground, killed outright or wounded, but their brethren charged onwards.

Again the archers shot, and this time the oncoming hoard faltered. But they did not stop. One last volley of graceful death curved through the air and then Brand gave two sharp blows of his whistle.

The men stood. Brand glanced along the line and saw that everyone had responded quickly. Their shields, now interlocked, formed a wall. Their sword arms remained free to stab.

The elugs hit them in a violent mass of screams and howls. The air turned into a crimson mist while blood sprayed and spurted. The stench of opened bowels, urine and fear filled Brand’s nostrils. Yet the shield-wall held and the enemy spent themselves against it. They eventually receded like an outgoing tide, leaving the detritus of war behind: discarded weapons, broken shields, the dead and the soon-to-be-dead.

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