Battle of the Three Armies
Never was done unto man as man has done unto himself
Silence had never been a stranger in the great plains west of the marshlands. Yet, there was no denying that the eerie calm which right now held sway was of a different breed. This was the calm before a storm. The brief moment before the pounce, when the hunted is just as aware of its plight as the hunter.
And it did not go unnoticed by the 40 thousand men positioned on opposite sides of a flat stretch of land, so vast that even the strongest bowmen among them were, for now, rendered obsolete. A swift, shallow stream ran through it, its water glittering enticingly in the dry air.
The high noon sun glinted off helmets and spear tips, their bearers beginning to wonder whether it will be by the cold edge of a blade or the sweltering heat that they will meet their demise this day.
It had been many hours since they had formed ranks and the sight of the men facing them had grown so familiar they might as well have been part of the landscape.
Apprehension gnawed at man and beast alike, but neither brought forth a sound. It’s one thing knowing full well your unmaking may be looking you right in the eyes, so close you can feel its breath. Another, for it to taunt you with anticipation that the desire for it to simply get it over with becomes your own.
The phony peace was not to last, however, as the order for the men to make ready made its way through the ranks. It was a state between relief and familiar terror in which the men found themselves in as they began marching north towards the ever-playful stream and beyond, the enemy’s forces.
Being finally spurred into action was no great solace to them, yet certainly more welcome than further drawing out the inevitable.
Yet, as they advanced, horsemen began having trouble with their mounts. Where but an instant past they were still as stone, now they were becoming hard to master, neighing in protest as their dumbfounded riders struggled to bring them to heel; these were horses bred and trained for war and many of them had already borne their owners through bloody battles.
Their confusion was cut short, though, by the sudden blaring of a horn. An ambush!? Had the enemy managed to flank them without their outposts noticing? No, the horn was indeed foreign, but it came from the enemy’s position to the north. Also, this much was clear: it was no signal to attack. Rather, a sighting of hostile forces!
Soldiers and generals alike looked at one another in bafflement. There were no reinforcements they knew of that could have surprised the enemy. And if they had secret allies, why not send a messenger to make them aware of their intentions.
But they did not need to wait long to have their questions answered, for the ground began to tremble beneath their feet.
In the distance, just off the enemy’s right flank, which appeared to collapse in an attempt by its infantry to flee towards the center, an impenetrable cloud of dust traveling at great speed rose above the horizon.
Barring a highly unlikely sandstorm, it was clear to all that only cavalry could put on such a formidable display — and one of significant number at that.
What made little sense was that the newcomers were not charging at the enemy. Instead, they were hurtling past them and towards the southern army.
And yet, to be so far off from their target still and already at full gallop? The sheer madness of it, let alone the fact that they showed no signs of fatigue, was enough to make the sturdiest hearts sink.
Nevertheless, this was no ally, that much was certain now. “Spears!” bellowed a voice, and the command was relayed down the line. Spearmen made their way to the front, bringing their weapons down fiercely in a defensive stance and bracing for the oncoming wave.
In such perfect unison they moved, that it seemed as though they were but limbs executing the will of one mind. Had it not been for years of rigorous training, their instincts to flee would have overridden any notion of discipline.
The rumble of beating hooves was deafening now and slowly shapes were becoming discernable in the dusty murk. These horses were much bulkier and of shorter stature than any they’d ever seen.
Only the stream stood now between them and the impending onslaught. All they could do was stand their ground and pray they were not booked passage to the afterlife.
Archers had been given orders to fire volleys as soon as the signal was given. It wouldn’t be long now. In a few moments, the avalanche of riders would be past the stream and within bow range. They stood many rows deep with arrows knocked and bows drawn, their steady hands lending courage to their less steady hearts.
The tension in their bowstrings almost matching that in the still air. Any moment now, they would oblige those eager strings and shower the parched country with a thousand arrows.
The fearsome shapes were becoming clearer by the second. They were strong, broad-shouldered beasts propelled by short, stout limbs. Their strangely heavy, almost lumbering gait did nothing to impede their terrible speed.
Swarthy manes enveloped their muscular torsos and covered their heads, which were crowned with what seemed like horns; an adornment, no doubt, fashioned by their riders to strike the very fear into the hearts of men that threatened to cripple the defenders even now.
Yet, those riders were nowhere to be seen. The shroud retreated further and suddenly it was as if a shroud had been lifted from their own minds.
By no man’s hand were the horns on those great, stooped heads placed, and no horse ever walked the earth on legs so short. Just as it dawned on them that this fast-approaching army was like none other they’d ever fought, a rider boomed, “Stampede!”
As he did so, the ungulates crossed the stream, but instead of advancing farther, they slowed their pace, before eventually the leading rows came to a halt and turned around towards the inviting water.
It was a sight to behold. Stretching from east to west on both shores of the stream these magnificent creatures stood, heads bent low to quench their thirst.
So stunned were the soldiers that archers had not relaxed their bows one inch nor spearmen their grip on their spears. All watched in speechless relief as calves, having had their fill of the sweet water, now splashed around playfully, running back to their mothers as if to share their excitement before hurrying back to the beckoning stream.
How many miles had separated them from this haven and how many of them had lost their lives before ever laying eyes on it?
All the while, the imposing bulls eyed the stupefied soldiers suspiciously, daring them to interrupt their well-earned feast.
The animals had no cause for worry, however, for it appeared that both armies were coming to the realization that, on this day, the field belonged to a victor altogether unexpected, equal parts unaware of and unconcerned with the petty quarrels of men. For once, it seemed that sweat would have to suffice for blood.
But the grizzled among them who’d seen their fair share of battle rejoiced little. For they knew all too well that tomorrow was never any less suited for it to be shed than today.
Originally published on Medium.com | Artwork by Birmingham Museums Trust on Unsplash