image: National Post
Luke stood starring at a shrine of sorts along the right hand wall of the tavern. Seven Ralulee lances were on a rack below a painting of a young man who bore some resemblance to the landlord.
Below the portrait was a framed silver heart, a silver rose with a golden “V” at its centre, and a golden rose. A polished brass plaque bore the inscription, “Daniel Howard, Hero of the Flames.”
“That’s my brother,” Peter said sorrowfully, stepping from behind the bar.
“He held off the Ralulee advance,” Luke said in reverent awe. “Then you must be Peter. You’re a hero.”
“No lad, just a survivor,” the old man said gruffly.
“The lances are from the warriors you slew!” Luke observed in an admiring tone.
“Trophies of my shame, Boy. They remind me of my failings.”
“Why shame?” Uran asked courteously.
“Because I am here, and my little brother is not,” he said. “Now, about the biscuit,” he said stepping towards the shelves.
It was thirty-five years before and the troop of eleven men of the King’s Yeomanry had formed a piquet in the approach to an oasis. The kingdom men had enjoyed a series of victories from the mountain passes, and all away across the High Dunes. They now had halted to regroup and gather their strength. Many were astonished at how swiftly the Ralulee had abandoned the cool waters and withdrawn at their approach.
Suddenly shimmering lines of fire burst up through thin layers of sand as the long lengths of oil and bitumen soaked ropes were lit from the Ralulee lines to the south. Several kingdom soldiers just stared as the flames snaked across the sands towards them, uncertain as to what to make of them. Then with a tremendous burst of flame cisterns of bitumen disguised beneath the kingdom men’s positions burst into life. Many of the soldiers were killed in the initial blast and the rest ran about in disarray.
From the south massed phalanxes of Ralulee infantry began to move forwards. The men of the Yeomanry with the flames to their backs, and the approaching Ral before them formed a defensive line between two huge dunes which made a direct approach to the oasis’ flank.
The brothers, Peter and Daniel Howard emptied their quivers at the advancing Sultanate troops then drew their sabres to make their stand.
All around them their colleagues struggled for life. At least seventy Ralulee light infantry had entered the narrow pass and the yeomen gave their all to stop them.
Sergeant Wheeler was the first to fall, a lance in his side, though he managed to slay his own killer with a disembowelling stroke from his prone dying position.
The two Howard brothers rushed forwards to assist him, but being too late stood back to back to meet the onslaught.
Daniel who had already dropped three Ral with his bow, now thrust his shield under the lance of a tribesman and ducking under the staff buried his blade in his belly, then spinning to his right he made a backhanded stroke across the face of a second Ralulee warrior.
Peter presented his shield to an approaching warrior who embedded his lance into its wood and leather face. Releasing the shield, and diving to his left, Peter severed both knees of his opponent. The man fell and Peter gave him a killing blow through the kidneys.
Another Ralulee prepared to lunge at him from behind, but Trooper Blackwell gave the man a sword thrust across the back of his neck. The three yeomen now faced a ring of five Ral, and as one rushed towards Blackwell he was sliced across the back of his calves by Peter. Daniel grabbed the staggering man’s lance, and spun it round in time to arrest the approach of another Ral warrior with a thrust to the throat.
Peter parried a lance stroke and spun to attempt a reposte, but as he did the scimitar of a Ralulee officer sliced off the cavalryman’s ear. Peter continued his spin to come about an additional one hundred eighty decrees, passing up to stroke at the lance-man and burying his blade through the eye slot of the officer’s helm. The blade stuck fast and Peter wrestled the dying man’s scimitar from his grip and continued to fight.
By this time Daniel had recovered his own blade which he had dropped in order to grab the lance. He shifted to his left to face an oncoming warrior, but tripped over the fallen form of Blackwell who had suffered a lance thrust under the armpit which had just missed the protection of his breastplate.
A Ralulee whose lance had snapped giving a killing blow to Trooper Smyth pounced upon him with a drawn dagger. The blade pierced Daniel’s left shoulder, after severing the leather fastening strap. Daniel reached up and gouged at the eyes of the man with his thumbs, causing him to momentarily jump back. Howard taking advantage of the shift in the man’s weight wrenched the man’s own helmet from his head and proceeded to beat him across skull with it.
Peter at this time dove to his brother’s aid, and pulled the unconscious Ral from him. Just as he released the man a Ralulee lance thrust removed two fingers from his right hand. The pain was excruciating, and Peter became dizzy and passed out, just as the Ralulee trumpets sounded the retreat.
When Peter came to he was amid the bodies of nine of his fallen comrades. His brother had suffered severe blood loss from his shoulder wound, and could not move his left arm. Daniel’s breathing was shallow and erratic.
Lieutenant Hall knelt down before the dying Daniel and tried to stem the flow of blood, but it was too late. Daniel reached towards his brother and whispered, “We did well.”
Around them lay the bodies of twenty-four Ralulee. Peter and his lieutenant were the only survivors from among kingdom men. Daniel had killed seven of the tribesmen, and Peter five including their officer. Several other Ral had crept away from the battle site with wounds.
To their rear, King Hector had rallied his troops and seen off the frontal assault on the oasis, but the brave action of the Yeomanry piquets had stopped the oasis being flanked.
Both Howard brothers received the Golden Rose for bravery.
Peter had his brother’s decorations mounted and commissioned a portrait of his brother with the money he received for pawning his own golden medal.