After Nuada’s return early the next morning, Sorbema stood with them outside the village watching the army go to battle.
The Vashad Thains led the way, with Nuada riding Pan at their head, their orange banner fluttering in the breeze. They moved as one, silent and purposeful, swords and shields glittering in the early morning sun. Behind them came the troop of black horses, lightly armour clad like their riders, spears resting along saddles. Dan sensed the horses’ excitement, barely contained by gentle prompts and soft reassuring words.
Next marched the foot soldiers – hundreds of tall red haired men and women. Some carried swords, and all had bows and arrows. They had two quivers, cross-slung over their shoulders, each full of orange and black-feathered arrows.
Dan gasped as he saw the final regiment of this impressive army. He couldn’t speak, and instead gripped Sara’s arm and pointed. A hundred elks, like giant moose, loped elegantly along, five abreast, their hooves raising soft clouds of dust from the trail. Each elk’s antlers formed a massive single sheet, up to four metres across, from which sprung a series of pointed horns. The spread of their antlers formed a solid wall across the track.
These magnificent animals were over three metres tall.
Astride them were warriors very different from the Danaans – small wiry men with curled dark hair, wizened features and bright piercing eyes. Their tiny bare-soled feet spurred the elks, but their arms were astonishing. Twice the length of their short legs, and thick with sinewy muscle, they curved and stretched around their mounts’ antlers, guiding and steering them. Long strong fingers gripped and interlaced their horns. All carried a huge bow with a small clutch of long curved arrows.
“I wouldn’t want to get in their way, that’s for sure!” Said Dan. He asked Sorbema about them.
“They are the Coegloamers, men born to ride the elks, raised from childhood to run with them, fight with them, and trained to scatter all before them in war.”
“They’re truly amazing. What an army! How will the Firbolgs cope with them?”
“We will watch and see”, said Sorbema.
Following the elks, pulled on wooden rollers by six strong men, came the Cauldron of Dagda, to feed the army. Sorbema and the children walked behind, past the field at Tara to a hill overlooking the battlefield – the plain of Moytura.
They looked in awe at the scene before them.
The Firbolgs were drawn up at the widest part of the plain. Their front line was almost two miles wide – thousands upon thousands of warriors, massed in line abreast, with leather shields, swords and spears at the ready. Dressed in fir skins, with gaudy painted faces and bodies, they presented a staggering sight.
Behind the front line, they were at least twenty men deep, a solid army of over fifty thousand.
Sara was pale as she watched the Danaans line up: “Dan, they’re completely outnumbered. They’ll have no chance against them. Just look at their force – and listen!”
They heard the Firbolgs chant their war cry: “Re! Re! Re! Re! Re! Re!”
Their throaty roar washed over them, and Dan shivered. He took in the rest of the scene. Behind the Firbolgs the ground was stony and deeply ridged, and to their left was a winding river, fast flowing and rock strewn. In a line stretching up their right was a row of part ruined towers, behind which sheltered a small group of archers.
Dan frowned, and nudged Sara. “Look! It can’t be, but it’s the Mistlees Clock Tower”.
“What? So it is – but there’s no clock!”
The tower stood proudly, tallest in the line, its stonework undamaged, its shape perfectly silhouetted in the sun, which broke through the grey clouds above the battlefield.
Sorbema said, “Nuada has a plan which will win the day. The Firbolgs are lined up to defend. They know we will attack, and in their strategy lies defeat”.
“But you can’t possibly beat them!” Said Dan, “They’ve got fifty times your number, and they’ve got a really strong position. Look – they’ve got the river over there to stop you outflanking them, and the towers are a pretty solid defence on the other side. You can’t go around them, so you’ll have to attack from the front, and there’s far too many of them!”
Sorbema smiled faintly as Nuada walked Pan along the front of his army. He spoke fast and urgently to the Vashad Thains, and to the archers behind them.
“Re! Re! Re!” Roared the Firbolgs, spears now thumping the earth in a fast paced rhythm.
The Danaans were completely still and quiet in the calm before the storm.
Nuada raised his spear hand, and the Vashad Thains trotted line abreast towards the centre of the enemy line, followed by the horse troops.
As they drew closer, the front line of the Firbolgs knelt, shields up, with their spears angled to stop the advance. A hail of arrows was released from the ranks behind.
Suddenly, the Vashad Thains broke to the right, and as they did so, the black horses overtook them at the gallop, all heading directly for the troops gathered at the riverbank.
The main body of the Danaans behind, stopped, formed two lines, and as one, let loose a flight of arrows at the Firbolgs’ centre.
Confused by the Vashad Thains’ sudden switch of direction, the defending troops in the centre of the line tried to follow their charge, but were hemmed in by the huge press of their own men. Chaos reigned, and the first hail of arrows struck this tangled mess of men. Flight after flight followed at amazing speed from the Danaan archers.
The black horses charged full tilt towards the riverbank defenders. The whole of the Firbolgs’ line started to dissolve as the men in the centre tried to push towards the Danaans, but there were simply too many warriors blocking the way, all trying to move to the river. Shouts of command from the Firbolgs’ leaders went unanswered.
In the meantime, the Danaan archers continued their flow of arrows directed at the logjam of struggling Firbolgs. Hundreds of men had been hit and their bodies made the confusion in the centre of the defence even worse.
At a signal from the leader of the Danaan archers, they split quickly to left and right, now forming two columns instead of two lines. They began to fire their arrows at the ranks of men to left and right of the chaotic centre of the battlefield.
As they did so, Dan and Sara heard a blood curdling battle cry, and through the centre of the Danaan archers swept the elks, now in one long sweeping line, galloping at full speed, forming a solid line of impenetrable horns. The Coegloamers shrieked their war cry, and let loose their terrible curved arrows. As they left their bows, they straightened and seemed to lengthen, glittering in the light of the sun. The first flight went high in the air, hovered above the ranks of the Firbolgs, and swooped down like angry wasps to strike the rear line of defence. Distracted by the cries of the men hit, those directly in front turned to see what attack they were under, and the thundering herd hit the centre of the enemy ranks, splitting them completely and causing the whole length of the front line to buckle and collapse in chaos. At the same time, the black horses, formed now into an attacking wedge, struck the Firbolgs’ flank, sweeping men aside left and right, pressing the crush of defenders back towards the river.
The Vashad Thains followed this furious onslaught, Nuada leading. The children saw his magnificent tall figure, emerald green cloak flying behind him, spear poised to throw in his left hand, sword raised in his silver handed right.
He hurled his spear deep into enemy ranks, and it struck three men in its one travel. Magically, it flew back into his hand, and he threw again. The enemy around him were beginning to scream, and try to escape, but were pushed back by those at the riverbank trying to avoid being flung into the water. Nuada seemed to be in the air, above his horse, his legs bent under him, turning round and round amid a hail of sword blows aimed at him.
He thrust at lightning speed, time and time again, his silver hand glistening.
His sword arm moved so fast, it seemed like ten, each blow and thrust telescoping into the next, his speed incredible, and his force irresistible.
The Vashad Thains swiftly followed his crushing advance. Every move they made was perfect, coordinated and graceful, as they fought their way through the enemy ranks. Hundreds of men were pushed or jumped into the river as the unstoppable force of the horses and the Vashad Thains swept all before them.
They fought their way along the riverbank, crowded with thousands of Firbolgs, but just as Dan and Sara thought there was no way they could continue to advance, the sky above changed.
As the elks swept through to the rear of the enemy lines; as the horse troops and the Vashad Thains pushed deeper into the Firbolgs’ flank; and as the Danaan archers reformed into two lines and charged; the sky began to boil.
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