Chlodebaud and Etheldrood came from one direction, their armor covered in blood, and they laughed and slapped each other on the back like the best of friends. Merovech and Childeric came from the other direction looking more somber, Adalbert trailing behind. They were not nearly as bloody, though no one would doubt they had been in battle. Gregor, who surprisingly stayed with Festuscato in the tent, sipped his drink and spoke softly.
“I think I finally understand what you say. Sometimes men have to fight, but peace is always better.”
“We pray for peace,” Bran said, and they went back inside the tent.
Merovech arrived first. Childeric had a sword in his fifteen-year-old hand, and he looked down at the sword while Merovech spoke.
“You must thank Strongarm for me when you see him. He and his dragon men got Childeric and myself out of a pretty jam.”
“I will say something,” Festuscato said, and thought that Strongarm and his people were supposed to guide the Franks to the right position, but they were not supposed to participate in the battle.
“Sun will be up soon,” Adalbert said as he entered the tent.
All that while, something itched at the back of Festuscato’s head. It would be impossible to say whether Festuscato, Aetius or Attila thought of it first. Perhaps they thought of it all at the same time. A small ridge angled across the open field Attila had selected to bring battle to his enemies. It rose slowly from north to south to somewhere near the north-middle of the field and petered out quickly in the south after the high point. No telling what happened with Aetius or Attila, though rumor has it, Attila whipped himself several times for his stupidity. Festuscato merely shouted.
From there, they could observe the whole of the battle and bring men down on the enemy, or at least force the enemy to fight uphill. “Marcellus, get the men moving, now! Get them moving ten minutes ago. Dibs, mount up!” He turned his head back into the tent and spoke calmly. “Merovech, get together with Aegidius to set the troops on this end of the field. You need to hold the north flank of the battle, though after last night I doubt the Gepids and their Germans are in any position to be trying anything.” He smiled for Childeric and shouted again. “Bran, Gregor, you coming?”
“Wouldn’t miss it,” Gregor said. Bran just came.
Festuscato heard the thunder of his hundred and thirty men all decked out in their dragon tunics. They saw few enemies in the dawn, even when they cut the corner of the field and probably strayed through enemy territory. No Huns made a move to stop the dragon men, but then maybe they did not need to. The Huns were closer, and Attila sent two thousand men under his son, Dengizic to take the ridge top. Aetius had the auxiliary cavalry troop he brought up from Italy also riding as hard as they could from the other side, but they were furthest away.
Dengizic and his men arrived at the base of the ridge and looked up, not far to the top. But there they stalled. Two men stood on the height, and when the light stopped buzzing around, it became a third man, if they were indeed men. The short one that stood in chain mail to the ground and the dragon tunic had a face that was all beard. He also cradled a wicked looking ax in his arms. The tall one, also in a dragon tunic, had a bow already strung and ready. The third one, who might have been an ordinary man in a dragon tunic if it had not been a flashing light moments earlier, had a sword and shield, and showed the dragon also on the shield. Behind them, at the very top of the ridge, waved the banner of the dragon, and too many Huns were not going up there.
Dengizic had been there when the messenger came and brought his father the ring of the dragon. He had been there when they first encountered the dragon north of the alps, all those years ago. He ran in that first encounter and thought now that he had been wise. He heard all about how the dragon threw Megla and his entire Hun army out of Britain and declared Britain off limits, and even if the story got exaggerated over the years, the story did not sit well in the Hun psyche. Then the dragon sent a message and another ring to Attila before they reached Orleans. He never saw his father rage so much, and he had seen some great moments. In fact, if he did not know better, he might have imagined his father was afraid.
“Lord,” the Hun captain sought his attention. “Lord, too many of the men are refusing to go up there. If the dragon has taken the high point, they say the high point is lost to us.”
Dengizic said nothing. He growled and turned his horse away from the ridge and his two thousand men followed.
Festuscato brought his men to the ridge line and rode them along the top. Aegidius had his legions already digging into the ridge, small as it was on the north side. Festuscato thought when they reached their destination, he would send back a man to put the Roman cavalry on short notice. He imagined several scenarios when he might need several thousand horses to back him up. Then he thought, of course Aegidius did not think to secure the top of the ridge. Lord knows, he probably did not want to spread his men too thin.
Once at the top, they found Luckless lounging with Strongarm and Birch around a fire, sipping some thick dwarf grog. He told the men to be prepared for Huns to try to take the position, but Luckless said, “Too late. About two thousand or so already made the attempt, but they turned around when they saw our dragon banner. How do you like it? Strongarm’s wife made it.”
Festuscato looked and nodded.
“For the record,” Birch spoke up. “It was Luckless who thought to take the high point. He says hanging out with you has made him think of things he never thought about before. Hogtick has his thousand dug in behind us here. They are mostly going underground. Strongarm has as many elves in the woods that start just on the other side, on the down slope. My men are…around.”
“So Merovech says thanks,” Festuscato turned to Strongarm. “Remind me later to yell at you since you were not supposed to take part in the battle.” He pulled up a seat by the fire as Strongarm opened a keg of elf amber ale that Gregor and Dibs loved. Gregor said he tried the dwarf grog more than once, but it made him burp too much. Marcellus and Bran preferred Birch’s fairy wine. Festuscato stuck with water for a while.
The men, taking their cue from the command staff, tied off their horses, set up a bunch of tents against the overcast and started any number of their own fires. That became the condition General Aetius found them in when he and his four hundred arrived. Festuscato stood and made sure the Roman troops had a clear lane, where the four hundred could pass through and reach the north side of the ridge, because there really was not enough room at the top for so many men and horses, even if the dwarfs stayed underground and the elves stayed on the back side, and the fairies did not take up much room.
“You are passing them through?” Aetius asked. Flavius Aetius, the commander in chief of all the Roman armies in the Western Empire, had become like Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. He answered only to the Emperor Valentinian, as did Festuscato.
“I figure now that you know the height is secure, you are going to want to see how Aegidius is deploying his legions, and maybe pay a diplomatic visit to the Franks and Saxons. We had a battle last night.”
“Oh?” This came as news, and after he waved his men to pass through the camp two by two, he sat down to hear all about it. Strongarm did most of the telling, being there, though Festuscato noticed Birch filed in some gaps. Aetius, meanwhile, caught sight of Strongarm’s pointed ears and finally turned to Festuscato with a comment.
“You were telling the truth about your governess, weren’t you?”
“A house elf, as God is my witness. Now Queen of the Geats and happily married.”
“A much longer story which I will be glad to share some time if you ever come to visit.”
Festuscato nodded and looked at his water. “After we kick Attila’s butt, I plan to go home. I haven’t had a good orange in forever.”
Aetius stood. Men were waiting with his horse. “I am glad you have confidence in our chances.”
“I do, but come to think of it, be careful with the Franks. Merovech and his brothers might not be happy with you considering you, or your men, killed Clodio, their father.”
Aetius stopped. “I’ll keep that in mind.” And he left.