One hundred and twenty, I thought. From the very first I had counted one hundred twenty breaths between the pulses of ancient energy. That was the number each artillery man and trencher lived by. And now, on the fifth day of the siege of Kasora, the Light of its towers would sweep across the slope for the four thousand and eightieth time. My stomach turned.
We charged the river. What happened to the valkyries I do not know. The world exploded in seas of icy spray as the feet and legs of the mastodons struck the water. Soon, we were swimming toward the cliff. The high keening sound became louder, overwhelming, then a thump as I looked up. I heard the smaller plashes of Jerem Cozak and other riders dismounting into the river.
There came a whooshing sound and the sky flashed with a film of gold for an instant, very near to my face it seemed. I tasted something sour. Then it was gone away and I knew it swept across the sloping field behind us. There were further shouts, then all fell silent. I turned, saw clouds of red mist to the left and right along the shore, and vomited into the river.
Jerem Cozak paddled up to the matriarch and remounted and we surged back toward the shore again. By the time we trotted unto solid ground, artillery orbs were bursting all around us.
“Back to the lines!” he roared over the din. “By squads! Evasive spread!”
Then the warlord surged ahead, and my mastodon and thirty others followed his winding course back toward the herd at three-quarters run. Artillery burst to our right and left, and I realized that he knew by the positions of the disks that had fired where the Augers would be aiming. And that the squad captains would know the same, because he had told them to note such positions before the battle even began.
We drew up behind the artillery lines just as the high keening sound began again. I dismounted and stood, dizzy and shaking as our mastodons resumed their places in the line of the herd. Jerem Cozak stayed mounted, watching toward the crossing with his oculars.