I’m a great believer in trying to have plenty of ‘reality’ in Fantasy. Some of the underlying ideas are so inherently unbelievable that I feel a good dose of hard, detailed, reality is necessary to ensure the reader finds it easy to suspend their disbelief. It was Fritz Leiber who said “Fantasy must be fertilized—yes, watered and manured—from the real world”.
So how do I tackle this? Firstly combat is inherently dangerous. People are swinging sharpened steel bars about. If you get it only slightly wrong you could end up dead, or what is perhaps worse, maimed for life. So you aren’t going to take unnecessary risks.
But the definition of unnecessary might come up for sudden redefinition. An opening which allows you to get a killing blow in might well be risky, but is it more or less risky than playing it safe?
Finally the combatants are husbanding their reserves. They are high on adrenaline. They are under stress and they will get tired very quickly. Anyone who has taken part in ‘friendly’ martial arts sparring sessions will know how quickly you will become tired.
When it comes to the detail of the fight, I do try and play out the scene in my head, checking when the combatant will have his weight, how he will move and how his opponent will react.
Where I don’t dwell on the detail is in the result of the blows. I don’t go in for graphic wound descriptions. Or perhaps I ought to say, I don’t often go in for graphic would descriptions.
Why should I? It’s not cinema where the director has to arrange every detail. I’m projecting my story onto the imagination of the reader. Their imagination is more vivid, more colourful than anything I can write. If I go in for gratuitous detail, I’ll limit the reader’s imagination.
But, occasionally, just occasionally, I do allow a little detail to creep in. Because there isn’t a lot of gore, the little bit of gore I do use stands out and is more vivid. Also it acts as a benchmark against which the reader can calibrate their imagination.
The first example comes from ‘Swords for a Dead Lady.’
Benor came round the next corner and found himself looking down on the melee. It looked as if Yallou, Kirisch and Rothred had been hit from front and rear as they walked down the alley.
Kirisch was in the middle, leaning against the wall below him, obviously holding his left arm tightly against his left side, and with his right hand holding his sword in a guard position. Rothred was covering his right and
Yallou his left.
There were at least a dozen attackers but only two facing Rothred on the right; there were two bodies already sprawled there – Rothred had obviously been busy.
One of the attackers charged in at Rothred, sword raised to cut. Rothred stepped forward with his blade up to parry. Benor dropped his sword on the wall-walk and pulled at a loose coping stone. It came away from the wall and he dropped it on Rothred’s attacker.
It caught him on the shoulder, knocking him sideways. Rothred brought his sword down on the man’s neck and shoulder, dropping him in a spray of blood.
Benor threw the next coping stone at the last man to Rothred’s right, but he saw it coming and skipped sideways to avoid it – but at least this meant the three men were no longer surrounded. Benor dropped his sword over the wall, swung himself over and dropped next to Rothred. Rothred passed him the sword and they moved to form a line across the alley.
Benor saw three men move together to attack Yallou. He shouted a warning but was suddenly too busy parrying a series of blows from a fourth man who had attacked him. Kirisch saw an opening and slashed sideways with his sword cutting the man’s leg. As the man half turned to parry Kirisch, Benor stepped forward smashing the man in the face with the clenched fist of his sword hand, the man reeled back and Kirisch took him in the side, putting him down.
Benor stepped forward to cover Kirisch and support Yallou. Yallou stepped left into the foremost of his attackers, the middle one, sweeping his sword upwards, driving his attacker’s sword arm outwards, whilst using his left hand to drive his dagger into the man’s throat. Leaving his dagger in the collapsing corpse Yallou put his weight behind his sword, continuing the stroke but now angling it down, smashing down the guard of the next assailant. Stepping right he struck the man with his hip knocking him off balance and sprawling, whilst he brought his left hand to his sword hilt and with a double handed grip he scythed across to the third assailant, who – caught off guard and entangled in the body of his dead companion – tried to leap back, but the tip of the blade slashed his stomach open.
Recovering from the swing Yallou reversed his grip and stepped right again to strike the still unbalanced second man. At this moment his once shattered leg failed him and buckled. As he tried to recover, his opponent thrust out with a despairing blow which slid upwards under Yallou’s ribs and he dropped without a sound. Benor’s sword struck Yallou’s killer on the head, killing him instantly and Rothred stepped forward to cover his right hand side.
“Don’t anyone move.”
Benor stopped and looked. Kloft was standing in the Alley, at least a dozen watchmen with him, at least half of them Urlan and two with arrows already nocked in their bows. Kloft had no weapon drawn but stood with his thumbs hooked in his belt.
One of the rearmost attackers swung his sword. Whether he felt killing Kloft would break the watchmen, or whether he had some thoughts about holding him hostage no-one would ever know, the first arrow took him in the throat, the second in the chest.
“I said, don’t anyone move.”
Here is another example, it’s from ‘The Flames of the City’
Coming down the slope towards them were two Ranger scouts, riding for their lives. Cresting the ridge behind them was a black wedge of nomad cavalry. At the same time he heard Kloft shout, “Infantry, Halt!”
“Infantry, right face!”
Freelor tapped Karadan the Pimp on the shoulder.
“You stand at the back and kill anyone who turns to run; I’ll take your place in the front line.”
The Scar were nearer now, there was going to be no time for crossbow fire.
Freelor grasped his shield firmly.
“Front rank, brace yourselves; other ranks, close up!”
Freelor felt the shield of the man behind him firm in his back. From behind him he heard Bloggin Flor shouting to his crossbowmen to brace the spearmen. Freelor grinned mirthlessly to himself – whatever happened, none
of his Meor me were going to get a chance to run away.
An arrow thudded into his shield; he ducked his head down, so that only his eyes were over the shield rim. He wondered briefly if the nomads were going to hold off and pepper them with arrows, but instead the enemy horsemen came on, the front rank at least with lances lowered, and some of them on horses rather than ponies.
Freelor, his spear butt jammed into the ground, pointed his spearhead at the chest of the horse charging at him. At the last moment the horse tried to swerve right to avoid the spearhead, but Freelor brought the spearhead across to try and match the movement of the horse, and caught the animal in the shoulder. The horse’s momentum drove it onto the spear and it swerved even further right, crashing into the horse next to it. They both went down in a tangle of flailing legs and hooves. This tore the spear from Freelor’s grasp and he drew his sword. Another horseman had appeared in front of him, this one drove his lance at Freelor, who caught the point with his shield boss, and guided the lance past him to his left. The horseman pushed on, aiming to ride between Freelor and Griftok the Hookman on Freelor’s left. Griftok thrust his spear at the rider’s chest, the Scar warrior brought his shield across to block the blow, and then a spear from the man behind Freelor struck the horse below the eye, and continued onwards to leave a gash on the side of the horse’s neck. The horse reared back and Freelor stepped forward and stabbed the rider in the thigh. The horse as still trying to turn but came down on the two fallen horses to its right, lost its balance and threw its rider. From the second rank another spear stabbed out, hitting the horse again. It struggled to its feet and crashed into the horse of a rider trying to get through to strike the infantry. Freelor took the opportunity offered to pick up his spear again, Griftok speared the fallen rider and the two of them fell back a half step into the line.
Freelor took the chance to look round.
Where he stood, the charge had been halted. Dead or dying men and horses prevented the Scar getting to hand blows with them, but further to the right where Kloft was, things seemed to be going less well. There the line seemed to be buckling, and behind him Freelor could hear more shouts and screams – it sounded as if the infantry on the other side of the wagons had also been hit. He just hoped they would hold. An arrow ricocheted off his helmet; he ducked behind his shield again and shouted, “Keep them shields up!”
He risked a glance behind him, but could see nothing but the men of the next rank, one of whom grinned at him and gestured with his head to the left.
“There’s summat happening over there.”
Freelor nodded, feeling that as a sergeant he ought to know what was going on. He risked another look to the right, things seemed to be getting dangerous along there, but he could see little. Then further right still he could hear the sharp crack of scatterguns. Then to the left came a shout of “Infantry brace!” Freelor took up the cry, “Straighten this line out and brace yourselves!”
In front of him a second line of Scar were attacking. Where the ground was obstructed they merely halted on the other side of the obstruction and poured arrows into the infantry line as fast as they could. Where there were no obstructions they hurled their horses into the line. This time, with front rank spearmen wounded, more of the horsemen made contact. An arrow struck Freelor’s shield, penetrating it and grazing his arm.
Instinctively he glanced down to see what had hit him and his spearhead drifted left with the rest of his body. A nomad pony struck the side of his spear, forcing it further left and the rider struck down at him with a sword. Freelor tried to bring his shield up but it was too slow and he ducked, the sword striking the top of his helmet and shearing off the plume. Freelor dropped to his knees, stunned and the horse was past him. A second horse was bearing down on him and groggily he threw himself down and pulled his shield over him. The pony stood on the shield and Freelor stabbed upwards with his sword, hitting something, then the horse reared up and Freelor scrambled away keeping the shield between him and the enemy. He found a gap and stood up. In front of him was a Scar warrior trying to push through to join the melee. He swung at Freelor who raised his shield and blocked the blow, then thrust his sword into the man’s unguarded thigh. The Scar brought his sword down again, and this time Freelor ducked and brought the shield edge up to catch his opponent’s wrist. He continued to swing his shield, the edge driving the Scar warrior’s arm further to Freelor’s left and Freelor brought his sword up and stabbed the man in the stomach. The Scar collapsed forward and the pony, spotting a gap in the press of men and horses, surged into it, taking its dying master out of the combat. Freelor turned and saw Griftok beckoning to him. He stumbled back to the line and resumed his place. Griftok was trying to bind the wound of an infantryman Freelor knew but just couldn’t put a name to. The noise was now deafening, and Griftok pointed right. A line of Brontotheres, the sun glinting on their armour, crashed into the flank of the Scar. As he watched, the Scar horsemen, as they realised what was happening, turned their mounts round to flee. But securing the right flank of the Brontotheres were Ranger cavalry, and they were shooting into the panicking mass of Scar trying to escape the Brontotheres.
Freelor bent down to pick up a spear from off the floor. From behind him he heard a shout of `Crossbowmen to the front!’ and almost immediately the crossbowmen pushed between the files, spanning their crossbows as they came. Freelor turned to face his men.
“Let them through lads, we’ve had our fun, it’s their turn now.”
A water bottle appeared in front of him. Freelor reached for it and drank before passing it on to Griftok. Griftok took a mouthful and grinned.
“Thought we’d lost you back there.”
“I thought I’d lost me back there as well.”
Freelor looked back towards the Scar, but now all he could see was crossbowmen loading and firing as fast as they could. He heard Bloggin Flor shout, ordering them to cease fire, and Freelor pushed through their ranks to the front to see what was happening. The Scar were fleeing, and it was no longer possible to shoot them without hitting Rangers or Brontotheres. Gingerly, Freelor took off his helmet. Bloggin walked across to join him and they stood watching the pursuit. Freelor rearranged his helmet liner and put a scarf in as extra padding before putting his helmet back on again. “What happened behind us?”
Bloggin shrugged. “As far as I can tell, pretty much the same as happened to the front, but most of the Scar hit this side.”