Chapter 1: Ominous Rumblings
It all began just two afternoons ago. The dream was the same, almost as if a machine was repeatedly playing it day after day. And this was the third day. And again the dream came. Again, the man dressed in the purest of whites stood in front of him. Prothal was in a place of the brightest of lights. He was standing on…nothing. All about him stretched forth a vast expanse of nothingness, all brighter than the sun.
The man bowed to him, and spoke, “Greetings, oh appointed one of the One-Who-Cannot-Be-Named!” He looked up – his eight-foot stature looming over Prothal. He looked serious as he continued, “I have seen great terrors and great evil coming from the north, my brother – look yonder!”
It seemed like the place about him was transformed into a different land. It was ominous and dark. Lightning flashed across the sky at regular intervals, and the landscape was parched and rocky, seemingly devoid of life. Then he heard rumblings. Rumblings as of an earthquake, of a powerful force that shook it apart – except the earth was not moving.
Then he saw them. The clouds of dust appeared first on the horizon. Dimly, from the within the clouds came thousands upon thousands of creatures. Orcs, goblins, and all manner of fantastic beasts Prothal had never seen in his life. They were charging with the madness of one possessed by evil.
“Worst is to come, brother – behold the skies!” The man pointed to the sky. The creatures that flew seemed to blot out the sun completely, so great were their number. Dragons, all manner of dragons, gargoyles, and many more unrecognisable beasts. Fear came over Prothal as they swooped past him. Turning to see where they went, he recognised the body of water. The Great Lake.
But surely, they have to stop at the water! But they did not stop – they simply walked on top of the waters and moved on towards Frelandia! Prothal was aware of spells of water-walking, but the sheer number of priests of such power needed to cast enough of that spell on the unnumbered horde would be too much to even imagine!
Then he saw something that made him wanted to weep. Destruction, destruction, everywhere. Villages burning, the lands defiled, the churches desecrated – all these he saw. Bodies lay one upon another, as the crows and ravens picked over choice morsels – such were the amount given them to pick. He saw children being made slaves, to perform all sorts of horrible things. And the women – he could not bear to look at the atrocities being performed on them.
At that point, as he would the other two afternoons, he would wake up inside his tent. Something was wrong there. He could just feel it in his heart. Could it be that the Eternal One was showing him something? Who was the man? Why did the man call him the ‘Appointed One’? Many questions burnt in his heart, but his prayers yielded nothing. Would his friends need to know? Would they laugh at him – especially knowing the worldly attitudes of Ky’Thand and Hannibal’s friend Xavier? Or maybe it just might be better to keep these visions a secret until he found out more?
Rain was something very bad for morale. It turned the ground muddy, and limited visibility. Worse of all was the constant pelting of raindrops upon the face and body. It could make anybody feel terribly lonely, even with his comrades huddled next to him.
From the watchtower at Nomad’s Crossing, the two friends looked across the vast expanses of the Great Lake. “Well Hannibal nice weather you called up, no invading army worth their dry boots would wander around in that muck outside. I think some warm mead and a look at that map of yours, is a good thing to do with such inclement weather.” Ky’Thand looked to see what Hannibal was doing.
Although it was late summer, the reduced visibility had increased the tension in the camp. Already, Lieutenant Taro had to discipline three of his men, caught fighting. He turned, with a wearied look, and acknowledged the entry of Prothal into the tower with a salute. Although technically having no rank, Prothal was given the greatest respect by the soldiers. Prothal had to attend to some soldiers who had suffered some injuries during their practice. Even now, Prothal felt uneasy over the increased tension in the camp.
Besides Lt Taro, Remora was in the tower too. A cleric of Mystari serving in the army for six years, she was the only member in the SAS Battlefield Resources, before Prothal had come in. Ky’Thand and Hannibal had rubbed shoulders with her before, and knew her to be a proud person, eager to prove herself to Hannibal. And even at thirty, she still looked beautiful and charming.
Her plate mail armour clinked as she turned to look towards the Great Lake, without even a word of greetings to Prothal. Covering the armour was the robes all the priests of Mystari wear – with the emblem of the open book on the front. Her Holy Symbol dangled prominently, resting in between her breasts. She patted her mace absent-mindedly as she peered through the misty skies. Resting in one corner was her shield.
“Well, Hannibal…” Xavier spoke up as Prothal walked in. Ky’Thand could not help but notice Lt Taro frown as Xavier called Hannibal by name. Even until this day, Lt Taro had always ticked Xavier off for not calling an officer by rank, but he did it anyway – perhaps just to spite him.
Xavier grinned as he noticed Lt Taro’s reactions, and he continued, “I am getting a little bored cooped up here. I think I will get some of my guys and look around the place. Better than being here looking at the rain! See you later Hannibal!” Without waiting for an answer, he began walking towards the spiral staircase leading to the three floors below.
Feeling the tension within the watchtower, Prothal cringed at the bristling reactions from his companions. It could have been the sarcasm emphasised in Xavier’s communication with Hannibal, as Lt. Taro listened with disgust or it could have been Remora. Her lack of acknowledgement to his mere presence only furthered his suspicions of her jealousy to his presence. A knife could cut the tension of the camp and if his visions were reliable, they were soon to get much worse.
As Xavier prepared to leave the tower, Hannibal turned with a small smile at the man’s back and a shake of his head. When Xavier’s foot hit the first step, Hannibal spoke in the voice of command. “Xavier my friend, don’t ‘find’ anything on the Frelandia side of town. With this weather, your guys could look around across the river. See if you can find something to amuse the troops that won’t land me in the stockade.”
Xavier turned about, gave a mock salute, and said, “Aye, sir!” He smiled and continued down the stairs.
Hannibal turned back to looking into the rain-swept mists adjusting his green beret and felt cloak. He wasn’t wearing armour, but was in a work outfit of leather pants and vest over a comfortable homespun shirt. With his hand on a military issue long sword, and a very non-standard sword pommel sticking up over one shoulder, Hannibal was definitely armed for trouble if it should find him. However, morale seemed to improve when the troops see their commander’s confidence in their ability to protect him so, except for a shield Hannibal had stayed out of armour during the rains.
“Lieutenant Taro,” Hannibal spoke to his second in command and probable successor, “The men are edgy and this damned rain makes our lookouts less than useful. Step up the foot patrols and get our horses patrolling closer to the lake. The rain will wash out any signs of movement through the woods so our best chance will be to spot them coming ashore.”
Prothal’s arrival caused Hannibal to cut short his orders to Taro, but all pertinent information had already been passed on. Lt Taro also knew when he was not wanted. He gave a smart salute and turned to go down the stairs. He paused for a while and turned about, saying, “Sir, Lt Taro thinks it best for you to wear some armour. We do not have much time to react in the case of the attack – our searchlights can’t see much in this rain!” He saluted again, and turned to continue downstairs.
Extending a hand to the priest, the two men’s blades pulsed their own greeting or challenge, something neither had yet to figure out. “Friend, Glad you could come. The men are always heartened when those of the faith are with us. What brings you to this far corner of our empire?”
Moving closer to Hannibal and Ky’Thand, Prothal spoke in a hushed tone to both, “We need to speak in private. I have information that could be VERY important.”
Hannibal’s eyes narrowed in calculation at Prothal’s greeting, a decision was made with a slight nod to Prothal.
“Come Prothal, Ky’thand and I were just admiring the weather!” Hannibal exclaimed while rainwater dripped off his cap and cloak, “We need towers like this all along the perimeter, though this weather still means we need patrols.
“Well, we’re not seeing anything out here. Come to my quarters downstairs and we can talk where it is dry!”
As the trio moved downstairs, Hannibal turned to Remora, “Priestess, thank you for your company. When you leave please summon the standard watch. We can talk later at night watch.” Hannibal smiled as the ritual the two had gone through for years continued. Hannibal flirted and they had spent time in semi-public places, but there it had always ended. Except this time she did not respond with her customary return smile, but continued to gaze towards the waters.
As the men entered Hannibal’s office, he shook the water off cloak and beret and casually flipped them both onto hooks set into the walls, placing his two swords on a sword rack between a polished suit of plate and a duller but serviceable suit of chain mail.
Knickknacks and battlefield mementoes were displayed here and there in no particular order. Besides these, scrolls and parchments were stuffed into box shaped shelves, and a full backpack sat behind the door. The general chaos of the room ended at Hannibal’s desk, however. This massive 6×3-foot desk was completely bare save for an oil lamp, ink, and quill.
Tapping a large rolled-up vellum map of the region in his hand Hannibal spoke to his good friends, “I need to speak with Ky’thand about his ideas for shoring up our defences, but it can wait. Prothal what news causes even YOU to act so secretive?”
As the men looked around they noticed the office had no chairs, just fairly uncomfortable campaign stools. Hannibal liked his meetings short (though they both knew there was a more comfortable private office behind this one) so no one, not even himself, had a comfortable seat.
Tossing the map onto his desk, Hannibal waited for Prothal’s explanation.
Looking to Ky’Thand and Hannibal each in turn, with a wrinkle of concern in his brow Prothal began to speak, “First I must apologise for this secrecy, but I think this information is best shared in private and kept so. The men are already on the edge and we would not want to cause unnecessary panic.” He paused to gather his thoughts before continuing, choosing his words carefully.
“I fear a great evil will soon be descending upon us all…” His two friends noticed an uncharacteristic tone of trepidation within his voice, “Over the past several days I have been experiencing the same reoccurring vision, and it disturbs me so.” Shifting in his armour Prothal stared at the floor, it seemed obvious that he was having some sort of internal struggle. “I have received visions in the past, they have helped shape my faith and focus my resolve. Except none before, have been quite like these.”
“Each time it is the same. It always begins with me floating up in the heavens within the brightest light I have ever seen. I was looking down at the northern reaches of the Great Lake, the unimaginable scene sprawling before my eyes.
“A vast horde of evil was descending from the Darklands. Their numbers were staggering, as they flowed like thick blood over the lands as far as the eye could see. Vast numbers of Orcs, Goblins and vile beasts of every description, all ready to spill blood. Many of the creatures were so horrid that they defy even the most basic descriptions. When the sordid creatures reached the shores of the Great Lake, they continued across without hesitation. They were all walking on the water as if it were a solid piece of ice but it was NOT even winter!”
Stopping his description briefly, he judged the expressions of his friends as he removed a stunning silver amulet of the Eternal One from under his purple surcoat. He gripped its soothing shape firmly in his left hand and mumbled a silent prayer to His Grace.
“The mystical powers that would be required to achieve such a feat are beyond comprehension.” He continued.
“In shock, I¹m directed to look up into the sky and I become even more horrified with what I see. I¹m now floating in the middle of MANY flights of huge dragons of all sorts, gargoyles and many other unfamiliar flying creatures, all thundering by me. Just like the hoard on the ground, there also were too many to count and they could be seen approaching far into the northern horizon.” With a small quiver in his voice, “One has not felt true terror, until one witnessed such a sight.”
“Then I saw something that made me want to weep. Destruction, destruction, everywhere. Villages burning, the lands defiled, the churches desecrated. Bodies lay one upon another, as the crows and ravens picked over choice morsels. Children were being made into slaves, to perform all sorts of horrible things. And the women – I could not bear to look at the atrocities being performed on them.”
Silence filled the room for several moments as the details began to sink in. Releasing the amulet from his clenched fist, he felt subtle pain as the blood began flowing back into his fingers. Prothal kissed its cool surface lightly and carefully tucked it back under his surcoat.
Ky’Thand broke the moment, “Well Prothal, that was a pretty scary vision you had, explains the slightly red eyes. So before I ask a really dumb question like have you been sniffing the wrong type of incense – did your god show anything good, or positive which we may use in the defence against such large odds?”
Hannibal listened grimly to the priest’s vision. Thinking of Taro’s comment Hannibal moved to his plate mail and put it on while Prothal was relating the story.
When Prothal had finished, Hannibal moved to his desk. “Friend, this is dire news indeed. Did your vision give any sense of the time or location of this attack? Can you remember the angle of the sun, or the sensation of time passing? I know it is hard to recall but your God is giving us at least some time to prepare!”
After hearing Prothal’s comments Hannibal unrolled the map of his command and looked at the Great Lake. “We can’t stop such a horde alone, and have no way to stop such a large number of flying beasts.” Hannibal stated as he looked at the map, “Ky’Thand has the right of it. Did you have any indication of where this mystical power was coming from or a way to cancel it? Drowning the horde in the lake would make our task much easier. And I doubt if many of the creatures you saw could fly the whole 1000 miles across the lake without rest.”
As Prothal stopped to gather his thoughts, Hannibal moved to the door of his office. Shouting to the men at arms nearby, he commanded. “Soldier Jones, tell the messengers to prepare to ride. I will have a message for Colonel Bluestar in a short while.”
Turning back to Prothal, Hannibal assured his friend. “These are visions of the future. They haven’t occurred yet and we are now granted at least some time to prepare. Do you have anything more to add?”
A small smile spread across Prothal’s face as he finally reached across the table to clasp hands with both of his long time friends, a more typical greeting, “It does my heart well to see you both again. I am sorry for my lack of greetings upon the watchtower. My mind has been rather… well, preoccupied and I am weary from ministering.
“My vision, while very useful, only indicated a direct assault against Frelandia from over the Great Lake with a massive strength of evil by land and air.” Thinking carefully he offered, “The landscape of the northern shore appeared parched and rocky, seemingly devoid of life. The lands were also dark and foreboding with lightning flashing at alarmingly regular intervals. The sun was totally obscured by dark clouds. But it was definitely day time.” Placing both of his hands on Hannibal’s map, he slid his fingers across, “That could describe either the Gorbi Desert or even the smaller shoreline of the Darklands.”
Ky’Thand remained quiet – direct military things were not his realm. If the vision is a true future, I had better find a good cellar to hide in, He thought to himself. If my beloved were still alive we would have balls of fire and bolts of lightning to pluck the flying creatures from the sky. I have none of those potent magics yet, maybe one day soon.
Ky’Thand stared at the map, but did see it, although his train of thought was elsewhere.
“Unfortunately, MANY questions remain unanswered.” Prothal continued, “The biggest in my mind, is WHEN? The only clue was that of the lake not being frozen, so it clearly was not winter. I am also not sure how relative time was to the events that unfolded before my eyes. After all, the total destruction I witnessed would not have taken place until after their timely crossing of the vast Great Lake.”
“Perhaps this is a vision of just one possible future and that it can still be prevented…” Shaking his head Prothal indicated, “I just don’t know.”
“I feel deep in my heart that these images are true. However, we should take caution before repositioning all of the troops within our great nation against such an evil assault. Prudence dictates that we prepare for the worst, while we must try and learn more. Who can we speak with, that knows the ebb and flow of the Darklands these days?” Pointing to another section of the map, Prothal said, “Perhaps a commander in my home land of Philia, where the lake meets Philia and the Dark Peaks? This is always an area of evil conflict.”
Hearing some more details of Prothal’s story, Hannibal made his decision. Taking pen and ink he wrote the following message to Colonel Bluestar.
Sir, our senior cleric assigned to SAS, Priest Prothal, has had a disturbing portent given to him by the gods. On close questioning, I have no reason to disbelieve him though I wish I could.
A huge horde, an emptying of the Dark Lands, may be occurring as you are reading this. A powerful magic is letting them walk across the Great Lake and they are accompanied by all manner of flying creatures. This horde may be travelling along the east edge of the lake but this is simply conjecture at this time.
My troops remain on alert, but we need some way to probe into the Great Lake.
Sanding the message, Hannibal then rolled it and placed it into a scroll case. Handing it to the waiting messenger, he ordered, “See that this gets to Colonel Bluestar as soon as possible”. The man saluted him and quickly ran out of the office.
“Well that task is done. Now the difficult part; how to verify your story.” Hannibal stated sitting behind his desk with Ky’thand and Prothal looking over the map, “Going to the Dark Peaks is possible but if we are wrong, we waste a lot of time. Yolanda’s father in the desert may be able to help; but he is very secretive as to the abilities granted to the desert shaman. Or the army releases some magic that allows us to travel quickly across the great lake to examine what is going on first hand.
Only a small number should go. The horde you described would not even be slowed by 500 men and they will be needed if we fail. If we must go by horse, I would suggest the desert coast of the lake.” Hannibal sat back and examined the map, hoping for some revelation.
KyThand thought about the options, “Hannibal, for a wizard of such power in Frelandia, you will doubtfully get an audience to. I believe the best option is to save as many troops for a counterattack at supply lines, etc. A guerrilla type war, if we are against such odds, is the best alternative. Your desire to go into Gorbi desert and ask Scorpion tribe’s shaman for the answers is a novel one and may be the answer to the above items I have just noted.” He looked at his companions for a response.
Looking at the map, Prothal realised that he could remember no more about the area in his vision. “We do not have adequate knowledge that this evil force is under a current march. It is quite possible that this vision will not go into fruition for some time. We should definitely explore our options and learn as much as possible about the latest happenings within the Darklands. Perhaps we need to capture a few evil creatures from this region to gain information.”
Hannibal looked up in slight shock at Prothal’s suggestion of capturing some of the evil ones. “Um… You do realise that gaining that type of information is hard on the creature being asked? Otherwise it is a good idea and one that may save many lives. I have gathered information in that way in the past.”
Pausing to recollect his thoughts, Prothal continued, “We must go to a rather forward area to learn such information. If your relations with this barbarian tribe present an opportunity then that is what we should do. My suggestion of the Dark Peaks could be very treacherous because of the mountains and I do not have such a direct contact as yours.
“However, our path would entail travelling along the shores of the Great Lake to the Gorbi Desert and that will pose an additional opportunity. I have relations with a small village on the shores of the lake and close to the boundaries of the Gorbi Desert. We could possibly learn additional information from this group as well.
“Perhaps by this time, my vision will have evolved into something more, or I will be insane from the same endlessly repeating vision of DOOM!”
Hannibal nodded at Prothal’s words and considered their options. “I agree with you that we need to determine what is going on. I also prefer to keep closer to my command so I can return if a major battle is a foot.”
Running a battle-callused hand up the east edge of the great lake, Hannibal seemed to be considering the terrain. Hannibal nodded at the comment about the path being along the great lake. “You are right. Damn,” Hannibal exclaimed to Ky’thand, “I wish we had the time to build those boats of yours for a Great Lake navy. They would make travel much easier, and scouting as well.
“But a small patrol, I will need to get permission from my ‘counterpart’ in Sharilan…” Everybody got the impression that Hannibal wasn’t too impressed with the Sharilan military – it was quite obvious in the way he spoke, “For a small patrol. We can at least have an escort to the borders of the desert. They can also report back to Colonel Bluestar if we find anything.”
Smiling fondly, Hannibal finished, “I will also get a chance to see Yolonda, assuming her training doesn’t take her away.”
Hannibal’s mind began turning to the details of the journey, as he spoke to Prothal, “Good thing you are with us, taking Remora with us into the desert would not be healthy!” He chuckled to himself and shook his head, “My counterpart in Sharilan wouldn’t be up till morning, the fool, so I will need to get at least some sleep. We should plan on leaving on the following morning. If the need is great, I could just ride up with the patrol tomorrow and tell him we pursuing a rumour of a large raid.”
There was a loud sound of a horn going on throughout the camp. It came from the watchtower itself! The party knew what this meant – it was the call to alert. A call of an invasion emergency!
Chapter 2: The Probe
Prothal’s face suddenly changed to that of alarm as he heard the blaring horn blast of an invasion. Turning to the door of Hannibal’s quarters he rushed out, back to the watchtower to witness for himself what was afoot.
His heart began to pound within his own chest as a cold sweat beaded across his brow. While moving very quickly, he spouted a prayer to the Eternal One, “Oh Your Grace, the One-Who-Cannot-Be-Named, protect us all from the evil doings of others. Guide our hands to protect all that we love and all that is truly good!” Silently, he was thinking, hoping against hope that this could not possibly the invasion from his dream. If it is…may the Eternal One help us all! He thought grimly to himself.
Picking up his great helm as he left his office, Hannibal shouted to Prothal, “Pray to your god that this is only a ‘normal’ invasion and not the precursor to the doom you foretold!” He turned to the guards, “Get Fleetfoot prepared for war. I will lead the heavy horse”
Moving towards the front, Hannibal looked for any of his lieutenants or scouts. “What’s going on out there? What is coming our way?” As he moved towards his forward command post, the watchtower, he told Ky’Thand and Prothal, “Any news will go there first, then to my office. I want to be at the front directing my men.”
As he moved Hannibal began to think about the deployment of his troops. Lt. Stonewall and 40 dragoons should be about, as would 20 heavy horsemen. Lt. Taro and 20 of his alpine troops were there, as well as Lt. Rock and 100 infantry. 20 archers were scattered about the defence areas. Xavier was nowhere to be found, but he should be with some scouts (about 10?). Some light horsemen (20?) and the nearest patrol reporting in on sighting should round up the troops.
He decided to put the Dragoons in plate in the centre of the line, 1/2 the infantry to each side. The light horse would be acting as a screen pacing the enemies advance; harassing; and most importantly bringing in information. The Heavy horse would be committed behind the left flank where they could make a sweeping charge around one end of the line (where Fleetfoot was waiting). The archers would be spread out along the line to provide harassing fire at standard bearers, messengers, or targets of opportunity. Lt. Taro and his alpine troops were in reserve and were positioned right of centre.
Reaching the watch tower Hannibal turned to Ky’Thand, “My friend. Will you accept a dangerous task? Xavier has taken some scouts across the river unless I miss my guess; but he is resourceful and will cause what trouble he can. I need you to lead the other scouts that are here and not engage in combat but try to capture leaders that we may question them when the battle is done.
“Usually, I would just order kill on sight; but with Prothal’s portent we need information even if it costs some of my men.” This last was said with obvious pain in Hannibal’s voice. He cared about his troops.
His men would follow him to the Darklands itself. In shiny plate and helm he looked the martial ideal. A Frelandian issued longsword in one hand and medium shield on the other arm Hannibal was prepared. The purple pulsing glow of his other long sword sheathed on his back and the hilts of 4 knives in his foot greaves showed his readiness for bloody battle. A combat dagger at his belt completed his weaponry.
“Prothal,” Hannibal continued his deployment as he began receiving information, “Can you minister to the dragoon’s at the centre. I will have Remora do the same on the right. As we engage, provide light for them to battle by! I will hope my presence does the same on the left when we engage.”
Ky’Thand shivered, “In this weather everyone will become lost and tracks hard to find. Are you sure this isn’t a false alarm? Either way I suppose we will not know till someone checks it. Give me 2 people who know this area well some scouts and two crack archers and I will do this task Hannibal. Which way do you believe the force will come and how far back with the command element be? And do you wish me to find Xavier?”
Ky’Thand awaited Hannibal’s answers then headed for the barracks and then the stables. First to get his detachment of men and then the horses needed.
“It may be a false alarm,” Hannibal shrugged, “The light horse will let us know soon enough. However, we must prepare as if it is the real thing.”
Nodding at Ky’Thand’s request for troops, Hannibal passed orders to the sergeant in charge of the archers in town to detail two to Ky’Thand’s command and to meet the SAS scouts at the stables. Hannibal also attached the first two of Xavier’s scouts he saw to Ky’Thand as well.
“No need for more. Xavier’s scouts are very familiar with the surrounding area and should be all the assistance you need. The archers will meet you at the stable, you don’t have to stop at the barracks first.”
“There commanders don’t lead but drive their troops,” Hannibal commented with disdain, “Thus, you shall find the leaders behind the troops; and the commander at the very rear. I shall be behind the Dragoons at the start of the battle but will lead the heavy horse in a charge into the rear when the opportunity presents itself.”
Chuckling grimly he continued, “When the leaders fall in their army, there is no thought of vengeance; the command crumbles and the army breaks into small groups.”
“That rogue will find his own trouble,” Hannibal stated shaking his head, in response to Ky’Thand’s question about Xavier, “If you do meet use him and his men to help out. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if you don’t see him sniping behind the enemy lines.”
“I would be honoured to set the example of valour within the light of His Grace, the Eternal One! Our spirit ALONE shall drive these evil beasts back into the Hell from which they came!” A noticeable change replaced Prothal’s typical calm presence, as his jaw became set with strength and determination. He almost seemed to stand a bit taller as the thoughts of squelching evil in its own tracks flashed through his mind.
Catching the soldier Hannibal sent to the stables by the arm he indicated, “My son, please instruct Keif, one of the young stable hands, to prepare my steed Knickerbocker for the coming battle as well. I shall be down very shortly.”
The three friends hurried to the command post, climbing up the stairs quickly, seasoned warriors of the battle. The plans were fixed in their minds, and they would execute it with the swiftness of mind of one who had fought alongside each other many a times.
Lt Stonewall was already there, as was Lt Taro. Xavier was nowhere to be seen, as was Lt Rock. Both officers gave a crisp salute to the three friends as they entered. Lt Taro moved towards Hannibal and spoke, “The watchtower guards sounded the alarm, sir – look!” He pointed towards the waters.
Normally, by the light of the half moon, things should be easily seen in the featureless expanse of the Great Lake. The searchlights too had a range of eighty yards, but the relentless rain was making it difficult for the searchlights to penetrate the darkness. But the friends saw them. And they realised why the guards had sounded the invasion alarm.
By the dim light of the searchlights, just a hundred yards away, the friends could see shadowy figures. Ky’Thand quickly realised that these should be boats of some sort. From what they could see at the moment, there were probably about ten of them spread out over a 40-yard front. Then slowly, they saw the second line of boats, and then the third came into view. Within the shadowy outline of the last boat, the friends could make out a sail of some sort.
There must be at least twenty to thirty boats out there! Ky’Thand made a quick calculation – each of these boats should be able to take up to 6 man-sized creatures. Which would mean an invasion force of – one hundred and twenty to one hundred and eighty men. Definitely not very good odds.
Lt Taro said grimly even as everybody watched, “The infantry are getting ready near the sands to repel the invaders, sir. Lt Rock is with them. The rain is making it difficult for our mounted troops.” Hannibal could see what he meant. The ground was already turning somewhat muddy from the rain. Which meant his mounted troops probably could not charge. Things could not be worse.
There was a sound of somebody running up the stairs. Remora ran up, eyes blazing with sheer exhilaration. She ran straight to the viewing point, and gasped. She turned back to Hannibal with a determined look, “Yes, it is time for battle once again, sir.” She looked at Prothal and made a bow, saying, “And today we shall at last see if the Eternal One be stronger, or Mystari.”
At the speed the boats were travelling, they should reach the shore in another two to three minutes.
Seeing the field of battle, Hannibal swiftly modified his initial thrust. “Ky’Thand my friend. Your orders stand, they are much more difficult now; but your mission is just as critical. I will see if we can lure that last boat ashore.”
“Lt. Taro,” Hannibal called to his second, “You must believe me when I say the stakes are higher than repelling this one raid. We MUST lure all the boats ashore.
“Have Rock deploy his men at the tree line with the light horse behind making harassing fire with their bows. Meet the enemies’ front at about 40 yards.
“Take the alpine troops and archers you have available and set up a strongpoint in the centre of the line, back 20 yards. Rock must slowly give ground back to your position and form the north and south wing, with you holding the centre. The Dragoons must hold the south end of the line and not let any troops flow around that end.
“Remora, right now I don’t really care which god is more powerful – just that they can help Frelandia weather this storm. Support the northern half of Rock’s troops, Prothal the south half. Use your judgement if the Dragoon’s need your help holding.”
Looking over the situation one more time, Hannibal came to his final decision. “This rain will not have affected the beach sand nearly as much as the dirt and mud beyond. When the command ship beaches, I will charge from north to south along the beach 5 horse four deep to rip the guts out of the command unit. We may lose some horses, but it should even the odds.”
“Comments?” Hannibal looked each commander in the eye, “We have a few moments before all hell breaks loose. Use that time wisely!” And with that, Hannibal headed for Fleetfoot and the heavy horse.
As the battle plans began to take shape, Prothal spoke up, “We should also send runners both to our north and south, ensuring that these are the ONLY forces landing on our beaches this evening. Surely this enemy would not place all of its assaulting forces right before of our eyes? Perhaps this is only a piece of a larger invasion. We should be careful to watch our own backs for additional forces of evil.
“We could also gather our heavy crossbows and long bows for firing long range missiles off into the waters. The targets are fairly large and moving at a reasonable pace. We can use these weapons to send flaming arrows, perhaps even with glass vials of Greek fire or oil attached. The flames would spread very quickly and reduce their numbers before landing on our beach head.”
Towards the end of this conversation, Prothal removed his long bow and fired a test shot at the farthest visible boat and judged the distance and feasibility of his plan. The arrow flew far but was lost in the distance – the friends could not judge if it had hit anything, so bad was the visibility. The searchlights could probably illuminate at about 40 yards clearly from the watchtower. With a beam radius of about 30 yards, the two searchlights trained together could probably light up the entire battlefield.
Watching the arrow fade away into the wet air, Hannibal shook his head as he turned to Prothal, “It is pretty wet for fire arrows to be much use however your shot does give me an idea.” Turning to the Searchlight operators, Hannibal commanded, “When the first wave of ships beaches, train all the lights onto the beach. Hopefully it will make our men more difficult to see; but our archers and horsemen will see just fine.”
“If it comes to siege,” Hannibal spoke again to Prothal, “Then we may be able to break out these weapons. Save for the archers, my troops are not equipped with heavy missile weapons. We do have this one light ballista with us in the watchtower. We may get one or two shots at each wave as they land.”
“Sadly, I have no Greek fire on hand but there is oil for the lights? But you are right about the scouts, we need to send at least a pair along the beach south; both to warn the next command and to ensure that other landings are not occurring.” Turning to the Lt. Taro, Hannibal modified his orders, “Have 2 pair of light horse scout the beach south for other landings, one pair should continue on to report to the next command.”
Chuckling grimly he said as an aside to Prothal, “Any boats that land north will be the Sharilin’s to deal with first. They should slow them and we can block an army at the bridge if necessary.”
Looking at the mass of men and women positioning themselves for battle, the horses preparing for their charge; and the listening to the warning klaxons, Hannibal concluded, “Even those Sharilan troops should be waking up by now.”
Ky’Thand looks at Hannibal after he finished with the orders, “You must believe I can do miracles! Currently I don’t walk on water to get behind the current forces attacking. To tell the truth I am afraid of water especially deep water. And under the circumstances I would be best helping to guard the light ballista or something similar. The spells I currently have will certainly slow a charging group who wishes to overwhelm the crew. Commander I wish reassignment of task.”
“But, Hannibal, I do have a few flasks I brewed before coming out to this post.” Ky’Thand replied as he took out the surprise, a look of surprise from everyone present for such rare items.
Listening to Ky’Thand’s objections, Hannibal’s face hardened as he looked again at the approaching boats. When he took a moment to calculate the task Ky’Thand was to attempt, he replied, “I don’t like it. But you are right, there is no way to reach that command boat. And I forgot your fear of water.”
Smiling grimly Hannibal continued, “There is consolation though. You are crazy enough to cart around Greek fire with you and I think the gods must be smiling on us. By all means man the ballista, I ask that you save one shot with Greek Fire for that sailing ship if it approaches close enough! Use your judgement, but it might be best to let the first wave land. Officers and spell casters would probably be in the second and third waves.”
Hannibal looked around at the men and women in the tower, and if there were no other suggestions, he would prepare to lead the heavy horse in their charge.
Ky’Thand stood his ground when Hannibal’s face hardened. When he changed his plans Ky’Thand breathed, “I hope your ballista crew is good, the Greek Fire I carry is worth good coin which I am gonna charge the treasury for.
“We will start aiming for the ship as soon as possible a sinking ship full of officers is better than some on shore. Who is the ballista crew sergeant? Otherwise I will report to the artillery and have them organise some softening up of the opposition…”
Ky’Thand headed immediately for the ballista crew. It was just downstairs, near the base of the tower, and Ky’Thand had to run all it was worth to get there. The ballista platform was manned by four men and a Sergeant in charge. On reaching the platform, he called out, “Sergeant I am here to help you, and give you some defence as well. I also bring a few unpleasant surprises for the opposition we face today.”
Pulling from his vest’s inner pocket 3 flasks of Greek fire, “Yep Greek fire lads, you know how dangerous it is, and how effective it can be. Hannibal wants it on the ship supplying these troops so peel yer eyes we are to soften the target first then dance the firing pattern out to the second wave boats and then onto the ship.
“Have you been supplied with the expensive tracer rounds with the light spell on them? Sergeant what munitions have you here now to use?” Ky’Thand awaited an answer.
The Sergeant’s mouth must have opened wider than the biggest sea monster when he saw Ky’Thand produce the Greek Fire! He hastily snapped to attention, gave a salute and said in as calm a voice as he could. Ky’Thand could tell the excitement in his voice.
“We have probably two more of such things on special issue, sir! These are very expensive – your most obedient soldier does not know how Mr Ky’Thand was able to get that, but this is great!” His eyes danced with excitement, “We have about 18 bolts with us, sir – we can kill a few boats with the fire you have given us!”
His thoughts returned to what Ky’Thand asked in the first place, and he said puzzledly, “The power of sorceries are not ours to command, sir. We fear we have no such light bolts you speak of. But it would be good if we have them. We can hardly see anything in this rain!”
As if reminded of something, he shook his head and asked, “Sir, if you be a man of sorcery, perhaps you can do something to help light the Greek Fire?” He asked as the rain continued to pelt about them.
Prothal finished his brief prayer to the Eternal One and rose to his feet, seeing his companions exiting the tower. He took one last glance down over the battle field to be and headed down to the stable to locate his steed and Lt. Stonewall.
Seeing that everything was as well planned as it could be, Hannibal watched the various people scatter to their commands, “Remember, after the charge; take the opportunity to push these creatures back into the sea.”
“Prothal,” Hannibal reminded the priest, “The Dragoons are our other strength. If my charge bogs down march the dragoons up the beach to meet up with me.”
“Everyone, good luck”
With that Hannibal hurried down from the watchtower to the waiting heavy horse. Saying a silent prayer to Mysteria and to the Eternal One for good measure. Saluting the men who were sitting in their horses about 200 yards north of where the landing was taking place, Hannibal addressed the men.
“Men, we are about to face our ancient enemies once again. Ride with me this night to crush them beneath the iron shod hooves of our valiant steeds. Impale them with the lance, then knock them senseless with your flail. With this blade,” Hannibal drew the black sword, “Spoils from another such raid; I will lead you to victory.”
The roar of his troops confirmed their allegiance and faith in his ability. Sounds of metal being draw and horses being prepared were music to his ears. With his speech ended, Hannibal mounted Fleetfoot and took up position in the first rank nearest the water, where the footing was the most treacherous.
Upon locating Knickerbocker and the assembling Dragoons, Prothal approached Lt. Stonewall and informed him of Hannibal’s plan for the assault and of his own intention to joining his fine men into battle. The men cheered wildly upon hearing that a holy man was joining them in battle. They cheered even louder when Remora’s form appeared, her robes flying about in the wind. Now they had two gods on their side – what could go wrong?
After the response he continued, “I also have one request for you and your exceptional group of defenders. When we ride into battle to secure the southern front we must take a brief moment just before the battle ensues to pray for the Eternal Ones strength to be channelled through our bodies. The glory of His Grace will guide our way! After we dismount and send the horses away I will need every Dragoon to huddle in tight for the prayer and then we will attack, each of us with the hand of The-One-Who-Has-No-Name by our side!”
Remora smirked as she heard him finish his speech. She did not speak, or rebut him, but turned her attention towards the sea. Her plate mail armour was crafted well, and did not hide her good figure. A medium shield on the left and a footman’s mace completed her armoury. She did not make an effort to get out of the spell radius. It seemed like her mind was elsewhere.
Mounting his powerful stead Prothal slapped Kinckerbocker on the side with a sign of affection and removed his mace from its saddle location and attached it to its proper place at his side. Calling upon the name of the Power he served, Prothal asked for the invisible hand of the Eternal One to strengthen and guide the troops. The troops fell silent as the exhilarating power of Prothal’s prayer worked its way through the troops. When all were ready they rode out swiftly.
Chapter 3: Repelling the Invasion
The tense atmosphere gave way to grim determination as the men waited for an enemy they could see, an enemy steel could cleave. The first wave of boats had by then reached the beach, and the three friends could see what could only be their worst fears. Orcs, all armed and ready for battle. Wearing studded leather armour and carrying small shields, they shrieked as the lights of the searchlights were trained on them, some raising up their shields to cover themselves from the offensive glare, before raising their weapons.
The glint of metal from their weapons certainly spoke a lot of the invasion force – this was no raiding group. It looked more like a war party. There were certainly more than 70 orcs in the first wave. With precision, about half of them started forming a perimeter line of pikes and halberds. The other half readied their crossbows. The second wave, about 30 yards behind, would probably land in another one minute.
About 50 yards away from the beach, the last vessel began to come into view. Something else became clearer too. What the friends had thought was a sail was something more sinister. It was a huge standard, with the symbol of an arrow striking a bloody eye. Nothing much could be seen but a huge vaguely waving form was on the boat. As was another big bunch of human sized creatures, again too faint to see clearly.
The Sergeant barked an order to the men about him, “Hurry up and try to light this damn thing! We are going to burn up the orcs!” One of the soldiers looked back at him and replied, “We are trying, Sergeant! It is not easy to light this thing with the rain coming down on us!” With great skill, the men began to attempt to coax a spark out of the tinderboxes they carry.
Arrows began to fly upon the beachhead as the line of pikes moved forward. The archers, taken from the fighting men of the north, were true to their legend. Hannibal had heard boasts that they could hit a moving rabbit from 40 yards at the age of seven. He had always marvelled at their precision and skill, and still do – many orcs were quickly decimated, crossbow and pole-arm bearers alike. On their parts, the bolts fired from their crossbows had managed to get some of Lt Rock’s men.
Suddenly, darkness descended upon the battlefield – it seemed like the searchlights were suddenly extinguished. The invisible raindrops continued pelting on the faces of the troops.
By that time, Prothal and the dragoons had nearly reached the southern line of the advancing line of orcs. The darkness caused some consternation within the troops but they did not break ranks, trusting in the prayers made by Prothal on behalf of them. But Prothal could sense the fear in their hearts. Lt Stonewall was next to Prothal, shouting out, “All troops keep your fighting distance! The Eternal One will fight for us!”
Prothal could not help but hear a tremble in the officer’s voice as the first sounds of battle began. The front rank had already connected with the enemy – and the screams of pain and death were from the dragoons.
“Damn it – this is no ordinary raiding party! Wave your weapons – don’t let them thrust effectively! Close the distance as much as possible! Try not to hit your own men!” Lt Stonewall barked.
“Sir – may the Eternal One see you through – I am going in.” The invisible Lt Stonewall shouted reassuredly to Prothal, his voice fading away as he moved in front of Prothal. The officer seemed to have begun to overcome his fear in the face of almost certain death. There was a sinking feeling in Prothal’s heart as he understood why – orcs could see in the dark.
Lt Rock’s troops had done what was asked of him, to move back slowly, drawing the enemies to Lt Taro’s centre line. The last Hannibal saw them, they were about 20 yards away from the enemy. He had by now lost sight of everyone, however, as the battlefield was covered in darkness.
Hannibal heard the familiar swooshing sounds of the sheaf arrows from his archers, and the cries of more deaths from the orcish army. He dared not charge at the moment, as the troops could not see where the pikes were pointed.
Things were looking grim right then. The archers could only aim their arrows at the general direction of the beachhead. They will hit only if the enemy was foolish enough to land in the same exact spot. If the enemy did what he feared the most and charged, they would surely decimate the troops at the centre line.
Prothal held back on his initial charge as he cried out, “May His Grace’s light shine brightly upon us!” As the warm comforting glow of sunshine spread from the top of his own helm, he surged forward with his mighty sword held high and attacked with the others, shining the way.
The Dragoons cheered as the first lines of their enemies suddenly returned to view, and they all surged forward into battle, encouraged by the presence of the Eternal One among them. The orcs shrieked in terror, as the light of day shone upon them, hurting their eyes.
The distance was closed quickly with a wall of steel, making the orc missiles almost useless, unless they cared not about hitting their own men. Even the archers had stopped firing, afraid to hit their own men. From the orcs’ perspective all that could be seen was layer upon layer of shining plate mail and a wall of shields with mighty swords held high raining down upon them.
Two orcs immediately headed for Prothal. He could see the rage in their eyes, as they growled in their tongue and began to hack at him with battleaxes. Swinging Lightbringer, he fell one with a mighty blow. The battleaxe of the other glanced off his armour. Another swing from Prothal cut a major wound into the other orc. He was quickly despatched by a sword thrust from a soldier.
“Be careful, sir! You are attracting all of them!” The soldier cried out as he locked his weapon with an incoming orc, obviously heading for Prothal.
Hannibal saw the light shining brightly from the helm of Prothal. His heart felt a slight flutter as he realised one thing – Prothal’s move, while tactically powerful, might just cost him his life – all the magic and bolts, as well as fighting arms of the orcs, were definitely going to be concentrated on him.
Hannibal raised his sword to signal the charge. Although he could not see the ships coming in, he was quite sure they should be landing soon. Strapping his shield to his back he reached his hand into his belt pouch while sending his love out to Yolanda. Dear, he thought, your father’s wedding gift will come in handy after all!
“OK LADS,” Hannibal roared to the waiting troops, “Their infravision is only good out 20 yards and we’ll be on top of them before they see us. Our archers took out a lot of the first wave and the rest are being pressed from the south. It’s our job to take care of the second wave. I’ve still got some tricks up my sleeve.”
Grasping the light stone in its pouch, Hannibal signalled the charge. The troops moved off, trusting their commander, though they would be engaging an enemy they could not see. The hoofs thundered upon the beach. He tried to judge the distance to 30 yards of the orcs. Slowly he began counting in his mind as the horses paced the familiar beach – now in pitch darkness except for the light source from Prothal’s helm.
“Now!” He cried out as he pulled out the light stone. It looked as if the sun had broken through the clouds. With Fleetfoot charging with all the speed that Hannibal could manage, they crashed through the thin line of pikes before the dazzled orcs could shift back to normal vision.
With the magical light gleaming from the plates of his and Fleetfoot’s armour, Hannibal was an engine of death amongst the orcs attempting to rally. Wheeling and dodging with Fleetfoot, Hannibal did not stay in one space for enough time for the remaining crossbowmen to take aim. While Hannibal slashed, Fleetfoot crushed orcs with his forefeet and bowled others over with his body.
Three orcs stepped in, trying to stop him. The first met with a quick death by the dark blade, the blow cutting through the armour it wore as if it were not there. The other managed to connect with him, but its blows were stopped by his skilful use of his shield. A return swing from Hannibal despatched him as easily as the first.
From Hannibal’s experience, normally the third orc should have begun beating a retreat upon facing such a powerful enemy. But instead, it continued to hack at him, its crazed filled eyes aiming for its trophy. Another swing from the dark blade lobbed off its head, sending it rolling.
Aiming for the centre of the orc formation, Hannibal chopped down at the orcs, attempting to destroy totally the beachhead. Once the beachhead was gone, the remaining orcs were going to have a very, very hard time coming in. With the combined light of Prothal and Hannibal, the soldiers should be able to stand off the orcs at the beach itself.
From off to the east, Ky’Thand could see another globe of light in the air immediately above, as the centre continued to rain arrows upon the now visible orcs. Remora was in the midst of the battle herself, her mace smashing up one skull after another.
Hannibal was sure the second wave would have beached. And sure enough, by the light cast by the light stone, within the centre of the beachhead, he saw the boats ground onto the beach. Then suddenly, pitch darkness covered the battlefield again, as his light stone was seemingly extinguished.
Prothal was shocked to see a shimmer of a cloak of darkness that cancelled off part of the radius of his light, returning the light to ambient conditions. He realised with trepidation, that there were probably another spell-caster, serving the forces of darkness itself.
Having felt no magic on himself, Hannibal quickly assumed that the magical darkness was cast on an area and could not move. “To me,” Hannibal cried to the fighting horseman, “Keep riding down anything between here and the Dragoons to the south, We’ll join up there.” Guided by the light of Prothal, Hannibal steadily moved towards the light, ready to kill all in his path.
Ky’Thand looked at the soldiers still attempting to light the ballista in dismay, “Why isn’t there a covered brazier which a lit brand could be used rather than tinderboxes?” Shaking his head, “Load that bolt sergeant our troops need covering fire.”
Ky’Thand summoned an old thought of how his beloved first taught him how to produce fire from his finger. Snapping back Ky’Thand gestured briefly, making sure to cover the tiny flame from the rain with his other hand. His light lit up his face, casting shadows as he proceeded to light the flaming head. The flaming pitch burst into flame, providing enough light to light up the entire ballista, and the crew.
He pointed to the lad who usually lighted the bolts, “Get a brazier now, in fact if you see the fire brigade teams, get them to find a proper covered brazier out here prompto or our men will be lost.”
“Don’t walk, RUN!”
Tomorrow there would be some changes if they survived, Ky’Thand vowed as the soldier ran up the stairs, tripping over in the darkness of the battlefield. Now that he had a chance to take a look at the tower, he observed something odd. Then he realised why – the little bit of shimmer he could just barely make out told him everything. The tower was enveloped in magical darkness.
He heard a commotion in the tower as a few voices started to curse and swear. Then in the dim light of his flaming bolt, he saw one of the tower searchlights operator run towards him. Panting, he paused for a while to catch his breath, before saying, “Sir, we thought the flames in the beacons were extinguished, but – look!” He showed his badly burnt hand to Ky’Thand, shaking in fear, “There is foul sorcery afoot in the tower!”
“Fear not it be only a cloaking magic of darkness. Bring more light and you will dispel it.” The words of Ky’Thand were confident. The soldier nodded his head and announced, “Sir, I will see if I can get some torches lit, to be brought into the tower. Perhaps the greater amount of light will destroy the darkness, as you’ve said.”
Meanwhile, thinking quickly before the next wave assault was upon them, Prothal selected three dragoons, “Cover me, while I call additional light from his Grace, the Eternal One!” The three valiant soldiers formed a defensive shield in front of the holy man, determined to protect Prothal from harm, as they fell back a few steps from the front fighting ranks. “When I give the word! We will press into the darkness and shed light upon their weak, pale faces. We must keep our ranks as tight as possible and stay within the light”
The dragoon’s position remained stationary, at the edges of darkness. A short buffer of darkness existed where the two spells overlapped in the centre. The dragoons were taking their fight relatively well, making sure they stayed in the light. The orcs in the lighted area began to retreat into the darkness, and the pikes began to poke again from the midst of the darkness.
Taking advantage of the pocket of protection provided by his fellow warriors, Prothal began casting a spell. His arms danced complex patterns in the moist air as his deep voice rumbled in a low unrecognisable chant. Yet he remained unheard to most, because of the constant din of battle. The Appointed One called upon the great power of the Eternal One, to let there be light, so the forces of good would prevail in this time of great need.
The helm of the dragoon in front was instantly lit by a magical light over his head. Briefly, the light began to penetrate dimly into the neutral area. All he could see were still pikes poking at the dragoons, but he was also beginning to see dimly more of the shafts of the pikes. The formation kept their space, as they began a withdrawal, pulling back the injured.
The second light burst into being from the head of the second dragoon, when suddenly a deadly silence enveloped the battlefield. The silence was ringing in Prothal’s ears, an eerie contrast to the expected din of battle.
Ky’Thand could also see the same moves made by the orcs, fighting with Remora. They also made a withdrawal into the darkness, poking at the troops from the darkness using their long pole-arms. He was glad there were few of them. The archers, fearful of firing in the darkness, had stopped firing some time ago. He could see Lt Taro beginning to join in the battle on foot.
A call from the Sergeant put his mind back to the ballista. “Sir,” He said, his frown clearly seen by the light being cast, “I am thinking of firing off into the sea, so we can have a dim light to see the incoming boats. I dare not aim at the darkness – Major Hannibal is still inside the darkness.”
“Ok sergeant lets place those bolts over their heads and into the water behind them. Let’s remove some of their reinforcements.” Ky’Thand replied calmly.
A sudden shutter and cold chill ran through Prothal’s body, as the heavy weight of total silence fell upon the battlefield. Determined to stay with his troops he surged forward with the dragoon’s as two globes of light from the Eternal One began to illuminate the darkness before them. Feeling the press of movement from behind, the dragoon’s began attacking. The others wondered, “How could I have missed Prothal’s word of attack?” It didn’t matter they were moving on anyway.
The two illuminated soldiers came together at the front lines until the light areas slightly overlapped each other. Dragoon’s formed in front and behind the glorious light and made the best use possible of the existing light. Armour, shields and blades reflected light as the distance was closed and the fighting ensued again.
Holding back on the press, Prothal’s mind calculated as he contemplated his next move. I must stay within range of our newfound light, or this new light would also fail under the weight of darkness, he thought. But, if I do not move the magical silence will render my spells useless for some time. The silence spell could also be cast upon my person and I would not be able to escape its deafening hush.
Then a thought came too him, as he searched for a dragoon close at hand with a helm and head size about the same as his own.
If the silence spell was cast upon him directly, it must be upon his helm. His helm was the only visible and targetable part of his body from across the battlefield, and it was shedding the “daylight” spell. Finding an intelligent young dragoon that he had counselled before, Prothal removed his helm and gestured for him to do the same.
A look of slight fear was apparent in the young man’s eyes, but it was quickly dispelled upon looking into the confident comforting eyes of Brother Prothal. They switched helms in silence. Prothal pointed to one of the men with the new “light” spell upon them and gave the warrior, wearing his helm, a hand sign of fingers wrapping together. “Stay close to him,” Went the silent communication, and Prothal prodded the warrior in that direction.
With the newfound autonomy of his unlighted and hopeful unsilenced helm, Prothal made a path to the edge of the dragoons. With every step, he prayed to the Eternal One that the deafening din of battle would soon return to him.
Seeing the intensification of the light around Prothal, Hannibal continued to shout encouragement to his troops, “To me men. Ride down anything blocking the light. Let’s get out of this dark!”
As he steered a course towards the clumps of walking bodies he wielded sword and shield, hoping to increase the carnage caused by Fleetfoot. Well, Hannibal thought to himself. At least a duel of light vs. dark is better than having magical energies flying at my troops.
“Alright, boys – let it go!” The Sergeant cried out as the flaming bolt flew on its way through the skies. Almost immediately, Ky’Thand saw the shadow of what must be a crossbow bolt flying past the Sergeant. Another one flew past him, the whooshing sound reminding him of how close it was.
The bolt impacted on the waters, spreading out its deadly payload with tiny flickers of light. As his eyes gazed across the dim light, Ky’Thand realised something with horror – the third ship, with the huge standard, was missing! It was no longer on the waters just off the beach!
“Hurry up with the second bolt!” The Sergeant screamed out as he struggled with his men. He was visibly excited by the battle, but was otherwise cool. He turned towards Ky’Thand and shouted out, “Sir – take cover nearer the structure of the ballista! It may not be much, but your flame is lighting up the place for their snipers!”
The orcs began their retreat as the new globes of light began to penetrate into the darkness. The deafening silence did not turn away from Prothal as he had hoped, following him into the frontlines. The dragoons made easy work of the orcs in the frontline, hampered as they were by the length of their weapons.
One of the orcs sallied forth from the thinning ranks and went for Prothal. His battleaxe smashed into his armour, but the plates held their ground. Lightbringer was no longer shining, it being far away from Hannibal’s weapon. Prothal brought it crashing through the studded leather of the orc. Prothal seemed to feel the sheer energy of conviction and faith as his heart and soul fought with the sword as one.
The orc backed a little, its greenish blood flowing freely from the wound at its side. It raised its weapon again, but Prothal was quicker. A mighty blow from Lightbringer smashed through its shield, the shield arm, and cut deeply into the chest of the creature. It collapsed, its body unable to muster enough energy to support its own weight.
Prothal looked about and realised something. At least one or two of the orcs had crossbow bolts on their back. They were shooting their own men! The line was thinning. Very soon, the snipers would have open targets…
His worst fears were realised as many of the dragoons fell, crossbow bolts screaming from the darkness beyond. Many of the orcs were dead – the first wave should be mostly defeated. Could it be that the second wave had already readied itself? How much time had passed? Prothal could not judge exactly, but it seemed like an eternity had gone by.
One crossbow bolt smashed into him. Again, the plates held their place. But as fate would had it, the second bolt smashed in near where the previous bolt had damaged the armour slightly. Prothal felt a slight prick of pain as the bolt poked into his flesh. It was probably only a minor wound, but Prothal realised that the enemy probably had organised themselves.
Hannibal pressed on, Fleetfoot finding difficulty treading over the masses of bodies. Fleetfoot was quite a cautious horse actually – it stamped on any body it came across, just to make sure they were not lying in wait. Hannibal could feel its tremble as it struggled in the dark, but it was a brave horse, seeking to serve its master to the death.
Fleetfoot suddenly lurched a little to the side – Hannibal could hear and feel the thud of the pikes upon Fleetfoot. His heart sank as he realised that they were aiming for the horse! The whoosh of a bolt sailing past his ear was heard, and he raised his shield instinctively to block the next one. He was too slow, however – a bolt struck him on the sword arm. His armour, however, held, even as the bolt pierced him. It was not a deep wound, but he could feel the warmth of blood trickling within his armour.
The cries of pain and death among his troops were bad news. Once again, they were attacked by an unseen enemy. The enemy was to his side, but he had to continue on with his move. He shouted to the troops to follow him as he continued on to join Prothal.
As the archers began to rain down arrows upon the thin line of pikes just beyond Remora’s light, Ky’Thand saw Remora began to look about the battlefield. She had retreated from the fighting to look at the situation. She saw Prothal’s position and pointed her fingers at him.
The silence suddenly lifted but it was not the roar of fighting that greeted Prothal. It was the sounds of the wounded lying on the battlefield. It was the sounds of death as many of the dragoons fell from the fresh assault of the enemy.
Prothal realised that someone must have used a dispelling magic about his person. But the battlefield seemed dimmer. One of the lights he had cried out to the Eternal One for had been extinguished. It must have been affected by the dispelling magic as well. What was left was the magic of the Daylight spell on the young soldier, and the light on the other.
A realisation hit Prothal – they would be natural targets next, and the young man just might die. Prothal could not remember his name, but he had remembered the young man happily telling him the day before that he would be on leave in another week’s time, to marry his childhood sweetheart.
Hannibal pressed Fleetfoot fearlessly to meet up with Prothal. He saw the rain of bolts upon his men lit by the light of Prothal’s light as they fell, and he knew those behind him must be suffering a similar fate. Suddenly, the light stone burst into the light of day as he met up with Prothal. From the dim light, he could see the reflections from off the pikes closing in.
“Sir, be careful, come down from the horse – they will be aiming for you!” Lt Stonewall cried out to him as he hurriedly ran over to protect Hannibal, “Men, guard the major!” Two more men hurriedly ran to his side. Hannibal could see a big bandage about the lieutenant’s head, blood still flowing as he bravely stood his ground with the two men he summoned.
Hannibal looked around at the carnage about him. At least half of his men must have been dead or badly wounded. Dead orcs littered the place, some piling on top of each other. He was quite sure of his assessment – the fresh attack must have come from the second wave. They must have finished organising themselves. This was unbelievable – he had never remembered even Frelandian troops, the best in the Theophilia, organise themselves that fast.
Chapter 4: Clash of the Titans
Ky’Thand saw Remora looking about the battlefield. There was a smile on her face, a smile of triumph perhaps, that her god had bested the god of Prothal? She looked up at the watchtower, the cloud of darkness still hovering over the place. She pointed at the tower and seemed to mumble something.
Many parts of the battlefield were suddenly illuminated! The orcs screamed as the light tore into their eyes. Hannibal could most of them now. The same formation – a thin line of pikes protecting the crossbow wielders at the back. The many bodies, both of his heavy horsemen, and of the first line of orcs, weighted heavily upon Hannibal’s heart. Many mothers and wives would weep for their men were he to survive to write the letters to their kinsmen.
Ky’Thand looked up to see the searchlights shining brightly upon the battlefield. He also saw one man hurriedly running upstairs with a torch, to man his station no doubt. He returned his gaze to the waters. His eyes confirmed what he had first seen – the third ship was no longer in the waters.
“The baby is ready to go sir! Give us the fire and we will give it to them!” The Sergeant cried out to Ky’Thand as he finished putting the Greek Fire on the bolt.
“Sergeant, I want a flaming bolt as far up the beach but on the water as possible, both sides of the battle. Get the two sniper archers down here, now I have a job for them.” Ky’Thand spoke calming as he lit the Greek Fire.
The Sergeant looked incredulously at the confident Ky’Thand still standing exposed in where he was. He quickly ran over to Ky’Thand. A crossbow bolt went wide, over the Sergeant’s head. Ky’Thand felt a pain in his thigh as something sharp slammed into it. There was a loud clap of thunder as his Armour spell tried to hold on but failed.
His concentration went off, and the flame on his finger disappeared. Dropping down instinctively on one knee, he heard the whooshing sound of another bolt over to his left.
“Sir, what are you still standing around for? For goodness sake, go to somewhere safe!” He cried out, as he dragged the half-stumbling Ky’Thand over to the safety of the ballista structure. Upon reaching the ballista, he screamed out a string of obscenities and shouted to his soldiers, “What are you waiting for? The light is lighting us up – let the baby go!”
The two men struggled with the lever, and the bolt flew on its way to the waters. It landed way off its target, splashing itself about 30 yards off the beach, creating several dim light-points over the waters. The waters off the beach looked beautiful – the lights looking like stars upon the darkness of the waters. The third ship was still nowhere to be seen.
The pain in his thigh woke Ky’Thand from his thoughts. He thought he heard the sounds of the men working at the ballista, in the darkness. His right hand went over to his thigh – it was a crossbow bolt no doubt. He heard the Sergeant shouting at one of them, in the darkness, “Soldier – go and get two of the archers hiding in the woods! Damn! They are hiding there and we are out in the open! Next time remind me to apply for a different position in the army!”
There was a shuffling sound as an invisible soldier began to run off. “Hurry up soldier! We haven’t got all day! Load the next bolt!” The Sergeant shouted out to the only member left of his crew.
“Everyone make a note of your position,” Prothal shouted. “In a few moments the immediate area will be enclosed in a heavy fog, protecting our southern front from the missile fire of these evil beasts. Even these creatures’ night vision will not be able to see through it.”
Hannibal cleared the carnage and broke into the light of Prothal’s god. He was greeted by troops being tormented by crossbows from the now visible second wave of orcs. He spent little time worrying about what he could not save and prepared to save the heavy fighting force.
Alarmed by the renewed missile fire upon the already battered dragoon’s, Prothal moved about 10 feet towards the water and squatted low behind several soldiers. Nearly silent words escaped his lips as he traced a simple pattern in the night air. The whooshing sounds of another wave of crossbow bolts were heard, and the men in front of him fell, dying to protect an officer. Within moments a dense fog began to form around the surrounding area.
Hearing Prothal’s command Hannibal scanned the battlefield as Prothal called up the fog to block the sight of the orc crossbowmen. Smiling with satisfaction, Hannibal sat his horse much more calmly and tried to fix the positions of the enemy in his mind as they vanished from sight. He was just in time to see the renewed arrows raining down on the orcish positions as the archers began their fire again.
“We can either continue to fight within this thick fog or fall back just out side its area of effect. Either way all of the dragoon’s should be protected from further missile fire.” Prothal shouted to his immediate companions, “I say we fall back to the south and wait for them to move from their dug in positions.”
“OK men, ” Hannibal roared over the battle, using the confusion of the light, and now the fog, to organise the battered troops. Realising he may take an arrow but needing to rally the troops he sat his horse with his shield between him and the orc arrows. Trusting in the heavy plate to protect Fleetfoot as well from any random arrows, he continued, “Form up in the hedgehog A front of 6 and 6 deep, wounded in the centre. Calvary dismount and use your lances from the second rank. Shields up and make ‘em come to us. We’ll form up just behind the fog and slaughter any who come stumbling out into the light.”
“Understood, sir!” Shouted Lt Stonewall as he quickly barked to the troops, “Sound a general retreat, get the men to the south, and form up there!” Through the fog, Hannibal could see shadowy figures making a move to the south.
I will have the formation formed off-centre of the fog closer to the waters edge, thought Hannibal. He trusted that random shots would be fired through the fog and that the orcs would assume that they would stay centred on it. With that formation they could use the water as protection from one side.
The ‘turtle’ should be very effective against the crossbowmen, Hannibal reasoned. Since they fire on a flat trajectory, overhead protection was not terribly critical and with overlapping shields to the front and the lances to fend off attackers, it should limit casualties – at the expense of mobility. This defence would give Taro and the others a very clear field of fire to take out the rest of the orcs.
Prothal proceeded to exit the fog to the south and link up with the young man he had switched helms with. In a matter of seconds his vision returned to normal as he exited the spell’s area of affect. Since the orcs were not advancing, he took that moment as an opportunity to assess the dragoon’s status and view the carnage before the formation Hannibal ordered was complete.
He could not see the orcs’ positions, due to the fog. But it had brought the troops the respite they needed. He took position in their third rank and prepared for another assault. His heart sank as the remnants of the troops began to form up. He could easily count them – about 16 lightly wounded, and another 8 seriously wounded. They had probably lost another 5-7 men during the moments it took him to raise the fog of war.
He had completely ignored the short protruding shaft from his shoulder, just above the coverage of his buckler… until then. The pain was constant and felt as if a burning brand was being poked into his flesh. The pain brought an unexpected advantage of clear focus to the task at hand.
Seeing his men follow his orders, and not a few quickly dragging wounded comrades to the centre or dead orcs to the front as a rampart, Hannibal nodded, scanned the battlefield and dismounted quickly from Fleetfoot. He could not see the orcish positions but he trusted his archers. They would make short work of the orcs at the beach.
Detailing the walking wounded to take the heavy horses out of combat, Hannibal nevertheless kept Fleetfoot with him as he spoke with Prothal.
“Good work with the light. Now just keep them alive long enough for the main body to crush them. I don’t think they know just how many men we have in the trees. That large boat seems to have disappeared. I hope Ky’Thand can see it from the watchtower. I need to get back to the main body and manage the battle from there. Don’t advance any more as it appears the second wave has already formed up; the men just need to keep it from moving south”
“Lt. Stonewall, ” Hannibal called to the Dragoon’s leader, “I must ride to the eastern front of this battle. But your men are to know that I trust in you to hold the south and keep the orc bottled up tight.” Hannibal continued to raise his voice so all those about could hear.
“Take this light,” Hannibal handed the light-stone to Stonewall, “And know that I trust you and your men to return it to me after the battle.”
The officer looked at him, a respect in his eyes, “I promise I will bring it back to you safely, sir. With my life I will.” Saluting Hannibal, he formed up with his men behind the wall of shields and dead bodies they had erected as cover. Lances protruded over the dense wall of flesh and metal as the troops waited for any enemy to come out of the already clearing fog.
Prothal approached Hannibal before entering their noble ranks, “May the hand of the Eternal One be with you as well, my friend. We will need every edge we can muster against these foul beasts.”
Prothal produced his holy symbol of the Eternal One and reached high, pressing it firmly against Hannibal’s hip and began a soft chant that seemed like another language to the surrounding soldiers. He finished by drawing the sign of His Grace, three interlocking rings, upon Hannibal’s armour plating. Hannibal felt a powerful strength surge through him as Prothal completed his prayer.
Feeling invigorated by Prothal’s blessing by the Eternal One, Hannibal would like this battle to end quickly. As he left the priest, he called out, “If the way clears, maybe you could take the boats? If they have mages with them that would be where they are cowering. However, for now just keep the troops alive!”
With that Hannibal mounted Fleetfoot and with great urging rode him at the fringe of battle at all the speed he can muster. Not taking any chances Hannibal hooked one leg over the saddle and rode with Fleetfoot and his armour between him and the orcish horde. Though it was hard on the horse, Hannibal rode him with random turns and bursts of speed or slowing up to throw off the aim of the crossbowmen.
Fleetfoot whinnied a little but held his pace as two crossbow bolts smashed into its side, before falling of as its armour held firm. Some orcs must have locked on him again, determined to fell his horse.
Feeling the two bolts hit Fleetfoot’s plate, Hannibal knew that the remaining orcs could still draw blood even as they were being defeated. It was a fair trade though, for it gave the Dragoons that much more time to form their defences.
“The bolt is ready, sir!” Shouted the Sergeant as Ky’Thand waited in the safety of the ballista for the two archers to arrive. He had chanced a look at the orcish formation. It was a sight that amazed him. The orcish formation had begun its advance to the east, towards Lt Rock’s position. Arrows continued to rain upon them, felling orc after orc.
Their positions looked quite loose then, as they attempted to spread out to reduce the carnage caused by the arrows. They were not charging, but were moving in disciplined lines. It was amazing – the most elite of Frelandian troops would have begun their retreat by then, but their lines still held.
Suddenly, his ears picked up two blood-curling howls of animal rage. He heard the screams from the soldier loading the bolt. Then he heard the sounds of another body falling. He realised then that the Sergeant had fallen too. Somebody, something was attacking them from behind the lines!
As Hannibal reached the southern arm of Rock’s troops he took a while to locate the Sergeant in charge in the dim light, “Move your line a bit north and forward 5 yards. Pour arrow fire into the orcs, also to loose a volley of spears into the massed ranks of the second wave. If an opportunity presents itself, volley the second spear as well”
Hannibal ordered the Sergeant to detail a runner to send similar orders to Taro, except since the alpine troops did not have spears, just to use the light crossbows. He had the runner inform Taro that Hannibal would be with Remora and the Northern wing of the army.
With that Hannibal hurried north, reaching Rock and Remora of the northern wing. As he looked over the situation, Hannibal considered his next move. The orcs were still moving on – their numbers dwindling away as the arrows poured into their positions. He estimated not more than 30 of them at the moment, about evenly divided between pikes wielders and crossbow wielders. Their pikes were pointed east, but some crossbow wielders were aiming off to Lt Stonewall’s position.
He realised that the arrows had stopped raining down on the orcish positions even as he attempted to search for Remora and Lt Rock. He could not be too sure of their positions, but he was quite sure they would not be far away from Remora’s light globe, hanging in the air. By now, all of Taro’s troops had moved off of the light, to get away from the orcish crossbowmen.
He bumped into something in the dim light. “Hey, careful there!” It was the voice of Remora! He took a chance look and realised that a major portion of the orcs had marched into the areas of magical darkness. And his own longbowmen seemed to have stopped firing, for some unknown reasons. Only Lt Rock’s troops were still firing. He began to see the light gleaming off in the air as some spears were being thrown at their extreme range.
Lt Stonewall ducked as a bolt flew over him. He turned to look at Prothal, smiling through his blood soaked face, “Anymore light for us over there, sir?” He pointed over to the orcs’ position as they began to disappear into the darkness.
He laughed a hearty laugh to himself and said somewhat jokingly, “If we win this battle tonight, sir, I will visit your great temple and vow to pay a tithe of my income to the Eternal One! And Stonewall never lies!” He winked at Prothal as he said that.
Grasping firmly the protruding bolt in his left shoulder, Prothal broke the shaft about an inch or two from his plate with a slight grimace. He managed a broad genuine smile focused upon the Lieutenant, “I’m confident that your generous contribution is already known to his Grace and it will surely come to pass, my friend. The hand of the Eternal One is already with you and will not turn away from such an oath.” He finished by dropping the remains of the feathered shaft to the ground.
Looking into the Lieutenant’s eyes and at the lines of blood upon his face, Prothal made a judgement of Stonewall’s physical condition. He knew what the answer would be, if he was to ask the proud officer of his condition. He based his decision upon the clarity of the warrior’s eyes, the amount, colour and the speed of blood that was flowing from the warrior’s head. Prothal’s experience with battle wounds allowed him to come to a quick and accurate evaluation.
Prothal spoke firmly to the Lieutenant, “Our men need you upon your feet to lead them into this next battle. If you were to collapse upon these killing fields, I fear for the morale of our men. We need you at your best!” Pressing Soothenglaac to Stonewall’s forehead he began a prayer, “Your Grace, grant me the power to heal this courageous warrior, so we may drive back these wretched forces of evil!”
Before Prothal could even finished his prayer, soldier’s from all around the battlefield witnessed a flash of perfectly clean light. It felt like the heavens themselves had opened for a brief moment. The blood upon the Lieutenant’s face slowly faded away as the wounds seemed to close of their own accord. Only slight grazes and nicks were left on his body. A hush seemed to fall upon the men as they witnessed the very power that separated the priesthood from sorcery – healing.
A clash of metal striking metal rang through the air, as Prothal gave Stonewall an encouraging and bonding slap on the shoulder with his own heavily clad forearm, before he turned away and entered the throng of men.
Lt Stonewall’s face looked like he had seen the Eternal One himself. He turned to his troops and cried out with great confidence, “The moment I call for the charge, the able bodied ones go with me. Let us catch them by surprise!” He looked out to the battlefield expectantly.
Prothal glanced at the young man wearing his helm. It was a relief to see him safe, though injured with a bolt stuck in his armour. He did not have the nervous look then, but looked like one who was already in the makings of a veteran soldier. Making his way to the young warrior wearing his own helm glowing, Prothal stood before him.
“You have honoured yourself and your unit by showing such valour in taking the helm of light and showing the way for all. Let us now switch them back, for your helm is a bit to snug upon my watermelon sized head”
Prothal indicated with a wide and confident smile, while switching helms. Many of the men also chuckled and appeared to welcome the moment of levity before their next skirmish. “May the hand of the Eternal One stay with you all.”
Closing his eyes after donning his own helm once again he spoke silent words and traced the three rings of the Eternal One upon the courageous young soldier’s chest. Again, the power of the Eternal One seemed to fill the young man with courage as he gripped his weapon with a fierce determination in his eyes.
Opening his eyes Prothal continued, “Continue your exceptional valour by setting the example for others to follow.” Another clash of metal rang through the air as Prothal struck the young man upon the shoulder like he had done to Stonewall. This time, he heard the same sound again and again, as it echoed all around him. Each of the dragoons followed suit with their immediate companions and each yelled a voracious cry of enthusiasm.
Prothal beamed, he was pleased that the moral of the men was returning to their advantage as he made his way back to Lt. Stonewall. Raising Lightbringer high over his glowing head, he yelled with a scream of enthusiasm as the next round of battle was about to ensue. The officer next to him yelled out a battle cry as he began the charge. The men followed. There were only thirteen men in the charge, including Prothal. According to Sharilan folklore, this was an inauspicious number.
Seeing the second wave of orcs being dealt with, Hannibal felt something was very wrong. The orcs should have broken off by now, either in fear or at least the enemy commander should call them off to fight another day. They were being defeated in detail! Even though the losses of the heavy fighters was high, and many more would be long recovering; it was not worth the force of orcs being destroyed before them.
Hannibal had to admire their persistence – they were being slaughtered but still kept formation. What were they trying not to have us see? Hannibal asked himself.
Suddenly, his ears picked up two blood-curling howls of animal rage. Only knowing that they seemed to be coming from the tower, Hannibal cursed and wondered how they got troops behind them so fast. He also cursed, as the troops did not sound human!
“Remora, Mystari be praised; your quick thinking has swung the battle our way. Can you cast one more light spell to illuminate our foe?” Hannibal pointed to an area where the magical darkness still holds sway, “Then I need you to come with me and see what that sound to our rear is! Something is keeping our archers from firing.”
Remora’s face could not be seen clearly against the darkness – only the metallic clinks of her armour, and the occasional reflection off the metal, assured Hannibal it was her. The voice cried out, “You will not get much light against the darkness, Hannibal. My spells are not strong enough to overcome a darkness of that magnitude. But I will send it over anyway.”
Hannibal noticed the light source beginning to shift as Prothal and the rest of the dragoons began to charge at the orcish positions. The magical darkness seemed to shrink as the combined light of his lightstone and Prothal’s magical light began to push back its hold.
Hannibal looked about for 5 men to accompany him and Remora to go see what was going on. It was not easy to find the men and co-ordinate them in the darkness, but it was done. Remora, in the meantime, had finished chanting. A globe of light hung in the air above the darkness. A section of the orcs came into view.
The rain continued to pelt mercilessly – Hannibal could not help but hear noises and cries of confusion over Lt Rock’s units to the south. Perhaps it was his imagination but he could not help chancing a look. As the light from Prothal and his lightstone began to illuminate the battlefield, he saw something in the light that made him hold his breath.
Dead bodies of his infantry soldiers. Now that the light was illuminating the area, the soldiers could start to see who they were fighting against. Hannibal wished they had not seen. It was a terrifying image indeed. A minotaur, branding an axe easily the size of a poleaxe, cleaving away soldiers with each merciless stroke.
Hannibal also noticed two orcs, dressed identically, quickly breaking off the engagement and disappearing into the darkness, now that the light had taken away their cloak of darkness. The orcs must have struck through the forest. Which might mean his longbowmen were probably taken care of already. They were fast. Almost too fast to be believable.
Prothal did not see any orc that looked like it was a spell-caster. He saw something else in the light that sent a shiver down his spine though. He could also tell that Lt Stonewall had seen it. The officer waved for the troops to press their attack on the orcish formation. He was going to ignore it. Prothal’s attention was drawn to that creature, however.
It was an abomination the elders had spoken about in the lands of Philia. Prothal had remembered tales of how the minotaurs were among the most handsome and strongest of men in the days of the Dark Years. Desiring greater power, they had dared challenge a great archmage in his tower, to rob him of a potion that were rumoured to grant great strength to those who imbibed it.
But their pride had blinded them. They were no match for the archmage, and he cursed them with an eternal curse – they shall have great strength, but they shall be shunned by all men. They knew the reason they would be shunned the moment they gained their strength – their heads were hideously transformed to that of a bull. But worst still, they would not taste of any meat save those of sentient beings.
Chapter 5: The Enemy from Behind
Ky’Thand shouted, “Turn the light they are behind us! Damned incompetent darn soldiers, should have stayed home.” The lights remained stayed on the battle at the beach, continuing to light up the orcs in the formation.
Ky’Thand crouched behind the ballista and looked back trying to see any orcish forms. The area was very dark – he could hardly see a thing, with all the searchlights being focused on the battle area, and not a single light source about.
Then he saw the glint of metal from a weapon just to his left, and prepared his spell – a stunning spray of colours he had used many times before. His mind began its focus, and his fingers began to feel the tendrils of the mana about the land as he chanted the mystic syllables.
A loud clap of thunder was heard, as a sharp pain assaulted him from behind. A weapon had cut into his shoulder from slightly above him – probably from an enemy that had climbed on top of the ballista structure. The mana he was trying to draw from dissipated as quickly as he had been drawing them.
Instinctively, he rolled away – and was kicked in the face. A little stunned, he twisted away as another unseen blade cut into his abdomen. This time there was no loud clap of thunder.
Ky’Thand felt the world reeling about him in confusion. He could feel the warmth of his blood spurting out from his abdomen and his shoulder. He realised with fear that his Armour spell had failed him. In the darkness, fighting an unseen enemy. Things could not be worse. But his ears picked up faint sounds of fighting up in the tower.
A body thudded near to him. It was an impact of one that fell from at least three floors. One of the men up in the tower was already dead. There should still be one left.
Prothal saw it against the light of his helm. The soldiers would have no chance against it. Already, the troops had broken up, some withdrawing, some simply fleeing in terror. He counted at least two dozens on the ground, some with body parts strewn all over the place. It must be the hand of the Eternal One that had moved them just in time to catch the creature in the light, before it created greater carnage.
Seeing the powerful minotaur caught in the light of the Eternal one, Prothal’s stomach rolled with a feeling of horror, the light reflected from its mighty battle-axe swinging high. He thought that he could see blood covering its surface and dripping onto the even bloodier ground below. That was the blood of many proud warriors, he thought, dying an unseen death in the dark night. Suddenly his thoughts seemed to be split, his primary objective no longer clear.
He must stay with Lt. Stonewall, so the way would be lit on their renewed assault into the magical darkness. Prothal also knew that as the dragoons continued their charge, the glow of light would once again plunge the axe wielding beast back into its coveted cloak of darkness. These thoughts and more flashed through his mind in the instant he saw the foul beast. I must work toward both ends, he thought as he moved to the outskirts of the dragoons and began casting a spell.
The fine young warrior that he had just aided with the touch of the Eternal One, saw Prothal step to the side of the dragoons and followed him with a friend or two. They were determined to protect the ambitious priest from harms way.
Mumbling a brief prayer, Prothal looked as if he was rubbing a crystal ball that was not even there. In one fluid movement, he appeared to throw the unseen object in the direction of the now visible minotaur and pointed his finger straight as if in a guiding motion.
In an instant a bright flash of light ignited behind the face of the vile beast, as soldiers nearby shielded their eyes from the sudden flash. Prothal turned back a second later and ran back to Lt. Stonewall’s side, to rejoin the enthusiastic warriors. Luckily Lt. Stonewall had seen his quick exit and slowed their momentum.
Holding Lightbringer poised and ready before him, Prothal attacked with a fiery passion for spilling orcish blood. All in the name of the Eternal One.
Ky’Thand sat next to the ballista, feeling his lifeblood ooze between his fingers. He said to himself as his mind started to clear up, “Got to do something, or we are all dead.”
Ky’Thand mumbled what could be his last incantation. “WEB”, he called out, as he focused upon the tower supports and the ballista. With a sign of effort a huge mass of webbing appeared. He was caught amongst the huge sticky web. But if he was correct, so were his attackers.
Hannibal’s face turned rock hard at the sight of the Minotaur’s carnage but his voice still sounded completely in control if tight with anticipation of the battle to come. Now the battle really begins, he thought to himself. More than 150 orcs, simply a decoy to let these abominations land on our shore! Now I must earn my right to command once again.
Hannibal had little time to make a decision. He felt something was wrong in the watchtower. The ballista was silent and the searchlights were not moving. The minotaur was massacring his troops in the open. Orders were swiftly given.
To the 5 men with him, Hannibal barked out, “Men, hand me your longest spear!” Hannibal was swiftly handed a spear from one of the men.
“Now, get to Taro and tell him to volley one round of bolts into the Minotaur. Form an open square, and most importantly – place his 3 fastest swordsmen facing INTO the centre of the square. The enemy seemed to appear in the spot where the most damage can be caused. Move the square into the light and link up with Stonewall and make sure the orcs don’t get back to their boats.”
Hannibal took enough time to hand one of them, still in the darkness, his personal seal ring, saying. “These orders are strange but there is no time to argue. Show him this.”
Watching the men move off, Hannibal hoped this tactic could keep the alpine troops alive. If any troops could keep discipline, Taro’s crack troops would. Hannibal also realise he was betting these troops on the swords of three unknown men. If those orcs somehow appeared where they want, those swordsmen must dispatch them before they cause panic in the square.
Hannibal suddenly saw a bright blossom of light bloom about the area of the minotaur. Weaker than the light of the lightstone, and even that of Prothal’s light, it seemed to hang about it like a beacon. Its light however, had illuminated some areas he could not see at first. And he saw the two orcs!
Strings of bolts began to snake towards the two orcs, and towards the minotaur as it began its advance. Hannibal knew he could trust Taro to take the initiative in times like these. He remembered a northerner’s proverb – A Good General Is Worth More Than A Thousand Soldiers. He had a good one indeed.
Taking the spear in hand and sheathing the ebony blade, Hannibal vaulted into Fleetfoot’s saddle. Patting his armoured side, Hannibal calmed the horse, “Well good friend. I’ll need one more charge out of you tonight. There will be no time for caution on this run.”
Wheeling Fleetfoot, Hannibal shouted to Rock, “Rally your men at the watchtower and get those searchlights working. Find out what that rogue Ky’Thand is up to and see if he can make any sense out of what is going on. Beware, I fear the enemy may already be at the tower.” A shout of affirmation was heard from his Lieutenant.
Looking down on Remora, Hannibal smiled fondly, “Priestess, may Mystari smile on you. Fight with Rock and counter any enemy magic. I must go to save what men I can from that beast.”
Handling the spear as a makeshift lance, Hannibal wheeled Fleetfoot and raced him around behind Taro’s men as they began forming their square. Hannibal made no attempt to hide but made a point to ride through the eastern-most light on his way to the Minotaur. Upon reaching due east of the monster, he turned Fleetfoot around.
From Hannibal’s position, he could see something like 6 crossbow bolts sticking out of the creature’s hide. It roared with a bloodcurdling howl of anger and raced towards Taro’s troops. The two orcs seemed to be fallen on the battlefield, lying with pools of greenish blood on the ground.
Taro seemed to have ignored his orders and formed up into a loose formation inverted ‘C’ formation. With no spears or pikes, Taro’s troops could not stop its charge but the formation would still form a good defence against an enemy larger than themselves. It would enable them to probably attack from all sides. With perhaps heavy casualties for those in the middle of the ‘C’. Taro himself was there.
Ky’Thand heard grunts in a strange tongue. Sounded like curses. He tried to move his arms to get at his potion but he was held fast in the webbing. Talk about being caught in a trap of one’s own making.
Ky’Thand looked up at the tower. The noises of fighting seemed to have ceased. Suddenly, one of the searchlights dimmed and flickered, and then went off. Only one searchlight was shining from the tower.
From the volume and the exchange, Ky’Thand could estimate there were about two of them. The sources of the grunts seemed not to have moved. Which meant they were probably held just like he was. There had better not be any reinforcements, or he would be in big trouble…
Riding tall in the saddle and presenting an excellent target for the poleaxe of the minotaur, Hannibal lowered the spear and readied his shield. Urging Fleetfoot for all the speed he could muster, the two foes rushed together with massive speed. Over 600 pounds of horse and armour riding headlong to meet the 8 foot frame of the Minotaur.
Hannibal’s posture on the steed invited attack, but he sat tall in the saddle, seeming to be relying on his shield alone to stop the minotaur’s blow. Taro’s troops had by then stopped firing, fearing to hit their commander.
As the two foes approached to within 5 yards of each other Hannibal shouted, “For the Archmage!” And threw the spear at the Minotaur, hoping to throw off its blow or charge. Without seeing if the spear had struck, Hannibal guided Fleetfoot into the beast and rolled out of the saddle over the rump of the horse. As he landed on the ground he drew the ebony blade.
As Hannibal rolled the massive axe described an arc through the area where Hannibal’s head was but moments before! Hannibal hit the ground with a thunderous crash as Fleetfoot and the wounded Minotaur collided. The whinnying of Fleetfoot could be heard as its 600-pound frame smashed into the creature. The creature staggered a few steps back, and fell. Fleetfoot, too, had lost its footing under the force of the charge.
Hannibal gracefully landed and turned to face the stunned Minotaur. He drew his ebony blade and quickly slashed at the beast across its midsection. Still disoriented from his landing, his swing went wide, missing easily. The beast swung its axe down and smashed the floor where Hannibal was. It was probably as disoriented as Hannibal was.
After the first exchange of blows, Hannibal used shield and speed to quickly strike under the massive polearm. The ebony blade cut into his hide, drawing greenish blood – which quickly disappeared into the blade itself. Hannibal retreated quickly as the beast struck a blow that was deflected by Hannibal’s dancing shield.
Hannibal’s blows seemed to be causing little damage, his sword remaining untainted by blood. However, the Minotaur seemed to weaken and stagger as the blows piled up. Precise and guided by a skill unmatched in his command, Hannibal pressed his attack. Piercing and slashing blows, meant to weaken and confuse rained down on the beast’s legs, torso, and groin.
The beast began to reel a little from his repeated attacks. Hannibal saw his chance and jumped inside the creature’s axe arc. He delivered the coup de grace, burying the blade deep within the beast’s chest. The creature gave a weak roar, its eyes full of hatred as they stared into Hannibal’s own. It dropped its axe and tried to push Hannibal away, but Hannibal held on, pushing the sword even deeper.
The minotaur fell to its knees, its eyes desperately trying to remain open. Slowly they began to close, as it fell down to the ground.
As the minotaur fell, Hannibal remained convinced that more foes would appear. They probably would not wait for the battle to end before engaging. Hannibal listened around for that booming sound again, the one that seemed to precede the battle sounds at the tower base, but it was nowhere to be heard.
Keeping a sense of the battleground, Hannibal was careful to not be forced away from the magical light. The minotaur’s breathing seemed to cease, and its muscles twitched, signifying its final death. Hannibal had won another victory.
The distance closed quickly between the charging troops and the orcs. Some of the orcs quickly turned and attempted to engage the new quarter, but Lt Rock’s troops had closed in on the lighted orcs. They were caught in a pincer movement, pinned between two charging foes.
The leading orc’s pike glanced off Prothal’s shield as Prothal charged him down. He cleaved down Lightbringer upon his opponent. It stepped to the side, avoiding the blow. Dropping its pike, it smashed at Prothal with its bare fists!
The sound of bone meeting metal was heard as the orc winced in pain. But it was still clear headed enough to avoid another blow from Prothal. But it ran into the sword of another soldier instead. Smiling at Prothal through his open helm, the soldier shouted to Prothal, “Looks like this one is mine, sir!” He proceeded to lock blades with another orc.
Prothal could see that the remaining troops were making short work of the orcs. But the lines were not breaking. They must be mad or something. Any general faced with such carnage would have broken off the engagement. Prothal could not help but notice something – where was the general? There was no noticeable leader directly the troops.
Another orc came after Prothal with a battleaxe. Swinging Lightbringer down, Prothal cut into the shoulder of the orc. The orc returned a weak blow with the axe, which Prothal easily sidestepped. Prothal swept the orc off its feet with his legs, and finished it off with a drive from his sword right into his neck. Greenish blood spurted out from its ruptured artery, splashing all over the Prothal’s robes.
Ky’Thand heard the sounds of approaching men. He heard a curse – in Common! This was followed by another, before a voice he recognised as Remora’s shouted out, “Stop! There is magic here! Don’t move further or you will be entangled as well!”
“Men, ready formation for defence! Damn – next time remind me not to depend on the light of the search-tower. We should get our own torches! Sergeant, get your tinderboxes and burn this thing down!”
Ky’Thand could see, from his position, the second searchlight dimming and going out as well. Somehow he was glad of the magical light from Prothal. Without it, the battlefield would have been plunged into darkness again. But other pressing matters were at hand right then.
Hannibal shook his shoulders to relieve the stress of single combat and looked over the battlefield. Many of his men were dead or wounded but Taro’s unit still seemed pretty much intact. With a mighty blow, Hannibal cleaved the head from the minotaur and held it up to Taro’s men.
“Well, this shows that the men of Frelandia are more than a match for whatever the Darklands can throw at us. Hoist this on our standard and strike fear in the remaining foe!”
Hannibal took called out to Fleetfoot, which was looking at the body of the minotaur. There were slight dents on the horse’s armour where it had smashed into the minotaur. These dents would require a day of work from the armourer to hammer back, but it had protected Fleetfoot well. Perhaps some salves, and maybe a lump of sugar would be in order for the gallant horse.
He moved to where Taro was forming his men, wheeling them to face the orcs. He was preparing to move off and join in the action when he saw Hannibal approach. The troops cheered, but it seemed like a half-hearted cheer. Signalling the 5 men he originally sent with orders to Taro, he gave the one man back his spear, “Thank you for the use of your weapon. You and these men stick with me. There were two orcs cut down by the Alpine troops as they shot at the Minotaur, a pair to go out to each one and make sure they are dead. Anything you find on them, bring back to me.”
“You,” Hannibal said, pointing to the man whose spear he borrowed, “Please look after Fleetfoot. The gallant beast staggered the Minotaur giving me time to engage.”
As his men did as he asked, Hannibal turned to Taro. “Well met Lieutenant. Your men are handling themselves well, as always.” Hannibal looked out over the beach battleground, “Stonewall and Rock look to be finishing off the orcs at the beach. We’ve lost a lot of men tonight, no need to spend more men looking for stragglers that got through to the woods. Wait for me to finish here and we’ll fall back with your men to the tower and regroup.”
Taro nodded, “Yes, sir.” He looked visibly distressed, and it seemed to be affecting his men as well. He looked up at Hannibal and asked, “Sir, Taro understands why the Major has placed us in the holding position. But somehow, Taro wished that he had been more in the fighting. His men too, saw most of the battle but our weapons drew little blood today.”
Taro looked towards the fighting, and remarked, “It would be over soon, sir. The gallant men out there will get their honours and decorations, while my troops had very little of any kills in their blood, sir. Look – none of my troops had injuries other than small bruises! What will others say? That the Alpine troops, flower of the border guards, are cowards?” He shook his head again but kept his peace.
Hannibal searched the Minotaur body for clues and waited for the men to do the same with the orcs that were near by. The minotaur had nothing on itself except for a loincloth and its weapon. The weapon looked relatively unremarkable – an axehead and a spear point on the end of a long shaft. Probably just an infantry halberd used by the minotaur.
Green and smelly blood continued to ooze out of the minotaur’s neck and chest where the ebony blade had cut through it. Hannibal looked at his weapon. It was not glowing, and it still maintained its pristine condition. No trace of blood. No nicks and chips on the blade. Hannibal remembered again the battle with the orcs, when the weapon had smashed through their armour as if they were but pieces of paper. What manner of weapon could this be?
The four men searching the two orcs jogged over to Hannibal. The atmosphere was noticeably less tense now, though the soldiers still watched carefully in case unknown creatures might suddenly pop out. The four stopped and saluted. One of them reported, “Nothing on them except their weapons, sir. The chainmail armour they wore could be used by the troops. The shield and the weapons they carry look serviceable, too. We could commission them into the army with your permission, sir.” The four stood awaiting their orders.
As Taro led his men, with the grisly war trophy impaled on a captured pike, off to the tower, Hannibal surveyed the field of battle and pondered what it all could mean.
Ky’Thand called out, “Remora, don’t destroy the web till you have encircled the tower, there are at least two saboteurs still here and I want them alive. Call me once you have the tower covered, I will drop the spell.”
The sounds of shuffling in the silence were heard as the troops readied their positions. It seemed to take quite a while as the troops stumbled into the darkness, trying to move as quickly as they could in the poor lighting conditions. The glint of metal reflected from the troops by the light of the battle over in the west enabled the troops to see enough not to bump into each other, but another curse was heard as one soldier got himself trapped in the webbing again.
Waiting for the signal Ky’Thand closed his eyes. A whistle from a soldier near him was the signal he awaited. Ky’Thand tried to use a Firefinger cantrip to light the web, but his hands were held fast by the webs. Try as he might, he could not get the hands to trace the pattern required of the cantrip.
Ky’Thand looked up at the tower – he could see a sudden burst of light and the shadows of fighting forms within. He heard the voices of Remora, and another soldier – and orcs! He was right. There were enemy troops attacking the tower itself after all.
Chapter 6: Victory
Ignoring the vile contamination of his fine purple cloak of faith, Prothal removed Lightbringer from the still form of the dying orc. Quickly surveying the situation and seeing their impending victory, he sought out another creature of evil. The berserk-looking eyes of the orc stared into his own. He raised up his battleaxe but Prothal cut him down in short order.
The carnage of battle was foul and seemed to stick in the young priest’s nose with a stench of death. What could have possessed these creatures? The few remaining orcs refused to yield to the flow of defeat, and the last few were dispatched with deadly precision.
It was over! At least for now. It appeared that Hannibal was successful in repelling the Minotaur and that was very good. The cost in lives was daunting, as he walked the blood stained grounds looking for survivors in the carnage. Lightbringer hung loosely from his grasp, almost dragging the ground with its tip.
Its considerable weight seemed almost too much to bear, as his knuckles tingled with pain from grasping its surface tightly for far too long. He absently slid the weapon into its sheath as he bent down to examine a fallen comrade.
Gently rolling the injured form onto his back, he looked for the telltale signs of major wounds. Locating a large wound inflicted upon the chest area, he unbuckled the breastplate of the now unconscious warrior and viewed the damage. Tears began to fill Prothal’s eyes as he began to staunch the flow of blood with the warrior’s own cloak.
“Get help!” He screamed to a soldier standing by dazed. “We need all available hands searching for and treating our wounded. They didn’t fight by our sides only to die after the battle was won!” Grief etched his face as he tied the man’s own cloak firmly around the wound and then proceeded on to the next soldier in need.
Prothal lost track of time as he proceeded to organise the wounded and the dead. Soldiers joined him and followed his every word. Many were dead, but others could still be saved from this untimely death. The wounded able to be moved, were carried into the infirmary for further treatment. The more serious cases were made comfortable where they lay. By this time, other soldiers, trained as battlefield medics, began arriving to save the more seriously wounded cases.
Looking towards the tower, Prothal’s thoughts turned to those of his close friends, and with a harsh whistle, he called his steed to his side. Had Knickerbocker survived the bloody assault? The powerful moves of the horse as it galloped over confirmed his question. He had seen Hannibal earlier and knew that he was alive and well, but what about Ky’Thand?
The light from Prothal to where Ky’Thand was, revealing the position he was in. He was held fast in the webs, and so were three of the soldiers. More interestingly, however, were the two orcs caught in the same webs as he was. They were wearing chainmail armour, and carried broadswords. Held fast, they glared and tried to bring immobile hands to cover their faces from the intruding light.
Another body felt down into the webs from above the tower, to join a dead soldier. It was an orc, its skull smashed up, no doubt by Remora’s mace. He heard the voice of Remora call up from the tower, “Everything secured here. They have put out the fires – the men are trying to clear the sand, to relight the beacons again!”
Lieutenant Rock chuckled at Ky’Thand from a safe position, “Sir, I am afraid you are quite stuck here! I will get my strongest men to clear the webs.” He turned to three big brutes of men standing next to him, “Clear the webs – and capture these two alive!”
The men nodded and began to clear up the webs with the swords. Ky’Thand noticed a few stuck weapons in the web as well – no doubt the result of some misguided effort to clear the webs. In just a few minutes, they had cleared enough of the webs to free him and the two orcs. They struggled for a while, but wrestling manoeuvres by several soldiers held them fast.
Then Ky’Thand saw and heard something interesting. Choking and gurgling sounds were heard from the orcs as they tried in vain to bring their hands to their throats. The soldiers held them in a vice-like grip. Their eyes rolled frantically as some unseen force began to choke them. The soldiers quickly released them and rolled off a distance, immediately drawing their weapons in anticipation of attack.
Their frantic movements, clawing at their throats, were most pitiful. Foam appeared at their mouth, and mucus dripped from their noses. One dropped down to his knees and collapsed on his face. Another struggled to stay on its feet, before he too, collapsed.
“Get me a bucket of water now.” Screamed Ky’Thand in vain. An old story of a mage who used a water breathing spell to kill air breathers rang in his mind. A darn spectral hand and water breathing spell combo, Ky’Thand rapidly thought.
“Damn, I am just about sick and tired of this darkness and its fetid rubbish it comes with.” Ky’Thand looked about for a bucket but none was found. Ky’Thand stood and shouted into the darkness, “I now know your work wizard and I will come for you when I please.”
The still bodies lay for quite some time before Lieutenant Rock gave the orders for the soldiers to check on them. Remora had by then came down, the searchlights having returned and scanning the beach. Her eyes narrowed at the orcs lying down. The two soldiers checking on them looked towards Lieutenant Rock. Their eyes told Ky’Thand everything – they were dead.
Ky’Thand turned and scooped up his remaining Greek Fire flasks and put them away. He had only used up one of his own. The other had been army issue. He then called upon a flame to burn the remaining web in anger, knowing he had been out manoeuvred this time completely.
The soldiers who were near the web jumped out of the way as the sticky strands started to burn. As the flame burnt, lighting up the area about the watchtower, Ky’Thand saw the bodies of the loyal troops who were manning the ballista. The bodies of the dead orcs lay near to them. The flames soon died down, leaving only the charred bodies, and the slightly blackened exterior of the tower, and the slightly burnt structure of the ballista. The flames were not hot enough to cremate them.
Lieutenant Rock turned towards Ky’Thand, and spoke coolly, “I hope you have vented enough of your anger, sir? If you do not mind, I would like to retrieve their bodies and gave them a burial. I am still wondering how I would explain to their parents and wives as to the state of their bodies. Am I supposed to say ‘friendly fire’?”
Ky’Thand looked at Lt Rock, straight into his eyes. “That was frustration, you never wish to see me angry.” That was spoken with an underlying menace. Calming slightly, he continued, “Those two that died last, I wish them taken back to the fort. Leave everything intact on them, I suspect they will be elite soldiers and Hannibal will wish to examine them.”
Rock shook his head and ordered some soldiers to carry the bodies away. Some of them walked carefully past Ky’Thand, as if afraid to incur his ire. Ky’Thand was used to it – many of the soldiers were very jittery about sorcerers. A few carried away the orcs towards what looked like a pile of dead bodies. They would probably build a funeral pyre to burn up all the orcs.
The watchtower itself became brighter as several torches were lit. Remora was obviously very smug with her achievements during the battle. Her shield and armour showed splashes and spots of greenish blood that had spilt on her. It really made Ky’Thand wonder about the law on the church against the drawing of blood. Even cracked and smashed skulls could draw blood.
Her beautiful face seemed to carry a sneer as she came near to Ky’Thand. She looked at the injuries on him and said, “I think you can still walk. You don’t need healing. After all, what did you do? Hide away in the tower and wait for the enemy to fall into your lap?” She gave a haughty laugh and moved towards the troops. She called for a few of them to follow her into the woods.
Ky’Thand had heard stories being told about this woman. One reason why Prothal was so much more popular and ‘worshipped’ among them was the fact that he was a humble man, willing to listen to their woes. Not only that – but Remora had never used the healing gifts on anyone save herself. Prothal had always been the one who ministered to the troops. Sometimes he wondered if the gods were fair – a woman like her should be ugly, and not beautiful.
Ky’Thand glared, not saying a thing, knowing anything said would just make her laugh more.
Prothal mounted his powerful steed and became comfortable within the worn saddle. Holding Lightbringer in a ready position he called to Lt. Stonewall, “We must secure the parameter and be sure that the enemy is gone. We do not want a secret pocket of orcs or, the Eternal One forbid, another minotaur walking our immediate territory. Imagine the damage they could cause.”
While Knickerbocker danced anxiously back and fourth he continued, “But first follow me with Hannibal’s light stone and we will find the centre of this magical darkness”.
Spurring the spirited horse gently into motion, they walked towards the water’s edge revealing the full area of magical darkness. Each remained ready for the unexpected as they explored the beach front and looked onto the dark waters.
The area of magical darkness was full of dead bodies. Bodies mostly of orcs, but also of the fallen dragoons and horsemen. Already, soldiers were helping out to carrying to the bodies into a heap near the beach. Prothal knew the procedure. Enemy soldiers were disposed of by fire. Their generals would be given a proper burial, or sent back to their lands. Except there was no visible general in this invasion.
The darkness should take some time to go off. The rain seemed to have stopped by then, slowing to a drizzle. The areas off the Great Lake, however, seemed to be covered with a deep mist. It really made him wonder if perhaps the enemy had been able to call upon the weather itself. If so, Theophilia was going to be in big trouble.
Prothal turned to Stonewall and said, “I will take the southern beach area and scout out the parameter. If you and several of your men could take the light stone and do the same to the north, we will meet up at the watchtower. If either of us encounter a disturbance whistle two short blasts and the other will come their aid.”
Stonewall nodded and called out to a Sergeant nearby. There were precious few of them left after the night’s encounter. The soldier jogged over and gave a salute to the Lieutenant. He returned the salute and said, “Call off the disposal of the bodies here first. We will check up the areas north first before returning here.” The soldier nodded, gave a salute, and began to organise the men in the area to follow the young officer.
Stonewall turned to look at Prothal. His fingers absentmindedly touched the areas where his wounds had closed. There was a renewed respect in his eyes as he said, “The Eternal One is truly different from Mystari, sir. Stonewall shall honour his pledge. Perhaps one day, the One-Who-Has-No-Name shall make it possible for me to take a pilgrimage to the great temple in Philia.” He bowed and turned around to gather his men for the search up north.
Prothal nudged Knockerbocker into a smooth trot and headed to the south along the waterfront. His helm shed light all around and revealed the carnage of battle. Prepared for an attack, if an enemy came into sight or to come to the aid of the injured if need be.
Riding upon his old friend’s back, he felt a bit renewed and offered thanks to The-One-Who-Has-No-Name for allowing their painful victory and instilling in him with the power of his light. Soon his heart began to sink again after seeing the scattered bodies of fine warriors and even more orcs.
How ill prepared we are for such a dark future that seems to lie before us, he thought silently as he remembered his foreboding vision.
Finishing up his evening ride at the watchtower and not hearing any whistles of alarm from Stonewall, Prothal headed for the tower to talk with his companions. He saw an interesting sight before him – a flame of multicoloured hues that must have burnt hotter before, but was dying down. He saw Rock talking to Ky’Thand, and then Remora.
Remora. She was a beautiful woman, definitely beyond many women he had seen in his life. But she did not have a spirit to match her beauty. Prothal had encountered the people who worshipped Mystari many times. Humility was never in their lexicon. But Remora had a pride within her that outstripped many of the worshippers of Mystari he had encountered.
He dismounted and walked towards Ky’Thand, to talk with him.
Quietly to Taro, Hannibal conceded, “You are right Lt, your men do deserve a chance for glory. I was going to wait till morning but your troops are fresh, but probably down to a dozen bolts apiece. I will begin the hunt for the enemy leaders tonight. We will have a 6-hour headstart and they would imagine that we would regroup before pursuing them. Prepare your men to follow the trail of the Minotaur back to its origins.”
Looking over Taro and his men, Hannibal frowned at the troops’ lack of enthusiasm and disappointment at not being involved in the action.
“Men,” Hannibal decided on his next course of action, “My original plan had you as the anvil these troops broke on but it didn’t work out that way. Now I need you as the most able bodied and skilled force at my disposal to track down where that minotaur came from and find the leaders of this force as they flee our might! Are you with me?”
As the men cheered loudly and began to bring up their arms in anticipation of action, Hannibal turned to the 5 men that had been travelling with him. “Men, you two,” Hannibal pointed to two of the men, “Find Prothal and Stonewall and have them join me here. If Stonewall is staying with his men, I would need Prothal’s holy helmet of light or my light gem or both.
“You two head over to the watch tower and wake Ky’Thand up. I need him with me on this hunt. Have him bring torches or lanterns. And you,” He pointed to the man holding Fleetfoot, “Take Fleetfoot to the stables and return here with any of the scouts you see between here and there. Also, bring the bullseye lantern from my quarters.
“Thank you for holding my ring,” Hannibal concluded as he slipped the seal back over his finger. The men saluted and quickly went about their tasks.
Before Fleetfoot was returned to the stables, Hannibal reached into his pouch and pulled out some leftover bits of apple that he had, “Here you go. You proved your noble heritage tonight.” With a pat on his head, Hannibal turned to the task at hand.
As the battlefield was looted (an age old army tradition) Hannibal issued the standard orders. All finds were to be turned into the armoury where they would be assessed for any intelligence gathered and then used by the army or melted down for raw materials. Coins belonged to the finders, though 20 percent should be contributed to the widows’ fund. All other finds would be paid out at the standard 40 percent (an additional 20 percent went to the widows’ fund from these as well). Hannibal ordered the Minotaur’s ‘axe’ to be placed in his quarters as a battle trophy.
The boats were to be guarded and pulled up farther on shore. The scouts would go over them with a fine toothcomb in the morning to see what could be found.
While his orders were being carried out, Hannibal looked over the battlefield with the eyes of a tracker, not just a commander. Having found little of value in the way of clues on the dead, he now looked as to their course and path through the battlefield. The trails criss-crossed and turned, making it difficult to find the track. He waited for the lights, and some scouts, to arrive.
From his position, he could see that Lt Stonewall seemed to have stumbled upon something at the north. Just 50 yards away from the beachhead was the last boat. It was really big, big enough to probably carry 8-10 minotaurs, if necessary. And yet shallow enough of draught to beach. The standard was no longer there. The soldiers seemed to have begun their search of the boat as the messenger Hannibal sent reached the Lieutenant.
The two friends had met up again after the battle. Ky’Thand did not look too good a state, blood still flowing from a wound he seemed to have forgotten about, so intent was he on something else that must have occurred while Prothal was still searching the south.
A messenger arrived and saluted both Prothal and Ky’Thand. He spoke in a ‘this-is-important’ kind of tone. He must be very excited at being a messenger to Hannibal. “Sirs, Major Hannibal requests that you meet up with him to search for the rest of the enemy troops.” He waited patiently for their answers.
At the same time, excited sounds were heard from the other side of the tower. As Ky’Thand and Prothal turned to look, they saw Xavier with another two men with him. One was badly wounded, and unconscious. The other assisted Xavier with carrying him. Xavier himself also did not look too good.
Seeing Prothal and Ky’Thand, he quickly handed over the man to another waiting soldier, and ran over to them. “Where is Hannibal, damn it! We stumbled upon a few of them over in the darkness of the forests! They seemed to be heading towards Nomad’s crossing!”
Hearing the dire news, Prothal pointed to the messenger with news of Hannibal’s request, “Go back to Hannibal as fast as you can and tell him of this dire news from the area near Nomad’s Crossing! Tell him that Ky’Thand and I are en route to this same area. Move out. Now!” Prothal propelled him in Hannibal’s direction with a push. The soldier stumbled a little and hurriedly ran off to look for Hannibal.
Turning to Xavier, he asked, “Tell me exactly what you have encountered. Were they minotaurs or a horde of orcs? And how many did you see?” Prothal waited impatiently for a response from Xavier.
“See?” He rolled his eyes up incredulously, before continuing, “Have I ever been known to get myself beat up? Hey, I know when to run! But it is hard to avoid an enemy you could not see! By Mystari – the three of us must have been really unlucky – we can even run into such skilful orcs near the woods!”
He looked about and continued, “But I guess they were not interested in us. They disappeared off into the forests, but they seemed to be headed towards the town. I could not guess how many there were, but there should be at least three of them – and highly skilled to boot. And I am no fool to fight an enemy on their home territory – the woods at night!”
“Get on your horse Prothal, I will climb up behind, we have little time.” Ky’Thand groaned a bit climbing up, fresh blood running free. He held onto Prothal.
Hearing the news of what they were up against, Prothal’s visage became dire. Twisting in his saddle to face the obviously passionate Ky’Thand who had just gained his grips onto his armour plates, he asked, “Are you sure that you are up to this challenge my friend? It appears you are in dire need of medical attention. I would place the healing hand of the Eternal One upon you, but my abilities are nearly depleted. I feel that I have only one such opportunity remaining this evening.”
Prothal looked about for the remnants of the cavalry. They were still combing the beach and searching for stragglers, and none were nearby. Several torches were already being passed around as the drizzle slowed and stopped. The thick mist still hung over the lake.
Xavier looked up at Ky’Thand with some doubt in his voice. “My dear Ky’Thand, maybe you really should get yourself patched up or something before you go running off on any errands of your own! Please don’t tell me you are trying to be a hero or something – because I am not so stupid as to go orc hunting at night! And no one, not even Hannibal, will be able to persuade me! You all can be the hero if you want to!” He shook his head muttering something, as he moved towards the relative safety of the tower barracks.
Hannibal searching the battlefield realised that it would be necessary to find the last boat to determine the course the final foes had taken. With a smile he saw that Stonewall, policing the north end of the battle had found the last boat. As Stonewall turned and looked towards Hannibal, Hannibal signalled for him to stay by the boat and that he would join him.
Telling Taro his plans Hannibal said, “Lt, have your men check where the archers were stationed then report just east of that final boat Stonewall found. Once there, we will form up for pursuit through the woods. I want to hit whatever we find with the full force of your men.” Taking the standard bearer with him, Hannibal hurried to Stonewall’s find.
Chapter 7: Those that Got Through
Moving with a quickness only a warrior could muster, Hannibal soon reached where Stonewall was. Several men seemed to have already finished looking over the boat. From up close, Hannibal could see that it was not really very remarkable. It was a plain large flat-bottomed boat, with a mast in the middle for either a sail or a standard. There were 8 oars left in the boat, oars probably requiring only 2 men-sized creatures each to man. Or one minotaur.
Hannibal looked over the boat trying to get an idea of how many creatures and what type, were on board. He did not know if orcs and minotaurs took baths, but he was quite sure the rain would have washed whatever stench was on them. Which was a pity, or it would have helped him to identify quite a few things.
Lt Stonewall spoke up, “Sir, first, your light-stone.” He handed the stone back to Hannibal. Hannibal smiled as Stonewall returned his crystal. “I knew I could count on you and your men to win the day. I shall see the company standard reflecting your efforts in this battle. Let me know of any promising men who have distinguished themselves above and beyond in the morning!”
Looking over the boat Hannibal asked, “Do you think there is enough room for more than those manning the oars? No matter right now. We know that at least 10 foes are behind us. Taro and I will take care of them, your men must keep our watchtower and surrounding area secure.”
Stonewall seemed to hesitate a little, before continuing, “The men have gone through the boat twice, sir. Nothing interesting or of value within, except…” He paused a little, as if weighing whether to tell his officer. He took out what seemed like a scroll of some sort from a pouch and handed it over to Hannibal.
Waiting patiently, but a bit puzzled at Stonewall’s hesitancy, Hannibal frowned at the blank parchment. “What is this?”
Hannibal looked carefully at the scroll given to him. It was a scroll of extreme good quality, and he had never handled such good scrolls before. Interestingly, it was blank. Nothing, absolutely no feature, marked the scroll. Lt Stonewall’s face seemed to scrounge up a little when he saw Hannibal looking through the scroll.
“I know it really sounds stupid, sir, to show you a piece of empty paper, but I thought you would like to know. If there is nothing else, sir, I think I will get the men to see if we can commission this boat into our service.” He waited for Hannibal’s response.
“You have done what you should, Lieutenant. I’ll give it to Ky’Thand, maybe he can make some sense out of it. About the boat, I think it is a good idea. We need a navy. Have the men get all the boats ashore and post a guard. I will send for seamen in the morning. Tomorrow canvas the men to see if any has any skill with boats, or building them.” Hannibal’s answer seemed to put him more at ease.
As Hannibal pondered over the scroll, the man he sent to find Ky’Thand came back without anybody with him. With anger flashing in his eyes, Hannibal asked in a cold voice, “Where are the men I sent you to find?”
As he explained, Hannibal relented, saying, “Yes they always have been headstrong. Lt. Taro,” Hannibal shouted across the still beach in his battlefield voice, “Form your men up. We must force our march to Nomad’s Crossing. Our foe is behind us!” He could swear he heard a loud cheer from where Taro’s troops were.
Holding the light crystal up to light the soldiers’ way, Hannibal prepared to set a gruelling trot towards Nomad’s Crossing, 10 miles away. He saw Ky’Thand on Prothal’s horse. Prothal seemed to be speaking something to him. He decided to hurry up to the tower.
Nearing the tower, he could see another soldier getting his lantern ready. Xavier had just stepped into the barracks. Xavier was one of the best scouts about, but he was not one well known for liking plenty of action. Perhaps he felt that he had done his job by informing him of the incursion.
As Hannibal led Taro’s men to the barrack, he signalled Taro. “Keep the men moving. Xavier!” Hannibal barked out in his best field commander’s voice, as he saw Xavier moving towards the barracks, “Where do you think you are going, my FRIEND. We just fought a major battle and the foe is marching on a town we are sworn to defend. You have your choice of two orders. One, stay on the beach and work ALL night, policing the area, carrying dead orcs to be burned, and pulling boats up the beach. There is little of value on these creatures. Or two, You and all your scouts can go with Taro and lead them to the remaining foe. This foe contains the leaders who must have ALL the VALUABLES a force of 200 would carry.”
Xavier seemed to halt in his tracks when he heard that. He turned around and stared at Hannibal, seeming to consider his words carefully. Something must have really tickled his fancy. And somehow Hannibal knew enough of his childhood friend to grasp at what that might have been.
” In either case you won’t be expected to engage the enemy blade to blade, though the right to plunder is only given to those in combat,” Hannibal continued, ” So which orders will you follow from the commander of the army you voluntarily joined?” Hannibal looked at him with no compassion on his face though he doubted the chance at plunder would be put aside. He also knew Xavier – while he did his best to avoid open combat, he could be deadly in his element.
While Xavier was pondering his decision, Hannibal sent the two brave warriors to the stable to ready Hamish. Hannibal needed to at least ride so he could direct the troops and get to the battle somewhat rested.
While his riding horse was being prepared, another of the five passed him his lantern and bow. Smiling at the man, Hannibal took the bow and sheathed his sword, putting his shield over his shoulder. “Thank you my good man. Stay with me. I will have more orders for you and your friends to carry. You can bear the lantern as needed.
“Both of you, see if you can find any of the light horses still around. We need them ready to ride in 10 minutes.” These five men had really been of great help this night. He really must get to know their names. Hannibal would have an interesting dilemma the next few weeks. The men fought well, but he could not promote all of them – only those with outstanding leadership and fighting skills. The plunder was not much, which was why the border guards were never very popular among the Frelandian troops. The only things that kept men on the border guards were the higher pay and the action.
His own men from the border troops had also taken quite a beating. It may take as long as several weeks to months before fresh troops arrive from the capital, with all the official red tape going on about the place. Hannibal’s orders sent, he turned to his two friends.
Prothal saw Hannibal approaching, holding his glowing stone high. “Thank the Eternal One that you have arrived when you did!” Prothal briefly looked up into the heavens obviously giving thanks to an answered prayer.
“Well met, friends. We have survived the initial onslaught but the leaders are proceeding to Nomad’s Crossing.” Hannibal greeted his friends with a smile.
Ky’Thand slid off Prothal’s horse, realising a few minutes would be spent in organising the chase. Pulling his vest then shirt off Ky’Thand revealed his wound. The blade had glanced off a rib and followed a irregular groove around to his side. It had been almost a textbook backstab but for the last moment movement of the victim. Another deep gash ran across his abdomen. Blood oozed from the wounds.
Prothal took advantage of the few minutes as everyone prepared for the ride. He stepped inside the tower and located his worn leather satchel and slung it diagonally across his shoulder and over his head. He felt a little more comfortable with his normal gear on. He felt better prepared for life’s little adventures. Positioning the satchel to his side he returned to his friends and steed.
Smiling to Prothal, Ky’Thand said, “You don’t have a needle and thread perhaps?” Reaching down to his vest Ky’Thand pulled a bandage of clean linen out, a skin of fine red wine and a flask marked “Extra strength healing”
Lifting the flat of his newly obtained satchel, Prothal said, “I do have a fishing hook and catgut line, but unfortunately no regular needles. They will not make pretty sutures, However they will work quite well in binding your wounds closed” Prothal withdrew a spool of thread and fishing hook, waiting for Ky’Thand’s response.
Ky’Thand nodded his head, trusting in the healing skills of his friend. Prothal took the fishing hook between two fingers and filed the barb smooth on the stone wall of the tower wall. The scratching of steel against stone set a shiver up the spines of the companions.
“Pour more alcohol inside the wound and then flush it out with water.” Prothal commanded a soldier waiting on them. While the wound was being cleansed he removed a spare leather pouch from his satchel and placed it in Ky’Thand’s jaws. Smoothly he cut a few feet of catgut and threaded the makeshift suture needle.
“This WILL hurt but you MUST remain still.” Seeing the set of Ky’Thand’s jaw, he did not hesitate. Carefully he proceeded to stitch up the gaping wound in his friend’s side and back. Each time he pushed the needle through the flesh he felt a slight wince and jerk, but not a sound escaped his patient’s lips.
Prothal tried to remember what he had seen some of the healers did at the temple. He was quite sure that was the way to stitch it. The blood that flowed from the wound reminded him of the carnage that had come about. His thoughts drifted to his vision – the blood that flowed freely from the bodies, and the creatures that fed on them.
The pain was really terrible for Ky’Thand. He felt like the pain could kill him. But he knew the skill of Prothal. He had ministered to the men often and Ky’Thand had known him as a skilled healer. Surely he would not make a mistake!
The blood flowed quicker as the stitch tore up some of the flesh. Something was wrong. Prothal realised that he had been dreaming and not concentrating on his task at hand! The muffled screams coming from Ky’Thand told him everything. He had made the wound worse. He did what he could to prevent the wounds from worsening, his shaking hands trying to tie up the bindings securely. It must have hurt Ky’Thand a lot.
Passing the linen to a nearby person and the skin of wine for all to cleanse their mouths from battle. Ky’Thand then washed the wound with some wine and wrapped the linen around to keep it clean. He unscrewed the metal cap of the flask and sighed.
“Three gulps or one slug. A gulp tonight I think.” He drank from the potion, and the loss of blood seemed to abate. But the he could still feel the pain from his wounds. Ugly and red, it seemed like the blood was pushing against his wounds, threatening to open them any moment.
Ky’Thand returned the cap to the flask and the near empty skin to his vest pocket. Quickly replacing his shirt and vest Ky’Thand smiled, “I believe there is a wizard who has lived a night too long, and his minions too. Time to make amends I think my friends.”
“I believe you are more injured than you think my friend” Prothal indicated while looking at his wounds and seeing them begin to magically heal from the elixir. “Perhaps you should utilise the remainder of your potion while you have the opportunity. It could be a long night ahead of us.”
“Taro is forming his men to begin pursuit. I see you are ready as well. I will have Xavier and the scouts track them for us. Ky’Thand will you be travelling with those rogues?” Hannibal spoke in a friendly voice.
“I suppose I can keep up to them and give them some help.” Ky’Thand replied.
Looking with some concern at Ky’Thand, Hannibal said, “How fared you during the battle? The enemy seemed to target the watchtower and ballista. Neither played a decisive part in this battle. Later, I will need your skills in remedying that situation.”
“That is tomorrow’s problem, let’s finish tonight’s Captain.” Ky’Thand seemed to find it difficult to speak much under the weight of his wounds. Now that the adrenaline of battle had gone off, the wounds felt worse than at first.
Seeing Ky’Thand sway with his wounds as the friends spoke, Hannibal spoke to Prothal, “I feel the next phase of this battle will require our mage at his full potential. Prothal, can you call on the nameless one to heal Ky’Thand?”
“Save yer spell for another, I feel later we will need that spell for others.” Was what Ky’Thand could utter.
“Yes, it would be wise to save my rather limited remaining spell potential for a more dire situation. Though I have a strong feeling, that my final healing of this evening will be cast upon you. Watch your back when you are out there this evening…” Prothal replied with a wry grin.
He turned around looking for Remora, “Where is Remora? We could use her hand on this journey into darkness. Perhaps she still retains the power to heal?”
“Heal? Remora? Please, Prothal – don’t give me any more stories of people who can change when given the chance! Remora could be zapped by lighting by your god for all I care!” Xavier’s voice at last pierced the air, after what seemed like some time. He seemed to be getting ready to move off too – no doubt the result of some ‘persuasion’ by Hannibal. He sneered and continued, “I dare to bet my whole week’s wage that Remora will not heal anyone but herself!”
Hannibal turned to Ky’Thand and asked, “Friend mage, What do you make of this?” Hannibal handed him the blank parchment. “This was all that was found in the large boat by Stonewall.”
The scroll felt smooth and good in his hands. Ky’Thand was surprised that a scroll of such good quality could be found in the hands of the orcs. His encounters with them had always showed him that they were relatively barbaric and primitive creatures, without a high level of civilisation. All the wizards in the Institute used this type of material, called paper, to inscribe their scrolls. The making of paper was an art form zealously guarded by Eyondan artisans, and wizards paid heavy prices to get them.
“This is a serious problem Hannibal, it means the orcs we have believed to be barbaric are no longer, someone or something has rapidly increased their level of technology. The crafting of such paper is a zealously guarded secret, like the Greek Fire. It is something even you don’t get access to. I don’t even have a book of this quality paper.” Ky’Thand told Hannibal.
“Tomorrow I will investigate it further, maybe an imprint can be found.” Pulling a empty scroll case from his pocket Ky’Thand rolled it and slipped it within.
“Hannibal, Prothal, a moment please, our devious enemy has shown levels of deception which are unusually high. I suggest we make sure our tower here is defended well and also the fort. They have the capacity to turn, Nomad’s Crossing may not be their next target. The problem is I know not of any other possible target they may try to strike at apart from a forest ambush to take out the leaders. Bear this in mind when we chase our fox.” Ky’Thand mounted a secured horse with the scouts.
“Perhaps we need to speak with Lt. Stonewall,” Prothal suggested to Hannibal, “And have him take everyone inside and post a heavy guard against additional assaults. Ky’Thand has a very good point. After that we must make haste! I fear for the innocent people of Nomad’s Crossing and we are wasting time!”
Remounting his fresh warhorse Prothal grabbed the reigns and prepared to ride. While waiting in the saddle he examined his own wounded shoulder by lifting one of the plates of steel and seeing his flesh wound. It was a light wound, and the bleeding had already stopped. It was a reminder of the battle of the night.
Hannibal looked about him. Taro’s men were ready, with torches being carried. The men’s morale was definitely much better now that the dampening rain had lifted. At least they could carry torches. Hopefully the rain did not wipe off any tracks.
Xavier came up and looked at the troops being gathered with a frown. He looked up at Hannibal sitting on the horse. “Hannibal,” He said in a concerned voice, “The orcs could see in the dark. They could see us with all the light before we could see them. The last we encountered them, they went off into the forests. They could be travelling along the dark forests for all we know. What would you want me to get the scouts to do – hunt for orcs in the forests at night?”
His grin could be seen clearly by the friends by the light of the lightstone. He shook his head and continued, “If you intend to do that, each of us are going to need escorts of three to four men! And they will always have the jump on us! But for the plunder…just give us the escorts and the light – I don’t care if I don’t find them, just make sure we can hit them when they decide to hit us!” He winked.
“Mr Xavier – this is the military. You should address Major Hannibal by rank, or at least by title.” Taro’s voice could be heard as the troops began to form up in anticipation of more fighting. “Sir, Taro thinks it good if the cavalry goes on straight to the villages and the town to augment the local troops. My men will travel as fast as we can to the various villages and Nomad’s Crossing to prepare to fight. Some of my troops will carry out escort duties for Mr Xavier, as requested.”
“Oh come on, Taro – don’t give me all those rubbish! I would think Stonewall’s men make better candidates for protecting the scouts – after all, they are the true fighters! Hey, look at your men – they look like they have been sleeping while Stonewall’s men were fighting!” It was a nasty verbal hit below the belt but Xavier did not seem to care.
“Xavier, Lt.. Taro, that is enough!” Hannibal snapped at the war of words taking place. “Xavier, this is a military operation, try to remember it. Lt. Taro, Xavier isn’t in the normal chain of command so allowances must be made. See to your troops, they shall be guarding me tonight.”
If there were any reaction to what Hannibal said to Taro, he did not display it. He nodded his head, saluted Hannibal and went about giving orders to his men, with the professionalism of a fine soldier. Hannibal turned to Xavier.
“Xavier, you will be forward with me – making sure we keep to the tracks of these creatures. The rest of the scouts will work the perimeter of the light, acting as an ambush in return for any that engages the alpine troops. Forward of Lt.. Taro’s square will be you, these five infantrymen, and me. They have performed admirably tonight and will stay with me. The creatures we chase can only see in the dark if light isn’t present to ruin their night vision.”
Xavier shrugged his shoulders calling out to about 7 men who were sitting about near the barracks. Those were former criminals like Ky’Thand. Choosing the King’s Service in preference to a jail sentence, they had skills beyond ordinary people. Those seven had been with Xavier for about half a year already, and showed some signs of starting to fit into the army. But their undisciplined behaviour had always been a bone of contention from the officers. They huddled about in the circle as Xavier began to brief them on their tasks.
Ky’Thand walked over and joined them, speaking to their leader Xavier, “Just a quick pep talk so you know what to expect. Huddle in lads”
Xavier nodded and gave a signal to the men, and all of them huddled together about Ky’Thand, to listen to the former expert thief speak, “These guys we are chasing are good, they like to backstab and are wearing light mail. They were fast and stealthy, a fragging nightmare basically.
“The good part is they are going to be tired, after a hell boat ride and a lightning attack, the majority of the troops running should be tired enough to make firstly noise and leave a trail second. They are away from home, this is our turf we know it better, so use it. They have a mage but leave that problem to me, we have unfinished business.”
“The best part is they have but a ten minute head start.” Ky’Thand looked about him. He thought for a while, before beginning to use the hand signals that all scouts know so well. He signed for ‘parallel run to main force’ and ‘main force contact and draw the enemy’, followed by ‘flank and finish them’. All nodded their heads at the silent communication.
“So loose anything that makes noise, our weapon is our stealth and we will be lightly running. Remember lads, this is our turf, our speciality, lets give the hell they deserve.” Ky’Thand finished off on a rousing note. The wounds stitched by Prothal really hurt.
Ky’Thand had but one visible weapon, a dagger on his belt. Before they moved off, Ky’Thand took a second swig from his potion bottle leaving the last third for an emergency. Ky’Thand briefly stopped to cover himself with the cloak of Invisibility. Again he spoke the mystical tongues wielding the mana of the air, letting it cover his body with an illusion of unseeing.
Smiling to himself he thought, no point in letting the enemy know all our hidden assets. The men were used to his disappearing tricks. They knew what it meant. Ky’Thand would no longer be about to guide them, but they already knew what to do, as many started to meld into the forest cover, hunting for an enemy they too could not see. They tried to keep to the edge of the torchlight, so that Taro’s troops could protect them should they make contact with the enemy.
Through the forest Ky’Thand and the gang of rogues glided, shadow to shadow no sound but the clanging and jingle of harness off to the left. On contact the rogues will circle around and attack from the flank and rear, Ky’Thand thought to himself. I will search only for the mage. Or mages.
Chapter 8: The Hunt Begins
“Scouting or hunting these creatures through the dark forest should not be our current focus.” Prothal stated while Knickerbocker pranced about anxiously, “Either we ride like the wind now, or stay on the road, all the way to Nomad’s Crossing. Perhaps we can even beat them to the town of basically unarmed civilians. If we do not beat them, they will have just arrived and be very winded.
“Or we wait until first light and then ride into town and track them down on our own terms. 10 miles is a long way to travel on foot, even these foul beasts will need their rest before raising arms against us again.”
“I will not have these evil ones raising havoc in the lands I protect.” Hannibal claimed, “However, Prothal is right – we must protect what we have and the town of Nomad’s Crossing. Prothal, will you ride with the cavalry to Nomad Crossing or accompany me on the hunt? The priests in town should be able to heal some of you this night and the rest in the morning. Remember, there can not be that many from the last boat, 20 at most. I feel that they are not here to fight and fear to give them time to accomplish what they are after.”
Hannibal thought to himself. Well we should have a good force at either location. The losses were heavy but the enemy had quite a few tricks up their sleeves. Hopefully they are as exhausted as the men are that bore the brunt of the original attack.
Hannibal then issued new orders to Rock and the men remaining. “Lt. Rock. Secure the fort and watchtower. Your men are to defend these from further attack. Have the medics see to the most seriously wounded and rotate the rest.” That should be approximately 70 fighting men, thought Hannibal to himself.
“The battle ready Dragoons, heavy horse, and light cavalry will ride to warn the villages and outposts. You will be under the command of Lt. Stonewall. Get to Nomad’s Crossing to stiffen the militia that is in town. Get the priests in town to heal the most seriously wounded and wait for the rest of us to arrive.” That would be approximately 25 fighting men. His mind was churning out the figures fast.
“Prothal, I would ask for your helm of light. We are of similar builds and with it the orcs may see us coming, but we will have the light of day well around us. Between it and my gem, I doubt they will be able to quell it.” There was no answer from Prothal.
“Lt. Taro, Xavier – your men are with me. We shall play the most dangerous game! The night may be the element of our enemies, but we shall be on familiar terrain and have the light of our gods with us. The beasts’ ability to see in the dark will be hampered accordingly. I want to force them to keep moving so they cannot cause other mischief.” That would take up 20 alpine troops, 7 scouts, taro, Xavier, Hannibal, Ky’Thand, Prothal and the 5 infantrymen.
“I don’t necessarily want to engage them by surprise, just follow them and give them no time to regroup. Taro’s men are expert fighting these guerrilla actions and the nameless one smiled on me by sparing them from the initial combat, sparing them for this crucial role.” Hannibal finished, his voice firm and carrying so that the troops around could hear his praise.
While Hannibal was issuing his orders, he quickly worked the one bolt that pierced his armour out and flexed his arm to ensure that he was still effective. Smiling as Hamish his riding horse was brought out, he mounted and called out the order of march to the troops with him.
“The scouts should fan out, just outside the effectiveness of the helm and look sharp. Remember the orcs can see in the dark but this light will ruin their night vision, just use the cover you have. Xavier you and I will follow their tracks. They had to be in a hurry and the rain has stopped. Unless I lose the trail, you can drop back and watch over your scouts.
“Taro, your troops will march in an open square. This should provide immediate defence if they should attack, and allow your men to use their crossbows effectively. You shall carry my gem to use if you need additional light.”
Hannibal mounted Hamish and prepared to move the troops out. He knew that the foe had already grievously wounded his command. However, it was his duty to protect the farmers and villagers in this region and waiting till first light would give his foe too much time to wreck havoc on the surrounding area.
Sitting tall as an inspiration he had to chuckle at Xavier’s transparent lust for coin. Well, the scouts could earn their keep tonight by keeping the troops on the right track.
Prothal listened to his companions as they discussed the next plan of action. Despite Hannibal’s orders, Ky’Thand seemed determined to follow this “Mage” into the bush and quite possibly to his own death. Being a man of honour and one with a strong sense to aid and protect his friends in times of need, he came to a decision.
“May the One-Who-Has-No-Name watch over us all!” The young cleric continued to spout with a bit of sarcasm as he looked into the now clear heavens, “It appears that my headstrong friends are determined to draw even more blood yet this evening. I only hope that this blood is that of our foe’s and not our own.” Lightly kissing his symbol pendant of the Eternal One, he slid it back under his breastplate for safe keeping, to a location near his flesh.
Looking back down from the heavens he focused upon his friends. “Hannibal, I believe that I will be keeping my helm for the remainder of this evening. However, I will accompany you on this journey into darkness, and fight by your side, until we have seen this evil totally squelched. Our strength is most effective when wielded as one. We should not divide our efforts so easily.
“Hannibal and I should be in the decoy group wielding the light. After all, we have no hope of stealth, within these great suits of steel.” Prothal looked almost saintly as he spoke with a deep tone from high upon his mount’s back. His back was straight and proud with the warm glow of hope radiating from his helm. Someone unfamiliar with the abilities of a priest, would quite possibly fall to their knees thinking that they were witnessing a vision of some sort.
Prothal was prepared to follow Hannibal’s lead and be ready for action. He would not be talked out of accompanying his friends into this situation of folly. One soldier loaded his horse with two torches, as ordered. Just in case something happened to knock out his magical light.
With the orders issued and the men prepared, Hannibal and Prothal rode in front of the alpine fighting force. They quickly travelled along the road to where Xavier encountered the orcs, about 500 yards away from the watchtower, and tried picking up the trail in the dense forest. With Prothal’s helm lighting the way, the trackers set out.
Hannibal looked about, joining the scouts in looking for signs of passage of the orcs. Heavy forests tended to leave signs of movement. But the rain tended to erase marks and destruction, replacing them with anonymity. One of the scouts signalled that he had found something. The troops began their cautious move into the forest.
The undergrowth was very difficult to traverse. Both Prothal and Hannibal’s horses kept tripping over unseen roots and vines. It must have been the blessings of the Eternal One that none of the horses were injured. Already, Prothal’s arms had snagged on branches once or twice, making noises that would have alerted any enemy.
Hannibal himself was nearly knocked off his horse by a branch. He stopped Hamish just in time to prevent any injuries. Ky’Thand was not much better off. His body disturbed the undergrowth, although he did his best to minimise the effects. Anybody who could see in the dark would have seen the grass moving by themselves. Any intelligent being could probably guess what moved them.
Progress was really laborious. After four hours, and about one and a half miles of travel, the lead scout who had found the trail raised his hand and slowly moved in. The troops prepared for fighting if necessary. He turned about and looked at Hannibal sheepishly. The light of Hannibal’s light stone showed clearly the target of their tracking efforts – a wild swine gazing angrily at the light disturbing it from its night foraging.
Seeing the quarry that they had been searching, Hannibal was furious. Four hours gone and nothing to show for it except a wild pig. Turning to Xavier he snapped, “Get your scouts out around this area, see if our enemy is extremely smart or we’ve used up our luck for one night!”
As the scouts looked for the outside chance that the enemy used this swine to hide their tracks, Hannibal checked the stars and the moon and tried to determine the quickest route back to the main road. His keen sense of direction told him that the party had probably been heading south-east.
The scouts reported back in. Taro listened patiently with a grim face. He had always been patient with his men, never seeming to show anger in his life. He nodded, dismissed the scouts to their positions, and reported back to Hannibal.
“Sir, The scouts reported no signs of tracks that looked like they were made by orcs. Two of the scouts had conflicting reports as well – one said the party had been heading north-west, the other that the party had been heading north to north-east. And both sounded equally confident of their assessments.”
One of the outstanding men that fought by Hannibal snapped to attention immediately, and called out, “Permission to speak, sir!” Taro looked at him and nodded. Taro had learnt well from Hannibal – to give the soldiers plenty of autonomy, to contribute and to speak their mind.
“I have followed my father hunting since my youth, sir. My assessment indicates that we should have been heading north to north-east for the past 4 hours, sir – though I cannot ascertain how far deep into the forest we have travelled.” He saluted and returned to his position.
Hannibal gave the orders to return to the main road. Taro nodded and spoke, “Sir, though it be good that we make haste and cut across the forest back to the road, we chance getting lost. My troops are still fresh – perhaps we can march quickly and retrace our steps back to the main road instead? It will give our foes more time, but if we get lost we may use up even more time.”
Gazing at the light stone that Hannibal held high, Taro continued, “Taro have also told the men to keep the torches quite some time ago, sir. He thinks we would need them were there to be magical battles of light and darkness again, though he fears our torches may be woefully inadequate when it comes to magical darkness.” Hannibal had noticed that actually – the men had not renewed their torches when their first had burnt out. Taro had the making of a general. Perhaps one day he might become one.
The forests at night were not an easy place to travel. Many a times, the trees would hide the moon and the stars, navigational landmarks, for some time, making navigation difficult. It was a good thing the party had stopped there – Hannibal had forgotten how easily it was to get lost even in daytime, without a definite trail to follow. Turning to Prothal, Hannibal asked in a quiet voice, “Is there any way your god can give us any guidance as to where these orcs went?”
Hannibal sat tall in his saddle, and the few closest to him realised that he seethed with anger at losing the last of his foes. His section of the border had been successfully secured against dozens of raids and at least one major push. Never had he had the foe rampaging behind the lines. He did not want to start having that happen now.
“When I get to Nomad’s Crossing,” Hannibal thought to himself, “I will be looking up the local trappers and wisemen. I want to know what this enemy mage may be looking for other than general mayhem!”
Ky’Thand’s voice spoke out amidst the cloak of unseeing. The scouts were used to that already, but the alpine troops shifted uneasily. “Maybe we should set an ambush just within the forest edge at the Nomad’s Crossing side of the Forest. Either way the lads and I will shadow your movements. Any other orders?”
The men shifted about, their eyes alert for possible enemy movements. All eyes were peeled on Hannibal, especially Taro’s. Prothal could tell that Taro was not very comfortable with cutting a straight path through the forest.
Swearing under his breath about the wasted time tracking a pig, Hannibal nodded to Taro. “You are right. Turn the men around. We’ll keep the same formation until we get back to the road. Let’s move at the fastest speed we can.”
Ky’Thand too began to make plans to move off to the town at full speed. He thought over in his minds the layout of the ambush in case the enemy made his move.
While the plans were being made, Prothal began to chant a quiet prayer to the Eternal One and wiggled the fingers of his right hand as he held them facing outwards from his own mouth. Then he spoke, and a series of snorts and grunts come off his lips. In the next few moments, he began receiving many strange looks from the soldiers. By the stars! He appeared to be speaking with the wild swine!
“Good evening fine Sir. I must apologise for our rude interruption of your rooting and foraging for food,” Prothal glanced about at the massive areas of overturned earth that the beast had disturbed while digging for food with its powerful nose and tusks. “Perhaps you would care for a bit of well preserved biscuit, dried meat or even a chunk of cheese?” The young priest crooned in his most comforting tone as he produced some of his iron rations from a saddlebag. He tossed a few items onto the ground, in front of the beast, without waiting for a response.
The creature looked up at the young priest talking to him, and snorted. Warily, it looked at the rest of the party, seemingly talking among themselves and making plans to move off. It moved towards the iron rations that the young priest had just tossed in front of it.
It sniffed at the food offered and gobbled it down, without even taking the effort to chew at it. It looked up again at the young priest, and finally began to spoke, “Two-legs food bad food, but two-legs friends with swine-kind.” Or at least that was what Prothal thought he said.
“Would you be so kind as to tell me,” he leaned down from his saddle as to talk more personally with the creature, “Did you see or hear any others pass this way earlier this evening?” Then he appeared to be waiting for a reply.
Its eyes seemed to carry a dreamy kind of look as it replied, “Other moving kind? Many – swine-kind saw flying-kind on the trees, small-kind with tree-food, and also many, many crawling-kind. Swine-kind hungry, ate plenty of crawling-kind just now.” It snorted with pleasure and blenched out a horrible stench from its mouth. It began sniffing at Prothal.
Taking his glowing long sword from its sheath, Prothal smiled at the beast and split a dead log open with one carefully placed slice of his sharp weapon. The chopping blow exposed the rotten centre of a log, with a small swarm of insects and grubs for the boar to gorge on. Waiting patiently for the creature to devour the exposed bugs, he watched for a few moments.
“Have you seen, smelled or heard any bigger creatures this evening, besides us that is? Perhaps other beings about the same size of these other men?” He indicated with a gesture towards a lone soldier. “We are looking for several man-creatures, that were headed this way some time ago. Perhaps you might still smell their scent?” He indicated with a crude sniffing motion into the night air. “They would have had a much stronger odour than we do.” Again indicating to their small group. “Won’t you help us find our missing folk? I’m sure we could find many nests of these crawling-kind along the way.”
The boar looked up and snorted, “Man-creatures no strong odour. No man-creature at night, only night creatures.” It went back to feeding on the grubs crawling desperately out of its reach. It was an ugly sight, and the sounds and smell of the grubs being crushed by its mouth could make anyone retch.
It looked back to Prothal again, still crunching on the grubs, one or two of them crawling on the tusks, trying to escape the inevitable. It snorted again, “Many smells of night creatures this night. Never so many smells before. But no man-creatures.” It dug its nose into the tree again, emerging with another mouthful of grubs.
Seeing Prothal absorbed with the pig, Hannibal growled his impatience under his breath to Prothal, “I hope this is leading somewhere! I want that mage out from my territory!”
Raising his voice to his command, he commanded, “Hold your positions, scouts forward. Our priest is attempting to gather information for us. We shall wait.”
Distracted for a moment, Prothal looked sideways at Hannibal and saw his hostile impatience bubbling behind his eyes. The young priest glanced about at the nearly exhausted men. “Dear Hannibal… I know that you are very anxious and deeply disturbed about these elusive creatures. However, a brief moment to catch our breath and explore a possibility, remote it may be, seems very logical at this juncture. Not to mention, you asked if the Eternal One could assist in our currently…” he paused for a moment and seemed to choose his next words very carefully, “…unfortunate position.” Prothal finished and returned his attention to the pig.
Crooning to the filthy pig, Prothal continued, “Perhaps they were not man-creatures, but more like one of your kin a pig-man.” He finished with his eyebrows raised in anticipation. “When and where did you smell the strong smell of an unusual amount night-creatures this night? Were they close by to this place?” Prothal’s arm moved up and down gently as Knickerbocker gave a subtle “breeaaaa” with dry lips and shook its head slightly. Absently the young priest scratched the spot between his mount’s eyes, to soothe his friend and waited for a response from the wild pig as it foraged for grubs.
Prothal had heard that pigs could eat even when their stomachs were full – if they were ever full! Of course it was an exaggeration but one could not help but wonder if that might be a remote possibility with this pig. It continued digging its nose and crunching the grubs hungrily. After a while, it gave a reply to Prothal.
“Pig-man not kin. But smells of them many, yes. Many long walk away, all the time smelling close. But not here, no – no pig-man here.” It grunted and looked at Knickerbocker. Sniffing in the air, it came closer to Prothal and sniffed at him, before turning its attention again at Knickerbocker. Obviously, the horse did not like the close proximity to a wild creature. It shifted, not with nervousness, but with a kind of combat readiness, awaiting the signal from its master to strike at any moment.
Ky’Thand could see Taro walk over to Hannibal from his position. The Lieutenant had settled his men into a guarding position, well spread out and ready for battle. It was a pity, but it would seem like the men would not see any more action this night. Still, the elite Alpine Troops of the border guards kept their professionalism with them.
Taro gave the impatient Hannibal a salute, before continuing, “Sir, Taro feels a sense of evil in the battle we had won. He does not feel comfortable with the victory…the cost was too high, and yet we know not the objectives of the enemy.”
He looked at Prothal, speaking with the wild boar, and returned his gaze to his commander. “That was no raiding party, sir. Taro had never fought orcs as well organised and with such great battlefield skills as the ones we faced in the evening. And we had yet to capture the commander. Taro fears there may be more than meet the eye. He just hopes that those orcs represent all the best soldiers they have, and that we have vanquished them all.”
Hannibal nodded at the wise insight of his second in command. “Lieutenant, you are correct. Something is very strange. The enemy sent disciplined and elite troops to die on the beach so a few can penetrate the shore. I was hoping to engage them before they could accomplish whatever it is they are here to do. Now we must go on the defensive, at least until first light.
“Now that our priest is done with the pig, we shall make all haste back to the path and see if we can pick up their trail again. If not, we shall force our march to Nomad’s Crossing and do our duty defending the King’s subjects until Dawn.”
Taro was a stalwart soldier. If truly he felt any fear in his heart, he hid it well, and his voice did not betray a single bit of the emotion that broke soldiers. Ky’Thand knew that he came from the distant island nation of Eyonda, a nation constantly embroiled in civil wars. The Sociology Department of the Institute claimed that all men and women beyond the age of twelve could fight. And a quarter of all vocations was related to the soldier.
Interestingly, he had never heard much about how Taro came to be with the Frelandian army. With his fighting skills and his good leadership qualities, he could have been a good soldier back in his homeland. He would not have needed to face all the discrimination the Frelandian officers had against all non-native troops. He had observed much. Stonewall and Rock had stood with Taro many a times when Striker and Hood had spoken against him. But he could tell that even Stonewall and Rock were not too happy when Taro was given command of the Alpine Troops. Potential trouble and flashpoints.
Prothal began to thank the filthy creature for its candour in the matter, when he realised that further communication was futile. Moving himself between the pig and his mount he grunted a departure greeting and directed it away from his suddenly defensive mount. A sideways kick toppled over another dead stump and revealed a new cash of grubs to occupy the beast’s attention.
Turning to face the group Prothal looked rather worn down and found another stump to rest upon. “Our friend there,” indicating the rustling brush, “has smelt many unusual creatures moving through the forest this evening. Many of them were pig-men…but they are nowhere close to here. Apparently he smelt their presence many hours ago and far from this location.
“Communicating with the pig was not a great success, but at least we can turn back knowing that they are nowhere near this location.” Silently he took a long draw from his wineskin and prepared to depart. “My vote is we go out the same track we came in, we cannot afford to get lost in the forest yet this evening.”
As Prothal related his conversation, Hannibal had to chuckle. “Even a pig is smart enough not to answer until he’s paid, in food this time. Well, little time is wasted. Let’s lead our men and horses back to the road.
Maybe we’ll get lucky now.”
Chapter 9: To the Towns and Villages
It took just about an hour this time to backtrack to the road. Ky’Thand could hear one scout muttering to another as they moved as quickly as they could back to the road, “At this rate we are travelling, even if we manage to find their trail at again, we would be in no shape to engage them! And who knows where they could be? Perhaps burning the towns or something! We should be moving off to the towns right now, instead of running through the forests.”
The other voice replied, “Yeah…I wonder what the commander is thinking…” He was interrupted by the voice of Xavier. “Hey, that’s my friend you are talking about! I know him since childhood. I know what he is doing. Don’t worry. Hey, money is on the way, OK?”
The soldiers quickly took up their positions, easily occupying a large portion of the road. If they were tired, they did not show it. They were indeed the elite troops, living up to their name. Taro looked about as the scouts began to search for the trail again. Hannibal could tell, now that he did not join in the search, that the scouts were obviously much, much less skilled than he himself.
Xavier came to Hannibal, and spoke, “Han…” His eyes shifted and caught the gaze of Taro, “…Sir, I think it is really ridiculous to continue searching for their tracks. Even if we can find it, we will travel much, much slower than them. I will give an estimate of half their speed. They could have reached the various towns by now, if they had actually emerged from the forest and followed the road somewhere else.”
Xavier was very frank, and used language not acceptable by soldiers in speaking to their superiors. But Taro held his peace. He nodded and spoke up, “Sir, Taro would agree with Mr Xavier here too, that it might be…not too strategically sound to continue searching for their tracks. Taro suggests we hurry up to the various towns and villages and augment their defences.
“The troops should be able to hold their vigil until the morning. While orcs do move and fight in the daytime, they have always preferred to fight at night, sir. Though…” he paused for a while, “Taro could not ascertain as to whether these orcs would be different. Taro awaits whatever decision you may make, sir.” The Lieutenant held his proud gaze towards Hannibal.
Seeing that the scouts were not having much luck at finding the foe, Hannibal shook his head in exasperation and signalled the men to move out towards Nomad’s Crossing. Hoping that the enemy had no way to move more swiftly through unknown forest than his troops, Hannibal decided to lead his troops through the checkpoints and villages.
“Taro and Xavier, I gambled that I could catch them in the woods before they can do more damage. Well, the gods didn’t smile on me this time. We shall now make speed to Nomad’s Crossing and hope we are not too late.”
Once again riding Hamish, Hannibal stayed to the front with the alpine troops. The scouts fanned out ahead checking the road and nearby trees for ambush. By the time the troops had reached the first guard post, Prothal’s light had already gone off. There was a slight consternation among the ranks but the flower of the Frelandian army stood firm. At each checkpoint and hamlet, Hannibal talked to the guard asking about anything strange. None of them had anything to report.
As he rode through the night, Hannibal tried to converse with Ky’Thand and Prothal about what they should do in the morning if he was unsuccessful in bringing the foe to battle. But they were silent, perhaps in contemplation of the events of the day before. Perhaps in exhaustion. In any case Hannibal could not be absolutely sure of the position of the invisible Ky’Thand.
Dawn was already breaking when the troops were marching along the road between Jameson Vineyard and Nomad’s Crossing. The rays of light brought warmth to the troops who had spent much time through the night searching for an elusive enemy. It took another hour and a half before the army marched into the town, in the early morning.
The town was already prepared for fighting, being reinforced by the cavalry the night before. The situation was tense but the townspeople actually smiled and cheered in the streets when the troops arrived. Hannibal immediately went about reassuring the townspeople with a display of troop movements. Taro had already detailed the men to deploy in watches, allowing two thirds of the troops to rest. The men of the militia returned to their jobs, and the men on duty the entire night before were relieved.
Hannibal had wanted to ask the trappers and the woodcutters about unusual activity the night before, but was reminded by Xavier that the trappers and woodcutters did not work at night even in normal conditions. None would probably have anything useful. “But it is up to you, I guess,” he shrugged. Relieved of his duties and being in more civilised places, Xavier immediately went to the taverns for a drink with his scouts. It seemed like no amount of sleep could ever substitute for a good drink.
A Sergeant from the local town guard was at hand to usher the three friends to the Sheriff’s Office. Ky’Thand had by now turned visible as it was safer than having a spear point accidentally strike him. Before meeting the Sheriff, Ky’Thand told the lads, “Get some rest and a hot meal, later today we are likely to be busy.”
The Sheriff’s Office was a fine building, two storeys tall, with its own watchtower. The Sheriff greeted them as they entered the building, and moved with them into the War Room. This was a room with the maps of Frelandia and of the areas about Nomad’s Crossing, drawn by Eyondan cartographers, the best in Theophilia. It was said their charges were so exorbitant that taxes had to be raised for that year to finance the mapping effort.
The Sheriff was a man of many years, perhaps in his late forties. His features were battle-hardened, and big hands shook the hands of the three friends, pausing to assess Ky’Thand a little. Already in office for two years, Sheriff Igora Shudermine was still as fit and combat ready as he was in his prime as Major in the Central Plains Regiments. Hannibal remembered nothing especially remarkable about the man, except that he did his job fighting the goblins and the orcs in the forests well.
Ky’Thand shook the Sheriff’s hand as firmly as he could, not wishing to look weak and vulnerable. “I am the special services assigned to Hannibal, call me Ky’Thand or mage, title is but another name to me.” The Sheriff nodded and actually broke into a half-smile.
Prothal clasped hands with the distinguished lawgiver, giving a firm grasp and curt nod of acknowledgement before entering the impressive chambers. His eyes danced across the interior of the room as if judging the man’s worth based solely upon his surroundings. A well-kept office was a sure sign of a crisp, disciplined mind.
Placing his seemingly lifeless helm carefully upon a side table, he briefly admired its surface made of a fine specimen of polished rare wood. Unbuckling his breastplate and sleeves, he allowed them to slump coldly upon the stone floor with a muffled clang.
The Sheriff was friendly, but he wasted no time in getting to business. Motioning for the three friends to sit in the cosy room, with beautiful furnishings and comfortable chairs, he began to enquire about the events of the night.
“Hannibal, I have already asked the troops that arrived last night about the happenings, but I would like to hear from you the situation as well. Is it really true that we actually had an attempted invasion by an enemy the likes of which we have never seen before? Is it true that many had escaped into the forests, as I have heard?”
The Sheriff’s tone was one of concern. Ky’Thand noted that the higher ranked Sheriff had used Hannibal’s name without his rank. This seemed to imply that he wanted to preserve an informality about the entire proceedings. His bearings tended to indicate that he was not one who viewed rank very highly as well, unlike many of the officers Ky’Thand had come across in his short career in the army.
“Before Hannibal starts to give you a full rundown of the night’s excursion, I need to ask a few questions, in the forest or nearby are there any ruins we should know about? Also any chance of some hot food, a pot of tea and some fresh bandages?” Ky’Thand examined the map intently, especially from the battle site to Nomad’s crossing, wondering what they could be after.
“I’ve already told the men, Ky’Thand. A healer is already on the standby outside. He will attend to you after the meeting is over.” The Sheriff seemed to be a person very focused on his job. Perhaps the results of the years of training in the army, Ky’Thand noted.
Hannibal looked with interest at the detailed map of the surrounding area. He scrutinised it especially for any indications on the map of what the enemy might be looking for. It was similar to the war map he had in his office – an indication of the major fairways, and the forestation round about.
A few red crosses marked in some areas of the forest drew his eye. Hannibal realised that Ky’Thand must have seen them too, even as he glanced at his intelligent and observant friend. There were also similar crosses drawn on one or two spots on the road. Hannibal recognised the two spots on the road as reports of skirmishes between patrols and orcish raiders. He had heard about them from his troops just two weeks ago. Nothing remarkable about them then, since these clashes were relatively common throughout Frelandia. But anything about orcs right now would arouse suspicions.
The Sheriff noticed the interest paid by Hannibal and Ky’Thand to the map. He looked briefly at the map, and spoke, “I use that as a war map. Recently, we have lost quite a few trappers in the periphery of the forest. My troops investigating the place came across goblin raiders inside the forest areas where the trappers normally get their squirrels. It seems to me that orc and goblin activities have been on the increase recently, but I have no concrete proof. The trappers are still carrying on their work as usual.”
Hannibal had remembered requests for stepped-up patrols in the area just two weeks ago. His officers did report increased skirmishes between the patrols and orcs, even goblins. Hannibal sank gratefully into a seat by the map table. “Well, sir, Ky’Thand has asked the important questions; though I’ll report before you answer him if you like.” The Sheriff waved for Hannibal to go ahead.
Pulling his sheathed combat dagger from his belt to use as a pointer, Hannibal began.
“Well, three waves of boats hit the shore of the Great Lake here,” Hannibal pointed to the battlefield with his dagger as he said, “The weather was perfect from their viewpoint, cloudy and rainy hampering the effectiveness of the searchlights. I wonder now if they didn’t control the weather as well.
“I mustered the heavy horse to charge their lines as they disembarked expecting to send the first wave into disarray. It would have worked except they must have had a wizard that kept casting darkness spells over the battlefield. Chaos reigned. The short of it is that we destroyed 100% of the first two waves, over 100 orcs. The last boat was the one that got away.
“I killed a Minotaur in single combat, and Ky’Thand captured 3 orcs that moved faster than humanly possible. Those we captured committed suicide or were killed at a distance before answering any questions.
“I estimated that the force that passed us numbered the wizard, and up to 20 orcs or 6 minotaurs, or some combination of the above. We searched the last boat and only found one blank page of fine parchment.
“In pursuit, I took a calculated risk and tried to track them in the night. It failed. We lost nearly 5 hours in the woods; then came here.” Hannibal’s dagger circled in the area where they had tracked the pig, then followed the road back to Nomad’s Crossing on the map.
Bitterness and anger were mixed in Hannibal’s voice, though a hint of pride showed through as well. “My men took heavy casualties, not from lack of leadership but the chaos the mage threw over the battlefield. Still, they performed superbly. I would ask that any healers in town be sent back to the outpost immediately to help the seriously wounded.”
“Now, sir. Do you know of any destination that the enemy would sacrifice elite troops simply to gain access to?”
The Sheriff listened to Hannibal, especially at the edge to his voice near the end of his briefing. He nodded and said in a calm voice, “Yes, I understand it is not your fault, Hannibal. Nobody said it is yours. Or your officers. A sorcerer in the equation does make things a little more complicated.”
The Sheriff paused a while, deep in thought, before continuing, “In my years fighting orcs, I have never come across one that does sorcery. I have a few questions to ask, too. When you say ‘elite troops’, what do you mean? How good were their elite troops? And did we manage to capture or kill the enemy sorcerer? Did we manage to capture or kill their commander? How serious were our casualties? Will we be able to hold off another assault like this?”
“The troops disembarked faster than I have seen even our elite troops prepare,” Hannibal answered, “Literally in minutes, they disembarked from their craft and had formed a skirmish line. The heavy horse decimated the first rank, but with the casualties caused by the darkness could not form in time for the second wave. The orcs held formation to the last man. None broke, even when defeat was certain.
“We didn’t capture, or even see, the enemy spell caster though his presence was felt. And none carried a standard so if we killed a commander, there was nothing on the body to distinguish him.
“Our casualties were heavy but not debilitating. We lost 15 of the 20 heavy horse, 30 of 40 dragoons, and most of the 20 archers stationed with us. We can call in some of the patrols to replace those either recuperating or dead. As to holding off another assault, yes we’ll hold. However, the tally will be grim if we have no magical assistance to support the men. Prothal and Ky’Thand were able to counteract the worst of the magic thrown against us this time.
“Sir,” Hannibal asked as his report wound down, “My troops are ready. However, I feel that we must find this party that made it through the lines. However, I have no indication of what they are after. They did not engage the outposts or hamlets, so they must have travelled into the wilderness.”
The Sheriff paced about the room, nodding grimly even as he heard Hannibal report on the battle. He paused in thought for a moment, before he spoke up, “I fear for what these troops mean. If they are elite troops, out patrols may be at a tremendous disadvantage when we engage them. While not all our troops are green, they have never really experienced a battle with enemies that could hold up to them.
The Sheriff stopped at his chair, and continued, “I will give you all the help I can get concerning intelligence. I will get the men to check out for you, to see if we can more information about orcish movements last night. I do not know of any ruins or whatever that the orcs may be after, but I believe there is a possibility they may be relaying messages to the orcish tribes in the forests.
“In which case we may find ourselves asking what sort of message would need elite troops to deliver? I wonder if these troops may be assassins as well. I will despatch a messenger to the capital and the outlying towns with the news.
“On your part, Major Hannibal, I would ask that you step up the patrols until we could at least be certain that the orcs were not a threat. I hear the Colonel will be here in another week. With the messenger you despatched to him, I think he may just be here within the next few days. Hopefully, he can be of help, and can send some troops still in training in the reserves.” The Sheriff sat down on his chair, still deep in thought.
Ky’Thand listened to the report Hannibal gave along with the Sheriff’s assessment. When mention of reserves were made, Ky’Thand piped in, “We should also ask for replacement to certain supplies, Greek fire and heavy weapons, one ballista isn’t a threat a trio is a threat, especially once some darn earthworks are down at camp. If you need I will add a letter to add importance to our needs. Sheriff, if you could organise a few of the trappers to drop by in say 8 hours so Hannibal and I can have a chat to them.”
Hannibal nodded at his friend’s assessment of the defences. “I was glad to have Ky’Thand arrive and had planned on him assessing the defences with an engineer’s eye. Unfortunately, he only got to see them under combat conditions.
“I would ask that you listen to the mage’s suggestions and implement those that you are able. Ky’Thand is very resourceful.” Hannibal recommended to the sheriff.
“Also, Taro will be able to see to the disposition of the men I brought with me to defend Nomad Crossing and some of the outlying areas. If you have not done so already, I will detail a squad of cavalry to ride to Zon-Zor to inform the duke of the potential threat.”
Hannibal was still in his plate, dented though it was from combat. Years of military discipline and patrol now show as he wore it with little consideration of the weight or bulk. However, his steps were now careful and movements more thought out as fatigue started to set in after a long night of battle, pursuit, and riding.
“In a few hours, Ky’Thand and I would like to talk to the trappers to see if anything unusual has been seen. Especially around the area of these skirmishes.”
Prothal’s mood was dark as he stood silently by while Hannibal recapped the events of the evening past. Echoes of fine men screaming in their last moment of life floated aimlessly through his mind. He mumbled an age-old prayer for the dead. How many children had lost their fathers in the past night’s horrors?
After studying the map of the surrounding territory he made a mental note of the small cluster of skirmishes in the nearby forest. Prothal moved to Ky’Thand’s side and placed a single hand of companionship upon his shoulder as the conversations continued. His thought went to his grossly inadequate job of stitching the mage’s gaping flesh wound. Prothal could feel his masked pain, though it was not evident upon his stern face.
“It will not be so easy to get the things, mage,” the Sheriff held up his hand as he replied, “It takes money and time to make these things. Unless you are talking about simple catapults, ballistas are going to take time. Remember – yours is not the only unit requisitioning for equipment. The entire Frelandia is asking for more! There is only that certain amount the Crown will pay without raising the taxes again.
“Already, the people of Zon-Zor are being taxed like crazy to feed and equip the Duke’s troops. And Zon-Zor is rich! We risk a revolt if we raise the taxes again. But I guess that is beyond my jurisdiction. We will make the requisition, though I think we may have to wait.
“I think the troops could easily get the earthworks done with your supervision, mage. But do not press them too hard – it is hard and tense being in the Border Defence. I don’t think the troops would particularly love to be working on such mundane tasks. You must understand our constraints, mage. Money do not grow on trees, and morale is not built in a day.”
Looking to Ky’Thand, Hannibal filled in for the Sheriff, “My troops will be patrolling and won’t have time to dig ditches. I know defences are important, but now the enemy can strike at will and we don’t have time to build defences everywhere. If we knew where the next blow was to land, I would divert some of our might to defending it. But we DON’T.” Hannibal ended in exasperation.
When Hannibal mentioned the earthworks, Ky’Thand replied, “Bah, they will have to wait till we have this area secure again. It would be common sense Hannibal.”
Ky’Thand then turned to Prothal and asked, “Would the local church have records of any ruins nearby in the forest of times gone by?”
“It is possible that an archive of data could exist,” Prothal replied, “Most temples have a rather extensive library and historical records of there surrounding areas. Adam the Pious’ house was going to be my next stop after a bit of rest and prayer.” Looking to their host he indicated, “Where may we rest our weary bone for a few hours? I fear that our minds must rest before a clear solution will present itself.”
The Sheriff nodded and replied, “If you do not mind, you may rest at my place. I have guestrooms for you. You will rest this morning, while I wait for the trappers to finish their work. Hopefully they can tell you something. I will also get the men to report to you what they have discovered. I fear there is not much time for them to work on, but I hope they will have something useful.”
Hannibal looked at the skirmish indicators on the map hoping to see any pattern or area that these battles might indicate. The skirmishes occurred along the road leading to Nomad’s Crossing, within three miles of each other. They did not seem to be related or patterned in a certain way. There was too little information to work on anyway. Shaking his head, he turned to the sheriff. “Well, if there is nothing more, I will get some sleep. It has been a long night. Wake me if I am needed.”
He looked at Hannibal again, and continued, “I will send some of my healers over to the outposts, Hannibal. Your soldiers will be well taken care of, though it may take quite some time. Especially if I suspect they may have to resume duties soon.” He smiled to himself and continued, “We know how long it takes for Paridon to hear about and send fresh troops. Yes, I will have to inform the Duke of Zon-Zor. It would be good for his troops to be ready in case the Kings’ troops take some time.”
His eyes narrowed as he looked at the map again, tracing the coastline. “Let us just hope that in the two weeks it takes for the fresh troops to arrive, the enemy will not be moving in against us.”
The Sheriff paused a while, deep in thought, and then returned his gaze to the companions. “I think you are all a little tired, I have a healer outside to attend to your wounds, and rooms readied for you.”
Chapter 10: The Briefing
Ky’Thand headed out to the waiting healer, who dared not stitch him. He looked shocked but did not say anything when he heard of what Ky’Thand had suggested Prothal do. He applied some herbs on Ky’Thand’s wound and bandaged it up properly again. He did the same for Hannibal and Prothal, before he retired to his own residence.
Back in his room, Hannibal removed his armour and weapons. Tumbling into his bunk he slept, trying to determine what to do next.
Ky’Thand slept a good sleep. He was so tired and his wounds ached. Six hours later he woke up, to study his spell books for new spells. He quickly wove a spell of protection about him again.
Prothal’s sleep was interrupted by his dream again. Again he saw the carnage, the evil, the abominations that were running and flying all over the place. The killings and the terrible destruction that haunted his sleep for three days and now in its fourth day. Again he woke up in cold sweat. Mercifully, the dream only interrupted his sleep once. Each and every night it only occurred once.
The companions were greeted by the Sheriff’s servants and given refreshments and a hot bath in the residence’s central bath. The two serving ladies were obviously fascinated by the three friends, especially at Prothal’s Holy Symbol. Nothing indiscreet was done, however, and the companions were greeted by the Sheriff, now visibly tired. Unlike the Border Defence, the people of the towns kept to their normal lifestyle. The battle last night must have taken his sleep away from him.
Hannibal felt much refreshed with the bath and the ability to flirt briefly with the serving ladies, much to the disapproval of Prothal. Though nothing much came from it, it did renew the warrior’s spirits. The chaos and death from the night before were not forgotten, but it was now not a crushing weight but simply something to avenge.
“The trappers would be here soon, as will my intelligence. You may find it interesting that certain aspects of the reports from the two parties were similar, but I will want to hear from you what you think when we reach the briefing room.” The Sheriff spoke as he waited for the companions to get dressed.
There seemed to be some sort of noise outside but it was too muffled to be intelligible. Someone seemed to be shouting outside. A soldier stopped outside the bathroom, and saluted the Sheriff. He spoke up when the Sheriff returned his salute and motioned for him to go ahead and speak.
“Sir, it is Adam the Pious again. He is shouting outside something about the end of the world in three more days, and is demanding to see Brother Prothal, sir.” He spoke, obviously flustered.
“Well, soldier, you should know what my view of people who go about prophecies of doom are. Get him out of the place. Brother Prothal have more important affairs to attend to than some idiots shouting some ridiculous stuff.” The Sheriff replied impatiently.
“But, sir, he is an old man…”
“I say, get him out of here! I don’t care if he is an old man!” The Sheriff made his point emphatically. “Now I would appreciate if you go about your duties soldier! I have mine and you have yours. Dismissed!”
The soldier looked first to Prothal, then to the Sheriff. He gave a smart salute and proceeded out of the bathroom. The Sheriff turned to Prothal and the companions and smiled. He said, “I apologise for all the disturbances received. Especially for Brother Prothal. Now perhaps we can go to the briefing?”
Before going to the meeting with the Sheriff, Hannibal asked for Taro. The soldier waiting on Hannibal nodded and immediately ran off to get his officer over. Apparently, Taro was not in the vicinity, and the Sheriff hurried them to the briefing room.
Upon hearing the report on Adam the Pious and the sheriff’s views of prophecy, Hannibal looked questioningly at Prothal. “Sir,” Hannibal addressed the Sheriff, “Ky’Thand and I can probably handle the military briefing. Prothal’s wisdom might be better used calming down this ‘prophet’. It would do the morale of the town good to see a man of the lord with Prothal’s stature at least listening wouldn’t it?”
Hannibal’s reasoning studiously avoided mentioning that the ranting of Adam sounded very similar to the ‘dream’ that Prothal had been having for the past three days. Prothal nodded his assent and quickly went out of the room, after putting on his clothes and his Holy Symbol.
Watching Prothal go to calm this Brother Adam, Hannibal wondered what information the priest would find. He turned to the Sheriff.
“Sir, I will have Lt. Taro working on the troop deployments right now. By tonight the patrols will be stronger and more frequent. However, with the men I have; they will need to be relieved after a week or two for some rest.”
“Well, let’s hear what the men have found out. Maybe they can shed some light on what is happening.” With that Hannibal, wearing a green silk shirt over black pantaloons and his beret at an angle to cover his bald head, twirled his moustache absent-mindedly as his sharp mind began thinking about what he knew and what he would ask the trappers.
On the way to the briefing Ky’Thand stretched the muscles torn and healed, finding a slight restriction to his normal fluid movement. Cursing the dark hearts of the orcs that wounded him made him feel no better. He wanted that mage; it burnt like bad bile in his throat that it got away the previous night. The next time they meet Ky’Thand intended to give the mage something to seriously think about as he thrashed on the end of his blade.
“Lets get these trappers in so we can find out some useful information.” Ky’Thand agreed with Hannibal as they both continued with the Sheriff to his room.
Three men were already waiting for the Hannibal and Ky’Thand in the Briefing Room. Two of them looked like simple townsfolk, and they were shifting nervously as they stood behind the high-backed chairs they would be seated in later. The third was dressed in a soldier’s uniform, the sky blue vest and slacks with the emblem of Frelandia at the front. This should be the intelligence man the Sheriff was talking about.
The Sheriff motioned for all to take a seat. Looking at the three men summoned, he spoke, “Gentlemen, I have already heard what you have spoken to me. What you are going to say now is for the benefit of these brave defenders of this town. Do not leave out anything, do you understand?” The three men nodded. The soldier stood up to speak first.
“Major Hannibal, and Mr Ky’Thand sir, as requested, I have checked through the townsfolk in general, and got the reports from interviews with the soldiers about. We were given short notices and I hope the information will be useful to you.” Now that Hannibal and Ky’Thand had a chance to look at him further, they realised he was looking somewhat tired. He must have worked through the night as well.
“Apparently, there were legends in this town of some ruins deep within the forests to the north-west of this town. Several of the trappers had heard about them, but no one had actually seen them. Nobody knows where these ruins are exactly, and no one is crazy enough to explore the deep forests teeming with goblins and orcs.
“Interestingly, a young man had remembered his late father mentioning that the ruins were the remains of the stronghold of a powerful sorcerer who had sold out on the secrets of magic to the orcs. His father claimed to have heard this story from his father, who had heard it from his father, who had heard it from a man who claimed to have heard this from this sorcerer’s apprentice.”
“North-west?” Hannibal asked the intelligence officer, “Were these ruins across the river in Sharilin, or on the Frelandia side of the Long River? While they may not know even the general location, it seems a landmark that divides the land like the river does, would be mentioned.”
The officer shrugged and replied, “That was all I could find out, sir.” He paused a while and looked around at the people gathered before him. Somehow Ky’Thand could feel that he was uncomfortable, wondering if he should continue – it would sound ridiculous to be pursuing wild rumours. Especially before ranked men like the Sheriff and Hannibal.
“According to the story then,” the soldier continued, “The sorcerer who sold out on the secrets were punished by Mystari, and he lost his ability to speak. Without the ability to speak, he could not perform any magic, and so were overwhelmed by the orcs that later over-ran his stronghold. Even until today, the young man’s father remained convinced that the orcs were quartered in these ruins, but he had died just a few days ago, killed by a wild animal while he was out trapping squirrels. His remains, and that of his companion, were found by another pair of trappers the next day.”
The soldier looked at the Sheriff, then at the two men before him, before he concluded, “And that is my report on what the Sheriff wanted – information on ruins in the vicinity. I hope that my report has been useful, sirs.”
The Sheriff nodded, and motioned for the man to sit down. He looked at the two trappers, obviously nervous, and said, “Don’t worry, just tell us what you have heard and seen.”
Hannibal was not deterred and pressed on with the soldier. “So, the Mystari may know more? Where would such records of the punishment be kept? Thank you for the information, it gives us a cause for the events of the last night, if only an indistinct goal.”
The soldier nodded and replied, “It just might be conceivable that the Temple of the Wisdom of Mystari in Nomad’s Crossing might have the records. I have already sent men to check with the Priest on the possibilities of there being such records. We should receive the reports quite soon, sir.” The soldier looked pleased to have foreseen the question by Hannibal.
Both of the trappers waited for the officer to finish, all the time staring at the Sheriff. When he motioned for them to continue, they stood up and looked at each other nervously. One of them, obviously the bolder one, spoke out first. “Sirs, I understand you want us to tell you of anything unusual we have seen or heard. Well…just this morning, while we were trapping, we heard some noises, and we hurriedly hid ourselves – the noises sounded guttural, and from experience, you know these sounds should be the language of goblins, orcs or one of these races. And we don’t want any problems with orcs right then.”
He looked guiltily at those in the room as he continued, “We saw something that absolutely amazed us! Two goblins, their eyes obviously hurting, were conversing with an orc! We don’t know what they were talking about, but the there seemed to be some disagreement, and the orc ended up killing both the goblins.”
As the trappers began, Hannibal was thinking about the supplies to requisite from the armoury and his own personal goods for such a journey. Horses would not be much use in the deep woods, other than pack animals. Also, plate was good for day, but for sleeping and off watch, his expeditionary leathers would be needed. Food, tent, weapons, the list got long in a hurry. Before a detailed list of equipment could be thought of, Hannibal’s attention was drawn to talk of encounters with orcs and goblins!
“This morning! Where were you when you saw this? Can you lead us back to that location? Your encounter was uncomfortably close to Nomad Crossing, were you in the forest or on the lands cleared for farming?”
Hannibal thought that maybe this could be the break needed to find the ruins, either the orc could be tracked or the goblins in the area could be persuaded to lead him to it!
The men were startled by the sudden speech of Hannibal, and for a moment all was silent as they stood petrified. Slowly, with a slight stutter, the trapper replied, “Well…sir…we were just two miles north-west of town, at the outskirts of the forests…nobody is foolish enough to go deeper, though they say there are more squirrels there…”
He took a deep breath, to quieten down his apparently pounding heart, before continuing, “Yes, we can lead you back to the location, sir.”
His companion seemed to have found the courage to speak up then, for he said, “We were absolutely terrified of the fighting going on, but we could not sneak away, lest we be found. The orc was very highly skilled in fighting, and killed the two goblins easily.”
The other nodded and continued, “It was amazing enough to see orcs conversing with goblins, since the tribes here were not well known for their amiability with each other. Then the orc did something absolutely amazing! The orc took out a scroll and began to speak some words of what must be magic! Then he just, well, disappeared!”
His companion nodded his head vigorously as he chipped in, “We were horrified, and were so worried he might be coming after us, but our feet refused to move! After half an hour, when we were sure he was gone, we came out of hiding. I happened to notice something interesting the orc must have dropped…here it is!”
He proudly took out something from his pocket and showed it to the Sheriff. It seemed to be a scroll of high quality, which was what both Ky’Thand and Hannibal could make out. The Sheriff nodded and motioned for both of them to sit down. He looked at Ky’Thand and passed it to him, saying, “I think our mage may be able to make something out of it?”
A highly skilled orc! And one that had some understanding of magic as well. Could this be the mage he pursued the night before? Hannibal began to appear eager to take up the hunt for vengeance once again.
Ky’Thand’s suspicions were confirmed the moment he handled the scroll. There was no doubt about it. This was paper – used only for magical writings, so good was their quality, and so expensive were they. Again, this one was blank.
Ky’Thand stood up and spoke, “I have a few questions before the trappers are dismissed. When the encounter occurred, did you see how the orc killed them? With a blade? Or magic? How long have you had this scroll? How far in the past have you entered the forest and do you know where the goblin camps are? Could you point the spot on the map?”
Again silence filled the room as the trappers stood rooted to the spot. Ky’Thand noticed they were eyeing the jewellery on his neck. Normally it was the more educated ones who were aware that jewellery might signify more than just a rich man. But there were the occasional common folk who had encounters with wizards that left lasting impressions.
These trappers must have encountered wizards before – the fear was evident in their eyes. Ky’Thand wondered what must be going on in their head now. Fear that he might turn them into a frog? The common folk had plain distorted the true power of magic. To do that required a level of magic use that he had never seen any mage perform before. At least not publicly.
The second trapper finally found back his courage to speak. “Sir Wizard…the orc killed them both with a sword…the kind hanging up there…” He pointed to the longsword hung vertically on a stand, at the back of the room. “We took the scroll about half an hour after the orc left, sir…like we said just now. That should be at the second hour of the morning, when your troops began to come in, sir.”
His companion continued, “We have never been more than several hundred yards deep into the forest, sir. And we do not know of any goblin camps. Nobody knows of any goblin camps, sir.”
After the trappers had answered all the queries, Ky’Thand said, “Sheriff, I commend you on your resources. Trappers feel free to go.”
The Sheriff raised his hand up and looked hard at Ky’Thand. For a moment, there was silence. He smiled at Ky’Thand confidently and said, “Mr Ky’Thand, if you do not mind, I will do the dismissal here, not you.”
His eyes turned to his officer and the trappers, and he waved them off with his hand, saying, “You are free to go back now. Please escort the two gentlemen out, soldier.” The soldier saluted and led the two trappers out.
Ky’Thand excused himself and left with the trappers, the Sheriff watching him as he moved out. With the soldier had escorted them to the doorsteps and left them alone, Ky’Thand placed 2 platinum coins in each of their hands.
“Gents, never feel stupid giving information like that ever in my presence. If you find anything out further get this information to me either by the Sheriff or seek me out directly. Also, who is the most experienced pair of trapper woodsmen in this town? I think it is time I speak to them as well. Could you find them and send them to me in half an hour if you can find them? I would appreciate you keeping this conversation to yourselves, I wish no panic in the townsfolk. Lastly, if you pair ever have a problem which I may help with, call me.”
The two of them looked at each other. One of them seemed reluctant to take the money, but the other eagerly put the coins in his pocket. Two platinum pieces was a lot of money – at least four months to half a year’s worth of work. He nudged the other to accept the money. He then smiled at Ky’Thand and said, “Sir Wizard – we both are the most experienced pair of trappers in this town. If you need to speak to us, we can be found at the Woodsbridge Inn!” With that said, he pulled the other man away, smiling at his lucky stars.
As the four left the briefing, Hannibal turned to the Sheriff. “I expect to be looking for that ruin very shortly with only Ky’Thand, Prothal, and Scout Xavier with me since it would be foolish to diminish our fighting force much more at this time. I will need to requisition some weapons from the military arsenal.
The Sheriff turned to Hannibal, still deep in thoughts. Whether he had heard what Hannibal had said or not, Hannibal could not tell, but he looked obviously displeased. “Major, I am not too sure how you handle your men, but I hope they will understand that while they are in this town, I make the decisions. I am already having trouble with your soldiers sometimes starting fights in my town, and it would be bad for both of us if I have to limit access to your soldiers.”
Hannibal responded tactfully to the Sheriff’s comment on his troops, undoubtedly inspired by his brush with Ky’Thand, “I will have Lt. Taro designate a police squad to help keep trouble to a minimum. I doubt that my men will have much time to cause trouble with the increased patrols. However, as you know, when men are given leave, some trouble is expected. I will try to keep it contained to the bars and brothels.”
“Also,” Hannibal continued, “Taro will co-ordinate his troops with your police as well.”
The Sheriff did not respond to Hannibal’s speech, but stared at the doorway, and continued, “I would not like to offend a mage, but if the proper respect is not shown, I have no choice but to risk it. You are a military man yourself, Major. I believe you will understand that an officer who loses his men’s trust and respect cannot lead.”
At the comments about Ky’Thand, Hannibal nodded in a knowing fashion. “Ky’Thand is trying isn’t he? I’ve known him since we were both raw recruits and he never did quite figure out rank and showing respect. I’ve always figured it was being a scout, then moving into the mage corps.”
With a shrug, Hannibal continued, “Among my men, he is trusted but is given some slack when the protocols aren’t met since he’s a mage. I’ll talk to him but he isn’t officially under my command. If it’s any consolation, sir. I would say he does respect you; he is just impatient.”
The Sheriff wanted to say something, but Ky’Thand re-entered the office. He tried not to show his displeasure as Ky’Thand entered.
“I have several things both of you should be aware of, first thing is, the RUIN, we need to find, it seems the key to this darn mystery. The gathering of that sheet of vellum is a stroke of luck, my friends, as it tells me several things and may give us the edge we need.
“Let me tell you a small story. A lecturer of mine used a spell that locates objects. In a murder investigation, he used this spell to locate an unknown assassin through the use of a handful of hair the dead victim had pulled from the assassin’s head during the struggle. He cast the spell at three spots inside the township and on a map drawn in the directions, eventually narrowing it down to a cluster of four cottages. The cottages were raided and the assassin caught, all because he dismissed the clump of hair left behind at the scene of the murder.
“This vellum scroll should be able to be used the same way, this time we search for the scroll case it rested on until used earlier today. I personally have not the spell, but I have heard similar things done by priests and with the graces of Prothal’s god, maybe he can get it for us.
“Also Sheriff you need some rest, we will act for you while you sleep. Have a quad of guards outside your sleeping quarters. This group of orcs smell like trained assassins. Something our military has not had to deal with before.”
At Ky’Thand’s mention of assassin’s, Hannibal interjected, “Well, the Sheriff or I could be the target of an assassin though we both only command small areas. If they know the movement of our leaders, Captain Bluestar would be the logical target. His security forces should be informed as soon as possible.”
The Sheriff looked coolly at Ky’Thand and Hannibal as they spoke. He shook his head, and gave a sigh, before saying, “I will decide for myself if I would need rest, Mr Ky’Thand. I believe you have your investigations to do, and I have my running of the town too. I wish you all good luck on your investigations. I will send a messenger to inform Colonel Bluestar of the possible security threats. I would be pleased too, Major Hannibal, if you would report to me the results of your findings and your expeditions. That will be all, gentlemen. Dismissed.” He waved them off.
As Ky’Thand and Hannibal left the Sheriff’s office, Hannibal turned to the Sheriff one last time. “Sir, thank you for an amazing amount of information in a very short time. I will keep you informed as to what we find out. I will leave it to you and Colonel Bluestar to determine who else needs to know what we find.” With a semi-formal salute, since the briefing was never really official, Hannibal left the Sheriff, intending to see what the Temple of Mystari had to offer.
When the two had walked out of their room, Hannibal asked Ky’Thand, “I take it you told those men to report anything else they find to us? Do you think we can convince them to take us back to the site where they witnessed the orc?”
Ky’Thand replied as they continued back to their rooms, “Yes, they said they would be at the Woodsbridge Inn, if we needed them. I asked who are the best two trackers or trappers in the area, and they happened to be the ones, lucky huh? And yes, they will lead us back there, but will most likely not go much farther, not with the other deaths in the forest lately.”
“Ky’Thand,” Hannibal continued to make a comment, before making a turn round the corner, “You need to temper your eagerness to exact vengeance. You didn’t win any friends with the Sheriff this morning. You can’t go around usurping a commander’s prerogatives, especially in the presence of his men.”
“That may be true Hannibal, but you didn’t get caught by surprise, humbled and then when you thought you had two of the nasty little buggers they die, before any questions could be asked. That all does not sit well in my stomach, my friend.” Ky’Thand replied.
“As for the sheriff, he should have listened to my words, these orcs currently could breeze in, assassinate him and be gone. Losing a figurehead like him in this village would destroy morale. Admittedly, Bluestar is another possible target, but I would place money on the sheriff’s head. Especially when he is staggering around due to lack of sleep. You saw how fatigued he was, you just didn’t wish to upset his feelings. The truth is often a bitter pill.”