Norhamn Harbind looked out over the valley where his army had been fighting the Unclean. The fighting had been going on in fits and starts for a week now since he had arrived just in time to save the Order. Although diminished, the knights fought with a determination and tenacity worthy of their name. He knew that it was a great deal in part to Van Simons' example that the other, mostly younger knights took courage and stood their ground even though they had been badly beaten. The evening that he had come out of the sick tent, fully dressed in his plat email, even though he had been too weak to sit up just moments before and was still all but blind, shone brightly in their minds. Even his own men fell respectfully silent when the leader of the Order passed by, and some even saluted. Harbind smiled. He and his old childhood friend had taken vastly different paths in their lives, but in the end they stood on the same field together, fought the same enemy. It was as if their age old argument of state versus theology had found an answer in the bloody valley that lay before him.
A green-looped blade leader approached him to report on what the Foresters' scouts had seen near the edges of the valley. Norhamn nodded as the young man gave his report, then saluted and strode away. Still quiet. No activity seen except their own scouts. Five Dogmen and one Gnoll killed. That was the way it had been for the last five days; small skirmishes punctuated by brief attempts at flanking maneuvers which the Sunblades had cut short every time.
Small groups of men, watched over by Battlemages, worked in the valley below, gathering the bodies of the fallen. The losses on the first day before the Sunblades had arrived had been staggering, and even now, many of the corpses had not been recovered.
Norhamn turned to walk back to his tent, where his field desk waited with reports on supplies and wounded and a hundred other things that would require his attention. Free time to spend lost in thought was a precious commodity at the moment, and he decided not to waste any more of it.
He was only halfway back to the camp, however, when a cry was raised from the watch points on the rise.
At the same moment, a shock of red light, a magical signal from one of the Battlemages below, arced through the evening sky over the valley.
Harbind ran back to his viewpoint at the edge of the valley. Below, the groups that had been loading bodies onto sleds and wagons were retreating up the hill as the mages behind them lashed out at packs of unclean with lightning and fire. But where had the Unclean come from? There was no way that so many of them could have crossed the valley without being spotted.
The message runners for the field commanders arrived, breathing heavily. Quite likely, most of them were at meals when the signal came and had to run all the way across the camp at full speed to get here so quickly. Norhamn turned to each of the infantry and heavy cavalry messengers and gave his instructions. He paused though, before speaking to Grego's light cavalry runner.
"Tell Grego to hold at the east ridge and wait for my signal. He will move with the main body this time rather than cut the flank. And return to me right away, the situation may change." Harbind told him.
The boy nodded and ran full tilt towards the picket line where Grego's men waited. Usually, he reserved the mobile light cavalry to guard the flanks of the battle, but something about this attack made him uneasy. If they were this deep into the Sunblade's half of the valley, then a flanking action should have already been made. Harbind didn't understand what was happening, and on the battlefield that made him nervous.
Norhamn watched as the infantry, armed with spears and pikes, formed up in front of the skirmishers armed with a variety of swords, maces and other close melee weapons. Individual choice of weaponry was a hallmark of the Sunblades. All of the footmen were trained how to use spears and pikes to break a charge and open enemy formations, but for personal combat, each mercenary chose a weapon or weapons that suited them best, and trained with each other to learn how to fight together effectively using a variety of arms. In this way, each person's strength was accented and built upon. Originally, it had been the elves that used this type of arrangement with their troops, but the human mercenary companies had all incorporated it to some extent in their own training during the colonization wars. It made outfitting the men troublesome at times, but the versatility gained had outweighed the costs in his opinion.
Behind them, the cavalry formed a charge line and waited. If the enemy formations broke, or tried to divide, or if they fell into retreat, the ranks would open and allow the heavy cavalry, mounted on large war-bred horses and armed with lances and great hammers to ride through and drive a wedge of destruction into their foes.
And finally, in the rear, rows of long bowmen began stringing their weapons and readying their quivers. As the enemy approached, they would rain arrows down upon them until the infantry was joined, then they would move forward with their melee weapons to protect the cavalry until they could be used.
It all played out smoothly, in well-practiced routine. Norhamn felt a swell of pride for his army, who until only days ago had been mostly green recruits. Still, the enemies' unexpected attack had caught them off guard. Harbind cursed silently as one of the Battlemages who had been trying to hold back the Unclean was overrun. He knew most of those particular men personally, and it pained him every time one of them was lost. Of all the Orders of the High Robes, only the Hurex sect, masters of Fire and Air, willing sought combat. It was their calling and their pride as the warriors of an otherwise scholarly institution, but losing even one of them was like losing a hundred regular footmen.
Norhamn turned to one of the runners near him. "Go to the Hurex tent and have High Mage Jored recall all of the Battlemages at once. Tell him too much ground was gained by the enemy already, and any further attempts to stall them with the Hurex will lead to unnecessary deaths. Hurry!" Before he had even spoken the last word, however, the boy was already twenty feet from him running as fast as he could manage across the camp.
When he looked back to the battle forming up, he could see that the Battlemages were already giving ground. Good, perhaps High Mage Jored had already sensed the danger and ordered a retreat. Although they aided each other, the High Robes were no more under his control than the Order and the Table were.
Harbind continued to watch as the infantry began to advance. It would be dark soon, and the humans would be at a disadvantage without light. He turned to another runner, "Go, tell the supply commander that we need the banner bearers and cooks to mount the heavy lanterns on poles and fill them. Also, have him prepare as many of the glow rods as we have remaining and distribute them to the cavalry leaders to drop amongst the troops as they charge, if necessary." The runner sped off towards the cook tents. It wouldn't be much light, but anything was better than blindness.
The Battlemages had reached the double line of spears and pikes and began to disperse into the skirmisher ranks. Any second now, the battle would be joined in earnest. Norhamn folded his arms across his chest and waited.
Edgar had been riding as fast as he could without killing his horse for almost a week now. A day ago he had parted with the others at the southern trade junction and he still had about three more days of hard pressed riding to go, at least, until he reached the containment forts. A wind from the east whipped his cloak fiercely and blew his hood back off his head as he rode. The weather bothered him. There had never been a wind this strong from the east before, it was a bad omen. He spurred his horse again and leaned forward to keep the wind from slowing him down. There was a town up ahead, and it was growing dark. He would need to stop for the night and let the horse and himself rest, or they were likely to both end up in a ditch with broken legs.
The town was barely a hamlet, with mostly straw thatched roofs and chimneys sealed with black tar rather than plaster. The only inn in town was hardly worthy of the name, and being on a trade route in bad weather, it was full to boot. Edgar settled for a spot in the hayloft of the stable, which was one of the few wooden roofed structures in town anyhow, and paid the innkeeper for extra feed for his horse, including some carrots. "He'll need the energy." He explained to the innkeeper. "I have hard riding ahead yet."
"And where would you be off to, Master Blade, in such a rush?" the friendly, if somewhat unkempt, owner of the inn asked.
Edgar decided to indulge the man's taste for gossip. After all it was impossible to keep the movement of such a large force through this area much of a secret. "To the containment forts. I am bringing messages to the army there led by High General Harbind of the Sunblades."
The old man leaned forward across the table Edgar sat at, "Oh ho? There is trouble brewin' there then! I knews it was somethin' bad when all them folks in armor an 'orses came through here two weeks past." He sat back again with the smug look of someone who had just solved a great riddle. "Indeed, they didn't even stop for a bite or a smoke. In quite a 'urry they were!"
Edgar smirked. As if an entire army of Sunblades would stop in a small hamlet like this for the inn's service. "I'm sure they missed some fine food at that,� he said with an earnest grin. "I'll be having some of it myself, if there is any of the supper meal left to spare."
The old man grinned back and nodded as he stood up from his seat across from Edgar. "We do at that,� he said. "Roast pork and gork stew, with fresh bread and vegetables from the farms 'ere 'bouts. I'll fetch you some." and with that he ambled off to the kitchen.
Edgar leaned back in his seat and rubbed the back of his neck. He was stiff from all the riding, and even though he had been trained to ride hard for long distances, it didn't make him any less sore when he was actually asked to do it.
The other patrons of the inn seemed to be local folks. Gork herders and farmers, and various field laborers. The southern fields of West Hold's territory were where all the food was grown and raised, and this small hamlet was just one of many that dotted the area. It reminded Edgar of home.
Most of the snatches of conversation he heard were about various farm issues, and when they weren't it was about the Sunblades passing through, or the strange weather. Of course, being farmers, they had noticed the unusual wind as well. Most of them seemed to think it was a sign of a bad harvest to come.
The innkeeper returned with a plate covered with slices of pork basted in some sauce that Edgar didn't recognize, a bowl of stew loaded with more vegetables than gork apparently and a half roll of hot bread. He also served some ale that was surprisingly strong. It wasn't the finest food, but it was by far better than the dry rations that he had been nibbling on for the last few days.
As he ate, he noticed a man sitting alone across the room, watching him with a glazed expression, a mug of ale sitting in front of him. His stare was disconcerting, and by the size and build of him, Edgar hoped that he wasn't some town tough that might decide to try and pick a fight with him in a drunken stupor. When the innkeeper returned to give him more bread, he asked about the man.
"Ah, 'im? Ah well, that's jus' ol' Miyar Darsfel. 'E works in the fields 'ere 'bouts, and loves 'is ale a bit too much. Pay 'im no mind, 'e'll drink 'imself to sleep before long." the old man explained, trying to fend off any offense his customer might have taken.
Edgar finished his meal, and had another draught of the ale, before taking his leave and returning to the stable to sleep. The image of that strange farmhand staring at him bothered his rest however, and after a few hours he decided to get up and walk about a bit to tire the image out of his mind.
He buckled on his shortblade and dagger, but left his armor and cloak behind. It was taught to young Sunblades very early that they should never leave their weapons far out of reach when on an assignment or when in an unfamiliar place.
He was out behind the charcoal shed, relieving himself, when he heard a commotion from across the yard near the inn. Quickly finishing his business, he crept across the length of the shed and peeked out into the yard. A crowd of people had gathered outside the inn and were quickly passing buckets along to try and douse the rapidly growing inferno that used to be the stable.
Edgar was horrified. How had it happened? He had no torch or lantern of his own inside the stable, and there were none lit when he had left to take his walk. Someone had to have intentionally set that blaze. And it was highly likely that whoever had set it, knew he was staying here, in that hayloft.
Damn fool! He thought to himself. You should have kept your mouth shut about where you were headed! It was too late now though. The damage had been done, and now Edgar was in a tight situation. Judging by the size of the fire, the horses were already dead or dying, and all of his travel gear, including his armor and insignia, was in that loft.
He needed to get out of this town, and soon, but it would be hard without a horse or money. Edgar hid himself in the vegetable garden and watched as the inn patrons worked feverishly to put out the fire. Finally, sometime after the highmoon hour, the fire was out and the exhausted townsfolk returned to their beds. Cleanup of the burned stable would most likely be handled in the morning.
Edgar crawled and crept across the inn yard to the remains of the stable and using a hoe he had found near the vegetables began to sift through the ash and burnt timbers. The smell of burnt horseflesh made him sick to his stomach as he dug through the ash, a good deal of it still cherry red from the fire. He quickly stamped out any small flames he created stirring through the broken bones of the stable. Finally he found what he was looking for, a smallish lump of gold and silver next to the remains of his chain mail armor. The rest of his gear had been burnt to ash and lost. He flipped the lump of precious metal out of the cinders into the dirt and kicked it into a small puddle left from the villager's bucket brigade. It hissed steam as the muddy water cooled it off. He rejected trying to salvage the armor. He had no way to cool it, and even if he did, most of the links were fused and it would be impossible to wear without the leather padding that went underneath it.
Snatching the lump of metal from the puddle, he scampered back across the yard and through the garden to the rear of the inn yard and clambered over the fence, flipping his ruined money from hand to hand as he did so like a hot potato; it was still that hot to touch. Most of the coin had been lost, melted and run off somewhere into the ruined barn, never to be found again. The lump that remained, however, might last him until the forts if he could find a way to barter it.
The evil wind from before, having died down earlier that night, picked up in strength again until it was near howling. Edgar ran through farm fields, and water ditches, avoiding the main road and anything that looked like it might be too close to the town until he found what he was looking for: a somewhat isolated farmstead near the edge of the settlement.
Carefully, he approached the house, keeping himself downwind in case they had hounds, and crept to the picket near the farm sled and plow, where the horses were kept. The animals whickered nervously as he approached but did not make any other sound. Good, they were used to strange farmhands handling them then. He quickly picked the one of the lot that seemed best for riding and undid its line. Eyeballing as best he could, Edgar broke off a chunk of the money that would be enough to buy a new farm horse and left it in the stall, wrapped in the horse's blanket. As an afterthought, he also took the saddlebags hanging on the tack and harness pole, and filled them with grain for the horse. He felt bad about not leaving any money for that as well, but much of what he had was destroyed, and he had already left more than he probably should have.
Riding off into the darkness with the ominous wind blowing mercilessly at his flank, Edgar had a foreboding feeling that even if he made it to the forts, he might be too late.
Sivand cursed as another thin branch snapped back to strike him in the face. Shinreal, a few feet ahead of him, didn't even bother to turn around this time. "Be quiet. It is bad enough that you wade through the brush like a drunken gork." she scolded.
Muttering to himself, Sivand vowed to dodge the next one and tried to keep up. He and the elf had been making their way through the southern forest for a close to a week now. It had been suggested by Shinreal that Alaster would most likely have fled south through the forest since the road north was held by Unclean, as were the mountain passes to the east. Sivand's squad had not encountered him fleeing back to the west, so it stood to reason that he had gone south through the Vildeshire Wood. She had found a trail that appeared to have been used by someone on their second day out, but whether it was Alaster or fleeing townspeople, she could not determine. The trail was old and overgrown; with moss covered branches and thick scrub reaching out to snag Sivand's armor at every step. He hefted his saddle-pack a little higher to try and avoid the clawing brush.
Shinreal stopped again and looked up, brows furrowed. Sivand stopped as well, squinting upwards to try and see what she was looking at. "What is it?" he asked. "This is the fourth time you've stopped in the last half hour."
"The wind." Shinreal said, a confused tone edging into her voice.
Sivand didn't understand. Above him the wind rustled the tops of the trees, making a swaying, rising and falling sound almost like the sea. He thought it was rather peaceful. "So what about the wind?" he persisted.
"It is blowing the wrong way." Shinreal said quietly. "It never blows from the east in this land. It always comes in from the sea, from the west. Or rarely from the north. Never from the east, there are too many mountains."
Sivand wasn't a big believer in omens or farmer lore, but if the wind was unusual enough to worry someone as accomplished in the outdoors as Shinreal seemed to be, then it bothered him as well. "So what do you think it means?" he asked.
The elf made a motion with her hands that Sivand had come to recognize as a shrug of sorts. "I could not say for certain." she said. "I was never trained as a wind reader. It is not normal. It..." Shinreal stopped speaking and abruptly turned to keep making her way along the path.
"It what?" Sivand thought to himself. Shinreal was probably the most unusual person he had ever met. Granted, he had never spent such a long time in the close company of any elf, just the rare dinner with envoys to his father and the one time a musical troupe had passed through the city. For one, Shinreal never slept. When they camped for the night she would often stay awake, up in a tree. The one time she did come down, she simply went back into the trance-like state he had seen her in before in the cellar at Ret Hold. For two, she never said anything nice to him at all. He was used to compliments from the opposite gender, or at least a polite manner; he had never been anything but polite to any woman he had ever met, even if they made him angry enough to curse. Shinreal Wilkenshire was positively sour. Then there was the incident with the spider. Sivand had nearly stumbled into a larger than normal tree-spider web. It was a female spider, large and green almost half the size of Sivand's fist. He had stopped to admire it and was about to call Shinreal to see it when a longsword flashed by his face so close he could feel the breeze off the metal. Shinreal had speared the spider right through its middle on the tip of her blade and with a flick she broke its body into pieces and withdrew her weapon. Sivand turned to protest, but had stopped short. The look on the elf's face was frightening. Her eyes were wide, her breathing sharp. All of his sword trained instincts told him she had struck at the spider as she would have struck at an enemy. But why? Tree-spiders were not aggressive at all. Sivand had brought one home in his palm once to show to the other trainees.
"First spiders, now the wind." Sivand muttered to himself. Shinreal paused a moment and cocked her head to one side to eye him. Sivand flushed. He forgot how well she could hear. The elf turned and continued on, her silver-white ponytail swishing in what Sivand thought was an indignant manner. "Hells," thought Sivand "Maybe I'm over thinking it all. Maybe she just doesn't like human men or spiders."
They trudged on in relative silence for the rest of the afternoon. As the sun began to sink, the strange wind that bothered Shinreal began to blow harder. "We should seek shelter earlier than usual tonight." Shinreal said, frowning up at the rustling branches. "I do not like the way the wind is acting."
Sivand thought of protesting. They hadn't found any clear trace of Alaster yet, even though the elf was fairly certain that he or someone else had definitely passed through this area ahead of them. If Alaster left Ret Hold the night of the attack, or even the morning after, he was still at least two days ahead of them, and he wasn't going to stop for any wind, ill omen or not. However, by the time they found a clearing with a suitable windbreak to rest behind, the wind was howling and fierce. Strong gusts reached down through the thick overhang of branches to blow clouds of leaves and dust through the thickets and make some of the thinner trees bend with loud creaking noises.
Sivand unslung his pack behind the windbreak made of three ancient oaks and began digging for his rations. They would be running short soon. That would slow them further, not having to forage or hunt had sped their progress. Shinreal was crouched near the windward side of the wall of oak trunks, examining something on the forest floor. Sivand broke a dried biscuit in half and shoved the first part into his mouth as he ambled over to where the elf was squatting. Shinreal took the offered half of biscuit and nibbled at it aimlessly as she stared at the patch of ground before her.
Sprouting from the forest mulch was a line of tiny yellow mushrooms. The golden string started at one edge of the oaks and stretched almost eight feet out before looping back in to meet the roots of the oaks again, like a giant teardrop.
"Pretty...." said Sivand around a mouthful of biscuit "They good to eat?" He reached for one.
Shinreal moved quickly and slapped at his hand, dropping her food. "They are edible, but not for eating by you or me." she said tartly.
Sivand made a mocking duplication of her "shrug" hand gesture. "So what good are they then besides to look at?"
The elf frowned up at him and folded her hands under her arms. "It is a fairy ring. They grow in places of power. They are good luck."
Sivand was beginning to tire of the whole "deep and mysterious" business. "Good luck mushrooms that are no good to eat? So what's so lucky about them then? If I stand in the middle and dance a jig will they grant me three wishes?" Sivand hopped a few steps to demonstrate.
Shinreal's mouth quirked up a bit on one side, the closest thing to a smile Sivand had seen from her yet. "Humans are ridiculous. You never believe in anything unless you can see it, eat it or destroy it." she stood up and returned to the windbreak, shaking her head. Sivand reached down and picked up the fallen biscuit, considered trying to salvage it, then gave up and chucked it over his shoulder into the woods.
"I'd like to think of it as being practical." he said, following her back to their small space out of the wind.
"Practical?" Shinreal responded as she undid the straps of her armor "Like that giant wedge of steel you call a sword?"
"It did a damn sight better than those silly knives you were tickling him with." Sivand growled. He decided to leave his mail on for now, he usually took the first watch since he was the only one that actually slept.
Shinreal actually laughed this time. "Only after I blinded the thing with eggs. Those are not even sharp the last time I checked." she undid her weapon belt and placed her sword in front of her. "And those knives were expensive." she muttered.
Sivand grunted. He didn't like admitting he was wrong, but she had a point at that last. He decided to try a different tact. "Ok then, so humans are large dumb folk that like to eat and crush things with large slabs of metal." he said. Shinreal blinked up at him, surprised. Sivand continued: "So if we are so nasty that an elf can't even say one thing nice to one of us, then why by all that's holy are you even helping me to begin with? My brother is human as well, you understand."
Shinreal sat quietly for a moment, staring at her sword. Sivand thought briefly that maybe he had said too much. If she abandoned him now, he would be hip deep in gork manure for certain, he was next to useless as a woodsman. However, he disliked surprises or mysteries, and the elf woman seemed full of them. If she had some ulterior motive for assisting him, he wanted to know.
She looked up and spoke: "Honestly, Sivand Gilroth, I hadn't stopped to properly consider that question myself until just now." Sivand held his breath, he had said too much, but instead of storming off or becoming angry like he expected, her tone softened. "I encountered your brother the night before the attack. He had been coming to a certain seedy tavern to meet with various people. I figured he was trying to get himself smuggled through the dwarven passes, or maybe north through Urell Hold to the elf lands and didn't want to attract too much attention. Your esteemed father is rather famous." she smiled a bit.
Sivand sat down on a large root and pulled his pack to him. "Go on." he prodded.
"The night before the attack he met with Paderishal. They had a fight. Your brother...won, I suppose, but he embarrassed General Paderishal." she said as she undid the loop that held back her hair. "I figured he would leave town that night and I intended to follow him, but he didn't leave, and then the next night, the Unclean attacked, and I lost track of him." she shook her head and her hair fell in a cascade of rumpled silver about her shoulders.
"So why were you going to follow him?" Sivand asked as he gnawed on a chunk of dried apple. "I got the distinct impression you didn't much care for humans."
Shinreal frowned and gave Sivand a nasty look. "It's not that I don't like humans, I just think you are mostly short sighted and crude."
Sivand sighed, waving one hand in a small circle, "Yes, yes, I've heard this speech before, forget I mentioned it. So why?"
"I am a thief tracker and finder of stolen property. Where there is trouble, there is work. I have heard the rumors that the Sunblades were on the move to the south, and then the son of Harbind himself shows up in Ret Hold, skulking about like a thief and assaulting his superior officers. Something big is going on, and I wanted in on it, for the chance at some money perhaps. But the attack by the Unclean changed things. I do not much care about the gold at this point. Your brother is somehow related to this whole bizarre mess, and it is no longer about what is good for Shinreal, but what is good for Egoth." Shinreal took a deep breath and half closed her eyes.
"How noble of you, madam bounty hunter." Sivand remarked "Don't fade out on me just yet, I'm not sure how you can link Alaster to some sort of Unclean insurrection. I can assure you, he had never seen a goblin before Ret Hold. Neither had I for that matter."
Shinreal's response was faint, barely audible above the wind, "I told you, I seek out trouble for a living, and my instincts tell me that somehow your errant brother is at the center of this..."
"Great." muttered Sivand, "I am stomping through the middle of this huge forested nowhere, tracking someone who may or may not be my brother on the female intuition of an elf with spider-terror." Sivand stood up and watched the growing dimness from the edge of the windbreak, considering the possibility of finding Alaster in all this dark forest, or at least a tree-spider to drop in Shinreal's lap.