Now that’s something you don’t see every day, mused Gobert Berengar.
Gobert, unfortunately named after his father’s favorite unfortunately named brother, had been appointed to the prestigious post of Constable of East Rim some fifteen years past, and while he was not a prideful man, he did take quite a bit of pride in his tenure. On an island world-renowned for thievery and other ill deeds, he and his men had kept the Count’s peace for over a decade, not an easy task given how deep the influence of the various Guilds ran on Nameless. He had hoped to retire without any major bloodshed in another ten years or so; that was looking like a flight of fancy now.
Gobert was an honest man and thus fairly naive when it came to the politics of great men and the machinations of the wicked, but there was simply no mistaking it: there was another Guild War brewing. The Forty Thieves had undergone some sort of regime change, violently some claimed, and the actions of the new guildmaster (or guildmasters; opinions and rumors varied on that count) had sent shockwaves through the island’s balance of power. Strange and disturbing tales were coming from all over Nameless. In the north it was said that an actual dragon had fallen to the Thieves; others spoke of a horrific genocide at Dusaro. Here in the south, Constable Berengar had seen reports of a fortress being raised in Haven Forest, dedicated to a strange foreign god. A group of orcs, adherents to yet another strange, foreign god, pillaged the lands about Palervale. Perhaps most disturbing of all, Gobert had heard it whispered (for none dared to speak on such things in civilized company) that Lady Rawlins, one of the Count’s own bannermen, had taken a bugbear as her husband!
Then, two weeks ago on the heels of that bizarre story, Lord Wurth had come to him with news of troops gathering for battle; it seemed the rebranded Forty Horse Thieves, in conjunction with a detachment from the Jade Fist Company, were moving against the orc cultists, the Justinii they called themselves, in force. Seeing a chance to end a Guild War before it began, the Bailiff had dispatched him and East Rim’s militia reserves, over twenty score men in all, to ambush any survivors that might emerge from this engagement. A good plan, Gobert had to admit, but he wasn’t sure where Lord Wurth had received such privileged intelligence, nor was he sure that he wanted to know. If the very Bailiff of East Rim was on the take … no; best not to even think on such things.
After leaving the active city watch in the capable hands of his best sergeant and second son, Godfrey Berengar, the Constable and his men rode north towards Palervale, where Wurth’s scouts, whoever they were, said the brigade from the Jade Fist Company were stationed. Shortly after arriving on the outskirts of the barony, his own best scout, Old Saul Greenfield, confirmed that not only were the mercenaries exactly where the Bailiff had said, but they had just broken camp and were heading west, presumably to engage the Justinii. Berengar and his troops spent the next several days doing their best to follow the squad while simultaneously avoiding detection by the Fist’s own outriders. If the soldiers of fortune noticed them, they gave no outward sign.
Twelve days after departing the capital, the mercenaries joined with a second force, this one supplied by the Forty Horse Thieves if Wurth’s information was accurate. The following day, Old Saul discovered the Justinii encampment, located less than a days’ march west of the guild army’s current position.
“Looks like we’ll be fightin’ orcs on the morrow,” the scout spat in disgust.
“What makes you say that?”
“‘Cause whoever’s leadin’ them mercs is a fuckin’ moron, Gob. Them orcs got the bloody high ground and the daft bastard’s walking right up to ‘em! It’s like he’s throwin’ a bleedin’ party!”
That night, the Constable gathered his officers for final deployment instructions for the ambush. As it seemed that the commander of the mercenary forces was bound and determined to get his own troops good and slaughtered in Rand’s Gorge three leagues to the northwest, it was decided that the militia would lie in wait in the thicket that lay due east of the basin’s only exit. Once the battle was well and truly joined, however briefly that might turn out to be, the militia archers would rain volleys of arrows into the melee while the vanguard, to be led by Corporal Storm, Lord Wurth’s bastard nephew, but a good lad nonetheless, would move forward to prevent any enemy combatants from escaping. However, should any man or orc manage to sneak past their lines, the horse, divided into two units, one under his command and one under Old Saul’s, would ride those stragglers down. It was another good plan, and Gobert slept well that night.
The sun rose on another day and Gobert was sure that his men prayed to Indra that it not be their last. But he had trained these men and he knew their mettle. The men of his militia, sworn to the protection of East Rim, took their positions in the thicket as planned and waited. They did not wait long.
Before the morning was half done, the Justinii appeared in battle formation at the top of the ridge of Rand’s Gorge, their strange flags of white whipping in the wind. Then, just as Old Saul had predicted and in defiance of all conventional military wisdom, the forces of the Forty Horse Thieves marched straight into the Gorge and deployed into a single, horseshoe-shaped line; Gobert had to chastise more than one of his soldiers for snickering at this apparent act of mass suicide. After a collective roar or two (or perhaps they too were laughing?), the orcs charged down into the Gorge to make an end of the mercenaries.
“Indra’s Balls, what in blazes is that?” Old Saul asked in wonderment. Gobert followed his gaze and looked to the heavens … where he saw a child-sized figure riding upon a flaming steed. Gobert’s jaw dropped in amazement; he had heard of such creatures, but to see one with his own eyes was another thing entirely.
The flying mount descended into the midst of the two armies and all movement ceased as an eerie silence fell over Rand’s Gorge. Then, just as impossibly, the Justinii fell to their knees, seemingly in worship of the rider.
The Constable pondered the scene that lay before him. The odds that had so heavily favored them just moments ago had changed drastically. They had been sent to clean-up the survivors from a long and protracted engagement, not wage a pitched battle. Still, the numbers remained in their favor, they had good position, and the element of surprise was on their side. But was he really ready to send these men, his men, to die? He thought then of Godfrey, and of his other four children. He thought of his wife, Sarah. He thought of East Rim … and he made his decision.
“ARCHERS!” Gobert barked and the call was taken up down the line. He and the rest of the horsemen led their mounts from the thicket so that they might mount up for battle; Gobert heard Tom Storm order the infantry to advance. The flying steed and its rider took to the air once more as the first volley of arrows was loosed into the basin and the battle began in earnest.
We must have got the idiot, Gobert mused. With surprising speed and precision, the mercenaries turned about; their incredibly weak line fortuitously became a classic pincher formation. Fortunately, Gobert had taught that formation to Tom when the young man had first shown promise as a company commander; the men of East Rim would not be fooled so easily. The Constable dispatched Old Saul and his mounted unit to crash the enemy line at one of the points where it curved into a “U”; with a hearty battle cry, he bade his horsemen follow him to attack the other.
Well, that’s a damned thing. The Justinii foot were forming up behind the advancing Jade Fist line as if the two armies were a single fighting force. He watched, with dawning horror, as the mercenaries linked and raised their shields so as to ward off the second volley from the archers; his men’s arrows bounced harmlessly from a wall of steel. He witnessed in terrible slow-motion as Old Saul’s unit was taken in the flank by the mounted orcs in a vicious counter-charge. He heard the whistle of arrows whizzing in the air; the enemy archers who had previously been shooting at only the gods knew what were now firing death into his cavalry squad from an elevated position. Gobert looked into the sky at the rider upon a flying horse and knew with dread certainty that he had been had. They knew we were here. Gods be good, they’re ambushing us!
“FALL BACK! BACK INTO THE THICKET! FALL BACK!” he screamed as he wheeled his war horse about; an arrow took the man to his left in the face as he did. His men had been well-trained and they took up the cry, passing his orders to their fellows. The foot ceased its advance and began to edge back towards the safety of the trees as a single, controlled unit. With Indra’s help, it might be enough. They might yet get away.
It wasn’t to be. A hulking brute appeared in the enemy van, heedless of the arrows that Berengar’s archers were still firing at it. It raised a massive warhammer above its head and screamed an unlikely battle cry:
The thing, whatever it was, charged and the Jade Fist soldiers opened ranks so that the Justinii could follow. The two lines met and steel rang against steel; Gobert screamed a useless warning as the brute smashed Tom Storm’s head in with a single swing of its great cudgel.
“RETREAT!” Gobert shouted, “RETREAT!” As before, his men repeated his orders, but the fury of the orcs’ charge was too great and order gave way to panic. The militia’s line broke and the men of East Rim turned and fled in disarray back towards the thicket, the Justinii in hot pursuit. With another roar, Gobert spurred his horse into a charge towards the Justinii and what was left of his unit followed; his goal now was to harry the enemy foot so that his infantrymen might be allowed to retreat unmolested.
The gambit appeared to work. He laid about with his sword at anything and everything in his path and gradually the orc foot gave up the chase, forced now to deal with the enemies that lay behind them. As the Justinii wheeled to face him, it did not escape his notice that the Jade Fist line was reading a charge of their own. They were about to be trapped between two lines. Time to go.
“CAVALRY! TO ME!” he cried, raising his sword into the air, and the remaining horsemen, bloodied to the man, rallied about him. “CHARGE!”
The mounted militia surged forward as if one, and broke through the Justinii, who had not yet time to form up properly. Gobert kicked at his horse’s flanks again and again, urging it to greater speed. Racing through so dense a forest at such a pace was dangerous at the best of times, but this was no time for caution; certain death was just minutes behind them.
Gods, how many did we lose, he wondered. He was not the only rider in retreat he knew, and he saw more than a few foot soldiers ahead of him. Too many, he thought bitterly. Not all, but far, far too many.
Suddenly, he heard a cry of alarm directly in front of him. Then another. And another. “Ya!” Gobert cried, tugging hard at his horse’s reins, and it slowed to a gallop in response. Then to a trot. And then, at last, to a complete stop.
He strained to hear what was going on just ahead of him, for he could not see past the clearing he had come to. Some new combat was clearly in progress, but of what type, he couldn’t discern. Queer, unnatural, almost mechanical noises mixed with far more familiar sounds of battle; whatever the cause, good men of East Rim were under duress and they needed their commander’s help. The Constable spurred his horse forward once more but as he did so, one of his militia men sped from the tangled briar in front of him in full sprint.
“RUN!” the soldier screamed, waving his arms frantically as if to suggest that his captain couldn’t see him. “For the love of Indra, Constable, ru—”
The man was cut off suddenly, savagely, in mid-shout; a giant metal claw shot out from the tangle and grabbed him about the waist, crushing him. He gurgled in agony as the claw raised him into the air and shook him vigorously. Gobert edged his horse back as it whinnied in terror; the mount had been bred and raised for battle, but this was an altogether different kind of violence. Accompanied by a great cacophony of metallic clanking, what appeared to be a giant, iron lobster emerged from the briar; Gobert could only watch in shocked horror as the monstrosity tore his comrade in two with one final shake. He swallowed hard as its “head” turned towards him.
Merciful Indra, he prayed. What new horror is this?