After a long time I've finally finished this story, which I actually began in 2007. It deals with the very first battle which Nathaniel Drakkon took part in, and introduces a recurring character in the form of mage lord Tabitha Sergares. It is set 19 years and 5 months before the White War.
Chapter one - Rain
Three days. They had been marching for three days and it was still raining. Nathaniel was fast beginning to hate rain and judging by the trudging column of soldiers with grim expressions on their faces, he was not the only one. But still, he thought, this is an important mission.
He had been selected as part of a cadre of mages to accompany these soldiers of Weissland as they hunted down and brought an Orc force to battle. The Orcs had attacked several villages in recent weeks and it was deemed necessary to stop them before any other attacks occurred. The Weissland force consisted of a company of soldiers led by Captain Havard and three mages led by mage lord Sergares.
Nathaniel thought about that for a moment as he squelched his way across the muddy plain, the black robe he wore had mud stains almost to his knees by this point. Captain Morgan “have a go” Havard was a grizzled veteran with a heavy-set build and a massive beard which made Nathaniel’s freshly grown stubble seem rather pathetic in comparison. Havard and his troops fought like a hammer-strike, always taking the fight to the enemy. The enemy would hit their defensive formation like most Weissland forces, and then Havard and his men would break the enemy and move forward to hit them when they tried to reform. It was how Havard had earned his nickname and Nathaniel imagined that was why Havard’s company had been sent for. Then there was Drakkon’s superior, mage lord, or more precisely mage lady Tabitha Sergares. She also had a nickname, but it was one nobody used in earshot of her, “ice queen”. Sergares was as hard and cold as ice, and Nathaniel felt that if anything ran in her veins it was ice water. Still, he was surprised that she had selected him to be a part of her cadre for this mission. After all, it was only five years since the young mage had begun his training and little over a year since his first lone mission as a mage in the service of Weissland. He was only twenty-five, young for a mage by human standards, and the youngest mage on this mission. But then again, Sergares was not that old and she was a mage lord. Nathaniel did not know exactly how old she was, but she appeared to be only in her early thirties. She was one of the many rising stars in Ataya, replacing losses because they had great power. There were a slew of mage lords which had been promoted in the past few years, Sergares, Rathalie, Boralays and others. Nathaniel had encountered some of them, or simply heard of the others.
He was broken from his thoughts as he heard the shout up at the front of the column “The scouts! The scouts are returning.”
The column was brought to a halt, sergeants shouting out to their men to stop and Nathaniel stood still and breathed deeply, letting the rain hammer off his cloak and robes. Then he felt someone put their hand on his shoulder. Looking around he saw that it was Aldric Urien, one of the other mages. He said “Come on Nathaniel, Sergares will want us up at the head of the column.”
Nathaniel nodded and said “Of course.” He followed Aldric as they moved up passed the lines of soldiers towards the front where Captain Havard and mage lord Sergares would be waiting. Aldric was much older than Nathaniel. Probably in his late forties, Nathaniel thought, given his greying hair and stooped posture. As they arrived there, and stood beside mage lord Sergares and the captain, he noticed that Silas Piet was already there. The sycophantic, bootlicking toady was the third mage which made up the cadre Sergares had chosen. Although in Silas case Nathaniel could not imagine why she would select him instead of a dozen other mages of much better skill and quality. Silas had been fawning over Sergares since they began their march from Ataya although she seemed to take little notice. He had tried the same thing with Havard but Nathaniel knew the captain’s sort, he was a canny old soldier, the same breed as Nathaniel’s grandfather Caine Drakkon. Morgan Havard had no time for Silas and had virtually said as much right to the man’s face. Nathaniel liked that, and he respected Havard. Officers more interested in status and being adored get good soldiers killed; Nathaniel remembered the words spoken to him by Barnabas Graves, the estate master of the Drakkon estate and a soldier who served under Nathaniel’s grandfather. The words were Caine’s, and he had lived by them during his time in the Weissland army and beyond. Caine had risen to the rank of general and not because he won a load of victories, but because he had done his best to keep his men alive and fought side by side with them to earn those victories.
The scouts were making their report to the captain and to the mage lord. One of them was saying “We found them camped in the next valley. They had a few sentries, but not far enough out to see us. I’m sure it’s the force we’ve been looking for, roughly two hundred in number, travelling light.”
Captain Havard said “Sounds like the bastards. What sort of disposition did you see?”
The second scout answered “It was difficult to tell, most of them were sheltered from the rain. I didn’t see any archers though, so we should have that advantage at least sir. Mostly crude spears and swords, a few shields here and there, and most of the Orcs only had light armour. It certainly seems like the raiding force which has been described to us.”
Captain Havard nodded and said “Aye. Any suggestions milady?”
Tabitha Sergares replied “We can’t fight them in that valley; we need to bring them to us. Provoking them shouldn’t be difficult, but whoever does is sure to die before reaching our defensive lines.”
Nathaniel thought about telling them to send Silas, but he held his tongue instead. Silas was a few years older than Nathaniel but was, in Nathaniel’s opinion at least, not as powerful or skilled and was a consummate coward.
Havard spoke gruffly “I’ll send six of my scouts to give the Orcs a peppering and draw them to our positions. But we should wait until morning, and spend some time digging a redoubt for the front, waist height.”
Sergares nodded curtly “Make it so Captain. And make our camp in the tree line to the south.” The enemy-held valley was to the east so the campsite would not be noticeable and would still give a clear view of the plain which would be the site of tomorrow’s battle.
Havard saluted and then turned to his sergeants to shout his orders. The men fell out of formation, some heading south to set up the camp and others gathered the wooden posts, picks and spades to begin setting up the redoubt. The rain had already lessened and the clouds approaching were not as grey. It would still be difficult and back-breaking labour to form a useful wall from the wet and muddy ground. Sergares turned to the three mages that remained near her. She said “I want you to help create the redoubt. Dry up the ground and strengthen the construction.”
The mages nodded, although Nathaniel could see the distaste etched on Silas’ face. Sergares turned and swept away towards the camp, no doubt to sit in the relative comfort of her tent. The three mages made their way over to where the soldiers were measuring out the area of the redoubt. Nathaniel spoke to the nearest sergeant “Sergeant Govell, once your men have worked out the dimensions we will use our magic to give you a clear work area.”
The sergeant replied “Right you are sir.” It took almost ten minutes to map out an area large enough for the front rank of the company to be protected by the redoubt.
Aldric said “I shall create a shield above us to hold off the rain. Nathaniel, Silas, you two should focus on drying up the ground.” Nathaniel deferred to Aldric when mage lord Sergares was not present as he was senior in age and experience to both Nathaniel and Silas. Not that Nathaniel would actually listen to Silas if he were the only other mage around.
Aldric raised his arms, the long, heavy sleeves of his dark blue robes flopping back and flapping listlessly in the driving rain and the swirling wind. He began chanting the words to the spell. As Nathaniel watched on, water drumming on his hood, his head, a colourless disc formed above Aldric. It was about five metres in diameter and getting larger every second. No, not colourless, it was clear like glass. The rain was pattering off the barrier and running down the sides of it. Minutes went by as the disc increased in size dramatically, eventually stretching, warping to change shape into a huge rectangle which covered the area with a suitable overhang. This way the rain would flow away from the redoubt instead of simply drenching the outer edges of it and collapsing the wall. As Aldric continued to speak words of power to keep the spell going he nodded to Nathaniel and Silas. Both mages walked some distance apart, Nathaniel to handle the left flank and Silas the right flank. The two men began to speak the words to the spell to draw some of the moisture from the waterlogged ground. It was a difficult task, as they needed to remove enough water to make the soil solid and malleable, workable, yet not take so much that it became dry and crumbling, baked and useless from a lack of liquid. Nathaniel could hear Silas speaking; his words were more precise than his own. Silas was not casting the spell better than Nathaniel; it was his way of speaking. The words were more precisely spoken, as if from a speech long prepared but with no feeling behind it. They were practised and recited like a children’s poem. Nathaniel did not weave spells like that; it seemed soulless and shallow, like a pale imitation of magic. Nathaniel knew the words, knew them well, but they flowed from him like water in a stream. And as his power, skill and knowledge grew, as he became more competent and confident, that stream was becoming a river and it could become a flood, a tidal wave.
It only took a short while to dry the ground enough and once done, Nathaniel and Silas stepped back to allow the soldiers to move in and get to work. Looking up at the sky Nathaniel could see that the rain was easing off, thinning as the drops decreased in both size and intensity. A few minutes more and the rain abruptly stopped. Nathaniel breathed a sigh of relief. Now that the rain had stopped they would not need to maintain the magical barrier until morning. That would save the three mages from taking shifts sitting out here alone while everyone else got a good night’s rest before the battle tomorrow. He looked over at the tree line where the camp was. Nathaniel could not see the camp from here and he supposed that was good. If the orcs caught sight of the camp the small force would be overrun and would have to fight in no formation. Fighting individually against orcs was a bad idea. They might be fairly cowardly alone but the craven, crooked swine always had numbers on their side. And if they smelled an advantage they would be twice as hard to break.
Nathaniel stood and watched as the soldiers built the redoubt. There was nothing he could do to help now and the soldiers knew what they were doing much better than he did. It was with some surprise that Nathaniel regarded the voice behind him. Mage lord Sergares said “It looks like things are progressing quickly. Silas, take over maintaining the barrier until the redoubt is finished. Aldric, take a break; I want you ready for tomorrow. You and Nathaniel should come to the camp, get something to eat.” As she looked at Nathaniel there was a slight glint in her eye and it caught his attention.
Silas, ever the boot-licker bowed and said “As you command my lady Sergares.” Nathaniel rolled his eyes, noting that the bow was performed with such a flourish and grandstanding that it was almost a curtsy. He would never act like this. Mind you, Nathaniel thought, I have a spine. He would bow if the situation called for it, but it would be a small gesture, understated not over the top.
It seemed that perhaps the mage lord agreed with him. She had clearly seen the face the younger mage had made and raised her eyebrows almost in a mock disapproving way, as if to say she understood but not to let her catch him making such expressions again. Tabitha Sergares spoke coolly “Get on with it without the theatrics Silas.” She turned slightly to walk away but looked over her shoulder and said “Nathaniel, once you’ve had something to eat, you will attend me at my tent. There are some things I want to discuss with you.”
As she walked away towards the trees Nathaniel swore he felt a drop of ice water run down his back. It very well might have, given the wet condition of his clothes, but it should not have been that cold. It was too cold by far. That was all he needed, a reprimand from the ice queen. Nathaniel was dreading getting a lecture from someone like her and more than that, he did not want to say anything to make it worse. It could ruin his chances of getting more responsibility and the rank of mage lord if she spoke out against him. Politics was not his game, and Nathaniel knew that many could play the game better than him. Best to just keep quiet and take a lashing if that was what was coming. He walked with Aldric to the camp and both men heartily tucked into the broth which had been prepared. There were only a few fires, just enough to make the broth for the hundred and sixty-odd people here. They had been ordered to extinguish the fires once the majority had eaten. Less risk of being discovered that way, although orcs were not known for their comprehensive scouting and reconnaissance. The guards would do their watches in the dark and Nathaniel did not envy them the job. Once he had eaten, Nathaniel said goodnight to Aldric and went to find mage lord Sergares’ tent. Most of the soldiers had gone to rest already, the others on watch. Nathaniel shared that learnt trait of soldiers to eat whenever they had the opportunity and sleep wherever and whenever the chance appeared. You never know when you will get the chance again, and by then it might be too late. Food and rest would keep a man on his feet longer than ideals, banners or the bellowing of superiors. As he walked towards the south end of the camp, he heard the soldiers returning from the field, their toil finally over. Nathaniel stood in front of the tent and said “Mage lord?”
The voice within replied “Enter” and he did as instructed, ducking down due to his height, despite the large size of the tent. Nathaniel was six feet three inches and stockily built with broad shoulders and thick limbs. It added to his imposing nature. As he entered the tent he was stunned to see just how big it really was. It easily accommodated a bed, a desk of solid oak, a stand which held Sergares’ sword and staff, and two impressive looking chairs, one of which was occupied by Sergares herself. She indicated the other chair facing her and said “Sit down Nathaniel.”
Nathaniel kept his face impassive as he sat down and said “Of course.” He was unsure of how to act.
Sergares began simply “You’ve had something to eat then?”
Nathaniel replied with a polite tone “Yes. Yes I have.”
The mage lord seemed to be in no hurry to get to a point, which was not like Sergares from what Drakkon knew of her “Good, good. How long have you been a mage now?”
Nathaniel wondered where she was going with this but answered anyway “Almost six years now.” Is this the lack of experience, mind your tongue speech or something else? He thought as he waited nervously for an answer.
Sergares lent back in the chair, placing her arms on the armrests. Nathaniel noticed that while his clothing, his skin and hair, were still damp from the heavy rain, the mage lord was completely dry. She responded with further questions “Most of that time was spent training under mage lord Boralays? And then going on missions with him and some of his other students?”
He nodded “Yes. I had my first solo mission almost a year ago.”
The mage lord smiled coldly “I think I heard about that. An interesting mission, a shame about the conclusion.”
Nathaniel cleared his throat in a slightly embarrassed way and said “Not as interesting as you might think. I’m slightly hazy on the ‘conclusion’ myself.”
Sergares nodded “You probably don’t want to discuss it--”
“Not really, no.” Nathaniel said sharply. Perhaps a foolish thing to do to any mage lord, cutting them off like that. Definitely a foolish thing to do to a mage lord with the ice queen’s reputation.
But then she did something Nathaniel never would have expected. She laughed. It was a hearty laugh, a broad grin on her angular face, and her platinum blond hair bouncing slightly as she laughed. Finally she said “You skipped that whole politeness and respect for authority thing didn’t you?”
“I’m just a private person” was the black-clad mage’s only reply. His hood covered his head, and with his shoulder-length black hair and stubble, it put his entire face into shadow, although his green eyes shone out brightly against the candlelight flickering inside the tent.
Sergares’ face straightened “I can understand that all too well. I just want to talk, learn a few things, and gain some perspective and understanding.”
Nathaniel exhaled and looked at the woman sitting across from him. He replied “Ok, I can make sense of that. What do you want to talk about?”
“I must confess, I already know a bit about your family history. I’m quite interested in military history. That’s why I always try to get involved in army missions like this one.”
Nathaniel asked “Is that why you asked for me to be part of your cadre? Because of my name?”
Sergares looked at him with her deep blue eyes “That was part of it. I also felt that you would be very useful here and could benefit from the experience. This will be your first battle correct?”
Nathaniel nodded “Yes, this is the first time I’ve been in a proper battle instead of just fights and duels. But it doesn’t worry me.”
“Granted” Tabitha began “I didn’t think it would, but battles have this strange energy about them. It’s almost like a natural magic all of its own, and it can make people react in a lot of different ways. It’s not like a skirmish or a duel.”
Nathaniel frowned slightly as he pulled the hood of his robe down “How so?”
Sergares did not answer the question right away although Nathaniel could tell she was not being evasive “Would you care for some wine?” She pointed to the desk where a decanter of red wine and two glasses sat.
Nathaniel held up a hand and said politely “No thank you. I want to keep a clear head for tomorrow.”
The mage lord replied “Of course, I can understand that. I had a few drinks before my first battle, but I couldn’t drink for two weeks afterward. As I was saying people react in a lot of different ways in battle. Some people freeze up, become immobile through fear and confusion. Others become like stone, not letting any emotion in or out until after the battle is over. Some will inevitably become fuelled by bloodlust, kill-crazy or death-mad many of the soldiers call it. It might sound impressive running around killing every enemy in sight, but people can snap and turn on their own. More than that soldiers who cannot maintain discipline, formation, and heed orders get other soldiers killed.”
Nathaniel took all of this in and responded “Don’t worry. I know when to get stuck in and when to hold back. I’m more likely to put myself at risk long before anyone else.”
Tabitha sighed “Ah, that’s another thing. Heroics are generally counter-productive. Heroes tend to die in rather grisly and gruesome ways. As a mage you should remember that your role is one of support.”
Nathaniel cocked his head to one side and spoke dryly “I just fight, there’s nothing heroic about it.” He did not believe himself to be heroic; he was just a man that fought for what he believed in. Also Nathaniel did not expect this attitude from someone like Sergares.
Sergares would not let it go though “I’ve heard that sort of quietly heroic talk before. I want you to promise me that you will not attempt to do anything heroic tomorrow. It is stupid and I don’t want to see it. Now swear it.”
Sergares was almost stunned, both by his defiance and his question “Wuh, what do you mean? This is an order.”
Nathaniel elaborated “Why don’t you want to see me do anything heroic? From Weissland’s military history, a healthy dose of heroism has inspired soldiers to greater feats, turned battles from the brink of defeat to glorious victory, and given hope to the people.”
The female mage lord seemed pulled taut between concern and anger as she answered “Because it could get you killed and I do not want to see that happen. You have such potential and I want you to be alive for a long time to come.”
Nathaniel Drakkon looked at her intently and no longer saw the cold, distant mage lord that people discussed behind her back but instead another person who was worried about his welfare. He said calmly “That is something I cannot promise. No-one knows what the morrow will bring and I do not know what fate will require of me. Who am I to say I will not do all in my power to fight the enemy? That is not how Drakkons are raised.”
Tabitha Sergares sighed “I thought you might say something like that. I judged you correctly though I feel such sadness that you are destined to die in such a way.” As she finished speaking the mage lord stood.
Nathaniel said “Then I would ask you not to feel sadness because I am just as surely destined to live this way.” He stood as well assuming that the discussion was now over. In a way Nathaniel was right, but he was also wrong.
As Nathaniel left Tabitha’s tent hours later he felt exhausted. Tabitha, it felt strange to refer to her so informally but Sergares had given him permission to do so in private. And why not? He thought with a smile. He straightened his robe as he stood and then stifled a yawn. The camp was deserted apart from the guards in amongst the trees. The mage slipped unnoticed to his tent. It was no simple feat, as he felt he could barely stand let alone walk properly. Entering his small tent Nathaniel crashed down onto the bedroll and almost instantly fell asleep.
Chapter two - Snap
Nathaniel woke early. A bit of anticipation, a bag of nerves and a sense of foreboding roused him from his slumber. He had gotten several hours of sleep even though it was not properly dawn yet. It was probably enough, or at least he hoped it was. Getting up he used his water-skin to take a few sips of water and splash some on his face to snap himself into alertness. Once he was prepared, with his obsidian staff in hand and his arming sword in the scabbard at his side, Nathaniel left the tent. Already the soldiers were beginning to muster. He was surprised by how quiet it was. You might expect there to be shouting and the clamour of arms and armour, but there was not. Nathaniel could even hear the birds in the distance, the dawn chorus. Of course there was some noise, footsteps and armour, hushed voices, but the soldiers were trying to help maintain the element of surprise.
Walking through the camp Nathaniel found Aldric waiting patiently. The older mage said “Close to time for moving out. We’ll be formed up in the field while the scouts go about their business.”
Nathaniel nodded “How long will the scouts take?”
“Not long. They move quickly. They’re movin’ up on horses, all six scouts. They’ll give the orcs a fright then come running our way.”
The younger mage rubbed idly at his stubbly cheek “What do you think the mage lord has planned for us?” He had had to resist the urge to call her Tabitha.
Aldric had been a part of Sergares’ mage cadres a couple of times before so Nathaniel looked to him for advice and information “Normally she likes to have one of us target the enemy long range. Another keeps up barriers, shields and enchantments while a third stays in reserve. The mage lord helps where necessary and keeps the soldiers steady. But with no enemy magic in play things will be a bit different.”
At that time they were joined on one side by Silas who said nothing, just slithered and slimed his way over to them like a slug. Moments later Sergares joined them from the other side and stood beside Nathaniel. She stood so close he could almost feel her body heat. Nathaniel shifted his mind to concentrate on the battle ahead. Sergares said clearly, having augmented her voice through magic “Move out and form up. Scouts begin your mission and good luck. Company will form with archers to the rear, spears to the front. Forward march!”
Other commands were issued with regards to the specific positioning of each squad by their sergeants and the troops began to move at a steady pace. The mages moved with them and Nathaniel found himself walking through the trees with his staff guiding the way through fern and scrub. He had to quicken his natural pace when marching with the soldiers. Weissland soldiers were well disciplined and fast marchers. Veteran companies such as Captain Havard’s could march quickly over long distances. Nathaniel imagined that this was one of the saving graces of Weissland. It was a very large land and without the speed of its troops and the use of things like spell spheres many enemies would be able to make attacks and disappear before Weissland forces could strike with a reprisal. Up ahead he noticed Sergares walking near to Havard speaking with the heavily bearded man. Even with her robes he could see the shape of her body, the curve of her... his foot caught on a root from a tree. He stumbled but remained upright. A root from a tree placed by fate with a wicked irony, and cruel mocking laughter which made him blush involuntarily. One of the soldiers held out an arm to steady him and Nathaniel offered his thanks. The soldier, only a few years older than him, nodded his acceptance straight-faced and they continued on. It struck Nathaniel that despite his clear clumsiness just now the soldier did not mock him and there had been no snickering around him, no derisive or dismissive comments. That was what he liked about the soldiers; they had fun, joked and laughed, when they sat around a camp fire but now when faced with battle and death each of them looked out for the others. It was a simple thing drummed into the military, something drummed into him as a boy. You look out for the people you serve with. If you are not there for us, we are not there for you. It was especially true of infantry. The spearmen relied on the men in their formation to hold together and the archers to do what was required of them, while the archers counted on the spearmen to protect them and not break and run. More over it passed between companies when the battle lines were drawn. It was about trust, which Nathaniel Drakkon found very inspiring.
As the company cleared the tree line he got a better view of the field. Much of the ground had begun to dry up naturally but was still slightly damp and muddy. Each boot made an impression or flung up a chunk of mud which landed back amongst the grass to be squashed in by the next heavy boot. The area with the waist-height redoubt was perfect. The grass was stiff and swayed slightly in the breeze, the ground was firm and compact. Nathaniel could not imagine what that perfect rectangular space in the middle of the field of wetness would look like in such a short time. The soldiers began to form their lines and Nathaniel peeled off to join the other three magic-users standing by Captain Havard. It was at this time that Nathaniel looked far off to the mouth of the next valley, choked with trees. Riding at a canter the six scouts were nearing the valley. The young mage did not know their names, but in years to come he would remember the names of most of the soldiers he served beside and on occasion commanded. Nathaniel made a point especially of knowing the names of men he sent off to die. It could not avoid their deaths, but at least their sacrifice could be properly remembered. He always weighed the options carefully, refusing to order men into such suicidal situations without giving them a fighting chance and only ever if there was no choice. Save the many, sacrifice the few. And Nathaniel Drakkon being who he was would often go to death with them, although he always seemed to survive. But here and now, when Nathaniel was only twenty-five, he did not know the names of the men going to their potential deaths.
The scouts moved in a loose skirmish formation even on horseback. Ferdor Wallace was the lead scout. A lean and wiry man with straight black hair and a long scar on his right forearm, Wallace was both a competent fighter and hunter. But where his skill truly lay was reading terrain. He could look at the land around him and tell where enemies would hide, the signs that indicated where safe footing was to be found, and the best cover the area afforded. Wallace could hear a trickle of water a mile away or so people said. Ferdor was a man of thirty-four who had everything. That was how people described life. He was healthy, with a career he enjoyed and was good at, and he was married. He had married his dear Eleanor three years ago and now they had a two year old son named Stephen. Wallace checked his horse’s speed as the scouts reached the eaves of the forest. He looked around at the five men under his command and prepared to give his orders. They were good scouts, good men, and Wallace knew that it was likely all six of them would be killed before reaching safety. Eric Tanner was a solid soldier, handy in a scrap, but for a scout he talked a lot. Wes Murtrode was the youngest of the scouts, and Wallace could see the lad was nervous. Daughan Cobb, Moyric Holst, and Holwin Barasad were the other scouts and had been with Wallace for several years now; they knew what they were doing. They swiftly got down from their horses. The scouts took the horses by the reins. Wallace swept his hand forward and the scouts silently led the horses into the woods. After a short distance they stopped and secured the horses to the trees. Slung on their backs were bows and quivers full of arrows. They would need them if they were to harass the orcs and goad them into chasing the scouts towards the company. The orcs’ natural battle-hunger and stupidity would do the rest. There were between two and three hundred orcs in the raiding force and since a company of Weissland soldiers numbered one hundred and twenty men they were outnumbered. Of course with the staple enemies of Weissland being orcs and undead they were almost always outnumbered. Still, with the mages as well they stood a good chance of winning with minimal losses. Except Ferdor knew his men would die. It could not really be avoided, someone had to do this and the scouts were the obvious choice. Each of them took a short sword in hand as they started to stalk their way forward into the brush amongst the trees. When the men reached a good vantage point Wallace gave the signals for silence and to spread out. Ahead was the orc camp. The orcs had a few guards out on the edge of the camp but they were nothing the scouts could not handle. In fact they would be the first targets. As Ferdor looked on he began a mental tally of the orcs. It was with growing horror that he saw the large groups of orcs being marshalled by their leaders. Wallace Ferdor was an excellent scout and was more than capable of working out an enemy disposition. The numbers just did not add up. Instead of around two hundred and fifty he was counting upwards of five hundred. Ragged formations of orcs stood five wide and twenty deep, and still others swarmed around the campsite. This was bad. Tanner moved up beside him and whispered “What do we do?”
Wallace replied quietly, not taking his eyes from the orcs “Get into position. One of us will go back and tell the captain.” Tanner nodded and moved several feet to the right. The group of scouts got their bows ready anyway. Wallace was not sure but he felt the orcs were getting ready to break camp. He motioned to Wes to return to the captain. As the young man stood and stepped back, there was a loud, dry, crack. The twig snapped with such a loud noise it was almost earth-shattering. Wallace said “Damn. Take them now!” He raised his bow and fired as did the others. Five bowstrings twanged and the five nearest orc guards pitched over dead. One of them had been turning to investigate the noise. There was confusion as orc guards began to spot their dead.
Tanner growled “What the hell do we do now?”
Wallace Ferdor remained calm “Wes, Daughan, get to the horses now and tell the captain. We’ll hold them as long as we can. Go!” The two scouts ran back through the woods as fast as they could. Wallace nodded to the other three scouts. The orcs were examining their dead comrades. It did not take a great deal of skill to kill them off while they were distracted. Seven or eight more orcs were lying sprawled in the dirt and the main force was still unaware. Wallace knew they had perhaps a hundred arrows between them since Wes and Daughan had left theirs with the group, and he was determined to make every arrow counted. He fired again, catching an orc in the eye. By now the orcs were aware of the attack and some of their archers were firing blindly up into the trees from the valley below. Ferdor said “Target their archers. Give the captain a fighting chance.”
Within seconds the orcs were braying, shrieking, and hooting as they prepared to attack. The archers were giving up, with a dozen of their number dead, and now the other orcs were pushing them out of the way. The scouts could see the orcs crowding and moving forward but they were stilted, perhaps unsure of exactly where the attackers were. The orcs were armed with a myriad of swords, crude billhooks, hammers, picks, spears, and flails. Wallace drew another arrow as quick as he could and aimed. He fired and hit another orc in the chest, watching its legs slip out from under it in the muddy ground of the valley floor. Rain and hundreds of orc boots had done this, and now it was hindering them. Still four men can only shoot so many arrows. Tanner called out “Are we even making a dent? How long before they just rush us?”
Moyric shouted back “Shut up and shoot!” He fired off an arrow at an angle, which came down and punched into the neck of an orc roaring at its fellows to attack.
The orcs were beginning to move up from the valley towards the trees at the top of the incline. The four scouts switched their attention to the closest orcs, which were still far away. Between firing an arrow the scouts would move to a different piece of cover. While only four arrows could ever be fired at a time from four bows, the different firing times and locations would hopefully conceal the number of attackers. If the orcs could be tricked into believing this was a larger attack than four desperate men, perhaps their natural cowardly attitude would make them slower in their counter-attack. This was a delaying tactic and Wallace knew that. Eventually the orcs would reach the top of the valley by weight of numbers overcoming fear and then it would be a few brief seconds of close combat before death.
Ferdor Wallace could see the orcs even as he fired an arrow, killing another of the evil things. There they stood with leather armour, animal furs, scraps of cloth, and all of it including their flesh was dirt-encrusted. A viler race had never existed. They were covered in stains of so many different kinds that he did not want to think about them. The scout could already smell them at this distance. Bad breath, rank sweat, dried blood, their own and enemies, and earthy animal smells of an entirely unwholesome nature were amongst what his senses were bombarded with. Even though his muscles were aching Wallace notched another arrow and drew back the bowstring. His arm protested though and the shot was not to his usual standard. The arrow struck an orc in the arm. The bestial perversion of life howled and grunted in pain. A wasted arrow was not like Ferdor Wallace, even if he had not been in a situation like this. He cursed silently. Any arrow they wasted here was another orc which would reach the company, and that thought angered the normally calm and collected scout. What upset his balance most was the thought that Wallace would never see his family again. These filthy scum had denied the man that. Ferdor took a very deep, slow breath, in, and then out, before selecting another arrow. The scout drew, aimed, and fired, this time scoring a direct hit. The arrow hit with a thwap, entering the exposed torso of an armour-less orc with a sickly pale green skin and an old wound covering one eye. The death squeal was almost satisfying for Ferdor. It signalled a glimmer of hope as he jogged to some bushes and prepared to fire again. The four scouts were laying a heavy toll upon the orcish raiders to reach the top of the valley. But the orcs were getting closer. Each dead orc might fall back down the slippery, muddy slope, getting in the way of others, but there were too many. Wallace just prayed the others were close to warning Captain Havard.
Moyric gritted his teeth as he fired an arrow, sending one more orc tumbling away in death. The brown-haired man looked down and took an arrow from his quiver as he moved right to a tree. The scout only had five arrows left. He could not even remember how the arrows had dwindled so damned quickly. Wallace, Tanner, and Barasad would likely have similar numbers. So, it was almost over then, Moyric was incensed. If all he had left was to bleed and die then Moyric hoped the orcs would slip in his blood pools and trip over his body. The man was just that ready to spite the orcs.
More and more orcs swarmed up the hill like ants on a summer’s day rushing towards food. The noise they made drowned out all the other sounds of the wild. Chirping birds, the calls of wolf and bear alike, a host of other delicate noises, all deadened by the deafening clamour of the orcs. The scouts vainly fired their few remaining arrows at the oncoming horde, felling the front runners. With that done Wallace drew his sword and motioned to the others, saying “Come on. Let them come to us. Kill as many as you can, kill them all!” The four scouts ran away from the hill and took up position in a reasonably clear area where the trees were sparse and leaves covered the ground. Tense moments passed until the first orcs broke the brow of the hill, crashing through brush, scrub, and tree line as they caught sight of the enemy.
The scouts did not want to waste their strength, waiting still and calm as the orc warriors rushed towards them. Then with roars of anger and hate they were in, the fight starting without pause. Holwin slashed through one orc but another impaled him on a spear. Moyric kicked out, stabbing and swiping like a cornered animal. He killed four orcs in short order and jumped on a fifth, disembowelling it before he was dragged down and bludgeoned to death. Moyric died in a mess of orcs and himself, fulfilling his wish as his killers slipped in what was left. Tanner shouted and screamed at every opportunity “Take that! And you too! Damn the lotta you!” The scout thrust, killing another orc. He slit a throat and shredded tendons, taking the orcs almost by surprise; such was the ferocious thrashing nature of Tanner’s attack. He was killed when he lost the grip of his blood-slick sword and two orcs hacked him down.
Ferdor Wallace hacked left, ducked then thrust powerfully to kill the first two orcs that reached him. The third orc ran at him with what was basically a spike with a handle. Ferdor dodged, blocked and sliced the orc’s arm before cutting him from groin to sternum. Sweeping around to kill an axe-wielding orc Wallace found he had created a lot of room for himself. The closest orcs were several feet away. The other scouts were dead, but he could still make a decision. Run or stay, fight or flee, the most basic of instincts engrained in all people whether they admit it, whether they know it, whether they’ve faced it, whether they understand it or not. Seconds to decide, moments to react, Wallace made his move. Alone, shouting at the top of his lungs the scout charged into combat with a haunting, mournful war-cry of “Eleanor!”
Chapter three - Run
Daughan Cobb was fairly young. Out of the ten scouts assigned to the company he was the third youngest. The youngest being Wes Murtrode. Daughan had been taken under the wing of Ferdor Wallace and the other scouts when he joined several years ago. He had learnt about tracking, stealth, traps, living off the land, reading terrain, and a host of other things. Now he was learning about fear and shame. Forced to leave his friends to die, and with the thoughts of an orc horde on his heels, Daughan was not in a good mood. A good deal of that anger was aimed at Wes. He had gotten them into this mess. It did not matter that the orc reinforcements had been unforeseen. It did not matter that their mission had been to harass the enemy already. The increased enemy numbers needed to be relayed to the captain, without getting involved beforehand. That was how Daughan saw it and that was why it was Wes’ fault. The boy should have been paying attention. Daughan should have been sitting calmly with Wallace and the others waiting, not running away. Especially while Wallace and Tanner and the others were fighting and dying back there. Dying, the word made a lump stick in his throat. Together the two scouts ran through the woods, though it seemed so much further than before. To Wes’ eyes the woods ahead seemed to distort and stretch on forever, while he seemed to run on the spot.
Daughan knew that the others could not hold the orcs for long. He only hoped it would be long enough to reach the horses. Escape was the only way of carrying out the last orders Wallace had given them. Feeling that they were veering from their target the scout pointed and said “That way!”
Wes nodded, not breaking stride “Ok Daug.” He held back from asking the string of questions in his head. He ran over them again. How long can the others hold out? How long until the orcs are on our tail? What do we do then? Will we make it? Why did I have to do that? What will the company do?
Daughan Cobb bit his tongue to stop from shouting at the boy. He could have made the same mistake a few years ago. Or at least that was what he told himself, he was not totally convinced of that. He wanted to roar, he wanted to shout until his voice was strained and his throat was raw. But Cobb realised that served little purpose now. Cobb ran on and said “Keep going, we’re not out of this yet.”
Wes was running fast, trying to keep up with Daughan. He replied “How long do you think the othe--”
Cutting the younger scout off Cobb said “--None of that, focus on the orders. That’s all that matters now. Run.”
Wes breathed deeply, and continued running. He was still worried, and he could think of nothing else but all of those questions. Still, he tried to do what Daughan said, he tried to just run. In the distance, behind him his training told him, the orcs were braying and shouting. Coarse voices mingled together were all he could hear, but Wes knew it was the orcs. He was only glad that he could not make out anything specific, just noise.
By Daughan’s reckoning they were about ten minutes away from reaching the horses and clearing the woods. This would have been a damned easier mission if one of those mages had come with them. But no, they’re too precious and important to get their hands dirty and risk their lives, Cobb thought sarcastically. One of those mages could have just sent one of their spell spheres and nobody would have to do what the scouts were doing. Before he could think further, he heard a loud shout. It was certainly not orcish but he could not be sure what had been shouted, it sounded like a name. Around a minute later orc voices were heard loud and clear. Shouting and jeering, the orcs were getting closer; some orders like “Move!” and “Run you filth!” could be heard. Cobb could draw the obvious conclusions about what all of this meant. It also made him redouble his efforts to get out of this place.
As Wes and Daughan ran through the woods, darting this way and that, the sounds of boots stamping on the earth started to grow louder. The orcs were moving through the woods at speed, whether they knew about the two scouts or not, they were coming. The sound was almost thunderous. They continued running but Daughan knew that sooner or later the orcs would begin to catch up. He had made sure that both himself and Wes had left their quivers behind for the others to use, but had kept a handful of arrows and their bows just in case they needed to fight. Also he was hoping that once they returned to the company’s lines they could join the battle and do some good. He called over to Wes, trying to keep his voice steady and low enough to avoid detection “Keep going, not too far to the horses now. If we have to stop and shoot, one shoots while the other runs. Then the runner stops to cover the other. Is that understood?”
Wes nodded “Yes, perfectly.” He tried to keep his response short, so as not to lose control or provide a distraction. Wes felt that if he was standing still his hands and knees would be shaking. Perhaps it was adrenaline, but he thought it was more likely fear and shame. He continued running, jumping over some thick tussock to avoid it slowing him down. The scouts were getting closer to the horses but they were running out of time. Time was always in short supply when battles and warfare were concerned. The vanguard of the orcs began to appear, rushing out of the undergrowth. First one orc emerged, and then another, followed by a dozen more. The braying, grunting orcs quickly caught sight of the running scouts and gave chase. More and more orcs were thumping and tramping through the woods. The entire orc force, travelling in a loose shambolic formation, was making its way through the woods. They had been roused by their leaders sensing an opportunity for slaughter. Luckily for the Weissland Army the bulk of the orcs were idling along. Many of them did not want to fight; this was different to raiding homesteads and towns with little resistance. The scouts had taken a toll on the orcs, although more to morale than the numbers they had slain.
Daughan ran as fast as he could, ducking under a low branch as he went by. He pulled one of the arrows from the belt loop where he had stored them and got his bow ready. He ran on a few steps before shouting to Wes “Go on and get ready to cover me when I yell.” The younger scout nodded and ran onwards. Cobb slowed and turned to face the racing orcs. He spied one in the lead, an orc with a craggy, weather-beaten face, covered in scars or wrinkles the man could not say for sure. The vile creature had skin the colour of milk which has gone bad, with little, red, beady eyes glaring out from hooded eye-sockets. The scout raised the bow with the arrow prepared, lined up his shot and fired. The arrow struck the orc in the chest, and with only furs for armour, it pierced deeply and the orc fell backwards. Daughan Cobb felt slightly satisfied, but turned to run on and shouted “Covering fire!”
As he heard the words Wes raised his bow from the kneeling position he had chosen. He pulled the string taught as Cobb rushed behind him to find another place to wait. He released the arrow, watching it hit an orc in the head, sending it sliding to the ground to die. He turned and fled shouting “Cover!”
Daughan had run on twenty meters to fire. The orcs were still closing though. He fired once more, scoring another clean kill. Without waiting he ran shouting to Wes “Can’t do any more. We’ve got to get to the horses now!”
Wes nodded without saying anything. Suddenly he noticed the growing light ahead of them, saw the trees thinning out. He replied “We’re at the eaves.”
Daughan jogged over to the horses. There was no time to free them all. He unfastened the reins from the tree and brought the horse around. Wes took his horse and the scouts mounted up and set off as quickly as they could. Clearing the woods the scouts spurred the horses on with every trick at their disposal. The horses galloped away, throwing up chunks of grass and soil in their wake. The company seemed so small and distant to Daughan, while the field seemed vast, the distance between the scouts and their lines great. Even over the sound of the horses he could hear the orcs behind them and the din they created. The scouts were taught to be practical, to gather information and relay it to their superiors, to scout. As far as Daughan Cobb could see there was no escape, no matter how hard they tried, and the company would face destruction soon afterwards. Taking the chance to look back, Daughan noticed the first few orcs leaving the eaves of the woods. They did not seem to notice the Weissland force in the distance; they were so intent on chasing down the fleeing scouts. The orcs began to fire arrows at them as they ran out of the woods. Most fell dramatically short, but some landed around them. Daughan felt lucky that the orcs only had a small number of archers and they were terribly bad shots. He risked a slight smirk as he turned his attention back towards the Weissland lines which were thankfully getting closer with every passing moment. Each moment was important. Every moment brought him closer to fulfilling his leader’s last command. The orcs continued to pour out of the woods like a spilt glass of liquid, it spread further and faster than you would believe possible. The archers ran on ahead, still firing at the two men on horseback. Wes was riding clear beyond Daughan, his horse was much faster. There was still a lot of space to cover before reaching the company and it would not be possible for the Weisslanders to return fire. That would have required moving out of position. The bulk of the orc horde was beginning to slow their advance, perhaps after seeing the Weissland company waiting there. It was possible the scouts would make it out alive. Cobb allowed himself the chance to relax a little as he rode on. Without warning the horse gave way beneath him and the world spun.
A horse’s distressed outcry made Wes look back. Daughan’s horse lay dying, an arrow protruding from its hide. The scout was flat out on his back, having been flung forward from his saddle. Wes reined in his horse and turned back at once, racing to help his friend and comrade. More arrows whistled towards them, landing in the ground. Cobb stirred, regaining his wits, groggily stumbling to his feet. He called out “No! Go back, go back! The orders. Leave me!”
Wes did not listen. Quickly he rode up and held out his hand. Daughan had no choice but to take it and was pulled up onto the horse. Even as arrows fell with a whine the young scout turned the horse and sped off towards safety with great haste. The scouts likely would not have made it if not for the intervention of someone else. A fireball of some intensity roared high overhead and landed behind him. It killed two of the orc archers and sent others scurrying for cover. The return fire was thin indeed, just a few shots as the orcs gave up the chase.
The scouts galloped back to the company not wanting to tempt fate by dawdling. They rode up to the side of the company’s formation to find Captain Havard and mage lord Sergares coming towards them. There was a glow in the mage lord’s eyes which seemed to indicate she had sent the fireball to aid them. Wes stopped the horse, letting Daughan dismount before doing the same. Captain Havard said gruffly “Report gentlemen.”
Daughan and Wes saluted before Cobb spoke “Sir, we arrived at the orc camp to find their numbers swelled by reinforcements. Sergeant Ferdor ordered us to return here to inform you of this. We were discovered and Sergeant Ferdor stayed with the other scouts to delay the enemy.”
Havard did not blink “Their sacrifice will be remembered. How many orcs are there?”
Daughan swallowed hard “We counted at least five hundred, sir. There’s no way to tell how many Ferdor and the others were able to kill, but I think they were overwhelmed quickly.”
Sergares said “We were taking a risk when we calculated around two hundred and fifty orcs. Double that, and... well, the result is not good.”
Havard nodded “Do you suggest we retreat? Because I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to do it.” He seemed slightly shocked, but adamant and determined.
Sergares only replied “Whatever we do Captain, we’ve got to do it soon.” Looking out across the field, the others followed her gaze. The orcs were beginning to form up into one large wave. The orcs would be coming soon.
Chapter four - Stand
When faced with death a natural reaction is to panic. Often your brain will not work that fast. Instead you feel a little bit numb. Nathaniel suspected most of them were feeling one or the other. Except, of course, Tabitha Sergares, Nathaniel doubted much could get to her. Despite recent events she still wore a mask of icy detachment. Nathaniel watched the orcs. He hated them; there was no other emotion for them. The orcs were an utterly evil race. Their existence was purely to bring pain and ruin on whatever they could. That made them like the undead in a way. Even dark elves had their own versions of honour, conscience, and perhaps even justice. They were loyal to their leaders most of the time. Orcs had none of that. Insects had more morals. When they were not slaughtering the defenceless or burning what others built up, they were backstabbing, creating more of their kind, and fouling up the world. He turned to keep an eye on what was happening towards the side of the company. Sergares made a quick motion. Drakkon, Aldric and Silas moved over to join the mage lord, as did Captain Havard’s lieutenant. Once the group was together Sergares began “It looks like we need to decide what to do.”
Havard said gruffly “With respect there is only one thing we can do.”
Sergares replied coldly “Perhaps... but I’m open to suggestions.” She looked around the group. The look in her eyes was almost casual, as if they were discussing their next meal, not a life and death situation.
Silas blurted out “We can’t fight them all! We’ll be slaughtered.”
Nathaniel muttered under his breath “Some hopefully sooner than others.”
Sergares asked “What was that?”
Nathaniel said “Nothing.”
Even with an orc horde bearing down on them Tabitha was not in the mood for being openly defied. Narrowing her deep blue eyes at Nathaniel she said “No, it obviously was something. What did you say?”
“I was just thinking aloud, it was nothing of worth.” Nathaniel answered, feeling the weight of eyes on him. It was embarrassing.
Sergares spoke like a harsh frost “If you have nothing of worth to say then remain silent.”
Silas smiled smugly. How Nathaniel wanted to smash that smug face. The smarmy mage said “I suggest that I lead a small group of soldiers away now to raise the alarm and get reinforcements.”
Havard jumped in “We can’t afford to split up.”
Silas suggested “Why not retreat in force then?”
With a sour, angry look on his face Nathaniel shouted “Retreat? If we do that we’ll be overrun and routed! We have to stand.”
Havard and his lieutenant nodded and agreed. The captain added “The orcs are too close to retreat.”
Before Sergares could speak, Drakkon continued “We don’t need to send troops away to raise the alarm. All we need to do is send a spell sphere and hold out as long as possible.”
Sergares seemed on the verge of exploding in fury but slowly the young mage lord calmed down. To Nathaniel, the target of her rage, the time seemed to move as slowly as a glacier. Sergares pursed her lips into a tight smile “Very well, you’ve convinced me Nathaniel. Ready the troops while I send a spell sphere to Ataya.”
The men walked away, heading off to different parts of the line to make sure everything was ready. Nathaniel and the other mages walked in a loose group. As he walked, Silas moved up at his shoulder and said “Looks like your complaining worked on the mage lord. Good work, you just got us all killed.”
Nathaniel turned and would have struck the snivelling toad down with his fist, if Aldric had not moved first and held Nathaniel back. The older mage calmed things down by saying “Now is not the time for fighting, save that for the orcs. Silas shift yourself and secure the left flank. Nathaniel, stay here on the right flank. I will take the centre. Did you both hear me?”
Nathaniel nodded and replied darkly “Yes... yes of course.”
Silas said nothing only nodding in acknowledgement. He left, moving along the front line to reach the opposite flank. Waiting a moment, Aldric loosened his sword in its scabbard and said “Look sharp Nathaniel, we’ll be in the thick of it soon.” The older mage left for his own area, leaving Nathaniel alone with his thoughts.
Tabitha Sergares stood alone, and after a deep breath closed her eyes. She began to form the spell sphere, a small blue globe of shimmering energy. There was no time for a conversation, so this spell sphere would just deliver a message. Sergares spoke calmly although in truth she was not calm “This is mage lord Sergares. My force has encountered the orc raiders. They have been reinforced and now number around five hundred. It is doubtful we can hold them but it is too late to retreat. You must get word to the nearby towns and villages to prepare their garrisons or evacuate, as well as get a larger military force to this location. I will contact you again if possible to update the situation.” Tabitha knew all too well what people thought of her, and she did not care for the most part. She was unapologetic because Tabitha was a powerful mage. Why should she have to be polite and overly emotional around others who were weaker? It would be a weakness itself and Sergares could not afford that. It was the burden of command. She was only thirty-two, but responsibility had been thrust upon her slender shoulders. Sergares was worried, scared, and perhaps even a bit excited, but she would never dream of showing any of this in public. Even in private she tried to keep her emotions hidden, or in check.
A shout went up from the front rank “Here they come!”
Sergares moved to the back of the formation to direct the archers. Captain Havard would see to the spearmen while the other mages would be in the middle supporting the spearmen. The mage lord looked across at the enemy. The orcs were marching towards them in a rough formation at least fifty abreast. The front rank seemed to be armed with simple spears, but there were two-handed swords and wicked maces mixed in. Sergares gave her orders to the archers “Wait for the enemy to come into range. You will volley fire at the front rank. Delaying the orcs is vital.”
Wes Murtrode listened to the mage lord as she spoke. He selected an arrow and waited for the archer sergeant, now commanding the scouts as well, to signal them. Wes thought I’ll redeem myself here. I’ll do them proud.
Tense moments passed by. Everyone held their breath. The sound of the orcs grew steadily louder, their stomping and shouting was mixed with horrible horns and the beating of drums. It was a storm, approaching and waiting. They all had to stand in the storm. With a practised eye the sergeant of the archers watched the orcs. He scratched the neat and tidy goatee on his chin. Finally the signal was given as he raised his bow and yelled “Fire!” at the top of his lungs. The volley of arrows whipped into the air before striking down at the orcs with deadly accuracy. Many amongst the front rank were pitched to the ground, but the orcs just stepped or hopped over their dead. The weight of numbers hung heavily in favour of the orc raiders. Arrows would eventually run out, or the orcs would be too close to target without risking the Weisslanders’ own. Sergeant Tibrain Mothias glanced at mage lord Sergares, who gave a subtle nod. He gave his orders “Reload. Fire again, front rank. You will volley as I command until told to halt.”
The soldiers acknowledged this with a shout of “Yes sir!” At the same time the clatter of arrows being taken from quivers and fixed to bowstrings was heard. Once again, the archers raised their bows and drew the bowstring back, aiming the longbows. A loud twang was then heard, almost in perfect unison from every bow. Hurtling down at the orcs, the second volley struck. Some orcs staggered, with an arrow protruding from an arm or leg. Others fell down with a guttural cry of pain, pierced in more fatal areas. Between the two volleys at least thirty orcs lay dead and trampled by their advancing formation. Some had been wounded, the orcs walked over them without bothering to check. But now the orcs picked up pace, starting to jog slightly in preparation for the eventual charge at full speed.
Sergares responded to this by launching a fireball along with the next volley. It hit the orcs head on, killing three of them outright and burning four others to death. Her calculated attack had worked, as the orcs had to break up their formation slightly to get around the fire. It was only a small fire and would burn out in a few minutes, but that was the point. As a mage lord, Tabitha was powerful and she could use many spells of different kinds and strengths without needing rest. Still she did not want to deplete this store of magical energy too soon. This spell was minor and would not limit her later. It was her hope that a few well-placed and timed fireballs would split up the orcs enough to both blunt their assault and give the archers more time to fire. Sergares smiled slightly as she noted over a dozen orcs hit by arrows, falling over or simply being pushed aside by the orcs behind them. She said very quietly “There’s still hope yet.”
The archers prepared to fire again, raising their longbows to the sky. The remaining scouts were there as well, using their ordinary bows. Wes took aim, pulling the bowstring taught as he waited just a moment longer. Sergeant Mothias repeated “Fire!” The volley of arrows was launched, thirty-six in total. This time Wes noticed two fireballs rushing up through the air and into the orcs as well. It was almost startling, as Wes had only seen mages a few times before and not in combat. With fire and arrows raining down on them, the orcs began to falter slightly. Their leaders would probably keep them in line, but Wes held out the small hope that they would push the raiders back with just ranged attacks.
Amongst the orcs, the moans and cries of pain were mixed with the yelling and squabbling of leaders forcing their troops into the fight. The last volley and the two fireballs had claimed two score of orcs. But now the orcish leader did something unexpected and verging on tactically astute. He ordered his formation to split up into skirmishing lines and sent his remaining archers running out ahead of the slowly approaching human lines. With a bellow he commanded the archers to fire at the Weisslanders. It was not a disciplined or well-aimed volley but it was random fire coming in at the badly outnumbered force.
The first few arrows fell amongst the Weisslanders, killing three men and wounding another. The poorly timed firing allowed them to recover from this unlooked for attack. The order was clear “Shields up!” The spearmen did as instructed, raising their shields to block the worst of the archery. A few moments later, Aldric spoke words of power, raising his hands up with his staff held in the left. A magical barrier was raised in front of and above the heads of the Weissland formation, deflecting arrows. They struck against the barrier, and it flashed in a myriad of colours as the arrows splintered or bounced away. Quick thinking had limited what could have tipped the balance even further in favour of the orcs. The spearmen cheered quietly before they lowered their shields and waited, returning to their nervous yet steady wait.
The orc warlord cursed and smacked aside one of his soldiers in anger. He had been so sure the archers would have been able to do more damage. He hated the magic the Weisslanders used against them; he had nothing to match that. Killing them will stop it, he thought gleefully. He gave out orders again, roaring “Get the archers back, scum can’t hit nothin’. Get ready to charge, they can’t hit us when we’re ripping their throats out. Deal with their mages, I want their heads!” The orcs rushed to carry out their leader’s commands, lest they suffer his wrath.
Sergares watched the changing situation as she spoke the words to a spell. This spell augmented her voice, allowing her to command from a distance. She began to speak, noticing the strange overlay of magic in her voice “Nathaniel, Silas. I want you both to use a fireball against the orcs along with me during the next volley. Silas, aim for the left flank, Nathaniel the right, I will tackle the centre where the greater concentration of their troops are.” As a unified force, the Weisslanders could operate with greater efficiency than the rabble of orcs but it was likely this would be the final chance to inflict ranged damage on the orcs before their momentum carried them into the Weissland line. Nathaniel spoke the words, an orb of flame forming in the air several inches above the tip of his staff. Sergares and Piet would be doing the same, in their own way. There were several basic ways a spell might be performed, and most mages had their preferred method. Nathaniel liked to use his staff as the focal point of some spells, while others used their hands or any point near them. As he said the last few words the ball of flame hung there, waiting for the final command which would release it. Sergares watched the archers, and as they were going to fire she said “Now!”
The volley was released, and the mages released their fireballs as well. Devastation shook the front lines of the orcs, as arrows slew twenty-four of their number. Three arrows punched into one orc with an axe wielded in both hands, sending him stumbling backwards into his rushing comrades with an animal-like squeal. The fire did more, killing dozens of orcs who were caught in the blast, while others were set alight. They vainly tried to put the fires out, slapping at their clothes or rolling in the dirt. At least thirty orcs died instantly from being hit, while perhaps twenty more were badly burned, writhing in agony as the rest of the orcs marched on. Sergares was beginning to feel desperate. She had hoped the previous volley would throw the orcs into disarray, but their numbers were too great. Orcs were bold in hordes and cowardly in small packs. They needed an advantage in numbers to overcome their natural fear. For a single orc, unless possessed of a cocky attitude or unnatural bravery, the preferred fight or flight response was to run. They had learned over long centuries that one on one an orc could not match an elven or human soldier, which was why they preyed on civilians. The mage lord ordered the next volley, realising there would not likely be another “One more volley. Archers aim for the front, Silas, Aldric, Nathaniel send a fireball further into their lines. Prepare to fire!” The words were spoken and Tabitha Sergares unleashed a taste of her true power. Planting her staff in the ground, the austere noblewoman raised her hands slowly as flames began to form around them.
When the barrage was released, Sergares sent six fireballs smashing into the orcish front line. As the conflagration of nine fireballs and numerous arrows died down, a bloody toll had been taken on the orcs. Almost one hundred lay charred and dead upon the field. The orcs faltered, a handful on the left flank ran back the way they had come. But the orc warlord and his best warriors soon got them in-hand and forced them onward. They were picking up speed now, every passing minute saw them going from a jog to a run to a sprint over the last few yards. There was no more time for archery; spells now would have to be more specifically targeted to avoid injuring the Weissland soldiers. This was it, the charge, the stand, and what would come next, was just about survival.
With uniform movements shields were brought up and spears jutted out like a thorny hedge. The soldiers braced themselves for the impact. Grim determination was etched upon their faces, whether clean-shaven, bearded or fair. Nathaniel drew his sword, unsure of what to expect. It was a simple arming sword which had been forged in one of the family’s smithies and given to him by his father Rowan Drakkon. A matched set, one held by Nathaniel while the other hung in the bloodline hall at the estate in Crint, formerly belonging to Arthan. Nathaniel stood several lines back to one side, but he could tell that might change rapidly once battle was joined. The orcs ran howling into the Weisslanders, brandishing spiked clubs, swords, axes and a few spears. The redoubt hindered them greatly, and coupled with their now disjointed formation the orcs’ initial attack was piecemeal. Vital seconds were put to good use by the soldiers as they thrust with their spears and withdrew, thrust and withdrew. There was a skilled rhythm to it and each spear thrust pierced orc flesh. Even in these first few moments a dozen or more orcs died, slumped by the redoubt, starting to form a wall of their own. They were skewered by the first and second ranks. It did not go entirely one way. One orc, armed with a wicked looking sword hacked down at a spearman, the blade biting deep into the Weisslanders’ shield. Even as this orc was slain, it fell forward, his fur-clothed bulk dragging the spearman down. A second orc took the opening by ramming its spear through the man’s neck with a squelch and scrape of metal on bone, before the orc suffered a similar fate. Such an exchange still favoured the orcs; they could afford to throw their lives away. The Weisslanders could not say the same, each death having terrible consequences. The company had eighty spearmen and a score each of bowmen and swordsmen, plus the scouts and mages. Every spearman who died decreased the effectiveness of the whole. Every man and woman in the company was an important part of the puzzle which made the efficient formation of the Weissland Army. Each successive wave of orcs hit harder than the last, wave upon wave, until they started to make headway. Lieutenant Cordane held the centre now, his shield forward and his sword lashing out like a dragon’s tongue. At his feet lay the dead bodies of two spearmen, their armour ruptured and hewn. Aldric was in his shadow, chanting away. As Cordane clashed with an orc brute wearing dirty chainmail and wielding a serrated cutlass, Aldric pointed his staff like a spear past the lieutenant. A sheet of ice burst forth, of such solidity that it sheared the orc in half at the waist, carrying on to kill four more to the side and behind. One of the female soldiers fought for her life with an orc. Her spear was beyond her reach, and while the orc choked her, she choked the orc. As the life drained from her eyes, she saw a glint of steel. A sword hacked down and the soldier stumbled, gasping for breath. Her name was Barala and she felt an arm around her back, supporting her. Nathaniel kicked an orc back and warded off attacks with his sword as another spearman got his comrade back. The man, who seemed to be younger even than Nathaniel joined him, filling the gap just in time to gut a grey-skinned orc with crooked features.
Nathaniel was in the fight now. He blocked a sideways sweep of an orc axe before slashing the orc’s throat. Arterial spray hit him, and Nathaniel closed his eyes, the wet warm splash making him squirm and retch “Urghah!” He forced himself to open his eyes, and good that he had. Two more orcs lunged at him. Drakkon raised his sword in time, parrying a sword and pushing up and away. A spear thrust took one orc in the side. Nathaniel finished it with a blow to the skull. The second swung with a mace, making the young mage swerve aside. The spearman to his left, Narish, plunged his spear expertly into their enemy’s chest. And then, with a suddenness which took Nathaniel completely by surprise... it was over.
Horns were ringing and the orc assault crumbled away, a final few deaths on both sides of the redoubt. The orcs fled running back in loping strides towards the forest far behind them. Men gave shouts, some moved forward, until the voice of Captain Havard called out “Hold your ground! Stand still I say!” The first assault was over, they had survived but losses had been great for their small number. Still the battle was not over, the orcs would regroup. Nathaniel wondered if they could weather the storm.
Chapter five - Hate
The orcs had retreated into the woods, although not completely. Some watched from the eaves of the forest, preparing for the next attack. These orcs were stronger and bolder. They were fully armoured with chainmail, gauntlets, leather hauberks and bulky plate pauldrons. They were the best warriors the orc warlord had, his personal guard. And they would form the backbone of his next charge. The warlord was almost declaring victory already, as in the mountainous side of the valley, were warren-like caves. Out of them, roused by the sounds of battle, more orcs had joined them. Close to a hundred more of them. It had been a simple thing to kill their chief and bend them to his will. The humans did not stand a chance. The orc warlord looked up as a spot of rain hit him, then another, and another. The pitter-patter increased as the dark green, almost forest green-skinned orc grimaced. It was almost time to begin the next assault. He had a scar across his chin underneath his mouth. Rain always made it itch. The orc warlord had another itch he wanted to scratch, and that was the mages. The orc had seen magic before, and he utterly despised it. He had worked for a necromancer before and seen what that could do. Raising the dead, killing, decaying, and while this was used against his enemies he did not like it. He wanted the sensations of fighting his foes, proving he was better, and the tactile feeling of breaking an enemy, the blood, the adrenaline, and the power. Still, unknown to the Weisslanders, these raids were part of something grander. The orc warlord was quickly gaining notoriety amongst his kind, and cementing his power. Leading this combined force he was savouring the chance to gain a victory over the proper Weissland military rather than farmers and poorly equipped small town garrisons. A keen sense of military tactics and a level of cunning quite unprecedented in the craven orcish kind directed this warlord.
The warlord had come from the north with those orcs he had brought. Others had been gathered to his banner, orcs of numerous kinds. Now though, the warlord was angered that too few of his kind remained. His forces were diluted, and he did not hesitate to say they were weak. Many of his troops were cowardly, skinny, and lazy. The few that were left of his stronger orcs now doubled as officers and taskmasters. The lash and the fist would keep them in line for now, but the orc warlord would try to head north to gain more of the bolder and experienced orcs. These orcs, especially the ones with the lightest green skin, they are children, the orc warlord mused. I need veterans, and I need them soon!
A commotion behind him caused the orc warlord to turn sharply, his arms tensing. Two orcs were scrabbling with each other in the dirt, punching and scratching at each other. One was a newcomer in manky furs with dark grey, craggy skin. The other had the ruddy, brownish-red skin and slim build of one of his scouts. A fight for dominance, to gain higher prestige amongst the army, such fights were common with orcs. It was especially true in armies with different tribes and types of orcs, but a strong leader could forge them into a more cohesive grouping. The warlord had done this already a few times, but with the new tribe just joined he had to teach lessons again. The warlord bellowed “Oi you scum, save it for the Weisslanders!” He grabbed the grey-skinned orc around the waist and bodily threw it through the air. The orc landed a couple of feet away with a thud and a groan. The warlord growled “You idiots should be whipped raw for your stupidity.” He put a gauntleted hand around the throat of the scout and wrenched it up into the air. He waited with a look of grim pleasure as the smaller orc struggled and squirmed, and then the warlord smashed the scout back to the ground. Looking at his nervous followers that bestial cunning took over. The orc warlord said “Hold your rage, keep your frustration bottled up my lads, and make your hate a weapon... And when the time’s right unleash it on the humans!”
His orcs howled and whooped and cheered. The orc warlord seemed to feed on the atmosphere and emotion, pumping his fist into the air to keep his soldiers going. Hate and anger were powerful emotions. Even orcs could recognise the adrenaline boost they could instil, even if most were too stupid to say ‘adrenaline’. The orc warlord was smarter though, he knew a bit about morale and rousing speeches. Hate and anger were more powerful than hope, more powerful than compassion, and certainly more powerful than love. Greed and lust were possibly ties; the warlord had not studied them enough to be sure. For him though ambition was the strongest emotion. It fuelled him and drove him onwards. But he had a lot of hate and anger to share with others. Who do you hate? Everyone. What do you hate? Everything. Why do you hate? I am hate, I am born of hate, raised with hate, and armoured by hate. Those were the questions, those were the answers. The orc warlord often thought of such things, but he would never verbalise them. That would just be inviting a dagger between his shoulder-blades. The warlord never showed weakness, that was how his predecessor died, and he would not allow that. The orc warlord had kept his army in line, fought through countless raids, crushed several challengers for leadership, and all without effort. No Weisslander army would stop him. That was one thing the warlord had learnt from that filthy magic-using necromancer; the undead and their masters were determined. They did not stop, or hesitate, or rest, or relent. The orc warlord and his orcs needed rest, and food, but he wanted to harden them to fear and hesitation. Not an easy thing with the typically cowardly and craven orcs, but the warlord had managed it personally. His personal guard were the same as him, and gradually some of the others were toughening up to his standards. Most were far short though, and that was why they died and failed in battle. The survivors were always stronger though.
The warlord walked off towards one of the larger tents in the camp, pushing a couple of orcs aside that were too slow getting out of his way. Looking back towards the congregation of orcs beginning to disperse he barked an order “War council, now!” A number of big orcs of similar skin tone to the warlord walked over to him. They were his lieutenants and advisors. Once they were all inside the tent, around him in a rough semi-circle, the orc warlord said “We need to break the Weisslanders this time. There can be no survivors, and we cannot retreat again.”
Lorkan was the first to speak up. He was an unsubtle brute, which was saying something for an orc. He used a sword which looked more like a meat cleaver. The orc said “All out attack, throw everything at their front and overwhelm them.”
Morsa, who was slighter in build compared to Lorkan, with shoulder-length hair in thick locks shook his head “No use, we’ll lose too many and if we break ‘em we won’t be able to chase down all of the swine.”
The warlord nodded “Morsa is right. I want to hit them from the sides as well. Three groups with as many of my guard in the rear of the central group as possible.”
Dabbar spoke up “What about the archers? Want them given close combat weapons?” Dabbar was the youngest here, but he was learning quickly.
Vrun, one of the older orcs growled “Why not send the archers in first. That way the wimps might make up for doin’ nothin’ all soddin’ day. Those sneaky humans who attacked the camp mighta been dead sooner if the archers shot straight.”
The warlord replied “It was the stinking magic that stopped them out there.” He pointed in the direction of the battle site. He continued “And the humans surprised us all to begin with. They’ll do the same with their magic this time but the archers might get through. Regardless I want them either side of the middle group. They can cover us going in and keep firing until they’ve nothing left to fire.”
Morsa added “At least they might draw some of the human’s arrows.”
Lorkan laughed loudly “Har, them archers is good for catching arrows in the gob!”
The warlord knew that this was their last chance. If they did not destroy the humans now they would not have enough troops left for any raids on anything larger than a village. He said “Alright, get the troops ready. I want them marching and I want them marching now!”
The other orcs filed quickly out of the tent. Outside the warlord could hear them issuing orders, yelling for orcs to form up, and bellowing for troops with different weapons to move where they were needed. The warlord took a moment to think. He thought, only a handful of humans stand between me and my destiny. Magic be damned I’ll kill ‘em all! The orc warlord wrapped his fingers around the hilt of his sword, feeling the leather bound to the hand grip, and the cold metal of the fat pommel and the slender crossbar. Pulling the weapon free from the scabbard the orc warlord stomped out of the tent like lava erupting from a volcano. His orcs were ready. The warlord roared “Anger and hatred!” The orcs cheered and brayed. The warlord raised his sword high before pointing it forwards “March! We’ve got enemies to kill, skulls to claim, anger and hate to use, and rivers of blood to spill!”
The orcs started marching quickly. The warlord stood watching them before joining his bodyguard. The orcs were heading back into battle, with dark banners held aloft, drums drumming a murderous heartbeat, and horns declaring the approaching carnage.
Hate was something Daughan Cobb knew quite well, although he would not claim to be an expert on the emotion. Cobb hated a lot of things. He had hated his father for never being proud of him, and dying before seeing Daughan become a scout. This was mainly because he was robbed of the chance to prove he was better than his father. Daughan did not talk about that much. He hated the orcs, and he hated the undead. That was ingrained in most Weisslanders, but Daughan felt his hatred for orcs renewed after losing his closest friends. The other scouts were friends, just not like Wallace, Holwin and Moyric, even Tanner with his endless talk. The thought brought a bitter-sweet smile to Cobb’s face, wondering who had made one of the loudest men in Weissland a scout. Sitting next to him on the ground one of the scouts said idly “Think we’ll make it out of this?”
Daughan wanted to shout at him but could not muster the strength. He simply said “I don’t know, Vullen.” After speaking Cobb sighed and looked around. He caught sight of Wes, who gave him a nervous nod. Daughan returned it subtly. Cobb realised that there was a growing hatred inside him directed towards the young scout. It’s your fault, Cobb thought with resentment. If Wes had not made the mistake the others would be alive and here. Cobb’s shoulders slumped as he realised that was not really true. They would have brought word, but they might have been ordered to engage anyway. The only difference would be that Wes and Daughan would be dead. And a few more orcs, he mused.
There were a few things he did not hate so much after today. The mages had done some big damage during the assault, and one of them had saved his backside on the way back to their lines. That’s something, he thought. Not something I’d counted on certainly.
Chapter six - Thunder
Some time had passed since the orcs had fled back towards the forest, leaving the dead littering the field. The Weisslanders tried to pick up the pieces. Nathaniel helped a wounded soldier. The man had a deep leg wound and was bleeding badly, claret flowing liberally down his leg and covering his armour. He had started to go pale. Nathaniel and another soldier carried him clear of the tangle of bodies before laying him down so Nathaniel could heal him. That was also a problem, as the more magic the mages used to heal the eight wounded, the less they had for fighting the orcs when they returned, and it was clear they would return. The Weisslanders gave a rough estimate that there were still almost three hundred orcs left. Nathaniel had always been poor with healing magic. Regardless, he gave it his all. The man screamed and whimpered as magic stopped the blood pouring from the wound. There was no time to be gentle; too much blood was being lost. The young mage had to clamp the arteries shut until he could seal over the wound. Drakkon worked quickly, using magic to grow new flesh, pull the cut closed, and cover it over. All the time he was aware of the hand on his shoulder, the other soldier worriedly watching over his compatriot. Finally Nathaniel was able to let the man’s blood pump through the leg again, healing it fully, and taking away as much of the pain as he could. It was taxing to say the least. Standing up he said “You’ll be fine now, just rest for the time being.”
He turned and was about to move on when the other soldier offered his hand saying “Thank you for saving my brother.”
Now Nathaniel noticed the family resemblance. He responded “It’s the least I could do for him. Stay with him, I’ve got to check others.”
The soldier nodded as the mage walked away. Nathaniel reached mage lord Sergares as she healed her third injury, a broken arm. Looking up she said “Nathaniel, I want you to clear the dead from the redoubt before they come again.”
Nathaniel nodded, he was just glad to have something to occupy his thoughts and his time. Turning, the mage moved off towards the front, towards the bodies of the dead. Most were orcs, but some were Weissland soldiers.
Sergares stood up, ignoring the muddy stains on her long, flowing robes, although she dearly would have liked to clean herself up properly, and get into a building with stone floors instead of this grass and soil. It was the way she was raised in Cerylia, the first child of a noble family that shared close connections with the ruler of Asala. Her father had been a high ranking official in the city. Making her way over to Captain Havard, she asked “Do we know casualties yet?”
The captain sighed “Yes, we do. Twenty-four dead, most are spearmen, and eight wounded. We were lucky. If the orcs had been able to properly sweep round our flanks... well, we’d probably be dead now.”
Sergares replied bitterly “Next time we won’t be so lucky. Our magic is getting lower, if they keep the pressure up our only ranged firepower will be archery.”
Havard raised a bushy eyebrow questioningly “Not enough then?”
“No, the orcs still outnumber us; they will definitely reach our formation again.” The mage lord replied confident of what would happen, although clearly not happy about it.
Nathaniel moved away from the redoubt. It had started raining again, dampening spirits as well as the ground. There was no need to worry too much, as the rain was still just a faint drizzle, but it did seem to be getting steadily worse. He thought momentarily about trying to stop the rain with magic, but discarded the idea for one simple yet important reason. Using that sort of magic would be wasteful given their current situation. Regardless, Aldric had been tasked with maintaining another barrier over the redoubt. Nathaniel had used his own magic to levitate the dead bodies away. With a slight tactical thought, the young mage had spread the bodies out in the field ahead of them. They were not piled up, so would not give the orcs cover, but would hopefully slow them down. Heading over to Tabitha Sergares he said “I’ve cleared the dead and Aldric has raised his barrier for the redoubt.” He looked at Sergares, who stood facing away from the company while Nathaniel was to her side. He was almost surprised to see concern and doubt upon her face. Drakkon asked “What is wrong?”
Sergares glanced at him, smiling weakly “Nothing, it’s nothing. It’s just; we’ve had no word from Ataya. I hoped that we would have heard that the towns and villages were evacuating. Or that aid was on the way.”
“That someone was coming to save us.” Nathaniel continued with a sigh.
Sergares stood still, just looking at the trees. One arm was down at her side, while the other rested across her body, her hand wrapped around her other arm just above the elbow. She looked very fragile to Nathaniel, like a flower clutched stiffly to one spot by a frost. It was not something he had expected to see, but the last few days had been full of things he had not expected. Sergares replied “How silly of me, to place all my hopes on rescue when I should be focussing on my own skills and abilities. And also those of the troops.”
Nathaniel placed a hand on her shoulder reassuringly, although he longed to take Tabitha in his arms and hold her close. He said “I think we all search for someone to rescue us, to take away our problems so that we don’t have to face them. Hope keeps us going, especially when things seem bleak. Hope is vital. You know your skills. You know that you are a mage lord, that your power is unimaginable. But you don’t know if you can trust someone else to come to the rescue. None of us know for sure.” Nathaniel smiled as he looked at Sergares, waiting for a moment, just enjoying the silence and the rain. He finished “So we do something so magnificently mortal, we hope.”
Sergares turned to face the younger mage directly and began to talk “Nathaniel, I --”
“--Not interrupting anything am I?” A smarmy, smug voice asked. Both of them looked at the source, distancing each other in the process. Silas said “Are there any special instructions mage lord Sergares? Anything you wish me to carry out? I stand eager to serve.”
Nathaniel glowered at the man, giving him the sternest and most intimidating look he could muster. It washed over Silas like nothing. He simply beamed with condescension, ego and glee. Silas might be a coward and a slimy worm, but it was clear he was no idiot. Sergares reasserted herself, making it obvious that the time for doubt and weak moments was over “Yes, there is something you can do Silas. You can check on the wounded, make sure they are fit to fight again. Then, I want you to collect as many arrows as you can from the dead bodies and be quick about it! Also, gather spears from the orcs; we’ll use them as projectiles. And finally, wipe that smile off your face or I’ll knock it off with the back of my hand!”
Faced with the sudden rage of the mage lord, Silas scampered and scurried away. Nathaniel said “That was amazing, I could almost kiss you.”
“Don’t. This was something which nobody else should have seen.” Tabitha said harshly.
Nathaniel replied defensively “I said almost.” Without saying anything else he walked away to stand by the soldiers, leaving Sergares to stand alone again.
For the time being the soldiers rested, half watching for enemy movement, half sitting down and relaxing as best they could. It was not a perfect situation given the rain, but they made the best of it as soldiers are prone to do. The wounded were much better now, having been healed and having a rest. They would be able to fight again. The Weissland force needed every single one of them, knowing the orcs still outnumbered them but not by how much. The rest was called to an abrupt end as an orc force started to leave the forest. Shouting, the sergeants ordered their men back into line, rousing them and forming them up. The company returned to order in record time, looming death was a great motivator. The orcs came on, forming into three rough blocks side by side. Captain Havard noticed it at once, feeling sure this was a holding force and two for flanking. It also meant either focussing on one group or splitting their already poor firepower and risking being overwhelmed one way or another. He resigned himself to the notion that most likely, no matter what they did, the company would be overwhelmed. It was now a matter of doing whatever they could. Already things looked grim.
Once more the orc advance began and their second assault was imminent. Almost to signal this event, the heavens opened and poured forth a flood. The rain turned heavy, dark clouds rolled in from the north-west, the rumble and crash of thunder was heard in the distance. The rain lashed down as Nathaniel looked on nervously. His heart seemed to pound in his chest, as he took in the scope of the orc force once more. They did not seem as diminished as he had secretly hoped. Seeing them arrayed before his eyes, even with the streaks of rain obscuring and confusing his view, it became clear that they could not stop the orcs. The orcs were too many, the Weisslanders too few, always too few. Remembering the tales of his ancestors, stretching back into the history of his homeland, Nathaniel realised that this was his fate. He had been destined to die in battle before he was even born. Facing his own mortality was not an easy thing for a young man to do, yet here it was thrust into his face like a shroud cast over the dead. Morbid thoughts played like a dirge in his mind, and more disturbing to Nathaniel was the growing sense of unease, of fear he could not banish. One question pushed its way to the front, refusing to go unheard, but he could not truthfully answer. Is this where I will die?
The orc warlord had given his commands. The warlord himself and his personal guard stood at the back of the central force of orcs. They would smash the front of the humans, while the other two forces swept around to hammer the flanks before enveloping and overwhelming the Weisslanders. As the orcs marched crudely forward in the rain, a peal of thunder was followed by the crack of lightning striking down at the rocky cliff-sides of the valley. The remaining orc archers, numbering only about thirty at this stage, ran in skirmish groups to either side of the central formation. Once the distance had been closed slightly the orc warlord planned to unleash them. This time, magic or not, the archers would fire until they had nothing left. At the very least it would help cover the advance. Within a few moments the first orcs entered the range of the Weissland longbows.
Sergeant Mothias and his men went to work. They were restrained and sombre, knowing that they were vital to giving the others a fighting chance. They raised their weapons up, squinting as rain dripped from the edges of helmets and ran down faces. Mothias held his breath for just a moment longer then seemed to exhale the words “Ready, fire!” The arrows were loosed, hurtling through the rainy sky to land amongst the orcs. Many fell, sent crashing and sliding in the rain-slick, muddy field. It was still a vain hope; the orcs had numbers to spare. Reloading, the bowmen and scouts adjusted for the rain and the closing orc horde. It took only moments to do, but wet, cold hands made it slower. Another shout and the soldiers released a second volley. This one had less impact, but struck against the orc force to the right. About ten orcs died. One, with grey, ashen flesh and only one ear, roared in pain as an arrow struck its shoulder, before two more arrows punched into its chest at a steep, downward angle. With their courage up, the other orcs laughed cruelly and knocked their fellow out of the way. They were almost relishing the chance to fight now. It was not a sudden change, they were committed to this battle now, and realised the poor situation the Weisslanders were in.
More than this, the second volley changed things. Now the orcs had closed the gap and their archers were in range to return fire. The orcs cheered and clattered weapons on shields in some cases. Even as the humans prepared their third ranged attack, the orcs unleashed their first. The call of “Incoming!” went up amidst the Weisslanders. Shields were raised and Aldric frantically spoke the words to his spell, raising a barrier against the arrows. A shimmer passed overhead as the arrows fell, but too slow to stop them all. Three arrows, just three, landed before the magic could be proof against them. Only one found its mark, but it was enough to kill the bowman as it hammered into his skull. The man did not even utter a cry as he flopped down to the ground. The rest of the barrage shattered harmlessly on the barrier. Aldric swallowed hard as he concentrated on maintaining two barriers, one which could stop the rain, like a sheet of glass, and the other to stop the arrows, like the walls of a castle. This one would allow the Weisslanders to fire out, much like firing from the window slits of a castle, but the orcs could not breach it unless by Aldric failing to keep it active or overwhelming it.
Nathaniel took a moment to glance back at Tabitha. He could see her directing the archers. The young man sighed and looked at Aldric, who stood a few feet away, with just a few soldiers between them. Nathaniel could see the concentration etched on his face. Aldric was an experienced mage, but Nathaniel did not know the man’s limits. He barely even understood his own limits. How much magic can I use before I’m useless? Drakkon wondered unhappily. Across at the other end of this line of soldiers was Silas. Due to Nathaniel’s height he could see the annoying mage if he stretched a bit. Nathaniel could see the nerves and worried behaviour of Silas. Good, he thought. Perhaps some fear will make Silas stop being such an insufferable git. He looked up and watched as arrows shot overhead, followed closely by fireballs. They hissed as the rain came into contact with the flames. Nathaniel followed them, taking in the angle of their flight until they hit the ground. From what he could tell, they were not as effective as before; the rain had certainly lessened their power. Orc arrows continued to pound at the barrier as the main orc forces ran on. Nathaniel was shocked and angered to see the orcs were closing so fast this time. One more volley would be all they would get before the orc scum hit the Weissland lines. Quietly he began to speak the words to a spell. Nathaniel did not bother with fireballs, not this time. Almost as an after-thought he created a spell sphere and sent it to mage lord Sergares. He said clearly “Don’t use fire, use lightning.” With this he raised his staff and used a spell to call down bolts of lightning directed towards the orcs. The lightning crackled overhead and Nathaniel could tell Sergares was using his idea. He could only muster three individual strikes, Tabitha was bringing more. The lightning shot down and the orc front lines seemed to be flung down like a child discarding a doll in a fit of anger. This was followed by the arrows. The orcs behind, those not killed by lightning or arrow, stumbled through acrid smoke and over bodies. Still they came on with an undulating, uneven war-cry. Commands of “Stand ready!” rang out in answer and Nathaniel recognised the rough voice of Morgan Havard. Drakkon pulled his hood down to see better before drawing his sword and tightening his grip on the obsidian staff with the dragon-winged top piece.
Amongst the archers, the soldiers were ordered to draw their swords and put their bows and quivers down. Enemy fire still rained down, but the magic barrier seemed to be containing it. The orcs were coming to surround them though; everyone would need to fight in close combat. Mage lord Sergares pulled her own sword from its sheath and moved at as quick a pace as her long robes would allow, trying to head towards the front. That was where they had to meet the charge. The only thought in her head was blunting that could ultimately save the company.
Nathaniel gritted his teeth as the orcs rushed at the Weissland lines. He saw them hit with a bone-cracking impact of bodies on bodies. The shields of the Weisslanders shoved back like a wave crashing on rocks. The first orcs staggered and convulsed as spears pierced gut or chest. Nathaniel looked for an opening, but could find none. He would have to wait until the flank was attacked. It was then that mage lord Sergares came into view, reaching the centre a couple of lines back. She stepped up beside Aldric who was still trying to maintain the barriers. Nathaniel could not tell if it was just rain or sweat on the older man’s face. The rain was heavy, and Nathaniel was drenched to the skin. Still the tiredness in Aldric’s expression made the young mage wonder. Nathaniel turned his attention back to the orcs. It was what he should be doing after all. The orcs were still attacking and moving to flank them and their archers continued to fire arrows which bounced and rebounded from the barrier Aldric had created. The Weissland archers could not fire in response now that they were preparing for close combat. It was not the devastating and powerful show of strength one might imagine from reading the history books. Nathaniel did not see the orcs die in droves, or flee in terror, or drowned in a sea of their own blood. All perfectly good ways of describing another battle on Weissland’s soil, Nathaniel was sure, but all inaccurate in this case. They needed to turn the tide in Weissland’s favour. Now that he came to think about it, Drakkon realised that was a work of fiction rather than history. His friend Nerris, who was very much a historian, would have remarked that Nathaniel had been reading the wrong books. No, Nathaniel decided what they had to do was kill every orc they could find until there were no more. It was the only way they would ever get any peace. Speaking the words to a spell, Nathaniel formed two magic spheres before giving a nod to Sergares. She saw the gesture and the orbs of energy. Drakkon watched her cast a similar spell, albeit one of greater magnitude. It was time to hit back hard. The magic launched out from the small Weissland formation, striking at the orcs which were attempting to rush around the sides. Several dozen were blasted to death by the magical projectiles, and yet the rest seemed almost unfazed by the losses. It was as if something was keeping their morale high.
The Weisslanders were beginning to take casualties, just one or two here and there, but that was worrying enough in their situation. A couple of orcs managed to throw the dead body of one of their comrades onto the spear of one soldier, dragging his weapon down from the weight. They wasted no time in jumping on him and hacking him viciously until he dropped. The men to his left and right reacted with calm discipline, killing the orcs and trying to fill the gap. Nathaniel raised his obsidian staff aloft and chanted the words to another spell. As the last syllables of the ancient tongue were spoken a beam of magic coursed over the heads of the soldiers to strike at the orcs. Nathaniel saw at least five obliterated but he knew that was nowhere near enough. The young mage was about to attack again when he heard a cracking sound above like the sky was breaking. He looked up sharply. There was a shimmer of magic and then the barrier failed. Drakkon saw Aldric collapse to the ground. Sergares tried to help the man but could do little in the press of the tightly-knit formation.
The orc arrows finally fell down upon them. With large shields and sturdy armour the Weisslanders had few reasons to fear the enemy fire. Still, some arrows found their mark and soldiers died, especially amongst the archers who had no shields. Now the battle entered the deadliest phase as the orcs slammed into the sides of the Weissland block and Nathaniel found himself trading blows with the enemy up close. It was now a time for Nathaniel’s sword to taste blood, not for hurling magic. Nathaniel blocked the cleaver which swung his way and then thrust, putting the length of his arming sword through the orc’s face. Pulling back Nathaniel hacked the arm of another orc and slashed the chest of a third. The rapidly encroaching enemy allowed little time for finesse or drawn-out duels.
Nathaniel lacked the skill of the soldiers. Where they scored a killing blow in disciplined strikes Nathaniel settled for spreading as much damage as possible and finishing off where necessary. Finding a momentary gap in opponents he risked a glance behind him. Nathaniel saw the brutal fighting which was happening across the front, Sergares smiting orcs like an avenging angel, even Silas doing his part. Although the mage stood behind the soldiers and attacked over shoulders with his staff he was not cowering as Nathaniel might have imagined. Perhaps Silas had more substance than Drakkon had credited him with, but not much. Nathaniel meanwhile stood shoulder to shoulder with the men around him to fight directly with the orcs. As Nathaniel saw things that was the only way, in the thick of it and on the front lines. If he died Nathaniel would die as one of these brave souls, anointed in the spilled blood of his enemies and roaring the name of his homeland into the afterlife.
Once more Nathaniel clashed with an orc, severing its hand at the wrist before carving a grievous wound across the creature’s belly. Maybe we can win this? Nathaniel wondered. As more orcs rushed at him Nathaniel smiled grimly as he thought, or die trying and make a bloody mess of the orc scum.
The orcs were enclosing them, as more and more of the foul creatures swept around the flanks and engaged parts of the formation further back. Soon the rear of the formation would be attacked, and some of the men there were ordered to face the back in preparation for the inevitable. Nathaniel blocked the attack of a large orc with dark green skin. The brute pushed his sword back and Nathaniel strained to keep his defence up. He turned and let the enemy’s weapon slide past before slashing, causing the orc to stagger back but not fall. Another orc thrust a spear at Nathaniel and the young mage only caught the move moments before it would hit, dodging to avoid it. Unfortunately the spear still made contact, slicing into his side just above the hip. It was not a deep wound, but Nathaniel gasped in pain, grunted in anger and quickly spoke the words to a spell. Lightning blasted from the mage’s body, crackling with intensity and electrifying the two orcs, and a third behind them. Clutching his side Nathaniel took a step back and tried to breathe through the pain.
The orcs were pressing in on the Weisslanders and despite the discipline, competency, and tenacity of the soldiers they were starting to take more casualties. Nathaniel saw a spearman almost decapitated by an orc wielding what appeared to be some sort of wicked looking pole arm. The young mage saw arrows coming in to land amongst the soldiers. Thinking on his feet Drakkon spoke a handful of magic words, directing the spell with his free hand, and diverted as many of the arrows as he could to harmlessly thump into the ground some distance behind the site of the engagement. It was only unfortunate that he had not been quick enough to send them into the orcs attacking them, or back at the damn archers harassing them. Other arrows hit though, penetrating shields with resounding thwacks or worse, piercing flesh. Nathaniel saw two men fall with arrows protruding from their armour, but from his current position he could not tell if they were simply wounded or dead. Adjusting the grip of his sword Nathaniel once more charged into the fray, hacking and swinging, and taking the lives of two orcs in the process.
Nathaniel spun to the front of his position on the right flank, as another spearman died and the orcs tried to break the formation. Without hesitation Drakkon rushed forward and stabbed the first charging orc in the gut, before turning as he moved past, pulling the sword clear in time to slash the throat of another orc. The orc dropped its scimitar and clutched the gaping wound to try and stop the blood in a desperate move, before falling to the ground to die. A third orc, with a dull reddish skin tone and an eye scarred shut, bellowed and leapt at Nathaniel. The orc died in the air, as one of the Weissland spearman skewered it mid-leap and brought it squealing to the ground before finishing it with a twist of the spear. There was no time to voice his thanks though, so Nathaniel gave a simple nod to the soldier and moved to allow a couple of fresh men into the space to keep the formation secure for the time being. Nathaniel once more looked to see how the other mages were faring. From the looks of it Tabitha Sergares was marshalling the soldiers well and adding the strength of her magic to the fight. Nathaniel saw Silas hard pressed on the left flank when the unimaginable happened. The slimy mage lost his nerve and panicked. Silas hastily shouted the words to a spell and blasted several orcs flat, the magic energy tearing through their bodies and armour like wet paper. Nathaniel would have expected such from any mage, but then he saw Silas run through the gap he had created and try to flee back along the line and away from the battle. There were shouts of confusion from some of the soldiers nearby. Nathaniel watched with stunned anger at the coward trying to run away from the enemy. Fate it seemed had other ideas, as a few orcs broke off and gave chase. They overtook Silas and he was slashed across the back. The coward stumbled to one knee before being stabbed twice and bludgeoned by a brutal morningstar. With Silas left for dead the orcs returned to the assault. From here there was nothing Nathaniel could do except glower at what he had seen and keep fighting the orcs on his side of the battle.
The Weisslanders were taking more casualties as the fighting continued to rage. The weight of numbers brought to bear against them was slowly whittling away at the company of soldiers. They had originally numbered one hundred and thirty-three with the addition of the scouts and the mages, but now numbered closer to seventy. It soon became apparent that the casualties had caused the formation to lose cohesion. When the orcs made another push, charging headlong into whatever gaps they could find, the formation essentially shattered into smaller groups or even individuals fighting in what became a swirling melee. Men and women of Weissland fought orcs without the formation which formed the backbone of the Weissland Army but while the fighting might have degenerated into a fluid series of skirmishes and duels the soldiers remembered their training and drilling, maintained their discipline and were still easily a match one on one for the basic orc rank and file. The bodyguards of the orc warlord were a different story, proving to be more than a challenge. Nathaniel had the experience of fighting a couple of the large and heavily armoured orcs that had become separated in the fighting from the bulk of their comrades. The mage blocked repeatedly, searching for an opening in the rain of blows sent at him by the two orcs. Finding one he slashed left, succeeding in hamstringing one of the brutes. Using the time this had bought him Nathaniel dodged around the guard of the second warrior to deliver a desperate thrust under the arm and through the gap in the orc’s armour. With the second orc now bleeding to death from the fatal wound Drakkon had given it, the mage was able to fight off the returning enemy. Even with a leg injury the fuming orc slashed and hacked, hoping to kill Nathaniel by overwhelming force. Even in his youth and inexperience Nathaniel was not so easily beaten, backing off to draw the orc into an advantageous position. He yelled “Come on orc scum, this is pathetic. You couldn’t hit the side of a frigate with these swings. You fight like a child!”
The orc roared some unintelligible guttural response and rushed full pelt at Nathaniel. The young mage watched and waited for his moment, before rolling forward as the orc passed him. Coming up to his feet and spinning quickly Nathaniel swung his arming sword which connected with the side of the orc’s neck, cleaving through the shoulder guard of its armour and deep into the green flesh. The creature collapsed to the ground with a gurgling noise escaping its throat before it expired. There was no time to gloat or rest as Nathaniel fought on. The battle had lost cohesion and Nathaniel found himself fighting foes from any direction from one minute to the next. He brought his sword down heavily on the shield of a grey-skinned orc. The orc tried to hit him with a crude cudgel but the mage used his sword to deflect the weapon and swiped the orc’s arm. The steel cut deep and the orc dropped his weapon in a roar of pain. Nathaniel wasted no motion in plunging his sword into the exposed chest of his foe. Nathaniel turned slightly to fend off the next orc to charge at him. He was forced onto the defensive and had to back-peddle several steps as he blocked and parried. He suddenly dug his foot in and performed a difficult move with his sword to momentarily send the enemy’s weapon heading tip first into the dirt before he swept his blade vertically upwards and sliced the orc from gut to throat.
Nathaniel saw several more orcs making their way through the melee towards him. He was about to advance when he heard a voice just behind him. The voice said "This is not going well Nathaniel.”
The young mage glanced back to see Tabitha Sergares standing behind him with her back to his. She was holding off a couple of orcs with skilled use of both sword and staff. Nathaniel returned his attention to the orcs that were coming for him, as the first one reached him and he deflected a hasty sweep. Nathaniel replied “Granted, but we can’t give up now.”
Sergares snorted derisively “As if I would consider giving up. And keep your guard up, these things are not as easily defeated as one might think.”
Nathaniel’s jaw tightened and he said sarcastically “Really, because I’ve been wiping the floor with them. I was beginning to think about using my off hand to fight so it would be a challenge.” He blocked another attack and made one of his own, which was blocked in return, metal clanging on metal. The sound was everywhere, the commonplace sound of battle, the exchange of weapon strikes.
“Really,” Sergares began “this is hardly the time for sarcasm. We need to keep our heads and try to salvage this situation.”
Nathaniel kicked the knee of the orc he had been crossing blades with and used the opening to stab his sword into the orc’s chest. This orc was wearing reasonable armour though and while the thrust breached it, the orc received only a minor wound. Pulling his sword back Nathaniel stopped a high strike and returned with a swipe which caught the orc off guard. The blade sliced cleanly through the orc’s throat and the arterial spray hit Drakkon’s side as he turned with the swipe. He said to Tabitha “Well perhaps my sarcasm is simply a defence mechanism to hide my damaged nature and troubled psyche. Or forget I said that...” Nathaniel looked at Sergares with a wry smile.
Sergares slashed down, killing another orc before sweeping her staff around to crush the skull of a brute with no hesitation. She glanced at Nathaniel and said calmly “Very funny. Now, I want you to prepare yourself for a large spell. Perhaps a suitably impressive display of magic will drive them away.”
Nathaniel looked over the mage lord’s shoulder and his face darkened. He said “I don’t think we have time for that.”
As Sergares turned to look at what Nathaniel had seen they both heard the war cry which was taken up. The fracturing of the formation had led the battle to spread out, as even broken up into smaller groups the veteran soldiers of Weissland could fight well against the raw ferocity of the orc horde. Now the front of the battle was beyond the redoubt. Charging towards it though was the bulky armoured forms of the orc warlord and his toughest bodyguards. They had created a wedge and were now driving through the Weisslanders. Any moment now they would reach the redoubt and shortly after that they would shatter what resolve the Weissland force had left. Sergares said quietly “No, we have no time at all.”
Nathaniel growled “We still have a chance though.”
“What are you--” Sergares started to say as Nathaniel took off at a run towards the oncoming orcs.
He called out as he ran “I told you I don’t do heroics, calculated risks are another matter.” Nathaniel ran quickly, using his sword to deflect a couple of strikes aimed at him by orcs, and he slashed the back of an orc in the way of his route, barely slowing down to swerve out of the way of the falling body. As he ran Nathaniel started to say the words to a spell. Picking up speed Drakkon reached the raised redoubt and took his final step. The mage leapt forward, landing one foot on the redoubt and using it to springboard into the air. The spell catapulted Nathaniel ten feet in the air and he basically hurled himself at the biggest orc he could see, wagering that the biggest, ugliest scumbag was the leader.
The orc saw him coming and skidded to a stop, raising a large sword in meaty fists. The impact of Nathaniel’s landing sent a wave of magic out around him, knocking orcs and Weisslanders alike to the ground. The worst of the damage was sustained by the orc bodyguards with their dark green skin and heavy armour. They contained much of the magic, blocking it with their bodies even as it ruptured armour and organs. The Weisslanders knocked down were quickly picked up by their comrades as they continued the fight. The orcs would not have even considered helping their fellows, mostly trampling over them to continue their rampage. Nathaniel rose into an aggressive stance and immediately launched into a series of lightning fast attacks at the orc warlord. Nathaniel found disappointingly that the orc warlord defended against the attacks and parried, slashing his sword with such strength that the young mage was forced back a step or two.
The two combatants were not evenly matched. Nathaniel might have been tall and strong for a human but the orc warlord had strength born of a lifetime of brutal combat and hateful suppression of usurpers to his leadership. Nathaniel was well versed in sword craft and innovative though, something which could not be said for the orcish mindset. Magic as well could be a huge advantage if used cunningly.
With grim determination Nathaniel swept his arming sword around in an arc, hoping to catch the orc on the back foot. The orc warlord blocked but only barely. The creature snarled in annoyance at Drakkon before battering his sword aside and thrusting in a heavy-handed fashion. Nathaniel could not get his sword back into position to block and was forced into simply leaping backwards. He kept his footing in the mud yet now Nathaniel was trapped on the defensive as the warlord pressed the advantage. Perhaps this had been a foolhardy decision on Nathaniel’s part to attack the warlord like this, but now he had to fight for survival. Time was running out. If Nathaniel was going to do something to turn the tide it had to be soon, assuming he could live much longer.
Chapter Seven – Duel
With the battle in full swing and the orcs mostly surrounding them now, Daughan Cobb was able to indulge his hatred and rage. With his sword Daughan cut the arm of an orc, forcing it to drop the spear it held. One of the Weissland archers killed the orc with a blow to the skull. Daughan ignored the elven man and launched himself bodily at an orc with scabby blue skin. The orc gave a startled howl as it was knocked down. Cobb gave it no chance as he stood up and buried the sword in his enemy’s back. Twice more he did this in an aggressive fashion to make sure the orc was dead. It was a waste of energy but the scout no longer cared. All he could feel was the rain lashing down, the heat of his face red with anger, and seething hate in his belly like a broiling ocean.
Daughan rushed at another orc. This one swung a rusty looking sword at him but he parried hastily by pushing the blade up and away. Quickly he brought his sword back, slashing down across the orc’s throat. The world seemed to swim in blood, like an overlay of pure red before his eyes. It was anger and hate. Cobb knew the signs from both sides. He had seen the anger from his father and he had felt hate in return. That white-hot burning coal of that emotion which was so universal was within him. As far as Daughan Cobb was concerned anger and hatred were more widespread than any other emotion, even love. Love did not last forever, hate did, and anger could be fuelled almost indefinitely. Taking out his anger on the orcs was something Cobb felt was necessary. It was the only way to survive. More orcs were closing in; Daughan had more than enough hate to go around.
The orc warlord swung down with a heavy arc of its sword. Nathaniel sidestepped and raised his sword to the side pointing downward to block the sideswipe the orc attempted. Finding himself inside the orc’s guard the young Weisslander tried to end the duel. He spun, turning his back to the orc momentarily as he brought the blade of his arming sword around at waist height. It was risky but it could lead to Nathaniel disembowelling the orc if successful. The orc was faster than he expected, dodging back to avoid the killing blow. The sword scored a deep groove across the plate armour but nothing more. Before Drakkon could defend the orc hurled a powerful fist at him. The punch snapped his head back roughly and he fell back. As Nathaniel landed in the mud the warm trickle of blood that ran down his upper lip reminded him a hundred times better of the price of failure than any stray thought in his head. Blood was being spilled, not just his blood, Weissland blood. Failure was not an option here and if it was Nathaniel was choosing another option regardless. If he was going to have his first blooding then he would survive.
Everything snapped back into place as he saw the leaping crushing boot coming towards his face. Nathaniel rolled aside and with one hand pushed up to rise. Even as the warlord landed Nathaniel swept his leg around connecting with the back of the orc’s knees. It unbalanced the orc warlord but one rock could not move this mountain. The orc bellowed and tried to reach down and grab his neck. Nathaniel twisted his body; turning it away and using his other leg to entangle the orc’s legs, and as the mage turned over from his back to his front toppled the orc backwards with a crash.
Quickly Nathaniel rose, seeing the battle around them. He called out the words to a spell, sending lightning cracking down to smash a handful of orcs down with shattering impact while thunder trembled overhead. Raising his sword Nathaniel planned to skewer the warlord. The sword came down fast and hard but hit nothing but mud and trampled sodden grass. For all Nathaniel’s speed the orc was as agile, despite his apparent bulk and armour. It was less startling than infuriating to Drakkon. He had to wonder, just what is it going to take to put this orc away? If the gods truly existed they gave no answer as Nathaniel fumed and renewed his attack.
Nathaniel pulled his sword out of the ground as the orc came at him again. The sword was still held downwards in both hands as the mage did not have the time to right it. The warlord slashed, and Nathaniel blocked feebly. He staggered then dodged aside, drawing his sword upright to deflect another swipe.
As they parried and blocked the orc roared “You will die, human!”
Nathaniel twisted away from a downward stroke that sliced through the cloth of his robe, leaving a ragged flap at his knee which trailed on the ground. Luckily it had not gone through his trousers let alone the flesh. He mounted some offence, forcing the orc back, and said “I’ve got better things to do tonight than die!”
The orc laughed throatily and replied “I’ll keep your skull as a trophy, and tell my armies about the mage with more guts than brains.” Dashing the mage’s sword down towards the ground, the warlord made to thrust his wicked, barbed blade into Nathaniel’s gut.
Nathaniel saw the move coming. He sidestepped and brought his arming sword across to guide the enemy’s weapon past his body. Before the orc could recover Nathaniel hacked at his arm, but it was hasty and caused no more than a scratch once carving through a dirty, dull vambrace. Drakkon made to press the attack but as he advanced the warlord used his other arm by driving the point of his elbow into Nathaniel’s chest. Winded Nathaniel stumbled back and only avoided a sweeping arc by throwing himself flat and then quickly rolling away in case the orc brought his sword down on his back.
Before getting up Nathaniel cursed and said the words to a spell. Holding out an open palm Nathaniel released a bright beam of white light. It struck the orc full in the face even as he moved forward. The warlord covered his eyes with a gauntlet and swayed, shouting and growling “Cowardly magic.”
Seared retinas will do that to you, Nathaniel thought glibly. As he rose Nathaniel felt the pain in his chest, he had been struck hard and he ached with every breath. Hopefully it was just bruised and tender, with nothing broken.
Once more they faced off, the orc warlord having recovered from his temporary blinding. Their swords clashed and ground together. As they pushed against each other Nathaniel gritted his teeth. The orc had weight and height on the mage, so he stepped back hoping to lop something off when the orc fell. The orc was solid-footed though and avoided stumbling forward. Another flurry of slashes, parries, and blows followed, the sound of steel on steel loud in Nathaniel’s ears. Even the battle sounds around them seemed to recede. The orc barrelled forward, its blade leading, and the young mage darted aside and turned to keep his foe in sight.
Rather than simply turning the orc warlord swung its sword around two-handed at Nathaniel’s neck. The mage could not block, only duck and pray he was fast enough. As he tried to rise to his full height Nathaniel saw the orc kick out, likely trying to kick him in the face. As he pulled back Nathaniel raised his right arm defensively in front of his face. A steel-shod boot scuffed his forearm, the momentum sending it into his chin and making him fight to stay upright on the muddy field. He could feel scrapped skin on his arm and he had bitten his tongue. He could taste the coppery tang of blood but thankfully he had not bitten it clean off. Nathaniel thought angrily, I really need my tongue. Can’t cast much in the way of spells without it. He kept his distance. Nathaniel had to rethink his strategy.
Nathaniel could not trade blows with the orc warlord. As tough as the young mage was, with his experience in many brawls, the orc was huge and armoured. Nathaniel would be smashed to bloody pieces in such an exchange. So when Drakkon misjudged an attack and the orc swung an armoured fist he thought it was all over. He tried to turn with it but the blow struck him across cheekbone and temple. Nathaniel crumpled sideways to the ground, the side of his face bleeding heavily amidst gouged flesh. The orc warlord bellowed in triumph, spittle foaming on his lips. The black-clad mage saw the enemy raise the blade for the kill. Running on pure instinct and adrenaline Nathaniel spoke the words to a spell, putting a dark red flame along his sword. Slicing across from where he lay, Nathaniel took the orc's right foot clean off at the ankle. He made to roll as the orc's sword came down awkwardly, with much power lost. It bit into Nathaniel's left arm above the elbow, deep but missing bone.
With great pain Nathaniel forced his body to his feet. His face was a crimson mask and blood flowed down his arm like a river. The orc was on one knee, blood jetting from it's ruined lower leg, unable to stand. It tried to prop itself up with its' sword. Nathaniel had dispelled the flames on his arming sword. Raising the weapon in both hands Nathaniel struck down with whatever strength remained to him. The blade buried itself deep in the orc's skull, near splitting it. As the bulky corpse slumped backwards the sword was wrenched out of Nathaniel's flagging grip. One final spell from the man sent a sheet of ice out in a forward arc at chest height, slicing a dozen or more of the warlord's bodyguards to ribbons.
Nathaniel collapsed to his knees and was only dimly aware of the next few moments. The fight went out of the orcs, some baulking at their leader's death and fleeing immediately. The Weisslanders rallied, led by Sergares and Havard. Scourging magical bolts rained down on the breaking enemy as Nathaniel saw Tabitha stride in front of him to drive the enemy back. Nathaniel saw her face as she turned to his aid while Weissland soldiers marched on to either side, and then he passed into unconsciousness.
Epilogue – Afterwards
When Nathaniel awoke he was in the dark of a tent, illuminated only by a dim candle. He did not know how much time had passed. As he stirred he saw Tabitha Sergares standing by the light looking down at the table it was on. She turned towards him and said “You’re awake then?”
Nathaniel sat up, one hand holding his head which thumped and thundered. He replied “Yes, thanks to you it seems.”
Sergares was stern. She said “You’re a bloody fool! What you did was reckless and irresponsible.”
“It worked didn’t it?” He looked at her sideways, frowning a little. “The orc died and we won.”
“True enough,” Tabitha said grudgingly “but do not make a habit of this or I will have you on punishment detail so fast your head will spin.”
Nathaniel smirked, nodded and said “It’s already doing that, but fine. How long was I out?”
The mage lord stepped forward and said “Just a few hours. We’ll be breaking camp at dawn, heading back to Ataya.”
Drakkon spoke gruffly “You’re not going to assign me to any more missions, are you?”
“I might.” Sergares said thoughtfully. “But I’ll have to think about it. You lack discipline.”
Nathaniel replied “Granted. What were our casualties like?”
“All told, seventy-nine dead, twenty-six wounded. The wounded have been taken care of, although it was not easy with just Aldric and myself. They’ll make full recoveries with time. Still, the orcs were routed and almost entirely destroyed. One or two escaped, but small enough numbers that local forces can deal with them.”
“Well, that’s good. Something positive to come out of all this blood.” Nathaniel opined.
“There’s always blood Drakkon, it’s the way of the world.”
The young mage nodded silently. He had been through a blooding and survived. His first true battle was behind him, although Nathaniel was sure there would be many more, just as bloody. He asked “What about my wounds, are they healed fully?”
Tabitha replied “Yes, all healed. You’ll probably have a headache, and you’ve got some scarring on your left arm, but otherwise you’ll be fine. You’re tough, I’ll give you that.”
Nathaniel said grimly “We’ve all got to be tough, Sergares, Weissland cannot have less. Orcs, undead, demons, against these threats none of us can show weakness.”
“As it should be.” Sergares responded icily.