By Gerry Torbert
Darmon Stuart walked with his friends, all told, twenty nine seasoned mercenaries, just looking for a little action, a little money. He walked and talked with the group, sharing stories of yesterday's battle, a mean feat for a man whose head was separated ten feet from his body the day before.
The Battle of the Deadlands was a success, as the main army of the dark forces was destroyed, all but for a few cowardly stragglers. Farland's plan was to eventually regroup and rebuild its army but try to retake Borderhold on its way home. Unfortunately, the Second Legion of Farland took some casualties in the battle - fortunately, one less than it appeared on the battlefield.
Darmon led the group of barbarians (now having laughingly named themselves Darmon's Undead) toward Borderhold. The twenty-nine warriors were about half a day behind Farland's troops. Unless the troops met with some resistance, they would be a day before they caught up to them, but maybe not in time for the battle, depending on how quickly the fortress could be taken.
"Owin, what ya knu aboot Borderhold? It's fairly close ta Wawmar, ain't it?"
The tough leader of the dwarf contingent nodded, his carefully-braided beard reaching below the belt that held in his even more carefully cared for belly. "Yes, it is. We're not that far from home. It was made to secure Farland from the northern enemy, so it's built on a part of the foothills that face northward. Easy to defend from the south, to be sure. There's short mountains to the east and west, enough to keep it from being encircled. The north face is tough to attack, because it's walls are high on that side. But it was beat up pretty bad the last time, when the dark ones took it, and I'm not sure what the walls look like now."
Yngvarr scratched his red beard. "So, ya think Farland will attack from the south? Won't that be where they expect it?"
Darmon sighed. He was getting to know the big guy fairly well. "Ya ain't thinkin' wot I think yer thinking, air ye, big guy?"
"Well, why not? We can get there and look at the walls, maybe see how bad they are. I think they'll forget the north side, since that was the way it was built. Make sense?"
Thomas looked quizzically at Yngvarr. "Isn't that what they'll think Farland will think? Won't they fortify the north side?"
Colyn chuckled. "No, they'll fortify the south because they will know that we will know that. . ."
"Owin! Flip a coin, quick!" interrupted Darmon.
"No need to; I say we go north, that way we dwarves have a shorter walk to Wawmar. The fork in the path is ahead."
The road wasn't too well kept, at least by Farlandish standards. No need to repair it, really, since the only ones to use it for a while were the dark forces. A few hillside cuts were washed out, making footholds treacherous. But rugged men these were: Dwarves used to mining and walking up and down a ramp carved into rock; Anarians from the north where one slip on a cornice filled with snow could spell doom; and Creags whose land was filled with low-lying mountains and crags, their namesake.
The sun was climbing as the group made their way across the worst of the chasms. One was particularly difficult, as there were few handholds or ledges left after the rains. One by one, they strained to dig their feet deeply into the muddy slip and their hands deeply into the soil, looking for any solid spot for their companions.
Mostly all had gotten across, but last was Big Tili the Red. The taller of the dwarves, his red beard stood out in the sun like a beacon. He found most of the pieces of stone protruding from the muddy face. As he neared the halfway point, he placed a boot on a ledge that had been used too many times. He grabbed quickly at a root as his foot pulled the loose piece of shale from its mooring. As he grunted, partly laughing, his body was stretched out to its full length. He thrust his toes into the soft brown muck but found no purchase. He pulled himself up a little to the shouts of his friends, reaching for the thicker part of the root. But with a bone-chilling snap, he started sliding down the steep bank.
"Khuldul, give me a fat, naked woman to land on!" he yelled as he slid, then tumbled down the slope. Every breath was held tightly by the lucky twenty eight on the path, and a sigh of relief issued when he slid to a point where the slope began to lessen. He grabbed at a few saplings left on the side, but the same trees that might have saved him proved to be his downfall. As he tumbled one last time, his thick neck struck a thicker oak, snapping both with a sickening sound.
"No! Tili!" cried Funder, his friend. He started sliding down the bank beside the washout, grabbing what trees he could on the way down. He kicked at the soil, slowing himself down as he neared Tili. He stopped to look at him and knew he was finished. He laid his head over Tili's broad chest and began to weep.
The rest knew what had happened. Several of the dwarves began to weep, and the rest kicked at the stones and trees along the trail, cursing. Three Anarians crawled down the bank much the same as did Funder, arriving at the scene. The four straightened the dwarf's body and carried him to the path, fighting gravity, trees and slippery ground with each step.
Darmon looked at the body. Tili was full of such life, his last words proof of a dwarf's grasp of the serendipitous nature of his surroundings. He hung his head and turned away. Was this part of the curse? Are all my friends to die like this? What have I become? Yngvarr's hand fell on Darmon's shoulder. "Don't worry, Darmon. These things happen. We're in a dangerous business, even if it's just getting to the battle, there's danger."
But Funder had other ideas. As the group got to the top of the bank, he let the others take the brunt of the weight as he lit into a run toward Darmon. "Ye blasted devil! It's the curse! You killed him, ya bastard!" He run full force into the Creag, knocking him backward to the ground and began pummeling him with his fists. After a quick roll to the side, he came up on top and continued firing his huge arms at Darmon's head. Darmon blocked him, but a few got through, rocking his jaw and sending a shower of stars into his blurred vision.
In one powerful thrust, he forced his hands onto the chest of the maddened dwarf and tossed him aside like a caber. As both rolled to a stand, Darmon woozy and Funder red-faced with angst, six set of arms separated them, kicking and wriggling until they both had to take a breath.
"Funder! Calm yerself! You know Darmon had nothing to do with this! Khuldul would never approve of your actions!" Owin scolded his brother in arms.
"It's the damned curse, Owin! You know it! He killed him, sure as a dagger in the heart!"
Darmon spit some blood. "'At's crazy, Funder! Ye knu I'd neva du anything ta hurt you all! Yer not doin' 'im any gud, fightin' like this! Tili would neva want us ta fight!"
Yngvarr stepped between the two. "Calm down, both a' ya. Darmon, yer cursed, brotha. It happened, 'spite the fact ya did it for yer people. Funder, ya gotta get ov. . ." As he looked toward the dwarf, his view rested on a little man standing at the edge of the washout. How the mysterious figure got there, the group had no idea-- save for one man. Yngvarr seemed somehow to recognize him instantly. ". . .You! Begone, Tanarus! Haven't you caused enough sorrow?" He advanced toward the tattered, cloaked figure.
"No, Yngvarr. You know well. He took my child, now I'll take from him. Just as I did from you!" With that, he turned and suddenly- unbelievably- jumped over the edge. The Anarian ran to the edge and looked down but saw nothing. He turned and walked back to the men, who were shocked from the sudden appearance of the Demi-God.
"I say we wrap up Tili however you dwarves do, carry him with us. He would have wanted us to go ahead and fight, I'm sure. Funder. . ." he said, placing a hand on the dwarf's shoulder, ". . .I feel for ya, brotha, I really do. We loved Tili, as did Darmon. The best we can do now is put this behind us and avenge him."
The dwarf's shoulders slumped, as did his head. He walked slowly to Darmon. "I'm sorry, Creag. I lost it. I lost a great friend back there. I just lost it." He put out his hand.
Darmon shook it. "Let's walk, I'll 'elp carry him. Ye can tell me stories about a great dwarf as we go."
Owin and Yngvarr walked in front of the troops. They were silent for a while, but Yngvarr began the conversation. "Tili will be sorely missed my friend. After all this, I'd be honored to come to Wawmar to meet his family, if you'll have me."
Owin nodded. "That would be a great honor. But I have to know, what was that Tanarus said about you back there?" He looked at the tall barbarian, whose brow wrenched into a thick line, a line made strong by years of fighting, and made tight by a secret.
"It's not time, Owin. I'll tell you, but not yet. It's something that. . .I'll tell you later, friend." Owin nodded. He knew a troubled man when he saw one.
The strange contingent made its way along the windy and beaten path, taking caution where it was damaged and making time where it could. By early evening, they came upon the section of the road that lead around the mountain one more time, to Borderhold. A strong fortress, it stood on the valley floor, flanked on the east and west by cliffs that rose above it to gentler mountain terrain. The north wall was in disrepair, having been charred and missing some of the block, assumedly from the last dark folk attack. No repairs were performed - another dark folk trait. They took things, used them, and threw them away, as always.
Several torches were lit along the top of the wall. A lone guard walked back and forth along the north wall, and one could be seen between the beginning of the cliffs and the east wall. Owin looked back to his men. "Azaghan, Funder. . .do you remember the one battle we had near here, and we ended up circling the fort? Think you can do it again?"
Azaghan walked to the front. The dwarf was adorned in drab steel armor, not a look of which a dwarf would be especially proud. But he had said once before that it was his grandfather's, and he wasn't about to give it up. Years of shining and buffing had worn it in places, but it hadn't been cared for a lot on this trip. "Yeah, Owin. I remember. There's a path up high. If I recall, you could see the whole plain from about halfway along it, just over the middle of the fort. It's wide enough to keep low and not be seen from the fort. Whatcha want us to do?"
"Go as far as you need to see the other side. We're looking for the Farland army. They should be there soon. I doubt they'd want to attack in the night, but you never know. Stay as long as you think you need - if they're not here, they will be soon. Scratch a rock with our code, and throw it back to us . Funder - you have a great arm. Just don't hit an orc guard with it!"
With a nod, they removed their armor - a single creak could prove dangerous. They began the climb through the trees to the upper path. Owin looked toward Darmon. "It's best to give Funder something to do right now." Darmon nodded. "It may be a while, so let's get some rest," said Owin.
The Anarians Angarr and Karl took the first watch. Not everyone slept, even though they knew they may miss it later. Of course, Darmon stayed awake, but his body was weary, so he sat with the others to rest.
Azaghan and Funder climbed the path carefully, watching for any loose rocks that might alert the orcs. As the path rose, they could see more movement over the walls. The troops were engaged in games of chance, drinking grog and biding their time, in general. Little did they know of the size of the army coming their way, nor of the massacre of their own. But the dwarves knew that it wouldn't take much to get them moving, as night-- the natural time of the orc-- was approaching.
As they cleared the halfway mark, Funder's boot loosened a small rock that tumbled to the outside of the wall. A guard nearby looked up but ignored it. The piles of rock along the bottom of the cliffs stood in testimony that it was just a natural occurrence. Funder held his breath and waited. Azaghan, well ahead of him, looked over to see the guard walking away and motioned to his companion that all was well.
Azaghan got a little further and peered out over the foothills. What he saw took his breath away. Slowly rolling toward the fort was well over two dozen mangonels and quite a contingent from the direction of Far City. Knowing that the troops would come from the east, it was easy to see what the Farlanders had planned - heavy artillery arriving the same time as the troops returning from the Deadlands. The strategies of the Second Legion were timed well and their organization was impeccable, as always.
Knowing that the excellent night vision and hearing of the orcs would soon alert them of the machines, they decided to return. Funder found a flat rock and scratched a picture of a catapult on it as well as several other strange markings. As they returned to a point where he thought he could make the throw, he sailed a message back to camp.
Angarr heard the rock clank off the hard ground and after a short search picked it up, handing it to Owin. He looked it over as others gathered around. Some stirred from a comfortable snore. "Hmmmm. . .looks like many catapults, heavy artillery, coming from Far City, and the others are soon to close in. And a few guards along the east wall, not too many on the south wall, and the north wall is unguarded.
Angarr grabbed the rock. "Wait a minute, Owin! How did you read all of that. . ." looking at both sides of the rock and not seeing many markings. Owin smiled. "Okay, so I made some of it up. A dwarf always has to tell a story. But we should hear something soon. . ."
Darmon came back from a walk just out of sight along the base of the wall. "Looks like the gate is ajar. If the attack comes 'eavy, they might forget ta close't. But we can't chance it; we should snik ova there an' kill the guards, so they can't."
Yngvarr stepped in the group. "Do we have a plan? We can't just rush in there and take the place, can we?"
Darmon looked to his Anarian friend. "Why nah? They'll be busy, lad. We'll clean 'ouse! Wait - 'ere's Funder and Azghan."
The dwarves slid down the bank to the road, careful to grab trees and bushes along the way. They ran to the others. Azghan spoke first. "There's not many of 'em, Owin. Unless they're asleep, which I doubt, or drunk, which would be the best situation. I counted, what. . ." looking to Funder, who said, "Seventy five at most, Azghan. And I'm good with numbers."
Yngvarr sighed. "Darmon, ya know we aren't like you - we can die. Wouldn't it be better if we just mopped up the rear door, and let Far City take the rest?"
"What, and make Khuldul tell Tili that he died along the way to a tea party?" asked Funder. "I don't know about my brothers. . ." he looked around, seeing them nod, ". . .but I'm for goin' in." He was rewarded for his fervor with grunts of approval.
Yngvarr looked toward his men, who seemed as determined and anxious as ever. Darmon looked to the Creags, who just smiled. "Okay, bagpiper. What's your plan?"
Darmon outlined an attack that consisted of three groups of at least nine, attacking the center and flanks, depending upon what they encountered. The Anarians and Creags would lead, followed by the dwarves, who would hit low with their axes. They would blitz into the mass and cut them into two flanks just as the fireballs and projectiles moved them to the south. It all seemed reasonable, but would depend on timing and stealth. And from the sound of the fort's occupants, it seemed that they should consider starting now - the light of fireballs and the sound of confusion filled the night air.
Darmon's Undead sprinted as one from the camp to the north gate. It was locked with a crossbar, unfortunately. "Looks like one o' the guards was a litt'l smarter than I 'ad thought," Darmon said. He looked at the door gap, which was wider than most, probably due to the battles it had seen. He saw the crossbar, which was about chest high. Hoping it wasn't locked down, he slipped Dragonslayer through the crack and lifted. The crossbar fell out of its iron hooks to the ground. Darmon looked back at the rest. "I take back what I said aboot 'em - they're jus' as stupid as we 'oped."
Darmon opened the door a crack to see the entire contingent of Dark Folk crowded at the south gate. Fireballs plunged down from the dark night sky, splattering tar and fire on the hard, baked dirt ground. Some thunderous booms were heard as stones and fireballs were launched against the gate and walls. From between the barracks and other buildings, he could see them crowding around the gate, some climbing ladders to the tops of the walls. "Watch for crossbows, lads," said Darmon, as he opened the door far enough for the contingent to enter.
The Undead followed the Undying along the path between the buildings, keeping under cover as long as possible. A few of the fireballs landed between them and the wall, and they used the flames to help hide their advance. Passing a barracks on the left, an orc too late, or just roused from sleep, opened the door as he began to don his armor. As he looked up, Hallvard stared at him from only five feet away. The orc had no time to move, and Hallvard made sure his sword kept him from uttering a sound. He collapsed to the ground, spurting black blood from what spindly tendons were left of his neck.
The last advance was to the main guard building, only thirty feet from the mass of orcs along the wall. Amazed that they had gotten this far without being noticed, they clung to the shadows, their every breath, scuffle of boots and creak of armor totally drowned out by yells, screams of pain as arrows found their mark, and bursts of fire and lightning. Darmon pointed to Uilliam and waved an arm to the left, then to Yngvarr and waved to the right, then began to creep forward with his group. At fifteen feet away, Darmon began the charge.
With Dragonslayer held high, he hit the first Oluk as he turned. Slayer's first strike cleaved the head cleanly, and his follow-through knocked an orc to the ground. Owin came up to his right and with two strokes sliced the thighs of two surprised orcs, who fell backward screaming, quads flapping in the night air. Colyn's sword finished them both.
The left flank fared just as well. They plunged almost too deeply into the ranks, working their way outward. Orcs along the tower began to notice the confusion, turning to fire. But the bows of Thomas and James Caembuhl took several of them out immediately.
Yngvarr and Hallvard struck the right like a wave. They worked left and right, swords slashing with unerring accuracy. They seemed to be a front of a dozen men, each taking the quickest strokes to down their opponents and disarming them, while the second wave of dwarves stilled their remains. Within five minutes, the odds were roughly even, and most of those orcs were looking for an escape route toward the north gate.
As Darmon reached the gate, he yelled "Flanks!" to spread his men to the sides. When the left and right groups heard this, they dropped back to cut off the stragglers' retreat. Darmon's group split and forced the orcs into waiting arms. Another five minutes and Funder threw the final stroke, a brilliant toss of a hand-axe between the shoulder blades of a terrified orc. Fireballs still landed on the grounds as the mercenaries gathered near the gate.
"Everyone okay?" asked Owin. A couple of grunts and cheers gave him the good news. Darmon turned to the dwarf; however, a crossbow bolt protruded from his eye. Owin's jaw dropped - the bolt was clearly buried mid-length. Darmon smiled. "Yeah, we're okay, friend", he said, spitting out the blood that was running down his face. "Here, 'elp me oot. I need ta hold me eye in, you pull - I won't die, but damned if I'm gonna lose me peeper."
Owin held back a wretch, but nodded as more fireballs fell. He grasped the projectile and pulled as Darmon held his hands over the socket, fingers around the shaft. One good pull wrenched it free. James was holding back an unstable stomach as he watched Darmon pull his hand away and the rest gathered around, but lost his gastric resolve when he saw the ghastly wound. As they watched, the eye began to form into the hole and Darmon stopped wincing and smiled as the pain faded. He held his hand up to the previously damaged one and smiled. "I could get used ta this. . ."
Hallvard laughed. "Nice trick, brotha. Hand me that arrow, I know what ta do with it!" He grabbed the bolt, reached down, ripped off a piece of cloth from an orc's body and tied it into a flag. "I say we give up!"
The others laughed as he walked to the gate and opened it slightly. A hail of arrows struck the door as he thrust the flag outside and waved it back and forth. "Hey, over here!" said Funder, and everyone stood in a group about fifteen feet from the gate, arms draped over the shoulders of the next. "Open the gate, Hallvard!"
The gate swung open slowly, being a large structure. The rush of Farland troops through the door stopped when the door was completely open. Hallvard smiled at the first troops, who were stunned, to say the least. "Come in, friends, join the party!"
The troops stopped at the sight. Darmon'sw troop were smiling, gathered as if at some bizarre reunion, with the remains of fireballs still exploding all around them. The plumed Marcus Sergius strode forward, pushing his way through his well-trained soldiers. "What the damned hell. . .why ain't ya fightin'? What the hell is goin'. . ."
He stared at the gathering. "A little late for the battle, ain't ya, Marcus?" quipped Hallvard. "Thanks for the diversion, by the way."
Yngvarr yelled across the dirty, blood-stained grounds, "Not bad. . .for a bunch of barbarians, eh? We're hungry, General - anyone got some food?"
Sergius smiled, then nodded, then laughed. He turned to his men, saying, "Now that's how not to fight like an army, men..." He turned to Yngvarr and grudgingly added, ". . .But that's how to fight like heroes!"
He walked forward to extend a hand. The first one he saw was Darmon, and his jaw dropped, speechless. "Yeah, thought I was dead, eh, General? Not dead enough, eh, lad?" The general looked to Yngvarr, who just smiled and nodded.
The troops began to enter, congratulating Darmon's Undead. Darmon shook a few hands, his other one still rubbing his eyelid and brow, now completely convinced of his fortune. Yngvarr, though, looked over his men but noticed something awry. Being a man of battle, he naturally had a feel of how many men he had and where they were at all times. But something seemed amiss as troops, officers and Darmon's Undead mingled.
Yngvarr looked over everyone, then motioned to Olaf, who walked over. "Where's Walram, brotha? I don't see 'im."
Olaf looked around, walking through the mass. He looked back to Yngvarr and shrugged, then grabbed a few of the Anarians and pointed over to where his flank had fought. They trotted over to the masses of dead, looking around at the bodies, then stopped. Olaf looked back to Yngvarr, who began to run to them. Darmon noticed and followed, breaking off a conversation with the general.
As they approached, Olaf slumped over the body, and the hearts of the rest sunk. Darmon walked around to the side. He had seen dead bodies before - he was surrounded by them - but this was different. Walram was twisted into a strange position, his arms broken into sickening angles, and his skin was heavily wrinkled, as if he was suddenly hundreds of years old. Olaf sobbed. He placed his hand on his companion's chest, but his hand sunk deeply into his chest, a plume of dust floating upward as it collapsed. He recoiled in horror.
Darmon looked at Yngvarr, who nodded. He stepped away, looking quickly around the buildings, running back and forth to see between them. He spied a short old man, looking over his shoulder as he walked between the doors of the north gate.
Hundreds of Farland's best soldiers helped gather the orc bodies into piles and burned them. Food was brought forth and was distributed, but Darmon's Undead suddenly had little taste for it. Instead, they built another pyre, off to the side, where they could send Walram off far away from the evil they just fought. His body would not make it back to Anaria, and since a ceremonial mound was out of the question, his last battlefield was considered the ideal place.
Another fire was built inside the gate for some two hundred of the Farland troops who were to stay and occupy Borderhold as a tribute to Darmon's troops. They gathered around the fire and ate for the night, while the Undead gathered in one area and talked about Tili and Walram. Marcus Sergius walked over to Darmon's group after a meeting with his officers to discuss security measures.
"Your men did a good job of taking this fort, Darmon," he said. "You saved a lot of lives and changed a lot of people's minds about non-Farlanders. Is there anything we can do for you before we leave tomorrow?"
Darmon stared at the fire. The flames leapt over the wood like the inescapable curse that besieged him. If you only knew, General, you'd be asking me to help you. . . "No, Marcus, I believe we're all aboot done 'ere. We 'ave people ta gu home ta. But we could use a few 'orses, we 'ave ta carry Tili to 'is final place, in Wawmar." He looked to Owin, who was about to say that wouldn't be necessary, but the Creag nodded. "It would only be fittin' ta du so."
The general nodded. "That can be done, Darmon. Are you all sure you won't stay with the Legion? We could surely use fighters of your abilities."
Yngvarr leaned over toward the conversation. "We've seen how you fight - like a machine, like some well-oiled catapult. You're the best this land has to offer. But we fight better one at a time, pickin' our fights, fightin' the odds. We'd never be able to do what you do, and you'd never do what we do. Thank ya for the offer, but in peacetime, I need the woods of Anaria, Owin needs the magnificent volcano of Wawmar, The Creags need their glens. We couldn't live in Far City. We'll be back when ya need us."
Marcus Sergius smiled and stood up. "You're right. I wish you all well, and many thanks. I'll send up the paymaster to give you something extra within the hour. Have a good trip home - it's been a pleasure to fight with you. . .barbarians." He smiled - this time he said the word with respect.
After an hour of conversation with the troops, the paymaster arrived and handed out a princely sum to each. Balin leaned back and stretched, flinging his beard to the side. "What do you say, men? We camp out here and get a good day in front of us? I know I'm anxious to get back to the volcano, but I could use a little rest."
All but one grunted in agreement. "If it's alright with you, I'd like to see that mountain," said Olaf. The Creags agreed, all but one.
Omin smiled at the thought. "I'd love to invite you. I'll toast you with good ales and a few bard's songs. Darmon. . .?"
Darmon looked up from the flames, the billowing plumes of heat that seemed to remind him of an old man's head. "I'd like to, friends, but. . ." he looked around the group, all waiting for his answer, ". . .I'm not good company right now. . ." He stopped at Yngvarr's knowing eyes; "It's just better that I make my own way now." He stood and wiped the dust from his kilt.
Owin nodded, understanding what he meant. "We stand by your decision, Sir Stuart. It's been a pleasure. We'll toss a few down in your honor, and there will be more than one bard's song written for you."
Darmon bid his adieus, stopping at the future King of Hofvarrar. "I guess you understan', some'ow. No matter how you look at it, it was the curse that. . ." He hung his head, not expecting an answer.
"It won't be the last time I see ya, brotha. We have a lot more in common than you. . ." He stopped short of something. "We'll see you down the road." They clasped hands and knew. . .something. . .
Darmon walked away from the fire, a long, sleepless night of travel ahead of him. He pulled a bag from his kilt and began to play The Song of Leaving.