The Hateful Wars: Chapter Twenty
When the snowmelt and winter rains subsided, famished goblinkind came pouring out of their holes, seeking farms to raid and villages to plunder. This time, a surprise met the hungry hordes. The allies occupied every pass in the northern Lortmils, strangling the routes from the Pass of Celene all the way to the Lorridges. Under the earth, Dengar and Gilmorack garrisoned strategic positions on the Low Road, funneling the underground movements of the tribes. Kristryd had arranged it all. In the months prior to the snowmelt, she consulted with the generals and strategic thinkers of the alliance, negotiated troop placements, prepared supply lines, and sketched out contingencies. Once the action began, she played her role as liaison between the forces, moving rapidly back and forth between battlefronts mounted on the back of the great hippogriff Emolasmairim. Elves, dwarves, gnomes, and humans alike watched the sky for the wings of her steed. Field commanders and officers consulted her for information about deployments, supplies, and the movements of the enemy. She found herself providing answers to questions that exceeded the scope of her actual authority, and she did not hesitate to issue commands in the queen’s name when necessary to do so. Why shouldn’t the Queen’s Wrath take charge? Am I not the author of the strategy?
Battle of Luskan Way
The northern squeeze corralled the tribes together into a wide vale between the Celene Pass and the way to the Luskan Mines. There they remained, bottled up, until Father Furduch arrived with a gnome army from the Kron Hills and Verbobonc.
Kristryd observed the fierce battle from the high ground where the warmages and the commanders had set up their pavilions. The high elevation gave the warmages strategic advantage to the extent of the range of their dweomercraft. They rained down fireballs, shot lightning bolts, released noxious clouds, placed spheres of darkness, erected walls of fire, and whatever other spells they could concoct to pitch at their foes. The gnomes employed their illusory crafts, clever engines, smoke bombs, and fireworks to further discomfit the enemy. Harassed and harried by the onslaught of magics and pursued by an relentless host of gnome fighters, the goblinkind fell into panic and disarray. A bright sun, slipping out from behind grey clouds, only added to their hysteria. From their high vantage, Kristryd and the commanders could survey nearly the whole field of battle.
“Now we have them!” young Prince Archosian exclaimed with boyish enthusiasm. “The gnomes advance and the south stockade holds. They have no escape from the vale. I should like to join the fight and slake my sword!”
Kristryd nodded in agreement, yet something seemed amiss. As the armies of the alliance converged, it seemed to her eyes that the trapped goblinkind began to drain from the vale like water draining from a pool when the valve is opened. “Are there not less and less of them?” she asked.
“One should hope! That really is the point of a battle,” Archosian jested.
“Nay. They have found some hole in the ground,” she said. “Behold, they fall back before our host and disappear into the stones.”
“Passwall spells!” old Bagbag surmised as he observed the diminishing hordes in the vale below. “They use magnified versions of passwall spells to escape back beneath the mountains.”
“Not the work of orcish shamans,” Onselvon remarked. The olven mage stood to his feet and shielded his eyes from the bright sun so as to better make out the movements of the battle below. “It is as Her Fey Majesty has said. We must find the arm that wields that power and break it! Yet all our scrying remains blind, obstructed by a powerful shield.”
“Though magical eyes might be blinded, mine own see well enough!” Kristryd said. “Behold. Look how swift runners move back and forth, making the passage not less than half a dozen times already between the host and the copse of pines behind that nearest hill. In those trees, you will find the spellbinders.”
“Keen eyes for a dwur-wife!” Fastaal Dothmar exclaimed. Leaping into action, he summoned Peralay, Archosian, Xaxalander, and three longbowmen and began the steep descent. By the time they reached the pines, they found only an empty clearing, trampled by the orc and goblin hosts. Their hungry swords found no flesh to bite nor blood to drink. The armies of the alliance came upon the vale like hunters whose quarry escaped the nets. For two days they combed all that ground, but aside from a stray company of skulking goblins here, a clutch of orcs cowering there, a camp of kobolds hidden here, and a pack of gnolls slinking there, the enemy had evaded them and disappeared beneath the earth.
Outflanked in the Ulek Pass
On the third night, while the watchfires outside the pavilions of the warmages still burned bright, the commanders from up the vale arrived from the field with a sorry report about the number of those goblins slain. Far too few to account for the size of the host. “Our efforts have been thwarted again,” old Bagbag sighed. “These creatures have learned the arts of camp rats and moles.”
A horn of Celene called in the distance. Kristryd stood to her feet, removed her helmet, and cocked her head to hear the distant clarion of the elite cavalry. She lifted her own horn and answered. Soon the bay of such trumps called and answered and echoed off the mountainsides. A short time later, Emolasmairim swooped low over the camp of the warmages, screeching like an eagle, breaking against the speed of her descent with beating wings.
As the wizened olven mage hurried to meet the rider, the turbulence of air buffeted up by the hippogriff blew the pointed wizard’s hat from his head. Kristryd also stood waiting amidst the wind of flapping wings. “What news? What news?” Onselvon demanded as the great beast descended and its talons and hooves met the earth.
“The missing host has emerged again and gathers in the pass!” Darrion, captain of the Queen’s Elite Cavalry reported. “They flank us, and nothing stands between them and Enstad.”
“Seldarine smite me!” Fastaal Dothmar swore, “Between that horde and our holy city I have left no defenders! Only illusions bar their way.”
“We must hasten our spears! Call them up from the vale!” Onselvon commanded in alarm.
“To reach the pass will take our spears two days hard march over high hill and mountain wilds, all untamed land. We here and the queen’s cavalry must intercept this host and hold the pass until they arrive,” the fastaal strategized. Darrion nodded his assent, and Onselvon set his pointed hat back onto his head, pulling it down snug over his brow lest he lose it again.
“Take me with you,” Kristryd said to the fastaal. “I will school you in the dwarven arts of slaying jebli and euroz. The city will not fall.”
The fastaal looked askance at Kristryd and the old dwarf wizard who stood at her side. “Nay. Not this time.”
“I do not ask you your permission,” Kristryd stated. She turned to Darrion who sat still astride the hippogriff, “Do you remain yet under the orders of the queen to bear me where I will?”
Darrion nodded his helmed head and extended a hand to her.
“Your highness,” Bagbag objected as Kristryd took her seat behind the rider’s saddle, “Your place is here among your people. We must move to the defense of your own kingdom.”
Kristryd shook her head. “My place will be wherever my oath takes me.”
Assembly of Heroes
From upon the back of soaring Emolasmairim, Kristryd peered into the darkness below her. The pale light of two moons glinted off the splashing shallows of the Handmaiden where it snaked its way, ribbonlike, through trees and among steep hillsides, visible only here and there. At length her eyes caught sight of torches, burning red and bright, and she beheld the host, spread through the valley, filling the pass, and hurtling toward Enstad.
Emolasmairim lighted upon a green hall, open to the sky, where the fastaal now assembled what few defenders he could quickly summon to stand between the Fey Kingdom and the oncoming host. With Darrion’s assistance, Kristryd dismounted and turned to the other passengers still arriving from the warmages’ camp. The olven warriors and the spellcasters dismounted from the backs of the cavalry steeds that had borne them. Here was Onselvon, the Fey Queen’s closest advisor and magician. Here were the three princes: reckless and deadly Fastaal Dothmar, field commander of the queen’s spears and wielder of the dread sword Concluder, young and inexperienced Archosian, “The Green Arrow,” wielder of the blade Defender, and the left-handed, hazel-eyed hunter Peralay, wielder of Gnoll-Cleaver. Here too stood Xaxalander Deravnye, although no one knew how he came to be there with them, for they had thought they left him at Luskan Way.
Gathering together in the green hall came what elves that could be mustered from nearby and the remnant of those guardians and rangers who fled from before the advancing host. Here too came marching up the way a troop of halfling slingers sent by her father from Ulek. Having come late to the Luskan muster, they only now just arrived from Prinzfield.
“Luck of the halflings!” Kristryd observed. “Better late than on time!”
“Aye, my lady!” a dwarf commander agreed. He had the red axe of the Principality upon his shield, and he bowed before his princess. “Captain, Royal Army of Ulek. I am at your service.”
Kristryd recognized the captain at once—Bamadar Kadarel. She exclaimed, “By Clangeddin’s Sharp Axe! Bamadar!” Leaving aside all propriety, she embraced him in a tight armor-clad squeeze before stepping back to eye him up and down. He looked hale and strong, his gear fit and polished, his beard rolled up for battle, the braids of his long thick hair extending from beneath his iron helmet. “Have you truly come in the flesh? Or are you another deceitful dream?”
“What dream lady?” the winsome dwarf asked.
She ignored his question, “Are you the one leading this hobniz troop? Did my father send you?”
“I volunteered,” the warrior boasted. “Brought the slingers up from Prinzfield. Glad we didn’t miss the whole battle.”
From the west, echoing down the canyon, the war cries, horns, and drums of the advancing host reminded them of the urgency of the moment. “You have won my grate!” Kristryd told Bamadar. She turned to the commanders and rallied them together, “Hear me now! We have not sufficient strength nor allies to turn back this horde, but let us raise a dam to stop up the flood until our own host arrives. We need only slow them a day or so. We will meet them as the sun rises!” Turning her attention to Onselvon, she said, “And we must put a stop to whatever sorcerous tricks make good their escape. This time, we will see their corpses piled for burning.”
Onselvon and the fastaal looked on the dwarfess with astonishment, but the daughter of Olinstaad ignored their gaping mouths and continued to issue commands as if it were fit for her to do so. Fastaal Dothmar motioned with his sword. The grim set of his countenance made him look as if he was about to silence her presumptions, but instead he ordered his men, “Heed her words!”
The sons of Gruumsh came leaping down the canyon, splashing through the headwaters of the Handmaiden, spurred on by the sound of their own horns, drums, and wild war cries. They quickly overran the outer garrisons and crashed through the archers’ lines. Kobolds and goblins scouted ahead of the screaming orcs, sniffing out the way and springing traps and magical wards. The main host came behind carrying torches, not for the sake of illumination but for the sake of burning all that they came upon. The inhabitants of farms and villages fled before them, but most fled not swiftly enough. The army slowed only long enough to light the thatch of cottages and barns and seize upon the livestock.
“Keep going! Keep going!” Urgush Halfblood commanded them. He kicked at a soldier who carried bleating goats under each arm. “Leave them damn goats! No time for plunder, gundyguts. Save it for the fairies.” The half-orc commander had only a thin margin of time. The predawn sky grew brighter. He knew the elves and gnomes they left behind at Luskan Way must already come in pursuit. Urgush needed to bring his army into Celene while those hosts still lagged.
“Can’t blame them for snatching a few goats along the way,” Hroth said as he tore one of the bleaters open with his massive hands and commenced to rip at the flesh, stripping it from the bones with his fangy teeth. “We’re all half-starved.”
Urgush shrugged and flicked his tongue to lick at the air. He could taste the scent of the goat’s blood and fresh meat. His mouth watered. He could taste the coming victory. The half-orc warlord grinned at the prospect of despoiling the Perfect Flower. Of course, he would never have dared the venture without help—not after last summer’s disaster on the High Road. Urgush blamed Hroth for that piss-in-the-wind failure. The hobgoblin pushed him into it before he was ready. This time would be different. Thanks to his own genius, they had outflanked the elven host and all those damn turd-nose gnomes and blasted dwur too. They had more devilshine. His best soldiers carried artfully crafted weapons, spears, and blades, specially enscorcelled to smite elves. His shamans muttered new dweomers written to counter those fairy illusions. Best of all, under the standard of Red Medusa, he carried along one of the chief spellbinders—on loan for the sack of Enstad. “By tomorrow night, I will take my seat in the gates of the White Tower!” the half-orc gloated as the ranks of his army rushed past.
“You leave the fairy bitch for me,” Hroth warned between bloody mouthfuls of raw goat. “I have the score to settle for Grot Ugrat.”
“We’ll take our turns,” Urgush offered magnanimously.
Hroth growled to indicate his displeasure with the prospect of sharing, “Don’t forget, you half-breed dog’s dick, this whole thing is my plan!”
Urgush dismissed the hobgoblin’s bluster with a snort and a wave of his dangerously enchanted shield, “My army. My victory. My spoils. You and your one-eared pups can help yourself to what’s left after I’ve plucked the flower.” The serpents of the painted medusa head that adorned his shield writhed.
“Choke and die on your own shite! Don’t count heads before they’re severed,” Hroth cursed.
Those cautious words proved prescient for, at that moment, the cavalry of Celene descended upon them from the air. The screeching eagle-cries of the hippogriffs terrified the front ranks of the horde. A flurry of beating wings and ripping talons swept down on them.
“Ignore the birds! Press on! Press on!” Urgush Halfblood commanded as he ran up the ranks from behind. Hroth tossed aside the shredded carcass of the goat, wiped his maw on the bicep of his bare arm, and picked up his javelin.
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