The Hateful Wars: Chapter Twenty-One
The orcs had a hard time ignoring the ripping talons of the hippogriffs and sharp javelins of their riders, but there came too few of those to stop the advance of the host. From horseback, Fastaal Dothmar rallied the elven line, and he led the charge up the shallows of the Handmaiden. The goblinkind of the first ranks beheld that bright prince in resplendent armor and all those warriors following, their steeds kicking up such a spray of water as to obscure their numbers. This was the doing of Onselvon’s illusory arts. Only a paltry sparse number of warriors followed the charge, but under the powerful illusion spell woven by that great mage, it appeared to the goblins that a mighty host leapt forward from the dawn, silhouetted against the early rising sun just above the mountains. Blinking in terror, the front ranks scarcely had time to draw back before they learned to fear the three blades Defender, Concluder, and Gnoll-Cleaver.
Some unseen dweomermaster dispelled the illusion almost as soon as it had been cast, but the front ranks turned their backs too quickly to discern the truth of the small number that pursued them. The retreating goblins collided then with those who still advanced from behind just as the screeching eagle-horses and their deadly riders in the sky descended upon them again. Confusion and sudden bewilderment spread through the host. The advancing ranks tripped over retreating kobolds and goblins and orcs, and they turned their knives against one another. Three blasts on a heavy horn signaled a halt. Urgush had no choice. He ordered the host to dig in for the fight. They drew up ranks, threw up barricades, dug pits, crawled under rocks, and prepared to huddle down for the day.
Fastaal Dothmar and Peralay circled the camp on horseback, keeping outside the range of bow and spell, eyeing up the foe. The catastrophe had been stopped, for the moment, but the fastaal could not press the fight with only a handful of soldiers and an illusory army.
“When the sun sets, they will resume their advance,” Dothmar sighed wearily. “How then?”
The encampment of the goblinkind filled more than a mile of the pass. The holy waters of the Handmaiden stank with urine and filth. The muck-loving orcs and goblins hid themselves from the brightness of the sun in whatever holes they might dig. The officers and commanders took shade beneath the stretched skins of beasts and the heavy black canvas tents of their divisions. They raised the pendants of their tribes; the flag of Red Medusa flew at the center of the camp.
Kristryd summoned Onselvon and the roguish Xaxalander Deravnye to counsel. She said to the venerable mage, “I am but a daughter of stone and earth, and I do not presume to instruct the wisdom of the elves. But if I was a spellcaster of power like unto your own, sire, I would arm this rogue Xaxa with what magics as you possess to pass through the wards of their shamans unseen under their guards. Then I would send him into the midst of their camp to slay the spellcasters and the commanders while the host slumbers ‘neath the sun.”
“A most ignoble course of action,” Onselvon observed wryly, “Most unlike the proud dwur to resort to magic, assassination, and backstabbing.”
“My lord. Be it known! I am counted already a most-ignoble dwarf,” Kristryd agreed. “Now is the time for valor if not honor.”
Foppish Xaxa grinned and consented to the mission. “Now while the vermin take their sleep,” he said, “I will introduce myself to the commanders of their host and also to what devils work their magic.” He donned his elven cloak and soft boots, filled his pack with potions of healing and invisibility, and wrapped himself with such charms, spells, and sigils the elven mage could provide him. By broad daylight, he crept his way into the midst of the jebli and euroz camp. They sniffed at the air as he passed, snarled, cursed, and spat, but none laid eyes upon the rogue. Many a watchman was later found with slit throat, and many a sleeping orc or ogre never woke from that slumber. Bow strings he cut, and prisoners he released. Under the stretched skins of beasts and the canvas tents of the commanders, he moved with stealth to slay whoever seemed important, if only it could be accomplished with none raising a shout.
The thief made his way toward the center of the camp. Under the flag of the Red Medusa he spied a small canopied pavilion of red cloth, set aside from the main tent. Quaffing a potion of invisibility, he made his way then beneath the canopy, and this is what he saw: a party of mountain dwarves gathered about a low table, murmuring in the old dwur tongue. One of them looked to be an old dwurwife spellcaster, and the rest looked to be her servants and advisors. Gemstones and bars of gold glinted in an open chest near the table, and wondrous items of magical properties seemed to overfill another chest set near the first.
Now we see how things are, Xaxa thought to himself. I shall make a quick end of this treachery. But if I reveal myself by striking the spellbinder, the others will raise a shout. If I must flee, I had best pilfer the goods first; no time for collecting treasures after I have struck.
Relying upon the spells of Onselvon to protect him from magical wards, he silently and invisibly made his way to the chest and quietly lifted out an ornate and gem-studded tierra. Onselvon’s spells failed him. At once the chest raised an alarm, shouting in the tongue of the dwarves, “Thief! Thief!” Xaxa dropped the tierra and sprang to the attack.
The dwarves at table leapt to their feet and looked about. They did not see the assailant coming. His first blow punched his enchanted short sword through the back of the spellbinder, into her heart, and out through her left breast. He pushed her off the end of the blade. The attack broke the enchantment of the potion that concealed him, and all eyes fixed upon him. The dwarves shouted in alarm, but they did not take up weapons or spring to the attack as he expected. Instead, they drew back in fear, gaping at the bleeding corpse of the dwarfess that fell at Xaxa’s feet.
From high above where Kristryd and Darrion circled upon the back of the hippogriff Emolasmairim, they saw a commotion erupt near the center of the euroz camp where the Red Medusa pendants fluttered in the breeze. A lone elf exchanged blows with an armored orog; archers shot at the elf, and from every side, ugly creatures brandishing clubs and spears rushed at him. Darrion spoke a few words to Emolasmairim. The enormous bird-horse wheeled about one more time and, with a piercing scream, soared into a steep dive toward the beleaguered elf. Kristryd felt her stomach lurch from the sudden drop and acceleration. She clung tightly to Darrion. The wind of their descent stole away her breath.
In one swift, graceful swoop, Emolasmairim levelled out and took hold of Xaxa in his strong talons, bearing him away from the camp. Arrows and spears trailed after them, but they all fell short. The only ones to find a mark did so by striking other goblinkind in their fall back into the host.
The halfling slingers from Prinzfield brought with them a great asset in the form of one Alton Chubb Quickbread, a renowned halfling healer and holy man of Ehlonna who wandered about in their lands, doing good, healing the sick, and closing wounds. The holy Quickbread refused to wield a weapon of any type, but he showed no fear in the face of danger, and he did wield unrivalled healing powers. No matter how deep the puncture, how vicious the gash, or how fractured the break, his healing prayers and divine powers of invocation could mend it, even without an acopon.
Kristryd walked with him among the wounded and spoke with him while he worked. “You have healing hands like those of the Sacred Heart Gilvgola,” she remarked.
“Nay,” Quickbread objected with mischief, “Her fingers are fatter. Mine are small and clever.” The tossel-headed halfling held up his hands and waggled his fingers for Kristryd to observe.
“Gilvgola’s fat fingers wield a mace,” Kristryd said evenly “They say that you refuse to fight. It is well for you to wield no weapon so long as others do so for you.”
“I suppose,” Alton said without much thought, “But it would be even more well if none would wield weapons at all. Then there should be no need for my healing hands or hers, and I should apply my hands to arts for which they are better suited.”
“For what arts could your hands be better suited?” Kristryd asked. “Never in my days have I seen a healer so puissant among elves, or men, or gnomes, and none among my own kin save Gilvgola herself.”
“My hands are better suited to the art of making muffins, tipsycakes, and hot tea,” Alton said matter-of-factly. “Not without reason am I named Quickbread.”
“I should like to live in a world where fine muffins, tipsycakes, and good black tea take priority over wars and weapons,” Kristryd admitted.
“Stay close to me, your highness, and you may yet,” Alton offered flirtatiously. A wide smile split his plain face. “I should like to make muffins for a princess! Especially a fairhead as thee.”
The sun disappeared behind the mountains. As Kristryd had hoped, Xaxalander’s ignoble work discomfited the host. As the jebli and euroz camp prepared to advance, many found their chiefs and captains slain. Lower ranking officers battled one another for possession of the vacant posts. Astonishment and alarm rattled the commanders that survived. But when they saw that Urgush still lived and breathed, the host took courage and organized under his commands. They divided into two columns and prepared to march, one on either side of the river. Their advance began as darkness fell. This time, instead of charging headlong, they shuffled along cautiously, even warily.
“Now we spring the trap,” Kristryd said from her point of observation upon a rocky ledge. She had hidden the halfling slingers from Prinzfield all along that way and instructed them to wait until the foes came close enough for sure aim. Then they were to strike every third or fourth as the army passed. Arrows from elvish bows whistled through the night, piercing the throats of the biggest targets. The dual assault from both sides of the canyon forced the two columns of the advancing host to converge until they were tripping through the river, now swollen with winter rains and spring melt from the mountain tops.
Kristryd gave the signal to start the magical assault. The spellcasters found the scrying shield broken, and they could now see each rank and position in the enemy host. As the euroz and jebli drew near, the warmages unleashed batteries of spells. A deluge of fireballs, lightening attacks, unseen missiles, and all manner of war magic inspired shock and terror.
The magical barrage subsided, and the horns of Celene sounded. Onselvon cast a simple dweomer to amplify the sound of the horns and multiply their calls, making it sound as if army called to army and a great many elves now joined the attack. At the same time, the cavalry began their swooping attacks, and the Dothmar led Peralay and the Green Arrow on a charge directly into the front ranks. Onselvon cast powerful illusions to accompany them, depicting attacking forces of elven knights with gleaming eyes, and this time, no spellcaster among the jebli had the power to dispel his magic or deny the illusion. The hungry blades Defender, Concluder, and Gnoll-Cleaver cut a swath through the middle of the ranks. Under a cloak of stealth, Xaxa followed them, backstabbing, hamstringing, and throat-slitting any who tried to flank the fastaal or attack him from behind.
Gradually at first, but then, more swiftly, the host began to reverse itself. As they turned their backs, the elves and halfling slingers descended on them. In short order, the euroz and jebli broke into full retreat, fleeing back up the canyon. The sparse host of allies kept up the pursuit all that night and into the morning.
The fleeing host became lost in the heavy fogs at the source of the Handmaiden that never clear. The same fogs disguised the smallness in number of their pursuers, and it confused the orcs in their retreat. The fog filled the canyon with a thick blanket of moisture, deadening all sounds and making everything appear ghostlike. Soldiers and monsters rose from the nyle like apparitions and then disappeared again. Goblin horns signaled back and forth, but the fog muffled their calls and further confused the retreating host. At midday, the fleeing fog-bound goblins collided with the main host of elves and gnomes which had marched continuously for nearly two days and crossed overtop from Luskan Pass. Father Furduch had taken leadership and hurried them along, invoking the divine powers of the Ulaa to shorten the distance and hasten their strides. A fierce battle, concealed in the fog, took place along the banks of the river. The swift currents of the swollen Handmaiden carried the bodies downstream, and, for seven days, the bloated corpses floated past Enstad.
The elves of Enstad held a festival at the sanctuary of Larethian to celebrate their salvation. The Queen of Celene honored the three heroes and saviors of the kingdom, but she reserved highest honor especially for Xaxalander Deravnye for his bravery. On behalf of the whole High Court, the queen gave the rogue a gift in commemoration of the battle—a large tapestry, magically embroidered with dramatic colors, depicting the battle of the Ulek Pass, some of it stitched by her own hand. She made no mention of Kristryd or her role in the battle, nor did she invite the dwarfess to attend the ceremony of the Grand Court.
Rick Miller with Special Thanks to Gary Holian and Russ Taylor “Gazetteer of the Flanaess: Seltaren. Oerth Journal 23:6-20.
Artwork: The Orc Guards ICE MERP 3112
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