“A little further it looks like. Come on.”
As Paul said this they began sprinting towards the burial mounds. Rilles and the others did so as well. In about thirty seconds they were at the now closed mouth of the burial mound. A stone was in the way.
They rolled it back in place.
Paul turned to the families and Rilles. “Help me get this stone out of the way this instant. Roll it away for your lives as the enemy may be making landfall as we speak. Time is of the essence. Now.”
Rilles, Paul, and the families; even the children braced themselves up on the left side of the stone. They moved it inch by inch for about four or five minutes. This stone likely weighed a quarter of a ton and this heavy burden was not something the families nor Rilles and Paul would typically push or pull alone by themselves. As they fought this obstacle they looked away from the burial mound at times and saw the city in the direction of the harbor ignited by incendiaries hurled by the onagers and trebuchets of the Theocracy. The stone finally budged and as it did stones touched down on the burial mounds near them and set them ablaze.
“QUICKLY! GET INSIDE NOW.”
The company of Paul and Rilles entered the mound and rushed inside. Torches were still lit. Skeletal remains in alcoves were visible. Cobwebs were visible all around with the exception of their level. The webs were broken.
“Follow the webs.” Rilles whispered to Paul and the company. As they raced through the burial mound their feet were moistened by the puddle of soot mixed water and their noses were molested by the stench and spore of mold growing in this place of death.
“I’ve got their sent, Paul. Let me go ahead.” Rilles said this after tapping his friend on the shoulder. “Of course, Rilles.” He walked ahead of Paul and immediately his nose and eyes led him to a set of footprints to the right. This path was obstructed by a dense foliage; an odd shrubbery of a reddish hue that none of them had seen before. “Sabatons! Paul, this way. The path is more narrow here. Best, have your blade ready. It is tough to say if they’re still here. This is their path.”
Paul nodded in agreement and turned around to the gathered party. Putting his finger to his lips he drew his blade like Rilles did. The company then advanced for about an hour through the narrow path. The stench of the dead had become replace with the offensive stench of body odor from the knights and lancers who passed through this narrow passage hours ago. Rilles could not hear them in the distance. He whispered this to Paul, but told him to keep the company quiet lest they be ambushed.
That is not likely though. We’ve got the drop on them. They were not expecting us to follow…
The burial mound behind them collapsed with a crash. Dust of bone, earth, and stone filled the air. Rilles began to cough. Paul called out to their accompanying civilians.
“ARE YOU ALL RIGHT?”
“WE ARE. NOT A SCRATCH.”
“KEEP FOLLOWING US THEN AS THE WAY BACK IS NO MORE.”
They continued their sojurn in silence the way began to widen and soon they found themselves in a funnel-shaped chamber that was carved out of stone, rock, and earth. The ceiling shortened to four feet high and all of them crawled across the feet over to the opening at the end in the stone which revealed a room with a higher ceiling: seven feet, and a wider stone spiral staircase led down into an unknown space.
“Where do you think we are, Rilles?” Paul asked his companion who was sniffing the air, he still had their scent. “The escape route is down those stairs. Follow that and then we’ll learn where we are. They’re far from here. But keep your blade ready as I am uncertain of some of these odors. I know not what is inside these passages ahead, but the royal party is likely out of our reach as I believe I smell horses.”
They descended the steps and in almost an hour they were at their foot. The children were exhausted. Rilles entertained them by playing a game with them on the steps. He would have them sit on the steps and scoot off of them slowly. The steps were rougher and normally he would not have advised such an activity, the children needed to be motivated though. Paul approved. They had now reached what appeared to be a large stone tunnel. Large cabers honeycombed the tunnel and supported larger wooden trusses at the roof of the tunnel to prevent cave-ins.
What a feat of design for this time we live in. Are the fathers of Dothen so cowardly that they would build an escape for their kings and not their people from their enemies. No wonder they hire mercenaries to do their bidding instead of train their own soldiers. They could not inspire loyalty in a dormouse.
Rilles pointed to the other end of the tunnel. “I have their scent and I see the prints left by their sabatons. They are here.” A civilian whistled. “Look here, Sir. There’s a sign carved into the wall. Just barely.” This female had addressed Rilles.
Maybe they’re learning that Beastfolk are not bad folk?
Paul and Rilles approached the sign. Paul read aloud the message carved subtly into the wall of the tunnel. “The hour is dark for Dothen as you are reading this. This is the royal road of evacuation. Four miles away is the exit underneath these tunnels. You will be outside the city walls at the end concealed by a vast forest bordering the wilderness with Dothen. From there travel northeast to Kinselladore. Follow the curve of the coast if possible. Do not go easterly as you will be nearing the border of the Grand Counties and it is likely they would not grant refuge to our king. Now go.”
Follow the tunnel then.
Paul and Rilles marshaled their forces and they marched won the tunnel and walked in silence. Paul and Rilles were ready for a fight. They weren’t sure what was going to be at the end of the tunnel. The eyes, ears, and powerful nose of Rilles could detect no hidden trap or soldiers waiting in ambush as they moved steadily into the tunnel. Light was provided to them by torches lit along the wall. The elevation changed after the tunnel curved twice, once left, and then another time right.
Rilles turned around and looked at the civilians. “Keep going up this hill and we’ll likely be away from the siege. Once we’re out of the tunnels your safest place of refuge is Red Spire. We’ll be heading there. You are welcome to join us.”
The oldest man among the civillians nodded in agreement. “Yes. I believe we shall go with you. That seems safe. Dothen is likely no more.” One of the women was trying to hold back tears. Rilles approached her. “I know what it is like to lose a home. Loose belongings. Loose a way of life. Things will get better. Right now we need to get to that better. Be strong and know that better is coming.” The two of them continued together up the rising ramps together until they reached a large domed hall and ahead of them was a portcullis. Coils of chains ahead of them lifted it likely and an oak and iron door was their exit from these tunnels. Paul turned to Rilles.
“Here we are. Help with the chains?” Paul said this and discovered that Rilles was still chatting with this woman and listening to her story.
He’s more of a human than I’ll be in some ways.
“Rilles?” Paul asked this again and Rilles did reply this time. “I heard you. I shall come.” He turned to the woman “I’ll be back to you.” She smiled, although her being middle aged her auburn hair still had life and her face remained unwrinkled and unblemished. She was still publicly perceived as beautiful likely. She patted Rilles on the shoulder as he walked towards Paul where the two of them worked on pulling the chains to raise the light portucullis that kept the oak and iron door reinforced. Afterwards, the two of them opened the gate and the darkness of night was visible.
A whole day has passed. It is night. The moon is obstructed by smoke…
“I can’t see a thing.” Rilles quickly rebuked this statement. “We have all the light we need. Those burning lights are Dothen the smoke is blocking out the moon. We’ll stay parallel to the smoke of the city and travel as far as we can safely. Then we’re going to rest briefly, we cannot tarry long. Red Spire is our refuge and form there we can prepare for whatever lies ahead.”
He’s full of surprises! A leader! More human than myself! What a fellow!
“Agreed. Let’s go. We’ll catch our breath later. Follow me.”
As they moved out they travelled through smoke this obstructed their way in the darkness. Paul and Rilles did not halt the party though.
We mustn’t stop.
Paul’s foot caught something. He tripped. So did Rilles.
“They ambushed the Orcs, Paul. They killed all of them. They’re ahead of us. I couldn’t smell them with the city burning.”
“Think they killed the king?”
Paul’s question was met with a shrug as the two of them continued marching through the dust. The civillians behind them were doing a good job of sticking close to them. Despite marching over the bodies of dead orcs they did fine at being disciplined enough not to scream.
Resilient souls. This is likely not the first time some of them have seen war. I wonder why these Dothenians are so hesitant to defend their own realm and keep though. Paul’s train of theought was interrupted. A coach with missing horses was present. It was plain coach without much in terms of opulence. Fallen members of The King’s Guard were lying around it. Damn.
Paul and Rilles both noticed the coach at once and ran right up to it. “He’s missing.” Rilles said. Paul looked at Rilles after staring at the empty coach for a few moments. “Is he killed you think? Will they hold him hostage?”
Rilles nodded. “Not dead yet. Him being held hostage, maybe. Likely publicly executed for not converting to the theocracy’s religion? I think that the conversion attempt failure is the likely story. They didn’t kill anyone. Maybe they are going to ransom his children and wife and kill him? It is hard to say and not ours to discover right now. Red Spire needs us, Paul.”
After two more hours of marching they found themselves deep in the forest that the Burglars Union had they’re hideout in the wilderness between Dothen and Red Spire. There they stopped for three hours. They rested. But Paul could not sleep.
These people, these animals that call themselves this Theocracy are threatening our continent. But also everything we stand for and uphold in our world. The cities on this coast are threatened. Once the Jard Coast is overran they’ll take Pinningdale and the eastern cities. The Grand Counties will hold out the longest. Their defense cooperative will keep them the safest that they can be for as long as they can maintain their resistance. Our world is crumbling and I’m not sure if little Red Spire can really stop them.
Their three hour stop turned into a four hour one. Paul needed rest and Rilles knew it.
“You tossed and turned all night. I could see it when I had watch, Paul. Are you all right?” “I’m fine, Rilles.” Paul said this in a rehearsed tone. He knew the merchant was lying to him. They continued on their march for a good four hours until a column of Orcish pikemen intercepted them. An officer on a large armadillo-like Craspie approached them.
“Greetings, I am Major Danald. Behind me is the 9th Battalion of the Vianis Vanguard. We’re an Orcish mercenary regiment obviously. We were on our way to Dothen by way of the north near Kinselladore. We were too late and the city was besieged. Rather than make our way to lift the siege and risk my men I decided to go to Red Spire and offer our services. It is apparent that we are the last of the Vianis Vanguard Regiment. My men will accept a discounted rate of payment.”
Paul nodded. “We’d welcome your company. Red Spire wouldn’t say no to having a few more soldiers in it’s garrison. Let’s go forward to Red Spire now. We mustn’t’ tarry, Major.” The major smiled in reply. “I’m ready when you are.” In another day they made it to the walls of Red Spire. A patrol outside the city walls met them: The Solution Seekers.
“Rilles! How went your mission to Dothen?”
Rilles frowned and replied to Theodoric.
“ Poorly, but we saved some civilians and met Danald, he and his battalion are going to join our defense.”
Theodoric extended his hand out to Danald. “Greetings, Major.” Danald replied with a smile and a stout tone of approval. “The Solution Seekers area company with a great reputation. I will be honored to fight alongside you and your men if that is to be the case.” Theodoric nodded. “The honor is mine, friend.” Theodric pointed at the spire that gave the city it’s name. “We have visitors in the keep. A knightly order of some kind. I’m not familiar with them at all. Some kind of mark, said one of them. They’ve been chatting with the aldermen about the theocracy. They said they knew a few things. I don’t know what they are, but they know something.”
“Good to know.”
“Estalwyn is in there talking with them, Paul. A few of them are her people.”
Interesting. “Thank you, Theodoric.” Paul said. The mercenary replied and continued his patrol.
Red Spire is going to be the main line of resistance.
In twenty minutes they had seen the civilians to the citadel where they were to be fed, clothed, and eventually billeted in the city. Rilles and Paul alongside Major Danald travelled to the chamber of the aldermen and there the entire council was seated in their usual regalia. Roghus was talking to these visiting knights. The knights were handsomely dressed in full plate and Estalwyn was standing near them. The knight only had their heads uncovered by metal. They were humans with varying skin tones, Orcs, Elves, Lizardmen, and there was one Houndsman who appeared to be from a related clan however their fur was golden and not black like Rilles. His facial structure was the same though and their ears were floppy. Roghus interrupted Paul’s observations of the knights.
“Paul! What news from Dothen?”
“Dothen has fallen. Their king is likely being held as a hostage. We escorted a few civilians out.” Paul tapped Danald on the shoulder. “This is Major Danald, commanding officer of the 9th Battalion of the Vianis Vanguard; he wants to offer his services to Red Spire.”
Roghus looked him over. “How many men do you have, Major?” The Major took off his sallet as a sign of respect and addressed the council. His diction changed and his thick Orcish accent was lessened. “Gentlemen, I have a force of nine-hundred and fifty Orcs. Three-hundred pikes with swords, two-hundred crossbowmen with shields, and four-hundred and fifty master bladesmen all armed with two-handed swords with blades eight feet long. We’ve faced down heavy cavalry in the north, defeated bandits in the east, and once dislodged a pirate city far south of here along the Jard Coast. We have the strength and the experience you need to quell this new threat.”
Alderman Roghus nodded to the Orc’s reply. “I trust your judgment then. We are prepared for a long siege. I suggest your men forage for any supplies they need now when it comes to victuals. You’re welcome to store it in our granary here underneath this citadel. Be advised, that I have earmarked food for my citizens. I have earmarked food for my mercenaries and my own soldiers. It is imperative that you have your own rations and that they can last for a while. Do you have the necessary supply of food that will at least last you half of a year?”
The major smiled. “In my company, Sir, there’s a traditional shaman of our people. He knows the old ways. He can turn stones in to bread, gravel into water, and wood into beef. He is a valuable asset as a battlemage, and through transmuting these objects with his alchemical skills he’d be a welcome gift to this city. I don’t think we would be a burden on you, and in a time of a siege he’d be a godsend to you, Sir.”
Roghus smiled. “My administration is getting more dramatic than I ever thought it would be. Some of my people would call this deviltry. I would call it playing to win. I am honored that you would fight for us. Name your rate, Major.”
“For a siege, I would typically ask for 30,000 of the King’s Passe for a year’s service. However, I want to ask for 20,000 as this threat is powerful and your city is of strategic importance.” Roghus smiled at the Orc’s generosity. “This is a done deal. I’m glad to have you.” Roghus then gestured at the knights. “Paul, hear what Stephen Augustus has to say.”
“Pinningdale, I have heard much about you, Sir.”
“Good tales of me, I hope.”
“Of course. My cousin by marriage, Estalwyn tells me that you are someone who is resourceful and cunning. Plus, you listen to her. That’s a feat.”
The knights laughed. Paul blushed.
“I apologize for my levity. However, I spoke in that way because I know these are grave times. And we are living in one of the gravest of times. Our whole way of life is threatened. I am the master of this command of the Knights of the 45th Mark. We fight against theocracy, darkness, demons, and enemies of any kind of freedom when necessary. We are not politicians, we are not diplomats, nor are we clerics. We are scholar-knights serving liberty and truth. Our blades liberate the oppressed, defeat evil, and free truth. Truth is a bitter freedom though and the truth is that Red Spire is the center of this conflict as predicted by prophecy one millennium ago by the Elvish Oracle in the Elvish homeland thought to be in Vorivas, the continent to the southwest of Jard.”
The knight produced a map from his belt pouch. And a page handed him a scroll that was resting on the aldermen’s table.
“This map shows the location of Red Spire on the Jard Coast. With the position they’ll have by gaining Red Spire and Dothen they’ll be able to funnel troops in to strike the southern empires and encircle the Grand Counties eventually. We believe their target is the technology of the Grand Counties and the Bank within the Grand Counties. We believe that Red Spire is the place to stop this foe. However, we do not wish to see the city besieged to buy them time to mobilize more forces from Dothen. Both cities must be kept free of them.”
He’s right. This is essentially a giant beach head. At least I remember that from my military life.
Stephen then opened the scroll. “This is the prophecy of the oracle: Zev N’Zem. Listen carefully.”
“Across an ocean, One city falls. Another stands. Siege Engines of blessed wood roll out from their hiding places, unscrewed but armed, to attack a city known for it’s tall tower, not a keep. Warriors with righteousness shall arrive to stop this foreign alien from invading. But a secret must be revealed to protect our people: Elvenkind. Mankind may fall, prevent that by saving us. And we in turn will save them. No matter what the city that fell first will be destroyed. Act quickly so the second does not fall.”
Stephen Augustus closed the scroll and looked at the council. “Estalwyn’s older brother in the Grand Counties may hold that secret. She must come with me to Grand Counties to obtain this secret. Once we return we may have the keys to winning against the theocracy. I’ll leave my second in command behind and the rest of my knights, but she and I must travel there.”
“I’ll go with you.” Paul said this and Rilles placed his claw on his shoulder. “No. You should not go, Paul. I’ll go with Estalwyn. Stay here. You need rest and you know the system as well as either of us. Let me bear this burden. Stay behind. I’ll go with them.”
He has a point.
Roghus nodded. “You have the support of the city of Red Spire. Travelling mercies to you.”