Roghus nodded. “You have the support of the city of Red Spire. Travelling mercies to you.”
They left the next morning. Rilles and Estalwyn rode at the head of this short column. Stephen Augustus was next in line, followed by a knight of middle rank in the Knights of the 45th Mark. In four hours they were outside of Red Spire’s vast eastern territory and in a wilderness. They were making good time. They only stopped once to water the horses and eat some victuals. The road had changed from paved to unmarked and as the followed the wilderness’s rocks, cairns, and tree stumps alongside taller trees they found themselves advancing parallel to a lake. Trees were to their left, and the lake was to their right. During the journey, they said few words. But, Stephen Augustus was eager to tell of his familial link to Estalwyn as his father married her uncle’s daughter. He was not a knight. Rather Stephen Augustus’s father was a banker at the Elven bank. Young Stephen in his own words wanted to explore the world after his early required service in the Grand Counties Defense Organization.
He served the Counties as a cavalrymen for four years, then he served for two years in a free company in the south where he first encountered a lieutenant of the Knights of The 45th Mark.
“I found their mission noble, and their purposes pertinent. My free company had just fought a band of bandits who worshipped a god that demanded human sacrifice. They would kidnap the elderly and children and sacrifice them. We had arrived just after these bandits had been assaulted by a party of seven Knights of the 45th Mark. I asked how to join and once my obligation to the free company had ended I found myself pledging allegiance to them two months later.” Rilles found this of interest and smiled before taking a bite out of a large pear. A question formed in his mind as he ate of the fruit.
“How does one join?” The knight replied, “All you need to do is be willing to fight, not worship an evil god or idol, and believe in the idea of free thought?” “Stephen Augustus, how does one know the difference between a god or an idol?” The knight smiled. “That is not a conversation for a horseback ride. Let’s talk that over when we have some time for some ale or wine.” “ I can respect that.” Rilles said this last line while somewhat disappointed, but did his best to conceal his tone of remorse. He did think of another question though. “And how does it work to join, Stephen?”
The knight laughed. “Interested already?” Rilles shook his head no. “Not at the moment, Stephen. It does seem interesting though and it would be a fine time to join considering the current wave of religious fanaticism going on.” The knight smiled. “I’m glad you see a need, Rilles. To be a Knight of The 45th Mark, all you need to do is ask a middle ranking, Knight. I am one of those. When you are ready to join you can ask me. And then will discuss the particulars.”
“GOBLINS, TO THE REAR!!”
They wheeled to the right and found a group of ten goblins. These tall gray-skinned humanoids charged them with long polearms. They killed Estalwyn’s horse in an instant followed by the knights. They were silent, almost totally quiet. Rilles dismounted from his horse and drew his sword and rushed to assist their defense against these silent intruders. The polearms were not covered with iron and were mere wood when it came to the construction of their shafts. Rilles’s blade cut them in two pieces and the point of his sword shattered their ribs and severed the goblin arteries causing black blood to jet out from their now lifeless bodies. Estalwyn killed three with her axe and Stephen killed one and the knight killed another two.
“They smell like they’ve been on the road for a bit. I wonder if they were following us.”
The knight pointed to the tree line. “They were. Look.”
Movement in the trees occurred. A column of a hundred men in black colored armor appeared. It was similar to the armor the demigod wore.
“The Theocracy’s soldiers. Run!” Rilles said this and Stephen patted him on the soldier in affirmation. “Well said, Rilles. Come on. Now.”
The party ran as fast as they could, arrows struck the path they were on. They fell short though. Not much training apparently in the Theocracy’s agenda for their troops apparently. As Rilles thought this, their marksmanship worsened as the arrows no longer came close to their path. Finally, the enemy began advancing out of the tree line on an intercept course towards them.
They’re awfully short. I was expecting troops as tall as the captain and the demigod. Wait a moment, Rilles. You smell goblins still. They’re goblins! They’ve been trained and equipped by the Theocracy.
“They’re goblins, folks.” Rilles said in a winded manner as he and his accomplices gained a distance from them and the lake. They were about to ascend a grassy ridge. Stephen Augustus laughed. “That would explain the laughably bad marksmanship. Most goblins can’t hit anything within a hundred yards.”
He’s right, but that is cocky. I once fought a mass of goblin archers. I’m smelling something different now though. Humans!
Rilles looked behind him and saw human infantry running at them now gaining distance with the goblin archers trying to keep up at their flanks. It was an almost silly sight, but this was the enemy and they were lethal threats to he and the party. Estalwyn called out to the party. “That sign to our left. Its new. We’re only ten miles from the Grand Counties. Let’s keep going we’ll make it there soon!”
The four of them were running in tight echelon. Even their footbeats did not muffle their dialogue. The humans were silent. Disciplined, even. The goblins on the other hand could be heard jittering amongst each other. Rilles could hear a small rumble in the distance and thought nothing of it. Either the siege engines the enemy was hiding earlier coming out of their concealment or it’s a tremor. I doubt it is anything of concern right now.
He looked behind them. The humans and goblins were now closer to them. Less than two hundred yards away. Now and then the goblins would stop and fire an arrow, but oftentimes they fell short. One arrow out of several would get closer each time.
Maybe one of them is actually improving as they have this live fire practice shooting at real enemies.
Finally, an arrow struck the knight who was accompanying them. Rilles’s gallow humor was appropriate. Stephen watched as his companion was struck in the calf and then his body combusted Blue flames appeared and his body became ash in only four seconds. “Run faster! Run for John, who now cannot even be buried.” There’s that rumble again. Thought Rilles as the rumble became closer. Finally the rumble became louder. And hoof beats could be heard as well as the enemy neared them.
“I hope that’s our cavalry. Those horses are fast! They have to be Elvish.” Estalwyn shouted this as she became the lead runner in the group. I knew she was holding out on us. I’ve always known she could run faster than she lets on. Rilles thought this as he was knocked down by a heavy rumble and behind him the earth broke open.
“What in the blazes is this!”
Brown giant beasts with what seemed to be white bears riding them appeared from the innards of the crust of their planet. Dirt and rock fragments were tossed in every direction as these riders began to attack the soft goblin flanks of the enemy’s formation.
“ROARR!!” A sharp piercing growl came from the mouth of the riders.
I recognize that growl. Those aren’t bears. Those are Houndspeople of The Lowlander Clan. They are smaller and have a different shaped head than my own clan: The Peat Woad. They ride giant burrowing beasts called cluca and live underneath the world’s crust. I wonder what they are doing so far north of Houndspeoples’ lands? As Rilles thought this he still heard hoof beats approaching He looked to the direction of the Grand Counties and over the next ridge he could see a troop of Elvish cavalry charging at the enemy’s center: the humans. Their captain called out a fast and recognizable order.
“THIS IS A SANITATIZATION OPERATION. NO LONGER JUST PERIMETER BORDER PROTECTION. NONE OF THE ENEMY ARE GOING TO LEAVE HERE ALIVE. SEND THEM BACK TO THEIR GOD.”
The Elvish cavalry parted their troop as they advanced past Rilles, Estalwyn, and Stephen Augustus. Rilles tapped his two companions on the shoulder and pointed his sword at the enemy’s now broken formation. “Let’s help them out. Shall we?” His two companions nodded and the three of them charged towards the enemy’s formation. Stephen Augustus shouted at the goblins: “I’m going to have some notches on my blade made from cleaving goblins!”
Apparently these Knights of the 45th Mark do not have any clauses in their contracts and or creed against vengeance.
Rilles caught glimpses of Stephen’s bladework. He was killing goblins left and right. Cutting them down with the edges of his broadsword or killing them with more precise thrusts when possible with his sword’s tip.
Rilles and Estalwyn focused on the humans included in the Theocracy’s center. The Elvish Cavalry did an excellent job breaking through their lines. They were wavering in their defense and their numerical superiority was more of an artificial advantage than ever. This enemy unit was not prepared to deal with cavalry for whatever reason. The Lowlanders’ charge assisted them as well. The Lowlanders charged past the enemy after breaking through their lines as well as some of the elves as well. A fraction of the elves had dismounted and engaged the goblins as infantry with halberds and long handled double-edged axes.
Rilles had killed at least ten of them when he finally came up against a tall captain clothed in the same ways as Captain Krak. He spoke aloud to Rilles. “I’ve killed many elves today. Sansueptial is blessing me today. I get to kill an abomination such as yourself. Dogs should not talk to humans.” Rilles laughed at that. “You won’t be too disappointed I think. You’re not going to kill me. I’m going to martyr you.”
The Houndsman parried the blow of his sabre and aimed his tip for the gap in his armor located underneath the armpit. It gashed through the mail and managed to open up his foe. As the pain caused his foe to be stunned with the great pain caused from this, Rilles followed up with a fast strike to the knee with this blade’s tip. His steel blade crushed his assailant’s kneecap.
Mostly clear around me. Good.
Rilles used his sword’s pommel on the hands of the captain, crushing the wrists.
Rilles lowered himself down on one knee and clawed him his left paw and then clawed his enemy’s open wound.
“ARGGHH! KILL ME, DOG.”
Rilles grabbed the gauntlet of his foe’s swordhand off and bit off his thumb. His massive long canine tore through the thumb bone. He then spit it out in the face of the captain. It bounced off of his thin lips and onto the grass where he lay.
“You shan’t be martyred by me. A cannibal would likely hesitate to eat you as you reek of evil. You shall be our prisoner and the elves may be more kind to you than me. Your god is more damned now than his petty thralls.” Rilles looked at a passing Elvish cavalryman. “Friend, see that his wound is cared for. He is an officer of our enemy and his wounds should be nursed and he should be made to talk as we need to know what his masters are planning.” The cavalryman agreed and hauled him up without having much care with his injury. Rilles walked over to his comrades Stephen Augustus and Estalwyn who were speaking to the troop leader of the Elvish cavalry and the lowlander chieftain who had dismounted to feed his massive cluca with honey rocks.
The Elvish captain smiled at Rilles’s approach he wore a basinet helmet. The Lowlander wore no armor save for a white colored brigandine. One of his comrades, a black lowlander with a longer snout approached, he wore a black brigandine. “Hello, Friends.” Rilles said. Stephen Augustus raised his still unsheathed blade almost carelessly. “You fought well, Rilles.” The Elvish captain agreed with a nod and a gesture to the prisoner who was now being guarded by four cavalrymen who had him at sword point. One of them cauterized his wound with some kind of liquid Rilles hadn’t seen before.
“I mean this in jest totally of course, but I hope you won’t bite my thumb off if I cross you, Rilles.” The captain said this in a laughing voice. Gallows humor was important for this task. “You shan’t cross me. I know you’ll prepare a fattened calf within the counties for us.” The captain laughed more.
He’s a jovial fellow.
“Of course you can have all the victuals we want. Sister Estalwyn informs us that you need to speak to her brother about some idea he has to stop these evil men and their thralls, and their god if he is real or perhaps he is an idol? But, that matters not. What matters is you stop them. My troop will provide escort.”
“My force will escort you from below and above ground.” The lowlander chief replied. Rilles smiled back at him. “I recognize that voice. How have you been, Apun?” “Been better. You hear about this lousy war we’re having?” Rilles laughed in reply. “Your still sarcastic. Not surprised.” “Aye. We can talk when were at Estalwyn’s brother’s house. Victoan will be pleased to see you no doubt, Lady Estalwyn. His keep at Cerayan has been without your presence in a long time.”
Estalwyn shrugged. “I’m eager to see my brother, yes. But I’m not eager to see the place where my father and mother died of the plague.” Apun frowned. “I’m sorry if I hit a nerve, ma’am.” “No offense taken.” Estalwyn’s assurance was simultaneous with Rilles’s side hug. He knew of Estalwyn’s loss. It was similar to his own loss that he had not spoken of himself. Estalwyn’s gorgeous face and green eyes were disrupted by a frown only briefly. The captain intervened. “Come now. Let’s mount are steeds and hit the trail. We have to save Red Spire and potentially our own skins. Or should I say eventually.” “Agreed.” Stephen said. Rilles, Estalwyn, and Stephen Augustus all mounted their horses. Rilles then turned to Apun. “The rumbling was that you earlier?” Apun shook his head no. “Those were siege engines. This was a flanking group escorting their main force marching to Red Spire. At the pace they’re moving they’ll be there in two days. As for us, we make a hum when we move underground.”
So they’ll attack by land. Good. They continued on the trail. Their path became a rising and winding one they were approaching a cliffside and the trail took them up it on a winding route. The lowlanders here broke off from their path and continued their perimeter patrol. The troop of Elvish cavalry continued the escort operation of Rilles and his company into the Grand Counties. Stephen Augustus was now ahead of him and led their section of the column.
“Have you ever been to the Grand Counties before?” Stephen Augustus asked this as he continued walking up the path. His feet were hurting now likely and he needed to talk to get his mind off of the pain. “A few times to go to the bank, Stephen.” Rilles replied. “Thankfully, I do not have to keep myself covered the entire time when I’m in the Grand Counties as it does get tiresome to wear that cloak.” He added.
Stephen Augustus smiled at that. “It is good, Rilles. The Elves have always been an inclusive species. They were once slaves when the Xocherderan Empire ruled this continent and their slavery taught them to bless others who deal with this bitterness. As a child of both worlds: Humanity and Elvenkind I can see the advantages and disadvantages of both worlds. Man’s greatest shortcoming is an unnecessary fear of what it does not understands. Red Spire is a shining example of moving past that alongside Pinningdale. Places like Dothen though.. they’re caught in the past.” “Indeed they are.” Rilles Replied as they now were at the top of the cliff.
A wall with ramparts was now in view. Permanent hoardings were visible on the battlements. These battlements resembled a row of hovels with arrow slits instead of window slits. The walls were twenty feet high and a gatehouse was visible without a pathway to it. Portcullis and iron-reinforced oak doors and four sentries dressed in full plate armed with pole axes and halberds lined the outer perimeter’s gatehouse opening that was in view. The sergeant amongst the sentries saluted the Elvish captain. “Greetings, Sir. What can I do for you.”
“Sergeant, these three are on their ways to Cerayan to see Victoan. See that they are given horses and an escort if possible. We must continue our patrol. Also, be advised. The enemy is on the move and they’re getting a little too close for comfort. Protect yourselves and be vigilant.” The sergeant saluted him again. “We shall, Captain. Thank you.” The sergeant shouted up to the gatekeeper. “Three to enter. Open the gates.” “Aye, Sir.” The gatekeeper replied and opened the portcullis and the gates and they were now within the Grand Counties.
A corporal saw that they had three horses that they were ordered to hand off to them. They mounted up and the corporal handled them some fresh horses. He was also dressed for battle and wearing full plate. “Cerayan is not too far away, friends. We cannot furnish you with an escort as our place is here at the gatehouse. My whole unit’s importance is magnified with the current events going on. Follow the eastern road for a good forty miles and then head north to cross the Pendaris River .In another fifteen miles you’ll be in Cerayan. Victoan’s keep is on the eastern side of the city. You won’t miss it at all. There’s a chance you’ll see some scouts patrolling on the road. It’s only added security. Don’t be alarmed. We’re sure the Theocracy isn’t planning on attacking us, yet. But we are certain they may try once Red Spire falls so we are trying to be sure of who is within our borders at all times. Here are your pass papers. Display these to the scouts, answer their questions and you should be fine. You’re in the Border District, by the way. You’ll pass through the West Riding of County Bearyane and a part of County Rolanyane, and you’ll finally be in County Cerayan.” The corporal then pointed to the road. “Any questions before you leave?”
Estalwyn smiled in a loving manner and tried to conceal her annoyance. “Thanks. I’m fine. I’m from here. I think I’ll be able to guide this party from here on out.” The corporal frowned and then blushed. “I’m sorry, Ma’am. I didn’t realize you were one of us. You see after a while when you guard the border it gets a tad monotonous. I’m sorry for boring you with unnecessary doggerel.” Estalwyn scoffed at that. “No apologizes necessary. We’re on the road. We’re tired, and we need to get to our destination. You were trying to be helpful and unfortunately sometimes helpfulness is not entirely how it should be in some cases. I’m sorry for my reaction too. I was tired. My fatigue was talking.”
The corporal smiled in return. “Not a problem at all, Miss. Travelling mercies to you. Be safe.”
They at first travelled through desert. Then after ten miles they entered a plain, followed by another dune landscape. As darkness fell upon them they kept going. Oil lamps lined the ways they were travelling. “Lit roads are superb Elvish invention I’ve always thought and preached of it to others in their cities. I’m surprised Red Spire is hesitant about it though.” Stephen said this as the familiar constellations of Tomella the Huntress and Gnasher the Wolf came into view as they entered a grassy area where a wide view was gifted to them. Here they could see the vastness of the Elven territories.
This was not the Elven homeland. It was their conquered territory. It was here that their uprising through off the yoke of the Xocherderan Empire. This uprising inspired a revolt amongst the humans, the Beastfolk and the Orcs and the once proud Xocherderan Empire was now a shadow of it’s former self. It’s once proud capital was destroyed and that was within the borders of the Grand Counties. The Xocherderan Empire never signed a peace treaty with the Elves. They refused to recognize these counties. And the Xocherderan Empire never really could say too much about it as their own borders were five hundred miles away now. This former empire of a hundred and forty-nine provinces was now reduced to sixty-three provinces and they were nowhere near the Northern Jard Coast. Would the theocracy attack them? That was hard to say.
Possibly. Rilles thought as they stopped for a brief respite where they enjoyed some victuals: jerky, fresh chicken and dried apricots form the Elven gatehouse. Stephen Augustus broke their tired stillness.
“I hope you all don’t mind this, but I need rest. I’m a ruinous sack of flesh and bone without sleep. I know this breaks the stereotype of a noble paladin. But I’m in need of some sleep. I’ve not slept since I’ve left the Heleanagasi Fortress, the headquarters of my chapter of the Knights of the 45th Mark. Can we stop here and sleep for a few hours? Who can take the first watch?” “I can.” Estalwyn replied faster than Rilles. “Some sleep will do us some good.” She added this as Stephen Augustus used his horse blanket for a bed roll his horse was hitched to a tree like his companions. Rilles found a nice spot to curl up and braced himself for sleep up against a stump for a cushion. “Good idea, Stephen. Some rest will do us all good. After all, the road back to Red Spire will be long and dangerous. I’m sure.”
The next day at Red Spire found Paul summoned to the council chambers early in the morning. The message was delivered by a runner dispatched from the citadel. He got dressed and ran into the citadel without delays.
This must be important enough to wake me this early in the morning. I wonder what on earth they’re doing or what’s happened. I don’t hear siege engines at work though.
Roghus handed Paul a letter once he arrived. “They’re on their way Pinningdale. You’d better have a read of this.” “I shall.” Paul said calmly as Roghus handed him the letter.
They’re coming here now, and they could be attacking tomorrow or tonight. We’ve not much time left at all. Estalwyn, Rilles, and the knight had better not delay their travels here at all. Otherwise this city is as hopeless as Dothen was. Yet we can actually defend ourselves for a longer period of time. Hurry friends. Hurry!