The Companion Map to The Kings of Pendar Series
The horns from the city gate blasted out their call, the citizens of Pendar spilling out into the streets to see what terrible event had befallen their army. The young dwarf Relysis stood atop the wall next to his mother waiting for the soldiers to enter the gate. They were at the gate visiting his father, a captain of the home guard assigned to securing the portcullis. Peering between the battlements, Relysis could see the army approaching. The dwarves all had the hoods of their cloaks pulled up, their faces hidden as they crossed the bridge below him. At the center of the detail, they bore with them a litter, the body covered with a simple non-ornate blanket. Following along, immediately behind, was the pony of the dwarf king, Orvald Karan, its saddle empty.
Relysis tried to run to the inner wall but his mother, sobbing, held him fast to keep him out from underfoot. Men scrambled to their posts along the wall and messengers were sent to alert King Rommel Ellingstone. Relysis finally pulled away from his mother’s grasp when the way was clear, running across to see the dwarves. Hoods cast, they were forming up in the courtyard, lining the roadway to receive their fallen king into the city. Upon seeing the body of the king pass below him in the courtyard, Relysis instinctively moved to pull his hood over his head, struck by the moment and vowing to someday bring justice to the gnomes who had slain his king.
The funeral lasted a week, as was dwarf custom. Throughout the entire city, men and dwarf alike were in mourning. Shortly after Orvald Karan was laid to rest with his ancestors in the tombs of the ancient mountain city of Zoisite, the dwarf council met with King Rommel to determine the ascension to the dwarf half of the shared throne of Pendar. Orvald was without an heir so the council voted against elevating one of their own in exchange for the highest cabinet position on the council, and so it became that the two races combined to be one.
Pendar remained strong and united for the next hundred plus years without being threatened … until now….
Samuel Ellingstone, King of Pendar, studied the valley from the back of his horse. General Relysis sat next to him astride his pony. The day had dawned shrouded in fog, and now it settled down into the valley, effectively hiding the horde of gnome soldiers preparing to attack his army. Samuel knew the gnomes were there for it had been the same every day since he led his army out from behind the protective walls of Pendar and into the mountains to meet Orgle’s gnomes in battle.
“I’ve made the decision to evacuate the city. We need to give the people enough time to escape beyond the reach of our enemy. How did it come to this?” Samuel spoke the rhetorical question through gritted teeth, his jaw clenched in frustration. He was unconcerned that those around him listened in on his musings as he searched desperately for answers.
Nothing seemed to add up for him as he replayed the events in his mind without taking his eyes from the fog covered valley. The soldiers in his army had trained in these hills and lived on this land their entire lives. Yet now, with few successes on the battlefield and casualties mounting daily, he had no other option than to begin the organized retreat back towards Pendar.
“Let’s get to the command post. There is much to discuss before we begin.”
Shaking his head, he pried his eyes from the fog that threatened to consume him, and looked to his most trusted friend. Together, they turned their steeds and headed off to meet the commanders of his army.
“Good morning, gentlemen,” he began the meeting looking around the room, noting with a sinking heart the absence of a number of close friends. “I’m glad the fates of war have not robbed me of all my most trusted advisors.”
Each of the officers at the table realized that as important figures in a country at war, any day could be their last. But, like the soldiers they led into battle, they were men and dwarves of honor and would never want more than to support their king and country. Samuel allowed only a moment for those in attendance to dwell on their fallen before continuing.
“I spent considerable time during my sleepless night deliberating the answer to one question: Why does Orgle bring his army to a halt without fail each night? Gnomes see as well in the dark as our soldiers and he has enough troops he does not need to rest to keep them fresh. During the daylight hours he has complete control of the battlefield, countering our moves as soon as we consider them.” He paused before going on. “It is as if he has access to our plans and strategies.”
The room burst into cries of dismay as they shouted down the possibility of spies in their camp. Not a one thought it possible that any of their men, those with the knowledge of the plans that were developed in this very tent, could be a traitor. The men and dwarves leading the divisions on the battlefield were above reproach in the eyes of their commanders, and Samuel reassured them all of his belief in his army.
“Fear not, I have the utmost trust and confidence in all of you and the officers you command. I also feel that none possess the ability to infiltrate our camp without detection.” He knew that statement wasn’t entirely accurate but hurried on, disallowing any from questioning his false assurance.
“However it is becoming evident that we face greater numbers of an army that fights as one. We all grew up hearing tell of magical talismans and devices that grant great power to their bearers.” His eyes scanned his rapt audience finding no naysayers among them. “I believe Orgle to be in possession of some sort of talisman of considerable power; a magical instrument that gives him insight into our movements, and allows him complete control over his soldiers. Though every magical tool has its limitations. I believe Orgle’s talisman only works during the light of day. However, in this, I can only theorize…” he trailed off, letting the hint of uncertainty bring his men to want to believe in the soundness of his theory.
Samuel spoke of impending defeat, words that had never been considered in the long history of their nation. At no other time had an invading force so tested the army of Pendar. Never had such a large force invaded so deeply into their homeland. It was a tide that needed turned if Samuel hoped to have an army left to push back the gnome horde. It was with this urgency pushing them that the assembled leaders began to formulate their plan to strike back, to try to tip the balance back in their favor. Time was short to plot out the details. Messages were quickly put to paper so that couriers could get out of camp before the gnomes gave chase. Soon the call went out that the sun was breaking the horizon and that all should prepare for imminent attack. Battle plan decided, Samuel and Relysis mounted up and headed back to the front lines, uncertain whether it would be enough to slow the gnomes for another day.
“The messengers with my orders for my brother are riding back to Pendar at this very moment, but Stephen needs time to coordinate the evacuation of the city and avoid a panic. The elderly, the women, and children will take time to mobilize and gather supplies. It will take several days to organize such a task and longer yet to travel to safety.” Samuel felt the toll of his office, but wanting to be strong for his commanders, straightened his back and lifted his chin. “I am confident Stephen will be able to muster those in the city for the evacuation.”
Relysis’s words were gruff. “We will give those in the city the time they need to travel to the mountains to Zoisite. If the gnomes breach Pendar’s walls, hopefully the prospect of laying siege to yet another city will be enough to dissuade them from pursuing.” He bristled behind his graying beard at the bleak outlook facing his king.
Samuel was a man of considerable strength, both in character and physical presence, and Relysis could see that it pained him to speak of evacuation and defeat. He also knew the men and dwarves in his army respected him for his courage and cunning on the battlefield as well as for his fair and knowledgeable rule. The decision to evacuate the city wouldn’t be questioned, just as the decision to bring the battle to the gnomes wasn’t.
The most recent buildup of troops by the Tualatin Empire had been witnessed by scouts observing the border and immediately reported to the king and his council. The call had immediately gone out to the soldiers of the Pendar kingdom to defend their borders. When all the available warriors had been assembled, five thousand broad shouldered dwarves armed with double-bladed battleaxes and protected by thick leather armor marching side by side with three times that many men with bows and swords, had gone to turn back the invasion. Samuel and his elite cavalry were at the front with spears pointing skyward and shields gleaming in the sunlight. With his army staged in the mountains along the approach the gnomes would travel, scouts hidden deep behind the gnome front lines continued to report the movements of the gnome army and its immense size. Undaunted by the sheer numbers facing them, Samuel and his commanders had few doubts that the outcome would be in their favor and engaged the gnomes in battle with confidence.
Samuel’s army fought admirably and yet now, ten days later, they had been forced back through the mountains towards Pendar, regardless of their tactics or superior use of the familiar terrain. Too many times they had the canyon narrows well defended allowing only a small portion of the enemy to bring its weight to bear. With arrows raining amongst their numbers from above felling a gnome for each arrow let fly, yet they pressed forward. The mighty bearded dwarves swung their battleaxes at the point of attack, but the gnome army scratching, clawing, and biting with their teeth filed to points when their blades failed.
The armies of Pendar were unaccustomed to these results on the battlefield, yet they held to their belief that their king would see them through to victory. Even now, as the army was briefed by their field commanders on the plan for a fighting retreat, the troops accepted their orders without argument. Exactly as Relysis predicted.
Ear splitting war cries drifted up out of the fog, signaling to Samuel and his army that the attack they expected would not be long in coming. All along the line the army tensed for the rush. Their energy was steadily being drained with every attack and Samuel knew that soon their concentration would begin to waver from fatigue. They were better trained when compared to the gnomes they faced, but for every gnome that fell three would take his place. It had become a war of numbers and Samuel was undermanned.
Faintly, through the fog, the outlines of the first wave of gnomes could be seen rushing up the canyon, their thin lanky bodies loping up the rise, their crudely constructed weapons waving overhead as they whipped themselves into a battle frenzy. Samuel’s archers began loosing their arrows, trying to break the momentum of the rush. The gnomes kept moving forward, trampling the fallen, knowing that they would most likely suffer the same fate as those now underfoot. Yet they remained undeterred, and when the distance between the armies was gone, they threw themselves against the cold steel of axe and sword. More behind them willing to do the same.
The men and dwarves held against the initial thrust, though when the number of gnomes they were fending off heavily outnumbered their own, they were forced back. They fought the onslaught as they inched backward, always trying to strike down another foe before giving ground to the two or three willing to take his place. The day continued on, the army of Pendar regrouping and counterattacking, answering the call of the field commanders to press forward whenever the enemy’s attack faltered even for a moment. With every surge Samuel’s army would regain precious ground to be fought over once again when the gnomes would regroup. Samuel was devastated, watching his soldiers fall around him in great numbers while across the field of battle, Orgle pushed his army without regard.
Only as dusk fell did Orgle call off the attack, as he did every night. King Orgle was a gnome like those he ruled, though his rule was not by birthright as was Samuel’s. He had laid claim to the throne by force and deception and he ruled with a singular passion that galvanized his army under him.
Orgle felt that to destroy and enslave the city of Pendar, the sworn enemy of every gnome, would transform him into a legend, revered for all times. Every gnome’s attitude towards their neighboring nation was one of malice and hatred, for reasons both real and perceived. It had been that way for so many generations that most had forgotten the reason, but their leaders fueled the passion through their misguided religious rituals of human sacrifice and other such acts. Orgle knew that harnessing this passion would enable him to accomplish his personal mission to conquer his sworn enemy. Their leaders whipped them into a hateful frenzy by making a spectacle of killing any prisoners they captured during small border skirmishes. Though many times, unknown to the population, the “prisoner” had been a gnome dressed to deceive the population when no Pendarian could be found. It was this impassioned army that now, many years after Orgle’s rise to power, threw themselves onto the blades of Samuel’s soldiers seemingly willingly.
Tonight the respite for Samuel’s army came as the sun set on the battlefield. The men and dwarves had come to expect the nightly ceasefire and tonight the stoppage came when the Pendarian army needed it most. In all truth it could have come sooner. They had been pushed beyond even their worst-case projections for the day. Samuel’s plan for tonight was predicated on his army controlling the ravine they had just been pushed from an hour past. Runners were sent out to the field commanders with orders for what was needed. When all was ready, the signal was given and his tired and beaten army pulled themselves up and charged into the front lines of the gnomes’ army as it began settling in for the night. The surprise attack accomplished what they hoped and the enemy retreated a little further. They had gained the leading edge of a short cliff with their last rush.
The day had been tough, though they had won back the bit of ground they needed. Tonight they would set into motion the plan they had formulated in the meeting that very morning. This would be the night that would decide the fate of Samuel’s reign. Would it be enough to turn the tide?
The troops began laying out their camp and dug defensive positions. Meals were delivered to the men on the front line, for they dared not leave it undefended. As the hours passed and the sky darkened to moonless black, the men and dwarves quietly began to assemble into squads ready to carry out their commanders’ orders. While they waited for the signal calling them to action, the army took the time to take a guarded rest. They were exhausted.
It was a single arrow, set aflame and sent soaring into the night sky, that brought the front lines of Samuel’s army up and out of their positions. No longer silent, but roaring battle cries as they poured into the sleeping gnome army, the Pendarians blazed a path through the ranks of disoriented gnomes. They cut as deeply as they could towards the very heart of the beast that they had battled for so many days without success. The battle lust washed away their fatigue and pain they experienced the first taste of victory on the battlefield since this war began.
The stout dwarves spearheaded the point of attack, their mighty war axes cutting down the enemy as the gnomes scrambled out of their holes. The men followed, loosing arrows over the heads of their shorter dwarf brethren, breaking up the defenses as the gnomes tried to organize into fighting squads. The rout continued uncontested for nearly an hour with the gnome losses piling up at the feet of their attackers.
Orgle was only aware of the frontal assault, although it was a two-pronged attack being implemented this night. He screamed out his orders, venting his frustration with his sword to the ultimate dismay of anyone that was in his vicinity, all the while gripping his enchanted blue stone close to his chest. With the chaos threatening to consume his army, he stormed back into his tent, followed reluctantly by his remaining commanders.
While the wedge of dwarves and men battled deep into the enemy camp, two other forces carried out their assignments. The first group retreated back into the mountains to prepare defensive positions. The other, a small squad, moved out and quickly skirted the chaos in the middle of the camp, circumnavigating the army as they stealthily bypassed the outposts and made for Orgle’s tent.
Captain Alex Kern led his squad south from the main army, keeping clear of any gnome outposts that might have maintained their positions despite the havoc in camp. The young captain couldn’t afford any delays on this mission. This was possibly the most important task of his military career, a career that included numerous forays into gnome territory to scout the happenings in the enemy’s homeland. Tonight he led a small squad selected for speed. They all carried swords for protection but they weren’t equipped to fend off an attack from a patrol of much size. Theirs was an information-gathering mission with orders to refrain from engaging the enemy.
After clearing the last gnome outpost Alex led them south and began to run parallel to the main battle. They were cautious, but confident, that all eyes would be turned towards the battle and thus made good progress. Alex kept himself on point, expecting at any time to run into enemy forces as they strove for the rear of the camp. It had been mentioned during the planning phase that Orgle might be able to see this assault with the aid of his talisman and have a division in position to intercept the squad. However, as they approached, there were no signs that Orgle knew they were coming. Still, Alex and his men remained alert, constantly scanning the surrounding landscape for potential ambushes. They had traveled for nearly two hours and hadn’t yet rounded the backside of the camp, seeing firsthand the size of the army that they faced. Alex began to doubt whether any intelligence reporting could change the outcome for the king. Thankfully it wasn’t much longer before they could finally start circling back towards where Orgle’s tent had been erected.
Alex brought his men to a halt, ordering them to gather round and take a knee. He wanted to go over again the purpose of the mission. He stressed that they were to avoid engaging the enemy if possible for Samuel needed to know what Orgle possessed to control his army. The king had given Alex authority, only if it was deemed possible and the plan infallible, to obtain the talisman from the gnome leader or, in an even bolder move that would decapitate the enemy, to assassinate Orgle. That decision was to be left to the captain based on what he encountered on the ground. Though he kept his doubts to himself, after seeing the immense size of this army he began to think it might be the best option. All of his men nodded in agreement, they had served under Captain Kern on many missions and trusted his judgment. Alex had a history of bringing his men home alive.
After their duties had been passed out to all eight of his men they retrieved ragged dirt covered cloaks from their packs and pulled them on, followed by rubbing handfuls of dirt on any exposed skin. Although it was a simple disguise, it would hopefully gain them some concealment amongst the gnomes, who were known to never be clean, while they penetrated the chaos that was now the gnome encampment.
Alex led his men directly to the tent of the gnome leader. He couldn’t afford to spend time disguising the direction of his squad by circling or scurrying about. They met no resistance, as they approached from behind; there was no rear guard. It was either due to all the soldiers heading for the main battle, or misguided arrogance on the part of Orgle. The men spread out, taking cover where available as they neared the tent. Only Alex, accompanied by his lieutenant, settled on the ground immediately behind the tent. Alex leaned forward listening intently, trying to discern how many gnomes were in attendance for Orgle’s ravings. Clearly their leader was enraged by Samuel’s bold night attack. It was also apparent that Orgle did not have the same control of his army now as during the day. Alex needed to see what was happening inside so he pulled his dagger from his boot sheath and made a small cut in the side of the tent.
Orgle had returned his sword to his scabbard and the commanders now milled about, wary. Several of their comrades lay on the ground outside the tent, their lifeblood soaking into the ground. The slain had not been so cautious when Orgle was initially informed of the attack. This was the first setback his army had experienced and he demanded that his commanders stop the attack and turn the opposing army back. Orgle held his hand up high, waving it about frantically; obviously distressed. Alex knew some gnomish words and phrases, those he’d picked up from captured scouts in the past. He could make out more than a few curses coming from the tent, along with references to the time of night and how long it would be before the sun would rise. Most of his anger was directed at what Orgle held aloft in his hand. It was a blue crystal that looked very ordinary at the moment but from the way he was carrying on, it was obviously the source of Orgle’s power. Alex sat back, thinking. He knew he must make his decision on how to proceed, and if his assessment was correct, he needed to do it soon. There were maybe a couple of hours at most before the sun would rise and Orgle would be back in control. He backed away from the tent, motioning his men to gather around.
“We are up against an opponent who is obviously out of control,” he began in a hushed whisper. “He has a blue crystal in his possession. I cannot tell how he uses this magical stone, although I feel it is dormant at the moment.”
“Orgle is surrounded by ten officers. You can thank him for reducing his ranks for us with his own sword.” Alex’s statement took the men aback; they had never experienced that type of insanity by any of their own commanders.
“Our choices are two as I see them. Our first is that we take what information we have gathered and return with great speed to report to our king. The second, and the one I favor, is that we storm the tent and take the stone by force. We may even get an opportunity to slay Orgle along with some of his commanders.” He looked each man in the eye, knowing they agreed with him without needing them to speak a word.
Alex took only a brief moment to outline the plan and assign positions. His men shifted to their hastily assigned positions; their mission now stood on the brink. If they succeeded and beheaded Orgle’s army, they would be remembered in legends long past their days, even if this one was to be their last. Alex dared not think about the possibility of failing. He had no one to spare to relay the information gained to this point. If they weren’t successful, this knowledge would die with them. His plan was a gamble and it seemed the future of his country the wager. Alex was less worried about his own wellbeing than the mission. He’d been in precarious positions before and his men had always carried the day.
He glanced towards the east to gauge how much time he had before sunrise. A few hours yet. The men moved closer to the tent. Chaos still ruled the camp and no one challenged them as they assembled with Alex. He unsheathed his sword and raised it, poised to strike the blow Alex hoped would turn the tide of the battle. He glanced at the men around him to make sure they were ready, and then he let his arm descend. The decision had been made; instincts and training were the only required tools now. With a battle cry to honor Samuel, Alex and his men rushed through the gash in the wall, swords drawn and determination showing through their dirt covered faces. Orgle and his commanders were frozen in place as the squad followed their captain into the tent.
Alex and his men used the element of surprise to their advantage, cutting down five of Orgle’s top commanders before any opposition could be mounted. The gnomes were ill-equipped to counter this bold surprise attack of the command post. They fumbled with their swords, unaccustomed to the feel of the hilt in their hands, a result of the neglect of their skills as they rose in rank in Orgle’s army. Alex, and two others assigned to secure the crystal, drove to the blue stone as the bulk of the squad sought to disrupt those seeking to aid Orgle. Alex and his companions easily dispatched the two officers positioned between the gash in the tent wall and Orgle. Carrying their momentum, they crashed into the gnome leader himself, knocking him down and dislodging the blue stone from his grasp. Fumbling the stone actually saved Orgle’s life, for Alex and his men redirected their energies to obtaining the crystal and what they thought would be the key to victory.
Alex’s first lieutenant was the first to reach the stone, scooping it up and clutching it to his body as Alex silently cheered the good fortune of his squad. He had risked the mission for this very opportunity and now they had succeeded. Immediately, Alex called for his men to disengage and fall back. It was well that they did, for Orgle’s elite squad of bodyguards finally responded to the sounds of battle in the tent and came pouring in through the front flap. The operation had taken no more than a minute, but the toll was obvious as Alex accounted for his men before following those that remained out the hole in the back wall of the tent. Many of Orgle’s officers would never lead battalions to war, but neither would two of Alex’s squad see the war shift in favor of King Ellingstone now that they possessed Orgle’s magical blue stone. With silent thanks to the fallen for their sacrifice he disappeared into the dark night with the remaining squad members, intent on making Orgle pay for those left behind. As Alex led his men through the camp it was Orgle’s voice that replayed in his mind. The rage that had been directed at him as he slipped from the tent made him question his decision to fall back after securing the stone, leaving Orgle among the living.
The guards at the main gate blew their horns as soon as they recognized the messengers thundering up the road on lathered and worn steeds. They had ridden all night, trading off tired horses with those trailing on leads, keeping them as fresh as possible while still covering ground at a pace that would get the message they carried from the king to his brother, the prince, to the castle by dawn. It was still an hour before sunrise, but the men and their uniforms couldn’t be mistaken for any other than the messengers of the king even in the muted light of predawn. The guards manning the portcullis threw the levers opening the gates, timing it so that the horses slowed only slightly as they crossed the wooden planks of the bridge and through the open gate. Archers high on the city walls trained their bows on the road, protecting the messengers from pursuit. As the weary soldiers wrung the last bit of energy from their mounts, driving them on through the city streets, sleepy-eyed citizens peeked out shuttered windows to see what the horns heralded.
Prince Stephen’s solitude was interrupted as he walked the castle grounds when he heard the horns from the gate. He hurried towards the castle entrance, both eager and apprehensive for the news delivered by the messengers. The previous messages received hadn’t been encouraging, and his brother Samuel had stated he worried things were likely to get worse in the near future. As Stephen came into the courtyard, he saw the messengers dismounting amongst a throng of castle guards asking questions of the tired riders, all of them curious about how the war was going. Grooms rushed out and gathered the horses, leading them away to be walked, rubbed down, and watered. The messengers attempted to straighten their uniforms as best they could after a long day and night in the saddle, while trying to field as many questions as possible.
As Stephen walked out of the shadows to greet the messengers, one of the castle guards called the group to attention. The highest ranking messenger bowed as Stephen approached, straightening as he handed Stephen the sealed message pouch.
“The Kingdom of Pendar thanks you for your service. I pray you had a safe journey?” Stephen continued after receiving a confirming nod. “Please, take the time you need to clean up and get some rest.”
With the message pouch in hand, he fought the urge to open it where he stood. Proper court etiquette required that he assemble the council members and read it with them present, involving them in the decision making process. He would do what was required of him, as his father had taught him.
It didn’t take more than a few minutes to assemble the required members of the court. They had all heard the herald as the messenger entered the city and were making their way to the king’s meeting room when he sent his summons. Stephen paced back and forth at the head of the room, impatiently awaiting the last of the members’ arrival. He would follow the required procedures, but he didn’t have to enjoy the wait. When the last member came through the door, Stephen called the meeting to order. The other members rushed to find seats, and with the exception of a chair or two sliding on the wooden floor, the room was silent.
“We have received another message from my brother, excuse me, King Samuel,” his anticipation distracted him causing the slip, but none in the royal meeting room appeared to have noticed. “I will read the message exactly as King Samuel has written so that we may all hear his words as intended and without interpretation.” He passed the letter to the court steward to verify the seal and received it back with an approving nod, assuring the rest of the members that indeed the seal was authentic. There could be no matters of politics in times of war when quick action was tantamount.
“Dear Members of the Council,” Stephen began to read. “I will not give you any false hope. The tide of the battle continues against us. It forces us back with great loss of life to dwarf and man alike. Every day we are pushed farther back, bringing us closer to the city we are trying to defend. It looks as though within the week we will have retreated to within the city walls. Tonight will be a pivotal night for the defense of our country; much will be decided.” The room was silent, the council members had no knowledge what the king had planned, but it would have taken place last night as the messenger carried this very letter to them.
“It is feared that,” Stephen continued to read his brother’s note, “it will be necessary to move the women, children, and those unable to wield a weapon to Zoisite.” This brought an eruption of emotions from those in the audience.
“This cannot be true,” howled councilmember Sigmund, louder than those around him. He was a well-respected dwarf, a former member of the home guard, and vocal in his belief that the city walls could turn back any force. “This city was built with taller, thicker walls than any other. Dwarven built, I might add,” he cried proudly, pounding his fist on the table, rattling cups and writing tablets for emphasis. “We have the best defenses in place, why would he order us to abandon the city?” He looked around the room at the others, all nodding and murmuring similar sentiments.
“Now that I have everyone’s attention, I ask the question of you: why haven’t we heard from our neighbors? Do they not respond to our requests for aid? Do they not remember all the years we have protected them from the Tualatin gnomes?”
“Quiet please,” Stephen raised his hand to regain their attention. “There is more to the letter. I think we should hear the rest before we make any decisions. Samuel has always led with the peoples’ best interests at heart. Please let me read the rest without interruption, we will have time then to discuss what we must do after.” He didn’t outwardly disagree with those in the room, though he doubted his brother would order the withdrawal from the city if it was unwarranted.
“If you begin preparations now the city should be emptied by the time the army returns, which I estimate will be no more than five days from the receipt of this message. Pack only what is needed to survive at the mountain fortress: food, clothing, and basic supplies. Enough for an extended siege should the main army be pushed from Pendar. I also implore you to be sure Marie and Edward lead the caravan to Zoisite.” Stephen paused, shocked. This wasn’t the news he’d expected. He felt his brother was being overly cautious in removing the civilians from the city, and now he spoke plainly of losing the city entirely. There were no interruptions this time as the council sat in stunned silence, waiting for him to continue. He looked up from the letter and studied the faces around the table, trying to read their thoughts.
“Our losses are continuing to take their toll on our effectiveness. I am fighting an organized retreat, saving as much of my army as possible to defend our city walls when we reach it. If those walls should fall, we will join you at the mountain stronghold. I would like to report more encouraging news, however, I would not mislead those of the council. The force we face is vast and the willingness of their leader to sacrifice them to our blades is disheartening. Please repeat our calls for assistance to our neighbors to the north. Let their kings know that any help they could spare could be the difference between our city standing, or falling. We will buy as much time as we can for you to evacuate. Be swift to pack and do not tarry in your journey. May the army be successful tonight and the evacuation for naught. I hope this letter finds you well. Your King, Samuel Ellingstone.”
That was it then, Stephen thought, as he placed the letter on the table in front of him. They were abandoning the city. He looked to the faces around the table. How were they going to react to this latest message? Would they argue about the king’s directive to evacuate? Mostly the faces were downcast. Even Sigmund was speechless, a feat in and of itself. It was Stephen’s time to lead and he knew the moment for action was now, but it was then that he looked at the open doorway and saw her standing there.
The king’s wife, Marie, stood staring at him, apparently having heard at least the majority of the message. There was nothing to do about it now and maybe his chore would be easier since she heard it firsthand. The council remained quiet, waiting for someone to break the silence that held the room, knowing this wasn’t just a bad dream that would end with them waking in a cold sweat.
“There are procedures in place for evacuation, gentlemen. You know what needs to happen in the next few days. Please take charge of your assigned areas within the city. Do not tarry. Samuel wrote of trying to give us five days. We know not what last night’s events entailed, nor their success. Five days may be wishful thinking; assume three and we will err on the side of caution. Try to remain calm and convey the need for expediency to the people without causing panic. I will pen another round of messages to be delivered at once to our northern neighbors asking yet again for help.” Making sure to make eye contact with Sigmund even if in his own mind he knew it was a waste of ink and messenger. He finished with a nod to each of the members. Excused, they hustled from the room, frightened into quiet compliance. Dealing with the queen was going to be more difficult by far.
“What is this talk of evacuating the city?” she asked in a harsh whisper. “How can you order the withdrawal from the city without consulting me first?” She paused, hearing the selfishness of her statement and amending it as well as her tone, elevating it beyond a whisper. “The council didn’t even attempt to discuss our available options. What are Edward and I to do? Do you expect the queen and the heir to the throne to be whisked away to hide like frightened children in the mountains? What does that say to the army returning to the city? It is important for the army to see the heir awaiting them. They need to know there is a future to fight for.” Her features hardened. “It is my decision that Edward and I remain behind awaiting the king’s return.” Her statement left little room for negotiation. Her volume had continued to rise as she came to the conclusion.
“Marie, please don’t be so hasty in your decision,” Stephen implored. “Samuel will be displeased should he return and find his family has not escaped to the safety of the mountain stronghold.”
“No! I have made up my mind, we shall not abandon the city in the face of this vile threat!” Marie hissed. “We shall stand with the city’s defenses until the king returns with his army. Only with them shall we depart.”
Stephen knew she wasn’t thinking clearly and spoke softly. “Marie, Samuel is thinking about the welfare of both of you in giving this order. He is also guaranteeing the royal bloodline is preserved if something were to happen.” He knew immediately that he should not have said that last and Marie’s response confirmed it.
“This is the way it will be, do not press this matter,” she held up her hand, cutting off Stephen from saying anymore. “I am Queen while the king is away I have the final say in my kingdom. Edward and I will be here, awaiting the return of my husband!”
Stephen stared at her, measuring the queen’s conviction. He knew without a doubt that she would not be swayed from her decision. He slowly nodded in agreement, picked up his papers, and walked past her without another word. Stephen continued on his path towards his chambers rethinking the plans that had been made for just such an emergency and how they would have to be altered now that the royal family would not be accompanying the evacuees. His brother would have to be informed. That message was going to take some time to formulate, in part because Samuel would not appreciate that Stephen had bowed to the queen’s wishes.
By midday, Stephen had dispatched a handful of messengers. They could be seen leaving through the main gate of the city, some headed north to call on their neighbors, others for the battlefield. Stephen had written the messages with his own hand so that no detail would be forgotten and especially so with the message to his brother. He’d taken the opportunity to voice his displeasure over the queen’s decision to stay behind, hoping it could be kept between the two men.
With his messages safely on their way, he headed toward the dining hall to get a quick meal and hopefully catch up to a councilmember or two to inform them of the queen’s decision. When he arrived at the hall the room was empty save for some members of the home guard taking a quick meal before returning to sentry duty. Stephen filled a bowl of soup for himself waving away the kitchen staff, uncomfortable with their desire to wait on him. With his soup in one hand and a partial loaf of bread in the other, he found an out of the way table and took advantage of the rare solitude it presented him. The quiet lasted only moments before Councilman Sigmund came in with his assistant to grab a quick lunch as they continued evacuation preparations. Stephen got their attention, waving them over after they had each filled a bowl of their own.
“Well met,” he began as they found seats on the bench opposite his own. “I’m not sure if the news has reached your ears yet, so let me tell you before you begin eating.” He frowned. “I would hate to have you choke on your bread,” Stephen’s frustration seeped into his comment. “The queen has determined that young Prince Edward and she will not be accompanying the other evacuees when they leave for Zoisite.”
“Do you think that is the wisest thing to do considering the risk to their lives?” Sigmund asked, his displeasure matching Stephen’s.
“You are correct to question the wisdom, but you were not in the room when the queen told me of her choice. She will not change her mind. Frankly, I doubt anyone would get a word or two in before they were dismissed.” He paused, wondering silently if even his brother would be able to persuade her otherwise. Stephen felt he had already overstepped his bounds by saying as much as he had and let it go. Stephen’s pause told the dwarf sitting across from him as much, and he nodded knowingly at Stephen.
“Your message to the king informed him of this development I can assume?” Sigmund asked, noting Stephen’s quiet nod. “Then we must put together an explanation to give the people. I have a mind to make her tell them,” he muttered. “That might get her to change her position, though it’s unlikely. I’ll get with some of the other council members and I’m sure a diplomatic statement can be drafted. I’ll make sure you see the statement before we circulate it to the citizens.” Feeling the pressure compounding with the gravity of his duties, Sigmund hurriedly began eating his soup, trying to keep his beard from catching most of it.
Stephen felt guilty for burdening Sigmund with another task when the dwarf’s plate was full with all the preparations for evacuation. Stephen had to admit it might be an easier task for someone not quite as close to the queen as himself. He decided he would stop in and visit Maria and Edward. He couldn’t afford to alienate her now, and any line of communication that he maintained would be invaluable in the days to come.
He arrived at Edward’s playroom after looking in several other places he thought Prince Edward and his best friend Bernard could be spending time. He was relieved when his search finally resulted in two squealing boys. The two were always together when Bernard’s mother was working in the kitchen during the day. It was a good arrangement for their mothers, as it kept the boys both entertained and from being constantly underfoot. The boys were five years old and, while playing together was advantageous, it didn’t mean they never found ways to get into trouble. It was no secret that two little boys with mischievous minds could always think of more things to do together than one could alone.
Marie was with them sitting by the window, staring out towards the distant plains, her despair plain in her profile.
“Uncle Stephen!” both boys chirped in unison, clambering to their feet when he walked into the room. Bernard was so used to hearing Edward calling him Uncle Stephen that he’d adopted the title without knowing otherwise. Stephen never corrected him because he found it endearing to be thought of as family by the boy.
“How are the queen’s bodyguards today? Is she safe from the Black Knight?” Stephen asked them. It had become a ritual for Stephen to ask the boys since the day Stephen told them a fable about a knight who lived in the nearby forest. The purpose of the tale was actually to discourage the pair from wandering off into the woods after a particularly distressing incident last spring.
Both boys ran over to stand in front of him as he entered the room. They made their best attempt to imitate the salute of the royal guard and reported, “All is in order and secure, Uncle Stephen!” Their enthusiasm was contagious, so much so it even brought a smile to the queen’s drawn face.
Stephen returned the salute, “Your service to the crown is much appreciated. The kingdom is in your debt for the continued fine work you are doing. As your reward you may report to the kitchen and each request one pastry of your choosing from the cook.” Neither boy waited a second longer before they ran from the room, down the hall towards the kitchen. Stephen watched them depart then turned, walking slowly towards the window where Marie was sitting. If only he knew what he should say to her, something that would make her reconsider her impulsive decision.
“Marie, I’m sorry to intrude upon your vigil,” he began gently. “I think we need to discuss some of the issues that relate to Samuel’s orders.”
“I’m sorry too, Stephen,” she said, without looking away from the window. “I know this isn’t the best way to handle the evacuation, and probably will make it more difficult than if Edward and I were to leave with the others. It’s just that I have a feeling deep down within me that something terrible is going to happen. If Edward and I stay behind, in the city, maybe whatever it is can be prevented.” She paused, taking a shaky breath to collect herself. “I don’t know,” she continued, “It’s probably just nerves talking, trying to rationalize my wanting to stay, but this feeling can’t be denied. If I found out later I could have made a difference by staying, I wouldn’t be able to live with myself.” She dabbed at a tear forming at the corner of her eye as she finished, never taking her eyes off the distant plains, watching for the return of the army.
Stephen knew there would be no further discussion today. He stepped over to her and laid his hand upon her shoulder, reassuring.
“I know this has not been easy for you, Marie, knowing Samuel is in constant danger and alone without his family. You having to hide your emotions and go about your day as if everything is fine, in an effort to give hope to the people. I know how you feel, Marie, because I share the same burden. Everyone is looking to me for strength, and all the while I’m trying to emulate the decisions I believe Samuel would make were he here.” He moved to look out the window, shaking his head.
“He is a hard one to replace. The citizens love and respect him, and await his triumphant return. Yet he comes with the enemy at his heels and the losses of many of his army weighing him down.” She shook her head then sniffed. “It will still be good to have him home, though his work won’t be finished. It will only be beginning in earnest as he fights to put his city back to rights, and we will be here to support him however we can. Once he’s back and acclimated we’ll discuss again the possibility of moving the royal family to safety.”
Marie nodded silently at her own declaration, and Stephen felt that he had at least accomplished his goal of communicating to her at some level his desire for her and Edward to leave the city. He had said all that he could for now so he excused himself and left her alone to her self-appointed sentry duty. He headed towards his private chambers, hoping that the other members of the council were experiencing better results than he had. At the moment, he simply wanted some privacy to sort out the details of the defense of the city. He knew it was wrong, but he’d been ignoring even considering the plans since the beginning of the campaign, hoping it would be a victorious army returning instead of one in full retreat. He arrived at his room and immediately went to his desk where a map of the city lay rolled in its protective casing. He sat down as he spread it out on the desktop. Time slipped away quickly as he immersed himself in the configuration of their defenses, wondering as he looked upon the map, if these walls could indeed withstand the assault that was surely coming.
Later that evening when he took a break to get a bite to eat, Stephen found Marie and Edward standing at the balcony, gazing out over the castle walls. Together, they watched the horizon for any messengers who might be maybe carrying news of recent events on the battlefield. Everyone held out hope that the plans to evacuate could be avoided. Stephen and Marie would speak to the city leaders tonight after dinner from atop these walls, reminding them of the importance of keeping up their morale during these trying times. It would not be an easy speech. Rumors were already sweeping through the city, and the citizens were getting anxious. They were a proud nation and had never before been in danger of being pushed from their homes. The queen and her son waited quietly together, but no messengers came. When they were informed that dinner was nearly done being served, they left the wall and walked in silence to the dining hall.
Dinner passed with nothing more than small talk being made at the table. Stephen, preoccupied with his defenses, had too much on his mind. Although several members of the council ate nearby, little of the day’s activities were discussed. Before they all dispersed, the council members arranged to meet prior Prince Stephen’s speech tonight so they could brief him on what they had accomplished, and also to pass along their observations regarding the mood of the city. As they were milling about, Marie excused herself and took Edward to their chambers to put him to bed.
Edward talked of the day’s adventures with his little friend, Bernard, and all that he’d done. His mother listened, enjoying the innocence of her young son. He missed his father and had no concept of the danger Samuel faced fighting for their country. That he was better off for his ignorance was undeniable and she found no need to try to explain to him what was happening in the bigger world outside the city walls. At least he would sleep well this night. Someone in the castle should, she thought. Marie tucked him into his bed and kissed him on the forehead.
“Sleep well, my little prince. Daddy loves you and he will be home soon.” He smiled up at her and quickly turned his head and shut his eyes. It was enough to make her smile, if only for a moment. She headed out of his room, down the hall, and towards the balcony atop the wall where Stephen had called the city leaders to gather. She would be there with him to show support, though her heart was no longer behind the campaign.
Orgle recognized the danger as soon as the men began rushing through the slit in the back of the tent, but not soon enough to call for aid. Before he knew it, he’d been bowled over and the Starrock sent skittering across the tent floor. His elite team of gnomes followed the criminals turned thieves into the night, pursuing them through the camp and following the trail of chaos. Orgle’s rage burned uncontrollably. An hour later, his squad returned with the blue stone in hand along with several prisoners, unlucky enough to have been captured alive. Now, as he sat on his makeshift throne, he thought back to the day his fortunes changed, turning him from commoner to the most powerful gnome in the history of the Tualatins.
It was neither brains nor brawn that had shifted his fortune. It was something he had lucked upon during his scavenging of the old troll caves near the place where he had grown up. The fact that he was down in the cave that day when all the others refused to enter spoke something of his nature. He wasn’t one to let others tell him what he could or couldn’t do.
There had been some mysterious disappearances and the elders decided it was less trouble to ban the exploration because those few who came back carried no treasure. So the elders of his tribe had schooled the population, telling them the troll caves were guarded by ghosts of their long departed occupants. It was the lure of treasure that usually motivated the greedy gnomes, but they often times could be dissuaded through fear. The stories created to invoke fear hadn’t worked on Orgle; he’d gone further into the labyrinth of the troll caves than those before him. He’d been rewarded with the treasure that lifted him up to where he was today. That treasure was known as the Starrock.
The Starrock had been left behind by the race of trolls when they abandoned the caves, and as far as anyone could tell, the trolls had vanished completely. The Starrock was a nondescript blue crystal of average size mounted on an ornate gold chain. The gold chain was what had caught Orgle’s eye. He’d located it amongst several other items that looked ceremonial in nature, in a room that appeared to have been a temple of the trolls. It was the gold that Orgle was initially attracted to, knowing that it would have trading value, so he hung the chain about his neck and continued to search the remnants of the room in search of more gold. It was as he crossed the room and a thin beam of the sun shining through a shaft cut in the mountainside struck the crystal, momentarily illuminating the room in a brilliant burst of blue light before returning to its normal torch lit shadowy state.
Orgle stopped in his tracks, startled and unsure of what had happened. It took him only a moment to make the connection to the blue crystal that swung against his chest as the origin of this color change in the room. He turned and stepped back to the beam of light and carefully dipped the crystal into the edge of the beam. The color burst forth from the crystal, bathing the room with its brilliance until Orgle withdrew it from the sunbeam. Orgle thought this time he noticed something else, aside from the change in the color of the room, a hint of a figure hovering at the edge of his sight. Once again he dipped the crystal into the light, but this time Orgle left the crystal within the beam of light; the now familiar flash of light no longer shocking. Now he looked deeper into the light where something moved within the glow. It wasn’t easily discernible until the ghostly figure of a troll walked toward him and bowed. He wasn’t sure what it was yet he instinctively knew it contained a power greater than anything in his world. Removing the gem from the light he tucked it within his tunic, causing the light to blink out, taking the troll with it. He wasn’t sure how, but he determined right then that he would master the secrets that would bring out the power within the crystal, and that he now had the tool that would make him the most powerful gnome to have ever lived. His thoughts swirled as he made his way out of the cave and by the time he reached the surface, he already had a target for his wrath: the city of Pendar.
Then he spent the next twenty years perfecting the use of the stone, manipulating the gnome high council to do his bidding until at last he’d taken control and disposed of each member. Tonight he’d been dealt a blow. He would recover with some losses to his army, but that was to be expected. His army would regroup at dawn when the sun once again powered his crystal and he would issue his commands telepathically to attack King Ellingstone’s hated army.
The question before him now was what to do with his prisoners before he killed them. They would serve another purpose with their deaths, although that would be later. Could they be forced to talk? To divulge enemy plans? Probably not. They had rolled the dice with the daring night attack with, Orgle had to admit, fairly good results. He motioned to one of the guards.
“Bring that one to me,” he pointed to Alex, who was grabbed roughly by his arms, bound together behind his back.
“He would like to tell me something that will save his life,” Orgle said through clenched teeth, the anger of the bold attack still burning deep within. The guard grinned, knowing that nothing would save the doomed prisoner, not even if he told Orgle every detail of the war plan. He quickly dragged Alex over to the floor in front of Orgle, pushing him down until he lay prostrate on the floor.
“I will tell you nothing of my king’s plans,” Alex stated before Orgle had a chance to ask a single question. He remained loyal and defiant, though his face was being pushed into the dirt floor, and the guard’s foot rested on the back of his head.
“You might as well kill me now and be done with it. My men know nothing beyond tonight’s raid, so you can release them to their king that they may avenge the deaths of our squad.” It was a bold statement, issued from a position of little strength. It had been a long night. From the time they escaped through the back of the tent, nothing had gone according to plan. It had not taken Orgle’s guards long to catch up with them. It was as if they could track the stone regardless of dark or distance. It hadn’t made sense at the time and he still couldn’t get his mind around it. His men had fought bravely but in the end the numbers against them made the difference. Only three of them remained alive, and they were still under his command and his responsibility.
“Oh, fear not brave soldier, you will be killed; have no doubt. They too will be used in the days to come,” Orgle spoke as he gestured to the others sitting, also bound, off to the side of the large tent.
“But right now I need to know what else your King Ellingstone has planned. I have a schedule to keep and this feeble attempt tonight has cost me precious time. So please, spare yourself and your men some rather hideous torture and tell me all that you know. The longer it takes to get the information from you, know that I will do the same and worse to your men when it is their time. Take a moment and reflect upon their fates. It is all up to you.” Orgle leaned back in his throne, gauging the man’s mettle. Would he take the easy way out to hopefully save his men from some cruel fate, or would his sense of loyalty to a doomed nation provide Orgle with some extra fun? “Take your time. I have a few minutes before dawn and then I will need your decision.” He motioned to the guard to help Alex to his knees so that he could look him in the eye.
Alex thought it through as best he could and, surprisingly, came to a similar conclusion to that which Orgle proposed. He and his men had been basically, no actually, assured of death at the hands of this evil tyrant. What was there to gain by giving him any information? Well, Alex supposed, his men need not suffer any greater harm than death itself. But to what end? Delaying that which was promised? Or rather quickening the process and therefore making it less painful? Then it came to him.
“Good gnome,” he said, “I apologize. I know not your proper title, but I think there may be a scenario that spares us, my men and me, from your hideous designs and provides you with a steady stream of intelligence in regards to the movements of my king and his army.” It wasn’t much of an argument to keep his men alive, he realized now that he had spoken it aloud.
“Hear me out Orgle! I think that it may surprise you what knowledge I hold concerning the rest of the campaign.” Hopefully that sounded more impressive, not that he could possibly know details beyond his part in the raid last night, but his bluff might have bought them some time.
“You think to fool Orgle!” Orgle shouted back at him, getting up from his throne and squatting in front of Alex. “What could you possibly know to justify dragging you and your men along with my army? You may have noticed that there are no others of your kind, or your short allies. I keep no prisoners! You are either a use to me now or you are discarded. Do not think that you will be treated otherwise.” How could this puny man think to manipulate him like that? Orgle was insulted and would not be thought foolish. The slight would cost the man dearly. He would learn to respect Orgle’s power! The slightest gesture to one of the guards standing watch over his prisoners brought the guard’s sword into motion.
Alex twisted around as the look passed between the two gnomes, turning in time to see the sword tip burst through the chest of Sergeant Tripleton. There was only enough time to lock eyes with Tripleton, the latter knowing that his fate had been decided before his head dropped and he crumpled to the ground. Alex shouted out for Orgle to stop, to spare his men, when Orgle grabbed him by his hair and yanked his attention back to him.
“You knew not who you dealt with and your man paid the price. Do not mistake me for one of your soft commanders! In my army, there is no such thing as disobedience! Those who don’t follow orders are eliminated.” Turning now to his guards, he motioned them to pick up the fallen man.
“Do not waste his life force or one of you will take his place feeding the stone this morning.” Several gnomes rushed forward, picking up the limp man and carrying him towards the table that held the blue stone.
“You will bear witness to the events that will destroy your pitiful nation,” he said to Alex. “Watch and learn that there will be no other outcome than the enslavement of your nation and the total annihilation of the royal family. There can be no survivors of the Ellingstone blood line, and I will be the rightful king.” He turned and headed for the table that now held the slain man. The guards forced Alex and the two remaining captives to watch Orgle perform the ceremony that brought the blue stone to life. As the three men looked on, they all knew that Samuel and his commanders were not equipped to fight this enemy.
It was at that same moment that Samuel stepped from his tent and witnessed a beam of blazing blue light streak up, into the morning sky. It was captivating in its brilliance, so much so he could hardly turn away. He felt it was calling to him, searching for him. He closed his eyes and shook the feeling out of his head. Surely he had only imagined the connection. The light lasted only a moment and then was gone, along with the feeling of intimacy of its touch.
He looked back across the battlefield. The gnomes were beginning to stir, but not in their usual frenetic bloodthirsty attack that typically greeted Samuel’s army at dawn. Samuel felt confident his men had surely disrupted the gnome army, and he hoped that just maybe it had bought them the time they needed to regroup.
It was a needed respite for his army. They had been busy most of the night following the attacks, erecting barriers and constructing stake pits along the route of their retreat. The natural surroundings had lent a hand and the ground recaptured the night before had been put to good use. It would take even Orgle’s unstoppable army of gnomes the full day to clear a path to Samuel’s army and he intended to take full advantage of any time they were given.
Samuel’s army was up at dawn and prepared for the assault, but quickly realized that the enemy was in no condition to go on the offensive after last night’s counterattack. If the gnomes took time and regrouped like any other conventional army, Samuel’s army too would have time to catch their breath.
Mercifully, the morning passed without an attack and the men and dwarves used the time to shift their positions and build additional defenses. Midday passed and they waited as Orgle and his gnomes struggled to clear the barricades set up during the nighttime retreat. They continued to keep archers at forward positions to harass the gnomes, taking turns within each squad between resting and repairing their weapons of war. After the dinner hour passed and the sun began to set behind the mountains to the west, Samuel knew that last night’s raid had been a nearly complete success. It had bought his army a full day of rest and preparation.
The missing squad had been troubling Samuel’s mind all day. Their absence spoke volumes. They were some of his best scouts; more adept at eluding capture than any other squad in his army. They were experienced and had made many sojourns into enemy territory before with great success. However, infiltrating the enemy’s camp with the leader’s tent as your goal was probably asking too much. They should return tonight if they were free and still breathed. Possibly they were hiding behind enemy lines while the sun plodded its way across the sky.
Scouting reports began to come in, confirming Samuel’s suspicion that Orgle was dispatching large squads, apparently to guard against another night like the last. He wished he was able to press the attack again tonight, but Samuel’s army had spent the day recovering from the constant pressure of the previous week’s relentless assaults. The rest would be needed as tomorrow would surely be another day of throwing back the gnome army. Samuel turned towards his tent. He needed rest too.
It was just about dawn when Samuel roused himself from his slumber. He didn’t give the bugler the signal to wake the camp, knowing that he had time before the enemy attacked. The question that always plagued him in the morning hours was ‘How much time?’ Samuel needed to know the progress of the gnomes. As a matter of course, fresh scouting patrols would be dispatched to relieve those that had spent the night watching Orgle’s army. Maybe those returning would have the answers he needed so it was just a matter of being patient now.
It was a given that Orgle would push the attack today, and if Samuel had to guess, it would take until at least midday to clear the remaining obstacles that Samuel’s dwarven companies had instituted during the retreat. This valley had been chosen for its natural attributes, a series of natural steps leading up to a plateau where the army now camped. They had made formidable barriers in a very short time, collapsing some of the access points and building additional obstacles. Their construction, even in haste, was impressive.
Samuel pushed aside the tent flap and stepped out, looking up at the clear blue sky. His thoughts drifted homeward, wondering what his family was doing on this day. Thinking how nice it would be to spend the day with them, wandering the many gardens and courtyards that surrounded the castle and then considered how much different that would be compared to the day on the battlefield that faced him and his men. The city would be a bustle of activity; people would be packing their belongings and making the last preparations to evacuate the city and strike out for the mountain stronghold. Samuel hoped to provide them with at least a week’s time to climb the mountain pass and find security within the walls of Zoisite. The ancient dwarven fortress had not been used in recent times except by soldiers on training missions. Though it probably wasn’t in the most livable condition, being dwarven built it would be structurally sound and a safe haven. If Samuel’s army of men and dwarves could stop Orgle at the walls of Pendar, those people migrating now wouldn’t have to spend more than a month before returning home. His thoughts were interrupted as he looked up and saw a message detail coming into camp from the castle.
The commanders were called to council after they ate a quick breakfast, giving the riders a moment to refresh themselves after their strenuous ride from the castle. Samuel knew the messengers had not borne dire news because they were not wearing a black scarf tied about the upper arm, a simple enough system to help expedite messages that carried more weight and could not await a full assembly of Samuel’s commanders. Today’s meeting was ready to get under way when Samuel arrived at the command tent. All of his staff was present, along with the ranking member of the message detail.
“Good morning gentlemen,” Samuel began. “Today will bring us an opportunity to regain command of this war. Orgle has pushed us back for nearly two weeks, but that is in the past. I’m confident that from here on out we will bring his army to a halt.” His staff cheered and pounded the table, tired of being driven ever backward. The bravado was welcome and Samuel hoped to change the mood of the meeting from desperation to one of confidence. Samuel continued when the cheers began to settle.
“We have positioned our front lines at the entrance of the Red Rock canyon, with its sheer walls and the uphill climb to where we are dug in now. Orgle won’t be able to bring his army of superior numbers to bear in the confines of this canyon where the walls narrow and will funnel his gnomes into our front lines. The walls are tighter than any other so far at only one hundred paces wide. His poorly trained soldiers will not be able to swarm our lines and our soldiers will be able to fight one on one and effectively control the line,” Samuel spoke confidently.
“Nor will Orgle be able to circumvent the canyon without marching his army north to Orvald’s pass, the next navigable gap in the mountains. That would take him a full seven days and tire his army while we rest and regroup.” Samuel paused to receive some sign of affirmation from those gathered in front of him, receiving nods indicating agreement at his sound thinking. They had been through this scenario in their military training. It made sense and left them in a favorable position relative to what they’d faced in the past.
“Our goal as I see it,” he took care to project the utmost confidence, “is to hold Orgle in this canyon for at least five days before falling back to the city walls. The march back to the city at a controlled retreat will take at least two days, thus giving the inhabitants of the city the time necessary to gain the safety of the mountain fortress Zoisite.
“Gentlemen, we’re all aware of the needs of our nation and I would ask you to think of possible tactics we can use to stop Orgle and his rabble of an army. While you ponder the options, I must attend to some matters of the city.”
With that, he motioned for the guard to bring in the messenger from outside the tent. The messenger stepped inside and proceeded directly to his king, stopped and saluted, holding out the message in its sealed pouch. Samuel accepted the pouch and dismissed the man, instructing him to get some much needed rest. He broke open the seal, noting before he did that it was his brother Stephen’s personal seal and not that of the city council.
Samuel read the message, stopping halfway though at the point that Stephen revealed to him the queen’s decision to stay behind at the castle. The commanders stopped their discussions as they looked on at their exasperated king, mumbling to himself about his challenging wife. Samuel noticed the silence in the room around him and looked up from the letter.
“I apologize for interrupting your deliberations.”
“Has there been an incident with your wife?” asked Commander Relysis, his concern evident on his face.
“No, it isn’t anything serious, but the ramifications could possibly be bigger than the battle we fight now.” Samuel responded, noting alarm on the faces of those around him. “The queen has decided she will remain behind with our son Edward and my brother Stephen to welcome the army back into the city.”
“Your Highness, this means potentially that the entire Ellingstone family will be trapped within the walls of a city under siege. If the gnomes breach the walls the entire Ellingstone lineage will most certainly be lost,” Relysis growled.
Samuel raised a hand to interrupt his most valuable commander and confidant. “Your perception of the situation is correct, Relysis, and yes, the future of the Ellingstone family would be in jeopardy. However, if we stop this army where they stand we will render the queen’s declaration meaningless. I would implore you to put this matter out of your minds for now; we can do nothing to control it. It is nothing that can be dealt with until we return safely to the city. What we can control now is in this canyon, and I need to know how we can dissuade Orgle from continuing his assault.”
Having directed his commanders, yet again, to continue planning, he stood and excused himself so that he could contemplate the developments at the castle.
As directed and was their strength, the commanders planned. Orders were sent to the troops. The morning passed and midday came and went, with still no word of Orgle’s movements as the troops anxiously awaited battle. Samuel too was anxious and began to wonder if the advance scouts had been set upon and eliminated without being able to send word of the enemy’s position. He dismissed that almost immediately on the grounds that the scouting squad was a full forty strong and would be spread out to cover more territory making it impossible to eliminate all members of the scout group.
The only other option for Orgle was to bypass the well- defended Red Rock Canyon, where Samuel’s army currently waited, and take an alternate route, marching his army around to the north and through Orvald’s Pass. If Orgle did divert his army to take Orvald’s pass, it would take a whole week for him to make it. Orgle was impatient, and would rather inflict casualties on Samuel’s army no matter the cost to his own.
Samuel mounted up and started out toward the front lines, having assured himself that Orgle would have to bring his troops though this canyon. He stopped and spoke with a number of regiments and various individuals along the way, trying to bolster the morale of both the men and dwarves. By mid-afternoon Samuel had made his way to the front line defenders. Dismounting from his horse, he received a salute from the regiment’s lieutenant.
“Put your men at ease, Lieutenant. I’m not conducting any inspections today.” Samuel paused to allow the lieutenant to issue the command, but it was at that moment that a forward observer sounded the alarm. Men on horseback were coming in at a full gallop from the south. The lieutenant responded immediately, barking out orders as men scurried to their assigned positions. Samuel, surrounded by his security force, remounted and waited as the horsemen drew ever closer. When they were still some distance off they were identified as members of the forward scouts. The army began to stir as the news of the scouts’ return swept back through the ranks. Nobody knew yet what news they carried, though they figured Orgle’s army wouldn’t be too far behind.
The scouts skidded to a halt, the horses lathered and winded. Dismounting, the captain of the squad quickly identified the king and led his mount to him.
“Your Highness, Captain Highfield reporting.”
“Please Captain, report the message you have brought with such obvious haste,” Samuel intoned.
“As you wish, your Highness,” the captain began. “It was just midday, and the men had taken lunch from their provisions, eating in shifts so that vigilance was maintained.” He paused to catch his breath and gathered his composure before continuing. “It was then that the easternmost stationed pair was set upon by a gnome force that had crept up on them without being noticed. The alarm was raised down the line, everyone to the last rallying to their aide. The gnome force was larger than we expected, though it didn’t number enough to give us a good fight had we all been formed up to fight as a unit from the outset. Instead, the first arrivals were swept under with those initially engaged by the gnomes. Only after we had formed up as a squad did we turn them back, and once they had fully fallen back we were able to count our losses at fifteen men lost.” He paused, letting the assembled men digest the losses of yet more of their brothers in arms.
“The gnome army was moving into our field of view by this time so we decided there was naught to be done but gather our fallen and return back with this message.” Captain Highfield stood before his king, visibly shaken by the fact that a full third of his squad had been lost, awaiting his king’s questions.
Samuel recognized the pain his officer was in, knowing that even though losses were expected in war, they were never easy to deal with. He did, however, need certain information and had to ask. “How far away is the main body of the gnome army and when would you project that they will come upon us?”
“Your Highness, we were fully two miles forward of our front lines when we were attacked by their scout unit. At the pace they were traveling, taking into account the obstacles they had to cross,” Captain Highfield paused momentarily, doing the calculations in his head. “I would figure them to be only two hours behind, although I fear it may be sooner.”
“Thank you, Captain, your efforts are appreciated. Now take your squad to the rear to regroup.” Samuel turned to the lieutenant, still present and awaiting his command.
“I need a messenger squad dispatched immediately to all corners of the army, telling one and all that the enemy approaches and will engage us within the hour.”
King Samuel remounted, wheeled his horse about, and headed in the direction of the cavalry unit he knew would be assembling at the western edge of the canyon. The gnomes wouldn’t be able to use their strength of numbers within the confines of the canyon and the cavalry would serve as a disruptive force to break apart Orgle’s initial attack, scattering his phalanx. The men and dwarves, more maneuverable and more skilled with weapons, would be able to turn back the gnome horde with equal numbers fighting on both sides of the line. Samuel and his commanders counted on this when they devised their plan. The terrain in this canyon would allow the cavalry to break up any momentum that the opposing army might achieve along the front line. It was imperative for the Pendarian army to maintain control of the front line. A few small pockets of incursions could be repelled with a few losses, but a full-scale breakdown here would be catastrophic for his army. Samuel knew there was no room for error and had therefore decided he would lead the cavalry in these harassing charges against the enemy with strategic and deadly accuracy.
When he arrived at the staging area, four groups of men numbering three hundred each were busily checking and rechecking equipment on their horses, looking for anything that might hamper their effectiveness once on the battlefield. After the initial inspection was complete, the subsequent checks were more to work through the nervous energy that filled the troops, knowing that the battle they’d been waiting for all morning would be joined within the hour. A few adjustments were made to the waiting horses’ tack here and there as needed.
The waiting had started at dawn, but the news of the gnome army’s position no more than a couple miles away left the men feeling unprepared for the battle to come. The doubts were there, even though they all knew the formations they would employ today; they were not new to any of them in the cavalry. They had been practicing them since selection into the elite corps. The reality was that they had come to this war with a confidence instilled in them from prior skirmishes. Yet, every day, they had swept through the enemy’s ranks with little effect. Their self-doubt was palpable, visible on a face here or there. And while the unit as a whole remained confident, it would come down to individuals doing their duty despite their doubts.
Samuel recognized the questioning look in the eyes of too many of his troops. He would have to provide them with an example of courage that could not be denied.
Orgle’s army appeared down the valley just short of the two hours predicted by the scouts. They positioned themselves barely outside the range of the archers then waited as the ranks behind them filled the valley. They stood shoulder to shoulder across the entire valley with more coming in behind. From the elevated position at the top of the slope the men and dwarves could clearly see the numbers poised to meet them. The ranks, as far as the eye could see, continued to funnel in indicating that still more moved into the valley.
Samuel’s hopes began to slip as the gnomes poured in through the far end of the valley. It didn’t take a military strategist to calculate the way this battle would play out. Orgle had enough soldiers to keep pushing forward from the rear no matter the toll. Those who fell along the front line would merely be crushed by the masses coming from behind. Experience showed that they did not seem to care about the wellbeing of their comrades. This day would end badly for the army of Pendar. Even within the confines of the valley they chose for this stand, his soldiers could not hold back the flood about to be released against them. Need pressed him and his mind raced to save his kingdom.
It was a rash move, he knew. It reeked of desperation, but he needed to disrupt Orgle before his entire army was in place. Samuel called his commanders together and informed them of his plan. They were to prepare to charge immediately knowing that something, anything, needed to be done before the enemy army gathered for its attack. They agreed. His front lines would stay dug in while the cavalry smashed into their front lines. There were going to be casualties, but there was no helping that. To let Orgle organize a full charge would be disastrous. The units formed up as soon as the call was sounded, positioning their war horses in lines forty horsemen wide, everyone gripping their spears tightly. His horse, sensing the excitement in the air, danced beneath him, gathering itself for the battle to come. All eyes were on Samuel as he moved to the front of the cavalry. Everyone anticipated his signal.
Samuel looked back at his men, knowing that some or all would surely be lost. There was no guarantee of even his own safety in the heat of the battle. He took a moment, staring into the eyes of those comprising his front ranks. They would take the brunt of the punishment, but the men knew he would be there with them. Slowly he raised his sword in a clenched fist above his head, his horse spinning about beneath him to face the horde. Shouting out a battle cry, he dropped his sword and kicked his steed into motion. Behind him, the ranks leaped forward, not letting their king out ride them. Lances were lowered into a ready position as they began to close the gap.
The downhill charge got the attention of the gnomes immediately, creating the distraction Samuel had hoped for. Orgle’s level of control was evident when many gnome soldiers, going against instinct, stepped out on foot to meet the mounted men. Others shrank back, only to be stopped by those behind. Samuel looked down at the wavering wall of soldiers as his horsemen closed the gap. The indecision shown by some was a boon for his cavalry; gaps in the line would yield to his charge more than a unified front.
The impact when they came together was brutal for both sides. Men were unhorsed when their mounts took spears through protective leather breastplates. Any gnomes in the path of destruction were run down, trampled beneath hooves of horses trained to fight; a soldier on four legs lashing out with steel shod hooves. Gnomes that remained standing along the margins of the attack immediately jumped in and began hacking at the fallen cavalrymen, heedless of the next wave of riders bearing down on them. The riders rolled through the horde, slashing with their swords once they were forced to drop their spears. All the while the gnomes clamored to pull them from their saddles.
Samuel, surrounded by his men, fought those few gnomes that came within sword length. Most were cut down before they got close enough to endanger the king. He let the attack continue for only a few minutes, long enough for the whole of their force to engage the gnome army briefly, before he called for a retreat. The cavalry spun about upon his command and retraced their path, back through the gnomes who had converged upon them, back to their own ranks. The gap between the armies closed as Samuel’s men raced back through the chaos to the open valley floor between the two armies. The gnomes took up the chase, angered at the rashness of their foe, and seeking to catch any human stragglers. Samuel had counted on the gnomes they’d engaged giving chase. As his men feigned a full retreat, the gnomes left the safety of the main army and stretched out across the valley floor.
The cavalry was ready and wheeled about, sweeping back along the path of their retreat and cutting down the exposed gnomes who, without the advantage of overwhelming numbers, fell easily to Samuel’s mounted army.
When the gnomes finally regrouped and scurried back to the safety of the front lines, Samuel once again changed his tactics. The cavalry galloped back in an arc, bringing them parallel to Orgle’s front line, running down any who dared step out onto the battlefield. They were able to make several passes, spacing themselves to lure out more of the gnomes and creating a deadly zone that no proper thinking gnome would dare cross. Yet under Orgle’s control, they continued to trickle out onto the field. It wasn’t until the trickle turned into a flood that Samuel called for a full retreat back up the hill to the safety of his own ranks.
Emboldened by the retreating cavalry, the gnomes surged across the gap, sending up a battle cry of their own as they rushed to engage the foe. Samuel watched as they flowed towards him, slowly being funneled between the walls as they closed in, jostling for position. They were a tide of destruction, moving forward to break against his wall of men and dwarves. He had one more surprise for the enemy before the armies met. He gave the signal for the archers to release the first of many volleys to rain a thousand arrows down amongst the advancing gnomes.
The archers had time to loose several volleys before the gnomes engaged Samuel’s front line manned by dwarves wielding axes and men with spears and swords. Then they turned their bows to helping repel pockets of gnomes as they pushed through the line of men and dwarves. The cavalry helped where they could, charging through the gnomes whenever they showed signs of gaining momentum. The gnomes’ attack wavered and finally began to retreat when Orgle realized he wouldn’t be able to push the army out of the valley as easily as anticipated. Many more of Orgle’s army fell from arrows as they retreated back beyond bow range. There, Orgle’s commanders regrouped their regiments, establishing new lines and settled back, awaiting Orgle’s instructions.
Orgle didn’t believe Samuel could possibly think he could hold him off in this canyon for long. He reasoned that Samuel must be trying to stall the army, hoping to buy time for the evacuation of his precious city. His knowledge of the evacuation was just another benefit of the powerful stone that he kept in his possession. He also felt confident that the evacuation wouldn’t be completed in time and within two days he would be sitting on the throne of the once powerful Pendar. The entire lineage of the Ellingstone family would be eliminated and he would have an uncontested claim to the throne.
Orgle checked the position of the sun, grimacing. Soon daylight would be gone. This close to his goal, he wanted to continue pressing his enemy. In a moment of confidence, he made his decision. It wasn’t his usual tactic and he would have to motivate his troops without the Starrock, but he would push his troops to fight through the night. Samuel’s army would be anticipating the usual nightly reprieve; it would take them by surprise. Granted, they were more rested than his own troops, but they couldn’t withstand the weight of his numbers for long and would tire quickly if his army fought through to dawn. Without daylight, Samuel’s archers would be virtually useless bringing the battle down to numbers. Orgle liked his odds as he called for his commanders.
Samuel gathered his commanders too. It was apparent to him, and those now seated with him in the war tent, that this valley wasn’t going to be held for the five days he’d hoped. The discussions going on around him reflected his fears. The new projection was three days, if even that.
“We need to make plans for the upcoming days,” Samuel stated, his tone commanding to reach them over the din. “The cavalry will not be able to work as well now that Orgle has closed upon us. Right now Orgle’s army has marched all day and should be requiring some rest. What can we do to keep them from getting the rest they need without compromising our troops?”
General Relysis, as was usually the case, spoke first.
“Your Highness, we can press them through the night if we can use the cavalry for diversions while the archery corps move out onto the battlefield and into bow range. If we reduce the divisions down to squad size fighting units, they would be able to move quickly and respond faster than the standard cavalry divisions we’re using now.”
“What about the lack of light?” Samuel countered. “Won’t that reduce their accuracy and put our own army in danger? What will they be shooting at exactly?”
“Dwarves don’t use bows, so I understand your doubt, but today I witnessed the deadly use of the arrow by simply letting them fall amongst the enemy ranks. No specific target, still deadly. I believe that the same tactic would work at night. Possibly even with better results, due to the terror of an unseen, silent killer falling amongst the gnomes.” Relysis continued to lay out his strategy, encouraged that he had the attention of those gathered.
“Use the cavalry to help mark the zone by lobbing torches above the gnomes’ ranks, giving the archers a target to shoot towards. Or better yet, toss small pots of burning oil. The oil would spread fire about when it landed. Anyway, just make sure the riders don’t linger after they make their throws. This should keep the gnomes off balance while we rest and watch from behind our front lines.” He finished detailing his plan and sat down, waiting for questions or even suggestions to improve the plan. He heard nothing.
“If there are no objections, we will go ahead with this strategy then. Please dispatch runners to the supply tents so they can begin preparation of the clay pots. Let the cavalry riders and archers know that they will be pulling another shift tonight. Make sure they are completely clear on the plan so they can work in unison and not stumble over themselves in the dark.”
The commanders took their leave and Samuel was left standing alone in the tent doorway looking around at the army preparing for the night ahead. The sun was about to set again, throwing the valley into the blackness of night. No campfires would burn tonight; the only fires would come from clay pots this night. Tonight would tell him much about his army; if they could hurt Orgle’s army while not taking casualties, it could be the turning point they so desperately needed. He stepped out of the war tent and headed for his own, knowing that even a short rest could help revitalize him so that he could help later when the fighting renewed. The men about him, as he crossed through the camp, were busy with preparations and paid no heed to his passing. He hardly noticed them either, lost in thoughts that concerned those who were miles away at the castle. Thoughts he could push from his mind during the day when he fought alongside his men only to rush back into his mind when the world around him got quiet.
He entered his tent and lay down on his cot, not even bothering to remove his uniform. To relax, he began to quietly sing his Edward’s favorite little song that worked so well when putting his son to sleep. It proved to be equally effective for Samuel to catch a few moments of sleep himself and he soon drifted off in mid verse.
It was some time later that a dark-cloaked figure stepped out from Samuel’s tent and slipped silently into the night. Even amidst the confusion of a camp at war, the troops guarding the king’s tent should have challenged his passing, but they never noticed his departure and there were no alarms raised at his passing. The ability to seemingly disappear while in plain sight, especially when combined with a list of other very specific skills, was what made this individual good at what he did, and very dangerous.