You must be logged in to post messages.
Please login or register

Bardic Circle - War Stories & AAR forum
Moderated by Terikel Grayhair

Hop to:    
Topic Subject: The King's Own
« Previous Page  1 2 3  Next Page »
posted 20 May 2014 19:29 EDT (US)   
I know I've mentioned it a couple times before, but I think it's about time that I put up some of my writing (other than for Sepia jousts). Therefore, if anyone's interested, I'm going to start posting the first book I wrote on here in something of an episodic format. Hopefully it'll provide the impetus for me to finish editing it. There are large number of characters in this book, so I've included a list of the characters so far below (I'll expand it as I go).

The King’s Own

The Trap

14th of Grakuary, 599
Village of Tumbri, north of Menzobaria

Iron shod hoofs clattered on the cobblestone street, and the horses’ breath made plumes of white steam. Mail and weapons clanked, and the king’s flag snapped in the cold wind. Snow drifted down from pewter clouds, and gathered on the thatched roofs. When the company reached the town square, Captain Vladimir Kapov signaled a halt. Before them was a statue of Arbatros’s first king, William the Great, the top dusted with snow. All around them, the town was quiet, the only noise the snorts of their horses and the clack of hooves as the horses shifted their feet.

Vladimir looked over at his scout platoon commander. “Lieutenant Thompson, I want you to send your scouts through the village and see if you can flush any enemy out. Victoria, go with them; I’ll keep Octavia for support.”

“Yes sir,” the two women replied.

“Yes sir,” Lieutenant Thompson echoed. Then he turned to his sergeants, “Send out your troops in teams of five.”

“Yes sir,” his squad commanders replied, quickly divided the soldiers into teams, and moved out of the square.

Vladimir motioned for one of his squads to dismount, and swung off his own horse. “I want to set up a command post and possible wounded collection point in this tavern here.” Drawing his sword, the well-worn wire-wrapped leather handle fitting comfortably into his hand, he approached the door of the building cautiously. With his shield hand, he grasped the door handle, then glanced back at his troops. The indicated squad had dismounted and drawn swords, maces, and battle axes, and was waiting, ready. Vladimir listened closely, but all he could hear was the snapping of their cloaks and the flag in the bitterly cold wind that whistled through the narrow streets, the snorting of the horses, hooves pawing the ground, and the soldiers shifting on their horses, mail clinking. Vladimir looked at Octavia, and asked, “Anything?”

She squinted in concentration and replied, “Not anything active, but I’m picking up a few traces.”

“How old?”

“I’m not sure.” She drew a wand and muttered a few words. Then she said, “Either it was something pretty strong a while ago, or something weaker more recently, but definitely nothing active.”

“Good,” he nodded to his soldiers, “Ready?”

“Yes sir.”

Vladimir grasped the door handle more firmly, turned it, and opened the door. He heard a soft noise in the back of the common room, which was dimly illuminated by the weak light coming through the small windows. Vladimir brought his shield up, and braced himself for an attack. He heard the twang of a crossbow, then another, and he dived down, throwing his shield above him. The first bolt went wide, cracking into the doorframe above his head. The second skipped off his metal-coated shield with a clang. Vladimir was up and moving forward before the second bolt hit the ground.

Three men charged him, two with battleaxes, the third had a sword; all were wearing chain mail armor. Swinging his sword across, he caught the first axe-man in the stomach, opening up his belly. Blood spurted out, splattering Vladimir’s armored forearm, blemishing the bright steel of his vambrace. He could smell the iron tang of the blood, which steamed in the bitter cold. The man staggered and fell, dropping his weapon as he attempted to keep his entrails from spilling out onto the floor. The axe made a dull thump as it hit the rush covered wooden floor. Vladimir swung his shield across to the left to knock aside the swordsman’s swing. As he blocked the second axe-man’s strike with his sword, he could hear the crank of a crossbow being reloaded, the wood of the bow creaking as it took the tension.

Vladimir stabbed forward, the tip of his blade punching through his opponent’s armor and piercing his chest. Blood gushed out from the wound as he withdrew his sword and swung it across to parry another attack from the swordsman. Their swords met with a clang, sparks flying in the chill winter air. Their breath formed cloud of steam in front of them, and their boots scuffed the rushes on the floor. Hearing the thrum of a crossbow, he twirled away, and the bolt missed. Vladimir whipped his blade, now covered in bright scarlet blood, across and decapitated the swordsman. Blood jetted out of the man’s neck, painting the ceiling of the room crimson. Behind him, his troops charged into the room.

* * *

Private James Black gripped the leather handle of his short bow more tightly, and drew the arrow lying across it back a little more as he scanned the windows of the surrounding buildings. This was his first deployment, and he wanted to prove himself. He shivered a little as the cold wind stirred his cloak and cut through his scale mail and surcoat.

“You alright, Black?” The lieutenant called from across the street.

“Yes sir, I am.”

“See any movement?”

“No sir, all quiet.”

Lieutenant Jason Thompson turned to Victoria, “Any magic?”

“I’m picking up something, but I haven’t figured out exactly what it is,” the slender mage replied.

“Where’s it coming from?”

“That building up there, the Boar’s Head.”

Jason motioned for two of his men to check out the building. It was a two-story structure, stone for the first, the second’s white paint peeling off. A wooden sign with a painted boar’s head creaked in the wind where it hung from a metal bar protruding from the building. The lieutenant signaled for James and one of the other men to cover the building’s windows with their bows. James brought his bow up, drawing back the arrow. It’ll be just like practicing at the range, he told himself as he took aim at one of the windows, but this time the targets are for real. Two of the scouts approached the door. The first one tried it, but it was locked.

“Get ready,” the scout called, then stepped back and kicked the door, his heavy boot connecting solidly. The door flew open, and five crossbows twanged. Before he could move, four bolts hit the scout, throwing him back into the street, blood spraying out of his wounds. Windows banged open, and crossbowmen appeared.

A man emerged in the window James was covering, and he released the arrow on his bow. The missile flew straight out, and he watched his target fly backward. From another window, a fiery pea shot out towards the street. Victoria’s hands blurred, words poured from her lips, and the pea vanished. James heard his companions loose their arrows, and more crossbowmen dropped.

Then the crossbowmen opened fire. Quarrels sped out, a deadly steel tipped swarm that reached out to slash into horse and man, skip off the cobbles, and punch through the scale mail armor the scouts wore as if it were nothing. At a shout from Victoria, a bolt of crackling blue lightning shot out and blasted two crossbowmen back, leaving them lying scorched and charred on the ground.

Ionized air hissed around the bolt’s path, and the smell of burnt flesh permeated the air. All around, horses neighed and whinnied in pain and fear, and men lay on the ground, their lifeblood draining out onto the street as they gasped for their last breaths, which steamed in the air. Quarrels thumped into buildings, struck sparks off the cobbles, and dug into flesh.

Seeing the enemy slaughtering his troops, Jason yelled, “Ride! Ride! We need to break out of the ambush!” Then he drew his sword, put his heels to his horse’s flanks, and charged towards the Zhuravi infantry moving to encircle his command.

He galloped down the narrow cobble street, his horse’s hooves pounding on the stones. The stone and wood buildings leaned low over the street, the sky a pale grey in the space between them. Startled by his quick reaction, the infantry on the street turned, looks of surprise on their faces. His first blow cut one of the men open from shoulder to hip, and sent him whirling away.

James heard the lieutenant’s shout, and, dropping his bow into its sheath, he drew his sword and followed. Looking down, he saw a dead Zhuravi soldier, probably his own age, lying on the ground. There was a look of surprise and shock on the boy’s face, and blood still steamed as it seeped out of a stab wound in his chest. Fighting the urge to vomit, tasting bitter bile in his mouth, James looked around, trying to find the lieutenant. After a moment of searching, he saw the lieutenant, surrounded by enemies, with a pile of corpses scattered around his horse’s feet.

Putting his heels to his horse’s flanks, James charged towards the lieutenant, just as one of the soldiers hit the lieutenant’s elbow with a sword. The lieutenant’s shield arm went limp, but, twisting his whole body, he swung his shield back to smash the metal boss at the center of his shield into his attacker’s face, sending him flying. Around him, James could hear the sound of battle, swords clanging off shields, armor, and other weapons.

As James neared the lieutenant, one of the soldiers, hearing his horse’s hoof beats, turned to face him. Once again, he was startled to see that his enemy was little older than he was. He hesitated, then slashed down, cracking his enemy’s skull open, bone splintering under the hard steel of his longsword. The young Zhuravi soldier fell away, and James continued his charge, blood running down the fuller on his sword. Another of the Zhuravi soldiers around the lieutenant turned, thrusting a spear at James’s horse. It reared, almost throwing him off. Then his horse’s hooves lashed out, one catching his attacker in the chest, smashing ribs and throwing the man backwards. His horse came back down with a clatter of hooves as the lieutenant finished off the last of his opponents.

A lance of ice struck James in the shoulder, almost throwing him off his horse; he teetered for a moment before the lieutenant pushed him back upright. Even that simple movement sent pain shooting through him from where the crossbow bolt was embedded in his left shoulder. He could feel hot blood running down his back and soaking into his clothes.

The wind picked up again, carrying with it the stench of death- the smell of freshly spilled blood and the bitter reek of bowels voided in death- and working icy fingers through James’s clothes. The screams of the dying echoed off the town’s close-set buildings.

Jason called for what remained of the patrol to follow. Then he urged his horse forward, watching James to make sure he didn’t fall. His elbow throbbed, and his sword arm was covered in blood, now cooling and hardening in the biting cold.

* * *

As they approached the square, there came a shout, “Stop and identify yourselves.”

“Lieutenant Thompson and his patrol, returning from scouting.”

“Very good, you may pass.”

The survivors galloped into the square around the same time the rest of Jason’s unit was returning. He looked back to see who had made it. Victoria, James, and about a dozen others, most wounded, followed him. The captain walked out of the large tavern that faced out onto the square, his plate and mail clinking. He could tell that the captain had been fighting; blood splattered his cloak, discoloring the black fabric. Awkwardly, Jason swung down out of the saddle, trying to protect his injured arm.

“What happened?” The captain asked.

“We were ambushed sir. There were about eighty enemies; a whole mess of crossbowmen, some infantry, and a wizard,” Jason replied.

James was surprised that the lieutenant had been able to get a count on the enemy at all. He had been too busy trying to stay alive to even think about counting. Then he winced as the crossbow bolt in his back sent another throb of pain through him.

“Alright. Get your men into the tavern to see the medic. Try to get back out as soon as possible, though. I’m going to need all the soldiers I can get to hold the square. Victoria, I need you back with me,” the captain ordered.

The golden-haired mage nodded and walked over to him.

“Of course sir,” Jason replied. He directed two of his soldiers to gently lift James out of the saddle. Despite their caution, James let out several gasps of pain as they helped him down. Then Jason led his troops into the tavern.

Opening the door, a wall of warm air met them. A bright fire crackled and popped in the fireplace, casting a flickering glow over the dark wood tables and chairs, the light reflecting off the time-polished surfaces. Heat suffused the room, forcing some of the chill out of their bones. The rushes on the floor had been cleared away, and the oak floorboards had several dark splotches marring the otherwise neat and tidy appearance of the tavern. A man and a woman with white armbands sat in chairs by the fire. Several scrolls lay on the table near them, next to some bandages and numerous potion bottles. The more senior of the two motioned for Jason and the men helping James to come over to him, and directed the rest to the other medic.

“Let me have a look at that elbow.” The senior medic took it gently in his hands, pulled a cross out from under his surcoat, and muttered a string of words and moved the cross in a complex pattern over Jason’s wound. Immediately after the medic finished, Jason could feel warmth spreading through his arm. The cut closed over and disappeared, forming a thin scar where it had been.

“Could you give me a hand getting this young man up onto that table, then help me take out the bolt, sir?”

Jason grabbed James’s legs and helped the two other scouts swing him up onto the table, facedown. He could see James grit his teeth as the quarrel shifted in his shoulder. Jason held James’s hand as the medic reached for the shaft of the quarrel. “You did good son, now we’re going to fix you up. Just a little more pain, then you’ll be good as new,” Jason said, trying to talk him through it. “You were really brave, and probably saved my life today.”

“I did?”

“Yeah, if I’d been attacked by all of them at once, I’d likely be dead right now."

“Ready?” the medic asked, tightening his hold on the bolt with one hand and putting his other against James’s back.

“Yes,” James managed to get out between clenched teeth as he braced himself against the pain, tightening his grip on the lieutenant’s hand. The lieutenant returned some of the pressure.

The medic pulled on the quarrel, hard, and it came out of his back, tearing flesh. Blood spurted up, adding to the blood that already spattered his back. He slumped on the table, gritting his teeth against the pain. The medic moved over to a bowl of water, rinsed his hands, dried them on a cloth, and grabbed a scroll off the table. The thick parchment crackled as he unrolled it, and the dark ink reflected the light from the fire. He walked over to James, put one hand on the still-bleeding wound then began to chant, reading off the scroll, making gestures with his hand on James’s back. When he finished, the wound closed and formed a small white dot here the bolt had stuck.

In the silence that followed, they could hear shouts and the sound of battle- the clash of sword on sword and the blast of a fireball- coming from outside. A moment later, the captain’s cry of “Charge!” followed by the thunder of hooves and further clashes of steel reached their ears.

The junior medic was bandaging some of the soldiers and giving a few potions on her side of the room. A short while later, everybody was ready to go. The scouts were preparing themselves to go back outside into the cold and the fighting when the door opened and several soldiers stumbled in, all wounded. Following them was a cold draft of air and the sound of combat close to the tavern. Jason looked at his troops, checking to see if they were ready. Receiving nods and eager looks, he motioned for them to follow him, and strode out the door into the biting cold. Once outside, he stopped, trying to assess the battle.

Snow was falling more heavily now, big white flakes coming down from heavy clouds. The sky was growing dark, making it difficult to see. Even so, he could make out the battle well enough, as it unfolded right in front of him.

All across the square, Zhuravi soldiers and the captain’s men fought, and bodies covered the ground. The company was holding its own, making the enemy fight for every foot they advanced across the plaza. The majority of their contingent was now on foot, most having lost their horses in the initial charge or in the subsequent hand-to-hand combat. Seeing his scouts’ horses still tied up near the tavern, he called for his men to mount up. Leather creaked and metal clinked as they climbed onto their horses. Grabbing their spears and bows, they formed up behind him.

Jason looked around the square, trying to gauge where the fighting was the heaviest. He spotted the captain right in the thick of it, sword darting left and right, parrying, blocking, and cutting down his opponents.

“To the captain!” Jason yelled, then put his heels to his horse’s sides and charged, sword held high. Across the square they charged, hooves thundering on the cobbles, pennants flapping in the chill wind. Upon seeing them, a number of the enemy broke and ran. As they neared the line, some of his men began to fire their bows, heralding their approach with steel tipped death. His little wedge formation crashed into the enemy line like a sledgehammer.

Opposing soldiers were thrown backwards, skewered on spear points, slashed by swords, or simply knocked down by the horses and then trampled. Jason’s sword slashed back and forth, hacking at enemy as fast as they appeared. The wind whistled in his ears, blew through his hair, and made his cloak fly out behind him. Those enemies around him cried out and fell away, blood spraying up with each blow of his sword.

By the time Jason reached the captain, over a third of the remaining enemy had taken flight, running back into the surrounding streets and buildings. Several structures had been set on fire, probably by a stray fireball or other spell. Close behind the captain stood Victoria, holding a bloody sword in one hand and a wand in the other. She had only suffered a few small cuts and wounds, but the dark circles under her eyes showed the strain casting numerous spells had had on her. The captain cut down the three enemies closest to him then turned to Jason. Flickering flames from the burning buildings illuminated half of his face, casting the other half in shadow. Dark blood ran down his sword, covered his gauntleted hand, and splattered him from head to toe. All around him, the corpses were piled several men deep.

“Privates,” he motioned to two of Jason’s scouts. “Give Victoria and me your horses,” he ordered.

“Yes sir,” the privates chorused, and swung off their horses. The captain and Victoria mounted up.

Vladimir winced as he swung up onto the horse, a cut on his leg opening up again and his tired arms complaining as he forced them to keep working. He looked back at Victoria, and saw that she was in little better shape than he was. She had watched his back, kept him alive, and paid a heavy price for it.

“Alright, let’s chase these bastards back to where they belong,” he said. Then he touched his heels to the horse’s flanks and charged towards the nearest clump of enemy soldiers. He cursed to himself for having led his men into a trap like this, but vowed to get them out of it.

* * *

Several hours later, with night fully upon them, the survivors of Vladimir’s company gathered in the common room of the tavern. The medics worked on the wounded as he gathered his surviving platoon commanders to figure out how many of his troops had survived.

“Alright, how many of us are still combat-ready?”

“Sir, we’ve down to about ten from first platoon, sixteen from second, a dozen from third, and eight from my scout platoon. We’ve lost Denko and Iron Staff, and Octavia is wounded pretty badly, sir,” Lieutenant Thompson replied.

“We lost Lieutenants Atwell and Nekan as well,” Lieutenant Kallov added.

“Well, it’s a good thing that we seem to have killed most of them and run off the rest.” He paused, “I had Victoria send a message to headquarters. They said that they should have reinforcements out here by tomorrow morning.”

“That’s good. Are they sending more medics, sir?”

“Yes they are; we shouldn’t have to worry about losing anyone else.” He stood, “I’m going to do a walk around, see what our perimeter looks like.”

Vladimir limped out, tightening his cloak around him to keep out the frigid night air. Outside, the snow had stopped, and the moon and stars shone down from the heavens, shedding a pale light over the bodies in the square, now covered by a thin layer of snow. He walked over to where a soldier was keeping watch from a nearby building’s doorway, bow in hand. As he approached, he could tell that it was James, one of the new soldiers from Jason’s platoon. Gone was the uncertainty and nervousness of the morning; before him stood a quieter, more confident young man.

“How are you, lad?”

“Alright, I guess, sir.” James hesitated, then asked, “Are we going to see more action soon?”

“Yes, I expect we will,” the captain replied, clapping the young man on the shoulder. “And I’m sure you’ll be ready for it.”

Copyright © Scott Schaper, 2012

List of Characters

The King’s Own Legion

First Company, First Regiment
Captain Vladimir Kapov-Age 36
Victoria-Age 25

First Platoon
Lieutenant Vincent Nekan-Age 27

Second Platoon
Lieutenant Demetri Kallov-Age 26
Platoon Sergeant Brian Jennings-Age 29

Third Platoon
Lieutenant Wilson Atwell-Age 24

Scout Platoon
Lieutenant Jason Thompson-Age 32
Octavia-Age 29

Sergeant James Black-Age 17
Corporal Grigori Kulikov-Age 23
Private Daniel Fitzpatrick-Age 16

"Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction." - Ronald Reagan
"Judge them not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." - Martin Luther King, Jr.
"Pick up a rifle and you change instantly from a subject to a citizen." - Jeff Cooper
"I like my enemies like James Bond likes his martinis- shaken, not stirred."
My first book, The King's Own
posted 12 August 2014 14:13 EDT (US)     26 / 54  
Captain Jenna Miskovitz is not listed in your end-of-tale summary.
Oops. She moves around later in the tale, so I'd missed her company's segment. Added.
Since when do dead men bleed? More to the point, letting their blood spurt upwards?
Hmm, you're right; I may have written that thinking the guy wasn't quite dead ('he's not dead yet').

"Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction." - Ronald Reagan
"Judge them not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." - Martin Luther King, Jr.
"Pick up a rifle and you change instantly from a subject to a citizen." - Jeff Cooper
"I like my enemies like James Bond likes his martinis- shaken, not stirred."
My first book, The King's Own

[This message has been edited by General Sajaru (edited 08-12-2014 @ 02:15 PM).]

posted 18 August 2014 10:37 EDT (US)     27 / 54  
Into the Mountains

18th of Grakuary, 599
Foothills of the Barrier Mountains

The morning dawned bright but overcast, with grey clouds scuttling across the sky. Vladimir rode down the line of infantry arrayed in front of the hill upon which the artillery was setup. In the infantry line, Natalie and Emma’s companies were in the center, with Benjamin’s company to the left and Glenvara’s to the right. The two archer companies were lined up behind the infantry, with Jenna’s on the right and Annabelle’s on the left. He had Victor’s cavalry company to the right of the infantry, Justin’s to the left, and Hannah’s behind the line.

A chill wind stirred up little flurries of snow and made the banners unfurl and snap. As Vladimir rode Jeremy down the line with Victoria behind him, the infantry waved their spears in the air and cheered them. The rest of the regiment took up the call, the sound rising around them like a wave and reaching across the plain towards the enemy.

The tribesmen were gathering across the plain from the regiment slowly. Men, horses, and chariots milled around, trying to get out of their camp and into formation.

Vladimir made his way to the head of Hannah’s company, greeted the slender young captain, and surveyed his troops. A few moments William jogged up, saluted him, and reported, “Everybody’s in position; Jenna’s got the rangers out in front with the scouts behind to screen their retreat.”

“Good; tell her to engage their skirmishers, but fall back if their cavalry or chariots engage,” he commanded.

“Yes sir,” William replied and moved off to tell a runner.

* * *

Jenna and Evelyn slipped through the underbrush and took up a position next to Sandra and Fiona. One of the rangers ran up to them in a crouch, saluted Jenna, and reported, “The colonel says to engage the enemy scouts, but to fall back instead of engaging their cavalry and chariots.”

“Give my respects to the colonel, but I think we’ll engage their mobile units if I judge them to be manageable. Tell Captain Thompson to be ready to support us on my signal,” Jenna replied. The soldier saluted and moved away rapidly.

Evelyn glanced over at her, “‘Judge them to be manageable?’ What’s that supposed to mean? And when did you get all assertive, Jen?”

“It means that if two hundred of them charge, we’ll flee, but if there’s less, we may stand and fight,” she gave Evelyn a small grin and rubbed the mage’s arm, “And I’ve become more assertive since last night.”

Sandra glanced over at the two, “What happened with you guys last night?”

“We scouted out the enemy camp,” Jenna stated matter-of-factly, “and counted the number of tents they had.”

“Up close and personal,” Evelyn commented dryly.

Fiona’s eyes widened, “You went into their camp?”

“Yes; it wasn’t that hard,” Jenna replied casually. Evelyn snorted softly, but didn’t say anything. Jenna turned back to her study of the undergrowth towards the enemy lines, her eyes flicking from bush to bush.

Suddenly, she motioned for them to be still and drew back the arrow on her bow. The bushes ahead of them were not moving at all, but she pointed to them and motioned for Sandra and Fiona to be ready to fire. A moment later, she fired the arrow on her string, drew, and fired three times more, the string snapping against her bracer.

The bushes erupted with dozens of tribesmen armed with javelins, small shields, and hand-axes. Jenna, Sandra, and Fiona shot quickly, from a crouch, arrows streaking out to cut down the enemy skirmishers. All along the line, the rest of the ranger platoon opened fire as well, their arrows striking the enemy with wet smacks. The Geltur tribesmen returned fire, but they were outnumbered and outshot, and only a few of the rangers were injured.

Jenna heard a shrieked battle cry and the rumble of wheels, and she saw a clump of charioteers roughly sixty strong roaring across the field towards them. A little ways behind them was a group of more than two hundred horsemen with bows and spears. Measuring distances and estimating force levels, she pulled the horn off her belt, blew two short blasts on it, and then stood up and waved for the rangers fall back.

As the enemy skirmishers fell back, the rangers broke cover and withdrew in good order back towards the infantry line. Seeing the scouts ahead of her opening fire with their short bows on the chariots, Sandra looked back over her shoulder as she jogged back to the line. Her eyes widened when she saw Jenna and Evelyn standing firm in the face of the enemy attack.

Jenna drew and fired as quickly as she could, the arrows flying out to rip into the chariots’ horses and drop their drivers. Beside her, Evelyn threw several spells, lightning bolts that blasted through man and horse with impunity and darts of blue light that unerringly punched holes in their targets.

When the chariots were almost upon them, Evelyn threw up a raging wall of aqua fire that stretched for several hundred feet across the front of the line. The surviving charioteers shouted in fear, and several of them tried to swerve aside, some of them successfully. However, two of the leading chariots turned too sharply, causing them to flip over, throwing their drivers through the wall of fire, where they lay, one screaming, the other smoking and still.

Four of the others tried to push through, but three of their horse teams reared up in front of the flames, sending the charioteers tumbling off the back of their vehicles. Only one chariot made it through, and Jenna, her quiver empty, drew her sword and smoothly decapitated the driver, blood spraying up into the air. Then she swung up onto the back of the chariot and cut down the two spearmen who rode in the chariot.

Grabbing the reins, shoving the driver’s corpse off the back, she put the horses into a tight circle. Passing her friend, she reached out to catch Evelyn’s arm, and pulled the slender mage up onto the chariot behind her. Wrapping her arms around Jenna’s armored body, Evelyn hung on tightly as the archer drove the chariot back to their line, where the infantry cheered them and beat their spears on their shields. The two archer companies began firing on the horsemen who had followed the charioteers and were now milling around in front of Evelyn’s wall of fire. After the first volley, which killed at least a dozen, the cavalry pulled off, riding back to the rest of the Geltur formation.

Pulling up in front of the colonel, Jenna salute him crisply, “I believe we’ve pushed their skirmishers back, sir.”

Vladimir returned her salute and nodded, “Very good, Jenna. Please go see to your troops, lass.”

She nodded and moved off. Dismounting behind her archer company, she grabbed a fresh quiver of arrows. Handing the chariot off to one of the support personnel, she commanded, “Take good care of that.” Saluting her, he led if off back to the camp.

* * *

The Geltur tribes advanced in a disorderly mass, with each tribe moving separately, and even then not in any real formation. However, there were close to two thousand of them, and the snow and dirt behind them was churned into a brown muck. Victoria leaned over to Vladimir, “It seems like there were more of them than Jenna thought.”

Calling for his captains to join him, he dismounted Jeremy and moved over to a table that had been setup on the hill and had a number of maps and charts on it. When all of his officers where assembled, he pointed to the map, illustrating their position using wooden blocks labeled with each company’s symbol. Next, he set out more blocks to depict the enemy disposition and stood back, allowing his officers to review their position.

After a few moments, he asked, “Does anyone see any problems with how we’re deployed?”

Natalie whispered something to Emma and the shorter captain murmured a reply. Then she leaned forward and pointed to the enemy formation, “With the way they’re arrayed now, they’ll be able to outflank us. Plus, they’ve got light cavalry on the flanks with spearmen just inside them.”

Natalie added, “Which means they’re going to try to flank with the cavalry and get at our siege machines and archers while their infantry keeps our own horses busy.”

Vladimir nodded, “Very good; now, how would you recommend we counter that?”

She frowned in thought for a moment then started to talk at the same time as Annabelle. Both women stopped, but Natalie motioned for the younger captain to proceed. The other archer captain leaned over the map and moved the block for her company up next to Benjamin’s block. Then she pushed Justin and Jason’s companies out farther on the flank, with the scouts on the far edge. She also placed the ranger platoon’s block in front of her company. Natalie nodded her approval, but changed out her company with Benjamin’s and angled it a little in front of Annabelle’s troops.

Vladimir surveyed the new formation, “Excellent solution; make it so.”

His officers saluted and jogged off to their formations. A few moments later, his troops started marching into the new formation. They were in position well before the Geltur were even within extreme range of the artillery.

Vladimir watched as the Geltur chariots and horses moved into the front their formation, their hooves thundering on the frozen ground. He signaled for the artillery to open fire, and, behind him, he heard the ballistae and catapults open up. Heavy bolts and round-shot from the ballistae slashed into horses, chariots, and their riders, skewering man and beast, breaking legs, and smashing wood. The napalm jars from the catapults took longer to reach their targets, but had an even more devastating effect. When the earthenware jars broke, the lighted rope around them set the flammable liquid inside on fire. The flames curled back on themselves and stuck to the tribesmen, leaving them screaming in agony.

Beside him, Hannah winced at the screams of the horses, but she stayed silent. Vladimir was thankful; he accepted horses’ deaths as a necessary part of warfare, but never liked killing them.

As the enemy cavalry closed, the two archer companies began firing, the black fletched shafts whistling into the air, arcing up, and falling amongst the enemy. More horses and men fell; the lightly armored tribesmen were easy prey to the falling arrows, as were their unarmored horses. The field in front of their position quickly became littered with corpses and screaming wounded. Behind the mobile units, the Geltur infantry had broken into a run, hoping to cross the killing-field as quickly as possible.

As the cavalry neared the line of Arbatrosian spearmen, the archers and artillery shifted their focus to the enemy infantry to avoid any friendly fire. Setting their spears and shields, the infantry braced for impact.

The cavalry and chariots hit the line with an earsplitting crash. Spears smashed into horseflesh, snapped on bone, and threw men off their mounts. In the initial clash, well over half the Geltur cavalry was killed and almost all of their chariots were disabled. His infantry quickly drew their short swords to replace lost spears, and began hacking their way through the cavalry.

In a matter of moments, the majority of the Geltur cavalry was dead on the field, and the tattered remainder pulled off and fled back to their own lines. The infantry reformed, and the support personnel passed up new spears to the front ranks. Still charging across the plain, the Geltur infantry had almost reached the line, but had left a carpet of dead and dying behind them, the charred and broken bodies showing their path.

Turning to Hannah’s cavalry company, Vladimir commanded, “Be ready to charge.” He signaled for a runner to pass the signal to the other cavalry companies.

Behind the infantry, the archers stowed their bows and drew swords and targes, small shields, and formed up. On the left flank, Kristine’s ranger unit also drew swords and readied themselves for the charge. Sandra gripped her sword tightly, the wire-wrapped grip secure in her hand. Beside her, Fiona shifted nervously, and she turned to the younger women. “Is this your first big battle?” She asked.

Nodding, “It is.” She hesitated, “I’m kind of scared,” she whispered.

“So am I.” When the other woman looked at her quickly, she continued, “It’s natural to be nervous before battle.” She laughed a little, “In fact, I’d be more worried if you weren’t a little scared. That’d mean you were overconfident; a little fear puts you in your best form. Just as long as you don’t let your fear control you. Or at least that’s what Kristine told me my first battle.”

“How many big battles have you been in?”

“Only two or three, but I’ve been in a ton of little battles and skirmishes,” she replied.

The Geltur thundered across the plain, and slammed into the line. They rebounding off the solid shield-wall, and the Arbatrosians pushed forward, slashing over and around their shields, hewing flesh and snapping bones. Their swords sheared through shields and armor, broke spears and left tribesmen lying on the ground, screaming and dying.

* * *

Sandra dodged the initial swing of an axe and stabbed up under the man’s guard with her longsword. The tip of her blade punched through his shoulder, splintering bone and bursting out his back, blood flying. As he fell, she nearly decapitated him with a swift blow to the neck with her short sword. Stepping past his slumping corpse, she batted aside a spear thrust and parried another axe blow.

Beside Sandra, Fiona slashed at the spearman’s arm, catching him on the wrist, shattering the bone and almost shearing it off. Slashing across with her short sword, she made the axe man jump back with his arms outspread. She cut down with her longsword, snapping her slender frame forward to increase the force of the blow. Her sword struck the man’s left shoulder and cut into his torso at least six inches. Blood spewed out, splattering across her face and armor. Wrenching her blade free in another spray of blood, she hacked at the shield of the next tribesman.

* * *

Victoria could see Vladimir unconsciously stroking the wire-wrapped hilt of his longsword as he sat next to her on Jeremy. His eyes darted back and forth, weighing the changing tide of the battle. Clearly deciding the time had come, he drew his sword, motioned for the signaler to sound the charge, and put his heels to Jeremy’s flanks. The horn blatted out one long note, and the cavalry rumbled into a charge.

Ahead of them, Natalie and Benjamin’s companies split a little, allowing Vladimir to lead the cavalry in a wedge between them. The cavalry slashed into the Geltur infantry, the armored bulk of the horses throwing men aside. The Arbatrosian horsemen lanced enemy infantry in the initial charge. Once they became engaged, they drew swords, maces, and warhammers and struck down at the footmen.

On the flanks, Victor, Jason, and Justin’s companies charged as well, solid fronts of armored man and horse smashing into the Geltur mass. Within minutes of the cavalry charge, the Geltur broke, tribesmen running every which way. Attempting to cover their retreat, the Geltur warlords in their chariots charged forward past their infantry, wheels thundering on the muddy ground.

Gathering a squad of cavalry around him, Vladimir charged the clump of chariot-driving warlords. Nearing the first, he cut Jeremy at an angle to the back of the chariot, slashing with his sword and catching one of the riders across the back. Another of his cavalrymen hacked down with a battle-axe, the force of the blow blasting the driver off the chariot. Pulling up beside him, the other horseman pointed to another chariot. However, the roar of battle drowned out any words the other man might have spoken.

Nevertheless, Vladimir understood and motioned for the soldier to swing right while he rode to the left. Coming up on either side of the vehicle, they both swung at the riders. The one on the other man’s side attempted to block with his shield, but the heavy axe smashed through, cleaving through the man’s arm and on into his chest. Using the momentum of his horse, the other man pulled his axe free as he continued on. Vladimir slashed at the other man, but the Geltur blocked with a sword. However, the force of his blow knocked the man backwards off the chariot, and Vladimir struck backhand across the falling tribesman. His sword crunched on ribs and continued diagonally down the man’s body, opening him up from shoulder to hip.

Meeting up on the other side of the chariot, Vladimir pointed to another clump of enemies. Nodding his assent, the soldier tucked his shield closer to himself and readied his axe. Looking past the man, Vladimir’s eyes widened, “Look out,” he shouted. Turning, the man started to duck, but the tribesman’s axe caught him full across the chest, smashing through his breastplate and chain, and into his chest. The force of the blow threw him to the ground, where he lay, unmoving.

Vladimir turned Jeremy sharply, and charged after the axe-man. The man made several swings at Vladimir, but he blocked with his shield, the poorly made axe-head bouncing off the sheet-steel surface. He punched out with his shield, knocking the man off the chariot and onto the ground. Wheeling Jeremy, he decapitated the rising man as he passed.

Stopping to look around, he could see that the Geltur were in full flight, and, seeing Jason, waved him over. The scout captain rode up, his sword and armor dripping with blood and gore.

Pushing up his visor, he ordered, “Make sure they keep running; kill any that resist, but let the rest go.” He smiled grimly, “I don’t think they’ll be bothering us anytime soon.”

Jason saluted and galloped off, waving for his men to follow him. His signaler blew his horn, two long blasts, and the scouts and cavalry thundered after the enemy soldiers.

Vladimir rode over to the fallen soldier and dismounted. Up close, he could tell that the horseman was quite small and slender. He rolled the soldier over and pulled off the horseman’s helmet to reveal a small slender face with a snub nose and vivid blue eyes. Her wavy brown hair was pulled up into a bun, but a few strands had escaped.

He knelt beside her and began carefully unfastening the straps of her plate armor. Seeing that the blow had cut deep into her chest, he yelled, “Medic, I need a medic!”

Cassielle ran up to them, her armor clanking. She knelt down next to the injured young woman and snapped, “Help me get the rest of her armor off.”

Vladimir let the more nimble-fingered medic undo the fastenings of the young woman’s armor. The young cavalry soldier groaned when he picked her up to let Cassielle slide her mail and surcoat off. The young medic whipped out a dagger and cut away her shirt, exposing the wound fully.

It was a deep gash, but the armor had kept it from being a fatal blow. It started out as a fairly shallow slash near her right shoulder and traveled across the young woman’s chest to her left hip. Blood poured out of the cut, ran down her chest, and pooled on the ground. The middle of the gash was deeper; several of her ribs appeared to be broken, and her eyes flickered open as she gasped in pain when Cassielle gently probed the wound.

Vladimir leaned over her, “Hey lass, what’s your name?”

“I’m Laura Thompson,” she managed to reply.

Cassielle continued to check the wound. When she finished, she looked over at Vladimir, “She’s got at least five broken ribs and a she’s lost a lot of blood. I’m mostly out of healing for today, so I’m going to need you to do the healing for me.”

“Where do you want my hands?”

Cassielle took his large, scarred hands in her smaller bloody ones, and placed them on either side of the wound. Laura’s blood felt warm where it coated Vladimir’s palms and oozed up between his fingers. Silently calling upon Heironeous, patron saint of paladins, he let the healing magic flow out of him into the wounded girl. Silver light spread from under his hands, sinking down into the wound.

Laura mewed softly in pain as her ribs knit together, but stayed still. The gash sealed up, expelling more blood. It formed a thin, flat white scar across the pale flesh of her chest.

She sat up and looked down at the scar, “Nice job, sir.” She glanced around for her clothes and, noticed her ruined shirt, complained, “Damn Cassie, I liked that shirt.” Much to Vladimir’s surprise, she punched the young medic in the shoulder, but winced as her hand banged off the other girl’s pauldron.

“Well Laura, it was either the shirt or your life, and I figured you could get a new shirt…” She trailed off with a meaningful look. Reaching out, she helped the younger girl to her feet, where Laura stood, shivering.

Vladimir took off his cloak, “Let’s get you back to somewhere warm.”

Laura protested as Cassielle and Vladimir started to help her, but after a single stumbling step, she acquiesced. The colonel motioned for one of the other men to grab her armor, and they made their way back towards the encampment.

Leaning on them, Laura turned to Cassielle, “Don’t tell my uncle, okay?”

Looking around, the young medic sighed, “I think it’s a little late for that.”

Laura and Vladimir turned to follow her gaze and saw Jason running towards them, Octavia right behind him. Vladimir nodded, “Ah, that’s your uncle; I thought you might be related, but I didn’t have a chance to ask.”

Laura nodded miserably, “My mom’s his older sister. She made him promise to take care of me.” At his disbelieving look she nodded again, “I know it’s crazy, this being war and all, but you haven’t met my mother.” She paused, “Oh, and my whole family’s pissed at me for joining the cavalry instead of the scouts.”

Vladimir grinned, “I think it’s a good choice. But I may be biased.”

At that point, Jason reached them, “Did something happen? Did you get hurt? Are you alright?”

“Yes, yes, and mostly.” At his confused look, “Yes something happened. Yes, I got hurt, and I’m mostly alright. Colonel Kapov healed me, but I lost a lot of blood, so I’m not entirely feeling well.”

Cassielle fixed him with a piercing look, “Calm down captain, she’s going to be fine. Now, if you would please get out of your niece’s way…”

Jason moved, but followed close behind them until they laid her down on a cot in one of the medical tents. After letting the scout captain see she was healed, Vladimir pulled him outside, “What’s the status on the pursuit?”

“I have two platoons of scouts still following them, but what few are left are still running. I left Sergeant Major Mede in charge. I told her to follow until they camp or night falls.”

Vladimir nodded, “Good. Did you get the rest of the cavalry formed back up?”

“Yes sir, I did.”

“Go and see to Laura.” When the other man hesitated, Vladimir continued, “I’ll get the casualty count from William. Don’t worry about it; worry about your family.”

“Yes sir,” he saluted and ducked back into the tent.

Vladimir stood outside the medical tents for a few moments. The iron tang of blood saturated the wintery air. He could hear men screaming in pain as the medics tried to save them. Lost in thought, he didn’t notice Jeremy behind him until the horse gently butted his shoulder with its armored head.

Turning, he absently stroked his horse’s mane and neck then swung up into the saddle. Wheeling Jeremy, he urged him back towards the battlefield. He crested the rise where the artillery had been and looked out across the carnage.

Farther out from the line, the bodies were fewer, but as his gaze moved closer, he could see the bodies of horse and man that carpeted the plain. The carrion feeders had already begun to gather, and his men scared up crows and vultures as they made their way through the field of bodies. Occasionally a small scuffle would break out when they found and captured any surviving enemy.

To his left was a string of stretcher-bearers, carrying their wounded back to the medics. To the right were the men carrying and stacking their dead for burning. The enemy dead were simply left on the field for now.

William and Victoria walked up to him, and he dismounted to greet them. His mage sported a bandaged arm and William’s shield was missing the bottom quarter, but he still seemed to be in good shape. Pointing to Victoria’s arm, he asked, “What happened?”

“Oh, it’s nothing, just a little gash,” she replied in an off-hand manner.

William snorted, “Just a little gash? From what I hear, the medic almost had to heal you, there was so much blood.”

Vladimir gave her a concerned look, which she brushed away, “Really, it’s nothing.”

“Just so long as you’re okay.” He turned to William, “How bad is the butcher’s bill?”

“We only lost sixteen soldiers. However, there’re eighty-three wounded. I know the medics have healed at least thirty of them, but the rest weren’t hurt badly enough to need healing,” he reported.

“I’m thinking we move out tomorrow morning,” Vladimir said.

William nodded, “That won’t be a problem, sir.”

* * *

Cassandra hurried through the medical tents, her eyes darting around, trying to find Fiona amongst the many wounded. Her second had been hit with a sword, and the medics had taken her while Sandra was still fighting.

Suddenly, she heard her name being called softly. Turning, she saw Fiona lying on a cot, the young woman’s entire right shoulder covered in bandages. Bright red blood stained the clean white linen and contrasted sharply with her pallid skin.

Sandra hurried over and knelt beside her. Sandra took the younger woman’s left hand in hers and brought it up to her lips. With her other hand, she brushed a few strands of hair out of Fiona’s face. “Are you alright, Fi?”

“I’ve been better,” she replied with a weak smile. Noticing the blood that spattered Sandra’ hands and armor, she looked at her sharply, “Did you get hurt?”

“No, I’m fine,” she squeezed Fiona’s hand. “You rest and get better now.”

Copyright © Scott Schaper, 2012

List of Characters

The King’s Own Legion

First Regiment
Colonel Vladimir Kapov-Age 36
Victoria-Age 25
Regimental Sergeant Major William Morell-Age 56

First Company
Captain Natalie Sanchez-Age 26
Rose-Age 23
Company Sergeant Major Franchesca Rivers-Age 24

Lieutenant Monique Oleron-Age 21

Second Company
Captain Emma Athney-Age 20
Rachel Hawk-Age 19
Company Sergeant Major Anastasia Romanof-Age 16

Third Company
Captain Victor Marsters-Age 45
Ginerva Marks-Age 33

Fourth Company
Captain Justin Pierce-Age 29
Jenny Gilbert-Age 26

First Platoon
Lieutenant Demetri Kallov-Age 26

Seventh Company
Captain Hannah Rockwell-Age 23
Verity-Age 21

Eighth Company
Captain Benjamin Halest-Age 43
Ivo-Age 39

Ninth Company
Captain Annabelle Diego-Age 22
Arkana-Age 21

Thirteenth Company
Captain Jenna Miskovitz-Age 20
Evelyn Graham-Age 20

Eighteenth Company
Captain Glenvara Lake-Age 24
Daphne-Age 20

Regimental Scout Company
Captain Jason Thompson-Age 32
Octavia-Age 29
Company Sergeant Major Christine Mede-Age 27

Sergeant James Black-Age 17
Corporal Grigori Kulikov-Age 23
Private Daniel Fitzpatrick-Age 16

First Platoon, First Ranger Company
Captain Kristine Douglas-Age 23

Regimental Medical Unit
First Lieutenant Cassielle Archalus-Age 15

"Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction." - Ronald Reagan
"Judge them not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." - Martin Luther King, Jr.
"Pick up a rifle and you change instantly from a subject to a citizen." - Jeff Cooper
"I like my enemies like James Bond likes his martinis- shaken, not stirred."
My first book, The King's Own
posted 26 August 2014 05:49 EDT (US)     28 / 54  
A few little nits, but I was too enraptured by the battle to write them up. One was a missing "to", but nothing really that mattered.

An excellent tale! I am thoroughly enjoying this.

|||||||||||||||| A transplanted Viking, born a millennium too late. |||||||||||||||||
|||||||||||||||| Too many Awards to list in Signature, sorry lords...|||||||||||||||||
|||||||||||||||| Listed on my page for your convenience and envy.|||||||||||||||||
Somewhere over the EXCO Rainbow
Master Skald, Order of the Silver Quill, Guild of the Skalds
Champion of the Sepia Joust- Joust I, II, IV, VI, VII, VIII
posted 29 August 2014 12:19 EDT (US)     29 / 54  
Sorry for the late update, but I decided I didn't like the story I was going to submit for the Sepia Joust and wrote a new one. The new one features some of the characters from this book.


19th of Grakuary, 599
Northern Menzobaria, Arbatros

A bright afternoon sun shown down on the column of soldiers as they made their way through the foothills. The wagons floated behind the horses, wheels four inches above the ground. The trail they moved down was little more than a muddy track. Pines and fir trees lined the path, the bare branches of oaks and maples in amongst them. Dead leaves carpeted the trail and sunk into the mud beneath hooves and boots.

Vladimir rode toward the middle of the column, Victoria beside him, with Hannah’s company surrounding them. A brisk southern wind stirred her hair and tugged at his cloak. Below the sounds of the troops on the move, he could hear the creaking of the trees and the rustle of the bushes in the breeze.

One of the scouts came galloping up the trail towards them. Mud splattered his legs and horse, and the animal was lathered in sweat. Pulling up in front of Vladimir, he saluted. “Captain Miskovitz and Captain Thompson send their regards and request your presence, sir.”

“Thank you, soldier.” Turning to Laura Thompson, who was riding beside him, he commanded, “Get the man another horse, grab another soldier for a guard, and come with us. Tell Cassielle I need her too. Let’s see what your uncle found.”

The girl turned to another of the cavalry, a young woman with dark red hair braided down her back and a longsword with a red leather and silver wire wrapped hilt. She commanded, “Jill, with me.” She put her heels to her horse and the two young women galloped back along the column.

* * *

Trotting along behind the scout, Vladimir, Victoria, Laura, Jillian, and Cassielle crested a ridge, emerging from the trees. Looking down, they saw the ruins of a village, and Vladimir grimaced. “This is the town of Kulokof. My father knew the knight who lived here.”

The raiders had completely destroyed the village: most of the buildings where barely recognizable rubble on the ground. Even the keep tower on the outskirts of the town was merely a scattered pile of stone. A little smoke still hung in the air from the many burnt buildings.

The six cantered down the hill into the village. All around them, a light breeze stirred up clouds of ash from where it lay in heaps. Vladimir impatiently brushed the grey dust off his saddle and looked around at the once-familiar town. He spotted the ruins of the church. The Zhuravi had taken the time to knock down the solid stone and timber structure. Everywhere he looked, he saw familiar buildings from his childhood, now ruined.

Pulling up in the central square, they found Jason and some of the scouts standing around the broken remains of a once-magnificent fountain. Vladimir and Victoria dismounted, but he motioned for the three girls to stay on their horses.

Saluting him, Jason reported, “We checked the whole town, sir. We found a few dead, but that was mostly on the eastern edge. Jenna found some more to the west, but they were geared up and took some of the Zhuravi with them.”

“Do you know if the Sir Rolins tried to hold the keep?”

Jason shook his head, “It looks like he was smarter than that. When he saw them coming he must have gathered the militia and evacuated the town.”

Another scout came charging into the square. She hastily saluted the colonel and Jason then reported, “Captain Miskovitz and Sergeant Major Mede caught a Zhuravi scout.”

Swinging back onto Jeremy, Vladimir gestured for the woman to lead on, and the whole party took off. The horses’ iron-shod hooves struck sparks on the paving stones as they galloped along.

* * *

Jenna crept through the brush, carefully parting the brush with the tip of her bow. Evelyn, Sandra, and Fiona trailed her, while a squad of scouts, led by James, rode down a trail through the woods. Jenna could hear Christine Mede and another squad of scouts riding through the woods to her right.

Jenna motioned for Evelyn to get up into the trees, and made a stirrup with her hands. The slender mage took three long strides and stepped on Jenna’s hands. The wiry archer boosted her friend into the tree, where she landed gracefully on a branch. Reaching back down for Jenna, Evelyn swung her up into the tree beside her. Pulling herself up onto the next branch, Jenna put a pair of claw-like devices on her hands. Digging them into the bark, she scaled the tree, quickly disappearing from sight.

Evelyn motioned for Sandra to take her hand, and she swung the younger woman up next to her. The two grabbed Fiona and pulled her up as well. The thick branch they were on barely creaked under their combined weight, but Evelyn motioned for Fiona and Sandra to go up. Following them, she reached the middle branches of the tree a few moments later.

Perched lightly on a branch, Jenna pointed to another tree. Sandra peered through the branches and needles, and could make out two men balanced on lower branches. They wore the standard chain of the Zhuravi military, but it had been lacquered in a mottled brown and green.

Jenna slowly drew an arrow from her quiver and motioned for Sandra to follow suite. She indicated that Sandra should take the man on the left. They drew their arrows together, the dyed black feathers brushing across their cheeks. “Now,” she whispered, and they let fly. The two arrows streaked out, Sandra’s striking her target in the chest, and Jenna’s piercing the man’s eye. They tumbled out of the tree, armor and weapons clattering as they hit the ground.

Jenna noticed movement out of the corner of her eye. Whipping her head around, she spotted two more enemy scouts off to her right and behind them. The two men leapt off their branches onto horses waiting below them. Spurring the animals, they galloped through the trees. Seeing that the enemy scouts’ path would take them directly below her position, Jenna slung her bow and tensed on the branch.

Christine and her squad galloped up the trail behind them, the horses’ hooves throwing up clods of dirt and puffs of snow. As the two scouts passed beneath the four women, Jenna leapt off the branch, her slender body crashing into one of the men. Her leap threw him from his horse, and they hit the ground with Jenna on top. The young woman slugged him hard in the mouth with her gauntleted hand. The blow slammed his head to the side, blood spraying onto the trail.

Christine thundered past Jenna, close behind the other scout. Branches lashed at her face and caught in her hair, but she shrugged them off. From her left, James came charging after the man as well. Racing after the man, Christine judged him to be a poor rider, and Misty, her horse, was much faster than the other man’s horse. As she neared, she drew her longsword and readied her shield.

When she was almost upon him, he turned, a longsword in hand, and swung at her. Bringing her shield up, she deflected the blow high and slashed across. Her sword sliced through his chain and into his abdomen. Blood sprayed out and he dropped his sword, grasping at his stomach in a futile attempt to stop his intestines from spilling out.

Expertly wheeling Misty with her knees, Christine slashed down into the man’s shoulder, shearing through his mail. The blow cracked bones and threw the man to the ground, where he lay, still and unmoving.

* * *

Vladimir and his party galloped up into the clearing where Jenna had the Zhuravi scout. Dismounting, he walked over to the captain, Victoria, Cassielle, Laura, and Jillian following him. Jenna saluted, “I figured you might want to interrogate him, sir.”

“Thank you, Jenna,” he walked over to where two rangers held the man. He turned to Cassielle, “Cassie, could you cast a truth spell on him?”

She nodded and pulled out her cross. The man cringed away, muttering something under his breath. She chanted a quick incantation and nodded for Vladimir to proceed. Standing in front of the man, Vladimir asked, “How long ago where you in the village?” When the man didn’t answer, he motioned to Jenna. “Hit him again, please,” he commanded.

She shot him a very skeptical look, but stepped forward and punched the man in the stomach with her gauntleted fist. The man doubled over and grunted in pain. Pulling him up, she ordered, “Answer the question.”

The man groaned and muttered, “We hit the place a day ago.”

Vladimir nodded, “Who’s your commander? Where are you headed now? How many troops do you have?”

The man cursed Vladimir and stopped talking.

Vladimir sighed, looked over at Jenna with a grimace, and nodded. The young woman slugged the man in the face again. His head snapped to the side, and he spit blood and a tooth onto the ground. She kicked out, her booted foot connecting solid with the man’s crotch. He doubled over with a gasp, his breath wheezing out between gritted teeth.

“Suppose I ask again,” Vladimir said, leaning over the man. When the Zhuravi scout hesitated, Vladimir shook his head. “You think that hurts? She hasn’t even pulled out her knives yet; I’d say talking is the less painful option.”

Jenna flicked out one of the daggers she carried next to her quiver and began toying with it. The man’s eyes widened and he started talking very quickly. “The Creator’s headed towards the big city; there’re around three thousand of us.”

“Why were you stationed here?”

“The General thought someone was following us.”

“How many men did he leave?”

The man didn’t respond.

Sighing again, Vladimir waved Jenna forward. Grinning wickedly, she advanced towards the man. He blanched and babbled, “There were six of us and a mage.”

Vladimir muttered, “Crap.” Turning to his officers, he barked out a series of commands, “Jenna, check the perimeter; Victoria, see if you can locate their mage; Jason, send a squad back to William; I want Captain Rockwell’s company up here right now.”

The three of them nodded, and the two captains raced off to carry out their orders. Beside him, Victoria started chanting. He glanced over at Laura and Jillian, “Laura, stick close to Victoria. Make sure no one gets near her while she’s casting. Jillian, Cassie, with me; watch my back.”

* * *

Jenna swung up into the tree next to Evelyn and Kristine. “What’s it looking like?” She asked in a whisper.

“I’m picking up at least a half-dozen mages, one of them pretty powerful, the rest not so much,” Evelyn murmured back.

“I put Sandra’s squad out front with orders to fall back with first contact,” Kristine said. “We can’t get a good estimate of their numbers, but they’ve got at least a hundred men, probably more.”

The three fell silent, listening intently, trying to hear any sounds of movement over the rustle of the swaying trees and bushes in the clearing in front of them. A few small animals crept through the brush, but the forest was very quiet.

Suddenly, the three women heard the sound of bows firing from across the clearing. They could make out the snap of strings on bracers and the whistle of the shafts as they sped toward their targets. Briefly, the clash of swords rang out in the still winter air.

That didn’t last long though, and Evelyn winked at Jenna as they heard movement in bushes up ahead of them. “I just learned a new spell. Plus, I got some extra supplies from Supply before we left. I’ve been dying to test both.” Kristine already had her bow ready, and Jenna laid an arrow across hers.

Sandra and her squad came running out of the bushes towards them, but stopped right under their tree. Turning, they sheathed swords and readied their bows. Close on their heels, the three women caught glimpses of enemy soldiers. Evelyn grinned, “First, watch this.” She snapped her fingers, and the forest ahead of them burst into flames.

Fire shot up in roiling sheets through the entire area in front of them. A few burning, screaming Zhuravi soldiers stumbled away from the edge of the blast. Amazingly, none of the plants or bushes was harmed.

Jenna glanced over at her mage, “Impressive.” Hearing more people rushing through the brush, Evelyn smiled, “Time to test the disks.” She whispered a short incantation under her breath and the ambush area exploded.

The blast threw enemy men twenty or more feet into the air, shredded foliage, and blew Jenna’s hair back. Dirt pattered softly down onto leaves and needles. As the dust settled, the three surveyed the carnage laid out beneath them. Bodies were strewn across the little clearing in and around several smoking craters.

“What was that?” Kristine asked in an awed whisper, eyes wide.

Evelyn smirked, “Well, we had some blast-disks in supply, but I figured, why only use one per spot, so I put five of them together. Maybe I don’t need to use so many next time?”

“Probably not,” Jenna replied, shaking her head. Her gaze flicked to the opposite side of the clearing, “There are more of them.”

Dozens of Zhuravi soldiers burst out of bushes on the far side of the clearing. Rising from her crouch on the branch, Jenna called, “Open fire,” and began shooting across the clearing. Below her, the rangers opened up on the enemy soldiers, black-fletched shafts flicking across the clearing. A number of Zhuravi dropped, but more poured out of the bushes.

She heard the thunder of hooves from across the glade. Turning to Kristine, she commanded, “Take the rangers and fall back. Evelyn and I will try to slow down their cavalry.”

The ranger hesitated, but nodded, “Yes ma’am.” She sprung down from the branch, landed lightly, and started barking orders.

* * *

Vladimir heard the explosion to the west and cursed, “I guess they’ve found our line.”

A few moments later, the sound of battle to southwest reached their ears. He glanced over at Victoria, “What’s their plan?”

She concentrated on her spells, her eyes closed, “Their main force is to the west. The one to the southwest is only a feint.” Her eyes flicked back and forth under her eyelids and she gasped. Reaching out blindly, she grabbed Vladimir’s arm, “You need to get Jenna and Evelyn out of there right now!” She snapped. “They’re trying to stop the entire enemy force by themselves.” Her eyes popped open, “Go now, I’ll take care of things here.” When he gave her a concerned look, she said, “Laura will keep me safe.”

He nodded and turned to Jillian and Cassielle, “Get your horses and follow me. When we get there, I’ll get Jenna; Jillian, you’re responsible for Evelyn. Cassie, watch our backs.”

“Yes sir,” they replied, swinging up onto their horses.

Pulling on their helmets and readying their shields, the three of them urged their horses forward. Cassielle’s horse, Samantha, Jillian’s horse, and Jeremy thundered through the brush, branches and leaves whipping off the horses’ peytrals and the riders’ cuisse and shields. Leaning low over Jeremy, Vladimir called on over twenty-five years of horse riding experience to keep from running into a tree. Behind him, Jillian and Cassielle barely kept up, but their lighter horses were more agile than Jeremy.

* * *

Evelyn drew her sword and jumped down from the tree. Jenna followed, landing lightly beside her, long and short swords drawn. Across the clearing, the enemy heavy cavalry burst out of the bushes, trotting through the brush, but picking up speed. There were over fifty armored men on large warhorses, and the ground shook. When the horsemen reached the halfway point, Evelyn chopped her hand down, and an aqua wall of fire sprang up in front of the lead horseman. However, one of the enemy riders gestured at the wall and it disappeared.

Chanting softly, Evelyn lashed out at the man with a lightning bolt, but, once again, the enemy mage countered it. Eyes fixed on the man, Jenna charged forward at the first horseman, deftly avoiding his lance. As she passed his horse, she slashed across its forelegs. The beast whinnied in pain and fell, catapulting the man over its head. Jenna casually hamstrung the man as he soared through the air, bright blood spraying up into the air. He smashed into the ground, where he lay still. His horse tumbled forward and ended up lying on its side, neighing in agony.

Not stopping to watch the first rider’s demise, Jenna continued her charge, dodging another lance. Her backhand cut caught the man behind the knee, shearing his leg off, the tip of her sword wounding the man’s horse.

The next cavalryman on her left had a mace and he swept it across in low arc. Jenna went to one knee and slid under the blow, coming to her feet once he was past and slashing back with her short sword. The blade sheared through the man’s chainmail and plate and cut deeply into his back. The force of her strike embedded the sword in his spine, and he kept moving forward, ripping the weapon out of her hand.

Continuing onward, Jenna cut a bloody swath through the enemy cavalry to the Zhuravi mage. When the man saw her approaching, he tried to turn his horse to flee even as he readied a spell, but she was upon him before he had even turned halfway. Leaping, she twirled in the air, her longsword spraying blood as it cut in a wide arc, decapitating the man. She landed lightly and spun, flipping one of her longknives out of its sheath on her back.

Free of the Zhuravi mage’s interference, Evelyn lashed out with a lightning bolt, blasting several of the enemy cavalry from their horses. However, the front-runners were upon her by then and she had to dive beneath an enemy lance. Rolling back to her feet, she slashed across, catching the lance-wielder in the side, cutting through the edge of his back-plate and carving halfway through his torso.

Suddenly, she flew forward with a cry, agony exploding through her left shoulder as a Zhuravi soldier hit her with a mace. Evelyn could feel the weapon break several bones, and she smashed into the ground, stunned by the force of the blow. Whimpering in pain, she tried to push herself up, but only succeeded in rolling herself over. The shift ground her shoulder into the dirt, and she almost passed out. Looking up, she saw a dismounted Zhuravi horseman looming over her.

Hearing Evelyn’s cry, Jenna spun around, searching for her friend. When she saw the slender mage lying on the ground, she shrieked a battle cry and rushed towards Evelyn. Enemy cavalry galloped towards her, blocking her path, attacking with swords and maces.

Jenna dodged blows and hacked and slashed at the Zhuravi soldiers, her strikes slashing through armor and shattering bone. Despite the ferocity of her attack, Jenna realized that she couldn’t make to Evelyn before the enemy soldiers did. Growling in frustration, she redoubled her attack, killing two more Zhuravi cavalrymen by leaping up between them and lashing out with her blades. She decapitated the man on the left with her longknife and shattered the ribcage of the soldier on the right with her longsword, her weapon smashing through his armor with ease.

Landing heavily, her breath coming in gasps, Jenna forced herself to keep moving towards Evelyn. Another rider reared up in front of her, slashing down with a longsword. She crossed her weapons over her head to block to strike, but the power of the blow forced her to her knees. She started to rise, but a lance slammed into her back, piercing her light armor and punching through her to emerge from her stomach, covered in blood. Sobbing in agony, she tried to strike back at her attacker, but her sword fell from her hand and she slumped forward onto the ground.

Meanwhile, still lying on the ground, Evelyn flicked out the fingers of her right hand, throwing darts of energy at the approaching soldier. The aqua missiles blasted through his armor and flung him to the ground. Another Zhuravi soldier approached, but she dropped him with three rays of fire.

Suddenly, six figures appeared out of thin air between her and the Zhuravi. Evelyn also thought she heard hoof-beats coming from the forest behind her, but she wasn’t certain; a haze of pain clouded her senses. Unsure of whom these newcomers were, she tried to rise again, but one of them turned and bent down over her.

As the figure neared, she realized that it was Natalie. When the dark-haired captain knelt beside her, the slender mage almost cried in relief. Natalie turned to the other women, “Emma, Rachel, watch Evelyn. The rest of you with me; we need to get to Jenna.” When she heard this, Evelyn started looking for Jenna, “Where is she?”

Rachel crouched beside her, “She got hurt before she could get back to you.” At Evelyn’s panicked glance, “Don’t worry, we’ll get her back.”

Natalie, Rose, Franchesca, and Nastia charged into midst of the enemy cavalry, swords out. Even as they did so, Vladimir, Jillian, and Cassielle thundered past them and crashed into the Zhuravi soldiers. In a few brief moments of fighting, Vladimir made his way to Jenna.

Leaping off Jeremy, he crouched down beside the young woman where she lay, curled up around the lance that still impaled her. He grasped the lance with one hand and set his other against her back. Gritting his teeth, he slowly slid the lance out of her, inch by bloody inch. She groaned but thankfully remained unconscious. When he finally pulled the entire weapon out, more blood gushed out, staining the ground red.

Quickly, he placed his hands on either side of the wound and willed healing energy into her limp form. Silver light poured from his hands and began to heal the wound, knitting the blood vessels and muscle tissue together. He forced more energy into her, and the flesh sealed over, letting out more blood but leaving only a small white circle of a scar where the wound had been. Jenna groaned and sat up. Immediately, she started looking around for her sword and, spotting it on the ground, started to reach for it. Vladimir grabbed it and put it in her hand before helping her to her feet.

Behind them, Vladimir heard Jillian grunt and turned to see her engaged with a mace-wielding Zhuravi cavalryman. The young woman accepted another mace blow on her shield and slashed at his helm. Her blade sheared through the helmet, and took off the top half of the man’s head. The corpse fell heavy, and his horse galloped away.

Natalie, Rose, Franchesca, and Nastia hurtled past him and waded into the enemy infantry that was emerging from the bushes. As she passed Cassielle, Rose yelled, “Evelyn needs a medic.”

Cassielle killed her opponent and wheeled her horse, galloping back to where Emma and Rachel stood guard over the wounded mage. Swinging off Samantha, the tiny paladin knelt over Evelyn. Pressing her hands to the woman’s injured shoulder, Cassielle chanted a healing spell. Evelyn gritted her teeth and clenched her fists as the magic reset the smashed bones in her shoulder and mended the internal damage. A moment later, it was over, and she uncurled her hands to find that her hands were bleeding from where her nails had cut her palms.

In the clearing ahead of them, the fighting still raged. Natalie and Franchesca were fighting back-to-back and Nastia stood guard while Rose threw spells. The forest echoed with the clash of steel and the boom of evocations. Despite their efforts, there were still over a hundred Zhuravi left.

Abruptly, arrows filled the air, shooting out and cutting down most of the Zhuravi troops. Vladimir leapt back onto Jeremy and galloped toward the remaining enemy cavalry. Natalie and Franchesca followed him, and the three slaughtered the few remaining soldiers in a few moments.

Figures began moving out of the brush, and Vladimir and his officers gathered in the middle of the clearing. Four women led a group of rangers out of the trees. The one on center was of medium height and whip-thin, had a narrow face and dirty-blonde hair. She had two longswords belted at her hips, and wore light mesh armor and gold and sapphire inlaid Mithral vambraces. There was a small crown engraved on her armor over her heart.

Upon seeing her, Emma, Rachel, Nastia, and Cassielle immediately bowed to her, and Vladimir and the rest of the officers quickly followed suit. After a moment, Emma looked at the woman standing to the first woman’s right and grinned. She had brown hair, wore a Mithral shirt, and had long and short swords belted around her waist. She returned the smile and started towards Emma.

The young woman in the center motioned for them to be at ease then stepped a little to the side. The second woman rushed over to Emma and hugged her tightly then turned to embrace Rachel. Vladimir and Natalie walked forward to meet the first woman.

She greeted them, “Hello, I’m Princess Grace Azvar. I’m in command of this company of the Menzobarian Rangers.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, your highness,” he replied with a slight bow.

She nodded and pointing to the young woman to her left, saying, “This is Alexandra Voln, General Voln’s younger sister.” The young woman was blonde, wore mesh armor, and carried long and short sword. “She’s my senior non-com.”

The last of the four women was a little older, with light brown hair, an angular face, Mithral leaf-mail, and slender long and short swords. When Vladimir saw her, he stared for a second then smiled and saluted. “Sergeant Major Herth.”

She returned his salute, “Colonel Kapov, nice to see you again.” Turning to Natalie, “And you too, Captain Sanchez.”

Vladimir turned to Emma, Rachel, and the other young woman. Emma turned to him and said, “This is my younger sister, Emily. She’s a lady-in-waiting to the queen, and Grace’s mage.”

“It’s nice to meet you, Emily.” He turned back to Grace. “Your highness, let me introduce my people.” He gestured to his assembled officers. “This is Captain Natalie Sanchez, her mage Rose, and her CSM Franchesca Rivers. It seems like you already know Emma and Rachel; this is Emma’s CSM Anastasia Romanof.” Each of them bowed in turn. Pointing to the still pale archer and her mage, “This is Captain Jenna Miskovitz and her mage Evelyn Graham, and this is the second for my medical unit, Cassielle Archalus.” He grinned at Jillian, “And this is Jillian, my new bodyguard.” She started and her bright green eyes widened, but she didn’t say anything.

Vladimir turned back to Grace and asked, “Your highness, might I ask what you’re doing out here?”

Alexandra responded for her, “We’ve been working on making the Rangers an actual army unit with Josie’s help. The general sent word to us that you were coming, so we started looking for you.” She glanced around at the field of corpses, “Guess you were lucky we found you when we did.”

He nodded, “You’ve got that right.” Before he could continue, the brush behind him erupted with Arbatrosian heavy cavalry. The clearing shook with the thundering of hooves as Hannah’s entire company showed up. She pulled up next to him, dismounted, and saluted. He returned the salute and gestured to Grace, “This is the Princess Grace.”

Hannah bowed, “Captain Hannah Rockwell, your highness.”

“Nice to meet you captain,” the princess replied.

Vladimir turned to Grace, “Your highness, did General Voln tell you the nature of our mission?”

“She was a little vague on the details, but it sounds like you’re supposed to take out the Zhuravi force under the Creator. She asked me to help you. Perhaps we can regroup with the rest of your troops and discuss logistics then?”

“Of course, your highness.” Turning to his soldiers, “Form up.” To Hannah, “Do you have extra horses for Natalie and Emma’s command teams?”

“We’ve got only three or four extra horses, so they’ll have to double up, sir.” She motioned for one of her soldiers to bring them up. Natalie, Emma, and Franchesca mounted up. Rose, Rachel, and Nastia swung up behind them. Grace and her command team joined them, mounted on horses brought up by some of her rangers.

“Hannah, form your first platoon on us. Stay with second and third platoons and make sure all of the Princess’s rangers and ours get back to the village,” he commanded.

“Yes sir.”

He swung up onto Jeremy and helped Jenna up behind him. When all of them were mounted, he waved for the rest of his party to follow him. They rode through the forest at a trot, the horses’ hooves snapping branches and making the stray leaf crackle.

* * *

The sinking sun shed its fading rays over the outskirts of the village, where the regiment had set up camp. All of the unit’s officers were gathered around the main fire, waiting for the colonel and the princess. The officers had clustered into little groups and were talking quietly. Jillian and Laura stood guard outside the colonel’s tent while Vladimir, Victoria, Grace, and Josephine talked inside.

“Sergeant Major Herth, I’ve got around half a regiment with me here. The enemy scout we interrogated claimed they had three thousand men. However, while Victoria’s scrying confirms their numbers, it seems that at least half of them are the Creator’s personal troops. That means that they’re likely to be of a higher quality than the Zhuravi line troops.” He paused, “While I’m confident we’ll be able to win, I don’t know what sort of losses we’ll suffer.”

Victoria spoke up, “Additionally, I think there might be a second Uplifted with the Creator. I’m not sure which one it is, but I think it might be Beast Man. The Intel report suggests that he’s a druid and an evoker.”

Josephine nodded, “With two of them, we’ll be hard-pressed to pull off anything better than a close victory. Unless we eliminated one or both before the battle even began?”

Grace frowned, “You mean assassinating them?”

“Basically.” At the princess’s look, the sergeant major said, “It’s not like they aren’t evil. Besides, even your father’s done things like that before. And if we do manage to sneak up on them, it’ll still be a fight to kill either one.”

“Although that method presents problems of its own,” Vladimir said. “Whoever we send has a good chance of getting killed, and only a few of our mages are powerful enough to go toe-to-toe an Uplifted.”

Victoria nodded, “I can, but I’m the best mage in the Legion after Archmage Winters. And only three or four of the other regimental mages could truly match an Uplifted.”

Josephine frowned, “But we still need to even the odds somehow. I mean, we have a better chance of killing them off separately than trying to do it during the middle of a big battle, wouldn’t you agree?” Receiving reluctant nods, she continued, her gaze on Vladimir, “Either you or I will have to lead the attack; nobody else is good enough. And whoever goes should have at least two mages and two fighters with them and maybe a medic, too.”

Vladimir thought for a moment, “I’ll lead the team.” Before Victoria could even open her mouth, he said, “Victoria, you need to stay with the regiment in case we don’t succeed. I think I’ll take Emma, Rachel, Jenna, Evelyn, and Cassielle. That’ll give me good mage power and some strong fighters.”

She nodded unwillingly, “I guess so, but I’d rather you didn’t go without me. There’s no telling what tricks an Uplifted has prepared.”

He reached out and squeezed her shoulder, “I’ll be fine. Plus, if anyone has a chance of sneaking up on one of these guys, it’s Jenna and Evelyn. Hell, I’ll probably be the one who gives us away.” He motioned to his plate.

“We’ll cast everything we can to give you guys a better chance before you go,” Victoria said.

Josephine stood, “So we’ve got a plan?” At their nods, “Let’s get ready, then.”

* * *

When the four emerged from Vladimir’s tent, the gathered officers fell silent. Vladimir looked around at them with a grim smile, meeting each of his officers’ gazes. He began, “Ladies and gentlemen, here’s the situation. We believe that the Creator has roughly three thousand elite troops under his command. We also think that there’s a second Uplifted with him.” Several of the officers cursed at the news. He continued, “Therefore, I am going to lead a small party to eliminate one of the two. Emma, Rachel, Jenna, Evelyn, and Cassielle will come with me. Jason, your scouts will harry them to screen our mission. We’re leaving tomorrow and will hopefully be back within a day. If we do not return or communicate with the regiment, we are to be assumed lost. At that point, the regiment should engage the Zhuravi force without us.”

Silence broken only by the crackle of the fire greeted his proclamation. Vladimir went on, “In my absence, Captain Sanchez will command the regiment. Victoria will stay as regimental mage. Any questions?”

Receiving no sirs and silence, he turned to Grace. “Do you have anything to add, your highness?” He asked quietly. When she shook her head, he said to his officers, “See to your troops. Everybody who was there when the princess showed up, hang around for a moment.”

The other officers moved off, back to their units. Emily hugged her sister before leaving with Grace. Soon, the only people left where Natalie, Emma, Jenna, their mages, and Cassielle. Vladimir smiled at them, “Nice job, all of you. I’m very pleased and proud of your performance.” They returned his grin. He continued, “However, some of you need to be a little more cautious.” He looked at Jenna and Evelyn, “I should tell you two to stop trying to kill the entire enemy force by yourselves. You’re going to get yourselves killed some day.” Both young women looked down, embarrassed. Evelyn started to say something, but he cut her off. “However, I don’t think you’ll listen, so I’ll simply say this. Please don’t try for a whole company of heavy cavalry with an elite mage again.”

Still abashed, they murmured their assent. He moved over to them and took Jenna gently by the shoulders. “Lass, what you did was very heroic and brave, but also very foolish.” He leaned close to her, “I don’t want to lose you or Evelyn.”

She nodded, and, in a small voice said, “I’ll try to be more careful.”

He smiled at her, “That’s all I ask.” Stepping back, he said to Natalie, “I want to talk to you and Rose for a moment. Jenna and Evelyn, stick around. I’m not done with you yet.” He directed the first two women into his tent, and Victoria followed.

Standing there, Cassielle shook her head, “You gave me a fright, Evelyn, almost dying on me like that.” Wagging her finger at the mage in mock seriousness, she said, “Don’t you go doing that again.” The five laughed.

Emma put her hands on her hips and spoke in a deep voice, “But I know you won’t listen.” Her fairly accurate imitation of Vladimir sent the five young women into fits of giggles.

* * *

Inside his tent, Vladimir passed Natalie a sealed envelope. “If I’m killed or rendered incapable of commanding the regiment, open this. Just say your name and kiss the seal.”

“What’s inside?” She asked as she tucked it into a pocket of her cloak.

“The general’s orders to me and my orders to you. Hopefully you won’t have to open them. Good night, Natalie.” He stood and they exited the tent together to find the five giggling uncontrollably.

“You ladies alright?” He asked, slightly concerned, which only made them laugh more. Shaking his head and sighing, he pointed to Jenna and Evelyn. “I need to talk to you two.”

They nodded and managed to compose themselves a little. Natalie, Rose, Emma, Rachel, and Cassielle hugged Jenna and Evelyn, and left. The two followed Vladimir into his tent. He gestured for them to be seated and sat down across from them.

“First of all, I wanted to restate my earlier comment more strongly: that was seriously reckless. In a normal unit, I would probably have you two disciplined.” Jenna started to protest, but he cut her off. “However, since you’re in the first regiment of the King’s Own, and I’m impressed by your performance, I’ll let it go.” He paused, and turned to Jenna. “Thank you for taking my cues and playing bad-guy when we were interrogating the scout.”

She smiled shyly, “It’s no problem. Acting tough isn’t hard; I’ve been doing it most of my life. I’ve always had to show that I was stronger and better than all the boys.”

He smiled in return and continued, “We’re going to try to sneak up on the Uplifted. That means I’m going to need all your expertise and skill tomorrow night, so get some rest. I assume you’re going to leave Lieutenant Galara in command of your company?” Receiving a nod, “I’m sure she and Lydia can take care of you troops, so I’ll send someone to wake you when I need you.”

She rose, saluted, and said, “Thank you, sir,” before leaving with Evelyn.

Vladimir stuck his head out of his tent. “Jillian, Laura, I want to talk to you for a moment.”

The two young women entered his tent.

He examined the two for a moment, taking in their well-polished armor and excellent posture. “A regiment’s supposed to have a small bodyguard unit for its leaders. I sort of already told Jill about it, but now I’m making it official. The two of you are the start of that unit.”

“Thank you, sir,” Laura replied.

He waved her thanks away. “While I’m gone, take good care of Victoria.” He smiled at them, “Good night. You can get some sleep; I don’t suspect I’ll be killed off tonight.”

They saluted and walked out into the clear winter twilight. The first stars had come out as the last light faded.

Copyright © Scott Schaper, 2012

List of Characters

The King’s Own Legion

First Regiment
Colonel Vladimir Kapov-Age 36
Victoria-Age 25
Regimental Sergeant Major William Morell-Age 56

First Company
Captain Natalie Sanchez-Age 26
Rose-Age 23
Company Sergeant Major Franchesca Rivers-Age 24

Lieutenant Monique Oleron-Age 21

Second Company
Captain Emma Athney-Age 20
Rachel Hawk-Age 19
Company Sergeant Major Anastasia Romanof-Age 16

Third Company
Captain Victor Marsters-Age 45
Ginerva Marks-Age 33

Fourth Company
Captain Justin Pierce-Age 29
Jenny Gilbert-Age 26

First Platoon
Lieutenant Demetri Kallov-Age 26

Seventh Company
Captain Hannah Rockwell-Age 23
Verity-Age 21

Second Platoon
Private Laura Thompson-Age 14
Private Jillian Olsen-Age 15

Eighth Company
Captain Benjamin Halest-Age 43
Ivo-Age 39

Ninth Company
Captain Annabelle Diego-Age 22
Arkana-Age 21

Thirteenth Company
Captain Jenna Miskovitz-Age 20
Evelyn Graham-Age 20

Eighteenth Company
Captain Glenvara Lake-Age 24
Daphne-Age 20

Regimental Scout Company
Captain Jason Thompson-Age 32
Octavia-Age 29
Company Sergeant Major Christine Mede-Age 27

Sergeant James Black-Age 17
Corporal Grigori Kulikov-Age 23
Private Daniel Fitzpatrick-Age 16

First Platoon, First Ranger Company
Captain Kristine Douglas-Age 23

Regimental Medical Unit
First Lieutenant Cassielle Archalus-Age 15

Second Company, Menzobarian Rangers
Captain Grace Azvar-Age 17
Emily Athney-Age 18
Company Sergeant Major Alexandra Voln-Age 19

"Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction." - Ronald Reagan
"Judge them not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." - Martin Luther King, Jr.
"Pick up a rifle and you change instantly from a subject to a citizen." - Jeff Cooper
"I like my enemies like James Bond likes his martinis- shaken, not stirred."
My first book, The King's Own
posted 16 September 2014 16:35 EDT (US)     30 / 54  
Your tale keeps me interested for the next installment. I love the way you fill it up with colourful details, without digressing too far from a good plot!
posted 17 September 2014 02:01 EDT (US)     31 / 54  
I am soooo upset that my original comment from two weeks ago failed to post. I apologize profusely.

This was an excellent installment. It was nice to see that the wondergirls were mortal after all, and your colonel handled it well. Nice battle scene, well-done on the diplomatic front as well (Princesses tend to be haughty and arrogant).

Overall, an excellent and entertaining tale.

Please do continue.

|||||||||||||||| A transplanted Viking, born a millennium too late. |||||||||||||||||
|||||||||||||||| Too many Awards to list in Signature, sorry lords...|||||||||||||||||
|||||||||||||||| Listed on my page for your convenience and envy.|||||||||||||||||
Somewhere over the EXCO Rainbow
Master Skald, Order of the Silver Quill, Guild of the Skalds
Champion of the Sepia Joust- Joust I, II, IV, VI, VII, VIII
posted 17 September 2014 18:28 EDT (US)     32 / 54  
I am soooo upset that my original comment from two weeks ago failed to post. I apologize profusely.
And here I thought you didn't read it

Moonlit Dance

20th of Grakuary, 599
Northern Menzobaria, Arbatros

Jason plodded through the waking camp towards the colonel’s tent. The rising sun lost its struggle to pierce the heavy clouds that filled the sky. Instead, it shed a dull light on the snow-dusted pines and bare oaks. The scout captain reached the colonel’s tent and found Victoria reclining in a camp chair near the main fire. Laura and Jillian sat directly in front of the colonel’s tent.

He greeted the mage, “Good morning Victoria. Is the colonel up?” He asked.

She grinned, “Nope.” Then she gave him a hard look. “And I’m not letting anyone get him up for anything less than a full-scale assault.”

Jason shook his head, “No, no, I’ll wait.”

“Well, in that case, sorry to be like that.” She pointed to another chair, “Pull up a seat.”

He sat down and leaned back in his chair. “I just wanted to talk to the colonel about our scouting mission. He said we’d discuss it in the morning.”

“I know, but I made him get some sleep; you know how he is.”

“Yep. How’ve you been doing?” He glanced over at mage.

“Alright, I guess. All this fighting and casting has been wearing on me, on all of us.” She sighed and rubbed her face.

“You’ve got that right. I don’t remember the last time the company had a break. I think it was before we were stationed out here. And that was over six months ago.” He shook his head, “They’re pushing us pretty hard.”

“All for a good cause, I’m sure. Not many left from the old company now.”

He sighed as well, “Less than twenty of us still breathing, and mostly officers.”

“Now that’s a depressing topic to be discussing this early in the morning.”

Both of them looked up to find Emma and Emily Athney walking towards them. Victoria smiled at the young captain, “Good morning to you too, Emma. As for the subject, well, it’s a depressing morning, so…” She motioned for them to join her. They sat, and Victoria pointed to Jason, “This is Captain Jason Thompson. He’s in command of our scouts.” To Jason, “Jason, this is Emily Athney, the mage for the princess’s unit.”

The two shook hands, and Jason noted that her slender hands bore callouses typical of a swordsman. He could also see a family resemblance between the two sisters in their features and the way they moved. However, Emily stepped more lightly and gracefully than her sister did. Noting this, he asked, “Are you a dancer?”

She grinned, “I am. In fact, that’s why I’m the princess’s mage. When I danced for the queen once, she liked it so much that she asked me to be one of her ladies-in-waiting. That’s how I met Grace.”

The four chatted for a few moments before Grace walked up. “Good morning.” They greeted her as well, Emily quite warmly. She moved over to Emily and kissed the young woman lightly on the lips then sat down in the same chair as the mage. Victoria and Jason exchanged looks, eyebrows raised but neither said anything.

* * *

Vladimir woke gradually and lay on his cot for a few moments before sitting up slowly. Swinging his feet onto the ground, he groaned as stiff and sore muscles protested their use. Rising, he began stretching out and taking stock of his injuries from the previous day. He had a number of shallow cuts and bruises, but had escaped serious harm.

Glancing down, the sight of his scarred torso caught him by surprise. Dozens of thin white lines, the result of magical healing, crisscrossed his chest and stomach. The less even lines of naturally healed cuts added to the collection. Grimacing, he pulled on a fresh shirt and quickly donned his armor. Finishing up by strapping on his sword, he emerged from his tent. Jillian and Laura fell in exactly a pace behind him. “Good morning lasses.”

“Good morning, sir,” they replied in unison.

Glancing around, he paused for a moment, surprised by the scene before him. What seemed like all of the officers of the regiment were gathered before his tent. He glanced up at the sky and received another shock. The sun was clearly well up into the sky, but the dense cloud-cover obscured its light.

Victoria noticed he was awake and quickly moved to talk to him. “How’re you feeling, Vladimir?”

“I’m alright. However, this letting me sleep in business is getting out of hand.” He said it with a frown, but the twinkle in his eye let her know he wasn’t too mad. “We need to get going; we’ve got a fair amount of ground to cover before tonight.” Pausing, he looked around and spotted Emma, Rachel, and Cassielle clustered together in the middle of the group. “Has no one woken Jenna and Evelyn up yet?”

She shook her head, “I figured we’d wait for you to get up. They need the time to heal. No use disturbing them before that.”

He nodded his approval, “Send Sandra and Fiona to get them.”

* * *

Sandra and Fiona moved through the camp, pasting through most of the tents on their way to their destination. All around them were the sights and sounds of the regiment in preparation. Hammers clanged on armor and weapons, soldiers polished their armor, honed their weapons, and sergeants drilled their units.

As they were walking through the scouts’ camp, they heard a familiar voice shout Sandra’s name. James jogged up to them, his hazel eyes sparkling with excitement. “Did you hear? The captains want us to lead the point unit. We’re going to be in the thick of the action again.”

Sandra frowned, “That’ll mean we’re probably going to take the most casualties.”

“Cheer up, Sandra; we’re going to get to kill some Zhuravi.”

“It’s hard to be cheery when both Fi and I have been injured recently.” She gave him a disapproving look. “Besides, some of us aren’t as eager to kill things as others.”

“Then why’d you join the army?” He looked surprised at her attitude.

“Mostly to avoid my father marrying me off to some old guy or having to stay on the farm forever.” She sighed, “It’s not that I don’t like killing, I just don’t think it’s the most exciting thing in the world.”

He shrugged, “I guess, but it’ll still be fun.”

“I hope so,” she said. “Fi and I are supposed to be getting Captain Miskovitz, so we need to go. See you soon, James.”

“Yeah, make sure you’re ready.”

“I’m always ready for a fight,” she replied with an impudent grin. Then she turned and strode off, her boots crunching on the snowy ground.

When they were a safe distance away, Fiona elbowed Sandra. “What was that for?” Sandra asked.

“You were flirting with him,” Fiona accused.

“Maybe I was, but what’s the problem with that?”

“You shouldn’t be doing that,” she scolded. Turning thoughtful, “Although you’re the same rank now, so it’s technically okay. And it is kind of cute, the way he’s trying to impress you.”

“I know; but I wonder if he does that to all the girls he meets.” She grinned, “I could have far worse people chasing me.”

“That’s for sure.” Adopting a deep voice and puffing out her chest, Fiona imitated James, “Let’s go kill somebody. That sounds romantic, don’t you think?”

Sandra started giggling and tried to elbow Fiona, but the younger woman dodged. “Now, now, you shouldn’t go attacking just anyone.”

Still giggling, the two young women continued through the camp and reached Captain Miskovitz’s tent. Sandra pulled open the flap to the tent and said, “Captain Miskovitz, the colonel says he needs you now.” Her eyes adjusted to the dim lighting, and she gasped and stepped back quickly, dropping the flap closed. Fiona looked at her, “What is it?”

Sandra blushed, “Nothing.”

Before Fiona could press her, Jenna stuck her head out of her tent. Sandra immediately started to apologize, but Jenna cut her off. “Sandra, tell the colonel that we’ll be joining him shortly.” Seeing Fiona’s puzzled expression, she added, “Oh, and you can tell Fiona, but I’d appreciate it if you two didn’t tell anyone else.”

The younger woman nodded and saluted, “Of course ma’am.” Grabbing Fiona by the arm, Sandra pulled her away.

Ducking back inside her tent, Jenna walked over to where Evelyn reclined on their cot. Leaning down she kissed the other woman then started to pull on her clothes and armor. Evelyn got up and followed suit. “I assume that was our wake-up call?” She asked with a grin.

“Yep. The colonel sent Sandra and Fiona. I think Sandra was a little embarrassed that she walked in on us like that.” Jenna replied with an answering smile and a chuckle.

* * *

Sandra led Fiona away from Jenna’s tent quickly. Despite the younger woman’s inquisitive looks, Sandra waited until they were a ways away before she stopped. Fiona asked again, “What did you see?”

Sandra blushed and glanced around before responding. “When I went in, the two of them were in bed together. Naked.”

Fiona’s jaw dropped, “What? No, they aren’t…”

“Sleeping together? I would say they are.” Thinking for a moment, she asked, “Do you remember when we were out scouting before the battle with the Geltur?” When Fiona nodded, she went on. “Remember how Evelyn asked the captain something and she said something like ‘since last night’. They must have started the same night they scouted the Geltur camp.”

Fiona nodded slowly, “You’re right.” Suddenly she looked up, alarmed, “Do you think the colonel knows?”

“Almost for sure. It seems like he knows everything about everybody.” She shook her head in amazement, “I don’t know how he does it. However, speaking of the colonel, we should start heading back now.”

* * *

Vladimir spread a topographical map out on the table and smoothed down the thick velum. Sandra and Fiona walked up, and told him Captain Miskovitz was coming. A few moments later, Jenna and Evelyn arrived. “Sorry we’re late, sir.”

“You’re not late. However, now that everybody’s here, gather round.”

His officers stepped up to the table and their mages clustered behind them. “My group is going to ride hard to get the Zhuravi camp before nightfall. We’re going to infiltrate it and confront one of the Uplifted a little after midnight.” He turned to Jason and Kristine, “I want your scouts and rangers to start your attack at midnight; hopefully that’ll let us get in unnoticed.” Looking over at the princess, he asked, “Would your rangers like to help?”

“Yes, they would. However, I’ll let Jason lead the attack.” At Jason, “I don’t have the experience you do.”

Jason nodded, “Thank you. What sort of engagement do you want?” He asked the colonel.

“I want your scouts to attack and pull back, trying to lead them to the waiting rangers. Make it seem like it’s an ambush strategy.” He looked over at Hannah, “Send one platoon of your heavy cavalry along to back them up. I also need two of your soldiers to watch our horses while we’re gone.”

“Kristine, your highness, deploy your troops along this path. Hannah, put your unit on top of this ridge.” He described the locations on the map.

He looked around, “Everybody know their positions?” Receiving nods, he continued, “Alright folks, let’s get ready and head out.” With that, he dismissed them.

* * *

The dull grey clouds still muted the sun’s rays, giving the sky a pearly glow. Cassielle, Jenna, Evelyn, Emma, and Rachel were talking together off to one side. To the other, two very short young women stood next to five horses. Vladimir walked over towards where Victoria, Rose, and Ginerva stood around Jenna’s chariot. With a thought, he summoned Jeremy to his side. His magical steed whinnied happily at being summoned and he stroked Jeremy’s mane and nose.

“Hello ladies, how are the spells coming?”

Victoria grinned, “This chariot won’t make a single sound anymore, and we’ve quieted the horses too.” She motioned the six of them to stand in front of the three mages. “We’re going to cast a series of protective spells on each of you. Don’t go anywhere until I tell you we’re done.”

With that, the three started casting several spells off scrolls. Once done with those, they each cast a few of their own spells. Victoria pulled a staff out of the extra-dimensional pouch at her belt. She cast two final spells then stepped back. “Well, we’ve done all we can. I just hope it’s enough.”

“We’ll be fine Victoria,” Vladimir said. Then he hugged her quickly and swung onto Jeremy. The ever-present clink of his plate was absent as expected. However, he missed the familiar sound and, looking around, could see that Cassielle and Emma felt the same.

He moved over to the two mounted young women from the cavalry unit. “What’re your names?”

The first had light brown hair and carried standard cavalry gear. She also had the chevrons of a sergeant etched onto her pauldrons. “I’m Sergeant Hazel Riss.” She indicated the other young woman, “This is Private Stephanie Allen.” The other young woman had wavy blonde hair and wore the normal full plate of the cavalry. However, blue leather and silver wire wrapped around her longsword’s hilt.

Noting her weapon, Vladimir asked, “Are you friends with Jill and Laura, by any chance?”

She smiled, “I am. We grew up together.”

He looked at Hazel, “And you must be the poor unfortunate that has to ride herd on those three.”

She nodded. “It’s often tiresome, but they’re my best.”

“Oh, of that I have no doubt.” He wheeled Jeremy to face the rest of his team. “Alright ladies, let’s move out.”

Jenna sprung lightly onto her chariot and pulled Evelyn up behind her. The eight of them galloped away in near silence.

21th of Grakuary, 599
Northern Menzobaria, Arbatros

Jason urged his horse through the low brush at the edge of the forest. He led his scouts onto the small prairie where the Zhuravi had made their camp. Sliding an arrow from his quiver, he directed his horse with his knees. The entire company thundered across the open ground then turned to the right, galloping along the edge of the Zhuravi camp. As they passed, the scouts loosed their arrows at the sentries on the crude earth wall and into the camp. Octavia threw several fireballs over the wall, setting tents ablaze. The flames quickly shot up into the sky, brightening the darkness.

Jason watched as the Zhuravi soldiers on the wall dropped. He signaled for Christine to take second platoon farther along the wall. Meanwhile, he led the rest of his scouts in a circle back towards the woods.

Inside the Zhuravi camp, the enemy soldiers were charging out of their tents and rushing to the wall. Looking back over his shoulder, Jason saw Zhuravi crossbowmen taking up positions on the wall. He continued the circle, turning his horse back towards the Zhuravi camp.

The crossbowmen on the wall opened fire on the scouts, but most of the bolts missed. Jason grinned; the Zhuravi clearly had a hard time hitting moving targets in the dark. However, the enemy crossbowmen were backlit by the fires in the camp. This made it easy for Jason to pick a target, and he saw the man fall. The rest of the scouts fired as well as they passed, dropping dozens of the crossbowmen.

Suddenly, he saw a several flashes from across the camp. A few moments later, a wall of aqua fire shot up in the same area. Taking this as a sign that the colonel had found an Uplifted, Jason signaled for the scouts to break off. His unit thundered back into the forest along preplanned routes. Christine’s group continued to harry the Zhuravi until a company of heavy cavalry crested the wall.

Smiling grimly, Christine urged Misty through scrub brush and into the woods. As they neared the ambush point, she watched the trees carefully.

The Zhuravi heavy cavalry charged after them, larger destriers thundering through the brush. The scout platoon passed the ambush point without incident and wheeled their horses around. Seeing their quarry stopping the enemy spurred their horses forward, reaching a full gallop. However, in the dim light, they couldn’t see the pit the scouts and rangers had dug earlier that day.

The front row of cavalry charged over the edge and fell, the spikes at the bottom impaling horse and man. Their screams pierced the chill air, and the sound increased as more and more of the enemy fell into the trap. The pit disabled over half of the hundred and thirty-five enemy cavalry. The rest managed to pull up on the far side.

Christine waved her sword. Suddenly, the bushes around the pit erupted with rangers. Drawing arrows, they fired rapidly into the milling enemy. More cavalry dropped, but well over fifty enemy cavalry still remained, and they had begun to regroup. In addition, some of the horsemen who had gone into the pit had survived even if their mounts had not. A few of them were climbing out to attack Christine’s unit.

Waving her sword again, and Grace and Alexandra shot flaming arrows into the pit. The burning projectiles hit the tar, oil, and napalm in the bottom of the trench. The mixture ignited instantly, shooting tongues of fire into the air. Those still alive in the pit shrieked even louder as they burned.

On the other side, Jason and Hannah led their troops in a charge into the rear of the remaining horsemen. Caught by surprise and outnumbered, they quickly fell to the Arbatrosians. Bodies littered the forest floor, and blood turned the ground to red mud. Shouts still echoed from the Zhuravi camp, where fires still raged, but there appeared to be no more pursuit.

* * *

A mostly full moon rose over the trees, shedding its silvery light onto the forest. Jenna slid through the brush without a sound, Evelyn right behind her. A cold wind whistled through tree branches and made the bushes rustle. A few nocturnal creatures moved about, but the woods were mostly quiet.

She scanned the forest floor and trees for Zhuravi scouts. Not seeing any, she waved the others forward. As the six neared the crude earth wall surrounding the Zhuravi camp, the colonel called a halt.

To Rachel and Evelyn, “Cast any last-minute spells now.” The two quickly cast a few spells on themselves. When they indicated they were finished, he continued. “Immediately before we go over the wall, use your invisibility potions.” He whispered, “Once inside, we only have so long before someone sees us. We need to find an Uplifted and kill it quickly. Got it?” Receiving nods, he moved off, drawing his sword quietly.

Approaching the berm, they downed the potions and ghosted over the wall. To the West, they could see flames lighting up the darkness. Cassielle passed within a few feet of sentry, but the flames and sounds of battle distracted the man.

At the base of the wall, the six stopped and scanned the Zhuravi camp. A large pavilion in the center of the encampment immediately drew their gaze. However, Jenna and Vladimir kept looking. After a few moments, they spotted another pavilion, off to the side. While it was smaller, it too had the intricate symbol of the Zhurav emperor embroidered onto its side.

They pointed it out, and the party crept forward into the Zhuravi encampment. As they neared the tent, the flap burst open and a man strode out. At least, Vladimir though it was a man. The creature had stringy black hair that hung down past it broad shoulders. Its skin was an ashen grey color and its eyes burned with demonic light. It stood over six and half feet tall, and wore black lacquered chain mail.

Despite their invisibility spells, Vladimir was sure that it could see them anyway. Bellowing in Zhuravi, the figure charged towards them, its form shifting. Six-inch long, razor sharp claws sprung out of its hands and its jaw elongated into a toothy maw. All around them, Zhuravi soldiers drew weapons, but paused when they didn’t see any target.

The Uplifted barked out an arcane syllable, and they became visible. With another word, it flung a pair of lightning bolts at them. Rachel snapped out a short incantation and they dissipated. Jenna crouched and began firing at the Uplifted. She aimed for its face, but it used its hand to block some of them and the rest simply bounced off its now scaly skin.

Evelyn chanted briefly, and a circular wall of aqua fire sprung up around the six and the Uplifted, cutting off the Zhuravi troops. Rachel threw several spells in quick succession, but the Uplifted countered them easily. At that point, it was upon them.

Vladimir, Emma, and Cassielle squared off against it, weapons at the ready. The Uplifted lashed out at Emma, and she blocked with both her swords. However, the force of the blow lifted her off her feet and threw her backwards. She hit the ground hard, and was slow to rise.

Vladimir and Cassielle pressed the Uplifted, the young woman using two-handed slashes to push it back. However, even when she hit it with all of her strength, her sword barely cut it. Jenna leapt into the fray, swords flashing. The Uplifted cast a spell that wreathed its fists in lightning then punched the archer in the chest. Victoria’s spells absorbed the energy, but the blow itself still broke several ribs and threw her aside.

The Uplifted swung at Cassielle with its still-charged fist, but she ducked back. However, its other hand came across, its claws shearing through her armor and cutting into the flesh beneath. Blood sprayed out and she crumpled to the ground.

Seeing that the Uplifted was open, Vladimir stabbed for its throat. His blade punched through its armored skin and drew a little blood. However, it whipped its fist back across and hit his shield, knocking him back. Evelyn drew her sword, and, with a thought, shrouded the blade in frost. Lashing out with a ray of pure cold, she joined the melee.

The Uplifted blocked her spell and struck out at her with a spell of its own. Recognizing the evocation, she countered it and attacked with her sword. It stopped her blow with its arm, but the cold of her sword still seemed to hurt it a little. Reaching around her sword, its hand snaked out suddenly and grabbed her by the arm.

It pulled her towards it, but she struggled and slashed at it with her sword. She continued to fight, but its foot smashed down onto her calf. The strike snapped the bone, then the Uplifted wrenched her arm around. When she didn’t drop her sword, it slammed its other fist into her shoulder. More bones shattered, and she lost her blade, at which point the creature threw her to the ground.

It started turning to finish off Vladimir, but Rachel threw a swarm of magic missiles at it. Once again, it countered the spell, but the momentary distraction allowed the colonel to line up his strike. When it turned to face him, he stabbed his sword up into its mouth. The blade sunk into the soft flesh inside its mouth and continued on into its brain.

The Uplifted fell to its knees, but began writhing around the blade. Vladimir stepped back, leaving his weapon in the creature. “Rachel, give me Cassie’s sword.”

She grabbed the blade off the ground and tossed it to him. While made for a smaller person, the long-handled sword still fit his hands well, and he lined up for a two-handed strike. Right before he swung, he realized that she had a flaming sword, and he called upon its power with a thought. The Uplifted was still struggling, but Vladimir still began hacking at its neck. His first blow only cut about a quarter of the way into its neck. Nevertheless, he managed to decapitate it with only one more blow.

The headless torso flopped to the ground. However, as with the other Uplifted, the head continued to show signs of life even though it was still impaled on his sword. Quenching its flames, he stuck Cassielle’s weapon in the ground, and grabbed his own sword. “Rachel, we need to burn this thing.”

She grinned, “My pleasure.” With a wave, she conjured up a large stack of wood. With another, she set it alight. Emma had managed to stand up, and she helped him heave the body into the fire. Before she did, she pulled a symbol off its chest. Vladimir flicked the head off his blade and into the flames as well.

Jenna sat up with a groan, arms wrapped around herself. Seeing Evelyn lying on the ground, she hurried over to her. “Evie, are you okay?”

She opened her eyes slowly. “I’ve been better,” she replied with a meaningful glance at her injured shoulder. The blow had crushed her shoulder; blood oozed out of the wound and pieces of bone stuck up through her skin.

Jenna called, “Cassielle, we need some help here.” Receiving no answer, she glanced around. After a few moments, she spotted the petite medic sprawled on the ground, chest bloody. “Crap. Colonel, we need to help Cassielle,” she called.

“Jenna, lass, I think we have some bigger problems right now.” Something in the colonel’s tone made her look up. During their fight, Zhuravi troops had been standing around the circle of fire, waiting for a chance to attack. Now, though, on one side, they had moved aside, and were banging spear and sword on shield. Through this gap walked a figure in dark green lacquered wooden armor. It wore a silver inlaid black steel sallet helm with a full visor. While not quite as large as the other, it exuded an air of menace and power in the way it walked.

“Crap,” she swore again. “That must be the other one.”

“Really, I never would have guessed,” Evelyn said from the ground beside her.

The body of the first Uplifted was almost fully burnt. Vladimir called to Rachel, “Lass, how soon can we get out of here?”

“Grab Cassie and make sure we’re all touching,” she directed, glancing around nervously.

Vladimir hurried over to Cassielle’s limp form and picked her up very carefully. Even in full plate, he figured she weighed little more than a hundred pounds. “Someone, get her sword,” he called. Emma snagged it as she made her way over to Jenna and Evelyn.

The green-armored Uplifted stood a ways back from the wall of fire. Suddenly, it began chanting, and after a few moments, pointed its finger at them. A cone of arctic air shot out of its finger. It doused the wall of fire where it hit, but the wall stopped most of the cold from reaching them.

Jenna grabbed her bow and, with a small whimper of pain, shot three arrows at it. Her aim was true, but it ducked its head and the missiles bounced off its helmet. Jenna cursed and doubled over in pain, wrapping her arms around herself again. While the Uplifted raised its arms to cast another spell, the Zhuravi troops surged through the breach in the wall of fire.

Rachel threw a wall made of force into the gap. “Everybody, make sure you’re connected,” she said then started chanting another spell. Emma put her hand on Jenna and Rachel’s shoulders. Evelyn touched Jenna’s back with her good hand. Rachel reached back with her off hand and grabbed Cassielle’s arm. The diminutive medic was still unconscious and bleeding.

Apparently seeing them prepare to depart, the Uplifted bellowed in rage and threw itself into casting. Completing its first spell, it immediately began another. Vladimir looked around, trying to see what the first spell had accomplished. Abruptly a massive demon, a glabrezu, appeared out of thin air beside them. Rachel’s eyes widened, but she completed her incantation just before the Uplifted did.

The last thing Vladimir saw was a massive pincer coming at his head. Then the world went black.

* * *

Vladimir experienced a sensation of falling and being buffeted around a little. Then the world came back into view. The six of them were in exactly the same configuration, but now they were in a clearing in the forest. They stayed still for a moment then Rachel fell to her knees and dry-retched. Emma immediately knelt beside her, putting an arm around the mage’s shoulders.

All about them, the few birds still around took off, their cries piercing the still winter night. Other small nocturnal creatures burst out of their hiding-places and dashed off, startled by the group’s sudden appearance.

Vladimir lay Cassielle down gently and began removing her armor. Emma moved over to help him and Rachel followed a moment later. The mage flicked ball of light into the air. He glanced over at the blonde mage, “What happened back there?”

“He tried to cast a dimensional lock on us, but I got us out of there just as he cast it. If he’d gotten it off first we would have been stuck. As it was, we caught the very edge of it. That’s what caused the rough ride. And why we ended up off target; we’re about a half-mile from the horses.” She grimaced, “I guess we know which one we didn’t kill.”

He looked over at Emma, “And you grabbed the other one’s symbol. Victoria can probably identify which one we killed from that.”

By that point, he had finished removing all of Cassielle’s armor. He pulled off the padding underneath. Finally, he cut off her shirt, revealing her wound. Emma whistled softly and Rachel cursed under her breath. The Uplifted’s claws had made deep furrows from right shoulder to left hip. Her breastplate had been cut through cleanly and the chainmail beneath was shredded. Vladimir looked down at her broken form and didn’t know where to start healing her. The claws had shredded skin and muscle, cracked bone, and cut organs. Blood coated her chest and ran down her sides, painting the snow around her red.

Jenna made her way over to Cassielle, helping Evelyn stagger along. Jenna cursed quite vehemently when she saw the wound, but Evelyn was too hurt to notice.

Taking off her armor had jostled Cassielle, and, amazingly, she opened her eyes. “Start on my stomach,” she said, voice barely a whisper. “Then work your way up.”

Vladimir nodded and laid his hands on her abdomen. Whispering a prayer to Heironeous, he let his healing magic flow into her. The silver light knitted together her perforated organs and started to repair the muscles over them. She closed her eyes and gritted her teeth as the magic set in. Jenna reached out and took her hand. She gripped it tightly. Vladimir pushed more healing energy into her, and her abdominal muscles healed over. Cassielle tightened her hold on Jenna’s hand, making the other woman’s fingers turn white. However, at that point, the healing stopped and he sat back with a sigh.

Pulling his cross from under his armor, he began casting a healing spell on her. When he finished, Cassielle’s wounds finally healed completely, leaving her with a trio of slender white lines across her chest. These joined a surprisingly large collection of other scars on her torso.

She sat up with a groan and looked down at herself. “You do nice work, colonel.” Continuing to examine herself, she commented, “That’s a lot of blood. Could you grab some snow, Emma?”

Vladimir suddenly realized that the young woman was half-naked. He quickly turned away and moved over to where Evelyn lay. “How’re you doing, lass?’

Her face was very pale, but she managed to smile slightly. “Well, I think my arm and my foot are about to fall off, but otherwise I’m okay.” She winced when he helped her lie down. Blood coated her right shoulder and flowed down her side. Her foot made an odd angle with her leg and pieces of bone stuck out through her flesh.

He looked down at her leg. “Lass, I’m going to have to set it before I heal you.”

She nodded and gritted her teeth. Jenna moved over and took her hand. Evelyn smiled up at her, “You seem to be the hand-holder tonight.” Then she gritted her teeth as Vladimir grasped her leg in his hands. Gripping it tightly, he set her ankle back into place, the bone pushing back through the bloody flesh. Evelyn bit her lip until she tasted the iron tang of blood in her mouth. Tears sprang to her eyes, but, finally, it was over.

Vladimir felt pressure on his shoulder. He glanced up and saw that Cassielle was standing beside him, using him for support, her small hand resting on his shoulder. She was wearing her shirt again, the tattered fabric magically mended. “I’ll heal her,” she said. He helped Cassielle kneel next to Evelyn. The medic laid her hands on the mage’s leg and let the magic do its work. Once it had mended, she moved up to Evelyn’s shoulder and healed it as well.

As Evelyn sat up, Jenna slumped forward into her arms. Evelyn exclaimed, “Cassie, her ribs.” She quickly unlaced the Jenna’s studded leather armor and pulled up the young woman’s shirt. Dark bruises discolored her chest where the Uplifted had hit her, and the area looked slightly caved-in.

Cassielle cursed softly then gently laid her hands on Jenna. Whispering a prayer, she guided the magic into the wound. The bones popped back into place, and the discoloration vanished, leaving her skin unblemished.

Vladimir looked around at his group, “Everyone ready to go?”

The five young women nodded and stood to leave, but Cassielle stumbled and nearly fell. Vladimir quickly reached out to steady her and started to help her walk. However, he could see that she was still weak, so he simply picked her up and carried her.

“You know I really hate being carried,” she protested.

“Would you rather I left you behind?”

She glared at him, “No. But it still doesn’t make me happy.”

Emma grinned over at her. “You aren’t happy? You’re in the arms of one of the most handsome man in the regiment and you’re complaining?”

Vladimir glanced over at the young captain, eyebrows raised. “I don’t think you’re supposed to think about your superior officers that way, lass. Besides, I thought you had given up on men.”

She grinned, “I have, but that doesn’t mean I don’t look. Or judge. Heck, even Jenna thinks you’re good-looking.” She glanced over at the archer, who nodded. “See what I mean.”

Vladimir was quite startled. While it was hard to forget that they were young women, he hadn’t ever really thought about their interests in men. He gave Jenna an incredulous look, but she nodded again.

Emma went on, “In fact, most of the girls talk about you quite a lot.”

Rachel elbowed her playfully, “Em, you’re not supposed to tell him. It’s supposed to be between us girls.”

“Well, since he knows just about everything else that goes on in this unit…” She shrugged, “I wanted to see if I could surprise him.”

He snorted, “I’d say you’ve succeeded. Although it’s not like it’s the first time.”

“Oh, it’s not?’

“Nope. I was surprised to find out about the two of you.” Vladimir glanced over at Rachel meaningfully.

“It’s not like it’s that uncommon.” She gave him an exasperated look.

“But I didn’t expect three of ten-” he began.

“Three?” She interrupted.

“Yes, Natalie and Rose too,” he said in an off-hand manner. “I though you knew about it.”

“That’s the first I’ve heard about it.” She glanced over at Rachel.

The mage shrugged, “Same for me.”

Emma thought for a moment, “Although, I probably should have guessed. I mean, with the way they look at each other, and the little gestures.” She glanced over at Vladimir sharply, “How do you know all this?”

“Let me see.” He glanced over at Jenna, “With the two of you, I figured it was only a matter of time. And the way you were acting the morning of the battle…”

“And Natalie and us?” Emma asked.

“That was actually simpler; the general told me in the dispatches.”

“How does she know?” Rachel asked, incredulous.

“Well, first of all, it’s a commanding officer’s job to know anything that might affect his or her troops’ functionality. Second, Lord Voln knows a little about you guys.” Vladimir grinned, “The general’s very thorough; she had files on all of her troops, particularly the officers. She must have asked her father.”

A shout ended their conversation. “There you are, sir. Steph and I were starting to worry,” Hazel said as they approached the rendezvous point.

Samantha, Cassielle’s horse, immediately trotted over to her, whickering in concern. The medic reached out and stroked her magical steed’s head. “I’ll be alright girl. Don’t worry.” To Vladimir, “You can put me down now; Sam will take care of me.”

He set her down gently then helped her mount. He mounted Jeremy, and the rest of them followed suit. Without a word, he set off into the dark forest.

Copyright © Scott Schaper, 2012

List of Characters

The King’s Own Legion

First Regiment
Colonel Vladimir Kapov-Age 36
Victoria-Age 25
Regimental Sergeant Major William Morell-Age 56

First Company
Captain Natalie Sanchez-Age 26
Rose-Age 23
Company Sergeant Major Franchesca Rivers-Age 24

Lieutenant Monique Oleron-Age 21

Second Company
Captain Emma Athney-Age 20
Rachel Hawk-Age 19
Company Sergeant Major Anastasia Romanof-Age 16

Third Company
Captain Victor Marsters-Age 45
Ginerva Marks-Age 33

Fourth Company
Captain Justin Pierce-Age 29
Jenny Gilbert-Age 26

First Platoon
Lieutenant Demetri Kallov-Age 26

Seventh Company
Captain Hannah Rockwell-Age 23
Verity-Age 21

Second Platoon
Sergeant Hazel Riss-Age 17
Private Laura Thompson-Age 14
Private Stephanie Allen-Age 14
Private Jillian Olsen-Age 15

Eighth Company
Captain Benjamin Halest-Age 43
Ivo-Age 39

Ninth Company
Captain Annabelle Diego-Age 22
Arkana-Age 21

Thirteenth Company
Captain Jenna Miskovitz-Age 20
Evelyn Graham-Age 20

Eighteenth Company
Captain Glenvara Lake-Age 24
Daphne-Age 20

Regimental Scout Company
Captain Jason Thompson-Age 32
Octavia-Age 29
Company Sergeant Major Christine Mede-Age 27

Sergeant James Black-Age 17
Corporal Grigori Kulikov-Age 23
Private Daniel Fitzpatrick-Age 16

First Platoon, First Ranger Company
Captain Kristine Douglas-Age 23

Regimental Medical Unit
First Lieutenant Cassielle Archalus-Age 15

Second Company, Menzobarian Rangers
Captain Grace Azvar-Age 17
Emily Athney-Age 18
Company Sergeant Major Alexandra Voln-Age 19

"Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction." - Ronald Reagan
"Judge them not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." - Martin Luther King, Jr.
"Pick up a rifle and you change instantly from a subject to a citizen." - Jeff Cooper
"I like my enemies like James Bond likes his martinis- shaken, not stirred."
My first book, The King's Own
posted 18 September 2014 06:16 EDT (US)     33 / 54  
Nice battle scenes. The timing was well done, though I might have had the bit about the infiltrators first then cut away when they throw the wall of aqua fire, or do the scouts setting up, then the infiltration, then cut back to the scouts when the wall goes up, then finish up with the infiltrators. But that is just a matter of taste. Your way works, too.

I am a little concerned about the constant use of first names. For the first, I get confused easily (Vikings deep in mead get that way), but the main thing is that these officers seem waaaaaay too friendly. Friendly =/= professional, and they fight like professionals. So this does not compute. I realize that they are all friends and such (some more than just friends) but in the presence of enlisted folks at least, they should be referred to (and written as) Rank and Name, to show the proper respect etc. Again, a matter of taste. But taste affects nuances, and nuances affect the experience of the reader.

|||||||||||||||| A transplanted Viking, born a millennium too late. |||||||||||||||||
|||||||||||||||| Too many Awards to list in Signature, sorry lords...|||||||||||||||||
|||||||||||||||| Listed on my page for your convenience and envy.|||||||||||||||||
Somewhere over the EXCO Rainbow
Master Skald, Order of the Silver Quill, Guild of the Skalds
Champion of the Sepia Joust- Joust I, II, IV, VI, VII, VIII
posted 06 October 2014 05:22 EDT (US)     34 / 54  
Sorry for the delay in the next chapter, but life has been a little crazy lately. Here it is:


21st of Grakuary, 599
Northern Menzobaria, Arbatros

Cassielle awoke to find herself lying on an unfamiliar cot in a strange tent. Sitting up, she realized she only had on a light silk nightgown. While the smooth material felt good against her bare skin, she missed the solid feel of her armor. With that thought, she also realized that she didn’t know where her weapons were. Glancing around, she saw another cot, its bedding folded meticulously. In one corner a set of saddlebags were neatly arranged on top of a small chest. A low-burning lamp sat on the chest. Two chairs and a table sat in another corner. Other than that, the tent was empty.

Looking down, she saw her sword and longknives lying on the ground next to her. Hearing movement outside the tent, she drew one of the shorter blades. The wire and leather wrapped hilt felt good in her hand, and she pulled her blanket up over her chest.

The tent flap opened, letting in a murky ray of sunlight. A tall person ducked into the tent and let the flap close. The figure straightened, revealing a worried looking Vladimir. Cassielle breathed a sigh of relief and lowered her longknife.

“Good morning, Cassie. How’re you feeling?” He asked.

Cassielle paused for a moment to consider his question. Her stomach rumbled, and she replied, “Hungry.”

Vladimir grinned and held up a plate. “I figured as much.” He started to hand the plate to her, but hesitated. “I’m giving it to you; you don’t have to stab me for it,” he said lightly.

Smelling bacon and eggs, she had reached for the plate with both hands, one of which still held her longknife. Grinning sheepishly, she set her blade down next to her and took the plate.

Vladimir pulled up one of the chairs and sat down next to her bed. She ate quickly, and within a few moments, she was done. There came a tapping at the door of the tent. Vladimir called, “Come in.”

Stephanie entered the tent carrying a pile of clothes and armor. “I brought you some new clothes. And I had your armor cleaned. However, the smith had to make you a new breastplate. He said it was damaged beyond repair.” She set them on the table.

Vladimir smiled, “Thank you Stephanie.” The young woman turned to leave. However, Vladimir directed, “Wait around outside for a little while. I need to talk to you.” She nodded and left.

“What happened? I remember getting on Sam and riding part of the way back. Did I fall off Sam or something?” Cassielle asked.

Vladimir nodded, “You lost a lot of blood and passed out on the way back. Stephanie managed to catch you, but just barely.”

A thought suddenly occurred to her, and she looked at the colonel sharply. “Who put me in this?” She gestured to the nightgown.

He smiled slightly, “Jenna and Evelyn. I made sure to stay out of the tent until they were done. As for the style, your clothes were totally wrecked, so they borrowed it from Victoria. If you have any issues with how it looks, you’ll have to take them up with her.”

“No, it’s fine. I was just wondering.”

She started to stand, but Vladimir put his hand on her shoulder. “You need to rest some more. You can’t just shrug off a wound like that.”

“But you’ll need me for the battle,” she protested.

“I will; however, nothing’s going to happen until this afternoon or evening.” She looked puzzled, so he continued. “Jenna, Evelyn, and Natalie are out right now, scouting. They reported that the Creator’s still marching towards us. Based on his position and rate of travel, he’ll be here sometime this afternoon or later.”

“How come they get to go out?” She asked, her tone a little whiny.

“Because they didn’t get ripped open last night. Or fall off their horse,” he replied with a smile.

She waved his comments away, “Details, details.”

He gave her a skeptical look, eyebrows raised. “Are you going to be good and rest, or am I going to have to tie you down?”

She lay back down, “No, I’ll be good. But make sure you send someone to get me.”

“Oh, don’t worry lass; I’m going to need you later.” He patted her shoulder, stood, and left.

Cassielle closed her eyes and rolled onto her side.

* * *

Vladimir stepped out of his tent into the bright midday sun. Jillian and Hazel stood guard in front of the tent, talking with Stephanie. Upon seeing him, the three girls braced to attention.

“Hazel, Jill, stay here and make sure Cassie doesn’t try to get up. Stephanie, walk with me,” he ordered.

He headed off towards one side of the camp, the teenager following him. In a few moments, they reached the cavalry area of the camp, where Hannah was speaking with a pair of scouts. The two riders trotted away as they approached.

Vladimir greeted the cavalry captain, “Good day, Hannah. Did Jenna and Natalie have anything new to report?”

She turned to them, “No sir, they just said the Creator is advancing at the expected pace. And, as usual, they’ll let us know if the situation changes.”

He nodded, “Good.” He paused, “I have a request to make.”

“Ask away, sir.”

“I’d like to add Sergeant Riss, Corporal Harper, and Private Allen to my bodyguard.” He paused, “However, I feel that I might be weakening your unit unreasonably. Obviously, I don’t want that.”

“It shouldn’t be a problem sir. If it becomes one, I’ll let you know.”

“Thank you Hannah.” He looked around, “Where might I find Corporal Harper?”

“She’s somewhere over there.” The captain pointed towards one side of the company’s area. Walking through the cavalry camp took Vladimir back to his early days in the army. When he first joined the cavalry, he was the most senior enlisted man in his platoon, since the unit didn’t have a platoon sergeant. Therefore, despite his lack of formal experience, he became the de facto platoon sergeant. He remembered many long nights working with his lieutenant, poring over supply and personnel reports, and long days spent riding and fighting.

The sight of a young woman grooming her horse brought him back to the present. She had black hair pulled up behind her head in a tight bun and wore the full plate of the heavy cavalry. However, unlike the rest of the cavalry, she carried a long-handled sword strapped diagonally across her back next to a short bow. At her hips were a pair of light axes and a short sword. All of her weapons had black leather and silver wire wrapped hilts.

“Corporal Rayelle Harper?” He asked.

The young woman turned, “Yes sir, that’s me.”

Seeing her face for the first time, he was a little startled by how young she looked. However, he knew she was a corporal, and probably the older than the three privates. “I’m pulling you for bodyguard duty, lass. I hope you don’t mind.”

“No sir, not at all. After all, I get to be with my friends.” Seemingly as an afterthought, “And it’s quite an honor, or so I’ve heard.”

Vladimir smiled in spite of himself, “As have I.” He looked over her mount, a fierce-looking black Arabian. He noted its well-polished coat and well-kept silver-studded black leather tack. Extending his hand towards the horse, he gave her a questioning look. She nodded, and he reached out and ran his hand along the animal’s nose. “She’s a beautiful horse.”

“Thank you sir. Her name’s Lamara. My father used to breed horses before he left Indar. He gave her to me when I joined the army.” She smiled at the horse and stroked its mane lightly.

He turned to Stephanie, “Do you have your horse nearby?” She nodded. “Go grab it then.” She saluted and jogged off.

“Are we going somewhere?” Rayelle asked.

“I want to access the Creator’s forces’ disposition myself. I want the two of you to come along,” he replied.

She nodded and began putting an unusual mix of chain and plate barding on Lamara.

A few moments later, Vladimir summoned Jeremy to his side. The magnificent white Percheron snorted and tossed its head. Vladimir smiled and patted the massive horse’s neck. “This is Jeremy. He’s my horse.”

It was her turn to reach out her hand. Jeremy stepped forward and butted his armored nose against her palm. Rayelle laughed and rubbed his jaw. Vladimir smiled, “He says hello.” He paused for a moment, head a little to the side, as if listening, “He likes you.”

She gave him an incredulous look, eyebrows raised, “You know what he’s thinking, sir?”

“I’m a paladin; we have an empathic bond. Plus, he’s smarter than many humans are. Just another benefit of having a magical horse.”

Stephanie’s return interrupted Rayelle’s reply.

Vladimir swung up onto Jeremy, “Let’s visit Natalie, shall we.”

* * *

Natalie slipped through a row of bushes, her enchanted armor absolutely silent. Reaching the bushes near the trail, she crouched down next to Jenna and Evelyn. “Hello ladies,” she greeted them in a whisper.

The young captain turned to face her. “Not bad for an infantry type,” she whispered with a grin.

“Just because I don’t carry a bow doesn’t mean I’m not a ranger,” Natalie whispered back. “What do you see?”

“I think they’ve split off part of their force in an attempt to flank us.” Jenna pointed to three of the Zhuravi companies. “Those three have changed their position in the column. That one in front used to be in the middle, and-”

“You’re right,” Natalie interrupted. She swore, then turned to Evelyn, “Evelyn, get a message to command. Tell them to expect an imminent attack.”

The mage nodded, quickly cast a spell, and murmured a few words into thin air. She paused for a moment, listening to Victoria’s reply. Halfway through, she cursed softly. Glancing over at Natalie she said, “The colonel’s on his way here. But the force they split off is right behind him.”

“You mean right between all of us and the rest of the regiment?” Natalie asked, tone dry.

“Yeah, that too,” Evelyn answered with a grim smile.

“We’d better get back to the troops,” Natalie said.

Jenna nodded, and the three women began moving slowly through the undergrowth. Making it back to the clearing, Natalie shouted at the troops, “We need to get ready to go, right now! Rangers, pair up with a scout. You’re going to have to ride double.”

Cassandra and James jogged up to her. James immediately asked Natalie, “What’s going on ma’am?”

“The Creator just separated his forces. He sent at least half-a-dozen companies to flank the regiment. It just so happens that they’re now between us and the camp.” She turned to Jenna, “They must have kept moving when the rest of his men stopped around noon.” Looking back at Sandra and James, “And it gets even better; the colonel’s going to be here any moment now.”

“Speaking of the devil,” Jenna said, Vladimir having just ridden into the clearing.

Glancing around at the scouts helping rangers onto their horses behind them, he rode over to the officers. “Good thinking, Natalie,” he gestured to the troops. “Do you three have rides?”

Natalie grinned sheepishly, “No we don’t. Jenna forgot to bring the chariot.”

Jenna put her hands on her hips. “It’s too much of a pain to get the bloody thing between the trees. Besides, Evie refused to stealth it, and I am not going to ride around in an unsilenced battlewagon.”

Vladimir shook his head with a grin. “Well then. Lass, you’re with Rayelle. Evelyn, you can ride with Stephanie.” Looking down at Natalie, “And I guess that leaves you with me.”

As the infantry captain scanned the clearing to make sure everybody was mounted, her eyes widened. Zhuravi spearmen in half-plate charged out into the clearing from all sides. “Look sharp! We’re under attack!” She shouted. Then, drawing her twin shasquas, the curved swords used by the Indari, she charged across the glade towards the attacking Zhuravi soldiers. Drawing his own blade, Vladimir urged Jeremy after her.

Evelyn brought her hands together, palms on top of each other, parallel to the ground. Speaking a single word, crackling with power, she slashed her hands outward. Sheets of aqua flame saturated the forest in front of her.

Natalie skidded to a stop, but the flames didn’t reach her or the first few lines of Zhuravi. However, the sudden silence behind them indicated the fate of their fellow soldiers. Seeing the diminished number of enemy before her, Natalie attacked the nearest soldier, one blade batting aside his spear while the other dashed in for a killing blow.

Having cleared a path, Evelyn sprang up behind Stephanie. She slid her left arm around the young woman’s torso, holding herself on tightly. “Ride for the camp!” She yelled at the scouts.

James, hearing her command, spurred his horse forward toward the few remaining Zhuravi. Sandra rode pillion behind him, sword in one hand, the other wrapped tightly around him. James grinned slightly until Sandra hissed, “Don’t get any ideas,” in his ear. The rest of the scouts urged their mounts after him.

“Turn around,” Evelyn said to Stephanie, “And you might want to cover your ears.” With that, she began chanting. The young woman turned her horse to face the other side of the clearing and clapped her hands to her ears. The other company of heavy infantry rushed towards them. Evelyn completed the short incantation and opened her mouth, emitting a horrific screech. In front of her, twenty of the approaching Zhuravi soldiers clutched their ears and keeled over, dead.

Jenna stood beside them, loosing arrows as fast as she could. Her black-fletched shafts sped out, dropping several enemy soldiers. Lowering her lance, Rayelle charged past the archer, and skewered one of the spearmen. Her lance punched through his chest, but shattered as she passed. Dropping the now-useless handle, she drew one of her axes and hacked at another enemy foot soldier.

Meanwhile, Vladimir and Natalie carved through the few survivors of the first company. The infantry captain twirled and spun, her blades slipping past desperate parries and between armor segments. Jeremy barreled through the Zhuravi infantry’s disorganized ranks, throwing men to the ground, while Vladimir slashed and hacked from the saddle.

James and Sandra led the scouts and rangers through the tattered Zhuravi infantry line. However, more enemy infantry burst out of the bushes, followed by dozens of crossbowmen. Fiona, riding behind Grigori, called out to the ranger squad’s mage, Renee Owen. “Renee, do something!”

Nodding, the young mage chanted a short incantation. Finishing, she laid a wall of fire to the left of their path. The Zhuravi soldiers recoiled from the flames, allowing the scouts and rangers to cut their way through the few troops on their side of the fire. Shortly after they broke out into the open forest, a Zhuravi mage managed to dispel the wall. However, by then, the Arbatrosians had already escaped.

Glancing back, James realized that none of the officers was with them. He looked at Sandra, her expression of dismay mirroring his own. However, when he started to turn his horse back, she yelled at him. “Don’t go back! Evelyn told us to go.” She bit her lip nervously and added, “Plus, they’ll be fine.”

* * *

Evelyn flung a swarm of magic missiles at the rapidly advancing infantry. “Time to leave,” she said to Stephanie, her breath tickling the younger woman’s ear. “Head to the right.” Wheeling her horse, Stephanie urged it towards the tree line.

Behind them, Rayelle broke out of a knot of Zhuravi infantry, decapitating one and shattering another’s ribcage. Urging Lamara forward, she slung her shield across her back. As she passed Jenna, she reached down for her. Firing a last arrow, Jenna grabbed Rayelle’s arm and swung herself up behind the slender corporal.

Finishing a Zhuravi mage with a backhand slash, Vladimir looked around for Natalie. For a moment, he couldn’t see her; then he spotted her in the middle of a clump of infantry. Urging Jeremy forward, he galloped to her, cutting down the few enemies that stood in his path. Blood and gore sprayed up with each blow, spattering his armor and running down his blade. Reaching Natalie, he turned Jeremy sharply and swept his sword across. He slashed three men across the back, the momentum of the turn allowing his blade to shear through their plate armor with ease.

Switching his sword to his off hand, Vladimir offered Natalie his hand. With a thought, she set her blades on fire and killed a pair of startled soldiers. Their blood steamed and sizzled as the flames burned it off. Extinguishing her blades’ flames and sheathing them in one smooth motion, Natalie grabbed his hand and swung up behind him. She wrapped both arms around him. “I think it’s time we got out of here.”

Urging Jeremy forward, Vladimir replied, “I’d be inclined to agree.” A crossbow bolt whistling past his head punctuated his statement.

“You’re smarter than you look, aren’t you?” Natalie asked playfully.

“Why would that be?” He asked somewhat distractedly as he focused on guiding Jeremy between the trees.

“Because I’m the one sitting between you and the arrows.”

“Purely coincidental. Besides, lass, you’re the one who got on back there.”

“It’s not like you gave me much-,” she suddenly grunted and tightened her grip on him, finishing in a hiss, “-choice.”

“Are you alright lass?” He asked, concerned.

“Oh, I’m perfectly fine. Except for the crossbow bolt sticking out of my leg,” she replied sarcastically.

“Hang on lass.” He urged Jeremy to go faster, but the magical warhorse had already sped up. Natalie hissed in pain when Jeremy leapt a fallen tree.

More crossbow bolts and arrows sped after them. Zhuravi light cavalry thundered through the brush behind them, and Vladimir pushed Jeremy to go faster. Lowering his head, the powerfully built Percheron surged forward, outpacing their pursuers and gaining on Stephanie and Rayelle even though he bore two riders.

Hearing hoof-beats, Evelyn turned back to see an entire company of light cavalry racing after Vladimir and Natalie. Grinning wickedly, she began casting one of her more powerful spells. Completing the incantation, she flicked her hand behind her, releasing the magic. A wall of swirling colors immediately sprung up behind Vladimir. The pursuing Zhuravi cavalry, surprised by its sudden appearance, slammed into the wall. The screams of the dying trailed the six as they galloped out of the forest. They slowed a little as they broke out onto the plain. Vladimir called over to Evelyn, “Can they get through that?”

“Nope. And anybody who tries is going to end up dead or wishing they were,” she replied. “Furthermore, they’ll have a heck of a time getting rid of it.”

Natalie had her hand pressed against her thigh, but blood ran over her fingers and down her leg. Gripping the bolt, she gritted her teeth and ripped it out. The barbed tip tore her flesh and came out in a spray of blood. She nearly fainted, slumping against Vladimir. After a moment, she sat up. “Does anyone have a short flaming blade?”

“I’ve got a longknife,” Jenna replied. Rayelle guided Lamara over towards Vladimir. Jenna drew one of her two and extended it to Natalie.

The infantry captain took it, her blood darkening the black leather-wrapped hilt. With a thought, she triggered the blade’s fire. Bracing herself, she pressed the flaming steel to her wound. The blood on her thigh sizzled in the flames, and the cloying smell of burnt flesh rose from her leg. She gasped in pain and tightened her grip on Vladimir. He took her hand in his, squeezing it tightly. Once the wound was fully cauterized, she lifted the longknife off the burnt flesh. Extinguishing the flames, she passed the longknife back to Jenna. “Thanks.” While her voice was steady, her hand trembled a little as she held out the weapon.

* * *

A brisk wind carried steel-grey clouds through the sky. Their somber ranks rolled across the heavens and obscured the sun. More clouds, fat with rain, began to join them, and by the time Vladimir reached the camp, the first flashes of lightning could be seen off to the south. He rode into the encampment, where the regiment was rushing around, preparing for the approaching enemy.

Urging Jeremy forward, he made his way through the camp to the medical tents. Pulling up in front of the main tent, he waited for Jenna and Evelyn to dismount. Then the two young women lifted Natalie down and helped her into the tent.

At their arrival, Cassielle looked up from where she was bandaging Fiona’s arm. Winding the white linen around the young woman’s arm a final time, she tied it neatly and stood.

“Where do you want her?” Jenna asked the diminutive medic.

“Just hold on to her,” she replied. Bending down, she examined the crudely cauterized wound. Despite Natalie’s efforts, it still bled; her pants leg was soaked, and blood had run down into her boot.

“You’re completely insane, ma’am,” Cassielle said to the captain.

“Me? Crazy?” Natalie asked, faking indignation. In response to Cassielle’s raised eyebrow, she sighed, “Well, maybe just a little.”

Shaking her head, Cassielle pressed her hands against the captain’s leg. Whispering a short prayer, she let the healing magic flow into the wound. Golden light suffused the hole, sealing it and leaving a small white dot on Natalie’s olive skin.

Letting go of Jenna and Evelyn, Natalie stood up straight, putting weight on her now-healed leg. She took a couple of steps, then turned to Cassielle. “You do good work, Cassie. Thanks.”

Cassielle smiled at her, “No problem ma’am.”

Suddenly, Rose rushed into the tent. Seeing Natalie standing there, she stopped. “I thought you got hurt.”

Natalie grinned at her, “I did. But Cassie here fixed me up.” Then she walked over and hugged the slender mage tightly.

“Stop worrying me like that,” Rose reprimanded.

“Sorry love. You know I try not to,” Natalie replied. Then she kissed Rose lightly on the lips.

Rayelle and Stephanie, who had entered the medical tent after Rose, exchanged surprised looks. Evelyn leaned against Jenna, who put her arms around her mage.

Vladimir motioned for Cassielle, Rayelle, Stephanie, and Fiona to follow him and exited the tent. “What happened to you, Fiona?”

“Oh, I got clipped by a crossbow bolt. It’s just a little cut, nothing to slow me down,” she replied.

“Good. You’ll need to be at your best this afternoon. Some of the Zhuravi are from the Creator’s personal division. Now, why don’t you report to Sandra and get ready.”

“Of course, sir.” She saluted and headed off toward the scouts’ area.

Looking over at Cassielle, he asked the petite medic, “Feeling better, Cassie?”

“Much.” She paused for a moment. “You’ll have to remind me not to get half-killed next time, though.”

“Indeed. Rayelle, I’ll let you do that,” Vladimir said.

“Why me?” The young corporal protested.

“Because I want Cassie to be part of my command team. And you’re going to take care of her.” He held up his hand to forestall any other objections. “That’s an order, girls; deal with it.” At Cassielle, “And you need someone to watch your back when you’re healing us.” He stopped walking. “In fact, why don’t you two get to know each other right now. I won’t need you for a few minutes.” The two young women stared at him. “Go on, shoo.”

They scowled at him, but walked off together.

Shaking his head, Vladimir continued walking until he reached his tent. Victoria was sitting in front of the tent, leaning over a small mirror. Hazel, Jillian, and Laura stood behind her. Hearing his approach, she looked up with a frown.

“Hey lass, what’s the Creator up to?”

“Well, first, he executed the commander of the unit you tangled with. He’s been yelling at his remaining officers since then.” She looked back down at the scrying mirror. “Oh, now we’ve got some action.” She peered at it more intently, “Crap.” Quickly, she whispered a spell. Glancing up at Vladimir, “He just noticed I was scrying him.”

“Thanks for the update, lass. Just keep an eye on his forces. I don’t want anybody else trying to flank us today.”

“I’ll have one of the girls let you know if anything changes,” Victoria replied.

Vladimir nodded and started walking over to where his officers stood around the strategy table. William joined him before he arrived, the older man nodding a greeting. “How’re the troops doing?” Vladimir asked.

“They all heard about your little run-in with the Zhuravi.” He grinned, “The rumor is that you single-handedly slaughtered an entire company. At this rate, you’ll be nearly a legend by the time we get to Ereth Chul.”

Vladimir smiled back, “I only killed a few squads. If you want someone who was killing off companies, that’d be Evelyn.”


“Yeah, she used some sort of fire spell that took out most of an infantry company. And she killed most of their light cavalry with a prismatic wall when they tried to chase us.” He shook his head, “She’s very good for her age and experience.”

William nodded, but didn’t reply, as they had reached the table. Off to one side, Emma and Benjamin were in the middle of a heated argument. Glenvara and Annabelle stood next to Emma, while Justin and Victor backed Benjamin. Kristine, Hannah, Jason, and the princess stood to the side, simply watching.

“Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen,” he greeted them. “Ben, Emma, is there a problem?” He asked, glancing between them.

“Apparently I’m ‘not qualified’ to lead second company,” Emma spat. While she spoke to Vladimir, her gaze stayed fixed on Benjamin.

“What’s this Ben?” Vladimir looked over at the older captain.

The infantry captain crossed his arms over his chest. “She’s not qualified to lead the second company. She doesn’t have the age or the skill to be second company commander in the King’s Own Legion. I’ve been in the army for longer than she’s been alive. Heck, I was probably in the Obsidian Legion before she was born.”

“So you feel that she’s too young and inexperienced for her rank and position?” Vladimir asked.

“Yeah,” Benjamin replied.

“And the fact that she’s a girl doesn’t help, does it, Ben?”

“What?” He glared at Vladimir. “You think I have a problem with that?”

“I don’t know. But it seems to me that you might. After all, when you went looking for people to support you, I don’t see you asking any of the female officers.” He gestured at Victor and Justin standing behind Benjamin.

Benjamin began to get huffy, “Who are you to judge me-”

Vladimir cut him off. “I’m your senior officer, Captain Halest,” he snapped. “Besides, who are you to judge Emma?” The other man started to protest, but Vladimir kept talking. “She ran away from home at age fourteen with just Rachel, her little sister, and another girl. The four of them managed to walk to Marebes in Zhurav across the Orc lands.” Emma looked surprised, but he didn’t notice. “Then, once they got there, she helped support them by becoming a gladiator in the arenas. And she fought there for eight months against men many times her age and size, but she’s here today, and they aren’t. You didn’t know that, did you? Did you even bother to think about why she might be second company commander? And don’t even get me started on what she’s done since she signed up.”

Still belligerent, Benjamin began to say something, but Vladimir interrupted him again. “Oh, I know you've done some pretty impressive things yourself, and I’m not belittling that. But you might want to consider that the general put her where she is for a good reason. If you’re questioning her placement, you’re questioning the general’s judgment. Think about that for a moment.”

Benjamin seemed to deflate, lowering his head and sighing.

Vladimir put his arm around the other man’s shoulders and took him aside.

Scrubbing his face with his hands, the captain whispered, “My God, what’s gotten into me?”

“I don’t know, Ben.” Vladimir looked at him with concern, “What’s really the problem?”

Benjamin sighed, “It’s just, seeing her. She reminds me so much of my niece, Mary. But she can’t even keep her husband’s house in order.”

“But Emma’s not your niece. She’s a highly competent captain in the King’s Own.”

“I may know that in my head, but not my gut.” He grinned bitterly, “And the fact that she’s a better fighter than I am doesn’t make it any better.”

Vladimir nodded, “I know what you mean.” At the captain’s glance, he elaborated, “When I was training as a paladin, they were just starting to let girls into the program. A year before I graduated, I got put in charge of a class of new students. And the very best one was a girl.” He paused for a moment, remembering. “And that really bothered me for a while.”

Benjamin looked at him, “Are you over that now?”

“Yes. Now that I’ve worked with Victoria for eight years, I have a better appreciation of female soldiers. And she was just a girl, even younger than Emma is now, when she became my company mage.”

Benjamin shook his head, “I’m sorry sir, but I don’t know if I’ll be able to get over it.”

“You don’t have to, the way I have, but you have to at least be able to put those feelings aside when you’re working with female officers. And I’m not the one you should be apologizing to.” He gave the captain a meaningful look.

Benjamin nodded, and the two men made their way back to the rest of the officers. By that point, Natalie, Jenna, and Josephine had joined the group. Benjamin walked up to Emma. He paused for a moment. “I’m sorry I questioned your competence Captain Athney,” he said stiffly.

“I accept your apology, Captain Halest,” she replied, equally formal.

Vladimir nodded to them then turned to the rest of his officers. “Alright folks, let’s gather round and figure out our deployment.” The twelve captains stepped up to the table, and Vladimir began briefing them. “Based upon the Creator’s current route, we’re going to have the battle in the field, here. We should move out soon so we can be formed up when they arrive.”

“Anything special about our deployment?” Natalie asked.

“No, not really. I’m thinking standard formation, infantry line with archers and artillery behind and rangers and cavalry on the flanks. For the line, Glenvara, you’ll be on the left, then Benjamin, Natalie, and Emma. William, you’re in charge of the right. Josephine, can you take the left?”

She nodded, “Sure.”

“Thanks. Annabelle, you’ll be on the left, Jenna, on the right. Your highness, could you give Kristine one of your platoons?”

“Of course. Which flank do you want me on?” The princess asked.

“I’d like you on the left. Kristine will take the right.” He paused for a moment, thinking. “Justin, you’ll back up Princess Grace, Victor, you’re in the center, and Hannah, you and I’ll take right. Jason, you go wherever we think needs the most help.”

Jason nodded, “I think I’ll deploy next to Victor’s company.”

“Good. Well, ladies and gentlemen, I think that just about sums up our formation. See to your troops; we’ll move out shortly.” As he turned away from them, Natalie caught his eye, and he waved for her to follow him. Then he started walking back to his tent. Stephanie trailed him, and Natalie walked quickly to catch up with him.

Turning to Stephanie, he commanded, “Lass, could you find Rayelle and Cassie and bring them to my tent please?”

“Yes sir.” She saluted and hurried off through the tents.

Now alone with olive-skinned infantry captain, he stopped. “What did you want to talk to me about, Natalie?”

She glanced at the departing officers then back at him. “What’s going on between Benjamin and Emma?”

Vladimir sighed, “The old order dealing with the new.” At Natalie’s slightly puzzled look, he continued. “Basically, Benjamin’s resentful that a younger woman commands second company while he’s only got eighth company.”

Natalie nodded her head in understanding, “And he was in the army before women really started to be leaders.”

“Exactly. I chewed him out about that, and for not realizing that Emma’s better at this than he is.” He paused, “That’s why I put your unit between his and hers.”

Her eyebrows rose, “You think it’s going to be a problem in the field?”

“No, not really, but just to make sure. Besides, I figured you might want to be next her,” he replied.

“Thanks. And thanks for earlier,” she said.

“It’s no problem, lass.” He stepped forward quickly and hugged her, his armor clinking slightly where it met hers.

Slightly surprised, it took her a moment before she hugged him back. Releasing him, she moved back. “I’d better make sure my soldiers are ready,” she said. He nodded, and she made her way through the camp.

Copyright © Scott Schaper, 2012

List of Characters

The King’s Own Legion

First Regiment
Colonel Vladimir Kapov-Age 36
Victoria-Age 25
Regimental Sergeant Major William Morell-Age 56

First Company
Captain Natalie Sanchez-Age 26
Rose-Age 23
Company Sergeant Major Franchesca Rivers-Age 24

Lieutenant Monique Oleron-Age 21

Second Company
Captain Emma Athney-Age 20
Rachel Hawk-Age 19
Company Sergeant Major Anastasia Romanof-Age 16

Third Company
Captain Victor Marsters-Age 45
Ginerva Marks-Age 33

Fourth Company
Captain Justin Pierce-Age 29
Jenny Gilbert-Age 26

First Platoon
Lieutenant Demetri Kallov-Age 26

Seventh Company
Captain Hannah Rockwell-Age 23
Verity-Age 21

Second Platoon
Sergeant Hazel Riss-Age 17
Private Laura Thompson-Age 14
Private Stephanie Allen-Age 14
Private Jillian Olsen-Age 15

Eighth Company
Captain Benjamin Halest-Age 43
Ivo-Age 39

Ninth Company
Captain Annabelle Diego-Age 22
Arkana-Age 21

Thirteenth Company
Captain Jenna Miskovitz-Age 20
Evelyn Graham-Age 20

Eighteenth Company
Captain Glenvara Lake-Age 24
Daphne-Age 20

Regimental Scout Company
Captain Jason Thompson-Age 32
Octavia-Age 29
Company Sergeant Major Christine Mede-Age 27

Sergeant James Black-Age 17
Corporal Grigori Kulikov-Age 23
Private Daniel Fitzpatrick-Age 16

First Platoon, First Ranger Company
Captain Kristine Douglas-Age 23

Regimental Medical Unit
First Lieutenant Cassielle Archalus-Age 15

Second Company, Menzobarian Rangers
Captain Grace Azvar-Age 17
Emily Athney-Age 18
Company Sergeant Major Alexandra Voln-Age 19

"Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction." - Ronald Reagan
"Judge them not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." - Martin Luther King, Jr.
"Pick up a rifle and you change instantly from a subject to a citizen." - Jeff Cooper
"I like my enemies like James Bond likes his martinis- shaken, not stirred."
My first book, The King's Own

[This message has been edited by General Sajaru (edited 10-07-2014 @ 05:58 AM).]

posted 07 October 2014 01:54 EDT (US)     35 / 54  
Excellent quality as Always. You are spoiling me- I am coming to expect this every time now, and have yet to be disappointed. Out-frikkin-standing.

One nit:

“I though you got hurt.”

Missing a t?

|||||||||||||||| A transplanted Viking, born a millennium too late. |||||||||||||||||
|||||||||||||||| Too many Awards to list in Signature, sorry lords...|||||||||||||||||
|||||||||||||||| Listed on my page for your convenience and envy.|||||||||||||||||
Somewhere over the EXCO Rainbow
Master Skald, Order of the Silver Quill, Guild of the Skalds
Champion of the Sepia Joust- Joust I, II, IV, VI, VII, VIII
posted 18 October 2014 22:19 EDT (US)     36 / 54  
Scarlet Fields

21st of Grakuary, 599
Northern Menzobaria, Arbatros

The storm clouds rolled in, covering the sky with grey. Shortly thereafter, it began to rain, fat drops pattering down on tents and bouncing off armor. The regiment began to move out quickly, some of the scouts and rangers leaving first. Then the main body of troops filed through the gate, infantry and archers in neat ranks and columns with the artillery in the rear and the heavy cavalry on their flanks. Finally, the rest of the scouts and rangers exited the encampment, leaving only a few support personnel and guards behind.

Rose spread her arms and twirled in the rain, her long brown hair flying out behind her. The raindrops darkened her clothes and leather armor, but she grinned as she did a pirouette. Natalie returned the smile, letting her friend’s carefree attitude take her mind off the coming battle.

“Do you want to go over unit positioning now, ma’am?” Franchesca asked from behind her.

Natalie turned to her childhood friend, still smiling, “Sure.” She called down the column, “Monique, Melissa, Nichole, get up here!”

Her three lieutenants jogged up, armor clinking softly. Monique had served with Natalie the longest, three years, and she grinned at her captain. Melissa, a short brunette, had been with her for a year, and Nichole, slender with light brown hair, had joined her company two years ago to become the lieutenant for her heavy platoon. The three gathered around Natalie and Franchesca, Rose joining them.

Emma, Rachel, Nastia, and Emma’s three lieutenants walked up. “May we join you?” Emma asked.

Natalie smiled at her, “Sure, we’re just going over where each platoon’s going to go.”

“Have you met my lieutenants yet?” Emma asked. When Natalie shook her head, Emma introduced them. “This is Sarah Drommed, who has my first platoon.” Sarah was a taller blonde with a long-handled sword strapped across her back and two short swords at her waist. “Michael Grafton, second platoon,” was a tall man with a two-handed sword and battle-axe. “And Hilary Paulis, who commands my heavy platoon.” She was a blonde of medium height, and wore standard infantry gear.

“It’s nice to meet all of you,” Natalie said. “This is Monique; she has my first, Melissa, of second, and Nichole, who had the heavy platoon.”

Emma nodded to each of them.

Introductions done, Natalie started the conversation, “Monique, I think you should take the right, Melissa, the left, which leaves the center for Nichole, Rose, and I. Fran, why don’t you go with Melissa on the left?” Looking over at Emma, “I think you might want to put your strongest platoon on the right; that’ll be the most likely to see heavy fighting.”

Emma nodded, “Yeah, you’re right. Sarah, that’s your spot. Michael, you’re on the left, Hilary you’ve got the middle. I’ll be in the middle with Rachel. Nastia, I want you to stay on the right with Sarah.”

All of their subordinates nodded their understanding and jogged back to their units.

Emma started to go as well, but Natalie called, “Emma, wait a moment.”

She turned back to Natalie, “Yes?”

“Stay safe Emma.”

“You too.” She and Natalie embraced briefly, then they returned to their troops.

* * *

At the head of the column, Vladimir looked over at Victoria. “You ready to tangle with an Uplifted again, lass?”

William, walking next to them, looked up sharply, “Again?”

She grinned, “Yeah, Vladimir and I ran into one of them a few years back. Now, we didn’t know what we were dealing with until later. But it gave us a heck of a fight. Too bad it escaped, though. As for fighting the Creator, that’ll be easy.”

“Easy?” William raised an eyebrow, and snorted when she waved away the question. However, he merely asked, “Which one was it?”

“The Charmer. It’s a vampire enchanter. We nearly killed it, but it misted out and escaped.” She shrugged.

Vladimir smiled and shook his head. “It nearly killed us too, as I recall.”

“Ah, minor considerations,” she said airily, then grinned.

Still smiling, he replied, “I seem to remember they weren’t so minor back when we were fighting it. Like that little love spell.”

She colored a little and looked down at William. The story clearly interested the older man, so she continued. “He tried to distract us with a love charm. Luckily for us, Vladimir has the willpower of a saint, and Jeremy diverted the Charmer long enough for Vladimir to break the charm by smiting him.”

Vladimir grinned at the sergeant major. “Believe me, William; I almost broke my vows.”

“Vows?” The older man asked.

“Yeah, he can’t sleep with a woman until after they get married,” Victoria said. “That’s just part of the oaths he took when he joined the paladins. And he can’t break them; otherwise he loses his extra powers.”

“Sounds like a hard life,” William commented.

“Not really. And in my opinion, serving the greater good is more important than having an easy life.” Vladimir grinned mischievously, “She just wishes she had as good an excuse to turn guys down.” He glanced over at the sergeant major, “Are you married William?”

“Yes sir. In seven days, it’ll be thirty-eight years.”

“Congratulations. Do you have any kids?” Victoria asked.

“Three. My eldest, Ella, is thirty-four; she’s got two of her own. The older one is twelve already. My middle one, Thomas, has been in the army for sixteen years now. He’s a Company Sergeant Major with the Jade Legion right now. He’s got three kids, with a fourth one on the way. Juliet is my youngest. She’s only twenty-eight, but she’s an infantry captain in the Steel Legion,” he replied.

“You must be very proud of them,” Vladimir remarked. “Particularly Juliet. Back when I was in the Steel Legion, she was a lieutenant in one of Stephen’s other companies, and I seem to recall him speaking very favorably of her.”

“She’s the better leader of the two.” William looked up at Vladimir, “Why aren’t you married, sir? I’d expect a handsome, well-mannered young man like you to have to beat girls off with a stick.”

“Unless of course you spend all of your time charging around killing people and training when you’re not,” Victoria said dryly.

“Hey! I don’t spend all of my time–” Vladimir started protest.

Victoria cut him off, “I’m the one who made you take two weeks of leave after our first year serving together. Colonel Sekir said you hadn’t taken more than a day or two of leave since you’d joined up. That doesn’t allow much time for meeting girls.”

“And you’ve made me take two weeks a year off every year since. But it’s not like I’ve met anyone,” Vladimir pointed out.

“That’s because, after that first year, we always go somewhere and end up having to fight for our lives.” She paused thoughtfully, “You know, it’s a good thing I’m willing to go with you on all your adventures, otherwise you’d probably be dead by now.”

Vladimir reached over and squeezed her hand. “I’m very glad you’ve kept me alive. But the trips were your idea in the first place.”

“Originally. But I’m not the one who suggests we go to places like Mez and Frefenia. And I’m definitely not the one who wants to go looking for trouble.” She glared at him.

“If you say so, lass,” Vladimir replied.

Walking along beside the two, William looked away with a smile.

* * *

The rain slackened off to a light drizzle. By that time, most of them were thoroughly wet and miserable. The path they traveled had turned to mud and, with hundreds of boots and hooves churning it up, its condition was quickly deteriorating. In the rear of their column, the artillery mages had had to use levitation spells to lift the ballistae and onagers out of the muck.

Looking back down the column, Vladimir sighed. “At least we know the Zhuravi are having an equally hard time of it, now that we’ve killed their druid.”

“Small consolation,” Victoria griped, pushing strands of wet hair out of her face.

A few minutes later, Jason rode towards them, his horse’s hooves kicking up mud, adding to that already splattering his boots and legs. Pulling up in front of Vladimir, he saluted. “Sir, we’re almost to the field. The Creator has kept his forces together and is moving as anticipated.”

“Thank you, Jason. Gather up your scouts,” Vladimir ordered.

“Yes sir.” He saluted again, wheeled his horse, and rode off.

Finally, the regiment marched into the field where the battle was to take place. Spreading out, each unit formed up into neat rows in their pre-assigned positions. Vladimir urged Jeremy forward and rode out in front of the infantry line, Victoria following him. The two faced the woods where the Zhuravi were supposed to emerge.

They sat in silence for several minutes, rain still drizzling down from iron-grey clouds. Gradually, the low tramp of booted feet reached them. Jeremy’s ears perked up, and he whickered softly, pawing the ground eagerly. “Easy there.” Vladimir stroked his steed’s neck.

A short while later, the bushes parted, and the Zhuravi army marched out onto the field. In the center marched seven companies of Zhuravi infantry, spears held tall and round shields at the ready. Behind them filed four companies of Zhuravi crossbowmen. Even farther to the rear of them were a company of infantry and the sole surviving company of Zhuravi cavalry.

Vladimir studied the enemy formation intently. Beside him, Victoria did the same. “They seem to have bulked up their left flank,” she observed after a moment.

He nodded and wheeled Jeremy around. They cantered back past Natalie’s company to where Jason, Octavia, and Christine waited. “Jason, I want your company behind the right flank. Be ready to support Emma and Nat.”

The scout captain nodded, “Yes sir.”

With that, they rode to the head of Hannah’s company. “Hello girls,” he greeted Hazel’s team.

“Good afternoon, sir,” they replied. The five young women formed up behind them.

The Zhuravi advanced steadily across the field. Vladimir watched carefully, judging the distance between their forces. After some time, he turned around in the saddle and called out to the artillery commander. “Fire when ready. I want a broad spread.”

The artillery opened up, ballista bolts and napalm jars arcing out towards the Zhuravi. Upon seeing the incoming missiles, the enemy infantry spread out, dispersing quickly. Some of the Zhuravi mages opened up on the napalm pots with magic missiles, trying to shatter them in midair. Sheets of flame shot through the sky as the missiles unerringly sought them out.

The ballista bolts slashed into the enemy. Some speared two or three soldiers, piercing shields and armor with ease to slam into the soft flesh beneath. Others smashed harmlessly into the ground.

Still in loose formation, the Zhuravi continued to advance. Behind Vladimir, the artillerymen worked swiftly to reload the siege engines. Across the field, the Zhuravi infantry broke into a run. To his left, Vladimir heard Annabelle and Jenna call, “Draw!” The Arbatrosian archers nocked arrows to their bows and pulled back, the yew staves creaking. He looked over at the two young women and nodded. Readying their own bows, the two called, “Fire!”

All together, the two companies of archers released their arrows. The black-fletched shafts shot up into the sky, whistling though the air. Still running, the Zhuravi infantry raised their shields over their heads, trying to gain some measure of protection.

The missiles fell amongst the Zhuravi, many striking dirt, slamming into shields, or skipping off armor. However, a number of the bodkin-tipped shafts punched through plate and mail to pierce the flesh beneath. The archer fire was particularly devastating to the Zhuravi crossbowmen; none of them carried shields, and dozens were cut down as the arrow barrage continued.

A short while later, the enemy crossbowmen were in range. They stopped and closed up a little, staggering their ranks and shouldering their crossbows.

William and Josephine called, “Turtle up!” The already close-ordered Arbatrosian infantry moved even closer together. The troops on the flanks of each company moving to the back of the unit, substantially decreasing the unit’s frontage. Then, with a clatter of armor, the soldiers in the second rank raised their shields over their heads, letting them overlap above the unit. All around the edge of the unit, the troops readied their shields as well. The four infantry units were now in tightly packed formations with shields between them and the enemy. On the flanks, the rangers spread out and crouched down, but continued to loose their missiles.

The Zhuravi bowmen opened fire on the Arbatrosians, quarrels shooting out across the field. The Zhuravi had almost four companies of crossbowmen, over five-hundred men. However, by the time their infantry neared, fewer than thirty Arbatrosians had fallen. Conversely, the Zhuravi had suffered heavy losses. Their charge had left over four hundred of their soldiers littering the field behind them.

When the Zhuravi closed to within twenty yards of the Arbatrosian line, both sides resumed their initial formations. The Arbatrosian infantry drew their short swords and set their shields. Slowing, the Zhuravi advanced purposefully, and their wizards started casting.

Emma could feel Rachel tense beside her, the mage bringing her hands up to cast counterspells. Lightning bolts and fireballs shot out towards the Arbatrosian line. Her company’s mages began countering them, and the evocations vanished before they reached her troops. As the Zhuravi came even closer, her mages returned fire. Spells flashed across the shrinking distance between the two forces, and soldiers on both sides fell, scorched and charred.

The Zhuravi had seven companies of infantry in a line abreast formation, with four companies of crossbowmen behind them. Farther back were another company of infantry and their single surviving unit of heavy cavalry. The Creator, easily spotted in his green-lacquered armor, rode at the cavalry’s head. His mount was a nightmare, an infernal steed. Its hooves struck sparks and its eyes burned with a demonic fire. Steam rose from the beast as raindrops struck its flaming mane and tail.

Glenvara, Benjamin, and Natalie’s companies each faced a single enemy company, as did Grace and Kristine’s rangers. However, Emma realized that two of them, one a standard line unit, the other a unit of the Creator’s own elite guard, were heading for her company.

“Sarah, bring your platoon in! They’re trying to flank us,” Emma yelled to her first lieutenant.

The young woman nodded and started shouting orders. Her platoon shifted, curving its formation to protect the company’s flank. Emma joined the lieutenant on the end of the company’s right flank. Drawing her twin longswords, she moved into a crouch. Next to her, Sarah readied her shield and unsheathed a short sword.

Rain continued to fall, striking the soldiers’ armor. The regiment’s banner hung limp and sodden. The field had turned to mud, making footing treacherous. Emma impatiently brushed water out of her eyes and shifted her feet, assessing the unstable ground.

The infantry met, the Zhuravi spearmen stabbing at the Arbatrosian formation. Their spear points slammed into the Arbatrosians’ shields, clanging off the sheet metal-coated surfaces. Emma’s company pushed forward, knocking aside spears to reach the enemy. The Zhuravi stabbed at them, spear tips seeking feet and faces around their shields.

Emma fell in behind Sarah, letting the lieutenant push through the mass of spears. As her company pushed forward, the Zhuravi abandoned their spears and drew their broad swords.

As soon as the spears were gone, the Arbatrosians charged, slashing and hacking at their opponents. Emma darted past Sarah, slashing high at an enemy soldier with her left-hand blade. The man raised his sword to block, and Emma whipped her other sword across, low. The razor-sharp steel slashed through the man’s chain with ease. Emma’s powerful blow nearly took off her opponent’s leg, and he fell, blood spraying from the wound. She quickly stabbed him in the throat as he collapsed and left him dying behind her.

* * *

On the far right flank, Sandra released her last arrow and drew her swords. Beside her, Fiona moved into a crouch, weapons at the ready. Behind the two, Renee countered several spells. As the enemy neared, she quickly cast a force armor spell on Sandra and Fiona.

The two platoons of rangers faced a slightly understrength company of Zhuravi infantry. Their opponents outnumbered them by only a slight margin, but their shields and spears gave the Zhuravi an edge.

As the two forces met, the Zhuravi held formation, stabbing at the rangers. Sandra, Fiona, and Renee moved out to the right, trying to flank the Zhuravi infantry. The soldiers on the edge turned to face them, sharp spear blades menacing the three young women. Sandra charged forward, knocking aside a number of spears, her swords clacking off the hardwood shafts.

Fiona darted past her, slashing at the Zhuravi infantry. Their spears out of position, she managed to get past them; however, some of the spearmen deeper in the unit stabbed at her. She ducked and weaved, and the closest spear thrust glanced off her scale mail, scoring a bright line across the metal.

She rushed across the last few feet, swinging her longsword at the first man’s head. He brought his shield up to block, and Fiona stabbed him in the stomach with her short sword. The blade punched through the man’s chain, blood spraying. She wrenched her sword to the side, eviscerating the soldier.

The enemy around her dropped their spears and drew swords, allowing Sandra to join her. Fighting side by side, the two worked in concert, keeping the Zhuravi back and occasionally slashing out at an enemy.

More Zhuravi infantry moved to engage them, forcing the two to fall back. A sword blow slipped past Fiona’s defenses, slamming into her left shoulder. The blade sheared through her leather pauldron and blood spurted out as the icy steel cut the flesh beneath. Crying out in pain, she dropped her short sword and stumbled back. A half-dozen more weapons reached out to take advantage of her vulnerability. She swept her longsword across, attempting to parry, but three of the Zhuravi swords struck her. One skipped off her vambrace, another sparked off her mail, but the last slammed into her stomach. The tip shattered one of the scales covering her abdomen and rammed into her stomach.

Fiona gasped, agony blurring her vision, and fell forward. The Zhuravi soldier withdrew his blade and swept it across, aiming for her neck. Out of nowhere, Sandra appeared in front of her. She used her short sword to block the blow, then slashed across with her longsword. The blade trailed blood as she took off the man’s sword arm. He crumpled, screaming as blood spurted from the stump. Renee stepped up beside Sandra, her own swords at the ready. However, the mage only wore light mesh and leather armor, and Fiona knew she wasn’t the best fighter. Pressing her left hand to her stomach, Fiona tried to stand, nearly passing out before she gained her feet.

* * *

Sitting at the head of Hannah’s company, Vladimir watched the two lines collide. Next to the cavalry, Kristine’s ranger platoon and one of Grace’s engaged a unit of Zhuravi line infantry. The lightly armored rangers were hard-pressed by the Zhuravi heavy infantry and Vladimir waved for the company to follow him. Urging Jeremy forward, he led the cavalry around the engaged infantry unit’s flank, where they came upon a company of elite crossbowmen.

Surprised by the sudden appearance of the horsemen, the crossbowmen fired off several shots. A bolt whistled through the air past Rayelle’s face, the wickedly sharp head scraping across her cheek. Cursing, she lowered her lance and urged Lamara to go faster. The Zhuravi crossbowmen were scrambling, their officers trying to form them up to meet the charge.

Vladimir drew his sword and slashed down, the powerful blow shattering a man’s helmet and crunching through his skull. He whipped his sword across and hacked down again, catching another Zhuravi on the shoulder. Beside him, Rayelle skewered a crossbowman, her lance punching through the man’s breastplate and emerging from his back. Leaving her lance in the man, she drew an axe and took off the top of another Zhuravi soldier’s head.

On his other side, Jillian and Laura swung down at the crossbowmen, warhammer and axe sending blood spraying up into the air. At Vladimir’s shout, Hannah expertly wheeled the company, and they crashed into the rear of the engaged Zhuravi infantry unit. The heavy horsemen scattered the Zhuravi, flinging infantry aside with ease. Broken, the spearmen fled, attempting to escape the cavalry. Vladimir called for the company to chase the two running Zhuravi companies.

Falling back from the front of the company, Vladimir surveyed the regiment. Emma’s company was heavily engaged with two companies of Zhuravi infantry and Victor’s cavalry had routed the enemy unit attacking Natalie’s company. Further down the line, Benjamin and Glenvara’s companies were still fighting, as were the princess’s rangers. Justin’s company had swept around the far left flank and attacked the crossbowmen on that end.

* * *

Emma ducked a sword blow and stabbed its wielder in the chest. Her blade broke through his plate and the chain beneath to slam into his chest, cracking a rib and puncturing his lung. Withdrawing her sword, Emma charged past him, leaving the man drowning in his own blood. Suddenly, a body slammed into her back.

Taking a step forward to absorb the force, Emma spun around and nearly slashed the person behind her before she realized it was Sarah. The young lieutenant had lost her shield, and faced off with a Zhuravi officer, long-handled sword at the ready.

“You ready to dance?” Emma asked Sarah.

“Yeah,” Sarah replied, then grunted as she parried a heavy blow. Stepping back, she disengaged from her opponent. Swinging her left arm back, she caught Emma’s right forearm with her own. Spinning on her right foot, she pulled Emma around, and the two women traded places. Startled by the sudden switch, both their opponents were open to attack. Emma stabbed forward with both her blades, impaling the man. Behind her, Sarah whipped her sword across, decapitating Emma’s former enemy.

Continuing their spin, the two engaged another group of Zhuravi infantry. While they fought six enemy soldiers, they cut down four within a few moments, their spinning form of attack confusing their opponents. Blocking a few strikes against Sarah, Emma accepted two hits, trusting her armor to protect her. One of the broadswords hit her in the shoulder and glanced off. The other slammed into her stomach. While the steel bands held, the blow still knocked the breath out of her, and she gasped for air.

Suddenly, four blue-green darts sped past Emma and unerringly struck the man. He fell, and Renee, Sandra, and Fiona ran up. Fiona had her left hand pressed against her stomach, and blood coated her gauntlet. Emma nodded to them, then charged back into the mass of fighting Arbatrosian and Zhuravi troops.

* * *

Wheeling Jeremy around, Vladimir looked back at the battle. Rain continued to pelt down, clinking off his armor. However, it did nothing to cover the din of combat and the screams of the wounded.

At the regiment’s far left flank, Justin’s cavalry was chasing the Zhuravi infantry company Grace’s rangers had broken. The two companies fighting Glenvara and Benjamin’s troops had also broken. The large company that had been held in reserve was moving to engage Natalie’s troops. Looking closer to his position, he saw the Creator leading his heavy cavalry unit towards Emma’s beleaguered company. Waving his sword in the air, Vladimir called for Hannah’s company to follow him. Urging Jeremy forward, he charged back towards the battle.

* * *

Emma dodged back quickly, crossing her blades high to block a Zhuravi soldier’s stab. Kicking below their locked blades, she caught the man in the side of the kneecap, and she felt bone snap. He howled in pain and staggered. Taking advantage of the opening, she whipped her left-hand blade around and stabbed him through the chainmail under his arm. Blood sprayed out, and he dropped his sword. She snapped her other sword across and decapitated the man. On one side, Sandra and Fiona stood shoulder to shoulder while Renee case spells past them. To her other, Sarah attacked a pair of Zhuravi soldiers with her twin short swords.

While she had been fighting for some time now, Emma wasn’t too tired. After years of combat, some in the brutal Zhuravi arenas, she had built up a considerable amount of stamina. However, she could tell Sandra, Renee, and particularly Fiona, were struggling. Flicking some of the blood off her swords, she moved towards the three. She reached them just in time to see Fiona struck again, her enemy’s sword slashing across her chest. The blade skittered off her scale at first, but eventually punched through, drawing blood.

The force of the blow threw Fiona to the ground. Standing over her, the Zhuravi swept his sword down for a killing blow. Diving forward, Emma barely blocked the strike with her left-hand blade. Twisting in midair, she slashed across with her right-hand blade, but it glanced off his greave. She slammed into the ground on her back, legs coming to rest on top of Fiona’s stomach. The young woman cried out in pain, but Emma was too busy parrying her attacker’s next blow to notice.

Crossing her swords above her body, she blocked two heavy blows to her torso. As the Zhuravi soldier swung back for a third strike, Emma kicked out, her booted foot slamming into the man’s groin. While his armor lessened the force of the blow, he still gasped in pain and doubled over. Emma lunged up from the ground and stabbed him in the throat. Blood sprayed out and he collapsed onto Fiona, drawing a whimper out of the young woman.

Emma had started to pull herself to her feet when Jason’s scouts thundered past her and into the Zhuravi infantry. Regaining her feet, she tried to get a better view of the combat, but she was only five-foot, two inches, and the taller Zhuravi soldiers blocked her view. Cursing, she paused, listening intently. While the clash and clatter of soldiers and steel and the screams of the wounded were loud in her ears, Emma could still make out the low pounding of horses’ hooves. Bending down, she pulled Fiona to her feet, but had to steady the young woman when she staggered.

Emma still supporting Fiona, the two fell back from the melee. As they did, Emma called to Sarah. The lieutenant dived beneath her two opponents’ blades into a front roll. She came back to her feet behind them, and stabbed backwards with both of her short swords. The blades punched through their plate and mail, and penetrated the flesh beneath. Warm blood sprayed out, coating her hands and forearms. Withdrawing her swords, she fell back to them.

Emma bellowed, “Second Company, form line! Prepare the porcupine!” Fiona, still hanging off Emma, was surprised by the normally soft-spoken captain’s volume, particularly coming from someone of her small stature.

The Arbatrosian infantry were still heavily engaged, but started to pull back. The surviving Zhuravi infantry, perhaps a hundred men, disengaged as well, as their cavalry thundered towards them. At a shout from the Creator, they split down the middle. While the cavalry were advancing quickly, some of Emma’s troops, thirty or so of the surviving sixty, still managed to grab their spears and form a line.

Rain continued to sheet down, soaking Fiona’s already sodden clothes and obscuring her vision. Rivulets of crimson water ran down her legs as her blood mixed with the rainwater. Emma half-supported, half-dragged her back behind their line. The captain sheathed her right-hand longsword, then drew her short sword and offered it to Fiona. The younger woman was confused for a moment until she realized that she had dropped both of her own blades. She nodded her thanks, took the blade, and put it in the empty sheath on her belt.

Thundering across the field, hooves churning up mud and kicking up clods of dirt, the Zhuravi heavy cavalry bore down on the Arbatrosian infantry. Their eleven-foot long lances stretched out ahead of their horses, outranging the Arbatrosians’ ten-foot spears. However, the horses were afraid of the spear points and even with all their training couldn’t be made to charge a formation of spearmen.

Knowing this, the Arbatrosians had developed two tactics for fighting cavalry. If Emma had wanted to force them back, she would have ordered her troops to take the formation know in the army as the hedgehog. The soldiers involved would have presented their spears in a bristling mass to the enemy cavalry, stopping their charge but not inflicting heavy casualties. However, in the other formation, the porcupine, the soldiers left their spear points down, raising and bracing them at the last moment. While some of the horsemen might avoid the suddenly presented spears, most in the first few ranks would be killed or wounded. This would leave her troops free to continue their fight with the Zhuravi infantry.

The Zhuravi had encountered both tactics before and had developed countering maneuvers. However, the Creator clearly hadn’t expected Emma’s troops to respond so quickly, and his heavy cavalry didn’t slow down at all.

“Present spears!” Emma shouted. The thirty spear-armed Arbatrosians brought up their weapons just before the cavalry reached them. The foot-long slender steel blades that tipped the spears were suddenly presented in a bristling wall, two deep.

The heavy warhorses, startled by the unexpected appearance of the spears, attempted to stop or swerve aside, with varying degrees of success. Some of the animals further back managed to avoid death and injury. However, when they did so, many of their riders lost their seats. Some of the Zhuravi horsemen flew into the Arbatrosian formation, others simply slammed into the ground.

Other horses weren’t so lucky. The heavy warhorses slammed into the spears. The steel punched through their barding and continued deep into the flesh beneath. Spears snapped and soldiers were thrown back by the charge. Blood sprayed out, and the horses whinnied in pain as they fell.

In the initial charge, a score of the Zhuravi horsemen fell. However, the rest of the company, over one hundred men, made their way over the bodies of their comrades. At the same time, the Zhuravi infantry renewed their assault.

Standing in the middle of her unit, Emma saw her troops faltering. Outnumbered and outflanked, they began to give ground, pulling back into a defensive circle. The Zhuravi cavalry harried her troops, swinging their weapons at any Arbatrosian in reach. Several of her soldiers fell, the heavy flanged heads of maces and flashing sword blades smashing into and hacking through the Arbatrosians’ heavy armor.

Michael Grafton, two-handed sword at the ready, charged out of the circle. He slashed across at chest level, his might blow easily shearing through the chain barding the Zhuravi stallion wore. The heavy blade cleaved through flesh and snapped bone. Neighing in agony, the warhorse fell, throwing its rider into the air. Michael whipped his sword up, the sharp point punching through the Zhuravi horseman’s plate easily, impaling the man in midair. Flipping his sword point down, he let the man slide off the blade.

However, the maneuver left his back open to another Zhuravi horseman. Emma started to scream out a warning, but she knew it was too late. The cavalryman swung his mace down viciously, the solid steel head smashing Michael’s helmet and crushing his skull. The lieutenant flopped forward limply, clearly dead. Sarah, standing in the circle near where he fell, long-handled sword and shield in hand again, broke ranks and charged out towards his body. Two cavalrymen closed in on her, and Emma cursed at the impetuousness of her lieutenants. However, with Fiona still leaning against her, Emma realized that she couldn’t help Sarah.

As the two Zhuravi bore down on her, Sarah spun around, slashing across with her sword at the man on her left and raising her shield above her. Her blade sheared through the man’s armor and flesh until her sword became lodged in his spine. The other horseman swung his mace down at her, but the blow glanced off her shield. Whipping a short sword off her belt, she lunged up from under her shield and slashed the man’s horse’s throat, blade going through the steed’s crinet. Blood sprayed out in a crimson sheet and the horse’s front legs buckled. As the stallion collapsed forward, Sarah reversed her blade and stabbed the rider in the back. Wrenching her sword out of the corpse, blade slick with blood, she faced off against another cavalryman.

Suddenly, Hannah’s company slammed into the Zhuravi formation’s flank. Just behind the leading edge of the charge, Vladimir led Hazel’s team right across the front of Emma’ company.

Drawing both of her axes, Rayelle urged Lamara forward, passing the colonel, Cassielle right behind her. The Zhuravi cavalryman menacing Sarah looked away from her for an instant at the sound of Lamara and Sam’s approach. Seizing her opportunity, the young lieutenant leapt up, shoulder tucked close behind her shield. It slammed into the man’s arm, and she felt something break. Her strike knocked him off his horse. As he rose, Rayelle killed him with an underhand blow to the face, her axe-head smashing through his visor and into his face. Blood sprayed out around the blade, and the man flew backwards.

Sarah grabbed the now riderless horse’s reins and swung up into the saddle. Sheathing her short sword, she kicked the horse into motion, pulling hard on the reins to turn the animal. Riding past the first cavalryman she had killed, she grabbed the hilt of her sword and tugged it free of the corpse’s spine.

Emma glanced over at Fiona. “Think you can support yourself for a little while, lass?” As she was speaking, the Arbatrosian soldiers in front of her suddenly fell back, shouting in alarm as a bone-chilling baying filled the air. Looking up, she involuntarily took a step back as well. More than a dozen massive, dog-like creatures with flames running down their backs and dripping from mouths lined with dagger length teeth were loping across the field. Raindrops evaporated instantly when they struck the flames, surrounding the beasts in a cloud of mist. At the head of the pack ran another of the beasts, but this one towered over the others, easily seven feet tall at the shoulder, and wore blackened chainmail on its torso.

Readying both of her swords, Emma pushed forward through her troops. Clutching Emma’s short sword tightly, Fiona followed her. The hellhounds were almost upon them when Vladimir, followed by Victoria, Stephanie, and Laura, charged the beasts. The colonel had his sword raised high, and suddenly the weapon blazed with light, just before he swung it down on the nearest hellhound. His blade chopped the beast in half, and it dissolved into black mist before the parts hit the ground. Half of the remaining creatures, including the pack’s leader, swerved aside and charged Vladimir. The rest kept coming.

Emma and Fiona met the charge head-on, the younger woman staying back behind her. The first hellhound, as it approached her, suddenly opened its mouth and spewed forth a gout of fire. Spinning, Emma knocked Fiona down and threw herself on top of the girl. The petite ranger hit the ground heavily, grunting at the impact. Then she whimpered when Emma’s fully armored body slammed down on top of her, reopening the wound in her stomach. As the captain landed on her, she could smell burnt hair, and felt the heat of the flames as they curled back on themselves directly above her.

Teeth bared, the creature leapt for them. Emma started to roll off her, but Fiona knew that even the captain wasn’t fast enough. Bringing her short sword up, she impaled the beast in the throat. The move wrenched her stomach, and she almost passed out as it struck the weapon. Fortunately, the corpse dissolved into mist before it landed on top of her.

Emma rolled to her feet and slashed across at another hellhound as it attacked one of her soldiers. Her blade’s tip bit into the beast’s side, splattering blood across the ground, where it smoked and steamed. It turned towards her, but she stepped forward and slashed down with her other blade, decapitating it. As it evaporated, Emma charged through it, both blades extended to pierce the next beast’s flank.

Going to one knee, she spun and locked her swords over her head, catching a Zhuravi cavalryman’s mace as it whistled towards her head. Startled by her sudden reaction, the enemy soldier hesitated for a moment. Leaping to her feet, she knocked the man’s weapon high and stabbed him in the side with her sword. The wickedly sharp steel tip punched through the chain protecting the gap between his back and breast plates. Blood sprayed out as she retracted the blade and whirled to parry two broad swords.

* * *

Rayelle wheeled around and struck down at a passing Zhuravi infantryman. Her crescent axe head sheared through the man’s helmet and clove his skull in two. She attempted to pull the weapon out, but it was stuck. At that moment, a Zhuravi horseman charged towards her. Her hand went to her belt to draw another weapon, but Cassielle hurtled past her, sword in both hands. The other young woman’s sudden appearance startled the man, leaving him open to her attack. Sweeping her blade across, she decapitated the man, her powerful two-handed blow slicing through his gorget with ease. Blood spurted up in a crimson arc as his body slumped forward.

Abruptly, Rayelle cried out behind her, and Cassielle whipped her head around to see the young woman lying on the ground. A hellhound crouched above her, its jaws snapping at her shield, teeth banging off the metal of her shield. Her sword arm was pinned beneath her, and she couldn’t reach any of her weapons. Cassielle urged Sam into a gallop, the Arabian reaching full speed in moments. Just as the hellhound was about to bite Rayelle, Cassielle thundered past, slashing down with her sword. The holy blade sheared through the beast’s thick fur and severed its spine. She brought Sam to a quick stop and reached down to pull the Rayelle to her feet.

Lamara cantered over to Rayelle and whickered softly. She quickly remounted and turned to look back at the colonel. Vladimir was surrounded by four hellhounds, including the pack’s leader, but he and Jeremy glowed with a holy light that kept them at bay. He slashed down with his sword and took the head off one of the beasts. Suddenly, he leapt off Jeremy, using his momentum to drive his sword through the neck of another of the hellhounds. Jeremy faced off with the sole surviving normal hellhound while Vladimir circled around his horse to attack the pack leader.

The massive beast lunged at Vladimir, flaming maw gaping wide, but he dodged aside and slashed at its flank. However, the beast twisted aside and his blade glanced off its chainmail. Opening its jaws, the hellhound breathed forth a gout of flame. Flinging himself under the flames, Vladimir dived under the beast and stabbed up with his sword. The tip punched through its chain with ease and continued through its torso to emerge from the top of its body. Rolling to his feet, he watched as Jeremy kicked the other hellhound in the head, caving in its skull.

Hearing a slight movement behind him, Vladimir whirled in time to block a Zhuravi soldier’s sword blow on his shield. Continuing his turn, he slashed across with his sword, moving the blade under the other man’s shield. The soldier tried to block, but Vladimir’s sword was already cutting through the man’s plate and slicing the flesh beneath. As the man fell, Vladimir saw another hellhound leap towards him. Raising his shield over his head, he dropped to one knee, and the beast soared over him.

Striking the ground easily, it spun on its hind legs and prepared to charge him again. Suddenly, a bolt of frost shot by over his head and slammed into the beast. It let out a single shriek of agony before it disappeared. He swung back onto Jeremy and looked around. Hannah’s charge had bogged down, ordered formations dissolving as soldiers engaged in individual combat. Between the prolonged combat, the cavalry charge, and the hellhounds, Emma’s company was down to less than twenty soldiers, most of them wounded. Both of Kristine’s ranger platoons had engaged as well and had suffered heavy losses. Jason’s scouts were in the melee also, but his company still had most of its troops.

Victoria pulled up beside him, and he glanced over at her. The mage had a trio of cuts running across her stomach, and her leather and mesh armor was dark with blood. Vladimir noticed another cut on her thigh, and blood seeped out of a puncture wound in her left shoulder. She had a wand in one hand, and a rod in the other. Even as he watched, she cast from both, then snapped out a short incantation.

Turning to him, she said, “I’ve been holding off the Creator for a while, but I’m running low on spells. We need to finish him off soon, or he’ll be able to overwhelm us with summoned creatures.”

Vladimir nodded sharply, “Where is he?” Scanning the Zhuravi formation, he couldn’t spot the green-armored figure or its hellish steed.

Victoria concentrated on her spells for a moment, then cursed vehemently. “He’s teleporting around so I can’t get a fix on him. And he’s invisible.”

Whispering a short prayer, Vladimir activated his ability to sense evil. Black coronas darkened his vision, surrounding the sources of evil around him. The hellhounds became inky pits of darkness, and some of the Zhuravi soldiers gained a murky aura.

Suddenly, a splash of the darkness deeper than any of the others appeared only a few yards before him. Shouting another prayer, he urged Jeremy at the Creator. Startled, the mage turned and slashed across with a massive two-handed sword. Vladimir pulled hard on Jeremy’s reins. The horse reared up, and the strike whistled past under Jeremy’s forelegs.

The magical Percheron lashed out with its hooves. They caught the green-armored mage on the shoulder, throwing it backwards. It stumbled back a step, but kept its footing and swung back. Jeremy shied to the side and the blade skipped off his peytral.

Vladimir leapt off his horse and slashed down at the Creator. The Zhuravi mage swept its sword across and parried his blow. Their swords rang together, and Vladimir was forced to step back, boots squelching in the muck. Withdrawing his blade, Vladimir struck again, his weapon darting past his opponent’s to strike its armor. However, some force seemed to blunt the blow, and the blade only scored a bright line along its armor.

The Creator slashed back at him. Its heavy blade slammed into his shield, jarring his arm, but glanced off the sheet metal coating. Vladimir stepped into the blow, forcing the Zhuravi mage’s sword out and high. At the same time, he swept his own sword across in a glittering arc.

Behind him, he heard Victoria shout an arcane syllable, and saw the Creator twitch in surprise. However, his blade was already well on its way. His sword slammed into his opponent’s side, smashing through its armor to slice into its flesh. The blade cut in a few inches, spraying black blood into the air.

The Creator jerked back off the sword and slashed at Vladimir with its own blade. He parried it high, and the Creator barked an arcane syllable and thrust its hand at his chest, fingers splayed. Multicolored rays shot out and struck him in the ribs. One scorched his armor and burnt the flesh beneath, while another sent jolts of electricity through him. The others assaulted his body and mind, but he gritted his teeth and shrugged their effects off.

Seeing that the spell hadn’t worked, the Creator uttered another incantation. Then it slammed its fist into Vladimir’s side, releasing a jolt of electricity into his body. He staggered back, but managed to block the Creator’s next attack. Suddenly, Victoria appeared next to him and hacked at the Zhuravi mage with her sword. It parried with its vambrace, and her blade skipped off harmlessly.

However, she was merely distracting it. Rayelle and Cassielle charged it from opposite sides, swords slashing down. Ducking, it conjured a glowing shield in its off-hand and blocked both blows. Muttering a quick word, it seemed to flicker slightly before reappearing in the same spot. Vladimir seized upon its momentary hesitation and lashed out at its neck. Putting all of his weight into the blow, he decapitated it cleanly.

As the corpse tumbled to the ground, he heard Cassielle shout a warning. Spinning, his foot slipped on the muddy ground, sending him tumbling backward. A sword whistled past through the space where his head had been a moment before and slammed into Victoria’s shoulder. The slender mage flew backwards, blood spraying up from the grievous wound.

Slamming onto the ground on his back, Vladimir was momentarily stunned. Starting to rise, he threw up his shield just in time to block another blow by the circling Zhuravi cavalryman. Suddenly, he instinctively ducked as Cassielle leapt over him on Sam. Surprised by her abrupt appearance, the enemy was easy prey to her powerful strike.

The young woman wheeled her horse and reached down. With her help, he regained his feet. He quickly glanced around for the Creator’s head, and spotted it lying a few feet away. Striding over to it, he yanked off its helmet, exposing a gruesome sight. The Uplifted’s face was blackened and charred, as if by fire, and its eyes were pits of flame. Its mouth was scarred and torn, and a few pieces of stitching still hung from its lips.

Grimacing in disgust, he grabbed a longsword off the ground and stabbed it through the head. Leaving it spiked to the ground, he ran over to Victoria. His mage lay in the mud, unmoving. Skidding to a stop beside her, he pulled off a gauntlet, reached down, and felt for her pulse. Finding her blood pumping weakly through her, he sat back with a sigh of relief.

He gathered her into his arms and stood. Not seeing his horse, he mentally called Jeremy to him. The massive Percheron butted its head against his shoulder. Turning, Vladimir lifted Victoria’s limp form onto the horse’s back, then mounted himself.

He made sure she was properly positioned, then looked around. While he had been occupied with the Creator, the combined efforts of Hannah, Jason, Kristine, and Emma’s troops had routed the surviving Zhuravi infantry and cavalry. Further down the line, the Zhuravi troops facing Natalie’s company were in full flight. Victor’s soldiers were on their tail, although he didn’t notice the lanky captain at their head. At the far end, Jason’s cavalry were charging after the remnants of another enemy company.

Jillian rode up to him and saluted. “Captain Rockwell sends her regards and requests your presence, Colonel,” she reported.

Vladimir nodded and gestured for the young woman to lead on. Urging Jeremy after her, he whispered a quick prayer and pressed his hands against Victoria’s shoulder. The familiar silver light filled the wound, repairing damage to flesh and bone.

Victoria groaned and sat up. After taking in her surroundings, she reached back and took Vladimir’s hand in hers. She squeezed it tightly, but didn’t say anything.

A few moments later, he pulled up next to Hannah. The cavalry captain saluted and pointed to the retreating enemy. “Orders, sir?” She asked.

“Hannah, take your company and chase down the remaining infantry and archers.” Turning, he bellowed, “Jason, get up here,” at the scout captain.

Jason trotted up quickly and saluted.

“Jason, go after the rest of the heavy cavalry,” he ordered.

Both captains saluted him and called for their companies to follow them. Hazel, Jillian, Stephanie, and Laura reined in beside him. Cassielle and Rayelle joined them shortly thereafter. All of them bore wounds, but none appeared too serious.

They sat and watched as their cavalry rode down the last of the Zhuravi troops. Then Vladimir wheeled Jeremy around and headed for the medics.

The rain had slackened off to a light drizzle that rattled off their armor. The rainwater ran down their bodies in crimson streaks where it mixed with their blood and that of their enemies.

From along the Arbatrosian troops, a cheer went up as he rode back through their lines. He saluted his soldiers and the cheering redoubled. He heard Jenna yell, “Three cheers for the colonel!”

The soldiers banged their swords against their shields, and shouted, “Hip-hip-hazzah! Hip-hip-hazzah! Hip-hip-hazzah!”

Vladimir drew his own sword and waved it in the air. Then, sheathing his blade, he urged Jeremy back towards the medical tents. Stopping, he swung down, then turned and reached back for Victoria. Putting his hands on her waist, he lifted her down from the saddle. He helped her into the empty medical tent reserved for Cassielle. The medic and Rayelle followed him in.

He lifted her gently onto the operating table and began unlacing her armor. Cassielle moved to the opposite side of the table and stripped off her gauntlets. Vladimir finished undoing her armor, and slid the leather and mesh vest off over her head. She hissed in pain when it moved across the wound on her stomach.

Cassielle pulled Victoria’s ruined shirt up to fully expose the injury. Three cuts ran across her abdomen where sharp claws had sliced skin and muscle. Putting her hands on either side of the wounds, Cassielle willed healing energy into Victoria. Golden light spread across her stomach, mending her wounds.

The petite medic did a quick scan of the mage and noticed the cut on her leg. Pressing her palm against it, she healed it as well. “Any other injuries, ma’am?” She inquired.

“Someone stabbed me in the shoulder with a spear,” the mage replied, gesturing to the wound.

Cassielle motioned for her to turn over, and proceeded to examine and heal the puncture wound.

While she worked, Vladimir assessed his own condition. He had sustained a number of minor nicks and cuts, but his armor had kept most blows from doing more than bruising him. However, the Creator’s spells had scorched his breastplate and singed his chest. He cast a quick healing spell on himself to reduce the worst of the burns to a level his body could heal on its own.

Once he finished, he glanced over at Rayelle. The young cavalry corporal stood guard next to the tent flap, but glanced over at Cassielle quite often. Catching her gaze, he asked, “Did you get hurt?”

Shaking her head, she replied, “Not majorly. Just a few scratches and bruises. Nothing a few days won’t take care of.” She arched her back with a curse, “Although it does hurt when a hellhound knocks you off your horse.”

“I’ll bet it does. Is Lamara alright?”

“She’s fine. Seemed to be more concerned about me than about herself.”

Suddenly, the tent flap burst open, and Emma rushed in carrying Fiona. Sarah and Sandra followed her, supporting Renee between them. Upon seeing Fiona, Victoria immediately leapt off the table and moved out of the way.

Emma laid her on the operating table, and started undoing the lacings of her scale mail. Cassielle pushed her out of the way, drawing her dagger. She quickly ran it across leather fastenings, slicing through them easily. Yanking off the wrecked scale, she proceeded to tear Fiona’s blood-soaked shirt in half. The young woman’s stomach was covered with blood, and more flowed out onto the table from where the sword had come out her back. A gash ran across her chest from right shoulder to midway down her torso. Another cut ran down her left arm from her shoulder almost all the way to her elbow.

“Rayelle,” Cassielle said, motioning for the corporal to move up beside her. Once she was there, the medic quickly took off her rings, dropping them into Rayelle’s outstretched hands. Then she removed her vambraces and rolled up her sleeves. Moving to a table set up to one side of the tent, she quickly rinsed her hands in a bowl of water.

Turning back to Fiona, the medic thrust her hands into the girl’s stomach. Pressing them against the sides of the wound, she let her healing power flow into the limp form before her. Golden light blazed up, throwing shadows across the walls of the tent. A few moments later, the light dimmed, and she withdrew her hands from the injury and pulled her cross out from under her armor. Chanting a quick healing prayer, she pressed her hand against Fiona’s stomach.

Emma could see the organs and tissue knitting together, but only very slowly. Words pouring from her lips, Cassielle labored over Fiona’s still form for several minutes. Finally, the wound sealed over, leaving a horizontal white line more than five inches long across her stomach. Straightening, Cassielle turned away from the young ranger and staggered outside. Rayelle set the medic’s gear down on the table and rushed out after her. Vladimir followed her to find the young woman on all fours, vomiting the contents of her stomach into the mud, while Rayelle held her shoulders. Once she was finished, they helped her to her feet, and Vladimir offered her a cloth to wipe her mouth.

Moving back into the tent, Vladimir pulled off his gauntlets, setting them on the table beside Cassielle’s jewelry. Moving over to Fiona, he put one hand on her shoulder, the other on her side. Silver light spread across the gash between his hands, joining muscle and skin together into another white line.

Cassielle moved forward, a concerned Rayelle beside her, to examine the wound on Fiona’s arm. When she gently probed at it, Fiona stirred and opened her eyes. The world slowly swam into focus, and she saw the colonel bending over her, while someone jabbed at her arm. She tried to pull away, but someone grabbed her arm and held it in place while the person continued to explore her wound. “Stop, it hurts,” she said weakly.

Vladimir reached down and took her other hand. “Sorry lass, but Cassielle needs to see how badly you were hurt.”

Using his hand to pull herself up, she looked over at the wound. “Just bind it up; it’s not too bad.”

Cassielle nodded and moved over to the table. After washing her hands again, she returned with a roll of bandages. The young woman sat up and pulled her hair to the side, exposing her neck. Glancing up, Cassielle gasped. Vladimir turned suddenly from where he was healing Renee, his hand falling to his sword hilt. “What is it?” He asked sharply.

The medic pointed to Fiona’s neck. Running down the side of her neck, along the line of her jugular vein, were a number of scars from paired puncture wounds. Whispering a short prayer, Vladimir activated his ability to sense evil once again, but Fiona didn’t gain any aura of evil. She raised her eyebrows at him and sighed. “Satisfied I’m not about to sprout fangs and attack?” She asked wearily.

“Yes.” He turned thoughtful, “Besides, if you were a vampire, you would’ve ashed out long before now.” He smiled a little, “I just had to be certain.”

She nodded, “I’m glad you do.” Looking over at Cassielle, she asked, “Could you finish bandaging me up, please?”

“Of course,” Cassielle replied. She seemed a little distracted, but she quickly dressed the wound, tying the bandage off neatly. Vladimir finished healing Renee and checked Sandra and Sarah for injuries. Neither was hurt beyond some minor cuts and bruises.

After laying Fiona down, Emma had left the tent, but she had returned in time to see the young ranger’s odd scars. William followed her in, and Vladimir turned to him once he was sure everybody was taken care of.

The grey-haired regimental sergeant major was mud and blood-splattered, and the sheet metal coating on his shield had been badly gouged, but he seemed to be uninjured.

Vladimir shook his head, an expression of disbelief on his face. “You seem to have a knack for not getting hurt.”

The sergeant major shrugged, “I guess so, sir.”

Glancing at William’s battered shield, he said, “Ah, it must be that your shield suffers all of the damage, allowing you to go unscathed.”

William grinned, “I think you’re right. This’ll be the fourth shield I’m going to have to abandon just this month.”

Vladimir smiled, but quickly turned serious, “Casualty count?”

“Three hundred twenty-two dead, another two hundred fifty-four wounded,” he replied.

Vladimir frowned, “I guess that’s not too bad, considering that we killed well over fifteen-hundred of them. What’s the breakdown of dead?”

William pulled out a piece of paper, and read from it. “Grace’s rangers lost three and a half squads, Kristine’s are down to one squad now. Jason lost almost four and a half squads.” Sandra looked up at that, but didn’t interrupt. “Justin lost a squad, including Lieutenant O’Hara. Hannah lost three, as did Victor’s company. And Victor is dead.” As William read off the loss of one of their captains, Vladimir cursed softly. “Jenna lost a squad but no one in Annabelle’s company was killed. From the infantry, Glenvara lost two squads, Ben over three, Nat two and a half.” He glanced over at Emma before continuing, “And Emma’s company lost six full squads, including Lieutenant Grafton.”

Vladimir grimaced; an Arbatrosian company only had nine squads, which meant that two-thirds of Emma’s company lay dead on the field. He walked over to the petite captain and hugged her tightly. She winced a little as she hugged him back. “Not so hard; my stomach is one massive bruise.”

He eased up a little. “Sorry, lass,” he murmured. After a moment, he released her, but kept one arm around her shoulders. Turning back to Victoria, he asked, “Can you send a message to the general reporting our losses and requesting new orders?”

She nodded and stepped out of the tent. He looked over at William and Sarah. “William, Lieutenant Drommed, could you tell the other captains and Lieutenant Lennin to meet here in ten minutes?” He requested.

“Yes sir,” they came to attention, saluted, and hurried out of the tent.

Now all eyes turned back to Fiona. She pretended not to notice for a moment, then asked, “What?”

Vladimir gave her a piercing look, “How did you get those scars?”

“And how are you still alive?” Cassielle added. “With wounds like that, you should be dead.”

Fiona looked slightly embarrassed, “Well, that’s because of my ring.” She held up her right hand and pointed at a black steel band on her middle finger. “It magically replenishes lost blood. I actually got it around the same time I got these,” she gestured to the fang marks on her neck. “As for these,” she glanced down. “I got captured by a pair of vampires around a year ago.” Her voice dropped to a whisper, “They kept me alive for blood and their pleasure. After about a month, a group of hunters of the dead attacked them, and I managed to kill both of them.”

“By yourself?” Vladimir asked, somewhat incredulous.

“The hunters’ attack distracted them; I just staked them. I think they thought I was too far gone by then to do anything. I mean, they didn’t even have me restrained at that point.” She shrugged. “But as for the ring, after they were dead, the hunters took most of their stuff. I managed to grab a few things, including this ring that I had seen their main slave wearing. She got killed during the fight.”

Sandra’s expression had become more and more horrified as Fiona told her story. Now, she rushed forward and hugged her friend tightly.

The young ranger hugged her back for a few moments, then glanced down at her chest. Adopting a look of mock horror, she exclaimed, “Oh my God Sandra, you’re getting blood all over me!” While this may have been true, the opposite was more likely, as her torso was entirely coated with blood, and her words brought a smile to Vladimir’s face. Victoria had just stepped into the tent, and she grinned at him.

Sandra immediately pulled away, hurriedly saying, “I’m so sorry Fi.”

The ranger sergeant sounded so earnest that Vladimir and Victoria burst out laughing, as did Emma and Cassielle. The rest of the people in the tent joined them within moments, including Fiona. Examining Fiona’s chest herself, Sandra started to laugh as well. After a few moments, most of them were back under control, although Fiona and Cassielle were still giggling a little.

Vladimir smiled over at them, then turned to Victoria. “What did the general have to say?”

“She said that we have a day before we need move out. She wants us to march to Ereth Chul and report to Lord Voln’s castle. She says that the king has sent two members of the King’s Guard out, and that we’re to report to them. Furthermore, we’ll meet our reinforcements there; she’s replacing our losses from this battle. Also, she’s sending an additional five companies, plus two more platoons of rangers to bring our ranger compliment up to a full company. She says the two King’s Guard will have more specific dispatches from her, including our new orders. Although, she did mention that they think another force may have infiltrated under the mountains under the command of the Uplifted known as Storm Shaper. If that’s the case, then we’re the only additional unit of the King’s Own or Steel Legion that can get to the city before it’s invested.”

He frowned thoughtfully, “That’s not good. But the reinforcements will be welcome. Did the general say which members of the King’s Guard they are?”

“Allison Reed and Beatriz Danelli. Do you know either of them?”

He nodded, “I served under Beatriz during the Battle of Ereth Chul. She was a colonel at the time, as was Allison. That’s probably why the king sent them out here; they know the territory. Besides, anyone who survived that mess they call a battle is tough enough to survive another one. Right William?”

The grizzled sergeant major had returned while they were talking. Now he nodded, “Right you are, sir.”

Victoria looked over at him, surprised, “You fought in the Battle of Ereth Chul?”

“Indeed I did. In fact, my company supported General Lessando and General Voln’s companies at the East Gate.”

“You were at the East Gate?” Alexandra Voln asked from where she stood in the doorway of the tent.

He nodded, “As was the colonel. In fact, if I recall correctly, it was his company with Beatriz that broke the enemy and won the day.”

Vladimir frowned, “I don’t know about that; if not for the two generals’ companies, there would have been too many of them for us to be successful.” He held up his hand to forestall any further argument. “That’s a sentiment General Danikov obviously shared, as that action didn’t result in any promotions in my unit, whereas the generals both made colonel out of that.”

Victoria shook her head, “Don’t say there weren’t any promotions. After all, they moved you to the King’s Own a couple of years later.”

He shrugged, “I guess so. However,” he turned to Alexandra, “I assume you had something to tell us, lass.”

She nodded, “All of the captains are assembled, colonel.”

“Thank you. We’ll be out in a minute.”

She saluted and exited the tent.

He turned back to the rest of them. “Alright, a couple things before I talk to everybody. First, Sandra and Fiona, I’d like to ask you to become part of my command unit.”

The two exchanged glances, then Sandra spoke, “Um…sir…uh…well…” She hesitated.

“If you’re worried about not seeing enough action or not facing the same dangers as the rest of the regiment, don’t. As you can see, I’m not one to sit back and watch while my troops go into battle. We’re going to be in the thick of it. As a matter of fact, you’ll probably be in more danger than most everyone else; after all, I like attacking things like Nessian Warhounds and Uplifted.”

She smiled gratefully, “In that case, we definitely accept.” Both Rayelle and Cassielle smiled and hugged the two.

“Secondly, could someone find Fiona a shirt; you’re covered in blood right now, but that won’t last too long the way it’s raining.”

Fiona blushed and crossed her arms over her chest, “Sorry to make you embarrassed, sir.”

“I’m not too embarrassed, it’s just I’m not sure how some of the officers will react if we start having young women running through the camp half-naked.” He grinned a little, “After all, some people don’t think girls should be in the army at all.” He put on a mock-thoughtful expression, “Although they don’t complain when young men don’t wear their shirts. It seems to me that there might be a double standard here.”

William chuckled a little, “If you girls want to run through the camp shirtless, I’m sure most of the men won’t object.”

Victoria elbowed him playfully, “Hey, you’re married.”

He nodded, “Married. But not blind, lass. Besides, they’re far too young for me.”

“Although they say older men have more experience…” Rayelle let her sentence trail off.

Vladimir shook his head, “I think that’s my cue to return to what I wanted to discuss before someone says something I’ll have to construe as fraternization.” He turned to Emma, “I was thinking that we could temporarily combine your company with Natalie’s, but only for the march to Ereth Chul. Is that alright with you?”

She thought for a moment, then nodded. “I assume she’ll have command?”

“Not necessarily. I leave that for the two of you to work out between yourselves. Maybe a friendly practice bout?” He suggested with a teasing grin.

She shrugged, “That’s a thought.”

Vladimir reached out and squeezed her shoulder. Then, glancing around the tent, he turned for the door, “I think that’s all. Shall we give the rest of them the good news?” Receiving nods, he gestured for Victoria to lead the way, then followed her out into the rain.

His nine other captains, Lieutenant Lennin, the princess, and Captain Justine Morrow, his chief medic, stood in a circle around a large bonfire set in front of the medical tents. Each officer’s mage stood behind them, and Vladimir made his way over to Ginerva Marks, Victor’s mage. Her eyes were red, but he couldn’t tell if the wetness on her cheeks was rain or tears. He hugged her briefly, as did Victoria, then he returned to the middle of the circle, while Victoria stayed with Ginerva.

He slowly scanned each of his officer’s faces, nodding to some and exchanging smiles with a few. After a moment of silence, he cleared his throat and began. “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. I’m glad to see all of you made it and would like to ask for a moment of silence to remember our comrades who didn’t make it, particularly Captain Victor Marsters and Lieutenants Michael Grafton of Second Company and Patrick O’Hara of fourth company.”

He paused and bowed his head. For a little while, the only sounds were the rain pattering down from above and the low cries of the wounded soldiers in the medical tents. After a suitable amount of time, he looked up and addressed them again. “We’ve received orders from General Voln that we are to proceed to Ereth Chul, leaving no later than tomorrow. The general has intelligence that the Zhuravi have another army moving on the city as we speak, and we are the only force able to reach the city before it does. The general will have reinforcements waiting for us at Ereth Chul. We will receive additional orders from the general via the two members of the King’s Guard in the city when we arrive.”

He turned to Justine, “We need to be ready to move out as soon as possible, so tell your medics to not stint on the healing. We’ll have more time to rest once we reach the city, but for now, try to get some sleep. It’s going to be a long day’s march to Ereth Chul tomorrow. Natalie, Kristine, I need to talk to both of you for a moment. Everybody else is dismissed.”

With that, he turned and moved back into the medical tent, the two captains and Emma following him.

Rain continued to sheet down from iron skies, pattering off tents and running in little rivulets through the grass.

Copyright © Scott Schaper, 2012

List of Characters

The King’s Own Legion

First Regiment
Colonel Vladimir Kapov-Age 36
Victoria-Age 25
Regimental Sergeant Major William Morell-Age 56

First Company
Captain Natalie Sanchez-Age 26
Rose-Age 23
Company Sergeant Major Franchesca Rivers-Age 24

Lieutenant Monique Oleron-Age 21
Lieutenant Melissa Turgon-Age 22
Lieutenant Nichole McIntyre-Age 25

Second Company
Captain Emma Athney-Age 20
Rachel Hawk-Age 19
Company Sergeant Major Anastasia Romanof-Age 16

Lieutenant Sarah Drommed-Age 19
Lieutenant Michael Grafton-Age 22
Lieutenant Hilary Paulis-Age 16

Third Company
Captain Victor Marsters-Age 45
Ginerva Marks-Age 33

Fourth Company
Captain Justin Pierce-Age 29
Jenny Gilbert-Age 26

First Platoon
Lieutenant Demetri Kallov-Age 26

Seventh Company
Captain Hannah Rockwell-Age 23
Verity-Age 21

Second Platoon
Sergeant Hazel Riss-Age 17
Private Laura Thompson-Age 14
Private Stephanie Allen-Age 14
Private Jillian Olsen-Age 15

Eighth Company
Captain Benjamin Halest-Age 43
Ivo-Age 39

Ninth Company
Captain Annabelle Diego-Age 22
Arkana-Age 21

Thirteenth Company
Captain Jenna Miskovitz-Age 20
Evelyn Graham-Age 20

Eighteenth Company
Captain Glenvara Lake-Age 24
Daphne-Age 20

Regimental Scout Company
Captain Jason Thompson-Age 32
Octavia-Age 29
Company Sergeant Major Christine Mede-Age 27

Sergeant James Black-Age 17
Corporal Grigori Kulikov-Age 23
Private Daniel Fitzpatrick-Age 16

First Platoon, First Ranger Company
Captain Kristine Douglas-Age 23

Regimental Medical Unit
First Lieutenant Cassielle Archalus-Age 15

Second Company, Menzobarian Rangers
Captain Grace Azvar-Age 17
Emily Athney-Age 18
Company Sergeant Major Alexandra Voln-Age 19

"Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction." - Ronald Reagan
"Judge them not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." - Martin Luther King, Jr.
"Pick up a rifle and you change instantly from a subject to a citizen." - Jeff Cooper
"I like my enemies like James Bond likes his martinis- shaken, not stirred."
My first book, The King's Own

[This message has been edited by General Sajaru (edited 10-21-2014 @ 05:25 PM).]

posted 21 October 2014 03:37 EDT (US)     37 / 54  
Excellent battle scenes. Nice to see the good guys take some casualties- proving they are not immortal, and bringing some anxiety to the reader. The fight with the Uplifted was also professionally done- very well crafted and written. I love the hellhounds and magic play. Kudos!

While she had been fighting for at some time now,
An extra 'at', I believe?

Overall I am still impressed. Please do continue!

|||||||||||||||| A transplanted Viking, born a millennium too late. |||||||||||||||||
|||||||||||||||| Too many Awards to list in Signature, sorry lords...|||||||||||||||||
|||||||||||||||| Listed on my page for your convenience and envy.|||||||||||||||||
Somewhere over the EXCO Rainbow
Master Skald, Order of the Silver Quill, Guild of the Skalds
Champion of the Sepia Joust- Joust I, II, IV, VI, VII, VIII
posted 25 October 2014 00:06 EDT (US)     38 / 54  
Ereth Chul

22nd of Grakuary, 599
City of Ereth Chul, Menzobaria, Arbatros

A bright late-winter sun shone down upon the column of marching soldiers. The air was crisp and cool, a reminder that spring was still a month away. However, as compared to the biting cold of Geltur, to Vladimir, the weather seemed almost mild.

The rain had lasted all though the prior night and only let up early that morning. All of the water had dotted the fields around them with lakes and puddles and filled the ditches beside the highway and the railroad that ran parallel to it.

It had taken the regiment most of the morning to reach the highway, but they had made good time since then. Vladimir expected that they would reach Ereth Chul before nightfall.

Hearing his horse’s name, then laughter behind him, he glanced back. Victoria was riding beside Rayelle and Fiona. He had taken the young ranger to the regiment’s remount herd that morning to select a mount. He had been quite surprised when Fiona took a few moments to survey the horses, then walked out and selected one of the best animals in the herd, a bay Clydesdale. He had been even more surprised when she expertly put a saddle on the beast and mounted easily.

When he had asked her where she learned to ride, she had laughed a little bitterly. Then she had replied, “My father taught me the basics. And several of the hunters of the dead were paladins or cavaliers as well, so they taught me the finer points of horsemanship.”

Nudging Jeremy with his knee, he slowed until he was even with the three women. He gave his mage an inquisitive look. “You three seem to be having fun,” he commented.

“Oh, Rayelle was just commenting on Fiona’s choice of horse breed, and what her father would say about it. To which I replied that she’d better watch out; Jeremy might take offense,” Victoria replied.

The massive Percheron snorted and bobbed his head. Then he moved over and bumped his champron against Rayelle’s leg. Vladimir chuckled, “I think he wants to know what you said.”

“Well, my father was in charge of training an Indari warlord’s horses. And in Indar, the warlords prize light, fast horses, like Arabians and Akhal-Teke. So when some of the horse traders would bring him big destriers like Fiona’s or yours, he’d tell them that if he wanted a moving hill he’d go out and harness a sand dune. I don’t think he had to tell that to any of them more than once.” She shrugged, “I wonder what he’d say if he saw Jeremy. After all, he’s a fine horse.”

Vladimir’s horse whinnied and bobbed its head again.

Rayelle shook her head. “I don’t think I’ll easily get used to a horse that can understand what I’m saying.”

Victoria shrugged, “Once you’ve been around him as long as I have, you start to forget about it.” Glancing over at Vladimir, “What are Allison and Beatriz like? You mentioned that Beatriz rode with your company when you routed the Zhuravi. Is she an expert cavalry fighter?”

Vladimir frowned, “Yes and no.” He paused, then elaborated, “She’s more of a ranger than a cavalier. Downright amazing with that longbow of hers. She’s even better than Jenna, and can shoot when she’s mounted as easily as when she’s on foot.”

Rayelle’s eyebrows rose, “She uses a longbow from a horse?”

“Yep. She either stands up in the stirrups and shoots to the side, or shoots with her bow on the horizontal. She’s a touch better the first way, but not enough to make a difference,” he said. “Now, if you want a real rider, that’d be Allison. You think I’m good: she’s better. She rides a massive black Clydesdale named Dante. That animal’s got a temper like you wouldn’t believe, but when she’s around, he’s as gentle as a foal.” He thought for a moment, “Beatriz is actually better at cavalry tactics than Allison, but they’re both excellent commanders and fighters.” He grinned, “I suppose that’s why they’re in the King’s Guard.”

Rayelle frowned, “I’m from Indar, so I don’t know everything about Arbatros, but I thought the King’s Guard protected the king?”

Vladimir nodded, “They do.”

“Then why are two of them out here working with us?” She asked.

“The King’s Guard both protects the king and acts as his most important generals. Whenever more than one or two legions are deployed in one place, the king usually sends one of his Guard out to command them. That way, he doesn’t put too much authority with any one of the legions’ generals or with a lord. He keeps command with his most faithful followers. After all, if you can trust someone with your life and that of your family, you can trust them not to try to take power. In fact, I’m surprised that he didn’t send one of them out earlier to command the King’s Own and the Steel Legion at this fort.”

Victoria nodded, “Particularly since General Voln is Lord Wulfgar Voln’s eldest daughter.”

“So if she went rogue, he’d have the two best legions in the kingdom plus his personal forces. Which are not insubstantial.” Vladimir shrugged, “Although Lord Voln is one of the king’s staunchest allies in the House of Lords and General Voln and Archmage Winters get on well with king. Plus, Sergeant Major Herth owes the king quite a bit, although she owes Lord Voln too.”

Fiona glanced over at him, “Owes them? For what?”

“For rescuing me from becoming a prostitute in Zhurav, like my mother.” While they were talking, the Legion’s Sergeant Major had moved up to their group. “The king; well, he was a prince back then, along with Lord Voln, Lord Romanof, Lord Archalus, and Lord Black, were traveling in Zhurav. They happened upon me while a customer of my mother’s was trying to force himself on me.” Josephine smiled harshly, “After they were through with him, he wasn’t going to be doing anything like that again.” Her smile turned nicer, “They took me back with them to Arbatros and sent me to live with Lord Voln, which is where I met Alexa.”

Vladimir nodded, “I’d heard about that.” He thought for a moment, “You know, I think we have a child from each of the lords who rescued you in the regiment right now.”

Josephine started, “You’re right. I remember that you introduced a few of them when we met up with you. Obviously, Alexandra is Wulfgar’s daughter. And I seem to recall Vladimir Romanof’s daughter is a Sergeant Major?”

He nodded, “And we actually have both of Lord Black’s children. His daughter, Arkana, is Annabelle’s company mage, and his son is one of our scout sergeants. As for Lord Azriel,” he turned and called back to where the rest of his bodyguard rode, “Cassie!”

The petite medic nudged her bay Arabian into a canter and quickly pulled even with the Vladimir. “You called, sir?”

He inclined his head towards Josephine, “Sergeant Major Herth wanted to meet you.”

Cassielle reached over and shook hands with Josephine. “First Lieutenant Cassielle Archalus, second in command for the medical section. Right now I’m attached to the colonel’s bodyguard, though.”

“Nice to meet you, lass. How’s your father doing these days? I hope you aren’t giving him too much grey hair?”

“He’s doing well ma’am. He still practices with the house guard most mornings. And trounces everyone except for Guard Captain Howell. As for the grey hair, I wouldn’t know,” she shrugged.

“How long have you been in the army? You seem a little bit young to be the second for a regimental medical unit. No offense.”

Cassielle grinned, “None taken. I’ve served for two years now, ma’am. And my first commander thought I was pretty good at healing.”

“She does excellent work as a medic,” Vladimir corrected. “And she’s not too shabby with a sword.”

Cassielle put her hands on her hips and adopted a hurt expression, “Not too shabby?”

He shrugged, “As I seem to recall, you didn’t do too well when we sparred before taking on the Geltur.” He paused for effect, “Oh, and there were three of you facing me.”

Josephine smiled, “You went three to one and still couldn’t beat him?”

“It was Emma, Nastia, and I,” she replied. “And we didn’t even come close.”

“Would Nastia be Anastasia Romanof, Lord Romanof’s daughter?” The sergeant major asked.

Cassielle nodded.

Josephine snorted, “Well, no wonder you guys couldn’t beat him. He’s at least an order of magnitude better than all of you.” She gave Vladimir an accusing glance, “You know, I’m surprised that an honorable guy like you would go picking on three little girls like that.” Cassielle bridled slightly at the little girls remark, but didn’t say anything.

“Well, it’s not like they gave me much choice,” he said. “I had Nastia and few of the other non-coms drilling the soldiers. So I told William and Natalie to show them how it’s done. William won, by the way. Then William asked me if I’d demonstrate my skills, so I told them that I’d need to fight at least three of them. And they volunteered.”

Josephine chuckled, “I doubt there’re three people in your regiment that could have an even chance of besting you.”

“That’s probably true,” he replied. “Except for you.”

She grinned and wiggled her eyebrows, “That sounds like a challenge. I think you and I have an appointment in the practice yard once we reach Ereth Chul.”

He saluted, “Yes ma’am.” Then he smiled, “I bet my father will enjoy seeing that.”

“Your father, sir?” Rayelle inquired. “Does he live in Ereth Chul?”

The colonel nodded, “He’s the battle-master for Lord Voln. He lives in the lord’s castle most of the time.”

Fiona started, “You’re from Menzobaria?”

He nodded, again, “I am.”

“So am I,” she said, “Where in Menzobaria?”

“My father had his castle in Shizrek, the next town over from the ruined village we passed through right before the princess joined us.”

Her eyes widened, “That’s where I grew up! My father is a lumberjack named Alonso Perez. He works for the knight. Is that your father?”

“No, my older brother’s the knight right now.” Vladimir thought for a moment, then his eyebrows rose, and he started laughing. “You’re Big Al’s daughter!” He hooted in laughter for several moments before he managed to compose himself. “He and I got into all sorts of trouble when we were younger.”

Victoria faked astonishment, “You got into trouble as a teenager? I thought you were perfect as a kid.”

He snorted, but Fiona spoke up before he could reply. “You knew my father? And why do you call him Big Al?”

“As I said, he and I grew up together. As to why we called him Big Al…well, let’s just say he had a way with the ladies. And unlike me, he didn’t have any vows to worry about.” He chuckled, “He surprised all of us when he settled down with your mother. How is she, by the way?”

“She’s doing alright. My younger sister’s only a year old, and my little brother just turned four, so they’re still a handful. I wonder what my dad would say if I asked him about his nickname?” She mused.

“Knowing him, he’d probably give you a good spanking.” He smiled, “Although you could probably best him in a fight these days.”

“Maybe. But I don’t think I’d want to fight him,” she replied.

“It’s probably best not to ask then, lass.”

They rode in silence for a few moments, their horses’ hooves clattering on the smooth paving stones of the highway.

After a little while, Josephine suddenly sat up with a start. Victoria glanced over at the legion sergeant major sharply, then motioned for the rest of them to be quiet.

Several moments passed before Josephine turned to them. “That was Allasra. She says that they’ve confirmed that another Zhuravi force has moved under the mountains and are marching on Ereth Chul.” Turning to Vladimir, “The general says she’s happy that we moved when we did, as they’ll arrive at the city late tomorrow or early the morning after. She also says that there are a number of orcs with them and possibly a few giants and ogres.”

“Lovely. I sure they’re in just a wonderful mood after crawling through the tunnels,” Vladimir said sarcastically. He looked over at Fiona, “Fiona, tell Sergeant Major Morell to pick up the pace. We need to be in the city before the Zhuravi get there.”

She nodded and trotted off.

Rayelle looked over at him, “How many troops does Lord Voln have, sir?”

“I’m not sure,” he replied. He thought for a moment before elaborating, “Each lord is allowed to have no more than five hundred soldiers in his employ. However, there may be a few regiments of one of the standard Legions stationed in there. In addition, Lord Voln will probably call up the militia and enlist the aid of any other trained fighters in the area. That said, even understrength, our regiment will be the best fighting force in the city.” He glanced over at Josephine, “Did the general say which units are in the city?”

“There’s a regiment each from the First and Second Legions. She also sent Steel Legion’s First Regiment with the reinforcements. By the way, she’s temporarily promoted you to Lieutenant General, so you’ll be in command of all four regiments.”

“Well, I guess we’d better get to the city, then,” he replied. Then he urged Jeremy into a trot, and the rest of them followed suit.

* * *

Vladimir paused at the top of the last ridge and looked down at the city of Ereth Chul. Victoria, Josephine, Rayelle, and Fiona pulled up beside him.

Ereth Chul sat on the bluffs above the Kindrel River, the tall stone walls rising forty feet around the outside of the city. There was a twenty-foot deep ditch cut into the rocky soil of the bluffs right in front of the wall. On the north side of the city was the lord’s castle. The outer curtain wall was eighty feet tall and surrounded the central keep and yard. The keep was a massive structure made of granite, easily a hundred feet across and over a hundred fifty feet high. It dwarfed all the other buildings in the city, although there were a number of three and four story structures and a few taller towers in the middle of the city. Even from a distance, they could hear the bustle of the city: the sounds of millions of people talking, animals moving, and from the east, a steam locomotive chugging into the station.

“That’s a pretty big city,” Rayelle said.

“Yep. It’s one of the oldest cities in Arbatros, and the second biggest, after the City of Stone. I think there’s somewhere around three and a half million people that live in the city and another million in the lands directly around it.” He pointed to the castle, “That’s Lord Voln’s castle, and where we’re going to report.” Glancing back, he called to William.

The grey-haired sergeant major jogged up to their position and saluted.

“William, make sure the troops keep good formation; I don’t want anyone wandering off.”

“Of course, sir. I’ll make sure the sergeants know,” he saluted again and moved away.

Turning to Fiona and Rayelle, “The same goes for you too, girls.”

“Of course, sir,” they chorused.

Shaking his head, he nudged Jeremy with his knee, and the snow white Percheron moved forward. Next to him, the partial regiment marched along, heavy boots thumping against the paving stones. Above them, the sky was still clear, with only a few light clouds to mar the perfect blue sky.

* * *

As they neared the city, they began to encounter more people on the road, their carts and oxen crowding the highway. Jason and his scouts rode out ahead of the main column, calling for the people to make way for the regiment. The farmers headed into the city hurried to clear a path for them, pulling their carts off to the side of the road. A number of them saluted as Vladimir passed by, and, upon hearing which regiment it was, most of the rest of the people began cheering the soldiers.

More people thronged the road as it approached the city, and Jason’s troops tightened up, using their horses to push their way forward.

Fiona looked up at the towering walls of the city before her. While she had lived most of her life in Menzobaria, she had never been to the regional capital. The gate in front of them was open and the drawbridge was down, allowing merchants and farmers to pass in and out of the city. However, when the guards on the wall saw them approaching the city, they began directing people to the side, clearing the gate.

Suddenly, there was a commotion around the gate. Vladimir touched Jeremy’s flanks with his heels and waved for Fiona, Rayelle, and Cassielle to follow him. The four of them cantered up the column and came to a stop at the head of the line.

Natalie, Emma, and a young man wearing full plate under a black surcoat sporting a silver wolf’s head on the chest were arguing with another man. The last man appeared to be a merchant, with rich clothes and a good-sized gut. A half-dozen wagons with drivers and guards where stopped in and around the gate and on the drawbridge.

The merchant was babbling in a foreign tongue unfamiliar to Rayelle and Cassielle. Fiona thought she might have heard it before. However, the colonel immediately asked the merchant something in the same language. The man looked up sharply, then replied rather tartly, gesturing towards his wagons. Vladimir responded cheerfully, smiling at the man and pointing at the lord’s castle.

Emma chimed in, stroking the hilt of her short sword. A few of the man’s guards bristled, but Emma and Natalie’s company banged their spear shafts against their shields, and the guards subsided. The man asked the colonel something and bowed.

Vladimir shrugged, then spoke to the man again and waved for him to enter the gate. As the man turned away, he said something else and pointed to Emma. The man nodded and started shouting at his drivers.

The colonel dismounted and walked over to the man standing with Emma and Natalie. The man saluted, “Welcome to Ereth Chul, Sir. I’m Lieutenant Turek of Lord Voln’s personal guard.”

Vladimir returned the salute and extended his hand. They shook hands, and Vladimir looked at the man more closely. “You wouldn’t happen to be Colonel Turek’s son?”

“Yes sir, I am.” He seemed surprised, “Do you know my father?”

“Indeed I do, lad.” Vladimir grinned, “And you probably know mine: Sir Viktor Kapov?”

“Of course, sir. Everybody knows Sir Viktor.” Then he started, “Are you Sir Vladimir?”

“That’s me, although I usually go by colonel.” He pointed to the two crowns of a colonel engraved on his pauldron. “How’s your dad faring these days?”

“Well enough, sir. Although this business with the Zhuravi invading isn’t making his life easy.”

“I can imagine.” Vladimir clapped the young man on the shoulder, “Thanks for clearing the gate for us. It’s nice to see you following in your father’s footsteps.”

“Thank you sir. It’s an honor to meet you.” He saluted again and moved to where his troops were directing farmers and merchants.

“So what were you guys babbling about?” Natalie asked Emma and Vladimir.

“Oh, the merchant’s Kimori, and supposedly his lord’s most important trader. So he didn’t want to wait for all of us to go through.” Vladimir chuckled, “After all, he’s the center of the universe. Emma said he’d better clear the way or she’d shove her sword somewhere vital. At which point he asked if I would let him move his wagons into town, pointing out that most of them were in there already.” He snorted, “Since he asked nicely, I told him he could.”

Natalie grinned, “And I assume you also told him to hurry up or Emma’s sword was coming for him.”

He nodded.

Emma glanced over at him, “Where’d you learn Kimori?”

“When we went to Kimor on vacation,” Victoria replied for him, having ridden up while he was talking to Lieutenant Turek.

At Emma’s look, he merely shrugged.

By that point, the Kimori merchant had moved his wagons through the gate, and Franchesca and Nastia led their company through the gate. Natalie and Emma brought up the rear, walking with Vladimir and his command unit.

As they rode into the city, Fiona and Rayelle looked around in wonder. Victoria moved up beside them, grinning slightly. “First time in the big city, girls?”

They both nodded. “There’re just so many people,” Fiona said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen this many before in my life.”

“Well, it’s one of the largest cities in the world, to my knowledge. Mulvernic in Frefenia has around two million people. Marebes and Zhura have over three million apiece, but none of the other counties on this side of the Arbatrosian Sea has any cities of more than a couple million.” She thought for a moment, “Mez is a little over three million, and there’re a few cities in Valira almost as large. Zhunt has,” she frowned, “or at least had, several cities over two million people.”

Rayelle interrupted, “Didn’t the Remurans take a few of their cities?”

She nodded, “That’s why I said ‘had’; although they still have a number left. And obviously the Remurans have a number, including Remur, which might have something like three and a half or four million people.”

Then she grinned, “But you haven’t seen a big city until you’ve been to the City of Stone.”

Rayelle looked over at her, eyes wide, “It’s bigger than this?”

Victoria chuckled, “Oh, it’s bigger. Much bigger. I think there’s somewhere on the order of fourteen million people in the city proper and another three or four in the surround. Although it’s pretty spread out, so it doesn’t feel that crowded. But if you ever go to the main market square, well, you’ll know it’s big.” She pointed up at the nearing castle. “The King’s castle is as much bigger than Lord’s Voln’s as his is bigger than Vladimir’s brother’s.”

It was Fiona’s turn to be amazed. “That’s a really big castle,” she said.

“Although it’s not like Lord Voln doesn’t have a pretty impressive castle anyway. And some of the other lords have bigger or better defended castles as well.” By that time, they had reached the castle, and the first regiment passed over the drawbridge over its own ditch and through the massive steel-bound oak gates into the outer yard.

Their horses’ hooves clattered across the flagstones. Passing through the gates, Rayelle looked up and saw the dark splotches of murder-holes above her. Looking to the sides, she noticed openings in the walls for bowmen and ballistae.

As they emerged from the portal, a booming shout echoed through the courtyard. “Vladimir! You’re here!”

Turning, Rayelle and Fiona saw a taller man with grey hair in full plate moving towards them. Behind him strode another man, his light brown hair greying a little, in a Mithral shirt with a two-handed sword strapped across his back. At his side walked a tall, middle-aged woman, similarly equipped. A larger group trailed them.

Vladimir swung down off Jeremy and embraced the first man tightly. “So nice of you to visit,” the man said.

The colonel grinned, “It’s good to see you, father. Although I had hoped to visit for different reasons.”

Sir Viktor smiled back at him, “Indeed.”

Vladimir turned to the other man, “Lord Voln, how nice to see you.” They shook hands. Turning to the woman beside Lord Voln, he bent and kissed her hand. “Lady Voln, you’re as lovely as ever.”

She smiled, eyes twinkling, “Why thank you, Vladimir.”

Two women in their late twenties moved away from the group. Coming to attention, Vladimir saluted them. They returned the gesture and Victoria took a moment to study them. One of them had shoulder-length red hair, wore a Mithral ring mail shirt, greaves, vambraces, and pauldrons. Two sword hilts wrapped in red leather and silver wire stuck up over her shoulders. A short sword and dagger hung off the belt around her waist.

The other woman had long black hair braided up behind her head. She wore studded leather armor that upon closer inspection seemed to shimmer and ripple, and adamantine greaves, vambraces, and pauldrons. She had a longbow strapped across her back with two longknives riding next to the quiver. On her belt hung a long-handled sword and a short sword. All of her weapons’ hilts were wrapped with cream leather and blued steel wire.

Dropping their hands, they moved forward, the black-haired woman embracing him. She whispered something in his ear, then moved back while the other one clasped forearms with him.

Moving back, he turned to where his captains had assembled. Gesturing to the red-haired one, “Allison Reed, King’s Guard.” And the other, “Beatriz Danelli, King’s Guard. Both formerly of the Steel and King’s Own Legions.” He waved at the officers, “My captains. I’m sure we’ll get a chance to know each other later.”

Beatriz nodded and turned back to the group of people behind them. “These are your new officers. First, to replace Captain Marsters, a familiar face.” She motioned forward a young woman in full plate with a number of weapons strapped on.

“Captain Alisa Kapov, sir.” She smiled at Vladimir.

He grinned back, “Hello, sis.”

“Next, to take Lieutenant O’Hara’s place.”

A young woman in standard cavalry gear with a few extra swords hanging off her belt and strapped across her back moved forward. “Lieutenant Astrid Mirakson of Third Company, Second Regiment, Steel Legion.”

“And finally, to replace Lieutenant Grafton.”

Another young woman, this one with long, dark hair and big hazel eyes wearing an adamantine scale shirt and Mithral pauldrons, greaves, and vambraces stepped forward. A long-handled sword with a cream leather and gold wire wrapped hilt was strapped across her back next to an unstrung longbow, and a pair of longknives hung from the belt around her slender waist.

She started to report to him, but Jenna ran past and threw her arms around the lieutenant. After a moment, she hugged Jenna back and smiled over at Evelyn. A few seconds later, Jenna let go of her and turned to Vladimir. She blushed a little, “Sorry sir.” Looking at the lieutenant, “May I introduce Lieutenant Tristanne Bergman, formerly of Second Company, Second Regiment, King’s Own, and one of the finest lieutenants in the Legion.”

Vladimir smiled, “I take it you two know each other?”

Tristanne nodded, “I served with Jenna in the Steel Legion when she had just joined up. That was back when I was still a Platoon Sergeant Major.”

“So you know what it’s like to actually work,” he commented with a smile. Josephine and William chuckled behind him.

She smiled back and moved over to stand beside Jenna.

Beatriz now turned back to the group. “Now for the commanders of your new companies.”

“Captain Vincent Hogan, Fifth Company, archers,” was a tall, heavily muscled man with a shaved head and a massive longbow. “His mage, Nesheram,” was similarly tall, but thinner and dark-skinned.

“Next, Captain Clarissa Walford, Sixth Company, scouts.” She was a tall blonde woman in scale, with a short bow and battleaxe across her back. A slender woman in Mithral studded leather was, “Tamara, her mage.”

As the next officer, a boney woman in standard infantry gear moved forward, William blurted out, “Jules?”

She smiled brightly at him and nodded. She turned to Vladimir, and Beatriz started to introduce her. However, he interrupted, “Captain Juliet Morell, I take it?”

She nodded again, “Tenth Company, infantry.” Turning to the woman beside her who wore a Mithral shirt and carried a scimitar, “Devin Serget, my company mage.”

Beatriz resumed introductions with, “Captain Michelle Ford, Twelfth Company, infantry.” She was a tall woman wearing segmented plate with two longswords sheathed across her back. Her mage, “Elly Patricks,” was a very attractive brunette with pink streaked black leather and mesh armor.

“And finally for you captains, Captain Elizabeth Martin, regimental cavalry.” She was a taller, sharp-featured woman in full plate with two longswords and a battleaxe strapped across her back. “Ariana, her mage,” was a smaller young woman dressed all in black save for some white embroidery on her shirt.

As Beatriz moved on to the last five individuals standing next to her, Vladimir groaned, “Already?”

Beatriz gave him a rather sharp look, “What do you mean ‘already’? You’re up to seventeen companies now. I’d say it’s far past time. Alexa just couldn’t free anybody up any sooner; otherwise you would’ve gotten them earlier.”

Looking over at the women standing with her he said, “No offense to any of you, it’s just that I like working closely with my captains. Having extra layers of command always makes me feel like I’m trying to distance myself from my soldiers.”

Beatriz shook her head at him, and waved at the women, “Your staff officers, so far. First, Lt. Colonel Kristen Grendel. She’ll eventually be in charge of your infantry.” Kristen wore full plate with a long-hafted axe slung across her back.

“Next, Major Danielle Cantor. When you’re at full strength, she’ll command the first four companies of your infantry, but for now, she’s in charge of all six infantry companies.” While she had been talking, Emma had moved over to Danielle. Once the major had saluted Vladimir, the two immediately hugged each other.

Vladimir smiled at them, then looked back at Josephine. “It was nice of the general to pull her for my first infantry major.”

The legion sergeant major shrugged with a smile, “What can I say? We aim to please. Besides, Alexa figures that you work better with people you know.”

They moved to the side and Beatriz gestured to the next officer, a woman in full plate with a warhammer and longsword on her belt. “Major Rebecca Theska, your first cavalry major.”

Turning to the second to last person in the group, a taller blonde in a Mithral shirt with a longbow across her back, Beatriz said, “And finally, Major Jessail Kilkel. She’s going to be your ranger major. Which reminds me,” waving the last woman forward, she looked over at Kristine. “Captain Douglas, since you’re moving up to a full company, Alexa sent you a mage.” Pointing to the mage, a young woman in black leather armor with a longsword and longbow, “This is Willa Rowan.” The mage moved over to stand with Kristine.

Allison, who had been silent throughout the introductions, now moved forward. “Now that that’s done; Vladimir, we need to give you Alexa’s dispatches and the king’s orders. I’m sure the rest of your officers want to get to know each other and deal with their new troops.”

He nodded, “Victoria, Kristen, Danielle, Natalie, and Emma, with me. Sergeant Major Herth, if you’d like to come, I would value your insight. The rest of you should see to your troops. Hannah, Jason, introduce Rebecca to the cavalry. Princess Grace, Jenna why don’t you get Jessail settled.”

The indicated officers nodded, and all of his subordinates moved off.

The six women trailed him as he followed Beatriz and Allison. Along with Lord Voln and Sir Viktor, they made their way into the keep. As they passed through the doors into the tower, Natalie saw that the door was made of solid Mithral. She glanced over at Emma, one eyebrow raised. The younger captain merely shrugged.

The group made its way up through the keep tower to the second highest level. Lord Voln opened the door and ushered them in. Waiting for them was a young woman in Mithral plate armor with a light blue leather and Mithral wire wrapped hilt long-handled sword sheathed across her back. A dagger hilt of the same style stuck out of the top of each of her boots.

Standing slightly behind her was an even younger woman with wavy blonde hair. She wore tight black leather pants and an open-fronted white shirt. A longsword hung from one hip and a metal rod was pushed through the other side of her belt. Next to them stood two men and a shorter woman, all in full plate. Behind one of the men and the woman were a man wearing grey robes and a woman in a chain mail shirt.

The first woman moved forward as soon as all of them were through the door. She threw her arms around Vladimir, embracing him tightly, her armor clanging against his. He hugged her back, reaching his hand up to stroke her hair. After a few moments, he released her and stepped back.

Beatriz looked at him, eyebrow raised. “I take it you remember Kate?”

Vladimir nodded, “We must have saved each other’s lives a dozen times that day. That’s not something you easily forget. We’ve kept in touch over the years.”

Victoria looked over at the young woman. “Who are you?” She asked, her voice slightly sharper than usual.

The young woman braced to attention, “Colonel Kate Henna, First Regiment, Steel Legion.” Turning to the woman beside her, “Raquel Moore, my mage.”

“Nice to meet you, Colonel Henna,” Victoria replied, tone slightly frosty.

Beatriz stepped forward and gestured at one of the men in plate. “This is Colonel Robert Whitaker, commander of Fourth Regiment, First Legion and his mage, Garis.” He moved forward and shook hands with Vladimir.

Beatriz turned to the woman in plate, “And this is Colonel Elaine Nichols, First Regiment, Second Legion. I trust you remember her from our time in the Second?”

He smiled, then bent over her hand, kissing it lightly. “Of course I do. How could I forget little Ells? I mean, we served together for three years.” He grinned at the smaller woman.

She shook her head, “I forgot that you guys used to call me that.” Grinning, “If I had known you were going to bring that up, I might not have volunteered to be the unit to garrison Ereth Chul.”

“It has been a long time, but we don’t forget,” Beatriz said.

“More’s the pity,” she replied with a smile. “Allow me to introduce my new mage, Tiffany Brinson.” The young woman nodded to him.

Lord Voln moved forward, “Finally, for those of you who don’t know him. This is Colonel Richter Turek, commander of my personal guard.” He was a taller, gaunt man in full plate with greying brown hair.

Beatriz waved to a table strewn with maps and papers. “Now that we all know each other, why don’t we get to work. General Kapov?” She grinned over at Vladimir.

“Indeed, let’s.” Moving over to the table, he grabbed a map of the city. “Obviously, the East Gate is going to be the main area of attack.”

“Obviously?” Natalie raised an eyebrow, “I haven’t defended this city before, so I don’t have your familiarity with it.”

“Sorry, lass. There are three main reasons why the Zhuravi will most likely attack the East Gate. First, attacking the North Gate is made difficult by this castle being here. It can provide fire from an oblique angle against any attack. As for the South Gate, since the land’s lower down there, Lord Voln has cleverly made it so that he can flood an area in front of the gate. This forces attackers to assault along the causeway, which is rather thin. And there are artillery pieces on the wall pre-sighted on it.” He grinned, “There are two bridges across the river to the west, but assaulting those is probably harder than anywhere else, as both have drawbridges with serious barbicans. And any amphibious landing would be made difficult by the scarcity of routes up from the river into the town and the defenses on each route.”

Natalie nodded, “Which leaves the East Gate.” She frowned in thought, “Although I wonder if that might make them less likely to attack, as it’s the obvious choice. Plus, since they tried once before and failed; maybe they’ll try a different tack this time.”

“And I bet this Storm Shaper is a real pain when it comes to the weather,” Emma commented. Glancing over at Victoria, “You’d probably have a better feel for what he can do than I would. However, it’s possible that he might be able to do something about the water to the South, which would make attacking that way more viable.”

Vladimir nodded, “All good points. Which is why we need to start going over initial planning and contingency planning right now.” Looking up at the other three colonels, “I assume all of you are at full strength?”

He received nods from all three of them.

“Very well then. Lord Voln, I recommend that you keep your guard in the castle and use them as a reserve and to assist with holding the North Gate.”

The lord nodded, but it seemed to Natalie that he was unhappy.

“Colonel Whitaker, why don’t you take the North Gate and walls? Elaine, you’ll have the West side, making sure they don’t land on the docks and manning the defenses on the river side.” He paused, “Kate, I’m not sure which one of us should take East Gate. If their Uplifted can do something about the water down South, that might be where they attack.” Sighing, he ran his hand through his hair. Turning to Emma, “We need more information about what druids can do. Please tell the page down the hall to fetch Evelyn.”

She nodded and left the room.

Vladimir studied the map for a few moments before he looked up. “Lord Voln, how many Reservists do you have in town?”

“We have seven Reserve Regiments in Ereth Chul and a regiment of veterans from the Elite Legions,” he replied. “Plus, we’ve got over six hundred thousand militia members.”

“How long until they’re assembled?”

“I put out the call as soon as Beatriz and Allison arrived. I sent out messengers around noon a day ago, and the Elite Regiment had formed up within a few hours. The Reserve Regiments were assembled by this morning. As for the militia, almost five hundred thousand have reported to their officers, already,” the lord responded.

“In that case, I think I’ll place two Reserve Regiments with Elaine, Robert, and my regiment. Kate, you get a Reserve Regiment and the Elite Regiment. I’ll begin assigning the militia by company sometime tomorrow. Basically, each of us will get roughly a quarter of them.” He looked around, “Sergeant Major Herth, can you see to that?”

“Of course sir,” she answered.

Emma ducked back into the room, nodding to Vladimir in response to his questioning look.

“That just about covers deployment, except for figuring out where Kate and I will be. However, I want to place a company of my troops and Kate, one of yours, along with a company from the Elite Regiment and half-a-dozen companies from the militia, in the center of town as reserve. Danielle, you’ll be in charge of that unit.”

Kate nodded, “Sounds like a good idea. Which sort of company do you want from me?”

“I think archers or heavy cavalry. Pick one and I’ll have the Elite Regiment provide the other.” He thought for a moment, “Actually, why don’t I take the Elite Regiment and I’ll send a company of cavalry from there along with the princess’s and Emma’s companies.”

Kate shot him a questioning glance, but then a look of comprehension passed over her features.

“Of course, sir,” she responded.

There was an awkward silence for a moment until Beatriz spoke up. “Why don’t we take a moment to think on this while we wait for Evelyn,” she suggested.

Everybody moved away from the table into small groups or by themselves, where they began discussing or simply contemplating.

Natalie moved over to where Vladimir stood off to one side. “I don’t think Lord Voln is very happy about where you put his troops,” she whispered to him.

He pursed his lips, “I know. Thanks lass.”

She nodded and walked over to where Emma and Danielle were conversing in low voices.

Vladimir moved across to Lord Voln, Colonel Turek, and his father. Smiling a little, “Annoyed that you got left out of the fighting, Wulfgar?”

The lord smiled back, “Just a little.”

“Believe me, there’s a method to my madness. By keeping your troops out of the fight, I accomplish a few things. First, since your personal guards are the best fighters in the city, probably with the exception of my King’s Own, I’m keeping the best force in reserve.” He chuckled a little, “That way, if it all goes south, you can sally forth and cover our retreat to your castle. Second, and this may seem a little callous and calculating, but your troops are harder to come by than people in any of the legions. After all, there are thousands more of us, but your guard’s all you have.”

Lord Voln nodded, then grinned, “I didn’t know that paladins were allowed to be calculating.”

“Well, I simply thought of that because I have a calculating mind. The real reason for my decision is the first,” Vladimir replied.

They talked for a few more minutes until he heard a light knock on the door. Excusing himself, he moved over and opened the door.

Evelyn stepped into the room. “You wanted to see me, sir?”

He smiled at her, “Yes, I did.” He closed the door behind her and ushered her over to Victoria. “Apparently the Uplifted in command is a druid of some power known as Storm Shaper. We were wondering what he might be capable of.”

“And we figured you might have some idea, as you worked with druids for some time,” Victoria added.

The young mage thought for a few moments, then tucked a strand of wavy brown hair behind her ear and began. “If he’s a powerful druid, he could make our lives quite difficult. First, and perhaps most importantly, given his name, he’s probably going to have a pretty good handle on weather magic. Additionally, most of the Uplifted have magic items that increase their power. Which means that I bet we can expect some bad weather in the next couple days, as their army gets closer.”

“What sort of spells do they have with regards to water?” Victoria asked.

“Well, most of your powerful druids have a decent ability to control water, including raising or lowering its level, dissipating smaller bodies, and freezing or otherwise negating the barrier effect of larger ones.” Evelyn looked around at them, “Why do you want to know?”

“The main defense for the South Gate is flooding the lowlands before it. And to the west, there’s the river and a waterborne assault to worry about,” Vladimir said.

“Expect that those barriers won’t work as well as you might hope. In fact, I’d say that the real attacks might come from those directions. Although they’ll probably hit pretty hard from all directions, depending upon how many men they have.”

Vladimir glanced over at Josephine, “Did the general say how many of Zhuravi we could expect?”

“Allasra’s not sure, but she estimates at least one Elite Division and thirty Line Divisions. Plus ten thousand or more orcs and at least twice as many goblins,” Josephine said.

“That’s close to four hundred thousand troops,” Evelyn exclaimed.

Vladimir grinned, “Which means we outnumber them three to two, lass. Granted, we’ve only eighteen thousand professional troops, while most of theirs are trained men.”

“Although most of the militia will be on the walls, so that’ll make their fight easier. Still, we’ll be the ones doing most of the fighting, if the Zhuravi manage to breach any of the gates,” Beatriz said.

Vladimir nodded, “Indeed.” Turning to the rest of them, “I think I’ll take the South Gate, which leaves the East Gate for Kate.” Looking over to where Allison and Beatriz stood, “Where will the two of you be?”

“I think I’ll join you,” Beatriz replied. She glanced over at Allison.

“I’ll be with Elaine at the West Gate. After all, I like water,” she grinned.

Vladimir and Elaine shared a smile with her. Vladimir addressed all of them, “If that’s all settled for now, I recommend that we should all get some rest. God knows we’ll find it hard to get soon enough. I want to meet with all of the captains tomorrow evening to let them know what we plan. However, everyone should continue to think about this and I’d like to share lunch with this group tomorrow. If that’s acceptable to you, Lord Voln?”

“Of course, General. My servants have already prepared the barracks for your troops,” he said.

“Thank you, my lord. My officers should see to their troops.” Vladimir started to turn away, but paused when Lord Voln said his name.

“General Kapov, perhaps you and a few of your senior officers would care to join my wife and me for dinner?”

Vladimir glanced over at Natalie and Victoria, both of whom nodded slightly. “I would love to, my lord. Would you be so kind as to allow us a short while to change into something more suitable for your lady’s table?”

“Of course, general; we won’t be serving the meal for a little while yet. I’ll send someone down to let you know when it’s ready.”

“My thanks again, Lord Voln.” With that, Vladimir led his officers from the room and out of the tower into the chill evening.

Copyright © Scott Schaper, 2012

List of Characters

The King’s Guard
Beatriz Danelli-Age 28
Allison Reed-Age 29

The House of Voln
Lord Wulfgar Voln-Age 56
Lady Jessica Voln-Age 54
Alexa Voln-Age 28
Alexis Voln-Age 25
Allison Voln-Age 22
Alexandra Voln-Age 19

Colonel Richter Turek-Age 56- Commander of Lord Voln’s personal guard
Lieutenant Richard Turek-Age 22- Lieutenant in Lord Voln’s personal guard
Sir Viktor Kapov-Age 63- Battle-master
Peter Yunvi-Age 46- Castle cook

The King’s Own Legion

General Alexa Voln-Age 28
Archmage Allasra Winters-Age 26
Legion Sergeant Major Josephine Herth-Age 27

First Regiment
Colonel Vladimir Kapov-Age 36
Victoria-Age 25
Regimental Sergeant Major William Morell-Age 56

Regimental Bodyguard
Sergeant Hazel Riss-Age 17
Corporal Rayelle Harper-Age 16
Private Laura Thompson-Age 14
Private Stephanie Allen-Age 14
Private Jillian Olsen-Age 15
Sergeant Cassandra Roseti-Age 17
Corporal Fiona Perez-Age 15
Renee Owen-Age 15

Command Staff
Lieutenant Colonel Kristen Grendel-Age 28
Major Danielle Cantor-Age 21
Major Jessail Kilkel-Age 28
Major Rebecca Theska-Age 29

First Company
Captain Natalie Sanchez-Age 26
Rose-Age 23
Company Sergeant Major Franchesca Rivers-Age 24

Lieutenant Monique Oleron-Age 21
Lieutenant Melissa Turgon-Age 22
Lieutenant Nichole McIntyre-Age 25

Second Company
Captain Emma Athney-Age 20
Rachel Hawk-Age 19
Company Sergeant Major Anastasia Romanof-Age 16

Lieutenant Sarah Drommed-Age 19
Lieutenant Tristanne Bergman-Age 23
Lieutenant Hilary Paulis-Age 16

Third Company
Captain Victor Marsters-Age 45
Ginerva Marks-Age 33

Third Company
Captain Alisa Kapov-Age 23
Ginerva Marks-Age 33

Fourth Company
Captain Justin Pierce-Age 29
Jenny Gilbert-Age 26

First Platoon
Lieutenant Demetri Kallov-Age 26

Seventh Company
Captain Hannah Rockwell-Age 23
Verity-Age 21

Second Platoon
Sergeant Hazel Riss-Age 17
Private Laura Thompson-Age 14
Private Stephanie Allen-Age 14
Private Jillian Olsen-Age 15

Eighth Company
Captain Benjamin Halest-Age 43
Ivo-Age 39

Ninth Company
Captain Annabelle Diego-Age 22
Arkana-Age 21

Thirteenth Company
Captain Jenna Miskovitz-Age 20
Evelyn Graham-Age 20

Eighteenth Company
Captain Glenvara Lake-Age 24
Daphne-Age 20

Regimental Scout Company
Captain Jason Thompson-Age 32
Octavia-Age 29
Company Sergeant Major Christine Mede-Age 27

Sergeant James Black-Age 17
Corporal Grigori Kulikov-Age 23
Private Daniel Fitzpatrick-Age 16

First Platoon, First Ranger Company
Captain Kristine Douglas-Age 23

Regimental Medical Unit
First Lieutenant Cassielle Archalus-Age 15

Second Company, Menzobarian Rangers
Captain Grace Azvar-Age 17
Emily Athney-Age 18
Company Sergeant Major Alexandra Voln-Age 19

"Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction." - Ronald Reagan
"Judge them not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." - Martin Luther King, Jr.
"Pick up a rifle and you change instantly from a subject to a citizen." - Jeff Cooper
"I like my enemies like James Bond likes his martinis- shaken, not stirred."
My first book, The King's Own
posted 27 October 2014 10:55 EDT (US)     39 / 54  
Sounds like an epic battle in the making.

The build-up is coming along quite nicely, though there seemed to be an awful lot of introductions of new people this time. Could some of that have been glossed over with "Vladimir met the captains and mages of the new regiment, then proceeded to learn more about them." we donot need to know what he needs to know, just that the intros occurred.

Looking forward to the next installment.

|||||||||||||||| A transplanted Viking, born a millennium too late. |||||||||||||||||
|||||||||||||||| Too many Awards to list in Signature, sorry lords...|||||||||||||||||
|||||||||||||||| Listed on my page for your convenience and envy.|||||||||||||||||
Somewhere over the EXCO Rainbow
Master Skald, Order of the Silver Quill, Guild of the Skalds
Champion of the Sepia Joust- Joust I, II, IV, VI, VII, VIII
posted 27 October 2014 12:31 EDT (US)     40 / 54  
On the one hand, I could have, but on the other, this book is semi-expository in nature for the rest of the series. While it slows things down a little now, I felt that it was worth it so that the reader would have the characters in mind for later. I may trim it down in editing.

"Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction." - Ronald Reagan
"Judge them not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." - Martin Luther King, Jr.
"Pick up a rifle and you change instantly from a subject to a citizen." - Jeff Cooper
"I like my enemies like James Bond likes his martinis- shaken, not stirred."
My first book, The King's Own
posted 28 October 2014 02:46 EDT (US)     41 / 54  
As you will.

Also, do not forget about logistics.

An adult requires like 1,5 (3 pounds) kg of food per day just to survive. In those days, most of this would be grains. A city of 3 million would require 4,5 million kgs (almost 10 million pounds, 5000 tons) of food PER DAY. If I was the Zhuravi, I would simply siege the city.

However, they cannot do that, as their 400,000 warriors would require 4 pounds of food per day, or 800 tons. They would have starved long before they reach the city, unless they have some magical and bountiful means of providing sustenance to the tune of 800 tons per day.

I know bigger sounds better, but as Gaius Marius proved against the Teutones and Sulla proved against Mithridates, a small, professional, well-supplied force can defeat horde upon hordes of poorly-supplied enemies. That was the strength of the Romans, which you appear to be applying to the King's Own (and doing it well).

|||||||||||||||| A transplanted Viking, born a millennium too late. |||||||||||||||||
|||||||||||||||| Too many Awards to list in Signature, sorry lords...|||||||||||||||||
|||||||||||||||| Listed on my page for your convenience and envy.|||||||||||||||||
Somewhere over the EXCO Rainbow
Master Skald, Order of the Silver Quill, Guild of the Skalds
Champion of the Sepia Joust- Joust I, II, IV, VI, VII, VIII
posted 04 November 2014 17:34 EDT (US)     42 / 54  
Calm Before the Storm

22nd of Grakuary, 599
City of Ereth Chul, Menzobaria, Arbatros

As the officers moved through the yard, Beatriz fell in beside Vladimir and Victoria. He grinned down at her, “It’s nice to have you back, lass.”

“It’s good to be back. And with you as my primary commander again. It’ll be just like old times, eh?” She elbowed him in the side, seeming to not notice his plate.

Victoria glanced over at her, “How long did you serve together?”

“Seven years. When I came out of Rocurus as a fresh new lieutenant, Vladimir was already the senior lieutenant for the company.”

“Although she got promoted to captain before I did,” Vladimir said with a smile.

Beatriz glanced over at him, “Did that bother you?”

He shook his head, “Not really. You deserved it.”

She put her hand in his elbow. “It’s nice of you to say that. Although you probably deserved it more.”

“That’s debatable.” They passed through a side gate and out into the barracks compound. “Although I should probably be happy that you’re the one in the King’s Guard, not me. After all, I actually like to fight more than once in a while.”

She punched him in the shoulder, though the act was more symbolic than anything, as her leather-clad hand banged off his pauldron. “You shouldn’t talk about the Guard like that. We actually fight more than the normal army does in peacetime.”

“And range more widely, if what I hear is to be believed,” he commented with a grin.

“Indeed. Although you’re not supposed to know about that.” She looked up at him, “I assume you know about that from Grace and Nikki?”

He nodded, “They never told me anything, but when I couldn’t find any trace of them or the two of you, I assumed you were out of the country doing something nefarious.”

“Nefarious?” She repeated incredulously. “You suspect us of nefarious dealings?”

“Always, lass.” He smiled, “I assume you and Allison will be joining Victoria and me for dinner?”

She nodded, “Who else are you planning to take?”

“Danielle, Natalie, Emma, Rachel, the princess, Emily, and Alexandra, I think.” He glanced over at Victoria, “Maybe Jenna and Fiona too?”

The mage nodded, “I think that would be good.” She smiled, “Too many more and Lord Voln might think we’re storming his hall.”

“At which point he might go berserk, which wouldn’t be good for anyone,” Beatriz said with a grin.

“Just so.” He called out to his officers, “Danielle, Natalie, Emma, you’ll be coming to dinner. Emma, let Rachel know she’s invited as well. Evelyn, can you let Jenna know I’d like her up there as well. Sergeant Major Herth, could you fetch Princess Grace, Emily, Alexandra, and Fiona?” She nodded. “Thank you. Why don’t we meet in my quarters in half an hour?”

Receiving nods, he gave Beatriz’s hand a quick squeeze and walked towards the building set aside for the barracks’ commander. Pausing outside the door, he summoned Jeremy and took his saddlebags off the horse. He patted the snow-white Percheron on the nose and dismissed it.

Entering the building, he moved into the bedroom and set them down on a table. He began unbuckling his armor, taking off his breastplate and cuisse and hanging them on the armor rack in the corner. He also took off his gauntlets.

Moving over to the small chest he carried with him, he unlocked it with a whispered word. The chest opened up into a rather large extra-dimensional space. Looking around, he selected a surcoat embroidered with his arms, a silver cross above a sword on a black field. Removing his sword belt, he donned the surcoat, grabbed a silver-chased black leather belt from the chest, and fastened his sword to the new belt. He pulled a pair of leather gloves out of the chest and tucked them through his belt.

Vladimir closed the chest and locked it, then walked out into the living area of his quarters. Sitting down, he pulled out a whetstone and his dagger and began sharpening it, the stone rasping across the steel.

Beatriz walked in a few moments later, wearing a cream surcoat with black embroidery over her metal studded dragonhide armor. She still wore all of her weapons, including four daggers sheathed on a bandoleer across her chest. Seating herself across from him, she pulled an onyx and silver cross out of a pocket and passed it across to him.

“Thanks for that,” she said.

“You’re welcome lass. Anytime you need it, just ask.” As he took it, his hand lingered on hers for a moment.

She grinned at him, “Did you know that the Guard isn’t actually part of the army?”

“As a matter of fact, I did, although you’re still my superior officer.” He shifted in his chair a little. “And we’ve a battle ahead of us.”

She nodded and turned away, flipping a dagger off her bandoleer. She began twirling it between her fingers, the razor-sharp blade spinning. “You know, I won’t be your senior officer forever, Vladimir.”

“I know. However-”

The door opened, cutting him off. Natalie, Victoria, and Fiona walked in. The infantry captain had a plain black surcoat belted over her leaf mail and a plain silver cross and chain around her neck. His mage’s only concession to the formality of the occasion had been to don a silver cross set with diamonds. Fiona wore the standard surcoat of the King’s Own, black with a sunburst embroidered over the left breast, over her armor.

Vladimir rose, offering his chair to Victoria. The slender mage took it and leaned back, glancing over at Beatriz. He glanced over at Fiona with a smile, “You look nice, lass.”

“Oh, thank you, sir.” She colored slightly, “I didn’t know what else to wear, as I don’t have any dresses anymore.”

He and Natalie exchanged a glance, and the captain chuckled lightly. “Don’t tell Rosie, but that’s the real reason I joined the army. To not have to wear dresses on formal occasions.” She paused for a moment, mock thoughtful, “Oh, and so I could wear a sword too,” she added.

“Maybe I should officially join the army too.” They all turned to see Grace standing in the doorway. “My mother still makes me wear dresses whenever I’m at court,” she continued.

Natalie smiled, “Although it must be said, your highness, that certain lords and ladies might take offense if you were to attend court balls and banquets in mail with your swords.”

The princess grinned, “I’ve already offended them by being female to begin with. But training to be a soldier seems to be too much for some of them. I know several court ladies who stopped being friendly to my mother over it.”

Danielle, Emma, Rachel, Emily, Alexandra, Jenna, and Allison had followed her in. Emma and Rachel shared a chair, Danielle standing next to them. Emily and the princess took another, and Allison sat down next to Beatriz.

Natalie frowned, “I though the queen was in the army for a few years, your highness.”

“She was, and she’s still a better fighter than most of the King’s Guard. However, she still likes to wear pretty dresses and insists that I do the same for formal occasions,” she grumbled.

“I don’t think actually joining up is going to solve that, your highness,” Vladimir said. “Although I for one think the idea of more rangers is a good one. Which reminds me,” he looked over at Jenna. “Once this siege is over, I think I’m going to transfer your company to Kristine Douglas.”

The young captain looked up, surprised and slightly anxious, “What unit will I be commanding, sir?”

“You’re going to be in charge of one of my ranger companies.” He smiled, “Since you always seem to end up out with the rangers anyway, I figured I might as well make them your command.”

“Thank you, sir.” She suddenly looked worried, “What about Kristine? I don’t want to seem like I’m stealing her troops.”

“I already talked to her. She’s fine with the change. Besides, she told me that you’re a better ranger than she is, so she figures you’ll do well in the position.”

Jenna nodded, “Thanks again, sir.”

“Also, since you’ll soon be my ranger captain, I guess I should let you know that I’m taking Cassandra and Fiona for my bodyguard.”

She smiled over at Fiona, “I hate to lose them, but wherever you think they belong best.”

He smiled at her, but the door once again interrupted his reply. A young man with a silver wolf’s head embroidered on his black tunic stood in the doorway. “General Kapov, Lord Voln sends me to let you know that dinner shall be ready soon.”

“Thank you. Please let him know we’ll be there shortly.”

The man nodded and left.

Victoria stood and accepted Vladimir’s offered arm. He looked around, “Shall we, ladies?”

The rest of them stood as well, Emma offering her arm to Rachel, and Emily taking Grace’s arm. Walking back up to the castle, Natalie ended up next to Beatriz. The Guardswoman glanced over at the captain, “You’re Captain Sanchez, formerly of Second Regiment?”

Natalie nodded, “Yes ma’am.”

Beatriz snorted, “You can just call me Beatriz.”

“Sorry. How did you know my name?”

“Oh, Steph told me that you’d been transferred to Vladimir’s unit.”

Natalie started, “She still remembers me?”

Beatriz grinned, “Remember you? She still keeps good track of your movements. In fact, she’s the one who got you the position as captain of Second’s First Company.”

“She did? Could you convey my thanks to her, the next time you see her?”

“Of course. However, she probably won’t be happy with me for telling you about that. Although she’ll be pleased that you’re doing so well. She speaks quite highly of you. Says you’re one of the better fighters she knows. And that’s even after she’s trained with the rest of us.”

Natalie looked down, “I’m not as good as all that. The colonel- no, general- is way better.”

Beatriz looked up to where Vladimir walked next to Victoria. “He does seem to have been moving up the ranks pretty fast recently.” She looked over at Natalie, “Though it isn’t like he hasn’t been a captain long enough to deserve it.”

“How long was he in grade?”

Beatriz though for a moment, “Over fourteen years, now.”

Natalie’s eyebrows shot up, “That’s a long time.”

“Yep. One of the longer serving captains in the King’s Own, I would suspect. However, Alexa’s had him marked for promotion ever since he and I routed the Master of Death at the last battle of Ereth Chul. However, she’s only been general for seven years now, and the upper echelon of the King’s Own hasn’t changed much in that time.” She shook her head, “And she couldn’t give Vladimir just any unit in the Legion. No, she wanted him to be her first cohort commander.”

“So she means to let him keep his rank, once the rest of the army shows up?”

“I’m pretty sure of it. From what she’s said, she’s been waiting for the post to open up.” She smiled a bit sadly, “Not that she wanted Colonel Sekir to die, mind you. He was planning to retire before the end of the year, so Alexa was planning on promoting Vladimir then.” Chuckling, “But war tends to thin out the ranks more quickly than peacetime retirements, and both Sekir and Lt. General Volker ended up dead.”

Natalie nodded. “Is she planning to make someone else colonel for the First?” She asked, seeming a little apprehensive.

“Not that I know of. I think she’s going to make him wear two hats.” She glanced over at Natalie, “Looking for a promotion?”

The captain shuddered and raised her hands, “Not at all. I like fighting too much to get promoted.”

Beatriz grinned, “I know what you mean. Although Vladimir seems to be redefining what it means to be a senior officer.” Looking at her more closely, “Don’t worry, Alexa isn’t going to give you some stick in the mud that’d crimp you style.”

Natalie gave her a sharp look.

Beatriz laughed lightly, “Lasra happened to overhear you when she was monitoring your progress.” She grabbed the other woman’s arm and leaned close to her. “I won’t tell Vladimir you said that about him.” She grinned impishly, “I’ve been known to say similar things about him myself.”

Natalie giggled, “You, sullying our commander’s good name? Shame on you.”

Beatriz acted indignant, “You’re one to talk.”

“Ah, but I’m merely a complaining subordinate.” She wagged her finger at the other woman, “You’re his superior officer and a member of King’s Guard.” She glanced over at Beatriz and said softly, “And there’s something between the two of you, unless I’m mistaken.”

The guardswoman glanced around, “You won’t tell anyone else?”

Natalie shook her head, “Of course not.”

“It was back when we were lieutenants,” she blushed slightly. “I was thirteen. He was twenty-one and very handsome. And I had a crush on him.” Looking over at Natalie, “But he had his vows. And then I got promoted, twice, and lost my opportunity.” Grinning, “But as one of the Guard, so long as I’m not in command, the same-rank rule doesn’t apply.”

Natalie glanced up at where Vladimir and Victoria walked, arm in arm. “And what about her? I’m pretty sure there’re feelings between them.”

Beatriz frowned, “I don’t know.” Then she smiled brightly, “I’m sure everything will sort itself out in the end.”

Natalie nodded, “And one can only hope to be alive to see that end.”

Beatriz nudged her, “If any of his captains will make it, it’ll be you and Emma and Grace. You’re the best fighters.” Sliding the hand on Natalie’s arm down to her hand, she examined the captain’s hand. Noting the scars on her hand, “And the best survivors, too, from the looks of it, you and Emma.”

Natalie glanced down at Beatriz’s hand and noticed cream and black at the edge of her bracer. She reached over and brushed her fingers across the other woman’s wrist. “What’s that on your arm?”

Beatriz reached down, but they had reached Lord Voln’s dining hall. Six of his personal guard stood outside the door, clad in full plate under their wolf’s head emblazoned surcoats, with longswords and kite shields. Two of them opened the doors.

Vladimir and Victoria entered the hall. Lord and Lady Voln rose as he entered, along with a younger woman and Sir Viktor. Vladimir estimated she was around Victoria’s twenty-five years of age, with long light brown hair streaked with blonde highlights. As with both of the Volns, she wore a Mithral shirt under her surcoat, and had a bastard sword slung across her back. She gave him a brief smile, then looked past him to Alexandra, grinning broadly.

Lord Voln stepped forward and clasped hands with Vladimir once again. Moving forward, he bent to kiss Lady Voln’s hand again. Turning to the other woman, he kissed her hand as well, although she seemed slightly surprised as he did so. As he straightened, he glanced over at Lord Voln, “Another of the lovely warrior maidens of your house, Wulfgar?”

The lord nodded, “This is my second daughter, Alexis. The last time you were my guest, she was at Rocurus.”

Looking at Alexis, “Did you manage to restrain your berserker blood long enough to get through?”

She nodded, “I served two terms, first two years with the Iron Legion. The rest were with the Obsidian.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you.” Vladimir gave his father a quick hug. Then he turned his officers, “I doubt I need to introduce Beatriz or Allison, but this is my regimental mage, Victoria.” She shook hands with the Volns and Viktor. Then he stepped a little to the side, and Alexandra rushed past him to embrace her father. Vladimir smiled at them.

Turning back to his officers, “And I’m sure you know Danielle, Emma, Rachel, and Emily from your daughter, along with Princess Grace Azvar.” The five moved forward and hugged the other Volns as well, shaking hands with his father. Once they stepped back, he gestured to Natalie, “Captain Natalie Sanchez, First Company.” She shook hands with the Volns and Viktor as well. “Captain Jenna Miskovitz, Lord Miskovitz of Slovenia’s only daughter, commander Thirteenth Company. She’ll be commanding one of my ranger companies after the battle.” Jenna shook hands a little nervously. Vladimir smiled, “And finally, Corporal Fiona Perez of my rangers.” Glancing over at his father, “She’s from Shizrek. She’s Alonso Perez’s daughter.”

Sir Viktor’s eyebrows shot up, “Is she now?” At her nod, he merely said, “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Corporal.”

Lord Voln smiled at all of them, “Now that we’ve all been introduced, why don’t we have dinner.” He waved them to a long table set for seventeen people. As he took his place at the table’s head, he said to them, “Feel free to choose your places.” His wife sat to his left, Sir Viktor to his right. Vladimir and Victoria sat down next to his father and Alexis next to her mother. Alexandra took a seat by her sister, Grace seating herself next to her and Emily, Emma, Rachel, and Danielle spreading out down that side of the table, with Danielle at the end. Natalie took a place across from her, Beatriz at her side. Jenna, Allison, and Fiona filled the seats between them and Victoria.

Natalie glanced around the dining hall, taking in the simple room and plain furniture. The hall was paneled in highly polished oak and floored with more the same wood. For the ceiling, the builders had used mahogany and cherry wood, fitted together to form swirling patterns. At the end of the hall, a fire burned merrily in a fieldstone-lined fireplace. The sweet smell of pine smoke filled the air.

Beside her, Beatriz began unlacing the vambrace on her left arm. Once she finished, she pulled the adamantine tube off her arm, revealing a cream and black knotwork tattoo running from the base of her wrist almost to the crook of her elbow along the inside of her forearm.

Natalie reached over and lightly ran her fingers along Beatriz’s arm. “It’s beautiful.”

Beatriz smiled, “Thanks.” Leaning over, she whispered to Natalie, “I have another two like it, one on the inside of my right thigh and another along my left shoulder blade. I’d show them to you, but I don’t think Vladimir or Lord Voln would be happy if I started taking my clothes off in the dining hall.” She grinned her impish grin.

Natalie had to stifle a giggle. “You’re a mischievous one, aren’t you?”

“Always. People are just fooled by my innocent look.”

Looking closer, Natalie noticed that part of the tattoo was a lighter color than the rest. She glanced up at Beatriz, “Someone try to hack off your arm?”

The other woman nodded, “I got that one fighting in Zhurav. A vamp slashed me there. Almost laid it open to the bone. Eleesa patched me up, but I decided to get my first knot over it.”

“Who did the work?”

“Grace Litel, one of the Lady Assistant Commanders of the King’s Guard. She and I are the two primary tattoo artists for the Guard.”

“Do all of you get tattoos like that?”

“No, just a few of us. But everybody, upon entering the Guard, gets a starburst tattoo on their lower back, just above the waist. We do those.”

By then the first course had arrived, a rich soup of mutton, barley, and vegetables in broth.

Up at the head of the table, Vladimir turned to Lord Voln. “It’s a good thing my soldiers are quartered in the barracks.”

“Oh?” The lord cocked an eyebrow. “Beyond the obvious, why’s that?”

“Because some of them have never seen a brothel before- at least not like the ones in Ereth Chul,” Vladimir explained. “I’d hate to see what might become of them come morning.”

Those at the head of the table laughed. As their mirth died down, Sir Viktor turned to Lord Voln. “Speaking of brothels, did I ever tell you about the first time Vladimir, Alonso, and Rogir Castel went to a brothel?”

Vladimir groaned, “Not this one, dad.”

Beside him, Victoria grinned, “Oh no, go on. I like this one.”

Lady Voln smiled at Vladimir, “I have to hear this. I thought a paladin like yourself is supposed to abstain from partaking in carnal acts.”

“He did abstain. When he came home that night with the other two, though, I didn’t know that,” Viktor said.

“Dad was waiting for me in the hall, sword in hand. He pointed it at me and I wasn’t sure if he meant to chop something off or kill me.”

Lord Voln laughed, “How old were you?”

“Sixteen. I was still a trainee back then, hadn’t taken my vows yet. Big Al was fifteen, Rogue seventeen. Dad walked up to me, sword still in hand. My mother was on the stairs behind him.”

Viktor cut in, “And I said to him, ‘If you spent more than a gold sun on her, she better have been pretty. And good in bed. Or I’ll chop it off.’”

Everybody laughed, even Vladimir. When they quieted, Vladimir glanced over at his father. “When I told him that I had sat in the common room and merely talked with one of the girls, I don’t know if he was pleased or disappointed. And when he asked if I had gotten drunk and I said I hadn’t even had any wine or ale, he looked disappointed.” Putting an arm around his father’s shoulders, “Until Boris found Leyanne I think my father despaired of ever having grandchildren.”

Viktor grinned, “When all of your children are paladins, you have to hope they find the right person to marry. Else you won’t have any grandchildren, legitimate or not.”

Lady Voln smiled, “Viktor, I didn’t realize that you were eager for illegitimate grandchildren.”

“Not any more. My eldest grandson will be thirteen this year. But back when Vladimir was in training, Boris was twenty and still hadn’t been with a woman.”

Vladimir shifted uncomfortably next to his father. Across the table from him, the princess grinned at him and leaned forward. “I know Lord Voln’s heard this, but I doubt he told Lady Voln about the time Alex, Emily, and I went to a brothel.”

Lady Voln smiled and glanced over at her husband. “No, I don’t seem to recall you mentioning that. Was this back when Emily first joined us?”

Alexandra nodded, “We’d just got back from the City of Stone with Emily when Drake’s older brother Dane suggested we get Drake a whore and make him a man.”

Lady Voln gave her a look. “Young lady, when you choose to frequent brothels, you would do well to tell your mother.”

“Oh, we’ve been in several since.” She returned her mother’s look. “Hey, I’m not a child any more. Anyhow, the three of us, both of them, Little Dani, and Geoff were there. The boys went upstairs while we girls waited for them downstairs.”

Grace picked up the story, “Alex was the oldest of us at sixteen. Little Dani was only thirteen. The four of us were sitting there when a man tried to feel up Emily.” She laughed, “He must have been blind drunk. Emmy was wearing her Mithral shirt under her surcoat.”

The young mage smiled demurely, “I guess I must be just that alluring. Little Dani whipped out a dagger and shoved it in his gut, which convinced him it might be a better idea to seek a less well-armed whore.”

“If only all whores were as well-armed as you girls,” Allison said darkly.

Vladimir frowned, “Who’s Little Dani?”

“That’s Danika Hughes, my first lieutenant,” Grace told him. “We call her Little Dani to differentiate her from Danielle, who is Dani.” She grinned down the table at the major.

The arrival of main course, a massive glazed ham with apple slices arranged around it, interrupted their conversation. Lord Voln took a carving knife from the platter and began slicing pieces off, the sharp blade slicing through the juicy meat easily.

Meanwhile, servants brought out several side dishes: a casserole of mashed yams, a lettuce salad with a creamy dressing, and baked beans.

The lord served his wife first, then Vladimir and Viktor. After that, he served the princess and his daughters, then the rest of the table. For a few moments, the only sounds were the clink of knives and forks against plates and chewing. After a few bites, Vladimir turned to Lord Voln. “This ham is excellent. Would you give my compliments to your cook?”

“Of course. His name’s Peter Yunvi. He used to be a cook for the inn in a little town north of Shizrek. When I stayed there, I found his cooking to be the some of the best food I’d tasted. I offered the man a job. Wouldn’t take it until I moved his whole family to the city.”

“Well, family’s important,” Emma said, putting her arm around her sister. “I fought my father and ran away from home for this one.” She grinned, “Almost got killed a time or three for her too.”

“You don’t want to know the number of times I’ve almost gotten killed for her,” Danielle commented with a matching grin.

Natalie glanced across at her, “I heard the two of you fought in the arenas in Zhurav and Frefenia. How many combats did you fight?”

Danielle frowned, “I’m not sure. We were over there for a year, but it took us a month to get to Mulvernic.”

Emma chimed in, “Then it was another few weeks before we managed to get someone to sponsor us for the games.” She laughed lightly, “For some reason, nobody wanted to back two little girls.”

“But once we’d had a few fights in the Demon’s Pit and slaughtered off the opposition, well.” Danielle grinned, “Then the sponsors were falling over each other to back us.”

“At which point we told them to bugger off and stuck with Viv,” Emma said. She glanced over at Danielle, “Didn’t she flee to Arbatros a year or two after we came back?”

“Yeah, I think she’s in a colonel in the Steel Legion these days.” She frowned in thought, “I think she’s in command of the…Tenth Regiment?”

“Who’s this?” Vladimir asked.

“Vivian Flowers,” Danielle replied. “We call her Viv. She grew up in Mulvernic, and, if I recall correctly, her dad was a fighter in the pits, so she grew up as a pit fighter. She sponsored us at the beginning and stuck with us when we went to Zhurav.”

Vladimir nodded, “Colonel Flowers has Steel’s Tenth. I didn’t realize you girls knew her.”

Emma nodded, “We definitely know her. I can’t recall why she moved here, though.”

“I believe some of Marebes’ lords didn’t like how many girls she was taking off the street and training to be gladiators. I think one of the lords hired an assassin to take her out,” Danielle said.

Beatriz nodded, “I’m pretty sure it was Lord Vondrak. He’s the Master of Assassins on the Council of Lords. Though I doubt whoever he sent lived to collect the rest of his pay. After all, Vivian managed to make colonel in four years.”

They lapsed into silence for a little while before Lord Voln turned to Vladimir. “I heard you ran into some Geltur on your way to fight the Creator.”

He nodded, “There were a ton of them in the foothills. There must have been at least two thousand of them.”

Down at the other end of the table, Beatriz glanced across at Emma and Rachel. “How are you girls doing?”

“Well enough for someone who just lost two-thirds of her company,” Emma replied, a bit sadly.

Rachel reached over and squeezed her hand. She looked over at Jenna, “I recall you claiming our newest lieutenant is the ‘finest in the legion’?”

Jenna grinned, “No; not necessarily the finest, but one of the finest. She’s from Valira.”

“Is she a knight?” Emily asked.

Jenna laughed, “No, nothing like that. Her mother was a whore, and her mother’s brother pimped her and Tris out. Tortured her too.”

Danielle glanced over at her, “Sounds familiar. When did she come over here?”

“She ran away from him when she was thirteen and escaped to Mez. Ran with a street gang for a year, then hopped on a ship over here. Served with the Obsidian for two years before she got promoted to be my platoon sergeant,” Jenna said. “We served together for a year. When I got transferred to the King’s Own, I convinced my captain to send her to Rocurus.”

“So she’s an archer?”

“Initially. And a pretty good one at that. However, she’s a better fighter than most archers and rangers I’ve met. A better leader too.”

“When did she transfer to the infantry?” Emma asked. “And why didn’t you request her once she moved over to the King’s Own?”

“She moved over to infantry when she left the academy, so I didn’t request her. Besides, I didn’t get promoted for two more years. And by then, she’d been with her unit for a while, so I didn’t want to steal her from her captain.”

The final course, an apple pie with sherbert, arrived, the pastry still steaming.

“You set a very fine table, Lord Voln,” Victoria said.

“Thank you, Victoria. I try my best to feed my visitors well.”

Next to her, Vladimir smiled. “While Lord Voln does not have the same reputation for fine food some lords do, I find he has better food than any but the king.”

Lord Voln smiled at him, “That’s because you have simple tastes, like I do. I’ve heard several of my visitors complain of the plainness of my fare. Some of the southern lords and ladies serve veritable feasts for every meal, with at least five or six courses.”

Down the table, Grace made a face. “When Mom’s entertaining at the palace, sometimes there’ll be meals like that. I much prefer ones like this.”

“Thank you all for joining us.” He rose, and the rest of them followed suit. “I bid you all a good night. Vladimir, Beatriz, if I might have a word before you go?”

“Of course.” Vladimir waved for his officers to go on.

Alexandra, Alexis, and Lady Voln left together, the three of them heading into the inner part of the castle.

Lord Voln ushered Vladimir and Beatriz out of the dining room and into his solar. It was a larger room paneled in mahogany and maple, with a heavy, worn oak chair behind a massive teak desk covered in papers. A pair of witchlight lamps hanging from the ceiling provided a steady blue-violet light.

The lord motioned for them to take the two less-heavily carved chairs in front of the desk. Vladimir waited for Beatriz to be seated before sitting himself. The two of them glanced at each other, then looked attentively at the lord.

“What did you want to discuss, Lord Voln?” Beatriz asked.

He looked over at Vladimir, “I noticed that you placed Grace’s company in the city’s center.” Glancing over at Beatriz, “I also noticed that neither you nor Allison is staying with her.”

Vladimir smiled slightly, “I figure she’ll be safer there. Besides, her rangers aren’t technically under my command. And she’s the princess. At this stage, I can basically only give her suggestions as to what she should do. She answers only to Simone and the king.” He glanced over at Beatriz, “Or a King’s Guard member. And Beatriz hasn’t transferred her to my command at this point.”

Lord Voln sat back, “Ah. I wasn’t aware of that. I thought that Alexa had placed her under your command.”

“As I said, it isn’t within her authority to do so.” He gave the lord a look, “I assume you also noted that I placed Emma’s company with hers?” When Lord Voln nodded, he continued. “Other than Natalie, she’s my best captain and has two of my best lieutenants.”

Beatriz fixed Lord Voln with a stare. “As for her security, I’m here as the king’s field commander, as is Allison, not as a guard for his daughter.”

Lord Voln nodded, “As you say, Dame Danelli.” He grinned, “I just don’t want to be the one who has to tell King William that his daughter’s dead. And if she ends up dead, I’m probably going to be the one telling him, as you’ll be dead at the gate first.”

“Well, if the princess and I end up dead, I think you may have more pressing problems than telling the king about his daughter,” Vladimir said.

“Such as a Zhuravi army banging on your front door,” Beatriz finished, grinning. Turning serious, “If it all turns to crap, I’ve left orders with Rachel and Emily to teleport back to the castle and through to the City of Stone.”

The lord nodded, “I’ll have the circle chamber cleared. That’s all for tonight. I’ll let you get to bed. The storms will come soon enough.”

“Indeed they shall,” Vladimir replied, rising. He and Beatriz clasped forearms with Lord Voln and left.

As the two of them walked down the stairs, Beatriz slipped her arm through his. He glanced down at her. “I hope you didn’t mind that I took over the troop deployment session.”

She grinned up at him, “You know I don’t mind. If I did, you would have known. Besides, you’re probably as good a tactician as I am and I didn’t see very many issues with your deployments.”

“Oh, so you did see some issues?”

“Not issues so much as questions I had. Such as, do you think it’s wise to put Emma’s company in the city square?”

“Because she’s my second best?” At her nod, he continued, “I want someone good with the princess, and Emma’s sister is the princess’s mage. Besides, if we need their support I’d rather have one of my best backing us up than someone weaker. Furthermore, she doesn’t know most of her company, but I’ve been with her for a few days now. I know she thinks enough like I do that I can rely on her to be there for us.”

Beatriz nodded, “I figured you had your reasons. What about Natalie?”

“What about her?”

“She’s been with you as long as Emma. And she’s a better fighter, if what I hear is true. What’s your opinion of her?”

“She seems headstrong and somewhat reckless at times. But that’s mostly a façade; she’s cool and calculating, almost always thinks things through. In many ways, she’s my finest commander.” He glanced at her, “Which is why I’m going to want her in the gate. If anyone can hold it, it’ll be her. Plus, she has most of her original company still with her.”

“She’s a good choice for that. I think I’ll join her there.” When his eyebrows shot up, “What, you don’t think I’ll survive.”

“No, it’s just; you’re supposed to be in command here.”

“And since when has that stopped me from getting into the thick of it? In fact, when has that stopped you either?”

“If I lead from the front, that’s only because of the bad example you and Stephen set.” He wagged his finger at her.

“Oh, so I’m a bad example? What sort of example are you setting for your captains?” She gave him a mock-indignant look.

“An equally bad one. Although it’s not like General Voln, General Lessando, or any of the rest of the younger Elite generals are much better.”

“And the Guard’s worse.” She grinned, “All in all, I think we’re creating an excellent tradition, though.”

“Indeed. After all, I’d rather follow someone who’s taking the same risks as I am than some fat guy who likes sitting back and watching.”

“Although the man who sits back and watches might have a better feel for the battle than you or I would in the thick of it.”

“I trust my captains enough to not be so worried about that. Besides, there’s only so much you can do as a commander to control the battle.”

“I’m glad you’ve recognized that. I assume you’ve kept track of Elaine’s accomplishments?”

“Of course. I spent a day of leave to attend her promotion to colonel. I’m glad General Velasquez promoted her.”

“Well, she knows a good commander when she sees one. Speaking of promotions, you glad to finally move beyond captain?”

“You know I am.” He grinned down at her, “I’ve had to watch as people little more than half my age are promoted above me. Take Kate, for instance; colonel at eighteen, and rumor has it that she’s going to make lieutenant general before the year’s out.”

Beatriz shook her head, a stray strand of hair falling into her eyes. “I always wonder how you hear things about everybody but yourself.”

“What do you mean?” They stopped in front of his quarters.

“Word is, Alexa means to let you keep your rank and give you first cohort.”

“Really?” His eyebrows shot up, “And who’s going to have first regiment?”

“That’d be you, as well.” She grinned and punched his shoulder lightly, “You many not want to survive this, knowing that you’ll have so much work once you’re done.” She leaned close, “Just think about all that paperwork you’re going to have to do.”

He rolled his eyes, “Joyous.” Reaching down, he tucked the strand of hair behind her ear, running his hand along her neck before letting it fall. “Good night, lass.”

She quickly stood on tiptoes to kiss his cheek, then turned and walked away briskly. “Good night, Vladimir,” she called over her shoulder.

He watched her go, her braided hair swaying back and forth. Turning, he moved into the officers’ barracks.

Once she had heard the door close behind him, Beatriz turned back and surveyed the building. She noticed a light in the window of Victoria’s room. A hint of warm air from the south stirred her cloak and pushed a strand of hair into her face. Brushing it aside, she turned and made her way to the stables, stripping off her surcoat as she walked.

When she entered, Allison was standing next to Dante, the black Clydesdale already saddled. She greeted Beatriz with a smile. Beatriz walked through the stables, her boots not making a sound on the dirt floor. She stopped in front of one of the stalls. Inside, her horse, Mary, a dappled grey Arabian, whickered softly and moved out of the stall. She stroked Mary’s nose, then swung up into the saddle. With a light touch of her heels, Mary surged into motion, reaching a gallop before they left the stables, Allison right beside her.

Beatriz waved at the soldiers on the barracks compound’s gate, and the portal swung open before them. They clattered out onto the street, horseshoes sparking off the paving stones.

23nd of Grakuary, 599
City of Ereth Chul, Menzobaria, Arbatros

Cassandra, Fiona, and Renee straightened as Vladimir strode out of his room. He brusquely waved for them to fall in behind him. He had almost reached the door when he stopped and turned back. He looked at Renee, then at Sandra and Fiona. “Renee Owen, isn’t it? You’re Sandra’s mage?”

Bracing to attention, “Yes sir.” She glanced down, “I was just spending time with Sandra and Fi before I had to go on duty, sir.”

He looked at Sandra, “She any good as a mage?”

“Better than most at her rank, sir.”

“And with a blade?”

“A little better than most mages, sir.”

“That’s good.” He turned to Renee, “If you’re alright with it, I think I’ll pull you for the regimental bodyguard unit.”

“I’d be happy to join, sir.”

“Good. You can tag along with Sandra and Fiona. I’m going to check out how Sergeant Major Herth is doing with the militia.” He strode out onto the street, the girls following him. A company of men and women in banded leather with large rectangular shields slung across their backs and spears in hand trotted past. A second company with longbows and quivers full of arrows on their backs followed them.

Vladimir walked past them, heading the other way. As they made their way through the town, the girls looked around. The part of Ereth Chul up by the castle was a more affluent area, with mostly two and three story houses of stone and brick with slate and terracotta shingles. Numerous people hurried past, some leading horses, donkeys, or carts. Others were more militia members or units of the King’s Own, Elite Legions, or Reserves.

A squad of Jason’s scouts trotted by, their horses’ hooves clattering across the paving stones. Upon spotting Vladimir; however, their sergeant called a halt. Dismounting, James walked over to Vladimir and saluted. “General Kapov, still no sign of any Zhuravi on the far bank.”

The general returned his salute crisply. “Very good, James. Keep patrolling. Let Captain Thompson know as soon as you see anything.”

“Yes sir.” He braced to attention, gave Sandra a grin, and swung back up into the saddle.

As Vladimir and the girls neared the city’s central square, the road became more crowded. Support personnel ran here and there, infantry companies marched past, and cavalry patrols thundered by them. When they finally got to the square, the three girls stopped and stared.

The square was packed with people. In the center, at the foot of a statue of Grace the Unifier, one of Arbatros’s early rulers, stood Josephine Herth and William Morell. The two non-coms were shouting orders at the militia companies that were forming up in the square.

Vladimir set out into the crowd, pushing his way through the militia members. Fiona quickly moved ahead of him, calling for people to make way for the general. Upon hearing this, the militia quickly made a path for him.

As they moved towards the center of the square, Fiona glanced up at the sky. Above them, only a few light clouds marred the blue, but off to the north, tall banks of dark clouds filled the sky. Flashes of lightning lit up the clouds periodically.

By then, Vladimir had reached the statue. Moving up the steps, he greeted both of them and surveyed the square. A commotion to the north drew his eye. Allison and Beatriz were riding though the press, Dante snapping half-heartedly at some of the militia.

When the two women reached the middle of the square, Beatriz swung down from her horse. As she quickly moved towards him, Vladimir asked, “Where were you two?”

“Out scouting the Zhuravi. Lasra was right about their numbers. I counted thirty division banners and the banner for Storm Shaper’s elite division. Plus they’ve got at least ten thousand orcs and another twenty plus thousand goblins. With their siege section I spotted well over a hundred ogres and at least a score of giants.” She grinned, “They’re a few scouts short now, too.” Glancing at Josephine, “I see you’ve got the militia well in hand, Josie.”

“Course I do. Any recommendations as to placement?”

She frowned, “Not really, other than to leave a few more companies with the reserve. If we need them, I want enough of a reserve to make a difference.”

“How does twenty companies sound, Beatriz?” Josephine asked.

“Make it fifteen of archers and fifteen of infantry,” Vladimir commanded. “And send five of each up to the castle to bolster Lord Voln’s forces.”

“Yes sir.” She glanced down at a sheaf of papers in her hand. “That’ll give each of the gates seven hundred twenty companies of militia infantry and six hundred seventy companies of militia archers. Once everybody’s reported in. I’ve assigned over six hundred companies of each type to each gate so far.”

Vladimir gave her a small smile, “Thanks Sergeant Major.” Turning to Beatriz, “Anything else we need to talk about, Beatriz?” He asked.

“Perhaps we should review the gates’ defenses. Ride with me.” She turned and swung onto Mary. Vladimir called Jeremy to him with a thought, then glanced back at the three girls. As he opened his mouth, Cassielle and Rayelle pulled up next to them. The cavalrywoman had the girls’ horses on a lead rein.

His eyebrows shot up, “Are you that good or did Renee let you know?”

“We’re almost that good.” Rayelle grinned, “But it was Renee.”

The girls mounted up and fell in behind Vladimir as he and Beatriz rode towards the West Gate. Allison made her way across the square and rode for the castle.

They urged their horses though the streets until they reached the plaza behind the West Gate. Rayelle spotted Colonel Nichols at the center of the square, speaking with some of her officers. As they rode towards the colonel, Rayelle urged Lamara up beside Cassielle. Gesturing to the troops around them, “Colonel Nichols runs a tight ship.”

Cassielle nodded, “Glad you’re not in a Standard Legion, Ray?”

“Yeah. If I were, I’d have to ditch my axes and bow and have to use a normal sword. You’d probably be back in some medical tent all the time too. Did you ever serve in the Standard Legions?”

“Yeah. That’s part of why I transferred. If I can’t kill someone now or then, I go nuts.”

“Is that why you joined up?” Rayelle glanced over at her.

“Plus my parents are both paladins, so they taught me how to fight as soon as I could carry a sword.”

“Same here, although it was riding first. Then archery and swords.”

“Riding for me too.” She looked over at the cavalrywoman. “You’re from Indar, right?”

“Yeah. Why do you ask?”

“I noticed that you use a long-handled sword like me, but I though most Indari used shasquas like Natalie’s.”

“They do, but the warlord my father worked for also employed an exiled knight from Arbatros. When my father asked him to teach me to fight, the knight recommended that I use a long-handled sword, ‘cause it works better for smaller people like you and I.” She nudged the other girl with her elbow.

“You’re not small. You must be five inches taller than me and outweigh me by thirty pounds.”

“I may now, but back when I was younger, I was smaller than you are now. A fact I found most distressing.”

“Oh, and you think I’m not distressed by how short I am now?”

“You’re a better fighter than many people a foot taller than you. And a better friend. That’s what counts.”

Cassielle reached over and squeezed her hand, “Thanks Ray.”

Their party pulled up in front of Colonel Nichols. “Good morning, Elaine, how are your preparations coming?” Beatriz asked.

“Well enough, ma’am. We’re still working on pre-sighting some of the siege engines.”

“Very good. Carry on, colonel.”

She came to attention, “Ma’am.”

Beatriz urged Mary back into motion over towards the wall. Wheeling her horse, she trotted up the steps up to the broad wall walk. Vladimir and the rest followed.

While the walls of Ereth Chul were only forty feet tall, they were made of three-foot deep blocks on either side of a dozen feet of packed dirt and rubble. Beneath them ran extensive tunnels cut into the rock of the bluffs for movement, storage, and protection.

As Beatriz trotted down the wall, she waved for Vladimir to join her. When he pulled up beside her, she glanced out at the river below them. The sun glinted off its slow-moving waters. The highway and rail bridges cast dark shadows upon the river.

“Do you think they’ll be foolish enough to attack the bridges?” Beatriz asked.

“I doubt it, as I seem to recall they tried that last time, and the result was a rather impressive failure. Besides, I told Ells to reinforce each of the barbicans with a company from her Reserve Regiment and four companies of militia archers. In addition to the company of her troops already there and the company of City Watch, they should have a heck of a time crossing either of those bridges.”

“What about crossing the river?”

He frowned, “If what Evelyn says is true, they may be able to cross. But we control the high ground and Ells will have her artillery ready to cover the slopes by the time they arrive.”

She nodded. “Oh, I need to tell you something about that. Based upon their position last night when Allie and I scout them and their rate of advance, they should be here tonight. Will everything be ready by then?”

“We may be short a few militia companies, but that’s not too much of a problem, all things considered. Otherwise, I anticipate everyone will be in position before sunset.”


They lapsed into silence for a while until they neared the North Gate. “Any issues here?”

“Not that I’m aware of. Colonel Whitaker has informed me that all is ready. Lord Voln has also sent word that his preparations are complete.” He grinned, “The lord’s had artillery sighted on the approaches to this gate for a decade.”

“I would hope so.”

They rode down the stairs next to the North Gate, steel-shod hooves clattering on the stone. As the party skirted the castle, Fiona moved up to ride beside Cassielle and Rayelle.

Rayelle glanced over at her, “How did you manage to convince the general to add Renee?”

The ranger grinned, “It was easy. She was just talking to us while we had the door and he pulled her right there.”

Cassielle looked the ranger over, “Ray and I were just discussing swords. Have you ever considered using a long-handled sword instead of a plain longsword?”

She frowned, “Not really. I usually fight with a short sword in my off-hand, so I wouldn’t often use a second hand on my main sword.”

“Maybe a second short sword or a longknife or two would be good then. Give you a backup if you lose a weapon.”

“That’s a good idea. After all, I lost both my swords during the battle. I found my longsword after, but I had to pull a fresh short sword from supply.”

Cassielle grinned, “I’ll buy you a pair of fancy ones if we survive the battle.”

Fiona shifted in the saddle, “I don’t know. If anyone should be buying gifts, it should be me getting one for you. You did save my life, after all.”

The medic shrugged, “No big deal. Consider them a reward for getting into the general’s bodyguard.”

“If both of you survive, I’ll chip in so you can get a pair of Mithral ones,” Vladimir called back at them.

“Thank you, sir,” Fiona said. They rode in silence for a few moments before Rayelle turned to Cassielle. “On the subject of saving Fiona’s life, I’ve been meaning to ask you something. Why did you get sick after you healed her stomach?”

“Sometimes, when a mage or cleric uses too much magic, there’ll be a physical side effect. Casting magic isn’t an easy thing. For me, I always start throwing up if I do too much healing at one time.” She shrugged again, “It’s a little different for every magic-user.” Turning in the saddle, “What sort of backlash do you get, Renee?”

The mage made a face, “I tend to faint if I overdo it.”

Fiona looked intrigued, “Do you know what it is for Victoria?”

Renee shrugged, “I don’t know.”

Cassandra spoke up, “I’ve heard that she doesn’t have anything like that. That’s why she’s so good.”

“I suffer the same effects as if I hadn’t slept in days.”

The five girls suddenly turned to see Victoria riding beside them.

Rayelle blushed, “Sorry we were talking about you, ma’am.”

“Hey, I don’t care, much.” She grinned, “As long as it isn’t too bad.” Glancing over at Fiona, “Mages can also experience backlash when a spell goes awry or another mage interferes with their magic.”

Cassielle nodded, “Like when we went after Beast Man. The Creator almost got us with a dimensional lock when we escaped. Rachel looked like she wanted to throw up.”

By then, they had reached the East Gate. Kate came over to meet them.

Vladimir smiled down at her, “What’s your status, Kate?”

“We’re just about all set here, Vladimir. Once the rest of my militia companies show up and I can assign them, we’ll be ready.”

“Good. Be ready for an attack as soon as this evening.”

“Yes sir.”

He reached down and they clasped hands for a moment before he urged Jeremy back onto the wall. They trotted along the wall, passing over the East Rail Gate. Out from either side of the wall ran four sets of paired steel rails. On the city side, they rested on steel ties. Outside of the city, the ties were made of wood.

They reached the South Gate shortly thereafter. They had to wait at the steps while a squad of Vladimir’s soldiers hauled a small ballista up the stairs. Other soldiers and support personnel rushed around, carrying and stacking ammunition for the archers and artillery.

Hooves clattering on paving stones, they made their way to the gate’s square. Kristen Grendel, Natalie, and Emma were in the middle of the action, shouting orders and directing the regiment’s soldiers. Vladimir and Beatriz rode up to the lieutenant colonel. Natalie walked over and joined her.

“It looks like you’re farther along than this morning, Kristen,” Vladimir said.

“Yes sir, we are.” She glanced over at Natalie, “When do you think we’ll be ready?”

The captain shrugged, “A few more hours, tops. We just need to get the rest of the artillery set up.”

“Good. I want the regiment to be ready two hours before nightfall,” Vladimir ordered.

“Yes sir.”

At the sound of hoof beats, they turned to see Lord Voln riding towards them with Alexis and a dozen guards in tow. The lord pulled up in front of Vladimir. “General Kapov. How go your preparations?”

“Quite well, my lord. We should be ready well before the Zhuravi arrive. How is the evacuation of the outer structures proceeding, my lord?” Vladimir asked.

“Decently. Allison told me that the Zhuravi could be here as early as nightfall, so I ordered the Watch to expedite.” He glanced at the buildings around the square. “We’ve had the houses near the gates clear since word of Storm Shaper’s movements reached us.”

“Where are you putting everybody, my lord?” Kristen asked.

“We’ve moved some of them into the castle. Others are in the wall tunnels, but many of them are out here on the wall already.”

“Lord Voln, how many of the militia companies have reported in?”

“I talked to Sergeant Major Herth on my way here. She said that eleven infantry and sixteen archer companies have yet to report in. However, Colonel Turek says that they should have all reported before nightfall. I think most of them are from the nearer areas of the surrounding farms and villages,” he added.

Kristen frowned, “Who’s defending the villages then?”

Lord Voln chuckled, “There are two Reserve Legions in the area of Ereth Chul. Of those, only seven regiments are in the city, leaving the other thirteen for garrison and protection duty. Also, there are over sixteen-hundred more companies of militia from the outlying villages and towns. And that doesn’t count the knights, lords, and their retainers.”

Vladimir nodded, “All together, they’d have almost half as many soldiers as Storm Shaper, although they’re not highly concentrated.”

“Which means we could have trouble if he decided to depredate the countryside,” Kirsten said.

“He doesn’t have enough time for that,” Vladimir said. “General Voln will be here in three days with the rest of the King’s Own, the Steel Legion, and the First and Second Legions. That’s over ninety-one thousand combat personnel.”

“Do you think that’ll be enough troops?” The lieutenant colonel asked.

Victoria noticed that Beatriz went still beside her for a moment. Then she turned to the lord and Vladimir with a smile. “I’ve just had word from Lady Assistant Commander Grace that she, Nikki, and the king are going to join Alexa with the Silver, Obsidian, Third, and Eighteenth Legions when she reaches Ereth Chul. They’re going to be traveling by rail, so they can get easily be assembled by the time Alexa arrives. All told, when the king arrives, they’ll have close to one-hundred eighty thousand combat troops between them.” Her smile turned grim, “That ought to be enough to send the Zhuravi packing.”

Vladimir smiled as well, “Besides, the king and at least a dozen of the Guard will be there as well.” He glanced over at Beatriz, “Is Archmage Placer part of the king’s current dozen?”

“As far as I know, she is. Plus, Alys and Leanne are with him. Those three could probably wipe out the entire Zhuravi army by themselves.” Beatriz grinned, “And a few Uplifted too.”

“Indeed, they’re capable of dealing a lot of damage. However, they aren’t going to arrive for another three days. We simply have to hold the city until then,” Vladimir said. “While I expect it to be a hard battle, I believe that we shall prevail. And so, we must finish our preparations and allow the soldiers to rest before nightfall, so that we may be ready to repel any night attacks.”

Beatriz nodded, “It seems likely that they will opt for a night attack, as orcs and goblins can see in the dark, which gives them the advantage. Lord Voln, if you’ll allow us to finish preparing the defenses?”

“Of course, my lady.” He wheeled his horse and left, his guards following him. Alexis stayed behind.

Vladimir smiled at her, “I assume that you’re in the Elite Regiment?”

“Yes sir. I’m the first infantry major.”

“Excellent. I’ll let you see to your troops.” He motioned for her to carry on.

Beatriz glanced down at Natalie and Kristen. “We still have some things to do, so I’ll leave the preparations in your capable hands.” She quickly reached down and squeezed Natalie’s hand, then urged her horse into motion. Vladimir, Victoria, and the girls of his bodyguard followed, their horses’ hooves clattering on the paving stones.

Above them, the dark clouds had moved closer, and the flashes of lightning had grown more frequent. Natalie shouted at the soldiers around them to hurry up.

* * *

Evening had begun, and a chill wind made Vladimir and Victoria’s cloaks swirl and snap behind them. The two stood on the parapet beside the South Gate, looking out over the expanse of water below the gate.

“Do you think it’ll be enough to hold them?”

“I don’t know. Though I hope it slows them down a bit.”

Below them, they suddenly heard the clatter of hooves in the square. They turned to see a scout from the First Legion gallop into the plaza. “Sir, the Zhuravi have arrived. Colonel Whitaker’s scouts report that one force is assembling to the north of the city. Colonel Henna reports another force massing to the east, and Colonel Nichols says the far barbicans have spotted more troops on the western short.”

“Very good, soldier. Tell Colonel Whitaker and the other colonels to keep me informed.”

“Yes sir.” The woman saluted and wheeled her horse.

They turned back at the sound of hooves on the causeway. A squad of Jason’s scouts and another of Clarissa’s rode through the gate. James rode at the head of one of them. He rode around to the steps and gave his horse to Daniel. Vladimir met him at the head of the stairs. The young sergeant saluted him. “The bulk of Storm Shaper’s army is gathering to the south, sir.”

“Did you get any sort of count on them?”

“I saw the banner for Storm Shaper’s elite division and the standards for at least eight other line divisions, sir,” he reported. “I’d put the count at somewhere around one-hundred thirty thousand.”

“Good job, James.” He clapped the young man on the shoulder. “Keep up the good work, son.”

He saluted, turned, and hurried back down the stairs. The patrol galloped back out the gate and down the causeway.

The storm clouds had reached the city. When Vladimir looked north, he could see rain beginning to pelt down on the North Gate. Flashes of lightning made Lord Voln’s tower stand out against the dark sky.

Walking down to where William stood, he nodded to the grizzled sergeant major. “It’s about time. Ready the troops.”

“Yes sir.” He saluted, turned crisply on his heel, and began shouting for his sergeants to get the militia ready.

Vladimir rejoined Victoria on the wall. Her gaze was focused into the distance, but she nodded at him when he came up beside her. “It has begun,” she said.

He nodded, “The storm has reached the walls.”

Copyright © Scott Schaper, 2012

List of Characters

The King’s Guard
Beatriz Danelli-Age 28
Allison Reed-Age 29

The House of Voln
Lord Wulfgar Voln-Age 56
Lady Jessica Voln-Age 54
Alexa Voln-Age 28
Alexis Voln-Age 25
Allison Voln-Age 22
Alexandra Voln-Age 19

Colonel Richter Turek-Age 56- Commander of Lord Voln’s personal guard
Lieutenant Richard Turek-Age 22- Lieutenant in Lord Voln’s personal guard
Sir Viktor Kapov-Age 63- Battle-master
Peter Yunvi-Age 46- Castle cook

The King’s Own Legion

General Alexa Voln-Age 28
Archmage Allasra Winters-Age 26
Legion Sergeant Major Josephine Herth-Age 27

First Regiment
Colonel Vladimir Kapov-Age 36
Victoria-Age 25
Regimental Sergeant Major William Morell-Age 56

Regimental Bodyguard
Sergeant Hazel Riss-Age 17
Corporal Rayelle Harper-Age 16
Private Laura Thompson-Age 14
Private Stephanie Allen-Age 14
Private Jillian Olsen-Age 15
Sergeant Cassandra Roseti-Age 17
Corporal Fiona Perez-Age 15
Renee Owen-Age 15

Command Staff
Lieutenant Colonel Kristen Grendel-Age 28
Major Danielle Cantor-Age 21
Major Jessail Kilkel-Age 28
Major Rebecca Theska-Age 29

First Company
Captain Natalie Sanchez-Age 26
Rose-Age 23
Company Sergeant Major Franchesca Rivers-Age 24

Lieutenant Monique Oleron-Age 21
Lieutenant Melissa Turgon-Age 22
Lieutenant Nichole McIntyre-Age 25

Second Company
Captain Emma Athney-Age 20
Rachel Hawk-Age 19
Company Sergeant Major Anastasia Romanof-Age 16

Lieutenant Sarah Drommed-Age 19
Lieutenant Tristanne Bergman-Age 23
Lieutenant Hilary Paulis-Age 16

Third Company
Captain Victor Marsters-Age 45
Ginerva Marks-Age 33

Third Company
Captain Alisa Kapov-Age 23
Ginerva Marks-Age 33

Fourth Company
Captain Justin Pierce-Age 29
Jenny Gilbert-Age 26

First Platoon
Lieutenant Demetri Kallov-Age 26

Seventh Company
Captain Hannah Rockwell-Age 23
Verity-Age 21

Second Platoon
Sergeant Hazel Riss-Age 17
Private Laura Thompson-Age 14
Private Stephanie Allen-Age 14
Private Jillian Olsen-Age 15

Eighth Company
Captain Benjamin Halest-Age 43
Ivo-Age 39

Ninth Company
Captain Annabelle Diego-Age 22
Arkana-Age 21

Thirteenth Company
Captain Jenna Miskovitz-Age 20
Evelyn Graham-Age 20

Eighteenth Company
Captain Glenvara Lake-Age 24
Daphne-Age 20

Regimental Scout Company
Captain Jason Thompson-Age 32
Octavia-Age 29
Company Sergeant Major Christine Mede-Age 27

Sergeant James Black-Age 17
Corporal Grigori Kulikov-Age 23
Private Daniel Fitzpatrick-Age 16

First Platoon, First Ranger Company
Captain Kristine Douglas-Age 23

Regimental Medical Unit
First Lieutenant Cassielle Archalus-Age 15

Second Company, Menzobarian Rangers
Captain Grace Azvar-Age 17
Emily Athney-Age 18
Company Sergeant Major Alexandra Voln-Age 19

"Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction." - Ronald Reagan
"Judge them not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." - Martin Luther King, Jr.
"Pick up a rifle and you change instantly from a subject to a citizen." - Jeff Cooper
"I like my enemies like James Bond likes his martinis- shaken, not stirred."
My first book, The King's Own
posted 05 November 2014 02:07 EDT (US)     43 / 54  
Nice build-up.

I can see a battle plan forming, and if the timing falls right, it will be spectacular. I shall not reveal it, just watch to see if I was right- or if you do it better.

Well done!

|||||||||||||||| A transplanted Viking, born a millennium too late. |||||||||||||||||
|||||||||||||||| Too many Awards to list in Signature, sorry lords...|||||||||||||||||
|||||||||||||||| Listed on my page for your convenience and envy.|||||||||||||||||
Somewhere over the EXCO Rainbow
Master Skald, Order of the Silver Quill, Guild of the Skalds
Champion of the Sepia Joust- Joust I, II, IV, VI, VII, VIII
posted 09 November 2014 04:56 EDT (US)     44 / 54  
Under Siege

23nd of Grakuary, 599
City of Ereth Chul, Menzobaria, Arbatros

James reined up beside the captain. “Sir, the general says to continue scouting the Zhuravi and keep him informed of their movements.”

“Very good,” Jason said. “Why don’t you and Sergeant Evans swing around their right flank and see what sort of formation their using. If you want to pick off a few of their scouts too, you may.”

“Yes sir.” James wheeled his horse around and rode back to his squad.

“What’re the captain’s orders?” Sergeant Cynthia Evans asked. She was a taller young woman with light brown hair and hazel eyes. She commanded the second squad of Captain Walford’s first platoon of scouts.

“Scout their left flank. Harass them.” He shrugged and put his heels to his horse’s flanks.

Cynthia trotted after him. The two squads spread out behind them, pulling out their short bows and drawing arrows. They cantered through the darkness, along the causeway, horses’ hooves sparking off the stones. To either side of them was a black expanse of slowly moving water, filling the basin in front of the gate. A dike ran along the riverbank from the wall of the city. A pair of stone towers stood on either side of the now open gates in the embankment.

James knew that further east there was a dam across this branch of the stream that fed into the Kindrel River. Lord Voln had ordered it opened as the Zhuravi neared the city. Now, the plain before the gate was flooded with water, blocking the southern approach to the city.

The twenty-two of them left the causeway and spread out on the rise above the floodplain. Before them, Storm Shaper’s host was amassed. Witchlights and torches illuminated parts of the army, but what James was most aware of was the sound. As they advanced, James could hear the rattle and clank of steel on steel, the clatter of spear and shield, and the tramp of booted feet.

Storm Shaper had a few companies of light cavalry screening his advance. The company and Captain Walford’s had skirmished with them since Storm Shaper had moved across the tributary a ways upstream. James and Cynthia slowed their troops to a walk and swung out to the west, towards the river.

Over the noise of the approaching enemy army, James heard hoof beats close to them. He slowed, drew back the arrow on his short bow, and aimed into the darkness, waiting for the enemy to pass before their army’s lights.

Suddenly, a squad of Zhuravi light cavalry rode past them. James sighted and loosed his arrow in one smooth motion. The shaft sped through the air along with a score of others from the two squads.

Several struck home, throwing enemy soldiers from their horses. Others merely slumped forward in their saddles. Of the eleven men, only three survived the initial barrage.

They scrambled to ready their own short bows, but James urged his horse into gallop and quickly crossed the distance between them. Sword in hand, he charged in amongst them, Cynthia right behind him.

His blade swept down, slicing through the first enemy cavalryman’s chain mail and cutting into the man’s shoulder. James could feel bone shatter beneath his blade. Wrenching his sword free, he slashed across at the second Zhuravi soldier, but the man managed to parry. Next to him, Cynthia attacked the last soldier, but he had his blade out as well.

By then, the rest of their squads had reached them. Grigori’s sword took the cavalryman James was fighting in the back. One of Cynthia’s scouts cut down the last man. Suddenly, James heard the distinctive thrum of crossbows, and bolts came whistling out of the darkness. One glanced off his pauldron, and another shot past his head.

A bolt hit Cynthia in the chest, the steel tip punching through her scale. The force of the hit almost threw her from the saddle. Two more of their scouts were hit; one of hers in the arm, Daniel behind him in the leg. Another of the Arbatrosian scouts’ horse fell, a quarrel through its throat, blood fountaining out of the wound. Its rider leapt from the saddle, but stumbled and fell.

James rode forward and supported Cynthia, grabbing her horse’s reins and turning the animal around. Grigori pulled the horseless woman up behind him, and the squads came around. James put his heels to his horse and led them back towards the causeway.

More crossbow bolts shot out through the night behind them, and one punched through James’s cloak. Another bolt slammed into the shoulder of the scout riding behind Grigori. Only his firm grip on her arm kept her from falling off the horse.

More quarrels shot out after them, but they all missed. They made it back to the bridge, where Captain Thompson and Captain Walford waited with the rest of the two companies. As soon as they saw them, Jason waved them through and formed up the rest of the company behind them, motioning for a squad to stay behind.

The two companies cantered up the causeway, back to the city. The gates stood open, and Vladimir and Hannah’s company of heavy cavalry were waiting in the gateway.

Jason pulled up in front of the general. “We’ve been skirmishing with their light cavalry since they crossed the river, sir. The main body is on the move now.”

“Losses?” Vladimir asked.

“Two dead, at least a dozen wounded, sir,” Jason replied. “I left a squad at the far side of the causeway with orders to pull back as soon as they make contact.”

“Good. Jason, Clarissa, see to your wounded. Then form up with Major Theska and the rest of the cavalry,” he ordered.

“Yes sir,” both of them replied, saluted, and trotted past him.

Turning to Hannah, Vladimir motioned for her company to follow him. His bodyguard fell in behind him, then the rest of the cavalry. They clattered down the causeway, plate barding and armor clanking, weapons clinking.

Rayelle rode beside Vladimir, lance down and shield readied. “You know sir, we’re making enough noise to wake an army camped where the Zhuravi are now.”

“Indeed we are, lass. However, I sort of want the Zhuravi to know we’re coming.” He grinned over at her.

“Are you looking for them to fight?”

“Not necessarily. Although the more of their light cavalry we kill now, the less they’ll have to screen any retreat later.” He shook his head, “No, the real reason is to make them think the causeway’s safe. Then, as we’re retreating back across, we’ll use the catapults to scatter caltrops on it. That’ll come as a nasty surprise to the first few units following us.”

“Which hopefully will be infantry, as nothing else they have can go toe-to-toe with our heavy cavalry, right?” The young corporal asked.

“Exactly. And that’ll make them easier targets for the archers. Plus, later that’ll make it harder for them to bring a ram up to the gate.”

She looked over at the general, surprised. “You’re assuming they’re going to get a ram up, just like that?”

He smiled slightly, “While I’d love to tell you that we’d be able to stop them before they get to the gate, I’d be lying if I did so. With the number of mages they’ve got over there, they’ll manage to get some sort of bridge across. At which point it’ll be simply a matter of time before they break through the gate. Time and bodies.” He grimaced, “Neither of which they have in hugely short supply.”

“Once they’re into the city, it’s going to be a nasty fight to get them out.”

“Indeed lass. Get ready for a long night.” With that, he closed the visor on his helmet, unslung his shield, and drew his sword.

As they neared the other end of the causeway, the squad of Jason’s scouts galloped past them. “They’re coming, sir,” the sergeant shouted at Vladimir.

“Good. Get back to the city,” he ordered. Turning back to Renee, “A little illumination lass, if you’d be so kind?”

She nodded and flicked her fingers at the sky. A ball of deep violet light leapt into the air, shedding its light over the end of the causeway. A company of Zhuravi light cavalry appeared from the darkness.

Upon seeing the Arbatrosians, their captain shouted, and they thundered down the rise towards them. Vladimir waved his sword, put his heels to Jeremy’s flanks, and led the company up the hill.

The two units came together with a crash. While the Zhuravi were charging down the slope, they were only light cavalry, clad in chain mail with spears and round wooden shields.

Opposing them were Hannah’s company of Arbatrosian heavy cavalry, held by many to be some of the finest mounted warriors in the world. They wore steel plate head to toe; breast and back plate, lamed tassets hanging down to cover the tops of their thighs, with cuisse beneath along their upper legs. Greaves protected their calves and ankles, poleyns their knees, and sabatons their feet. Lamed pauldrons protected the shoulder, with rerebraces on the upper arm and vambraces protecting the forearms.

Gauntlets covered their hands and couter protected the elbows. Under the plate, they wore long-sleeved chain mail that hung down to their knees. Sallet helms covered their heads above the gorgets around their necks, and sheet metal coated wooden kite shields where strapped to their off arms. Most bore lances in their primary hands, while a few others carried maces, warhammers, battle-axes, or longswords.

Vladimir dodged a spear and slashed across at its wielder. His sword cut into the man from shoulder to mid-chest. Blood sprayed up, looking black in the light. Vladimir wrenched the blade free and hacked down at another Zhuravi’s spear, shattering the end of the weapon. As the man fumbled for his sword, Vladimir swept his blade across and clove the enemy soldier’s head in two.

Behind him, Rayelle impaled a man with her lance, then drew an axe and attacked a second. The man tried to block with his shield, but she smashed it with two blows. Then she was past him. Following her, Cassielle slashed the man across the chest, chainmail links popping under her blade. He reeled back in the saddle, blood spurting from his chest.

Vladimir hacked at a man, knocking him off his horse, and crossed swords with another. Then he was through the enemy line. Wheeling Jeremy, he led the Hannah’s company back into the fray.

The Arbatrosians hacked and slashed, parried and dodged, and blood flew as soldiers fell on both sides. When Vladimir had passed through the Zhuravi company a second time, less than a dozen enemy scouts remained. Those were fleeing back towards the main body of the Zhuravi host.

Hannah pulled up next to Vladimir. “That wasn’t too hard, sir.”

“Any casualties, Hannah?” He asked.

“Two with minor wounds and a lot of us with bruises, but nothing serious, sir,” she reported.

“Good,” he allowed a small smile. “That was the easy part. Now we wait.”

“What do you think they’ll send?” Laura asked.

“Infantry and crossbows, if they’re smart, heavy cavalry if they’re not.”

Jillian piped up, “Wouldn’t enough heavy cavalry be able to make us withdraw?”

He nodded, “It would, but only their elite divisions have any heavy cavalry. And even then, not a whole lot of them. Storm Shaper only has forty-four companies worth, and that’s if the division’s at full strength.”

When Stephanie started to talk, Vladimir held up his hand for silence. For a moment, no one heard anything over the sounds of their own horses. Then, faintly, they could make out the low tramp of booted feet.

Vladimir glanced over at Renee, “Kill the light on my signal. Girls, follow me, Hannah, fall back across the causeway.”

The mage gave him a curt nod. The captain murmured, “Yes sir.”

Suddenly, the dark violet light glinted off spear tips. Several hundred Zhuravi infantrymen crested the hill. Vladimir gestured to Renee, then touched his heels to Jeremy’s flanks. With a thought, Renee dismissed the light and followed him. The other eight girls fell in behind them.

Meanwhile, Hannah wheeled her horse and led her company out onto the causeway.

“What’s the plan?” Fiona asked from next to him.

Beatriz’s voice came from behind them. “Anyone else able to shoot a bow from a horse?”

“Just me, I think,” Rayelle said.

“Then I guess it’s just you and me shooting, girl,” she said.

“The rest of us will simply menace them; make them think we’re charging. When we get near, curve to the right on my mark,” Vladimir ordered.

Behind him, Renee whispered a quick spell while Rayelle readied her short bow. Calling upon the power of the bracelet he wore, he activated his ability to see in darkness. The Zhuravi infantry abruptly sprang into view. They had paused at the top of the hill and formed up.

As the eleven neared, he heard Beatriz and Rayelle firing arrows from behind him. He saw several strike their marks; three of Beatriz’s killed Zhuravi mages. The rest fell amongst the officers.

When they were less than twenty feet from the Zhuravi, Vladimir called, “Mark!”

The eleven turned as one, angling across the front of the enemy line. Beatriz and Rayelle held their next shot until the last moment, letting fly at mages as they passed. One dropped, Beatriz’s black fletched ash shaft in his eye, the other took Rayelle’s arrow in the shoulder. He staggered, blood coursing from the wound.

Another mage started casting, but Beatriz turned in the saddle and loosed an arrow at him. He choked on his own blood and fell when the missile pierced his throat. They made it to the causeway, and slowed a little, listening for sounds of pursuit.

“How will they know when to start with the artillery? I’d rather not be hit by a flying caltrop,” Cassandra said with a slight smile.

“Victoria can see us. She’ll let the artillery crews know when to fire,” Vladimir said.

As they thundered down the causeway, they heard a whistling noise above them followed by a faint rattling to their rear. They clattered across the drawbridge and pulled up in the courtyard. Behind them, the drawbridge rose, chains rattling across stone. The two portcullises crashed down, and the two gates slammed shut.

Vladimir and Beatriz dismounted, and he called for his commanders. The fifteen captains, two majors, and Kristen Grendel from his regiment gathered around. The colonel from the regiment of Elite Legion veterans brought his two lieutenant colonels, five majors, and sixteen captains. The colonel of the Reserve Regiment showed up with an additional two lieutenant colonels, five majors, and eleven captains.

One of the majors from the Elite Regiment was Alexis Voln. She gave Annabelle a quick hug when she saw the captain. A few of the other officers also greeted each other warmly.

“Alright folks.” He looked at the assembled officers, “Glenvara, Natalie, and Ben, I want your companies right behind the gate. Juliet and Michelle, be ready to back them up.” He turned to the Elite Regiment’s colonel, a grizzled older man around William’s age named Charles DuHavel. “I’d like two of your infantry companies with them.”

He nodded, “Of course, sir.”

“Kristen, that’ll be your command, with Beatriz,” Vladimir continued. “Alisa, Justin, and Elizabeth, form up your companies in the northeast corner. Charlie, put your cavalry in the northwest corner. Jason, Clarissa, I want your scouts in the street right before the square.” To Charlie, “Put your scouts next to them.” Turning back to his officers, “Rebecca, that’s yours. Jenna, Kristine, put your archers to the left of the gate. Richard, Annabelle, to the right. Jessail, I want you on the gate in command of the archers.”

“Yes sir,” she replied.

“Hannah, form up your company to the right of the gate, next to the stairs.” Turning to the colonel of the Reserve Regiment, a younger man named Timothy Edrews, “I’d like both of your heavy cavalry companies to take up a similar position to the left of the gate. Have your light cavalry form up behind Hannah’s company.”

“Yes sir,” he said.

“Tim, Charlie, spread out the rest of your troops along the street back towards the central square. Put two companies of infantry with two of archers. Tim, you can grab a company of militia archers for your second roadblock.”

The two men nodded. “Will do, sir,” Timothy said.

“Good. Everybody, see to your troops,” he dismissed them. Seeing William, he called out to the sergeant major. Once the older man had joined him, “Put three companies of militia infantry behind each of Charlie’s, and three more to either side of the gate, in front of the cavalry and steps. Put five at the base of each of the steps. And I want eight companies of militia archers behind Juliet and Michelle.”

“Got it, sir.” He started to leave, but turned back, “Where do you want me, sir?”

“With the militia. Take one side of the infantry. Tell Josephine I want her to take the other,” Vladimir ordered.

The older man nodded and hurried off. Vladimir turned to his bodyguard, “Sandra, Fiona, Renee, with me. Hazel, Cassie, Jill, Laura, Steph, keep our horses over with Hannah’s company.”

He started to mount back up, but saw Alisa standing near him. He moved over her and gave her a quick hug, their plate clanging together. When they move apart, he lightly kissed her forehead. “Stay safe, Lis,” he murmured.

“You too, Vlad,” she whispered back, then turned, mounted up, and rode over to her troops.

He stared after her for a moment, then mounted up himself. When he got to the base of the stairs, he dismounted, motioned Jeremy to follow Rayelle, and started up the steps.

He walked along the wall to the tower beside the gate, then move up the stairs inside until he reached the top. He found Victoria standing beside a catapult. The mage turned at his approach, “The causeway is well seeded with caltrops. They haven’t started up it yet, but they’ve brought up three turtles and a bunch of mantlets too.”

He gazed out into the night, his ring allowing him to see a ways into the darkness, but not all the way to the other side of the causeway. Behind him, he heard a crack of thunder. Turning, he saw that the storm had crossed the city and was almost to the south side of the city. Jagged bolts of lightning illuminated the dark clouds, and thunder boomed right above them.

A rider trotted into the square below them. Water dripped from the sodden cloak that hung from his shoulders and plastered his horse’s mane to its neck. Vladimir saw the man make his way to William and talk to the sergeant major for a moment. Then he turned and rode back to the north.

Vladimir saw William speak to Monique, then the tall young lieutenant turned and ran for the steps. He gazed back out over the slow moving water at the causeway. Next to him, Victoria stiffened, “They’ve got the first turtle onto the causeway.”

“Wait for the four-hundred mark for the catapults. Load napalm for now,” he commanded.

Victoria nodded, “I’ll see to it.”

Vladimir gave her shoulder a quick squeeze and descended the steps back into the tower. He met Monique coming up the stairs. “What is it, lass?”

“You saw the rider?” When he nodded, “He was from Colonel Whitaker. The Zhuravi are assaulting the walls and gate. They’re using walls of force to bridge the moat. He’d stopped by the East Gate, and Colonel Henna reports that she’s under attack as well. Colonel Whitaker says he’s got over twenty-five thousand goblins along with at least six divisions on his gate. Colonel Henna reports over ten thousand orcs, along with at least seven divisions and the ogres and giants,” the lieutenant reported crisply.

“Any word from Colonel Nichols?” He inquired.

“No riders as of yet, sir,” she replied.

“Thanks lass.” He clapped her lightly on the pauldron, then turned and went back up to the roof.

By then, the storm was upon them, and rain began sheeting down, tinkling off armor and darkening the tower’s crenels. In moments, he was thoroughly wet. The raindrops struck the water, making ripples spread out across the basin as the clouds rolled forward.

In the center of the tower was heavy catapult on a turntable, its metal reinforced timbers bolted to the wood below it. On the front of the tower, between every third crenel, was a ballista or a scorpion. There were five of each, with the farthest left covering the gate and the farthest right pointed along the wall.

To his left was the gatehouse. It was one enclosed story with a ramparted walkway on top. In the enclosed area, Vladimir knew there were three more ballistae and four magical ballistae. Two of them shot fire, the other two lightning. On the walkway were three lighter catapults.

Vladimir looked out onto the causeway, and saw the turtle creeping along. An iron capped ram poked out from the front of the turtle, and hides covered the top.

Along the sides of the causeway were painted stones every hundred feet, marking out range for the artillery. As they neared the fourth stone out, Victoria turned to the catapult’s crew and nodded.

The crew commander lit a torch from the covered brassier and touched it to the tarred rope around the clay container of napalm. Once it had fully caught, she stepped back and yanked the release. The counterweight dropped, the arm swung up, and thumped against the stop. The jar sailed out into the night sky, trailing flames.

As soon as the arm stopped rocking, the crew leapt into action, cranking the arm back down. Two of them started hauling another jar of napalm towards the engine.

Just as the turtle reached the marker, the pot slashed down and shattered on the top of the turtle. Fire shot out, the flames curling back on themselves across the roof. The soaked hides covering the turtle repelled the flames, and the rain soon put them out.

Victoria conjured a red-orange flame in her left hand. She waited for a moment, then slashed her hand down. The catapult on the far tower lit off and let fly. The jar arced out and slammed onto the causeway behind the turtle. The flames jetted out, some shooting under the turtle.

For a moment, nothing happened. Then the back of the turtle started to glow a sullen red-orange. Even at this range, Vladimir could hear screams coming from inside the turtle. A few burning Zhuravi soldiers came running out the back and jumped off the causeway.

From behind them, a number of mantlets advanced up to the burning wreckage of the ram. By that time, the catapult beside him was reloaded, and they let loose another round. Another clay pot sailed out and shattered in front of the mantlets, flames shooting out to scorch their fronts.

However, the enemy clearly had a mage, as the burning turtle lifted up from the causeway. Two dozen Zhuravi soldiers ran out from behind the mantlets and began pushing the ram off the causeway with their spears.

The other catapult loosed its second napalm jar, which missed the causeway and splashed into the water. Flames illuminated the causeway and reflected off the water to either side.

* * *

Vladimir rubbed his eyes and peered out onto the causeway once again. The second turtle was past the two hundred foot mark, passing smashed mantlets and smoldering corpses. A volley of napalm jars shot up from the light catapults above the gate, but Zhuravi mages shot them down with magic missiles.

Ballista bolts and round shot slashed out, but most deflected off the angled front of the turtle. Vladimir turned to Victoria, “Have the ballistae refocus on the mantlets.”

She nodded and turned to shout orders to the artillery crews.

A tap on his pauldron made him turn to see Monique standing behind him. “Another rider, lass?” He asked.

“Yes general. Colonel Whitaker reports that the Zhuravi are at the gates. They’ve also managed to get some ladders up to the wall, but so far he’s held them off,” she reported. “Colonel Henna says that there’s a ram at her gate, but they’ve disabled it.”

He nodded. Then, “What about the West Gate?”

“There’s fighting at both of the barbicans, and Colonel Nichols reports that they’ve somehow crossed the river and are forming up to assault the West Gate.”

“Thanks for being the runner, Monique.”

“No problem, sir,” she grinned. “My platoon sergeant can take care of my troops until they manage to get through the gate.”

As they were talking, the turtle had crept another dozen feet up the causeway, and more mantlets were following it. A ballista shot smashed one to kindling, and a bolt slashed through another to impale one of the men behind. More bounced off the shield spells the Zhuravi were utilizing to cover some of the mantlets.

As the ram and the enemy crept even closer, spells began to flash back and forth. When they neared to within one-hundred fifty feet, the Arbatrosian archers on the walls started loosing shafts at the men behind the mantlets. The angle allowed some of the shafts to strike home, while others slammed into the mantlets or bounced off magical shields.

The ram continued to crawl forward. When the Zhuravi closed to around one-hundred feet, their archers stepped out from behind the mantlets and opened fire. Steel-tipped quarrels shot up at the walls and towers. Some struck sparks off merlons and glanced off stone. Others fell short or flew long, sailing over the walls. Some found their marks, and several soldiers and militia members went down.

Victoria turned to Vladimir, “They’ve got at least a dozen mages with the ram. I can thwart their attempts to bridge the gap, but only for so long.”

Vladimir shook his head, “Don’t bother. Save your spells for later. See if the magical ballistae can do anything.”

She nodded and called an order to the signaler beside her. Below them, the four ballistae opened up. Tongues of flame and bolts of lightning leapt out from the gatehouse to strike the turtle. Both skittered off the magical shields across the front of the ram.

Victoria glanced over at him, “They don’t seem to be having much of an effect.”

Vladimir shrugged, “Keep them at it. Maybe it’ll break through the shields.” He grinned, “Besides, it’s not like either of them are going to run out of ammo. Especially not the lightning ones, with the weather like this.”

She smiled as well and pushed a sodden strand of hair off her face. “I guess we have Storm Shaper to thank for that. I wonder how long he’ll be able to keep it up.”

“Probably until the king shows up and takes his head off,” he said. “They’re nothing if not persistent, these Uplifted.”

A few crossbow bolts clattered off the crenels near them, but the angle was off, and no one was hit. The ballistae and scorpions continued to fire, and more mantlets were shattered and disabled.

Next to Vladimir, Monique shook her head, “How many of those do they have? We must have destroyed fifty or more.”

“There’re plenty of trees around for them to use, and they have enough men to make them.”

Abruptly, below them, they heard a booming crash. Vladimir cursed and hurried to the edge of the tower. Monique and Victoria followed. The three peered between the crenels to see the ram at the gate. As they watched, the ram’s head drew back slowly, then swung forward to slam into the raised drawbridge once again.

Vladimir peered closer and noticed a solid piece of stone under the ram. Glancing over at Victoria, “Wall of stone?”

She frowned and leaned forward, “I’d say so.”

“Do you think you could dispel it?”

“Of course I could. But I’d bet they have some spells on the ram and probably a second wall underneath it. I might slow them down for a little while, but not for too long,” she shrugged.

Suddenly, a crossbow bolt shot towards Victoria. Monique grabbed Victoria and threw her backwards. The bolt scored a bright line across her vambrace and nicked her cheek.

Victoria cursed and pushed past the lieutenant. She spat out an incantation and thrust her hand over the wall. Five lances of light shot out from her fingertips and slammed into a like number of mantlets. The lances shattered the magical protections on them and destroyed the mantlets beneath, the wood exploding into splinters. The men around them flew backwards, several pierced by splinters, others simply killed in the blast.

Victoria pulled back as a dozen more quarrels shot up towards them. Most of them skipped off the stone below the parapet, but a couple passed through the space where she had been a moment before.

The mage turned to Monique, “Thanks.”

“No problem, ma’am,” the young lieutenant replied.

Noticing the mark on her face, Victoria frowned, “It cut you.”

Monique reached a gauntleted hand up to touch her face. “Just a scratch.” Her blood mixed with the rain, making it look as if she was weeping blood. Below them, the ram crashed into the drawbridge once again. “I’d best see to my troops.” She came to attention and saluted Vladimir, then turned and descended the stair.

Vladimir turned back to the parapet and peered around a merlon. Glancing back at Victoria, “Can you command the artillery from up here?”

“Sure. What do you want me to focus on?”

“Disrupt their infantry as much as possible. Kill as many as you can.”

She nodded, “I’ll do my best. What about Storm Shaper?”

“I don’t think he’ll make an appearance, but if you do see him, let me know. I figure out what to do if he does show up.”

She nodded again and reached over to clasp his hand briefly. He squeezed it, turned, and moved off down the stairs.

Victoria moved back to the edge of the tower and cast a quick spell on herself. Then she looked out between the crenels once again. Next to her, a ballista let fly, a four-foot steel tipped bolt shooting out to smash into a mantlet. Behind her, the catapult let fly once again. However, a magic missile from an enemy mage struck it in midair. Flames shot through the sky, illuminating the causeway for a moment.

Victoria passed Vladimir’s order to the artillery crews on the tower, then descended the steps into the tower. Once out of the rain, she pulled her hair into a bunch and squeezed some of the water out of it. She descended two floors, then walked through the steel-banded oaken door into the gatehouse. An ionized smell permeated the air, and both lightning ballistae spat electricity as she entered the room.

Back from the front of the gatehouse, soldiers stood by the murder holes with rocks, bows, pots of oil, and torches at the ready. Moving to the front, she peered out an arrow slit at the enemy below. While shattered and destroyed mantlets littered the causeway, more were advancing, some protected by magic, others simply lucky. As she watched, the catapults above her let fly, napalm jars arcing out to shatter on the causeway, spraying fire.

One of the soldiers at the murder holes above the drawbridge shouted, “Major, captain, they’re breaking through.” Jenna and Jessail ran over to look. The young archer captain cursed and shouted for archers. Looking around, she spotted Victoria, “Ma’am, you might want to have a look.”

The mage moved over to the murder hole. Looking down, she could see the drawbridge splintering before the steel head of the ram. More archers from Jenna’s company rushed into the gatehouse and took up positions around the second set of murder holes. Suddenly, from below, fire blossomed on the drawbridge.

“They’ve broken through the protective spells and set the drawbridge on fire,” Victoria said.

Jenna looked surprised, “Protective spells?”

Victoria chuckled, “What, you though they went to all this effort just to beat the drawbridge down? If it weren’t protected, they’d have fired it from the beginning.”

Jenna frowned, “Can we put it out?”

Victoria whispered a quick incantation, then concentrated for a moment. “No. It’s magical fire. I’d have to dispel it, and whoever cast it would probably just cast it again.”

“So we’re just going to let them break through?” Disbelief colored her voice.

Victoria gave her a look. “Yes we are. We have two portcullises and two more gates before they’re in the square. At that point, it’ll be up to Natalie and the rest of them to hold the line.”

“With the number of men out there, they’ll be overwhelmed,” she said sharply.

“I hope not. We’ll be up here to support them, and Vladimir has the cavalry as well.” She shrugged, “At some point we may have to fall back, but hopefully not.”

Jessail frowned, “So the strategy’s to bleed them until they withdraw?”

Victoria nodded, “Just about. That’s about all we can do, tonight.”

“And after?” Jenna asked.

“Well, if we manage to survive tonight, it’ll depend on how many we kill.” Below them, the fire had eaten through much of the drawbridge. “If we only succeed in killing a few, they’ll try it again. If we kill more than that, they’ll probably withdraw and try to use siege engines.”

“And then-” a sudden cry from behind them and a roar from below interrupted Jenna.

The three looked down to see that the first portcullis had disappeared, and Zhuravi troops were streaming into the gateway.

“What the hell happened to the portcullis?” Jessail shouted.

“I’d say one of their wizards disintegrated it.” She turned to the group of soldiers beside the murder holes. “Fire arrows at will, but wait for my signal to drop the oil.” She received a curt nod from the sergeant.

The archers began to nock arrows to their bows and release them down into the mass of Zhuravi beneath them. Cries of pain drifted up to the three women.

Jenna and Jessail pulled their own bows and drew arrows. Victoria put a hand on the archer captain’s shoulder. “Try to pick out the mages and officers.”

Jenna nodded, drew back her arrow, and picked a captain out of the mess of enemy soldiers below them. She let out her breath and loosed the arrow. The sable fletched shaft streaked out and took the man through the eye. Blood sprayed out, and his body joined the dozens of others quickly carpeting the ground inside the gate.

A robed man farther back raised his hands to cast, then threw them up as Jessail’s arrow ripped through his throat. The two women unleashed a hail of arrows into the gateway. Several mages and other men fell.

Then Victoria saw several mantlets and a man-portable ram making their way into the gateway. As she watched, a pair of the ram-bearers dropped, then a dozen magical shields sprang up in front of the ram.

More men rushed up to carry the ram, and it resumed its forward progress. As it neared the second set of murder holes, she called out to the sergeant, “Pour the oil now. Light on my signal.”

“Yes ma’am,” she replied. Then she turned to the rest of her squad and motioned to the half-dozen barrels of oil. Eight soldiers grabbed two barrels and heaved their contents into the gateway. From below, they heard shouts, but Victoria saw the ram still advancing.

Right as it passed under the murder hole, she dispelled the shield spell directly above the ram. “Now!” She barked to the sergeant.

The woman dropped the torch in her hand through the murder hole. It fell where the dispelled shield had been, and dropped to the ground. The oil already there caught fire almost instantly, and a raging inferno engulfed the gateway. Men shrieked as the flames ate at their flesh.

The sergeant and two of her soldiers slammed a metal cover across the murder hole not a moment too late. A tongue of flame shot up as it closed, licking across one of the soldier’s gauntlets.

The flames below raged so hot that the murder hole’s cover glowed red. “Open it back up when it cools off,” Victoria commanded. “Use the oil again once there’s a good concentration of them.”

“Yes ma’am,” the sergeant saluted her.

Victoria nodded and moved away. “Jenna, get a couple of your mages in here to support them. Maybe Evelyn, too.”

Jenna nodded and ran out of the gatehouse.

Victoria walked over to the front crenels and looked out onto the causeway. More mantlets and another pair of carried rams were moving up towards the gate. A fire ballistae roared next to her, a ray of fire leaping out to strike a mantlet. The flames burst through the sodden wood shield and charred the man behind it.

* * *

A shout went up from the gatehouse, “They’re breaking through!” As Vladimir watched, the wood in the center of the inner gate began to splinter and buckle outwards. Suddenly, as the ram pulled back, he caught a glimpse of flames through the splintered wood of the gate. Screams and shrieks filled the night once more.

Jeremy shifted and whinnied softly at the sounds coming from the gateway. Vladimir reached down, stroked the horse’s mane, and patted his neck. Behind him, Jillian shifted the saddle. Vladimir glanced back, “You okay?”

The girl nodded and adjusted her grip on lance and shield. Beneath her helmet, her face was a little pale, though. The rest of the girls, except for Rayelle and Fiona, looked similarly upset.

A few moments later, ugly green flames began to lick at the hole in the gate. Soon after, the entire gate was ablaze.

Natalie, Glenvara, and Benjamin’s troops had formed a semicircle around the gate, swords and shields at the ready. Behind them, Juliet and Michelle’s infantry stood ready. On the flanks, the two companies from the Elite Regiment and the twelve companies of militia infantry completed the second arc.

Someone from inside the gatehouse called down, “They’re coming!”

The gates crumbled in a puff of ash, and the Zhuravi infantry came charging through. They smashed into the Arbatrosian shield wall and rebounded. From above, Jenna’s archers began raining arrows down from the gatehouse. Dozens of enemy troops fell, but more streamed through the shattered gates.

Quickly, the number of enemy troops began to push the first three companies back. Then William gave a command and the second ring pushed forward with their shields against the backs of the soldiers in front of them. The sheer weight of them pushed the enemy back. There came a shout from the wall, “Cavalry!”

A little behind the front of the press, Natalie heard the call and cursed. “Beatriz, we need to push them back,” she shouted to the Guardswoman. Beatriz nodded, drew the long-handled sword at her hip, and made her way over to Natalie. The captain had her twin shasquas in hand. Together, they moved to the front of the formation.

Monique stood shoulder to shoulder with a pair of soldiers. Natalie tapped her on the shoulder, “Coming through, lass.”

The lieutenant nodded, slashed at a Zhuravi soldier with her short sword, and stepped back.

Natalie and Beatriz rushed past her and into the press of enemy soldiers. Beatriz took a two-handed grip on her sword and slashed down. Her opponent tried to block with his shield, but her blade smashed through the wood and continued on, cleaving his head in two.

Wrenching her sword free, she flicked it across to parry another foe’s strike. Natalie darted past her and stabbed the man in the stomach. Her other blade swept up to block another sword.

Beside her, Beatriz was a whirlwind of death. Her blows cut through shields, plate, mail, and flesh with impunity. Zhuravi soldiers reeled away and blood flew. Through it all, not a blade touched the Guardswoman. Her own sword made walls of steel around her, the force of her parries almost ripping the swords from her enemies’ hands.

Natalie tried to keep up as best she could, but she soon fell behind as the other woman cut a bloody swath through the Zhuravi. Some of the enemy soldiers around her threw down their weapons and fled back toward the gate.

* * *

Watching from above, Jenna’s jaw dropped. The speed and power of Beatriz’s blows was unmatched by those of anyone she had ever seen. Her blade moved faster than even the trained eye could follow, and her strikes left men dead and dying in her wake. “Victoria, you have to see this!” Jenna called to the mage as she pulled another arrow from her quiver, drew, and shot an enemy officer through the back of the neck.

The slender mage rushed over to her side and looked down on the square. She whistled softly, “I guess there’s a reason, other than looks, that she’s in the King’s Guard.”

Jenna nocked and fired again, “And I thought the general was good.”

Victoria shrugged, “They’re supposed to be the best in the realm.”

Below them, Beatriz decapitated two Zhuravi with a single stroke, then spun and gracefully avoided a sword and a spear as they reached for her. Continuing her turn, she slashed back and took another enemy soldier under the ribs. Between them, Natalie and Beatriz were pushing the Zhuravi infantry back into the gateway.

Behind them, Franchesca Rivers, Natalie’s platoon sergeant, shouted for the hedgehog. Natalie heard the echoing rumble of hooves on stone in the gateway. Turning, she saw Zhuravi heavy cavalry charging through the shattered gates. Running over to Beatriz, she cut down a pair of distracted Zhuravi soldiers and shouted at the other woman, “They’re coming!”

Beatriz nodded and spun, blade flashing out in front of her. Crimson droplets flew off her sword as it whipped through the air to cut the man in front of her in half, steel shearing through mail, flesh, and bone. Her braid flew out behind her, rainwater flying from her jet-black hair.

Natalie and Beatriz ran back towards the Arbatrosian lines, boots splashing through puddles. The Zhuravi heavy cavalry bore down upon the two, lances reaching ahead of them. Natalie darted between two of her soldiers, Beatriz right behind her. Looking back, Natalie saw a lance reaching out for Beatriz’s back. The lance wielder’s horse suddenly reared up, almost throwing its rider as it reached the Arbatrosians’ spears. A pair of spears darted out and stabbed the warhorse in the stomach. It fell heavily to the side, crushing its rider’s leg beneath its armored bulk.

The rest of the heavy cavalry smashed into the Arbatrosian line. With little warning and no room to stop, many of the Zhuravi horses couldn’t avoid the Arbatrosians’ spears. Foot-long steel spearheads pierced peytrals and slammed into the flesh beneath, skittered off shields, or punched through plate armor to skewer the riders.

Jenna loosed a pair of arrows, both striking riders through the back of the neck. As she watched, the Zhuravi charge dissolved, dead riders and horses clogging the square before Natalie’s company. On the flanks, Benjamin and Glenvara’s soldiers pushed forward, stabbing at the surviving cavalry.

Jenna turned away from the arrow slit, and shouted to her troops, “Be ready for their retreat. Bows to the murder holes and front.”

Below, a Zhuravi officer yelled for his men to press the attack, at which point Petra put an arrow in his back. He sagged forward, but sat up and looked around, until Richard put a shaft through his gorget. Blood sprayed out and he flew from the saddle.

Of the six companies Storm Shaper had sent in, less than two remained to flee back out the gate. Jenna and Richard’s companies rained arrows down on their backs, striking down dozens more.

* * *

Grace looked up as Danika Hughes rode into the main square. Water soaked her armor and ran down her face. The young lieutenant pulled up in front of her childhood friend, a worried look on her face.

“What is it?” Grace inquired.

“They’re forcing the South Gate, but General Kapov hasn’t retreated yet. Colonel Whitaker’s lost the North Gate and is retreating to the castle. Colonel Henna reports that she’s hard pressed. Colonel Nichols still holds the West Gate firmly.”

Danielle frowned, “Did the general give any orders?”

“He says to hold until he starts his retreat unless they come down from the north.”

“And if they break through Colonel Henna?” Emma asked.

“We’re to assist her in retreating back to the castle, then attempt to cover his withdrawal,” Danika said.

A ranger ran into the square from the north. She saluted the officers and turned to Grace. “Ma’am, the Zhuravi are advancing south.”

“Slow them down, but don’t get too heavily engaged.”

“Yes ma’am.” She saluted again and ran off.

Danielle looked at the captain of the cavalry company from the Elite Regiment. “Back up three companies of infantry and archers from the militia at the north entrance to the square. That’ll be your command, captain.”

“Yes ma’am.” The man saluted and moved over to his troops.

Turning to Grace, “Keep your rangers out. I want to know when the Zhuravi are approaching.”

She nodded and faded into the night.

Danielle detailed three more companies of militia archers and infantry to the east side of the square, and one of each to the west side. Then she took the rest of her troops and Emma’s company to the south entrance to the square.

Sarah, Tristanne, and Hilary stood off to one side, conversing in low voices. Danika moved over to them. Tristanne looked up, “What did it look like, down south?”

“A whole ton of corpses in front of the gate, but the infantry was still holding. General Kapov hadn’t committed the cavalry yet, but things weren’t looking good.” She frowned, “I bet they’ll be withdrawing soon.”

“How is the militia looking?” Sarah asked.

Danika shrugged, “They were holding pretty well so far. And not doing too poorly at killing Zhuravi.”

Sarah grinned, “My idiot countrymen. May they rot in Hell where they belong.”

“You’re from Zhurav?” Danika asked.

“Yep. That’s where I met Emma.” She smiled again, “And learned to hate Zhuravi.”

Flashes of lightning lit the sky above them, and cracks of thunder closely followed. Rain continued to pelt down, rattling off their armor and running down their faces.

“Lovely weather we’re having,” Danika commented.

* * *

A sword slammed into Monique’s shoulder, but her pauldron held. Spinning, she slashed backwards with her longsword, the blade going low beneath her attacker’s shield to smash into his hip. The blade snapped mail and splintered bone. He fell, blood gushing out of the wound. She quickly retracted and stabbed him through the chest, the tip punching through him mail and into his flesh.

Withdrawing, she fended off another enemy’s blade with her shield. The sword skittered off the sheet metal coating. Monique spun back, stepping forward with her left foot and hacking down.

Her opponent brought up his shield, and her sword slammed into the oak disk. The steel bit in and caught, but she lashed out with her right foot, slamming a boot into his steel-plated stomach. He stumbled back, and she wrenched her blade free and slashed across. Her sword swept in below his shield and slammed into his side. Metal parted beneath her blow and blood sprayed out in a crimson sheet.

Pulling back, she slammed him in the face with her shield, and he went down. As she batted aside another Zhuravi soldier’s attack, she heard Kristen’s voice over the clash of battle and the crack of thunder. “Fall back! All units fall back!”

Ducking behind her shield, she looked around and realized that she had distanced herself from the rest of the company. She stepped forward again, pushing her shield ahead of her. A blade clanged off her shield, and she forced it aside, then stepped up behind it, stabbing at the man. He had lost his shield earlier, and her blade slipped past his hand to slam into his stomach. Her sword went in up to the hilt, and he folded over the blade.

Tearing her sword loose, she started to move backwards, but her foot slipped in a puddle, and she went to one knee. The impact jarred her and she almost bit off the tip of her tongue. Two Zhuravi attacked her, and she snapped her shield out horizontally in front of her. One of her opponents’ blades bounced off her shield, but the other slipped around and skittered off the armor over her stomach, scoring a bright line across the steel.

Rotating her torso, she whipped her own sword across low to the ground. Her opponent tried to block, but wasn’t fast enough. Her sword slammed into his shin, shearing through his greave and shattering bone.

Suddenly, a crossbow quarrel slammed into her right shoulder, throwing her backwards. She landed heavily on her back, the quarrel a shaft of pain in her body. The first man loomed over her, and, blinking rain out of her eyes, she tried to lift her sword. Pain shot through her, and she heard her blade clatter to the ground.

The enemy soldier slashed down at her. Twisting, she threw her shield across her body. His sword clanged off the surface. He slashed down again, this time at her face. She brought her shield up, and the blade bounced off the rim. Reaching down with her right hand, she pulled her dagger off her belt. As the man hacked down at her again, she twisted around and stabbed him in the leg. The effort sent waves of pain radiating out from her shoulder.

The wicked point easily pierced the leather armor he wore on his legs, and the steel bit into his flesh. Crying out in pain, he dropped his shield and fell to one knee. Tossing aside her shield, Monique drew her short sword in her left hand. Wrenching her body around, she stabbed the man through the neck. Blood sprayed out around the steel, coating her hand and arm. His mouth dropped open and more blood flowed over his lips.

The corpse collapsed onto her, driving the quarrel deeper into her shoulder. Blackness welled up, spots dancing across her vision. Suddenly the body rolled away and another figure stood over her. She fumbled at the slick hilt of her short sword, trying to bring the blade up.

The figure leaned down, and resolved into Beatriz. “You don’t look so good, lass,” the Guardswoman said.

Monique managed a slight smile, but when she opened her mouth, all that escaped was a low moan.

Beatriz kneeled beside her, pulled the lieutenant’s short sword and dagger out of the body, and shoved them into their sheaths. Monique spotted her longsword on the paving stones next to her and tried to grab the hilt. Pain lanced through her, and she fell back to the ground.

Beatriz reached over her and grabbed the sword in her left hand. Abruptly, she spun around, rising to her feet as she did so. Both blades arced out and slammed into the body of the Zhuravi soldier behind her. Plate shattered, and bone cracked. The man went flying, blood spraying into the air.

Beatriz dropped to her knees again and reversed Monique’s sword to sheath it. The lieutenant grabbed her shield and allowed the Guardswoman to help her to her feet. She slung the shield across her back and tightened the strap across her chest.

Beatriz frowned, “Carry or drag? I need my sword arm free.”

Monique smiled a little and leaned against her. “Carry. I don’t think I could walk too far anyway.”

Beatriz nodded, bent, and grabbed Monique around the waist. She straightened with no noticeable effort and started jogging back towards the Arbatrosian lines.

A pair of Zhuravi soldiers appeared before them. Beatriz spun right and stabbed the first through the neck. Whipping her blade back, she caught the other one in the side. Even one-handed, her sword splintered the man’s breastplate and sent him flying. She kept running, having barely broken stride.

Ahead of them, Monique heard Kristen shout again. “Split for cavalry! Split for cavalry!”

Beatriz cursed vehemently and quickened her stride. Her feet flew over the uneven ground, and she seemed to be able to put them in the best possible places. The quarrel in Monique’s shoulder bumped against Beatriz’s back a few times, sending waves of agony pulsing through Monique.

Natalie’s company suddenly appeared out of the darkness. A pair of spears reached for Beatriz before their troops recognized them, but she neatly leapt over them. Landing lightly, she turned and knocked both of their spear tips to the ground.

The two soldiers whirled to face her, but pulled up short when they saw who it was. “Sorry, ma’am,” one of them said. The other murmured an apology.

Beatriz waved it away and set Monique back on her feet. The lieutenant swayed a little, and the Guardswoman grabbed her arm and steadied her. The rest of the unit pulled together around them, and Natalie fell in beside Monique. “How you doing, Moni?”

“I’ve been better,” she said weakly.

On the flanks, the infantry pulled in further and well over a thousand horses thundered past. To the right were the three companies of cavalry from the Elite Regiment with Vladimir and Hannah’s company and two companies of light cavalry from the Reserve Regiment. To the left charged Alisa, Justin, and Elizabeth’s companies, along with the two heavy cavalry companies from the Reserve Regiment. In front of the gate were over three thousand Zhuravi infantry and archers with a smattering of cavalry.

Vladimir swept his sword out and led the charge. Spears bristled and quarrels sped out, but the cavalry hit regardless. Jeremy swerved a little and a spear skipped off his peytral. Vladimir slashed down at the man, and he reeled away, blood spraying up.

Behind him, Rayelle hacked at another man. Her axe glanced off his shield and slammed into his chest. The motion of her horse ripped the blade from his flesh. Blood and gore flew, coating her arm.

A spear flashed up and slammed into her right side. The steel tip found the gap between her back and breastplates and pushed into her flesh. Her attacker stood firm, and she flew off Lamara. Agony shot through her, and she fell to the ground, impaled on the spear. The impact knocked the breath out of her, and her head slammed into the unforgiving stone. Her axe flew out of her hand and landed on the paving stones with a clatter.

Looking up, Rayelle saw an unknown rider leap across her. Leaving his spear in her, the Zhuravi soldier advanced, sword drawn. She shed her shield and snatched her other light axe off her belt, left handed. The Zhuravi slashed down at her. She swept her axe across, deflecting the blade aside. Its tip sparked off the paving stones next to her. She ripped her short sword from her belt and brought it up to deflect her attacker’s next blow by crossing her weapons above her face.

The tip of her opponent’s blade cut into her head anyway. Rayelle felt a little pain, but ignored it and lashed out with her foot. She connected with his knee and felt something crack. He cried out, and she slashed at his torso. Her right arm felt like lead, and her blow only glanced off his breastplate.

The man slashed down at her torso. Rayelle batted his weapon aside with her short sword and slammed her axe into his other knee. The sharp steel head made an ugly crunching noise as it bit, almost severing the joint.

Her attacker collapsed onto her. Dropping his sword, he pulled a dagger off his belt and stabbed her in the stomach. The blade skittered off her breastplate. Rayelle slugged him, her gauntleted left hand filled with her axe. The steel gauntlet slammed into his face, breaking his jaw and throwing him back.

Recovering, he stabbed again, this time putting his whole body behind the strike. His steel punched through her armor and slid into her stomach. She punched him again, but he bore down on the blade and forced it deeper into her body. Black spots danced at the edge of her vision.

Suddenly, the man went flying into the air. Blood sprayed from a strike that nearly cleaved him in half. A horseman loomed out of the darkness and swung down from the saddle. She tried to rise, but the spear in her side sent waves of pain shooting through her and she fell back.

The rider removed their helm, revealing a concerned Cassielle. She went to her knees beside Rayelle, sliding her arm under Rayelle’s shoulders. Seeing the spear in the other young woman’s side, she grabbed its shaft and slowly began pulling it out. Black spots danced across her vision, and she almost passed out.

Cassielle shoved her hands into the wound and willed healing energy into her friend’s limp form. Golden light flared up, and the grievous wound in her side began to heal. Cassielle withdrew her hands as the skin sealed over, leaving a narrow white scar along her side.

Rayelle sat up and yanked the dagger out of her stomach. More scarlet oozed out to be quickly washed away by the pouring rain. Cassielle started to heal it, but Rayelle grabbed her by the shoulder and jerked her down. At the same time, she whipped up her light axe and sent it spinning through the air.

Cassielle turned in time to see a Zhuravi soldier drop, Rayelle’s axe buried between his eyes. The young woman heaved herself to her feet and staggered over to the corpse to wrench the axe out of the body. Two more enemies charged her.

She went to one knee and spun, her axe sweeping up to slam into the stomach of the first man. He folded over the blade. As she rose, she stabbed downward with her short sword, the tip punching through the back of the man’s gorget. Her blade emerged bloody from the front of his throat.

Disengaging her blades with a flourish, Rayelle pressed the second man. Sweeping her axe low, she stepped close. He interposed his blade, turning her axe aside, but she stabbed with her short sword over his shield. He tried to block, but was off-balance and out of position.

Her sword slammed into his shoulder, the sharp tip piercing his pauldron and the mail beneath. Blood coated the blade, and his shield dropped. Rayelle withdrew the blade and swept it across and down. Metal screeched as her sword sheared through his helmet and almost took off half the man’s head.

Spotting her other axe lying on the ground, she sheathed her short sword and scooped it up. Glancing around, she hurried back to where Cassielle stood with a pair of horses.

As she neared, she realized one was Lamara. The black Arabian whinnied happily, and Rayelle ran over and threw her arms around her neck. When she pulled back, the horse leaned down and butted its head against her stomach. Whispering softly to her, she ran her blood-covered hands through the horse’s mane. Then she dropped both axes through the loops in her belt and gathered her sword and shield off the paving stones.

Looking around, the two realized that the fighting had moved past them and out onto the causeway. Swinging up onto their horses, they trotted out through the gate. A dozen witchlights hung in the air, shedding as many colors of light on the causeway. Dead and dying soldiers littered the stones, next to shattered mantlets and the corpses of horses.

Farther out, the fighting still raged, the clash of steel and the blast of spells echoing across the water. A squad of scouts charged back towards them.

Rayelle blocked their path. “What’s going on?”

The sergeant saluted and said, “The general’s calling a withdrawal. He wants the infantry to be ready for the enemy.”

Rayelle wheeled Lamara around and rode with the scouts back through the gates. As she did so, she cast a healing spell on her stomach, the familiar silver light knitting the flesh together.

They rode into the square, where Kristen called out to them. The two trotted over and Rayelle leaned down. “The general’s falling back, ma’am. He wants the infantry ready to get any chasers, then be ready for the next onslaught. I don’t know how many are following, but there must be a lot.”

“Very good, corporal. Get to the street. I’m assembling any remaining cavalry there.” She turned and hurried off to talk to her captains.

Rayelle wheeled Lamara with a light touch of her knee. She trotted to left of the gate, right next to the tower.

Cassielle followed. When she stopped, the medic pulled up next to her. “Why are you going here? The Lieutenant Colonel said to go to the street.”

Rayelle shook her head, “It doesn’t matter what she said. Our job is to protect the general. We managed to get separated from him, but I mean to remedy that as soon as I can.” She looked over at Cassielle, and the other girl was surprised at how upset Rayelle looked. “What if he’s out there and needs us? What if one of the other girls needs your healing and we’re sitting here while they’re dying?”

Cassielle reached over and took her hand. “There’s nothing we can do about that now. You were wounded. You’d have been more of a liability than an asset.”

“But it’s my fault I got hurt in the first place. I wasn’t fast enough to block that spear.” She looked miserable.

Cassielle reached over to push some of the wet hair out of the other girl’s face. Dropping her hand, she flicked some of the water off her fingers. Noticing that it stuck, she examined her fingers more closely. Blood coated them, and she looked up at Rayelle, alarmed. “What happened to your head?”

The other girl shrugged, “I don’t know. What do you mean?”

“You’re bleeding.” Reaching over, she grabbed Rayelle’s head and brought it down to where she could look at it.

“Hey! Watch it!” Rayelle protested. “That’s my head, you know.”

Seeing that the other girl had a shallow wound at the edge of her hairline, Cassielle whispered a quick healing spell. Letting go of Rayelle’s head, she gave her a look. “How did you not notice you were bleeding?”

Rayelle shrugged, “It’s raining. Besides, it didn’t hurt that much.”

Cassielle snorted and shook her head.

Suddenly, they heard the thunder of hooves on the causeway. Both of them looked up to see a bedraggled squad of cavalry thunder through the gates. Behind them streamed a couple hundred more scouts and cavalry. Bringing up the rear was the general, Dame Beatriz, and the rest of the general’s bodyguard. Beside Cassielle, Rayelle gasped when she saw Fiona.

The ranger was slumped over her horse’s neck. Blood coated her shoulder and arm, and she was missing her left pauldron. A crossbow bolt protruded from beneath her right breast, and another stuck out from her left hip.

The rest of the bodyguard was in little better shape. Blood flowed from a grievous wound across Hazel’s chest, her breastplate split down the center. Laura’s leg was cut open down its length, and part of a spear stuck out of Stephanie’s shoulder. Jillian appeared unscathed until they saw the half-dozen quarrels sticking out of her back.

Sandra was missing the lower quarter of her scale mail, and blood streamed from a gash across her stomach. Renee’s forearm was sliced open to the bone and a more blood flowed out of a cut in her side.

Only the general and Dame Beatriz seemed to have escaped serious harm. Vladimir was missing his helm, his plate sported numerous dents, and his coat-of-arms on his shield were barely recognizable under all the scratches and gouges. Beatriz was covered in blood and gore, but seemed completely unharmed save for a shallow cut on her cheek, below her right eye.

Cassielle urged Samantha into motion, and Rayelle quickly followed. Above them, all of the artillery around the gate opened fire at once. Shouts and screams echoed into the night, and napalm flashed brightly in the darkness.

Vladimir trotted over to meet the two girls, Beatriz following. The general looked them over, then turned to Cassielle. “Cassie, the girls need medical attention. See to them.”

She nodded and trotted over to where they were grouped. Vladimir reached out and clapped her lightly on the shoulder as she passed.

Then he turned to Rayelle. He urged Jeremy forward a little, until he and Lamara were next to each other. Reaching up, he cupped her face in a gauntleted hand. “You okay lass?”

She nodded, “What happened out there?” She gestured to the rest of the bodyguard.

Beatriz pulled up on her other side. “Vladimir decided that we should be there rear guard while the rest of the cavalry fell back. Storm Shaper decided to send at least a brigade of his elites at us.” She shrugged, “Girls like them aren’t cut out for that sort of thing.”

Rayelle frowned, “Like them? And not me?”

Beatriz grinned at her, “You and Cassielle are a cut above the rest. Now, since you’re the only uninjured one right now, why don’t you come with me up to the wall.” Looking over at Vladimir, “Send Cassielle and Fiona up once Cassielle’s healed the girls.”

He nodded and trotted away, Jeremy lightly stepping over the corpses cluttering the square. Beatriz watched him go for a moment, then turned back to Rayelle. “Still got your bow?”

The girl nodded and patted the bow case on her saddle. Wheeling Lamara, she followed the Guardswoman to the steps.

Clustered around the base of the steps were five companies of militia infantry. Beatriz moved through the militia, stopping to offer a word of encouragement here and a clap on the shoulder there. Some of the Ereth Chulites reached out and touched her, while others called out encouragements and blessings.

Once they reached the foot of the stairs, Beatriz dismounted. One of the militiamen reached for Mary’s reins. The Arabian pulled away, whinnied, and, it seemed to Rayelle, glared at the man.

Beatriz glanced back, “Oh, she’ll stay where I tell her.” Smiling, “And she doesn’t like it when anyone else grabs her reins.”

The man nodded and backed away. He turned to Rayelle and Lamara.

She dismounted and pointed at Beatriz’s horse. “Stay next to her,” she whispered. Lamara whinnied at her and trotted over to stand next to Mary.

The militiaman threw up his hands and moved back into the formation. A couple of the other militia members laughed, while some near him clapped him on the shoulders.

Beatriz and Rayelle reached the wall walk and peered out into the night. A scattered column of Zhuravi infantry advanced up the causeway. Some pushed mantlets, while others trusted in the meager protection of their shields. Arrows, ballista bolts, and jars of napalm shot out to strike down dozens. Some of the enemy soldiers on the bridge were crossbowmen, and a few quarrels sped back.

Beatriz made her way into the gatehouse, unslinging her bow as she went. At the front of the gatehouse, Jenna and a dozen archers were at the arrow slits. Victoria stood a little ways back, directing the artillery fire. The scent of ionized air hung heavy in the room, and one of the lightning ballista fired as they entered the gatehouse. A line of blue-white lightning seared out and slammed into a mantlet, blasting it asunder.

Suddenly, a bolt of fire flashed through the ballista’s embrasure, scorching the steel of the artillery piece and knocking it askew. Two of its crew reeled away, flesh burnt.

Beatriz slid an arrow out of her quiver and moved to an arrow slit. Rayelle followed suit, taking a position at the one next to her. The Guardswoman scanned the causeway, then turned to Victoria. “Where’s their wizard?”

The slender mage frowned in concentration for a moment, then looked up, grinning wickedly. “Got him,” she said, stepping to the wall. She flicked her hand at the arrows slit, and five red-orange darts of force shot through and onto the causeway. They swerved around several enemy soldiers and sought out a man mostly concealed behind a mantlet. The darts slammed into an invisible shield in front of him, which rippled along its length.

Beatriz drew and released smoothly, her ash arrow slamming into the man’s foot, one of the few exposed areas of his body. He let out a screech and stumbled sideways. Rayelle’s shorter arrow took him through the side, cracking ribs and puncturing a lung.

Below them, the first wave of Zhuravi had made the gate and charged into the square. The Arbatrosian infantry met them, the two forces meeting with a clash of weapons.

Beatriz picked off a pair of Zhuravi officers with ease. Then she turned her bow on a mantlet, shooting the two men carrying it in the feet and legs. As they fell, she mowed down the half-dozen crossbowmen that had been sheltering behind it.

Rayelle put her short bow to good use, taking down several Zhuravi soldiers. Then she ducked back as a flurry of crossbow quarrels slammed into the stone around their two arrow slits. One lucky shot came through Beatriz’s, and the bolt slammed into her hip. However, it merely bounced off her armor and she seemed to ignore it.

Suddenly, Beatriz’s hand shot up to her quiver. Rayelle had thought the Guardswoman was firing quickly before, but now her hands blurred as she let loose a dozen arrows in as many seconds. Each leapt out to strike down a mage or officer, most taking the target through the eye or the throat.

Fiona and Cassielle had just entered the gatehouse. Both girls stopped and stared at Beatriz, eyes wide. “Holy crap! How do you do that?” Fiona asked.

Beatriz eased her pace a little, but kept up the steady stream of arrows. “Many long years of practice, lass. When you’ve been doing it as long as I have, it’s not hard.”

Rayelle stepped up the arrow slit and whipped off a pair of shafts. One slammed into a mantlet, but the other flew true, taking an enemy through the neck. A slew of bolts answered, skittering and sparking off the stones. A pair slipped through. One scraped across her cuisse, while the other flew past her face and slammed into one of the ballistae’s crew. The woman fell to the ground, the quarrel buried in her chest.

Cassielle rushed over to her, fingers going to her neck to feel for a pulse. Looking up, she shook her head and stood. Fiona unslung and strung her longbow, slipping the string into the notches with a practiced motion. Drawing an arrow, she moved to the other side of Rayelle’s arrow slit.

She and Rayelle exchanged a quick glance, then the ranger swung to the slit and fired. Four quarrels answered her, but Rayelle was already moving. She snapped off a pair of arrows in quick succession, and they heard a scream from below.

Two bolts clattered off the stone in reply. Beatriz loosed two arrows, and Rayelle saw both strike home, taking down the two enemy crossbowmen. More arrows flew from the other archers on the walls, but a steady stream of enemy troops was making its way into the city, moving up behind mantlets and magical protections.

A blood-covered Monique ran into the gatehouse and looked around quickly. Spotting Victoria, she rushed over to the mage and saluted. “Ma’am, General Kapov sends his regards and wishes to inform you that he is pulling back. He requests that you continue to command the wall defenses and harry the enemy as you can.”

Victoria nodded, “Thanks Monique. Tell him I will do what I can.”

The lieutenant saluted again and turned to hurry back out onto the wall. A sudden blast threw her to her knees. Rayelle stumbled, Fiona grabbed the wall, and Cassielle lost her footing. The rest of the soldiers in the room were similarly thrown off-balance. Only Victoria, Jenna, and Beatriz were unaffected.

“What the hell was that?” Monique exclaimed.

Victoria looked out into the square. “Looks like somebody just set off a ball of force.” She peered through the slashing rain, across the square, to where she could see Vladimir huddled in conversation with his captains.

* * *

Emma ran into the main square, a squad of troops on her heels. “They’re pressing us on all sides, sir,” she reported to Vladimir. “If we don’t move soon you’ll be cut off.”

Nodding, Vladimir turned to his commanders, “We need to fall back, now,” he said. “But we’ll be hard pressed if we don’t leave some troops to delay them.”

Benjamin stepped forward. “I’ll do it, sir.” Glancing around at the other captains, “Just give me enough men to bring my company back up to full strength.”

Vladimir examined him closely for a moment, then nodded. “Alright, Ben, the blockers are yours.” Turning to the rest of them, “Glenvara, Michelle, start getting the wounded moving up the street. Kristen, Juliet, you’ll be in charge of the main body of the command. Natalie, William, Josephine, gather up the freshest troops for the rearguard.”

The indicated officers nodded or saluted and ran off to their troops. He moved to the cavalry commanders. “Hannah, gather up the rest of the cavalry and form them up with Natalie. Rebecca, get your troops ready to give Benjamin some breathing room.”

The two saluted and mounted up.

As Emma turned to move away, Benjamin called out, “Captain Athney?”

Turning she stopped her hand moving to the hilt of her sword with an effort. “Yes, Captain Halest?”

Benjamin walked up to her, “I…I may have been…wrong about you,” he said slowly. “You’re a damn good officer, an impressive fighter, and quite possibly the bravest person I’ve ever met.” He extended his hand, “It’s been an honor to serve with you for the past few days, Captain Athney.”

Surprised, Emma shook his hand. “It’s been my honor as well, Captain Halest. May God be with you.” Turning, she hurried off back up the street.

Vladimir moved across the square to where his bodyguard waited.

Hazel saluted him wearily. “Everybody’s healed, sir.” The sergeant had found a new breastplate, and the clean, wet metal contrasted with the rest of her blood-splattered armor. Behind her, the rest of the girls were slumped against their horses or sitting on the ground.

Vladimir nodded to her and moved over to where Jillian was leaning back-to-back with Laura. He helped pull her up, and gave her a hand mounting her horse. “You ready, lass?”

She nodded and drew her longsword, “Yes sir, we’re ready as we can be.”

Vladimir patted her leg, “We’re playing rearguard again.” He laughed a little when she groaned. “Don’t worry; Natalie and the remnants of the cavalry are helping us out this time.” Turning away, he swung up into the saddle, and patted Jeremy’s neck.

Waving for the girls to follow, he trotted over to where Rebecca, Jason, and five companies of scouts filled the mouth of the street. A line of soldiers carrying stretchers and helping the walking wounded was threading its way down the center of the street.

The cavalry major saluted, “The troops are ready, sir.”

“Good.” He glanced back at the gateway, where more Zhuravi were forming up after recovering from Rose’s ball of force. “They’re already gathering again. Once Ben’s ready, I want a massed charge. Throw them back a little so we can get everybody into the street. After the first charge, pull back and let Ben’s troops do the work.”

Rebecca nodded, “Yes sir.” She waved to the scouts, and they began to file out into the square. They formed up in two lines, Jason and Clarissa’s company to the left, and the scouts from the Elite Regiment to the right.

A rider galloped out of the wall road to the right, armor dented and horse lathered. He pulled up in front of Vladimir and saluted. “Sir, Colonel Henna reports that she’s falling back to the castle. Colonel Whitaker has already retreated to the castle, and has lost the North Gate and some of the towers around it. His archers are still holding some of the towers, but they’ve had to fall back. Colonel Nichols still holds the West Gate and walls.”

Vladimir nodded, “What about Major Cantor?”

“The major still holds the central square, sir. She has four roadblocks of her own behind yours,” he reported.

“Very good. Send the major my regards and let her know we’re coming,” Vladimir ordered.

“Yes sir.” He saluted, wheeled his horse, and galloped up the street.

Vladimir looked to where Rebecca sat astride her horse. Glancing at the enemy, he drew his sword and waved it at her. She raised her lance in reply, then lowered it, put her heels to her horse’s flanks, and led the charge.

Vladimir turned at the sound of fighting to the East. “Damn it. They must have rushed around the walls once they broke through Kate. On me,” he ordered, and urged Jeremy into motion. The girls fell in behind him as he trotted over to the east stairs.

The five militia companies filled the wall road, three facing east, the other two back west towards the square. Four or five companies of Zhuravi light cavalry were engaged with them, with dozens of horses and men lying dead on the ground already. William was in the thick of it, laying about with his longsword, cutting down Zhuravi left and right.

Enemy infantry and crossbowmen were charging up the road as Vladimir watched. A few fell to arrows from the militia archers on the walls, but most of them reached the engaged infantry. Waving his sword in the air, he charged into the mass, the girls following close behind.

Hearing hooves, the militia scrambled to move out of the way. Only Jeremy’s agility allowed Vladimir to avoid trampling friendly troops. Passing the front line of militia, he crashed into a Zhuravi light cavalryman. Jeremy slammed into the man’s lighter horse, throwing it off its feet. The man tried to leap from the saddle, but Vladimir slashed out. His blade slammed into the man’s side, popping steel links and smashing through bone. The man fell heavily on top of his mount, blood pumping out of his side.

Some of the enemy infantry managed to force their way through the militia and started to ascend the stairs. Suddenly, Monique charged down the steps, Cassielle, Rayelle, Fiona, and Beatriz following her. The four women formed a line across the steps, shoulder to shoulder.

Beatriz moved out in front, and a pair of Zhuravi charged her. She kicked off the steps and sailed between them. She lashed out to the left, slamming her blade against the man’s shield. The force of her blow threw the man off the stairs. He went sailing through the air and landed in the mass of combatants below. Twirling, she slashed back at the man to her right, cleanly decapitating him.

A crossbow bolt whizzed through the air towards her. Beatriz’s sword flicked out and sliced the quarrel cleanly in two. The Guardswoman completed her spin and landed lightly on the rain-slick stairs before the split bolt clattered to the ground. Lightning ripped across the inky sky, casting its blue-white light on the scene.

24nd of Grakuary, 599
City of Ereth Chul, Menzobaria, Arbatros

Danika ducked under the awning of the shop where Sarah, Tristanne, Hilary, and Nastia were clustered. “They’re coming, Zhuravi right behind them,” she reported. The rain plastered loose strands of black hair to her forehead and cheeks.

Nastia pushed off the wall and waved for the lieutenants to follow her. Danika moved back into the house where she had two of her squads stationed.

* * *

Benjamin Halest strode over to his newly reinforced company. “Alright folks, our job is to buy General Kapov as much time as we can. As soon as Major Theska’s troops fall back, I want everyone to move into position. Company, form on me!” He bellowed.

The hundred men and women of his slightly understrength company spread out into three ranks, with Benjamin as their center. Unslinging his shield, he settled the familiar weight of oak and sheet steel onto his arm. His other hand fell to the worn hilt of the longsword at his waist, but he waited to draw the blade.

From the causeway, Benjamin heard a trumpet sound, and the scouts began to stream back through the gates. He turned to Ivo, his company mage, and Patrick McDougall, the company’s senior non-commissioned officer. “Ivo, put a wall of fire across the gate as soon the scouts get out of there,” he ordered. “Pat, have the men ready to move into the street.”

His two subordinates nodded and moved to comply. Turning back, he watched as Arbatrosian troops galloped back into the square and past his company, down the street. The first Zhuravi troops were right behind them, mostly light cavalry, but arrows and magical projectiles flashed out from the gatehouse to cut them down.

At the tail end of the scouts came Rebecca Theska, sword in hand. She pulled up in front of Benjamin. “Captain Halest, all of my troops are out,” she told him. “God be with you.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” he replied.

She nodded to him once and urged her horse up the street. Coming from the road along the wall, Vladimir and his bodyguard galloped past as well. The general saluted Benjamin as he went by. The captain returned the salute, then turned to Patrick. “Close the road, now!”

The man nodded and started bellowing orders. Benjamin peered through the rain at the advancing enemy soldiers as his company spread out across the road. Yips and howls arose from the causeway, and ice shot through his veins.

“Sounds like goblins, Ben,” Ivo commented from next to him. “Ugly little bastards. I seem to recall that they don’t like fire.”

“That they don’t,” Benjamin replied cheerfully. “Now’s a good time for that wall of fire.”

Ivo nodded and began chanting. A few moments later, just as the first goblins charged out into the square, a wall of pale blue flames sprang up before the gate. The racing goblins slammed right into it, and their shrieks of pain echoed across the square.

The commander of his heavy platoon, Caeleigh Beranson, Lord Beranson’s youngest daughter, went pale. Turning, Benjamin clapped her on the shoulder and grinned, “Just pest control, lieutenant. Goblins are nasty creatures; they’d just as soon eat you as anything else.”

“As you say, sir,” she replied.

After a few minutes stalled at Ivo’s spell, a Zhuravi caster managed to dispel it, and goblins and enemy infantry spilled out into the square. Several of the soldiers around Benjamin cursed upon their first sight of the goblins. They were short, humanoid creatures, but ugly and misshapen, with arms that hung down almost to their ankles. Their broad, flat faces sported squashed-looking noses and wide mouths full of fangs. Skin ranging in color from grey to yellow and ragged clothing covered the creatures.

Benjamin drew his sword and brought his shield up, with the rim just under his eyes. The rest of the company moved into formation, shoulder-to-shoulder, their shields forming a wall before them. As the Zhuravi came charging across the square, Benjamin whispered a prayer. “Dear God, be with me in my time of need.”

Howling with rage and glee, the goblins crashed into the Arbatrosian line. Benjamin smashed his shield into the first creature’s face, feeling bone smash under its boss. He slashed down with his sword, shattering a second one’s face. All along the line, soldiers fought with the monsters, pitting skill and discipline against shrieking fury and viciousness.

By the time the first wave of goblins had been set back on its heels, the Zhuravi troops arrived. Most of the Arbatrosians abandoned their spears for the short swords at their belts, closing ranks even more and attacking the enemy with short stabbing strokes. Behind Benjamin, Ivo was chanting continuously, fighting off the Zhuravi mages.

Patrick fought four soldiers down from Benjamin, hacking at Zhuravi soldiers with his longsword. Suddenly, a crossbow bolt flashed through the darkened sky and slammed into his throat, spraying crimson. “Shit!” Benjamin swore, and furiously attacked his opponent.

The Zhuravi soldier brought up his shield to block, and Benjamin hammered his sword down, driving the man back. Calling out for the front rank to swap out, Benjamin fell back. Down the line, two of the Arbatrosians dragged the company sergeant major back and called for the medic. The man ran over and checked Patrick’s pulse, then looked up and shook his head.

Spitting out another curse, Benjamin took the moment to rest, sucking in deep breaths of the cold moist air. All of a sudden, half the first rank crumpled, struck down by red and blue magic missiles. Benjamin leapt forward, sword and shield up as Ivo let loose with a magical barrage of his own.

A pair of goblins charged the captain, one stabbing at him with a spear, the other a crude sword. Snapping his shield out, he deflected both and snapped his blade down, laying open one from shoulder to hip. The second scrambled back, trying to fend him off. An unexpected spike of pain in his chest stopped him from following.

Abruptly, Benjamin found himself on the cold paving stones, agony lancing through him. Two of his soldiers leapt forward to protect him, while two more dragged him back. The medic crouched over him, hands probing at the wound. Benjamin hissed as fresh agony coursed through his entire body. A commotion behind the medic caught his attention, as the middle of his line collapsed, a dozen elite Zhuravi soldiers pushing through and hacking Arbatrosians down.

Caeleigh rushed into the breach, longsword in one hand, a ball of blue lightning in the other. She threw the crackling ball out ahead of her, and it broke up into half a dozen bolts, each striking a man down. Recovering, the soldiers of his company filled in beside her.

Looking up, Benjamin saw Ivo’s tall, gaunt form leaning down over him. “Ben, Josephine just sent word; the wounded are all at the square.”

“Good,” Benjamin said. He tried to wave for Caeleight over, but stopped, hissing in pain. “Caeleigh!” He called, voice weak with pain. Loosing another spell, she hurried back to kneel beside him. “Lieutenant, you’re in charge of the company. Get them out of here,” he ordered.

The young woman looked distressed, “What about you, sir? We need to get you clear first.”

“Hah!” Benjamin laughed, then coughed wetly, and felt blood flowing down his chin. “I’ve not long left, lieutenant. But I’ve a mind to take a few of them with me.” Turning to the medic, “Get me up,” he ordered.

The man shot a glance at Ivo, but the mage nodded and stepped over. Together, they helped him to his feet. His shield felt heavy on his arm, dragging him down, and he cast it aside. The close confines of his helmet weighed down on his head. Reaching up, he pulled it off and tossed it to the ground. Taking a deep breath, he called out, “Fall back, in good order! Make for the square.”

Caeleigh shot him a last glance and ran to the front of the formation, fending off Zhuravi. Ivo clasped forearms with him, then grabbed the medic and took off. Gripping his sword more tightly, Benjamin tried to ignore the shooting pain in his chest and the bubbling of his breath in his chest. His company came past him, one squad falling back while another stopped to fight.

Five Zhuravi soldiers advanced on Benjamin, swords out. The captain waited, hot and cold waves passing through him from the crossbow bolt in his chest. As the enemy soldiers closed in, he just stood there, sword held loosely at his side. Suddenly, as they came close, he sprang into action. He took out the first man before he could even move, sword going into his throat, nearly decapitating the man.

Retracting, Benjamin stabbed the next man in the knee, then again under the arm as he fell. Spinning, the world went grey around the edges for a moment, and his slash at the next man was a weak thing, easily deflected. Gritting his teeth, he started a backhand slash at the man.

Fresh agony blazed through him as a sword slammed into his side, cutting through plate, mail, and the flesh beneath. Another blow nearly severed his arm, and he stared at the vicious wound as his sword clattered to the ground, fallen from nerveless fingers. A cold spike slipped between his back and breastplate, plunging into his side.

Staggering, Benjamin fell to his knees on the wet paving stones. Blackness clawed at the edges of his vision, and he barely saw the Zhuravi soldier step in front of him. A sword glimmered for a moment in a flash of lightning, then it swept down and blackness fell.

* * *

Jillian spun Andrea, her horse, a dun Friesian, and swung back at a pursuing Zhuravi light cavalryman. Intent on another target, he didn’t even see her warhammer whistling down to crash into his chest. The blow blasted through his chain and threw him off his horse.

Next to her, Renee turned around and fired off a volley of dark purple magic missiles. Three of their pursuers dropped, holes scorched in their chests.

Ahead of the general’s bodyguard, Natalie helped Laura Thompson stumble along. The girl had a quarrel through her left leg and a sword wound to the shoulder.

Each step jarred the gash in her shoulder, and her blood flowed freely, running slick and red down her side and Natalie’s. The cavalrywoman tripped and almost fell. Natalie turned, crouched, and lifted the girl over her shoulder, grunting softly under her weight. While Laura only weighted around a hundred pounds, she wore full plate, weapons, and soaking wet padding.

Natalie could hear the approaching hooves of the mounted rearguard, and their closest pursuers. Putting her head down, she sprinted through the torrential rain towards the central square and the line of Arbatrosian soldiers.

Vladimir saw the captain ahead of him, panting under the burden of Laura’s armored body. Hearing the clatter of plate behind him, he spun in the saddle and slashed back, using the momentum of his turn to add power to his strike. The Zhuravi heavy cavalryman brought his shield up to block, and Vladimir’s sword smashed into the heavy oak shield. Wood splintered, and the outer planks cracked.

Vladimir slammed his blade into the shield again, and split it down the center, the steel crunching the man’s vambrace beneath. The enemy soldier swung his own sword at Vladimir, but he easily parried it. Their blades locked, and Vladimir nudged Jeremy right. Using his horse’s power, he forced his opponent’s blade back, then whipped the pommel of his sword into the man’s face. His opponent’s head snapped back, and Vladimir disengaged and slashed at the man’s head. With a screech of protesting steel, he sheared off the top half of the enemy soldier’s head.

Blood flying off his sword, he whipped back around and slashed across at another man. His opponent tried to parry, but didn’t get his blade up in time. Vladimir’s sword slammed into the man’s arm between his vambrace and pauldron. The steel popped links, cut flesh, and shattered bone. Vladimir’s blow nearly severed the man’s arm, and he dropped his sword to clutch at the wound.

Vladimir retracted and slashed at the man again. This time, Vladimir’s blade cleaved into the man’s shoulder, cutting deep into his chest, splintering ribs and spraying blood. Vladimir tugged at his sword, but the blade was caught on bone.

Another Zhuravi cavalryman thundered towards him, mace upraised. Suddenly, he pitched forward, scarlet spurting from his throat. His horse shied, and the corpse fell to the ground with a crash.

Vladimir looked up to the window where he thought the arrow had flown. He saw a flicker of movement and a pair of shafts dropped amongst the pursuers.

Glancing back, Vladimir saw a platoon of Zhuravi heavy cavalry bearing down on him. He touched his knees to Jeremy’s flanks, urging the magical Percheron to go faster. The enemy closed despite the exhausted horse’s best efforts, and Vladimir felt a twinge of worry from Jeremy. A pair of lances reached out for his back, their steel tips glinting in the darkness.

Abruptly, their horses shied away from the foot-long steel heads of the Arbatrosian spears. One of the horses right behind Vladimir veered so violently that it threw its rider into the thicket of spears and still managed to impale its flank. The other planted its front hooves and pitched its rider right over its head.

Jeremy pushed down with his powerful hind legs, soaring into the air. He easily cleared the first three ranks of spear-wielders. He landed with a clatter in a hastily cleared spot behind the third rank. Vladimir urged him through the rest of the infantry, then wheeled around in time to see his pursuers crash into the phalanx.

The few survivors turned and spurred their horses back up the street. Arrows leapt out from the archers behind the mass of infantry in the street and from the houses to either side.

Looking down the street, he saw a solid mass of enemy infantry advancing towards them. However, they were still a ways off, and he urged Jeremy to the middle of the square. Spotting Josephine once again at the base of the statue, he urged Jeremy in that direction.

Pulling up next to her, he leaned down from the saddle. “Do you have a count yet?”

She shook her head, “No sir.” She motioned at the soldiers running around the square, moving wounded into buildings, fortifying the streets, and reinforcing the defenses. “I don’t even know which units we’ve got, let alone how many troops are left.” She frowned, “Speaking of who we’ve got, do you know where William is?”

He nodded, “I think he was with the militia on the east side of the gate.” Frowning, “He hasn’t made it here?”

“No, sir. I haven’t seen him.”

He reached out and touched her shoulder, “Alright. Just see if you can get all the captains here together in ten minutes or so.”

“Yes sir. I’ll send out runners now.” She saluted and turned to start bellowing at the troops near her.

Vladimir wheeled Jeremy and went in search of his bodyguard. Trotting over towards the inn where the medics had set up, he spotted Jillian’s dark red braid. She turned when he called her name, and wait for him to join her. “What’s going on, lass?”

“Laura, Sandra, and Hazel needed to see the medics.”

“Where are Steph and Renee?” He asked.

Jill pointed to another of the structures off the square. “They’re getting some food.”

“Have you had anything yet?”

“No, I’m fine.”

He glanced at her sharply, then nodded, “Alright. Get everybody together in fifteen minutes. I need to set up a command post somewhere.”

“Got it, sir,” she braced to attention and hurried off.

Glancing back, she saw a rider gallop up to the general. They talked for a few moments, then the rider dashed off again.

A few minutes later, ten captains and several lieutenants from his regiment, a dozen captains and five lieutenants from the Elite Regiment, seven captains and four lieutenants from the Reserve Regiment, Danielle, and Kristen gathered around Vladimir.

He looked around at the drenched and blood-splattered officers. “Alright folks, here’s the situation. The Zhuravi have overrun the North, East, and now South Gates. Up north, around the castle, Colonels Whitaker and Henna are holding that part of the city. To the west, Colonel Nichols still holds the West Gate and both barbicans.

“The plan is for us to hold this square, collecting any troops from the south half of the city. If Colonel Nichols is forced to retreat, we’ll support her. We’re working on establishing a line of communication and supply through to the castle, but until then we’ll on our own.”

He turned to Danielle, “How many companies of militia do you have?”

“I’ve got the thirty you gave me to begin with. Plus roughly another fifty infantry and twenty-two archer companies have fallen back here from the East Gate,” she reported.

“Alright. Get them to the streets as soon as you can. Concentrate on the southern and eastern approaches. Lord Voln reports he has them pretty well occupied up north.” He turned to Grace. “Your Highness, if you could send your troops out to scout and assess the condition of the forces nearer to the south wall, that would be appreciated.”

She nodded, “Of course General Kapov. Do you want them to scout the gate?”

“Only if it’s not too risky. Tell them to try not to get majorly engaged.”

“Will do.” She frowned, “Is there any support force ready?”

“Not right now.” He glanced over at Natalie, “I’m going to have Natalie put one together. They should be ready by the time your troops get close.”

She nodded and moved off to see to her troops.

“The rest of you, I’d like a count of your troops from each of you as soon as you can. Give them to Sergeant Major Herth once you have them.”

A chorus of yes sirs and nods answered him.

“Very good, see to your troops,” he dismissed them. “Lieutenant Beranson, a moment please,” he called.

A slender young woman in Mithral full plate turned, “Yes sir?”

“You’re the most senior remaining member of Captain Halest’s company. Take charge of the survivors and give me a count of their numbers,” he commanded.

“Yes sir, I will,” she saluted and hurried off through the rain.

Natalie lingered, “What sort of people do you want for this response force, sir?”

“Some of yours and Emma’s. Grab Lieutenant Bergman and perhaps Lieutenant Beranson. Maybe a few archers from the Elite or Reserve Regiments or the militia. Get at least one hundred for now, two hundred by dawn.”

“Very good, sir,” she nodded and followed Lieutenant Beranson.

He turned to find Jill at his elbow. “Is everybody ready, lass?” When she nodded, he turned and moved towards one of the unoccupied buildings. Rain pelted down from black skies and flashes of lightning shed a stark light on the square.

Copyright © Scott Schaper, 2012

List of Characters

The King’s Guard
Beatriz Danelli-Age 28
Allison Reed-Age 29

The House of Voln
Lord Wulfgar Voln-Age 56
Lady Jessica Voln-Age 54
Alexa Voln-Age 28
Alexis Voln-Age 25
Allison Voln-Age 22
Alexandra Voln-Age 19

Colonel Richter Turek-Age 56- Commander of Lord Voln’s personal guard
Lieutenant Richard Turek-Age 22- Lieutenant in Lord Voln’s personal guard
Sir Viktor Kapov-Age 63- Battle-master
Peter Yunvi-Age 46- Castle cook

The King’s Own Legion

General Alexa Voln-Age 28
Archmage Allasra Winters-Age 26
Legion Sergeant Major Josephine Herth-Age 27

First Regiment
Colonel Vladimir Kapov-Age 36
Victoria-Age 25
Regimental Sergeant Major William Morell-Age 56

Regimental Bodyguard
Sergeant Hazel Riss-Age 17
Corporal Rayelle Harper-Age 16
Private Laura Thompson-Age 14
Private Stephanie Allen-Age 14
Private Jillian Olsen-Age 15
Sergeant Cassandra Roseti-Age 17
Corporal Fiona Perez-Age 15
Renee Owen-Age 15

Command Staff
Lieutenant Colonel Kristen Grendel-Age 28
Major Danielle Cantor-Age 21
Major Jessail Kilkel-Age 28
Major Rebecca Theska-Age 29

First Company
Captain Natalie Sanchez-Age 26
Rose-Age 23
Company Sergeant Major Franchesca Rivers-Age 24

Lieutenant Monique Oleron-Age 21
Lieutenant Melissa Turgon-Age 22
Lieutenant Nichole McIntyre-Age 25

Second Company
Captain Emma Athney-Age 20
Rachel Hawk-Age 19
Company Sergeant Major Anastasia Romanof-Age 16

Lieutenant Sarah Drommed-Age 19
Lieutenant Tristanne Bergman-Age 23
Lieutenant Hilary Paulis-Age 16

Third Company
Captain Victor Marsters-Age 45
Ginerva Marks-Age 33

Third Company
Captain Alisa Kapov-Age 23
Ginerva Marks-Age 33

Fourth Company
Captain Justin Pierce-Age 29
Jenny Gilbert-Age 26

Lieutenant Demetri Kallov-Age 26

Fifth Company
Captain Vincent Hogan-Age 41
Nesheram-Age 41

Sixth Company
Captain Clarissa Walford-Age 28
Tamara-Age 28

Sergeant Cynthia Evans-Age 16

Seventh Company
Captain Hannah Rockwell-Age 23
Verity-Age 21

Eighth Company
Captain Benjamin Halest-Age 43
Ivo-Age 39
Company Sergeant Major Patrick McDougall-Age 40

Lieutenant Caeleigh Beranson-Age 17

Ninth Company
Captain Annabelle Diego-Age 22
Arkana-Age 21

Tenth Company
Captain Juliet Morell-Age 28
Devin Serget-Age 25

Twelfth Company
Captain Michelle Ford-Age 28
Elly Patricks-Age 26

Thirteenth Company
Captain Jenna Miskovitz-Age 20
Evelyn Graham-Age 20

Eighteenth Company
Captain Glenvara Lake-Age 24
Daphne-Age 20

Regimental Scout Company
Captain Jason Thompson-Age 32
Octavia-Age 29
Company Sergeant Major Christine Mede-Age 27

Sergeant James Black-Age 17
Corporal Grigori Kulikov-Age 23
Private Daniel Fitzpatrick-Age 16

Regimental Cavalry Company
Captain Elizabeth Martin-Age 32
Ariana-Age 23

Second Reigmental Ranger Company
Captain Kristine Douglas-Age 23
Willa Rowan-Age 19

Lieutenant Petra Michelli-Age 22

Regimental Medical Unit
First Lieutenant Cassielle Archalus-Age 15

Second Company, Menzobarian Rangers
Captain Grace Azvar-Age 17
Emily Athney-Age 18
Company Sergeant Major Alexandra Voln-Age 19

Lieutenant Danika Hughes-Age 16

Elite Legions

First Regiment
Colonel Kate Henna-Age 23
Raquel Moore-Age 21

Standard Legions

Fourth Regiment, First Legion
Colonel Robert Whitaker-Age 48
Garis-Age 45

First Regiment, Second Legion
Colonel Elaine Nichols-Age 31
Tiffany Brinson-Age 24


Eighty-ninth Elite Reserve Regiment
Colonel Charles DuHavel-Age 62

"Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction." - Ronald Reagan
"Judge them not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." - Martin Luther King, Jr.
"Pick up a rifle and you change instantly from a subject to a citizen." - Jeff Cooper
"I like my enemies like James Bond likes his martinis- shaken, not stirred."
My first book, The King's Own
posted 10 November 2014 09:54 EDT (US)     45 / 54  
A whole lot of blood spilled, and not all of it the enemies.

Well-written. Cofusing in some places, but combat is a confusing place and the confusion fit right in. Again, well done. I really like the way you mix magic with traditional medieval weaponry- make s it come alive.

An excellent update!

|||||||||||||||| A transplanted Viking, born a millennium too late. |||||||||||||||||
|||||||||||||||| Too many Awards to list in Signature, sorry lords...|||||||||||||||||
|||||||||||||||| Listed on my page for your convenience and envy.|||||||||||||||||
Somewhere over the EXCO Rainbow
Master Skald, Order of the Silver Quill, Guild of the Skalds
Champion of the Sepia Joust- Joust I, II, IV, VI, VII, VIII
posted 16 November 2014 01:45 EDT (US)     46 / 54  
Giant Brigade

24nd of Grakuary, 599
City of Ereth Chul, Menzobaria, Arbatros

Danika eased along the slick stone wall, the cold seeping through her ring mail and sodden padding. She stepped to the corner of the building and peered around it slowly, surveying the street. Seeing nothing, she glanced across the alley at Melissa Lindt, her second. The platoon sergeant shook her head. Danika motioned for Tristanne and Renee to move across the street.

They dashed across the street, darting from shadow to shadow. The two took up covering positions in the opposite alley. Danika and Melissa rushed out into the street, feet making barely a sound.

Suddenly, she heard a click. Leaping forward, she threw herself on top of Melissa, bearing the other young woman to the ground. Instead of hitting Melissa in the side, the quarrel hit Danika in the shoulder.

The bolt punched through her pauldron and slammed into her flesh. The force of the hit threw her sideways onto the paving stones, where she lay, stunned. Melissa landed on her hands and knees next to her.

Tristanne stepped out of the alley, brought up her longbow, and let fly to the right, up the street. They heard a shout, and an enemy crossbowman pitched out of a window. Renee stepped out into the street as well, wand in hand. She loosed a bolt of lightning into the house in question, then waved to Danika and Melissa.

The platoon sergeant helped Danika to her feet and half-supported half-dragged her into the alley. From down the street, they heard shouts and sounds of alarm. Danika sagged against a building’s wall and cursed. “Now we’ve done it. We need to get to the wall before too many of them get here.”

Tristanne nodded, “Can you walk?”

Danika shrugged and bit back a scream as the motion shifted the bolt in her shoulder. “I think so,” she said tightly.

Renee moved over to her, “I’ll help you.” She put her arm under the lieutenant’s left shoulder and pulled her to her feet.

Melissa moved out ahead of them while Tristanne brought up the rear. Every couple steps, she turned back and swept her loaded bow across the alley. They made it across another two streets, and Tristanne loosed a couple arrows at their pursuers. Half-a-dozen bolts answered her, but none of them found a mark.

Abruptly, a dozen spearmen appeared in the alley in front of them. Melissa brought up her bow and snapped off three shots in quick succession. One Zhuravi dropped with an arrow through his throat, another with one in his chest. The last arrow slammed into a third man’s shield.

Renee and Danika stopped. The ranger reached back for an arrow. The motion made the bolt shift in her shoulder, and she cried out in pain. Bringing the shaft down, she drew back and fired. Lances of pain shot through her shoulder and arm, but she gritted her teeth and reached for a second.

Behind her, Tristanne loosed arrows in rapid succession. Screams, shouts, and crashes echoed up the alley.

Renee barked a word and threw a fireball up the alley. A man in the group in the street gestured sharply into the air, and it disappeared.

Danika went for another arrow, and she felt slick blood running down her arm as she nocked and drew. Peering through the sheets of rain, she aimed for the enemy wizard. Accounting for the blowing wind and range, she loosed.

The shaft flew true, speeding out to slam into the man’s chest. He staggered back a step, but seemed unhurt.

Cursing, Danika reached for her next arrow, but her shoulder sent pain shooting along her arm, and it cramped and froze. Her fingertips barely brushed against the black dyed goose feather fletching of her arrow. Straining, she tried to reach for the arrow.

In front of her, the Zhuravi mage raised his hands to cast. A dozen crossbow bolts shot out from the enemy unit. Danika watched as two hit Melissa in the chest and stomach. Her slender form flew backwards, the one in her stomach sticking out her back.

Next to Danika, a bolt slammed into Renee’s chest. The quarrel cut through her light leather and mesh armor like it wasn’t there. Blood sprayed up and the impact spun her around.

Behind the ranger, she heard three bolts skip off Tristanne’s armor. She could imagine the bright gouges the steel heads would make across the other lieutenant’s dull adamantine scale mail or already bright Mithral pauldrons and vambraces.

Gritting her teeth, Danika forced her arm back another two inches. She could feel hot blood streaming down her side, and she felt a little dizzy. Her fingers closed around the arrow’s fletching, and she whipped it out of her quiver. Bringing it to her bow, she strained to pull it back.

A pair of crossbows clicked, and a bolt slammed into her left shoulder. The barbed steel head pierced her pauldron, cut into her flesh, and shattered bone. Waves of agony shot through her. Danika dropped her bow and staggered backwards.

The Zhuravi advanced up the street, spears extended ahead of them. Danika dropped to her knees, then toppled over onto her side. The jolt of hitting the ground almost made her pass out. Behind her, she heard Tristanne draw her sword and unlimber her shield.

Glancing up through the pouring rain, Danika saw a dark figure running along the top of the house across the alley. She frowned, but her pain-clouded mind couldn’t make sense of what she was seeing.

Danika heard the clash of steel behind her as Tristanne engaged the enemy. She lay on the ground, unable to move as she heard spears strike armor and push through to flesh beneath. She struggled to rise when she heard the other lieutenant cry out in pain and fall to the ground beside her.

For all her exertions, all Danika managed to do was turn herself onto her back. Twisting her head around, she saw Tristanne lying next to her. Blood ran out of a grievous wound through the side of her throat. More scarlet pooled around her and ran in the rain from a dozen more spear thrusts.

A Zhuravi soldier loomed over her, spear poised above her chest. Suddenly, he vomited blood and slumped forward onto her, the spear falling from his grasp.

Monique wrenched her blade out of the corpse and leaned down over Danika. Rolling the body aside, she spotted the two quarrels sprouting from the ranger’s body. “Damn it Little Dani, still a bolt magnet?” She asked with a grin.

Danika managed a weak smile, “I guess so, Moni.”

Cassielle ran up beside the infantry lieutenant. “Who’s hurt the worst?”

With a colossal effort, Danika managed to jerk her head in Tristanne’s direction.

Cassielle move over to her and slit the lacings on her adamantine scale mail. Pulling off the wrecked armor, she noticed the gash across Tristanne’s throat. Reaching into herself, the medic pressed her hands to the wound. Golden light flared up and the cut sealed together. Cassielle pulled off the lieutenant’s padding and shirt, then worked her way down her body, healing wounds as she came across them.

The medic moved on to Renee. Drawing her dagger again, she cut off the barbed head of the quarrel sticking out her back. More blood welled up, but she managed to get it out without tearing any flesh. Whispering a word, she pressed her hands to the mage’s chest. Golden light ran across the wound and into her chest, and Monique could see a hint of it from under Renee’s body.

Tristanne stirred and sat up slowly. Immediately, she reached for her sword and tried to rise. She staggered and Monique reached out and took her arm.

“Easy there Tris. You’re not indestructible,” she said, looking concerned.

“Like hell I’m not.” She shrugged off Monique’s hand irritably and reached down for her bow.

Cassielle finished with Melissa then leaned over Danika. The medic pulled off both her pauldrons. Danika winced when one of them pushed against the bolt in her left shoulder. Cassielle cut the quarrel out of her left shoulder, her dagger a hot pain in contrast to the icy rain running down her face. The medic pressed her hand against the wound and whispered a few words. Pain shot through Danika as the bones in her shoulder knit back together. She bit her lip until she tasted blood, but it was over quickly.

Cassielle rolled the girl up onto her side to get to her other shoulder. She gently felt around the wound and across Danika’s shoulder. When she touched the back of her shoulder, the ranger let out a little cry of pain. It seemed to Cassielle that the bolt had pierced her upper arm and traveled back into her shoulder blade, cracking it.

Cassielle frowned and looked down at Danika, concerned. “It’s most of the way through your shoulder. I can either push it out your back or pull it back out.”

“Is the shoulder blade broken?” Danika asked.

Cassielle probed her shoulder. “I think so. I’ll break it further if I push it through.”

Monique crouched beside her and shook her head. “It’s impressive how well you manage to mess yourself up. Did you keep shooting after you got shot?”

Danika grinned, “Of course I did. What the hell else was I supposed to do? Stand there and take it?” Looking at Cassielle, “Put it through. It might rip something on the way out.”

The medic nodded and began to push on the quarrel. Danika reached out with her good hand and grabbed Monique’s hand. She gritted her teeth against the pain, then screamed as the steel tip scraped its way through her shoulder blade. Monique pulled out her dagger and put it between Danika’s teeth. The ranger lieutenant bit down on it, muffling her next scream.

A young-looking cavalrywoman abruptly appeared next to Monique. She looked over at Cassielle, “You might want to hurry it up a little Cassie. Beatriz says there’s more coming, and she won’t be able to hold them forever.”

The medic nodded curtly, “Got it Ray. Help Renee and the ranger. We’ll need to move once I finish with Danika.” While she talked, Cassielle continued to apply pressure to the bolt, forcing it through her fractured shoulder blade.

The cavalrywoman moved over to Melissa and helped her to her feet. Suddenly, Danika heard the sounds of combat at the end of the alley. Cassielle’s head snapped up, and she stopped pushing.

A young ranger ran down the alley towards them. “Beatriz says she’ll hold them for a few moments, but we need to move now.”

Cassielle cursed vehemently, but nodded. Looking down at Danika, she frowned, “I’m not going to be able to get it out. We’ll have to move you with it still in, then get it out later.”

Danika gave a tight nod, “Alright. Just bandage me up so I don’t bleed out before you can heal me.”

“Of course.” Cassielle shrugged off the little pack she carried.

The other ranger moved past her and held out a ring, “I can do better. Just put this on.”

Rayelle glanced over at her sharply. “What if you need it, Fiona?”

Fiona looked down at Danika. She could see that the ranger lieutenant’s face was quite pale and her shoulder and side were caked with blood. She pressed her ring into the other woman’s hand. “There’s only a chance I’ll need it. She’ll die for sure if I don’t give it to her, Ray.”

The cavalrywoman nodded unhappily and motioned tersely for Danika to take the ring. She took the simple black steel band and slipped it onto the ring finger of her right hand. The ring was ice-cold and a little loose when she first put it on, but it quickly warmed and seemed to tighten slightly.

Monique bent down and hauled her to her feet. Fiona picked up her bow and passed it to the infantry lieutenant. Monique unstrung it and helped Danika stow it across her back.

The sounds of fighting at the alley’s mouth intensified. There was a sudden splash of blackness and Beatriz came running down the alley towards them. “We’ve got to go,” she said crisply. “Follow me,” she commanded and moved into an intersecting alleyway.

Tristanne, Melissa, and Renee hurried after her. Monique supported Danika, helping the ranger to stagger after them. Fiona, Rayelle, and Cassielle brought up the rear. Cassielle drew her long-handled sword off her back.

Rayelle glanced down at the sword’s grip. “I guess we know why you favor blood red now,” she remarked, seeing the blood on the medic’s hands soak into the sword’s leather-wrapped grip.

“Actually, it’s not about the blood,” Cassielle replied. “Although it does help with that.”

“Then why?” Fiona asked.

The medic laughed lightly. “It’s one of the colors of my family’s house. Our coat-of-arms are a lance and sword, crossed over a cross, in Or on a Sanguine field.”

Rayelle frowned, “I’m not very good with heraldry. That’s gold on blood red?”

Cassielle grinned at her, “I guess that’s the only thing you’re not good at, then. And yes, it’s gold on blood red.”

Every other step, the three girls turned to check the alley behind them, Rayelle and Fiona with arrows at the ready.

Fiona looked at Cassielle’s sword hilt. “So why not gold wire?”

The young noblewoman medic shook her head. “A sword is supposed to be for fighting, and I think gold’s too weak.”

“No it’s not,” Tristanne said from in front of them. She waved a hand at her sword hilt, and they saw that it was wrapped in cream leather and gold wire.

Cassielle frowned, “I like the feel of steel better.”

Beatriz glanced back at them, “To each their own, girls.”

The four looked up at the Guardswoman’s weapons. All of their hilts were bound with cream leather and black wire. Cassielle thought it looked like blued steel.

The party continued to hurry down the alley, making several more turns. Beatriz confidently led the way, never pausing to check her direction.

Checking their tail, Cassielle, Fiona, and Rayelle didn’t see any followers. After the first few turns, even the sounds of pursuit went away, leaving only the steady rattling of rain off slate roofs and paving stones punctuated by the occasional hiss of lightning and crack of thunder.

After well over a dozen blocks, Beatriz called a halt. Moving to a building’s side door, she pulled out a set of lock picks and opened the door. She motioned for the rest of them to enter and followed them in. Quickly closing and barring the door behind her, she leaned against the solid wooden portal.

Tristanne, the first into the room let out a muffled curse when she slammed her greave-clad shin into a piece of furniture.

“Oh, sorry about that,” Beatriz said. A pale off-white ball of light sprang into the air, illuminating a small room with a table surrounded by half-a-dozen chairs and a fireplace in the wall opposite the door.

Monique lowered Danika onto the table and leaned over her. Cassielle moved up beside her, sheathing her sword.

Beatriz quickly took charge, ordering Fiona and Rayelle to check the rest of the building. “Front door’s that way.” She pointed, “The main room has a few windows, but they should be shuttered.” Turning to the rest of them, “Tris, Melissa, check the second floor. There should be a couple windows in a front room upstairs that’ll give you a good field of fire on the street.” She grabbed a pair of torches from a basket beside the door, lighting them with a word.

The four nodded and hurried off through the building. Danika looked up from where she lay, taking in the room’s well-used, functional furnishings and simple décor. She glanced over to where Beatriz had sat down in one of the chairs, grabbing another to put her feet on. “I take it you know this place, ma’am?”

Beatriz laughed lightly, “Let’s put it this way, lass. I spend most of my childhood years in this inn. I know every inch of it and all of the city around it. We’re about seven blocks from the gatehouse here.” She glanced over at Danika, “I assume Vladimir sent you to scout the gate?”

“Yes ma’am.” She frowned, “Why were you out here?”

“We’re scouting out the enemy forces and harrying them when possible,” she said.

“Which happens to be a lot more often when you’ve got a member of the Guard along,” Cassielle remarked. “Now, why don’t I get this quarrel out of you and heal you up before we share reports?”

Shifting a little, Danika winced. “Sounds like a good idea.”

The petite medic leaned over and began pushing on the bolt again. Monique gave the ranger her dagger and hand again, helping to muffle her screams. Blood poured out of her shoulder around the tip of the quarrel, splashing onto the table and dripping down to the floor.

Suddenly, Beatriz jerked upright and leapt from her chair. She whipped the short sword off her belt and dashed out of the room.

The three and Renee froze. From upstairs, they heard a thump, a muffled shout, and the sound of steel on steel. Then all fell quiet.

They waited, ears straining to make out any sound. Then, faintly, they heard something scraping down the stairs. Cassielle drew both of her longknives and stepped back from the table. Monique snapped out her short sword. Renee fell back behind the two and raised her hands to cast. Danika unsheathed her left longknife.

A figure appeared in the doorway. They tensed, then relaxed when Beatriz stepped into the room. She had a mostly naked young woman in her arms. Blood coated much of the woman’s pale skin and matted her long brown hair. Tristanne followed the Guardswoman in, bloody sword in hand.

Beatriz set the woman down in one of the chairs, and Tristanne quickly wrapped her in a cloak. The woman’s hair fell away from her face as she limply slumped in the chair. Renee let out a shocked gasp and rushed over to her, “Petra?” Looking up at Beatriz, “What happened to her?”

The Guardswoman looked over at Tristanne. “I was wondering that myself.”

The lieutenant looked down. Speaking to the floor, “There were three of them. They had her on the bed when I came in. One of them had already used her, and the second was taking his turn.”

“At which point you proceeded to kill all three in the space of two seconds,” Beatriz commented, tone slightly sharp.

Tristanne glanced up at the Guardswoman, face tight. Glaring at her, she spat, “If you think that I was going to let that filthy bastard rape her for a moment longer-”

“I didn’t say that,” Beatriz cut her off. “I was merely commenting upon the speed with which you dispatched them. Which is a good thing, considering that there are surely more of them about. One scream and we’d have a score of the bastards on us.” She grinned evilly, “Not that a score of them would end up as anything but more corpses on the street, but then we’d have to move again.” Glancing over at where Cassielle was looking at Renee and Petra. “Cassielle, finish up with Danika, then take a look at Petra.”

The medic shook herself, nodded, and turned back to where the ranger lay on the table. Grasping the bolt firmly, she renewed her efforts to push the bolt’s tip out of the girl’s shoulder.

Danika let out a muffled scream around Monique’s dagger in her mouth. Her hand tightened around Monique’s, and the infantry lieutenant felt the bones in her hand grinding together.

Finally, the bolt tip burst through her flesh in a spray of blood. Cassielle forced the quarrel out another few inches, then reached down and grabbed the barbed steel tip. Grunting, she tried to snap it off, but only succeeded in jerking it around in Danika’s shoulder. The ranger bit off a curse.

Cassielle started to reach for the quarrel again, but a hand on her arm stopped her. Beatriz slipped her hand down Danika’s back and grabbed ahold of the bolt. Twisting her wrist, she neatly snapped the tip off. Stepping back, she grinned at Cassielle, dropped the bolt tip on the table, and flicked some of the blood off her fingers.

Sitting back down, she motioned for Tristanne to join her. The lieutenant moved slowly, seeming a little apprehensive. Beatriz hooked a chair with her foot and brought it next to her.

Tristanne sat on the edge of her chair, facing the Guardswoman. “I’m sorry I snapped at you like that, ma’am.”

Beatriz reached out and rested her hand on the younger woman’s neck. “Don’t worry about it, lass. I probably would have done something similar in your place. Although I might have left one of them alive, so we could find out if someone was expecting them.”

Tristanne hung her head, but Beatriz took her head in both hands and leaned her forehead against the lieutenant’s. “You’re not the only girl who’s ever been raped, Tristanne. I know what it’s like to see it happening to someone else.”

The young woman looked up sharply, her eyes boring into Beatriz’s. “You were raped, ma’am?”

Beatriz nodded, “Yes, I was. Several times, many years ago.” For a moment, she seemed to be looking at something other than Tristanne. “Pray that you never have to stand by and watch while someone rapes a friend,” she said. Then her eyes refocused, and she smiled a little. “You did well with those bastards.” Stroking Tristanne’s neck, she stood, bringing the lieutenant with her. “Why don’t you go back up and keep Melissa company. I’ll take care of Petra.”

Tristanne nodded, “Yes ma’am.” Taking a step back, she braced to attention and left the room.

Across the room, Cassielle had removed the bolt and now was whispering a healing spell. Danika’s shoulder knit together, leaving a large white dot of a scar on her back and another on her shoulder. She sat up and swung her legs off the table. Hopping to the ground, she expected to stumble, but only swayed a little. Monique kept her hold on the ranger’s hand to steady her.

Danika passed her dagger back, “Thanks for that. I’m afraid there may be teeth marks in the leather.”

Monique grinned, “It’ll give it character.” She helped Danika over to a chair and sat down next to her.

Renee had stayed next to Petra while Cassielle tended to Danika, and now she tried to move the ranger lieutenant over to the table. Beatriz rushed over and helped lift Petra onto the table.

Cassielle healed a few of the young woman’s wounds. Stepping back after mending a large gash across Petra’s side, Cassielle staggered a little, then collapsed.

Beatriz’s hand shot out, catching the medic by the arm. Grabbing her more securely, she easily carried her over to a chair. Danika and Monique looked concerned and Renee gasped. “What’s wrong with her?” The mage asked.

Beatriz pushed a strand of hair off the medic’s face. “She’s just overdone it, magic-wise, and hasn’t gotten enough rest to restore her reserves.” Looking down at Cassielle, “She just needs a few hours of rest and she’ll be as good as new.”

Renee looked almost frantic, “Who’s going to heal Lieutenant Michelli?”

Beatriz almost smiled, “I’ll take care of her.”

All three young women looked surprised. Monique spoke up, “You can use healing magic?”

“I’m a ranger who was trained in the healing arts.” She looked over at Danika, “I assume you were trained in a more martial ranger program, without any focus on divine magics?”

The ranger nodded, “I was. I know some rangers who can do healing, but I didn’t realize you were a ranger, ma’am.”

Moving over to Petra, Beatriz looked a little puzzled. “I guess someone trained purely as a fighter could do most of the things I do.” She glanced over at Danika, “However, I use a bow with some degree of skill.”

“I know that a lot of the archers aren’t rangers,” Danika pointed out.

“Granted, but what about the stealth and acrobatics?” She whispered a short incantation to heal a cut along Petra’s leg. Grinning, “How many people do you know that can run along a gutter in the pouring rain in the middle of the night?”

“Wait a second; that was you on the roof?” Danika was shocked.

“Of course it was me.” Beatriz laughed, “Who did you think it was?”

Danika shook her head, “I thought I was seeing things. After all, I’d taken two quarrels by that point.”

“Indeed.” She looked over at Danika, “You’re a tough girl, lass. Most people wouldn’t have kept going after taking the first one, let alone try to keep fighting after taking a second.”

Danika started to reply, but Petra let out a groan and tried to sit up. Beatriz pressed the young woman back onto the table with one hand. “Lass, you’ve been hurt pretty badly. And the bastards who captured you weren’t particularly worried about healing you while they raped you.” The Guardswoman spoke softly, but in a matter-of-fact tone.

Petra paled and her hands immediately went to her chest. Realizing that she didn’t have any clothes on, she blushed and crossed her arms over her breasts.

Beatriz grinned a little, “Don’t worry lass, we’re all women here. You’re not showing us anything we haven’t seen before.”

“Not that we don’t appreciate the view.”

They turned to see Cassielle sitting up, looking a little pale.

Beatriz shook her head, “I’m sure that makes her feel oh so much more comfortable, lass.”

“Sorry Petra,” Cassielle apologized. Grabbing Petra’s cloak from the chair beside her, she tossed it to the ranger.

Petra quickly wrapped herself in the cloak. “Where are my weapons?”

“I don’t know. Renee, could you go see if there’s anything upstairs.”

The mage nodded and trotted off.

Beatriz turned back to Petra, “What happened, lass?”

“Jenna’s been having us harry the Zhuravi around the gate since you left. I was leading a squad back when we got ambushed. Half the squad went down in the first few volleys, then the infantry closed. I took more than a few of them with me, but I eventually got swarmed.” She frowned, “Last thing I remember was someone stabbing me in the stomach. Then I passed out.”

Beatriz turned to Danika, “You feel up to reporting now, lass?”

She sat up a little from where she had been leaning against Monique, “Yes ma’am. The general sent us out to scout the area around the gate. He wanted to see how you guys were doing.”

Beatriz grinned, “And I thought to do the same. When I left, Victoria still had control of the gatehouse and both stairs. William and Jenna are in command of their defense. Victoria’s trying to keep as many Zhuravi out of the city as she can, but they’ve taken out much of the artillery around the gate and the archers are starting to run low on ammo.”

Danika nodded, “The general’s working on getting more out to them.”

Monique looked thoughtful, “How many of them do you think we killed, at the gate?”

Beatriz frowned, “I’m not sure, really. I’d estimate their losses at several thousand, maybe fifteen or twenty. We’ve lost four or five thousand in return, though.”

Renee came back into the room, a pile of weapons and armor in her arms. “I found these upstairs. Your mail is pretty much wrecked, but I took the chain off one of the Zhuravi. It should fit, and there’s not too much blood on it.” She passed Petra her clothes and armor. “I couldn’t find your sword or bow, but the rest of it’s here.”

“Thanks Renee.” Petra pulled on her clothes and armor, then held up the chain mail. “This seems a bit heavy for me.” She glanced over at Danika, “What do you think?”

“I guess that depends upon how much you value movement over protection.” The younger ranger scrutinized Petra. “Your armor probably isn’t worth much at this point.”

Suddenly, Fiona came rushing into the room. “There’re ten Zhuravi out front.”

Beatriz sprang to her feet, blade in hand. “Are they checking buildings?”

The ranger nodded, “They’re looking around. I don’t think they knew which building their friends went into. Or maybe they’re just looting.”

“Let’s hope.” She waved for the rest of them to follow and moved into the front room. She put her back against the wall next to one of the windows and peered through a slit in the shutter.

It was still dark outside, but had begun to lighten a little with the coming dawn. Black clouds covered the sky and continued to drench the city in a steady heavy downpour. The rainwater ran off the crest of the street into gutters overflowing with murky water.

Beatriz saw the forms of ten Zhuravi soldiers. Their bodies showed up in shades of red and white behind their distinctive round shields. With her infrared vision, they stood out brightly against the cold, rain-soaked stone blocks of the houses.

Beatriz glanced over at Renee. “Lass, can you cast a silence spell around the door, once they come in?” She asked in a whisper.

She nodded and tensed, hands moving into casting position.

They waited, trying to still their breathing as much as possible, ears straining to make out any sound over the drumming of the rain. A sudden step on the front porch made everyone grip her weapon tighter.

“Hey, this one looks like it might be a tavern or something,” one of the Zhuravi soldiers outside said.

“Think they’ll have any ale? The rest of these places were empty,” another complained.

“Let’s take a look,” a third said. A booted foot slammed into the door, throwing it open to bang against the wall.

Beatriz said, “Now,” very distinctly, Renee spoke a word, and suddenly complete silence fell on the room. Beatriz, Monique, and Rayelle charged in amongst them. The Guardswoman’s sword flicked left and right, decapitating the first man and nearly cutting the top of the second man’s body off.

Monique shield-bashed the third man, then slashed him across the stomach, her blade parting chainmail as if it were cloth. Rayelle slashed down, two-handed, shearing through the next man’s pauldron and into his shoulder. Planting her foot on his falling corpse, she wrenched her blade free in a spray of blood.

Behind them, Danika saw another enemy soldier’s mouth open to shout, but no sound came out. Reaching for an arrow, she was pleased with the way her shoulder had healed. Drawing, she loosed on the man, her shaft taking him through the throat above the gorget. The slender steel bodkin punched through his soft flesh. It continued out the other side to slash a bloody line across the jaw of the man behind him.

Beatriz lashed out with a mailed fist, connecting with a Zhuravi soldier’s chest. Chain links flattened and ground into the man’s chest, and bone shattered. He flew backwards, knocking down one of the other soldiers. Her twirling sword glistened scarlet as lightning flashed above them and buried itself in the falling man’s chest.

Monique squared off against the next man, parrying a slash at her head. Rayelle spun, cutting across at chest level. Her blade slammed into the next man’s shield in a silent crash. He reeled back. She reversed and hacked at his side. Her sword snapped mail and chopped into his flesh. Blood flew out. He crumpled forward over the wound. She whipped her sword back and finished him with a blow to the head.

Beatriz charged forward after the last man as he fled down the street. She stabbed down, sticking her sword through the throat of the man she had knocked down as she passed. Suddenly, sound returned to world and Beatriz realized she’d passed out of the silence spell. Ahead, she saw the final member of the Zhuravi squad.

He had a substantial head start, and was already half-way down the street. She sprinted after him. She heard a whistle above her head, and an arrow slammed into his thigh. He stumbled and began to fall. Skidding to a stop, she caught him around the neck and stabbed him in the back. The tip of her sword burst out just below his ribs, glistening with blood. Sliding her sword out, she lowered him gently to the ground.

Behind her, Monique quickly overwhelmed her opponent, the unit commander, with lightning-fast blows. One of her strikes slipped through his defenses, her blade slamming into his thigh. He stumbled, and she took advantage of the momentary slip to stab at his stomach.

Sweeping his shield down, he deflected Monique’s sword aside. However, her real attack came when she slammed the edge of her own shield into his face. The steel-rimmed wood smashed into his jaw, breaking it and knocking several of his teeth out. He fell to his knees, stunned.

Monique raised her sword for the killing blow when Rayelle’s sword slammed into it. Staggering, Monique slashed across at the cavalrywoman, who blocked and locked cross-guards. Pressing forward, she used her two-handed grip to get close to the other woman. Reaching up with her left hand, she slapped Monique across the face. Her gauntleted hand left a red welt across the lieutenant’s cheek.

The infantry lieutenant shook herself and stepped back. Lowering her sword, she mouthed an apology. Suddenly, she looked alarmed and started to point over Rayelle’s shoulder. The ranger simply smiled and snapped her foot back. Her booted heel slammed into the Zhuravi sergeant’s groin. The man doubled over in pain. She spun and slammed the pommel of her sword into the back of his neck. He dropped without a sound.

Rayelle looked around. All ten Zhuravi soldiers were down or dead. Danika, Fiona, and Cassielle rushed out. Renee and Petra followed more slowly. The mage waved her hand and the magical silence lifted. Rayelle moved over to the last man, rolling the unconscious officer onto his back.

Danika moved over to Monique. She reached up and ran her hand gently across the infantry lieutenant’s cheek. Monique brushed the ranger’s hand aside. “I’m fine. I just got a little caught up in the moment.” She looked over at Rayelle. “You just struck a senior officer.” Her smile softened what might otherwise have been a serious accusation.

Rayelle grinned back, “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”

Beatriz hefted her last kill onto her shoulder and made her way back up the street. As with when she had carried Monique, it seemed to the rest of the women that it took her almost no effort to do so. Striding over to the inn, she carefully rested the body against the building.

Turning, the Guardswoman walked over to where the other women stood around the unconscious Zhuravi sergeant. “Good job, Rayelle,” she said. As she passed Monique, she patted the infantry lieutenant on the shoulder. Crouching down, she checked the enemy’s pulse and wounds. Standing up, she swiped a lock of wet hair out of her eyes and motioned for Rayelle and Monique to pick the man up.

The cavalrywoman sheathed her sword and grabbed the officer under the arms. Monique took his feet, and between them, they carried him into the inn.

Beatriz turned to the rest of them. “Fiona, Danika, Renee, Petra, move the corpses into the alley. Put them up against the wall and try to get them out of sight. Cassielle, see to our prisoner. I don’t want him dying before I decide he can. Monique, Rayelle,” she called into the inn. “Help the girls out once you’ve put him on the table.”

They all nodded or said, “Yes ma’am,” and hurried to carry out her orders. Beatriz snagged a pair of enemy swords off the ground and went back into the inn.

She made her way through her childhood home back to the room they were using. When she was young, her adopted family had taken their meals in that room. Striding through the door, she moved over to the fireplace. A bucket of split logs sat next to it, and she pulled some out and began building a fire.

At the table, Cassielle had bandaged the Zhuravi sergeant’s leg. Glancing over at the medic, “Take his armor and shirt off,” she ordered. “Then search him for any hidden blades. Take his boots and belt, just in case.”

Cassielle nodded, “Yes ma’am.” She proceeded to do as ordered while Beatriz built a fire in the hearth.

Once the Guardswoman was satisfied with how the logs were arranged, she waved her hand at it. They suddenly burst into vivid violet flames. They soon died down into normal oranges and yellows as the logs burned merrily. Beatriz took the two swords and set their blades into the fire, resting the handles on another log.

Fire cracking in the hearth, Beatriz moved over to their prisoner. Pulling a rope out of a small pouch she carried at her waist, she tied his hands and feet together, passing the rope under the table.

Once done, she leaned back in a chair and set her feet on another, boots thumping on the seat. After a few moments, a soaked Fiona, Rayelle, Danika, and Monique straggled back into the room. They pulled up chairs and slumped down heavily around the table.

Danika pulled off Fiona’s ring and held it out to the ranger. “Thanks for letting me use it.”

“Oh, no problem.” She took it back and slipped it onto her hand. Turning to Rayelle next to her, she grinned, “And I didn’t get hurt.” Elbowing her playfully, “You shouldn’t worry so much.”

“It’s not nice to say ‘I told you so’”, Rayelle said. She nudged Fiona back, but the more agile ranger dodged away from her armored elbow.

“No fair, you’re wearing armor.”

“So are you.” Rayelle made a grab for Fiona, catching the girl around the waist. Cassielle reached over and messed up her hair.

“Hey, not the hair,” Fiona protested. “You know how much time I spend making sure it looks good.”

Rayelle laughed, “Oh, I know how much time you spend. Maybe two minutes, max, on a slow day.”

The commotion awakened their prisoner, and he stirred on the table. Beatriz motioned for them to be silent, and the girls subsided. Rayelle kept her arms around Fiona. The ranger turned and leaned back against Rayelle’s shoulder.

Beatriz stepped over to the enemy soldier. “So nice of you to join us,” she said.

The Zhuravi took in her weapons and armor and blanched. “You’re…you’re one of them.”

The Guardswoman bared her teeth in an evil grin. “I can see that you know who I am. Does that mean I won’t have to persuade you to tell us what you know?”

“I’m not telling you anything,” he said firmly, and stopped talking.

“Alright.” She shrugged, “You could have made it easy on you, but it’s your choice. Anytime you want to start talking, let me know.” Looking over at Cassielle, “Hey Cassielle, would you be so kind?”

Cassielle nodded, moved over, and pulled out her cross. The Zhuravi soldier flinched away from her, but the ropes held firm. She chanted a quick incantation and waved her cross over him. He cringed away, but she finished the spell and stepped back.

While she was working, Tristanne moved into the room, her hair and armor wet. Beatriz looked over at her enquiringly, but the lieutenant shook her head.

Beatriz turned away from the captive and moved over to the fireplace. She pulled one of the swords out and held it up. The blade glowed a dull red when she held it up. “You think it’s hot enough, Tris?” She glanced over at the younger woman.

The infantry lieutenant grinned, “I don’t know. Perhaps you should test it out.”

On the table, the Zhuravi sergeant turned a sickly green. His wide eyes were riveted to the red-hot sword as Beatriz waved it about. The air around it shimmered.

Beatriz grinned, “I think I will.” Moving over to the man, she waved the hot sword over his upper torso. “Where do you think I should start, ladies?”

“Stomach and work your way down,” Tristanne suggested.

“Sounds like a good idea.” She leaned over the man, the sword poised above his body. “Last chance.” When he shook his head, Beatriz shrugged, grabbed a rag, shoved it into his mouth, and pressed the heated blade against his stomach.

Fiona wrinkled her nose as the stench of burning hair and flesh rose from him. The cloth in his mouth muffled his screams, and he beat his fists and feet against the table.

After a moment, Beatriz pulled the blade away. He kept screaming for several moments. Once he had subsided, she pulled the gag out of his mouth. “You interested in talking now?”

He once again shook his head. The Guardswoman sighed, “As you wish.” She shoved the gag back in and reapplied the sword. Monique and Rayelle paled a little, and Cassielle looked away. Tristanne, Danika, and Fiona looked on, seemingly unaffected.

Several minutes later, the first sword had cooled. Long red burns covered the Zhuravi man’s torso. He lay sprawled on the table, barely conscious.

Beatriz moved to the fire and set the first sword back in it. Turning back to the Zhuravi man, she leaned over. “You know, I think Tris’s idea’s a good one. I think it’s time to move lower.” Drawing a dagger, she ran it along the side of his pants, easily slicing through the leather and drawing a little blood. Looking at the Guardswoman, the enemy soldier’s eyes widened in shock.

Beatriz glanced over at Tristanne. “So lass, do you think we should burn it off or cut it off?”

The infantry lieutenant frowned, thoughtful. “I don’t know. Maybe slice it off an inch at a time cauterizing as you go?”

“Hum; that sounds good.” She leaned down close. “What do you think about that? Would you like to talk now?”

As the two women had talked, he had turned pale. Now, he tried to talk, garbling his words in his haste. “Please, not that. I’ll tell you anything you want to know. Please.”

Beatriz smiled down at him. “That’s all I wanted. Now, what unit are you from?”

“The Three-Ninety-Fifth.”

“Why was your squad poking around here?”

“We’re supposed to search this block and the two beyond it,” he muttered.

Beatriz nodded, “And when are your superiors expecting you back?” When he hesitated, she glanced meaningfully over at the fire.

“We’re supposed to report back by an hour or so after dawn. They wanted all of the buildings checked.”

“Good.” Beatriz patted his cheek. “See, that wasn’t so hard, was it.” She turned away, but suddenly stiffened. Her eyes moved out of focus and she stood very still for a few moments. Then she looked at the young women in front of her. “Change of plans. We’re needed elsewhere. Get the rest of them and assemble out back.”

“Yes ma’am,” they chorused and rose to leave.

“Tris, a moment,” Beatriz said. The infantry lieutenant hung back. Beatriz waited until the rest of them had left the room. Then she turned to the Zhuravi man on the table. Drawing a longknife from next to her quiver, she walked over to the man. “Where is the rest of your unit?”

“They’re to the southeast. The colonel’s set up in some square.” She leaned towards him, blade moving over his body. “I don’t know which square. It’s got a fountain in the center. That’s all I know.”

“Alright.” The longknife retracted. “Last question. Do you know anything about the giants?”

“No.” Again, her blade swept in. “Honestly. I don’t know anything about them. I saw them marching against the East Gate, but that’s it. Please don’t hurt me.” Tristanne could see the raw terror in his eyes.

Beatriz smiled, “That’s all I wanted to know.” Then she stepped forward and cut his throat.

Blood sprayed up, splattering across her arm and the ceiling. The man convulsed on the table as the flow of blood slowed and eventually stopped. Slashing the bindings on his hands and feet, she hefted his body onto her shoulder. “Get the door for me,” she ordered.

Tristanne grabbed the door and held it open, still a little stunned by the Guardswoman’s callous behavior.

Beatriz moved through the door and set the body down in the alley, leaning it against the wall. She reached up and closed the man’s eyes, her fingers leaving two streaks of blood down his cheeks that quickly washed away in the rain. Holding her arm out, she let the falling rain wash the blood away. Sheathing her now-clean longknife, she turned back to Tristanne. “Come on Tris. We need to get going.”

The infantry lieutenant stepped out of the inn and into the street. “What’re we doing?”

“Just got a message from Lord Voln relayed through Rosie. Apparently, there’s a unit of giants manning the siege engines attacking the castle. He’d like us to scout them,” she said.

Tristanne’s eyebrows rose, “Like?”

Beatriz grinned, “There’re only five people in the entire kingdom that can order me around. Everybody else has to ask nicely.” As the other woman walked past her, she grabbed her arm and turned her around. “If you have a problem with what I just did, say it now.”

Tristanne looked down, “Did you really have to kill him?”

Beatriz leaned close, voice hard. “Of course I did. If I let him go, he would have given away our position. If I had just left him, he might have gotten loose and we’d have the same problem. And taking him with us is out of the question. I didn’t really have any other choices Tris.”

“Then why’d you make me watch?” She asked, voice tight.

Beatriz grabbed her chin with her other hand and brought Tristanne’s face up. Her eyes bored into the younger woman’s. “The time will come when you’ll have to do the same. And when it does, you can’t hesitate or order someone else to do it. You at least owe it to them to have it be your hand giving them the end to their pain after you’ve used them like I did.”

Tristanne nodded, but her eyes remained troubled.

Beatriz reached up and brushed her hand across the younger woman’s cheek. “It’s not something I like having to do, but sometimes it’s necessary. Sometimes you must do a little evil to accomplish your mission.” She paused, “Besides, it’s not like you’re squeamish when it comes to killing people.”

She nodded again. “It seems different, but I guess it’s not really. He could have just as easily been one of the men upstairs or chasing the general back to the square.”

Beatriz smiled slightly, “That’s right.” She stroked Tristanne’s neck and turned. “We’d better get to the girls.”

Tristanne nodded, briefly braced to attention, and led the way around the inn. The rest of both units were waiting for them in the rain.

Beatriz immediately started briefing them. “There’s a group of giants helping crew the siege engines attacking the castle. Lord Voln would like us to take a look at them. Let him know what sort of force he’s facing.” She grinned wickedly, “I was thinking that we’d do something a little more fun.”

“More fun?” Monique echoed. “What could be more fun than risking our lives scouting giants?”

“Why killing them, of course,” Beatriz responded, still grinning.

25nd of Grakuary, 599
City of Ereth Chul, Menzobaria, Arbatros

Lighting flashed and thunder boomed in the clouds. The softer reports of catapult stones and spells slamming into the wall were lost amid the storm. James Black ducked instinctively as a bundle of flaming pitch soared overhead. Hurrying across the street, he stepped into the tower, glad to be out of the rain. Two members of the militia let him by, holding the door into the wall tunnels. Hastening along the passageway, he reached the alcove where Jason had his command post.

“Captain, they’re moving up on the walls,” James reported, saluting.

“Show me,” Jason replied, riffling through a stack of papers to pull out a much-marked map of the city.

Scanning the chart, James tapped several points along the wall. “They’re trying to force the stairs here, here, and here. They have a ram at this tower,” he pointed to the next tower in line. “I’m not sure how long the door’s going to last.”

“Grab what men you can find and reinforce that tower,” Jason ordered. “I’ll round up another company from the walls as fast as I can.”

“Yes sir,” James saluted and hurried back out into the passageway. “Tommy,” he called to the young man loitering by the door. “We’re moving out.”

James had met Thomas Kelly when they first came into the city. The boy had joined the militia just the previous month, and it showed. James had taken the young man under his wing, remembering how scary his own first battle had been, and he with years of training and the battle a small one at that.

“Yes sir,” Thomas replied, falling in behind James. Striding down the tunnel, James called for all of the militia he saw to join him. Even knowing how people followed his orders as the son of a Great Lord, the way the militia responded to the professional soldiers surprised him. He supposed part of it was that they were the King’s Own, but he’d seen it even with Colonels Whitaker and Nichols’ soldiers. By the time he reached the next tower, James had nearly thirty men and women from the militia following him, along with two of the veterans of the Standard Legion that formed the non-commissioned and officer corps of the militia.

“Sergeant Black, it’s good to see you, sir,” Grigori greeted him. Daniel and the corporal waited just inside the door to the tower, bows ready.

“Good to see you too, Grigori.” James nodded at the heavier door into the tower, “I see they haven’t broken in yet.”

“Not for lack of trying, sir.” Looking at the door, James could see the corporal’s point. The steel bound oak door had been bowed inwards, and, even as he watched, the ram he’d seen outside slammed into it again with a boom.

James pointed to four of the bigger militiamen, “Brace the door. Put your shoulders against it.” Turning to the rest, “Swords and shields at the ready. Form up around the door.” Drawing his own sword and unslinging his shield, James moved up to one side of the door, sword poised to strike at the first person through the door. He tightened his grip on his sword and tensed to strike.

Thomas put his back to the wall next to James. Looking over at the younger man, James asked, “Ready for it?”

“Nope,” Thomas replied. His grip on his short sword turned his knuckles white, and the blade trembled a bit. Shooting a fearful glance at the door, he brought his big rectangular shield across his body.

With a final splintering crash, the door gave way and the ram’s head came driving into the room. The Zhuravi pulled it back, then axmen came forward. A few of the militia had longbows, and they fired over their comrade’s shoulders. Some of the enemy fell back with screams, but more rushed up to take their place. A few crossbow bolts flashed into the room, but most hit only shields. Soon enough, the door gave way, hacked and pulled down by the attackers.

Gathering himself, James slashed across at the first Zhuravi soldier charged through the door. The blow caught the man in the face, shattering his skull, nearly taking off half the man’s head. Blood and brains splattered out when James pulled his sword back, using his shield to brace against the body.

A second enemy soldier rushed the doorway, bulling forward with his shield raised. Distracted as James was with the first man, he wasn’t ready for the next. Forced out of the way, he took a step back and ran into Thomas’s shield. The young man pushed him forward, back into the Zhuravi soldier. For a moment, the only thing James saw was torchlight flashing on sword blades and heard the clash of steel on steel. After a desperate instant of back and forth, he had his opponent back on his heels. Stabbing under the Zhuravi’s guard, James gouged the man’s thigh, punching through the fall of chainmail.

Staggering back, the man waved his sword before him to hold off James’s follow up attack. A spear point headed for James’s face put him back anyway, and he took a few steps back into the tower. Half a dozen enemy soldiers rushed in, and the Arbatrosians pushed back, using their shields to force the Zhuravi back. More enemy poured into the tower by the moment though, shoving and stabbing at the Arbatrosians.

James found himself shoulder to shoulder with Thomas and a militiawoman. His smaller round shield and longsword were less well suited to fighting in such cramped quarters than the militia’s large rectangular shields and short blades. A sword cut open his left thigh while he blocked another blow to his head. Stabbing over his opponent’s shield, James’s sword point punched through the man’s pauldron and into his arm. As the man’s shield dropped, James stabbed him in the chest. He fell, blood spraying out of the fatal wound. Another Zhuravi stepped up to take his place.

Wound icy and burning at the same time, James swept his blade up to block. Parrying the man’s attack high, he tried to charge forward with his shield, but his leg nearly gave out. Stumbling, for a moment he was wide open to attack. The Zhuravi’s sword flashed across, headed for James’s head.

Suddenly, Thomas was there, interposing his shield between James and the enemy’s blade. As the sword glanced off the sheet metal covering Thomas’s shield, the young man stabbed over it, taking the Zhuravi soldier by surprise. His short sword punched into the man’s throat above his mail and out the back. Withdrawing in a spray of blood, Thomas stared at the man as he fell, shocked.

Regaining his footing, James punched Thomas on the shoulder, “Well done. Now kill the next one.” As the young man took a pair of swords on his shield, James stabbed over his shoulder.

More militia flooded into the tower, and James heard screams from outside as the archers opened fire. As he parried a blow that was aimed for Thomas’s head, a crossbow bolt flashed into the tower. It slammed into the young man’s shoulder, spinning him around. Surprise flashed across Thomas’s face, then agony as a sword point burst out of his chest.

James caught Thomas as he fell forward off the Zhuravi’s blade. Holding Thomas with his shield arm, James stabbed the boy’s attacker in the mouth. Retracting his bloody blade, James hauled Thomas back from the forefront while other militia closed the gap.

Laying Thomas down, James called for a medic. One of the medics assigned to the militia units, a doctor rather than a healer, rushed over, pulling out his bag and feeling for the young man’s pulse. “He’s gone, sir,” the man told James. “There’s nothing I can do for him.” Someone else called for a medic, and the man stood and rushed away.

Gazing down at the young man’s still form, James clenched his hand around sword hilt and shield grip. Reaching down, he gently closed Thomas’s eyes for the last time, then stood and turned to where the fighting still raged. Pushing his way forward, he stabbed at a Zhuravi, sword punching through steel plate and flesh.

* * *

Tristanne moved across the slick slate roof on hands and knees. The elbows and knees of her clothes were soaked through, and she knew they’d be rubbed raw later. Cursing softly, she scrambled up to the crest of the roof. Beatriz led and Danika followed her. Glancing up, she saw the Guardswoman had slowed, then stopped.

Crawling up next to her, Tristanne peered over the roof’s ridgeline. In one of the many squares that dotted the city were six catapults. Behind each were two ogres and two giants. Standing around the edges of the square were at least two companies each of Zhuravi infantry and crossbowmen.

The giants towered over the scene, the shortest over ten feet tall. They were big hairy brutes in mismatched clothes of hides sewn together. Most had mauls, clubs, or crude swords. However, in the center of the square was a fifteen-foot tall giant with pale white skin. It held a seven-foot longsword negligently in its hand and wore chainmail.

Danika crept up beside them and let out a low oath. “No one said there were ogres too,” she complained.

“I guess the giants distracted them,” Beatriz said dryly. “I notice they didn’t mention the infantry either. Although I guess we’re just supposed to be ‘scouting’.” She tone made it clear what she thought of that.

As they watched, the giants hefted massive stones into the catapults’ baskets. A human commander pulled the lanyard to release the throwing arm. It snapped forward until it smacked into the crossbar, stopping with a thump. The boulder shot through the cloudy sky towards the castle. Despite their proximity to the castle, the stone barely clipped a tower, chipping at the stones and sending dust flying. The bigger giant bellowed something in a guttural tongue at the other giants and waved its sword.

Beatriz motioned for the other two to move back down the roof. Reaching the edge, she easily leapt off and landed lightly. Tristanne and Danika slid over feet-first, catching their hands briefly on the gutter to slow their fall. Both landed easily next to her.

The rest of the girls quickly gathered around them. “Alright, here’s the situation, ladies. We’ve got a dozen giants and as many ogres,” Beatriz said. “Plus there’re two companies of infantry and two of crossbowmen.”

“And we’re going to kill all that?” Monique asked, incredulous.

“Not necessarily all of it. First priority’s the giants, then the ogres, then the siege weapons and their engineers.” Beatriz grinned, “If we kill a few of the infantry, well, that’s just a bonus.”

Leaning forward, she looked around at all of them. “Here’s the plan. We’ll split up into two groups. One will provide a distraction while the other works on the giants. Monique, you’ll command first group. Take Cassielle, Melissa, Renee, and Petra. The rest of you are with me in the second group.” Glancing at Renee, “How’re you doing on spells?”

The mage frowned, “I’m okay. But I haven’t had a chance to sleep and replenish them since last night.”

Beatriz nodded and pulled a wand out of a pouch on her belt that seemed patently too short to hold it and passed it across to Renee. “That should have a few dozen fireballs left in it.”

“What’s the command word?” She asked, then started in surprise. “Oh. Well then.”

Beatriz grinned, “That’s one of Marie’s wands. She likes to make them that way.”

Renee nodded and moved over to Monique. The lieutenant looked at Beatriz. “When do you want us to attack?”

“Give us a few moments to get into position, then just attack when all seems clear. I’ll let you know if I want you to hold back.”

“Yes ma’am.” Monique braced to attention and led her team around the building.

Beatriz looked around at the remaining women. “Everyone good getting onto the roof?”

Fiona and Danika nodded, but Rayelle and Tristanne looked a little dubious. Beatriz waved them over. Putting both hands on Rayelle’s waist, she easily picked up the girl, lifting her up to where Rayelle could grab the edge of the roof. Once she had a firm grip, the Guardswoman grabbed her armored legs and boosted her up onto the roof.

Danika boosted Fiona up onto the roof. The ranger reached back for the lieutenant and pulled her up.

Beatriz grinned at Tristanne and leapt straight up onto the roof. Turning back, she reached down and easily hoisted Tristanne up as well. Drawing the bow off her back, she moved cautiously up to the crest of the roof. Looking over, she saw that nothing had changed since their prior scouting.

The others joined her, bows at the ready. “Everybody, start with the giants. Aim for joints, eyes, and the neck. Once we’ve taken down the ones near us, switch to the close ogres. If the crossbowmen become too much of a problem, Tristanne and Danika, I want you to suppress them. Don’t worry about how many you kill, just make them reluctant to show their faces.”

With that, she glanced back over the roof’s peak. They waited for a few minutes, the rain pouring down, pinging off their armor and soaking them to the skin. Tristanne glanced up at the darkened sky. While it was already mid-morning, it was darker than twilight.

Suddenly, fire blossomed below them. A fireball exploded in the middle of one of the crossbow companies. Men fell, shrieking and burning. The siege engine crews stopped to stare.

Beatriz sprang to her feet, drawing an arrow and loosing it in one smooth motion. The shaft streaked out to slam into a giant’s eye, burying itself feathers-deep. Blood sprayed out, and the massive creature fell to its knees, then keeled over. Distracted enemy siege crewmen scrambled to get out of the way.

Beside her, Danika, Tristanne, Rayelle, and Fiona rose more slowly, but were soon shooting down into the square. Beatriz dropped another pair of giants, and the other four brought another one down between them.

However, by then the Zhuravi had had time to respond. On one side, the crossbowmen started opening fire at them. A fifth giant, enraged by Fiona’s arrow sticking out of its shoulder, charged towards them, maul in hand.

Crossbow bolts flashed past them, and Tristanne and Danika switched their aim to the enemy archers. The two pushed their shots, loosing a dozen arrows in a few seconds. Several hit, steel bodkins punching through plate and mail. More fireballs and arrows flew from one of the side alleys.

Seeing Danika and Tristanne occupied, Beatriz flipped her bow into the straps on her back. Then she hopped over the crest of the roof and slid down the slate shingles. Drawing a longknife, she bounded off the edge of the roof and into the air. Her longknife flashed as she passed the giant. She slammed into another giant’s back, stabbing it with her blade to keep from sliding off.

The first giant fell, crimson sheets spraying out of its slit throat. The other giant spun, roaring at the pain in its back. Beatriz nearly flew off. Numerous quarrels flew towards her and spears reached for her. All missed her due to the motion of the giant. Several hit the giant, however. Bellowing, it swept its maul in front of it. Zhuravi soldiers went flying.

Beatriz flipped her second longknife out and began climbing the giant’s back, using her knives as handholds. Shouting, it kept turning and reached back for her. Leaving one of her blades in its back, she reached down and drew her sword. As it patted its back with its hand, she slashed it open, nearly cutting off one of its fingers. Roaring, it looked at its hand.

Taking advantage of its momentary distraction, she swung back on her longknife, then up. Reversing her sword, she stabbed the giant through the neck.

Watching from the rooftop, Fiona saw the tip of the Guardswoman’s sword burst out of the giant’s throat. Dropping its club, it clutched at its neck in a futile attempt to stem the flow of blood, then fell forward, crushing a few enemy soldiers.

Beatriz left her sword in its corpse and flipped both her longknives into her hands. Spinning, she slashed down at a Zhuravi soldier as he tried to climb onto the dead giant. Her blade clove his helm and the head beneath in two. He reeled away, quite dead.

Twirling again, Beatriz slashed the next man twice across the chest, plate and mail parting beneath her blades. Her knives crashed down onto another man’s shield, throwing him backwards. She disemboweled him as he fell.

Tearing her eyes away from the deadly display, Fiona saw the bigger giant advancing across the square towards the Guardswoman. “Rayelle!” She exclaimed in alarm, pointing. Realizing that Beatriz hadn’t seen it, she leapt over the crest of the roof and started to slide down.

The cavalrywoman saw the giant and cursed. Glancing over at Fiona, she saw the girl drop to the ground lightly. Cursing again, she turned to Danika, “Can you and Tris cover us?” Without waiting for the other woman’s reply, she too went skidding down the other side of the roof.

When Rayelle landed, Fiona was already halfway to the Guardswoman, but the massive giant was closing fast. Whipping an arrow out, she lined up a shot at it, but was forced to shoot a charging Zhuravi soldier instead.

As Fiona ran towards Beatriz, she drew her longsword and cut down a distracted enemy soldier. Fireballs were exploding, and soldiers and giants were screaming and yelling around her.

Realizing that she wouldn’t be within earshot of Beatriz in time, Fiona slid to a halt, threw her sword into a corpse, point first, and pulled an arrow out of her quiver. Carefully nocking it to the string, she drew back, feeling the strain across her arms and shoulders.

Aiming down the shaft, Fiona became aware of two Zhuravi infantrymen charging towards her. Breathing deeply, she steadied the shot. Letting her breath out, she released, allowing the string to roll off her fingers.

Her arrow sped out across the square, clipped Beatriz’s pauldron, and slammed into the bigger giant’s leg. It stumbled and shouted something in its own language. Beatriz whirled, saw the giant, and cut down the two enemy soldiers nearest her.

Meanwhile, Fiona dropped her bow and grabbed for her sword to fight the two charging enemies. One slashed high while the other stabbed at her side. She dived forward in a desperate attempt to dodge. The first sword whistled over her head, but the other one was still headed straight for her body.

Suddenly, someone slammed down on top of Fiona, throwing her downwards. Her attacker’s blade missed her, but hit the person atop her. However, it skidded off Rayelle’s armored torso, merely leaving a bright line across her back plate.

Fiona slammed into the ground, Rayelle’s armored body slamming down on top of her. Grunting, the ranger pushed the other girl off her. Rayelle turned to motion into a roll and slashed at the first attacker as she did so. He tried to interpose his shield, but her sword slammed into his stomach, splintering plate.

The second Zhuravi soldier slashed down, and his sword slammed down onto Fiona’s unprotected back. Steel scales shattered, and the blade bit into her flesh. Agony coursing through her, she lashed out with her sword, catching her attacker in the leg. Her blade skittered off his greave, but slammed into his knee. The sword shattered cartilage and bone, and his leg went out from under him. He collapsed on top of her.

Fiona snapped her elbow back into his side. Both of them grunted at the impact, and Fiona winced when her lightly armored elbow hit his armored torso. Twisting under him, she managed to draw her short sword in her right hand. Reversing her grip, she stabbed back and up.

Her first few attempts only yielded the clang of metal on metal. By then he had overcome his pain and punched his armored fist into the back of her head. Pain spiked through her skull, and her vision when white for a moment.

She still stabbed back again, and this time Fiona felt her short sword slip into his flesh. Warm, wet blood sprayed out onto her hand, and he let out a little cry of pain. She dug the blade deeper, and felt it scrape against bone. He hit her head again, but this time the blow lacked any real force, and just jerked her head forward. Biting her lip, she shoved back again. More blood inundated her hand, but her grip on the sword was good, and she felt him go limp on top of her.

Trying to twist under the corpse, she shook her head. White dots danced across her vision, and she gritted her teeth against the pain. Reaching up with her left hand, she felt the slick warm wetness of blood. Behind her, she heard Rayelle shout, “Fi! I need you!”

Looking back, the ranger saw her friend encircled by half-a-dozen Zhuravi soldiers. Cursing, she tried to rise, but the world spun, and she ended up on her hands and knees, trying not to be sick.

A pair of enemy swords flashed out. Rayelle picked one off with her sword and blocked the other with her shield. Another sword slammed into her back. Her plate held, but she knew she’d have a bruise as she staggered forward. Cursing, she snapped her shield sideways in front of her to deflect the next few attacks while she swept her sword back across low.

One of the ones behind her managed to dodge back, but her blade slammed into the other one’s ankle. The steel sheared through his greave and nearly took off the lower part of his leg. Blood flew, and he went down screaming.

Two swords clattered off her shield, but another slipped around to slam into her side. Once again, her armor kept the blow away from her flesh. Stepping forward, Rayelle snapped her sword down to slam into one of her attacker’s shield. He stumbled back at the force of the blow, and she kicked out. Her booted foot connected squarely with his knee. Bone snapped, and he fell with a cry of pain.

Another sword slammed into Rayelle. This time, it hit the back of her leg. Chainmail links popped, and the blade bit into her leg. Stumbling, she felt warm blood wash down her calf. Spinning, she snapped her arm back. Her sword whipped out behind her.

Unprepared for her swiftness, the enemy soldier behind her left himself open. Her blade slashed into his side, the force of her strike shearing through his plate and mail to bite into flesh. Wrenching her blade free, Rayelle stabbed back, her blade punching through his gorget and into his throat.

A blade bounced off her shield while another slammed into her stomach. She felt the plate bend around the blade, but it didn’t break. Rayelle saw her third opponent’s sword slashing towards her neck.

Rayelle threw herself backwards. The very tip of his sword sliced across her cheek. Pain flared, and cried out as she hit the ground. The three remaining Zhuravi advanced on her, swords at the ready.

Suddenly, Fiona leapt over her prone form and crashed into them. Completely surprised by her attack, she was able to cut down two of them before they could react. Her longsword swept out to slash into the neck of the man to her right, while her short sword stabbed into the man on her left’s face, smashing through bone and coming out the back of his helmet.

As she retracted, Fiona kicked forward, her foot slamming into the middle man’s stomach. The force of her strike sent him reeling backwards, leaving him easy prey to a powerful double strike to his shoulders that cut nearly to his navel.

* * *

Feeling the arrow scrape across her pauldron, Beatriz started to spin to see the shooter, but whipped back around at the frost giant’s bellow. Cursing, she slashed down powerfully at the two enemy soldiers to either side of her. Her longknives slashed into their shoulders, shearing through armor, flesh, and bone through most of their chest.

Wrenching her longknives out of the corpses, Beatriz sheathed them, ignoring the blood running off the blades. Stepping forward, she pulled her long-handled sword out of the dead hill giant’s neck and sprang lightly down to face off against the frost giant.

A pair of Zhuravi soldiers charged her. Spinning right, she slashed back, her blade nearly cutting the first man in half. Twirling, she stepped forward and hacked down, two-handed, at the second man. He tried to block with his sword, but her blow shattered his blade and kept going, sending him reeling away with a gash running from forehead to waist.

Roaring, the frost giant charged, waving its sword wildly. Grinning, Beatriz stood her ground. Raising its sword into the air, the giant slashed down with a mighty two-handed blow. Gripping her sword with both hands, she swept her sword up to meet the giant’s. Steel rang off steel and the giant’s sword stopped dead.

The giant gaped down at the slender human before it. Beatriz disengaged her sword and darted forward. Her blade flashed out and slammed into the giant’s knee, cutting through flesh, tendons, and bone to emerge out the other side, dripping blood.

Bellowing in pain, the giant toppled over backwards. Beatriz lightly ran up its falling form, dodging its grasping hand. Flipping her sword over, she plunged her blade into its mouth, two-handed. The tip of her sword punched through the back of the giant’s head and slammed into the paving stones of the square.

Tugging at her sword’s hilt, Beatriz realized that her blade had become stuck in the square. Seeing a pair of ogres charging at her, she cursed, leapt off the frost giant’s corpse, and grabbed its sword off the ground.

Muttering to herself about shoddy forging, Beatriz hefted the weapon in both hands and sent it flying through the air at the first ogre. Completely unprepared for the flying object, the blade buried itself in the ogre’s face with a meaty thunk.

Drawing a pair of daggers, Beatriz faced off against the second ogre. It swept it club across at waist height. She leapt over it. Twisting in midair, she snapped both daggers at the ogre’s face. One hit it in the cheek. The other slammed into its eye. Landing lightly, she drew both her longknives.

Roaring in pain, it reached up to grab at its face. Beatriz dashed in, leapt up, and spun. Her blades flashed out to decapitate the ogre with two blows. She turned her landing into a roll, dodging out of the way of the headless corpse.

Coming back to her feet, Beatriz looked around the square. At the mouth of one alley, she saw Monique and Cassielle standing shoulder-to-shoulder while Melissa, Petra, and Renee fired over them.

One of the companies of crossbowmen was mostly lying in a charred pile where the first fireball had struck. The other company was lying dead in the square or taking cover in an alley and behind siege engines as Tristanne and Danika rained death down amongst them.

All around her, the remainder of the two companies of infantry and the siege engine crews were trying to take cover or attack the Arbatrosians. By now, seven hill giants and the frost giant were down, along with four ogres.

Looking back, Beatriz saw Rayelle and Fiona fighting back-to-back. Sheathing her longknives, she stepped over to the frost giant’s corpse and seized her sword in both hands. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw another ogre charging towards her.

Beatriz gripped the rain-slick, bloody hilt with one hand and the cross-guard in the other. Putting her back into it, she yanked upwards. Blood flew as her blade came free of the giant’s mouth. Twirling, she dived under the next ogre’s swinging club. It whistled over her head.

Beatriz did a one-handed handspring and came up swinging. Her blade slashed into the ogre’s side, shearing through its rotted hide clothing and cutting halfway through its body. Blood flew, bones cracked, and her blade severed several organs. A spray of warm blood covered her arms and spattered her chest as the ogre fell.

Putting a foot on the corpse, Beatriz tugged her blade free. Spinning, she slashed at the Zhuravi soldier behind her. Her sword sheared through his shield, splintering the wood and cutting the arm beneath in half. She finished him with an upward blow that laid him open from groin to neck. More blood flew, and he toppled over backwards.

From the rooftop, Tristanne saw Beatriz stride across the square towards Fiona and Rayelle. The Guardswoman easily cut down a half-dozen Zhuravi soldiers and another ogre as she moved to the two other girls.

Glancing across the square, Tristanne saw the glint of steel in midair in one of the side streets. Her eyes shot wide when a row of Zhuravi heavy cavalryman charged into the square off the street. Cursing, she drew back the arrow on her bow, took careful aim, and released. The shaft shot out across the square to spark off the helmet of the Zhuravi infantryman facing Beatriz.

The Guardswoman dodged the man’s attack, then slashed at him, both hands on her sword. The blow nearly cut him in two. Turning, she looked up at Tristanne. The ranger pointed with her free hand at the approaching enemy cavalry. Beatriz turned, saw them, and saluted her with her sword.

Spinning, Beatriz tapped Rayelle and Fiona on the shoulder. She stabbed the young ranger’s opponent in the face past Fiona. Rayelle shield-bashed her opponent, then stabbed him in the stomach. Her blade came out his back.

Scanning across the square, Tristanne saw four crossbowmen charge out from behind a catapult. She quickly drew and released twice. One arrow slammed into an enemy’s neck. The other hit a second man’s chest, punching through his plate.

The remaining two shouldered their weapons and fired at Tristanne and Danika. One bolt sailed past them, but the other slammed into Danika’s left eye. The ranger lieutenant flew backwards without a sound.

Slamming back onto the roof, Danika slid across the shingles. Her few remaining arrows spilled out across the roof. Dropping her bow, Tristanne dove after her. Just as Danika was about to fall off the roof, Tristanne caught her ankle. The weight of the other girl’s body nearly pulled her off the roof, but she quickly spun herself around and managed to get a foot into the gutter. Cursing, she hauled Danika around to an upright position.

* * *

Beatriz started herding Rayelle and Fiona towards the alley where Monique’s team was set up. Glancing back up at the rooftop where she’d last seen Tristanne, she saw Danika get hit. Cursing, she watched as Tristanne dived after her, disappearing from view.

Sheathing her sword, Beatriz drew her bow again and set an arrow to the string. Scanning the square, she picked out a giant. She drew the arrow back, then released. The shaft sped out to take the giant through the eye, burying itself to the fletching. The giant raised a hand to its face and fell over dead.

The Zhuravi heavy cavalry thundered into the square. However, the many bodies, siege weapons, and other debris littering the ground impeded their progress, and their formation broke up.

Beatriz snapped off a dozen shots, all of her arrows taking enemy cavalrymen off their horses. Hoping there wouldn’t be any more Zhuravi approaching the square, she took part of her attention off killing and focused on her senses. Gradually, she became aware of a sound coming from the street to the west. Her magically enhanced hearing allowed her to hear the clatter of hooves, the jingle of tack, and the clank of armor and weapons well before anyone else did.

Smiling, Beatriz urged the two girls to move towards Monique’s position faster. As they ran up, she spun and picked off a pair of enemy soldiers on the run. Turning back, she felled two ogres as they charged across the square, one arrow taking the beast in the neck, the other in the eye.

Stowing her bow away, Beatriz drew her sword and took up a position next to Monique. “Cassielle, Danika’s been hit. She may be dead. Run around back to the building and see to her. Take Fiona if you need help.”

“Yes ma’am.” The diminutive medic braced to attention, waved to the other girl, and ran off.

“What’s going on, ma’am?” Monique asked, pointing to the center of the square. The crossbowmen across the way had fallen back into the street from which the heavy cavalry had emerged. Many of the infantry were falling back that way as well. The Zhuravi elite cavalry had formed up in a cluster near the center of the square. The leader of the enemy heavy cavalry was shouting at the ogres and giants as they continued to mill around.

“I’d say they saw the,” Beatriz paused, listening intently for a moment, “two companies of our cavalry coming towards them. With the general, no less. Guess they’re trying to fall back now. Time to confuse the matter.” Grinning, she yelled out a few words in a guttural tongue.

All of the ogres and giants immediately started looking around. Beatriz yelled again, and several of them realized it was her speaking. One of the giants bellowed something back and charged towards her.

Pulling another arrow out of her quiver, Beatriz drew and fired in one smooth motion. Her arrow sprouted from the giant’s eye. Blood spraying into the air, it toppled over, its falling bulk smashing a siege weapon.

Beatriz shouted the words a third time. The remaining three giants and four ogres bellowed out something that sounded like a war cry and charged towards them, brandishing their weapons.

Monique glanced over at the Guardswoman. “What did you say to them?”

Beatriz chuckled, “I insulted their manhoods.” Drawing her sword, she stepped forward. “Works every time.”

Monique and Rayelle drew their swords as well and moved up beside her. “Which ones do you want, ma’am?” Rayelle asked.

Beatriz smiled, reached over and patted the cavalrywoman on the pauldron. “I’ll take the giants. That leaves a pair of ogres for each of you. Think you can handle that?”

“Oh, I’m sure we’ll manage; right Lieutenant?” Rayelle asked.

Monique looked a little nervous, but she only said, “Right.”

“Have fun, girls,” Beatriz said. Then she charged towards the first hill giant. It swept its club across in a clumsy arc. Diving under it, she did a front roll and came up right in front of the giant. Leaping up, she slashed down in a powerful two-handed blow. Her sword slashed into the giant’s chest, cracking bone and spraying blood. The tip of her blade nearly came out its back.

Putting her foot on the corpse, Beatriz jerked her sword free. Turning, she spun to the side. The second hill giant’s maul slammed into the ground where she had been standing a moment before, cracking a paving stone. Darting forward, she laid its forearm open to the bone. Howling, the giant dropped its weapon. Spinning around the giant, she casually hamstrung it.

It stumbled and fell. Beatriz turned to finish it, but had to throw herself flat to avoid a swing by the last giant. Rising, she snapped her wrist out, sending her blade spinning through the air. It spun once and slammed into the giant’s throat. Choking on her sword, it fell to the ground.

Flipping out a bloody longknife, Beatriz moved over and stabbed the surviving giant through the back of the neck.

* * *

When Beatriz charged, Rayelle and Monique raced after her. The lieutenant split right towards two of the ogres. One had a club, the other a crude spear.

Attacking the one with the club first, Monique dodged its first blow. As she tried to move in to attack, the one with spear thrust at her. Dodging back, she had to parry the club wielder with her sword. His blow nearly ripped her blade from her hands. As it was, the strike sent her flying backwards.

Her impact with the paving stones knocked the breath out of her, and she struggled to rise. The spear-wielding ogre advanced. She managed to push herself onto her elbows, but had to roll aside as it jabbed at her. Slashing back, she slammed the tip of the spear into the ground.

Whipping her sword back, Monique ended up on hands and knees. Springing to her feet, she spun and tucked her shield close. The club slammed into the sheet metal and skittered off. The force of the hit rocked her back, but she kept her footing. Rushing forward, she batted aside the second ogre’s spear and slashed at its torso.

It threw itself back, but not quickly enough. Monique’s sword cut open its stomach from hip to navel. Crying out, it dropped it spear and futilely tried to hold its intestines in.

Reversing, Monique dropped to one knee, sliding under the first giant’s swinging club. Rising, she pushed off with her right leg, adding power to an upward blow at the ogre’s leg. Her blade slashed into its thigh, cutting through the meat of its leg. Blood sprayed out as her sword ripped out the other side.

Spinning her blade back, Monique swung at the ogre’s chest. It raised its arm to block, and her steel bit into the limb and slammed into bone. Yanking its arm backwards, it pulled her forwards. She could smell the rank odor of its wet hide clothing and filthy body.

Gagging, she let go of her longsword and ripped her short sword from its sheath. Lunging at the ogre, she stabbed it in the chest. Her blade pierced its hides and flesh, scraped across bone, and buried itself to the hilt. Warm blood washed over her hand.

Leaning closer, Monique twisted the sword, then quickly hopped back as the ogre toppled towards her. She wiped her blade on the corpse and looked around.

* * *

While Monique went after her two, Rayelle split left. Of the two facing her, one carried a large sword, what would probably be a two-handed sword in the hands of a human. The ogre carried it easily in one hand. The other brandished a crude halberd.

Not waiting for the ogres to reach her, Rayelle dashed forward toward the sword-wielder. Seeing her coming at it, the ogre swept its blade across in a high arc. Throwing her shield up, Rayelle went one knee and skidded across the paving stones. The ogre’s blade sparked off the sheet metal of her shield and glanced off into the air.

Coming back up, Rayelle slashed down at the ogre’s chest. Her blade bit deep, cutting through flesh and shattering bone. Roaring, the ogre staggered. Tugging at her blade, she realized it was stuck in bone. Reaching down, the ogre grabbed the top of her shield and yanked.

Already close, Rayelle slammed into the ogre. Reaching over her shield, it grasped at her head. Jerking away, she let go of her shield and left her sword in the severely wounded ogre. As she stepped back, her injured leg gave out, and she stumbled and fell to one knee.

The halberd-wielder charged forward, slashing down in a mighty two-handed blow. Hands going to her hips, Rayelle snapped both light axes off her belt and brought them up in a cross over her head. The polearm slammed into her blocking weapons, the impact jolting up her arms and sending her sprawling.

The ogre swept its weapon up and down again. Rayelle threw herself sideways, and the halberd slammed into the square, throwing up sparks. As the beast raised its arms again, Rayelle propelled herself to her feet and dashed forward. Slashing with both axes, she buried the crescent heads in its chest. Bone splintered under the force of her blows, blood sprayed out, and the ogre flew backwards. She let her axes go with the creature.

Stepping forward, Rayelle grasped both of her axes and wrenched them out of the ogre. More blood splattered her. Putting away her axes, she moved over to the first ogre and pulled her sword out of its now unmoving body. Walking back to the second, she took her sword in a two-handed grip and beheaded it.

Straightening, Rayelle looked for the other two. Monique stood over the bodies of her two and Beatriz was shoving at a giant’s corpse. Monique and Rayelle ran over to help her. Between them, they managed to lift the body enough for Beatriz to get her sword out of it.

Panting lightly, the three looked across the square to where the Zhuravi forces were massed. Glancing to the other side of the square, they saw Vladimir at the head of two companies worth of Arbatrosian heavy cavalry. Suddenly, from behind them, they heard a commotion. Turning, they saw that Fiona had run up to the others.

Monique immediately ran over to her. “What’s going on? Is Danika alright?”

Fiona nodded, “She will be. Cassie almost lost her, but she’ll pull through. They’re bringing her up now.”

From around the corner came Tristanne and Cassielle, supporting Danika between them. The young ranger lieutenant was taller than either of them, and her feet dragged across the paving stones. A bloody bandage was wrapped around her head at an angle, covering her left eye.

Monique rushed over to them. “What happened to her?” She asked them urgently.

“Crossbow bolt in the eye. Damn near killed her,” Cassielle said tersely. “I only just managed to save her life. Someone else will have to regenerate her eye.”

“Who says I need two eyes?” Danika asked weakly. Looking up at Monique, “Don’t worry about me. I’ll be okay.” Glancing down at where her feet rested on the ground, “Although my feet may hurt a little after this.”

Monique smiled a little and Cassielle frowned. “Not all of us are as tall as you.”

“Here, I’ll take her,” Monique said, moving to support the young woman.

Peering through the rain, Rayelle saw that a few riders had detached themselves from the Arbatrosian formation. On the Zhuravi side, she noticed more infantry moving up, their officers forming them up in front of the enemy cavalry.

As the riders neared, Rayelle recognized the lead one as Vladimir. Behind him was Rose followed by the rest of his bodyguard except for Jillian. They pulled up next to Beatriz.

When Beatriz turned to Vladimir, Rayelle saw a smile light up the Guardswoman’s face. “Hello Vladimir. Have you come to save me?”

The general grinned down at her. “I had thought to, but I should have known that you of all people don’t need saving.”

Reaching up, Beatriz patted his armored leg. Leaning close, she whispered something to him. He laughed slightly and straightened. Looking down at them, he smiled. “Have you girls been good?”

“We’ve been trying to, but with Beatriz along, how could we?” Rayelle asked with a grin.

His smile broadened, “There is that. How’re you doing, lass?”

“Well enough, sir.” Rayelle replied.

“What happened to your face?” Vladimir asked.

“What?” The hand she reached up to her cheek came away bloody. “I guess I got hit.”

“Come over here. I’ll heal it for you,” Vladimir said.

Rayelle took a step forward and nearly fell, her right leg going out from under her. Cursing, she regained her balance.

Fiona immediately rushed to her side. “What’s the matter, Ray?”

“I got my leg cut,” she said, voice suddenly weak. A wave of dizziness washed over her and she leaned into Fiona.

Cassielle moved over to her and knelt on the rain-slick paving stones. Leaning over, she peered at the cavalrywoman’s leg. Reaching into a pouch, she pulled out a small stone that glowed with a gentle golden light. Holding the light rock with one hand, she pulled the broken chainmail links away from the wound with the other. “Damn girl, you’ve messed up your leg good. Looks like someone put a few inches of steel into it.”

“The guy who did that is dead for sure. I put a few inches of steel through his throat.”

Fiona grinned, “That’ll teach him to hurt you.”

Rayelle hissed in pain as Cassielle probed the wound. “Sorry, but you’ve got some bits of chain in there,” the medic said. “I don’t want to heal metal into your leg.”

“Oh, why ever not?” Rayelle joked. “Do you think it might help protect me if I get hit there again?”

Cassielle merely shook her head and kept digging around in Rayelle’s leg. The cavalrywoman cursed vehemently. She could feel warm blood flowing down her leg, mixing with the cold rain to fill her boot.

Vladimir dismounted Jeremy and moved over to help Fiona support Rayelle. Looking down, he saw that she had a deep gash across the width of her calf. As he watched, Cassielle pulled over a dozen chainmail links out of the wound.

Finishing, the medic sat back on her heels and looked up at him. “I’m out for today. Can you heal her?”

Vladimir nodded and reached down. Taking Rayelle’s thigh in both hands, he whispered a prayer. Silver light flared along the length of the cut and it sealed together.

Rayelle stood up, putting weight on her healed leg.

“How does it feel?” Cassielle asked.

“Much better, now that I’m not attempting to bleed out,” Rayelle said, voice dry. She started to let go of Fiona, but quickly grabbed onto her again. “I’m still a little dizzy, though.” Looking behind him, Rayelle frowned. “Where’s Jill?”

Vladimir turned and waved at the rest of the cavalry. Jillian, on Andrea, trotted out of the group, leading Lamara, Mary, and Fiona’s horse, along with another half-dozen horses.

Fiona helped Rayelle over to their horses. Lamara butted her head against Rayelle’s chest, and she reached up and stroked the horse’s mane. Putting her foot in the stirrup, she tried to mount up, but almost fell over. Only Fiona’s hand on her back kept her upright. Grunting, the petite ranger heaved her up into the saddle.

Mary trotted right over to Beatriz, lipping the Guardswoman’s outstretched hand. She stroked the Arabian’s sodden mane, then mounted in one smooth motion.

The rest of them mounted up, Monique helping Danika, and Cassielle summoning Sam to her side. Across the square, more Zhuravi troops were running into street. Behind the mass of infantry, Beatriz could see crossbowmen forming up. “I think it’s time to leave,” she said conversationally to Vladimir.

Glancing over at the massing enemy forces, he nodded. “I’d say you’re right.” Turning to Rose, “Burn their siege engines. Then we move out.”

The mage nodded and waved her hand at the artillery pieces. Quite suddenly, they burst into vivid purple flames. Across the square, a cry when up from the gathered enemy soldiers.

Looking over at them, Rayelle saw that several companies of spear-wielding infantry had moved into the square. “General, look,” she cried out.

Vladimir saw them, cursed, and wheeled Jeremy around. “Let’s go,” he shouted and waved at the cavalry arrayed in the street. As one, they spread out, turned their horses around, and headed off back up the street.

Vladimir and Beatriz gathered the bodyguard and the two units and thundered after them. A few crossbow bolts sped after them, but none found their marks.

Beatriz drew her bow and sent a half-dozen arrows back towards the enemy. None failed to hit. Clattering over the paving stones, they quickly caught up with the rest of the cavalry.

Beatriz looked over at Vladimir beside her, smiling brightly. “What sort of mischief have you gotten up to in my absence? Other than putting this little force together, of course,” she added with a grin.

“We’re holding them in the main square,” he replied. “Most of the rest of the patrols have reported back. Storm Shaper’s moving to encircle the castle and us. We’ve finally established a route of supply and communication with the South Gate. We’re still working on the one to the castle. The heaviest concentrations of Zhuravi are between the square and there.”

She nodded, “Good work. Once we get back, I’ll try to force that one way or the other.”

“Are you sure you’re up for it?” Vladimir looked over at her, concerned. Like all of them, the Guardswoman had been moving and fighting for almost a day. However, she had also been out the previous night scouting and he couldn’t recall her ever having taken time to rest the previous day. Frowning, he asked, “How long have you been up for anyway?”

Beatriz smiled tiredly, “Oh, only fifty hours or so. And I’ll be fine.”

“Are you sure you don’t need to rest, Beatriz?” Tristanne asked, clearly worried.

“Maybe a short nap once we get back to the square. But I don’t need any more than that.” Abruptly, she made Mary move sideways and grabbed Rayelle by the arm just before the young woman fell off her horse. “This one, on the other hand, clearly needs some time in bed before she can go out again,” she said with a smile.

Rayelle reached over and patted the Guardswoman’s arm. “I’m fine. Just a little dizzy. Really.”

Beatriz snorted, “Proclaiming health while you’re deathly pale and almost falling off your horse doesn’t convince me. You’re going to lie down for at least a little while and eat before I let you back into the field.” She leaned close, “Do you understand me, lass?”

“Yes ma’am,” Rayelle said meekly. Then, more animatedly, “We took a few of them out back there. And those giants and ogres. That got exciting.”

“Perhaps a little too exciting,” Monique chimed in from behind her. “I almost had trouble with mine.” Glancing over at Rayelle, she shook her head. “I don’t know how you do it.”

“Do what?” Rayelle asked, slightly puzzled.

“Act like it’s nothing. Like you don’t care.” The infantry lieutenant looked a bit upset.

Rayelle frowned, “I’m good at hiding my feelings. I was just as worried about it as you were. I simply pretended like I wasn’t.”

Danika urged her horse up beside Monique. “Moni, not everybody shows emotion the same way.”

“Yes, but you wouldn’t have acted scared,” the lieutenant retorted.

“You’ve never had to hide your feelings like I, and I’m guessing Rayelle, have had to. Your life’s never depended upon it,” Danika said, face suddenly grim.

Before Monique could answer, they rounded a corner and spilled out onto the main street, only a few blocks from the main square. Ahead of them, Beatriz saw that the Arbatrosian soldiers in the square had erected a barricade of sorts. Made from wagons turned on their sides and boxes and casks stacked in and around them, it was clearly meant to slow any massed charge.

The rest of the cavalry had already moved through the “gate”, a still-upright wagon pulled to one side. Once they rode into the square, soldiers and militia pushed the wagon back across the gap and blocked it into place. They trotted across the square to Vladimir’s headquarters building.

Dismounting, Vladimir led them inside. The main floor was mostly a common room, with stairs to the right and another room through a door in the back of the room. A pair of heavy wooden tables took up most of the space. A man and a woman from the militia were setting plates of food on the table.

Vladimir gestured for his bodyguards to take one table, the rest of them the other. He pulled Rose aside, “Can you tell Natalie, Danielle, and the princess to meet me here in a few minutes? I need to go over plans to make a push towards the castle.”

“Yes sir,” she saluted and hurried back out into the square.

Turning back, he moved over to the head of his bodyguard’s table. Beatriz sat at the other end. She passed a plate of food over to Rayelle. “You need to eat, lass. Then some sleep.”

Rayelle nodded and dug in. On either side of her, Fiona and Cassielle shot concerned looks at her in between bites.

At the head of the other table, Tristanne looked over at Vladimir. “Sir, how long until the king arrives?”

“If they’re on their original schedule, sometime tomorrow.” He frowned, “but who knows if weather or our enemy has delayed them. The king and the troops from the City of Stone will almost certainly be on time. General Voln doesn’t have as far to come, but she’s not moving by train. Whenever they get here, we have to hold the city until then.”

The woman nodded, “Of course, sir.” As she glanced down the table, Beatriz caught her gaze and smiled encouragingly at her.

Rain lashed against the windows and ran in torrents through the gutters. Inside, however, a fire burned merrily in the fireplace, casting its flickering light through the room.

Copyright © Scott Schaper, 2012

List of Characters

The King’s Guard
Beatriz Danelli-Age 28
Allison Reed-Age 29

The House of Voln
Lord Wulfgar Voln-Age 56
Lady Jessica Voln-Age 54
Alexa Voln-Age 28
Alexis Voln-Age 25
Allison Voln-Age 22
Alexandra Voln-Age 19

Colonel Richter Turek-Age 56- Commander of Lord Voln’s personal guard
Lieutenant Richard Turek-Age 22- Lieutenant in Lord Voln’s personal guard
Sir Viktor Kapov-Age 63- Battle-master
Peter Yunvi-Age 46- Castle cook

The King’s Own Legion

General Alexa Voln-Age 28
Archmage Allasra Winters-Age 26
Legion Sergeant Major Josephine Herth-Age 27

First Regiment
Colonel Vladimir Kapov-Age 36
Victoria-Age 25
Regimental Sergeant Major William Morell-Age 56

Regimental Bodyguard
Sergeant Hazel Riss-Age 17
Corporal Rayelle Harper-Age 16
Private Laura Thompson-Age 14
Private Stephanie Allen-Age 14
Private Jillian Olsen-Age 15
Sergeant Cassandra Roseti-Age 17
Corporal Fiona Perez-Age 15
Renee Owen-Age 15

Command Staff
Lieutenant Colonel Kristen Grendel-Age 28
Major Danielle Cantor-Age 21
Major Jessail Kilkel-Age 28
Major Rebecca Theska-Age 29

First Company
Captain Natalie Sanchez-Age 26
Rose-Age 23
Company Sergeant Major Franchesca Rivers-Age 24

Lieutenant Monique Oleron-Age 21
Lieutenant Melissa Turgon-Age 22
Lieutenant Nichole McIntyre-Age 25

Second Company
Captain Emma Athney-Age 20
Rachel Hawk-Age 19
Company Sergeant Major Anastasia Romanof-Age 16

Lieutenant Sarah Drommed-Age 19
Lieutenant Tristanne Bergman-Age 23
Lieutenant Hilary Paulis-Age 16

Third Company
Captain Victor Marsters-Age 45
Ginerva Marks-Age 33

Third Company
Captain Alisa Kapov-Age 23
Ginerva Marks-Age 33

Fourth Company
Captain Justin Pierce-Age 29
Jenny Gilbert-Age 26

Lieutenant Demetri Kallov-Age 26

Fifth Company
Captain Vincent Hogan-Age 41
Nesheram-Age 41

Sixth Company
Captain Clarissa Walford-Age 28
Tamara-Age 28

Sergeant Cynthia Evans-Age 16

Seventh Company
Captain Hannah Rockwell-Age 23
Verity-Age 21

Eighth Company
Captain Benjamin Halest-Age 43
Ivo-Age 39
Company Sergeant Major Patrick McDougall-Age 40

Lieutenant Caeleigh Beranson-Age 17

Ninth Company
Captain Annabelle Diego-Age 22
Arkana-Age 21

Tenth Company
Captain Juliet Morell-Age 28
Devin Serget-Age 25

Twelfth Company
Captain Michelle Ford-Age 28
Elly Patricks-Age 26

Thirteenth Company
Captain Jenna Miskovitz-Age 20
Evelyn Graham-Age 20

Eighteenth Company
Captain Glenvara Lake-Age 24
Daphne-Age 20

Regimental Scout Company
Captain Jason Thompson-Age 32
Octavia-Age 29
Company Sergeant Major Christine Mede-Age 27

Sergeant James Black-Age 17
Corporal Grigori Kulikov-Age 23
Private Daniel Fitzpatrick-Age 16

Regimental Cavalry Company
Captain Elizabeth Martin-Age 32
Ariana-Age 23

Second Reigmental Ranger Company
Captain Kristine Douglas-Age 23
Willa Rowan-Age 19

Lieutenant Petra Michelli-Age 22

Regimental Medical Unit
First Lieutenant Cassielle Archalus-Age 15

Second Company, Menzobarian Rangers
Captain Grace Azvar-Age 17
Emily Athney-Age 18
Company Sergeant Major Alexandra Voln-Age 19

Lieutenant Danika Hughes-Age 16

Elite Legions

First Regiment
Colonel Kate Henna-Age 23
Raquel Moore-Age 21

Standard Legions

Fourth Regiment, First Legion
Colonel Robert Whitaker-Age 48
Garis-Age 45

First Regiment, Second Legion
Colonel Elaine Nichols-Age 31
Tiffany Brinson-Age 24


Eighty-ninth Elite Reserve Regiment
Colonel Charles DuHavel-Age 62

"Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction." - Ronald Reagan
"Judge them not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." - Martin Luther King, Jr.
"Pick up a rifle and you change instantly from a subject to a citizen." - Jeff Cooper
"I like my enemies like James Bond likes his martinis- shaken, not stirred."
My first book, The King's Own

[This message has been edited by General Sajaru (edited 11-18-2014 @ 01:17 PM).]

posted 17 November 2014 12:15 EDT (US)     47 / 54  
Shades of Stalingrad, what a nice urban battle!

Very long, though. Took me two days worth of time to read through it. It was worth it.

Three little nits noted, which is below par for such a long piece:
The hair was dyed, not died.

The prisoner being tortured caves in when his manhood is going to be cut or burned. After telling his bit and ebing threatened with loss again, he pleads "Please do not hurt me" when it is obvious he has to be hurt (killed). Maybe it is better to have him plead by exposing his throat and saying "You promised to cut me here, not there," or something similar. Otherwise it brings the honor of the cutter into doubt.

"Maybe they saw the,"

The what?

Overall, excellent!

|||||||||||||||| A transplanted Viking, born a millennium too late. |||||||||||||||||
|||||||||||||||| Too many Awards to list in Signature, sorry lords...|||||||||||||||||
|||||||||||||||| Listed on my page for your convenience and envy.|||||||||||||||||
Somewhere over the EXCO Rainbow
Master Skald, Order of the Silver Quill, Guild of the Skalds
Champion of the Sepia Joust- Joust I, II, IV, VI, VII, VIII
posted 18 November 2014 13:20 EDT (US)     48 / 54  
The prisoner being tortured caves in when his manhood is going to be cut or burned. After telling his bit and ebing threatened with loss again, he pleads "Please do not hurt me" when it is obvious he has to be hurt (killed). Maybe it is better to have him plead by exposing his throat and saying "You promised to cut me here, not there," or something similar. Otherwise it brings the honor of the cutter into doubt.
Do you think him saying something like "make it quick" or the similar would also work?
"Maybe they saw the,"

The what?
"two companies of our cavalry coming towards them. With the general, no less..."

The description of Beatriz breaks up her dialogue and I hadn't properly capitalized originally.

"Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction." - Ronald Reagan
"Judge them not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." - Martin Luther King, Jr.
"Pick up a rifle and you change instantly from a subject to a citizen." - Jeff Cooper
"I like my enemies like James Bond likes his martinis- shaken, not stirred."
My first book, The King's Own
posted 19 November 2014 00:51 EDT (US)     49 / 54  
"Make it quick" or "Kill me cleanly" would work. Those acknowledge the impending death while pleading for no more pain than necessary.

As to the missing phrase, I kind of figured that from the context, but not everyone might be as clever...

|||||||||||||||| A transplanted Viking, born a millennium too late. |||||||||||||||||
|||||||||||||||| Too many Awards to list in Signature, sorry lords...|||||||||||||||||
|||||||||||||||| Listed on my page for your convenience and envy.|||||||||||||||||
Somewhere over the EXCO Rainbow
Master Skald, Order of the Silver Quill, Guild of the Skalds
Champion of the Sepia Joust- Joust I, II, IV, VI, VII, VIII
posted 23 November 2014 00:53 EDT (US)     50 / 54  
The penultimate chapter and the conclusion of our siege:


25nd of Grakuary, 599
City of Ereth Chul, Menzobaria, Arbatros

Victoria threw herself back, barely avoiding the Zhuravi soldier’s blow. Slashing down, her blade slammed into her opponent’s shoulder, shearing through his pauldron, splintering mail links, and cutting into the flesh beneath. He reeled away with a cry. Snapping a wand off her belt, the mage sent a swarm of magic missile down the steps. Zhuravi soldiers dropped, smoking holes punched into their bodies.

Boots pounded down the stairs behind her. William and Jenna, at the head of a dozen militia and veterans, ran up beside her.

“You okay, lass?” The grizzled regimental sergeant major asked.

“I’m fine,” she snapped. Realizing her tone, “Sorry, I’m just tired.”

“That’s alright lass. We all are,” he replied. Turning to his troops, “Hold the stairs,” he commanded. “I’ll send reinforcements as soon as I can free some up.”

“Yes sir,” the sergeant in command of the unit tapped her spear against her helmet and ordered the rest of the troops into a line on the stairs. The eight spear-wielders formed two lines, with four archers behind.

Victoria turned and started back up the stairs. Her foot slipped on the rain and blood-slick steps, her injured leg went out from under her, and she started to fall. Jenna’s hand shot out and caught the mage by the elbow. With only a little effort, the archer hauled Victoria back to her feet. Once the mage had steadied herself, the three of them took off up the stairs again.

“How’re we doing on arrows, Jenna?” Victoria asked.

The archer captain shook her head, “We’re going to run out if we don’t get resupplied soon.”

“Casualties, William?”

“Heavy, ma’am. We’ve lost several companies of militia already. I’m trying to spread our troops and the veterans around, but we’re stretched thin.” The regimental sergeant major looked haggard, lines of fatigue etched deep into his already craggy face. Blood splattered the hilt of his sword, and coated his plate, running a little in the rain.

Jenna looked even worse; both her hands were covered in blood to the elbows, and more was smeared her armor. Her left vambrace was missing, and a wicked looking gash ran down her forearm. She had another cut down the side of her face, from forehead to chin, and blood trickled out and gathered on her delicate chin with the rain to drip to the ground.

Victoria knew she looked little better. She had dark circles under her eyes, and she sported a gash across her side and another along her thigh. Pushing sodden strands of hair out of her face, she started towards the next stair.

A sudden shout from the nearest tower caused all of them to turn. “The King! The King is here!” Came the call.

The three of them exchanged a brief glance and ran for the turret. Dashing through the door, they raced up the steps to the observation deck. Arriving at the top, they moved to the crenels, peering out into the rain. After a moment, Victoria turned away and doubled over, panting. Jenna turned to the soldier next to her, a young woman from her company. “Where are they, lass?”

The archer, who had been looking through a telescope, handed the instrument to Jenna and pointed out into past the river south of the city, “There, ma’am.” Holding the glass to her eye, Jenna could barely make out a mass of armored soldiers moving towards the causeway. Black banners with the bronze daggers, silver stars, and gold coins of Arbatros hung sodden on their poles at the head of the army.

“So, is it really the king?” Victoria asked.

“Yes ma’am. He’s here,” Jenna replied, “And here early too.”

“Thank God for that.” Turning to one of the soldiers, “Get back to the gate; tell Major Kilkel to be expecting them. I’ll try to make it down there as soon as I can to brief them.”

“Yes ma’am,” the man saluted and ran down the stairs.

Even as they watched, a group of cavalry moved out ahead of the main body, thundering down the ridge on the far side of the basin. The banner at the head of the column suddenly streamed out fully, and a crown over the usual daggers, stars, and coins flashed golden in a ray of sunlight.

“Damn, that’s the king,” Victoria cursed. At Jenna’s look, “He’s the only person who’s allowed to fly the flag with the crown on it. And King William only ever flies it when it’s actually him, even in battle.”

The cavalry unit clattered onto the causeway, over a thousand troops strong. Leading the cavalcade, right behind the standard-bearer, was a man in sparkling full plate. Around him rode around a dozen figures in mismatched armor. Behind them were the rest of the cavalry, resplendent in their full plate, in neat rows along the causeway.

Victoria turned and quickly made her way down the stairs, waving for William and Jenna to follow her. Reaching the wall-walk, she broke into a run. The cut on her thigh throbbed with each step, and she knew that the wetness that soaked her pants leg wasn’t just water.

Dashing down the wall, they rushed through towers and past soldiers until they made it to the gatehouse. The three of them were bent over for a moment, panting, trying to get their breath back. Below them, they heard the thunder of hooves across the causeway, and shouts from the Zhuravi in the square. As the enemy soldiers in the square leapt into action, Victoria stiffened.

The mage’s eyes went out of focus for a moment, then she looked up with a smile. Moving over to one of the arrow slits overlooking the square, she took up a casting position and looked down on the Zhuravi troops gathering below. Storm Shaper had left close to ten companies of infantry and four of crossbowmen near the gate. Two companies of infantry and one of crossbowmen were assaulting the stairs on either side of the gate, and they renewed their attack when they heard the cavalry.

The remaining six companies of infantry fanned out around the gate, crouching behind their shields as the Arbatrosian archers rained up until now carefully conserved arrows down upon them. Just as the cavalry passed through the gate, Victoria started casting, flinging several spells into the enemy formations in quick succession.

Spells also leapt out from the king’s party at the head of the cavalry. While fairly numerous, the Zhuravi mages were severely outclassed, and most of the Arbatrosians’ spells went off. Fireballs burst in black, silver-gold, red-orange, and half a dozen other colors, blue-white lightning lanced out, and many-colored magic missiles sped into the Zhuravi formation. By the time the magical conflagration was over, not a man was left standing to oppose the king’s entrance into the city.

Waving his lance to either side, the king split the column down the center, each half peeling off to charge one of the forces assaulting the stairs. Within a matter of moments, the Zhuravi were in full flight. Pulling up his horse, a pure black Percheron, he dismounted and made his way up the steps. Half a dozen of the King’s Guard dismounted and followed him.

Victoria, Jenna, and William waited for the king at the top of the steps. As he approached, Victoria studied the man. He was tall, at least as tall as Vladimir, and even broader of shoulder. While his plate obscured his body, she could tell that he was extremely well muscled, with large hands and the thickly muscled wrists of a swordsman. His full plate had the gleam of Mithral, and the vambraces that covered his forearms the duller shine of adamantine and were heavily engraved. A little blood splattered his armor, but most of it was washing off in the rain.

A pair of sword hilts stuck up over his shoulders, the scabbards extending past his waist. On the belt at his hips hung two short swords and a warhammer. He had his helmet under one arm, and the rain had plastered his grey-streaked black hair to his head. Looking closely at his face, she saw a fair resemblance between him and his daughter, Grace.

Looking past the king, she took a moment to examine the members of the King’s Guard with him. A step behind his right shoulder was a very short woman, with tightly braided black hair. She wore Mithral full plate and carried a warhammer and a pair of short swords on her belt. A long-handled sword was slung across her back under a kite shield. The hilts of her weapons were wrapped in blood red leather and silver wire.

Behind the king, to his left, was a woman around Victoria’s age and height. She had chin-length, dark brown hair hanging in sodden strands and clinging to her face. She wore Mithral scale mail with steel vambraces, greaves, and pauldrons. Spiked gauntlets covered her hands, and the left one rested the hilt of a long-handled sword at her hip. A short sword hung from the other. The crescent head of a battle-axe was visible behind her head, and she had a kite shield slung across her back. All of her weapons had hilts wrapped in white leather, some spotted with blood, and a curious blood-red wire.

When she saw Victoria, a smile lit her face, and she dashed past the king to the top of the stairs. Throwing her arms around the mage, she hugged her tightly. Victoria returned the embrace with equal intensity. The two held onto each other until the king made the top of the stairs. Then Guardswoman let go of Victoria and moved back to her place next to the king, still grinning.

Victoria, William, and Jenna bowed deeply to the king. “Welcome to Ereth Chul, your majesty,” Victoria said.

He motioned for them to rise. “Thank you, Victoria. Where is General Kapov?”

“He was in the central square, last I heard, your majesty,” the mage replied.

The king motioned to the woman behind his left shoulder. “Kristi, since you seem to know Victoria, why don’t you take a company and get her to General Kapov. I need a mage with him.”

“I think Rose is with Vladimir right now, your majesty,” Victoria commented.

“Would that would be Lord Rose’s niece?”

“Yes, your majesty.”

“Very good.” Turning to his Guard, “Alys, contact Rose and tell General Kapov that we’ve arrived. Ask him how he’d like me to deploy.”

“Yes majesty,” one of the other Guardswomen, of medium height, who seemed to be unarmored, replied. She wore a black dress with purple embroidery, carried a longbow across her back, and a sword, short sword, and a pair of wands at her waist. Victoria also noted that she seemed to be completely dry, despite the pouring rain.

She paused for a moment as she communicated with Rose, then looked up at the king, annoyed. “Rose says she is no longer with the general. Apparently, he’s leading a push on the castle. Something about providing a distraction while Beatriz makes the real attack.”

“Is that so?” At her nod, “Very well. Grace, Twyla, find Beatriz and help her,” he said to the Guard behind him. Two women nodded and dashed off. Victoria took a moment to examine them as they left.

One was of medium height, with light brown hair braided down her back, and a narrow face. She wore ring mail, vambraces, pauldrons, and greaves all of blued steel. As with Kristi, she had a battle-axe on her back, but also had a pair of longknives riding next to it. On the belt around her waist hung a pair of swords, and a short sword was strapped sideways across the back of her belt. All of her weapons had hilts wrapped in green leather and silver wire.

The other woman was shorter and darker complected, with dark brown hair. She wore leather armor with studs that had the distinctive gleam of Mithral. The rest of her armor: greaves, pauldrons, and vambraces, were made of adamantine. She carried long and short swords on her belt, a warhammer on her back, a pair of longknives next to it, and a small shield over it. Orange and silver wire wrapped her weapons’ hilts.

As they neared the bottom of the stairs, while still a dozen steps or so up, they leapt lightly to the ground and dashed off into the town.

“Kristi, escort Victoria to the main square. I want someone there who can get a better picture of what’s going on. Report on the situation when you get there,” the king ordered.

“Yes, your majesty,” Victoria said with a slight bow. “Who will command the wall defenses, majesty?”

Turning to another of his Guard, “Sarah, you’ll have the wall. Get the infantry and archers from at least two regiments of either the King’s Own or the Elite Legions to help bolster the defenses.”

“Majesty,” she replied with a nod. “William, Jenna, come with me,” she ordered. Turning, she jogged back down the stairs, the two following her.

Victoria moved past the king, but stopped when he spoke. “I’ll wait here until the rest of the army gets into the city. Then I’ll advance to the central square. Lieutenant General Sheridan and some of the cavalry and scouts are already around the city, ready to head off any Zhuravi that flee.”

“Majesty,” Victoria bowed to him again and took off down the stairs, Kristi running next to her. The Guardswoman took her hand, and they rushed recklessly down the steps back to the square.

* * *

Beatriz peered through the gloom, her magically enhanced vision allowing her to see as if it were daylight. Looking around the bend in the storm sewer tunnel, she couldn’t see any movement other than the rush of muddy water past the ledge where she crouched. Pale light emanated from some of the lichens that covered walls and ran across the arched ceiling.

Turning back, Beatriz waved for Cassielle, Rayelle, and Fiona to join her. The three crept along the ledge up to the corner, swords drawn. Rayelle was starting to move around the corner when Beatriz threw out her arm, stopping the girl in her tracks.

Motioning for them to fall in behind her, Beatriz crept along the ledge, around the corner. Her footfalls made not a sound on the slick stone walkway, nor did her armor. Slinking up a few dozen feet, she stopped, turned, and motioned once again for the three girls to advance.

Cassielle turned back and gave the ‘moving’ signal to Tristanne, who was crouched with Monique and Danika some fifty feet back up the tunnel. The three crept up towards Cassielle’s position.

Fiona was the first around the corner, closely followed by Rayelle and Cassielle. The three moved quietly forward, Fiona and Rayelle drawing upon their training and experience to remain silent, Cassielle her magically silenced armor.

Suddenly, the medic slipped on a wet patch of stone. Her foot went out from under her, and she slammed down onto one knee. Her armored knee made hardly any noise as it hit, but the impact was bone jarring. Biting back a curse, she rose slowly, wincing as pain shot through her leg.

As they started to move forward again, the water beside them erupted as a glabrezu sprang to its feet. Murky water streamed off its broad shoulders and gleaming pincers. Its eyes glowed with a demonic light, and ropes of slaver dripped from its fang-filled maw.

Cassielle cursed and leapt forward, narrowly dodging aside as the glabrezu’s pincer slammed down onto the ledge next to her. Taking her sword in both hands, she slashed down, almost severing the demon’s arm. Its roar was nearly deafening in the tight confines of the storm sewer tunnel. Swinging its other arm back, it slammed her against the wall. Her head cracked against the stone and she slid to the ground, dazed.

Its blow dented her armor and Cassielle felt at least one rib break. Beside her, Rayelle leapt from the ledge. Soaring through the air, she grasped her blade in two hands and slashed down powerfully. The steel cut into its head, taking off half of the creature’s face. Rayelle slammed into the demon’s falling body, the impact knocking the breath out of her.

As it fell, another five emerged from the water. Their eyes were dots of fire in the darkness. At the first one’s roar, Beatriz had spun and charged back up the ledge towards them.

Quite dead, the summoned demon dissipated into black smoke. Rayelle fell through it and splashed into the muddy water. The weight of her full plate armor dragged her down, and she went under. Icy water filled her nose and mouth, and she pushed at the water madly, trying to resurface. Despite her struggles, she sank into the muddy water, the light fading above her. Lungs screaming for air, she kicked all the harder, but to no avail. As the last of her air bubbled through her lips, darkness slid across her eyes.

Seeing Rayelle go under, Fiona charged forward. A pincer slashed across at her body, and she leapt over it and into the water, headfirst. The cold hit her like a wall, and she couldn’t see anything.

Fiona sheathed her swords as she sank, then kicked off her boots and whipped a knife out. Running it along her sides, she cut the bindings of her scale. Reaching up, she pulled it over her head and let it sink below her. Now less encumbered, she arched her back and kicked powerfully, propelling herself back towards the surface.

The water swirled and churned around Rayelle and Fiona as the five demons threw themselves at Beatriz. Dodging and parrying nimbly, the Guardswoman slashed across at the face of the one nearest her. It tried to jerk its head back, but her blade swept in, lightning fast, and decapitated the demon.

Down the ledge, one of the demons reached out and grabbed Cassielle in its pincered hand. Still woozy from hitting the wall, she only struggled feebly in its grip. Suddenly, an arrow flashed out of the darkness and slammed into the side of the glabrezu’s head. Roaring, it whipped around, swinging Cassielle about like a rag doll.

In the water, Fiona broke the surface, gulped down a breath of air, and dived again, this time towards where she thought Rayelle had gone under. Kicking strongly, she knifed through the water and almost ran into the cavalrywoman.

Grabbing Rayelle under the arms, she tried to bring them up to the surface, but only succeeded in propelling them forward. Struggling with the weight of the other girl and her armor, Fiona managed to maneuver her against the ledge. Lungs burning, she tried to heave the unconscious girl out of the water.

Suddenly, someone grabbed Rayelle and almost threw her out of the water. Fiona finally managed to break the surface. Breathing deeply, she sucked in air. A heavily calloused hand reached down and grabbed her by the wrist. She grabbed her rescuer’s armored forearm.

Looking up, Fiona saw that it was Beatriz. The Guardswoman was lifting her with her left hand while fending off two of the demons with her sword in the other. For some reason, both seemed to be hesitant to attack Beatriz. However, one of them, obviously thinking the Guardswoman distracted, swept a pincer at her.

Beatriz snapped her blade down with a flick of her wrist. The steel cracked off the pincer and a flash of white fire shot out into the monster. Roaring, it reeled away, stung.

Beatriz finished pulling Fiona out of the water, then abruptly shoved the girl behind herself. Whipping her blade across her body, she knocked the second glabrezu’s flashing pincer aside. Lunging forward, she stabbed it through the neck. It fell, body dissipating before it hit the water.

Down the tunnel, Tristanne and Monique charged towards the glabrezu holding Cassielle while Danika sent more arrows speeding towards it. Seeing the two lieutenants charging towards it, it dropped Cassielle on the ledge and readied itself.

Monique was the first to reach it, and had to duck fast as one of its pincers whipped through the air at her head. It still caught her in the back, sending her sprawling. Only Tristanne’s desperate grab for the back of her armor kept Monique from tumbling into the water. As it was, the two women almost went in anyway.

Roaring gleefully, the glabrezu reached down for Tristanne, wrapping its pincer around her torso and squeezing. The cruelly sharp pincer shattered scales and began to bite into her flesh. Tristanne felt her ribs creak, and one snapped, driving a sharp pain through her side.

Suddenly, the demon dropped her, roaring in agony. Tristanne slammed down onto the ledge, jarring her rib and sending waves of pain shooting through her. Looking back, through a haze of pain, she saw Cassielle strike the glabrezu again. The medic’s sword blazed with pure white light as it struck, and her blow opened a great gash across the demon’s chest. Collapsing backwards, it dissolved into black mist that quickly dissipated.

Back against the wall behind Beatriz, Fiona struggled to draw her sword with shaking hands. Her teeth chattered as the cold air in the storm sewer tunnel hit her wet clothes and skin. Cursing, she managed to get her sword out. Only an act of will allowed her to still her hands.

In front of her, Beatriz faced off against one of the two surviving glabrezu. This one was slightly larger than the other ones, and seemed to be a bit faster too. The two went back and forth for several moments, neither landing a blow. Suddenly, the demon darted a claw past the Guardswoman to grab at Rayelle. Standing beside her friend’s limp form, Fiona saw the pincer about to close around Rayelle. Taking her sword in both hands, she swept the blessed blade down onto the glabrezu’s arm.

The razor-sharp steel bit into the demon’s flesh, cutting to the bone. Howling in pain, it wrenched its arm back, ripping the sword out of her hands. As it moved back, Beatriz struck, a two-handed blow to the chest that laid it open from breastbone to waist. It too dissolved into mist as it fell backwards.

Down the tunnel, Tristanne struggled to her feet, ignoring the shooting pain in her side. Taking her sword in both hands, she charged the last glabrezu, boots making only the slightest sound on the slick stones of the ledge. Nevertheless, something alerted the demon to her presence, and it whipped around to face her.

Raising her sword over her head, Tristanne leapt into the air. She snapped her torso forward in a powerful downward blow that would have nearly cut the demon in half.

At the last moment, it spun aside and lashed out with one of its clawed hands. The wickedly sharp talons raked across Tristanne’s adamantine scale mail. The ultra-hard material kept out the monster’s claws, but they left long bright marks across her torso. Furthermore, the force of the blow drove the broken rib into her chest, and blinding agony shot through her. The hit also threw her across the tunnel and slammed her into the wall. Crying out softly, Tristanne slid to the ground and lay still.

Seeing the lieutenant go down, Danika sent a hail of arrows down the tunnel at the glabrezu. They seemed to do little more than irritate the beast, and it began to lumber down the tunnel towards her, splashing through the surging water of the storm sewer.

Dropping her bow, Danika drew her sword in one hand and a longknife in the other. Bracing herself, she moved into a crouch as the fifteen-foot tall demon neared with uncanny speed. Suddenly, it faltered and started to twist, but dissolved in mist before it was even halfway around.

Standing behind it, her boots treading water as if it were solid land was Beatriz, sword extended for the killing blow.

Danika looked at the Guardswoman, amazed. In reply, Beatriz held up her sword-hand and pointed to a large gold ring set with an intricate pattern of sparkling black gemstones. Moving easily, she walked back to the ledge.

Danika surveyed their group. Tristanne lay limp and unmoving halfway down the tunnel. Cassielle leaned on her sword near her. Behind Beatriz, Rayelle was beginning to stir and cough. Fiona crouched over her friend, shoulders shaking. In front of Danika, Monique was back on her feet, sword at the ready.

Cassielle rushed over to Rayelle. “Are you alright, Ray?” Helping her sit up, the medic pounded her on the back. The cavalrywoman coughed up quite a bit of water. Cassielle give her a few more whacks on the back then moved back while Rayelle took deep breaths.

Beside her, Fiona had begun to shake uncontrollably, her fingertips and lips turning a pale blue. Her hands were trembling so badly that she dropped her sword. Before it hit the ground, however, Beatriz caught it. Pulling off her cloak, she wrapped it around the sodden, shivering girl’s shoulders.

Fiona nodded her thanks. Seeing that the girl was still shaking, Beatriz wrapped her arms around Fiona, holding her tightly against her body. Looking back up the tunnel, the Guardswoman saw that Tristanne was still lying on the ledge. Grabbing Cassielle’s shoulder, she pulled the medic away from Rayelle and pointed down the tunnel, “See to Tris.”

Cassielle nodded and ran over to the lieutenant. Kneeling beside Tristanne, she rolled the woman over and checked her pulse. The movement caused her eyes to flutter open, and she coughed up blood, crimson spilling down her chin.

Cursing to herself, Cassielle bent down over Tristanne. Running her hands down the lieutenant’s side, she felt that the woman’s side had been caved in, her ribs driven into her chest. Cassielle worked quickly to undo the fastenings of Tristanne’s armor, working to expose the wound. As she did so, the woman coughed up more blood, her chin and neck now slick with it.

Tristanne whimpered when Cassielle pulled off her scale, but held still. Tearing away the lieutenant’s shirt, the medic pressed her hands against the bruised and contused flesh. Golden light sprang up as she willed healing energy into Tristanne. Slowly, the bones knit back together in their proper places, the woman’s side returning to its natural shape.

Knowing that Tristanne’s internal organs were damaged, Cassielle pushed more healing into the other woman’s body. Golden light spread from her fingers and sunk into Tristanne’s skin. Soon, though, the light dimmed and died. Pulling her cross out from under her armor, the medic whispered a prayer and felt the energy flow out through her hand into Tristanne. Light flared up, sending shadows dancing across the stone walls of the tunnel.

After some moments, Cassielle sat back. Tristanne’s flesh beneath her fingers was smooth and unblemished once more, and the lieutenant sat up without pain. Abruptly, she turned to the side and vomited blood onto the ledge next to her. Coughing and hacking, she spat out more blood onto the stones. After a few moments, however, the fit passed and she straightened.

Tristanne started to get up, leaning on Cassielle for support. The diminutive medic suddenly stumbled, almost sending both of them into the water. Tristanne tried to hold her up, but she was already weak from shock and blood-loss. Monique and Danika rushed over help them. Stumbling and staggering, the four made their way to Beatriz and the others.

The Guardswoman still had her arms and cloak wrapped around Fiona. The ranger’s lips had lost their blue tinge, but she was still shivering violently. Rayelle could see Fiona’s jaw clenched tight to keep her teeth from chattering. Turning to the rushing water beside her, Beatriz gestured into its depths, making a grabbing motion with her hand, then lifting it up. Fiona’s boots and armor rose from the torrent, water streaming off them. Gesturing again, Beatriz brought them over to the ledge. Bringing her arm back, she hugged Fiona’s trembling form tighter against her body.

In front of them, Rayelle stood, shook some water off her sword, and sheathed it. Watching the young woman, Beatriz’s eyebrows rose. Steam was beginning to rise off Rayelle’s exposed skin and clothes. “That’s some ring you’ve got, lass,” Beatriz commented.

Rayelle held up her left hand. On her index finger was a plain red-gold band set with a row of small rubies around the middle. “I took it off an Indari warlord’s son. Apparently it’s originally from the Elemental Plane of Fire.”

“Could you lend Fiona some of your warmth?” Beatriz asked, motioning Rayelle over.

Moving over to the two, Rayelle wrapped her arms around Fiona, squeezing the girl between them. Soon, Fiona’s shudders lessened, then subsided altogether. Once she had stopped shaking, Beatriz helped her pull her armor back on. She shivered a little as the cold steel scales ran across her body.

Rayelle pulled her close once again. Cassielle moved up next to Fiona, whispered a word, and ran her hands along the girl’s sides. The slashed bindings of her armor fused back together seamlessly. After a few moments, Fiona started to draw away from Rayelle, but the cavalrywoman reached up, took Fiona’s face in her hands, and kissed her.

Fiona seemed startled at first, but after a moment responded energetically, wrapping her hands around the back of Rayelle’s head.

Beatriz waited for almost a minute, then cleared her throat. “Girls, perhaps you can continue this later?”

Rayelle and Fiona quickly broke apart. Both flushed, looking down. Beatriz quickly moved up to them and ran her hand across their cheek. “It’s nothing to be ashamed of. But we need to move.”

They nodded and the six young women fell in behind the Guardswoman as she strode off down the tunnel, her boots making not a sound.

* * *

Gusts of cold wind sent sheets of rain pelting across the deserted square. Beatriz lifted the storm sewer grate slowly, ignoring the icy water streaming down her arms and body. Looking around carefully, she turned as much as her position on the ladder allowed, trying to complete her scan of the square.

Not seeing any enemies, Beatriz gently set the grate to one side and hoisted herself into the alley off the square. Reaching back down, she hauled Tristanne up beside her. Then she quickly moved to the mouth of the alley, pulling her bow off her back and notching an arrow to the string.

The six young women moved out of the sewer, taking up defensive positions around the grate. Once they were all out, Beatriz cautiously led the way into the square. Crouching at the entrance to the square, she motioned for Monique, Tristanne, and Danika to move along the edge of the square to the left.

The three women crept out into the open, skulking across the front of some buildings. Partway along the edge, they stopped, taking cover in a doorway. Beatriz nodded to Cassielle, and the medic, Rayelle, and Fiona moved out into the square.

As Cassielle followed the other two, she suddenly felt the presence of evil blossom to her left, through the building beside her. Then, abruptly, a creature of pure evil appeared right in front of her. The black aura that surrounded it was as dark as a moonless night sky.

The creature stood over twelve feet tall, with leathery wings extending from the back of its massively muscled, hairy body. Flames danced across its skin and dripped from its arms, causing steam to rise from its body as the rain hit it. In one hand, it held a whip seemingly made of flames, and in the other, a lightning-bolt shaped sword. It had a bestial face, with horns curving down from the sides of its head.

The overwhelming evil and sheer physical presence of the balor was such that Cassielle almost missed the five mariliths around it. The other demons were particularly ugly, with sharp, pointed teeth, stringy hair, and a snake-like tail instead of legs. They had six arms, with a sword in each hand.

Cassielle froze in shock for a moment. The marilith nearest her attacked, slashing down with two of its swords. Snapping her sword up, she parried both of them. Suddenly, its tail slammed into Cassielle, throwing her off her feet and into the square, where she lay, stunned. In front of her, Fiona and Rayelle fell back as another of the mariliths advanced.

Cursing, Beatriz ran towards them, firing a stream of arrows at the demons. Several of them slammed into the lead marilith, throwing it back. The balor bellowed a word and Beatriz felt a touch of evil power brush across her skin. The magical resistance imbued into her Guard tattoo easily protected her from the spell.

However, the others did not get off so easily. Fiona froze were she stood, unable to move. Tristanne, Monique, and Rayelle staggered, but kept moving. Only Danika seemed mostly unaffected, but even she looked a little dazed. Cassielle, already lying motionless on the ground, appeared unchanged.

Dropping her bow, Beatriz drew her sword and charged the group of demons. A wall of blades of shimmering force suddenly sprang up in her path. Trusting in her tattoo, she lowered her head and barreled through it. The marilith in front of her seemed surprised, but slashed at her with three of its swords.

Parrying all of them, Beatriz darted past the blades and slashed at one of the demon’s arms. Her holy blade sheared through the creature’s arm, sending acrid smelling black blood spurting into the frigid air. Leaping up, she easily dodged the marilith’s sweeping tail, and flipped over the demon’s other three slashing swords.

Landing behind it, Beatriz stabbed back and up. Her sword punched through the demon’s tough hide and up into the creature’s heart. Withdrawing her blade from fast dissipating mist, she spun under the next demon’s swords, slashing at its body. The marilith parried, but the force of her blow nearly knocked the sword out of its hand.

Snapping a longknife out of its sheath on her back, Beatriz slashed across with blinding speed. The marilith scrambled to parry, but her blade slipped past its defenses to open a gash on the demon’s stomach. Roaring in pain and anger, the marilith slashed at her with all six swords, the blades coming from all angles.

Dazed but still functional, Danika sent a stream of arrows flying past Monique and Tristanne at the marilith Fiona and Rayelle were fighting to keep it distracted while the two girls recovered. The demon knocked several of them aside with its swords, but a few slammed into its body, sending black blood flying.

While her arrows distracted it a little, the demon still pressed forward towards Fiona and Rayelle. Rayelle recovered first, and managed, with the help of Danika’s arrows, to keep the demon at bay until Fiona shook off the spell’s effects. However, she paid the price of fighting it on her own; the demon’s swords scored bright lines across her armor and shield. A couple blows got through her armor or found exposed flesh; she gained a slash to the leg, another to the side, and one across her forehead.

Fiona finally threw off the effects of the spell and threw herself into the fight beside her friend. Now together, the two girls worked in tandem, parrying furiously as they retreated.

Racing across the square, Monique and Tristanne finally reached them, and began attacking the marilith recklessly. Throwing her shield over her head, Tristanne blocked two of the demon’s swords as she slashed at its body. It swept a blade down to block even as its tail whipped around towards her. Cursing, she dived over the sweeping appendage and threw herself into a roll.

As Tristanne came up, the demon’s tail whipped back and slammed into her back, throwing her to ground. As she started to rise again, it snaked around her and started squeezing. She struggled against the constricting coils, but her arms were pinned. Her sheet metal covered wooden shield creaked as the pressure forced it against her armored body. Straining to breathe, her hands scrabbled at her waist for another weapon.

Suddenly, Danika was there, her sword in both hands. Slashing down powerfully, her sword shattered the scales of the demon’s tail and bit into its flesh. Black blood sprayed into the frigid air, smoking in the cold. It reflexively released Tristanne, and she rolled away, gasping for breath. Shrieking in pain, the marilith slashed down at Danika with one of its swords.

Danika tried to twist aside, but the blade slammed into her shoulder with devastating force. The blow sheared through her Mithral pauldron and cut into her shoulder, slicing flesh and shattering bone. Reeling away with a little cry of pain, Danika, sword in one hand, barely parried another blow from the demon.

However, their efforts managed to distract the marilith. Fiona, Monique, and Rayelle charged in, hacking and slashing at the demon. Black blood smoked and steamed as numerous cuts opened up on its body. Whipping back around, it focused on the three young women in front of it, but the damage was done. Rayelle backed up a few steps, discarding her shield.

Taking her long-handled sword in a two-handed grip, Rayelle charged back towards the demon. Fiona and Monique pressed it hard, the infantry lieutenant managing to slash open one of its arms. Leaping into the air, Rayelle slashed down with all her strength, snapping her torso forward to add power to the blow.

The marilith started to twist away, but Tristanne took her sword in both hands and drove the blade through the demon’s tail, causing it to shriek in pain and pinning it in place. Rayelle’s blow hit the marilith in the shoulder. The blow jarred through her hands as her blade cut the demon from right shoulder to left hip. It dissolved into mist as she fell, and she tucked and rolled to absorb the impact of her fall.

Rayelle came to her feet right in front of another marilith. The demon slashed at her with all of its swords. Throwing herself back, she almost avoided the blades. Two scraped across her gorget, another glanced off her pauldron, but the rest slashed into her torso.

Beatriz sprang into the air and called upon her ring’s power. As she reached the top of her leap, she took off, soaring into the air. As the startled marilith below her started to look up, she spun sideways, her blade slashing its face. The blow nearly cut its head in half, and it toppled over, dissolving into mist before it hit the paving stones.

Slipping her longknife back into its sheath, she snapped out a dagger and sent it spinning towards the next marilith. The demon dodged aside, but she was already upon it, slashing upward in a powerful arc, her holy blade shearing clean through the marilith. Charging through mist fast dissipating in the rain, she slashed at the balor.

It suddenly disappeared from in front of Beatriz, and she nearly stumbled when her blade didn’t meet any resistance. Spinning, she barely parried aside the balor’s killing blow. As it was, the blade slashed across her dragonhide armor, parting the leather as if it were paper, and leaving a shallow gash across her side.

Cursing, Beatriz struck back, but it narrowly parried her blow. Turning, it disappeared again. Spinning, she kept her blade up, searching for the greater demon.

The last marilith’s blows crashed into Rayelle’s side. They cut right through her plate, shattered ribs, and severed organs. She flew a dozen feet into the square, blood spraying into the air behind her, where she lay, still.

Tristanne, Monique, and Fiona faced off against the demon. The two infantry lieutenants tried to shield the less experienced ranger from the worst of the demon’s attacks, but it quickly pushed them back. Blades coming at them from all sides, they retreated.

Suddenly, Monique slipped on the water-slick paving stones. Her foot went out from under her, and she fell, hard, the breath knocked out of her. The marilith swept down on her, two of its blades stabbing at her body. Whipping her sword across her body, she parried one aside, and threw her shield over her body.

The demon’s sword slammed into the shield, punched through the sheet metal, splintered the wood, and slammed into her breastplate. Metal shrieked in protest as the marilith leaned on the blade. Her plate held for a moment, then gave way, the demon’s sword punching through to impale Monique to the ground. Blood sprayed up, and she screamed as the blade transfixed her.

Beatriz suddenly felt the balor’s presence behind her. Spinning, she whipped her blade across her body, blocking its sword. However, she didn’t see the flaming whip sweep across and wrap around her legs. The greater demon wrenched the burning lash back, yanking her off her feet.

The Guardswoman went down with a curse, curling her body as she fell. Her back slammed into the paving stones, driving the breath out of her. As soon as she was down, the balor started dragging Beatriz towards its flaming body. Snatching a longknife off her back, she stabbed the blade in between two paving stones. The point skittered across the stone, throwing up sparks before it caught.

Beatriz jerked to a halt for a moment before the balor yanked on its flaming lash again. She almost lost her grip on the knife; as it was, her arm nearly came out of its socket. Slashing across, she tried to sever the whip, but missed as the demon tugged at its lash again. Pain shot through her ankles as the flaming whip bit into her flesh. The balor slashed down, and its blade cut into her arm, laying it open to bone. With another jerk of its whip, it yanked her into the flames that burned on its body.

Fiona and Tristanne scrambled to retreat as the marilith slithered towards them, leaving Monique impaled on one of its swords. Abruptly, they heard the thunder of hooves behind them, and Fiona turned to see who was approaching. As the horsemen charged out of the street and onto the square, her heart sank.

At the head of the mass of Zhuravi heavy cavalry rode a pair of black robed mages, wands drawn. The incessant rain rattled off the dull plate of the enemy cavalry and ran down Fiona’s face. Taking her swords in a firmer grip, she moved into a crouch, back-to-back with Tristanne. They heard Beatriz scream from behind them, a sound that filled them with dread.

The marilith moved inexorably closer, its mouth open in a twisted imitation of a smile. From the other side, the enemy cavalry thundered towards them, visors down, lances lowered, and warhorses snorting. Beatriz screamed again, but her cry was abruptly cut short.

Suddenly, the front row of horses seemed to stumble and falter. Blood sprayed from their throats, and the animals collapsed. Both Zhuravi mages suffered similar fates, one taking a dagger in the eye, the other a blade in the throat. Closely packed as they were, the second rank had little chance of avoiding the bodies of the first, and more cavalry joined the pile up, until most of the unit was involved.

A woman suddenly appeared out of nowhere, between Tristanne and the marilith. Her long braid of light brown hair snapped out behind her as she drew the battle-axe off her back. The demon slithered forward and slashed at her with all five of its remaining swords. With lightning speed, the woman spun away, then dived back in, slashing with her axe. The crescent blade blurred across and decapitated the marilith.

From Beatriz’s direction, they heard another woman’s voice shout, “Try me!” Then the balor roared and they heard the clash of swords.

Even as the marilith dissolved into mist, the woman was running through it, dropping her axe as she went. Looking past her, they saw Beatriz lying on the ground and a dark skinned woman wielding a longsword facing the balor.

The first woman snapped a pair of swords off her belt and attacked the balor, forcing it back. While she was attacking, the second woman dashed over to Beatriz, brushing a hand across the Guardswoman’s face. With a start, Beatriz sat up. As she rose, the second woman grabbed her hand, pulling her to her feet. Beatriz extended her hand, and her sword shot off the ground to fill it.

Together, the two advanced towards the balor, even as the first woman forced it to retreat, her swords spinning and twirling around it. Suddenly, it vanished, but not before the first woman opened a cut across its arm. The three moved into a circle, facing outwards, ready for it to return. The first woman unexpectedly turned and ran towards Fiona and Tristanne, eyes focused on something behind them.

The two whipped around and Tristanne jumped on Fiona, throwing her to the ground as a Zhuravi cavalryman’s mace swept through the air at her head. Rolling off her, Tristanne slashed at the man. He hopped back, then slashed at her. She parried awkwardly.

Suddenly he flew away, and the first woman leapt over them, blood flying from her sword. From behind the Zhuravi man, the balor loomed over them. Caught unawares by the first woman’s sudden appearance, it hesitated for a moment. She dashed towards it, throwing herself onto her back and sliding across the paving stones, between its legs. Twisting, she slashed out to both sides, nearly severing the demon’s legs.

Roaring in pain, it spun around, burning whip snapping after her. She came to her feet between a pair of Zhuravi cavalrymen. Snapping her swords out, she decapitated both as she leapt over the whip. Beatriz and the second woman charged the demon, but it held them off with its whip and sword. Its strength and skill forced them back next to the first. Suddenly, flames shot through the air, engulfing the space where they stood and for dozens of feet in either direction.

Fiona cried out as the heat of the flames warmed her face and the Guardswomen disappeared. She let out another cry, this time happily, when the flames ended and the three women charged the balor. It slashed at them with blinding speed. They responded with equal swiftness, moving together in complex patterns that rocked it back on its heels. Unexpectedly, it faltered. Turning, it fell, revealing Cassielle standing behind it, sword extended.

With a curse, Beatriz charged forward and jumped on top of Tristanne and Fiona. The second woman shielded Cassielle and the first woman ducked as the balor exploded in a blinding flash of light. Waves of heat and energy washed over them. They felt Beatriz shudder as it hit her where she lay on top of them.

Beatriz sat up with a groan. Tristanne looked at her as she rose. The Guardswoman’s armor was in tatters, with blood coating her torso and legs. Some still dripped from a cut on her leg and another on her side. Beatriz turned and helped the two to their feet, then turned to check on the two other Guardswomen.

Both seemed mostly unharmed, although the first woman had a shallow cut across her stomach, and the second’s back was slightly singed. The second helped Cassielle up, then the three of them ran over to Monique. Fiona and Tristanne followed more slowly.

The first woman pulled the sword out of the lieutenant’s body. Then Beatriz bent over Monique and began chanting a healing spell. Turning away, the first woman extended her hand to Tristanne. The two clasped forearms. “Lady Assistant Commander Grace Litel.” Gesturing to the other woman, “Twyla Haminton.”

Grace clasped forearms with Fiona and Twyla with both of them. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, my lady,” Tristanne said.

Grace smiled, “I take it you’ve heard of me?”

“Yes my lady. I’ve heard many things about you.”

“Not all good I hope?” She grinned, “It wouldn’t do to be too well thought of.” Turning, she hurried over to where Rayelle lay. Crouching next to the young woman’s still form, she pressed her hand to Rayelle’s chest and murmured a word. Blood red light ran across the girl’s stomach and side, healing the grievous damage there.

Tristanne looked alarmed, “Whose magic is that?”

“It’s Eleesa’s. She’s the other Lady Assistant Commander of the King’s Guard, and the best healer among us. She enchants our rings with healing spells,” Twyla said.

Tristanne nodded, “Is that how you healed Beatriz?”

Twyla arched a perfectly shaped eyebrow. “Are you saying that you don’t think I’m a healer?”

“You don’t look like one,” Cassielle said.

Twyla grinned, exchanging a glance with Grace, who had looked up. “Looks aren’t everything, lass. Although you’re right, I’m not a healer.”

Tristanne examined the woman more closely. Twyla wore Mithral studded black leather armor and greaves, pauldrons, and vambraces with the distinctive dull sheen of adamantine. She had a longsword and short sword hanging from the silver-chased belt around her hips. Two longknife hilts and the head of a warhammer stuck up over her shoulder, and Tristanne could recall seeing a small shield strapped over them. All of her weapons’ hilts were wrapped with orange leather and silver wire.

Twyla had dark eyes and dark brown hair gathered into a sloppy ponytail behind her head. Her armor was short-sleeved, and Tristanne caught a flash of orange and silver on her right elbow and black above her vambrace on the inside of her left forearm.

Looking back up to the Guardswoman’s face, Tristanne realized that Twyla had been studying her just as closely. Blushing, she looked down and noticed a shallow cut running down the Guardswoman’s right leg. Bending down, she whispered a word and pressed her hand to the wound. Golden light ran along the length of the cut, sealing it. As Tristanne removed her hand, it caught against Twyla’s pants’ leg, and she noticed an intricate black knot tattooed down the Guardswoman’s thigh.

As she straightened, it was Tristanne’s turn to raise an eyebrow. Twyla gave her a little smile and a slight shake of her head.

Grace rose, helping Rayelle to stand. Beatriz moved over to them, assisting Monique. Cassielle trailed behind them. Together, they moved over to Danika. Monique went to her knees next to the ranger and began pulling the ruined pauldron off Danika’s shoulder. Cassielle crouched next to her and, once the piece of armor was gone, pressed a hand to the girl’s shoulder, whispering a word. Golden light shot up, illuminating her face from below and highlighting the dark circles under the medic’s eyes.

Standing next to Tristanne, Twyla and Beatriz embraced each other tightly. They held on to each other for several moments, then moved apart, and Grace hugged Beatriz more briefly. When they separated, the three conversed in low voices for a moment.

Finished healing Danika, Cassielle rose, then staggered to the side. Rayelle and Fiona leapt forward and caught her. Cursing, the medic pressed her hands against her chest and muttered a few words. This close, the two girls could see golden light appearing from her fingertips and sinking into her body.

After a moment, Cassielle straightened. Turning, she hugged both of them close, then kissed Rayelle on the lips. They kissed passionately. Then, breaking apart, she moved over to Fiona and kissed her as well.

Beatriz glanced over at them with a smile. Then she turned to where Monique was helping Danika to her feet. “These are Lady Assistant Commander Grace Litel and Dame Twyla Haminton of the King’s Guard,” she said, gesturing to the two other Guardswomen. Monique, Rayelle, Cassielle, and Danika clasped forearms with the two, murmuring greetings.

When they moved apart, Grace spoke. “The king sent us to help you ladies finish your mission. We’re going to push on to the castle and contact Lord Voln. I’m sure he’ll be happy to know that the king’s here. Then I’ll take charge of whatever forces he has at the castle and sally forth to meet the king’s forces as he moves north. Anything we need to attend to before we leave?”

Cassielle glanced around and receiving shakes of the head, replied for them, “No, my lady.”

“Very good,” Grace said. “Oh, and you can just call me Grace, when we’re in the field. No need for formalities here.”

“As you wish, ma’am,” Cassielle said.

Grace gave her a look, but let it go. Turning, she led them across the square to where the Zhuravi cavalry unit was piled. Striding through the mass of bodies, she cut down half a dozen enemy soldiers without breaking stride. Beatriz and Twyla spread out to either side, executing those that they found.

Passing out the other end of the square, the three Guardswomen took up formation around the rest of them. Grace and Beatriz moved out to the front, advancing down the sides of the road. Twyla brought up the rear, slipping her warhammer off her back.

The nine women moved quietly through the streets, weapons at the ready. They could hear the sound of fighting to the west, but they encountered no one until they neared the castle.

Grace and Beatriz suddenly stiffened at the head of group. Turning, Grace waved for them to move against the wall. Once they had, she and Beatriz crept up the street, sliding out weapons. Twyla closed up behind the group, flattening herself against the wall next to Tristanne. Tapping the woman on the shoulder, she motioned for her to look backwards.

Grace and Beatriz ran to the corner, then stopped and peered around. There was a sudden nasty whirring sound, and Grace jerked her head back with a curse. A crossbow bolt slashed through the air where her head had been. She snapped some objects out of a pocket, and, moving back around the corner, flicked her hand out flat. Half a dozen objects sprayed out, almost lost in the rain.

Beatriz yanked her back as a half a dozen quarrels whipped past, sending sparks flying when they struck the paving stones. Rayelle wasn’t sure what the objects had been until she heard a scream and several thumps from around the corner and saw Grace’s tight smile.

Beatriz unslung her longbow and set an arrow to the string. She tapped Grace on the shoulder, and the senior Guardswoman dropped to the ground. On her stomach, she inched ever so slowly forward until she could see around the end of the building. Beatriz glanced down at her, and Grace held up five fingers.

Beatriz nodded, then spun around the corner, her bow coming up. Arm blurring, she loosed five arrows in the span of a couple seconds, then threw herself back before any return fire reached her. She need not have worried, as a series of screams and thumps came from around the corner, and Grace grinned up at Beatriz.

Reaching down, Beatriz pulled Grace to her feet, then drew another arrow. The senior Guardswoman ran across the street, boots not even making a whisper of sound. Beatriz waved for Rayelle to cross, and the girl ran across to Grace. Drawing her own bow, she turned back to cover the street as well. Cassielle dashed across the street, then Fiona followed her.

As the girl reached the halfway point, they heard a clatter down the street. She froze abruptly, her sodden black cloak snapping out in front of her. Danika and Rayelle drew back the arrows on their bows, scanning the street for enemies.

For a moment, everything was frozen, the only movement the rain, falling steadily from the leaden sky. When she saw nothing, Grace motioned for Fiona to move the rest of the way across the street. As soon as she was across, Danika ran after her.

Monique tapped Tristanne on the shoulder before she dashed out into the street. Turning, Tristanne nudged Twyla, then started to move out into the street. Suddenly, the Guardswoman lunged after her, crying out a warning. She slammed into Tristanne’s back, throwing the woman to the ground.

A bolt of fire streaked out from a building up the street, slamming into Twyla’s side. The flames scorched her armor, but seemed not to harm her. However, the score and a half of crossbow quarrels that sped out from the three squads of Zhuravi that abruptly appeared on the street shot towards them.

Unexpectedly, a shimmering black wall sprang up between them and the bolts. However, it had been a ragged volley, and half a dozen quarrels were already past when it formed. Three whistled over the two women’s heads. One dropped below Tristanne, striking her breastplate as she fell.

Another of the quarrels slammed into Tristanne’s shoulder, punching through her Mithral pauldron and shattering bone beneath. Blood sprayed out, and she flew sideways. The last bolt struck Twyla in the side.

The heavy steel tip slammed into her leather armor and bounced off without puncturing it. However, the force sent her flying to the side, and she landed heavily on top of Tristanne. The lieutenant let out a little cry.

Spinning, Fiona saw a tall woman standing in the street, the wind whipping at her hair and short black dress. As the ranger watched, the woman rose up into the air and black nimbuses of power gathered around her hands. Once she was above the wall of force, the Zhuravi fired their crossbows at her.

The steel tipped bolts slashed through the air towards her, but she seemed unperturbed. Gathering the power in her hands, she sent bolts of pure magical power at the Zhuravi. Black energy crackled through the air, slamming into the street amongst them and rolling out to incinerate all of them, including the Zhuravi wizard.

As they died, the Zhuravi’s crossbow bolts streaked through the air at the mage. When they neared her body, they burst into black flames, and the ash fell with the rain.

Gesturing sharply, the mage loosed a fireball down the street. Black flames shot up, and cries drifted back to them. Turning, the woman drifted back to the ground and made her way over to them.

As she neared, Fiona noticed that silver embroidery ran down the front and sides of her dress. The hilt of a sword stuck up over her shoulder and she wore a pair of short swords on a black leather belt. She appeared to be unarmored, save for the adamantine vambraces strapped to her forearms.

Twyla moved easily to her feet, although Rayelle noticed that she winced as little. Bending back down, she helped Tristanne to turn over and sit up. The lieutenant clutched at her shoulder, blood running out between her fingers and washing down her side in the rain. Cassielle hurried over to them.

Grabbing the bolt, Twyla looked at Tristanne, “Ready lass?”

Tristanne gave her a tight nod and gritted her teeth. The Guardswoman yanked the bolt from the lieutenant’s shoulder with one fast motion. Blood sprayed out, splattering onto the paving stones, and Tristanne bit off a scream. Cassielle quickly pressed her hands to the wound and whispered a word of healing. Golden light played across Tristanne’s shoulder, and she cursed as it knit muscle and flesh back together.

As she healed Tristanne, the woman walked over to the rest of them. Grace and Beatriz smiled at the newcomer and moved to greet her. “Did Michael decide we were taking too long and send you to hurry us along?” Grace asked, her tone light.

“Something like that. Although you know I’m not exactly the timeliest myself,” the woman said. “He mostly just wanted you to have some magical support. I know you three get into trouble when there isn’t a mage to help.”

“As if you don’t need our help,” Beatriz said, clapping the mage on the shoulder. Then she gave her a quick hug, whispering something in the mage’s ear that made the other woman laugh.

Grace embraced her as well, then brought her over to where the rest of them were gathered. Cassielle and Twyla helped the lieutenant across the street to join them.

“Ladies, this is Archmage Kristen Placer, perhaps the most powerful mage in all of Arbatros,” Grace introduced the woman.

The woman waved away the praise, “I’m sure there’re better mages. And just Kristi is fine.”

“It’s an honor to meet you, ma’am,” Cassielle said for the group.

Kristi merely smiled. “It’s nice to meet you fine ladies as well.” Looking over at Twyla, she grinned more broadly.

Checking to see that Tristanne was steady, Twyla ran over to Kristi and embraced her briefly.

“So what’s the plan, Gracie?” Kristi asked.

“Are there any Zhuravi between here and the castle?” She asked the mage.

Kristi whispered a word, then nodded, “There are two companies set up in the next street. Crossbows and infantry.” Grinning, “Want me to send them a fireball?”

Grace grinned in reply, “It’s nice to have a mage along sometimes.”

Kristi arched an eyebrow, “Sometimes?”

“Yes, sometimes; it’s not so nice when she’s being insufferably superior,” Grace said, grinning.

Kristi acted offended, but merely whispered a word and flicked her hand into the air. A pea of black fire leapt from her hand over the building and landed in the next street. Sable flames shot up, and screams reached their ears. With another word, the mage sent a swarm of black darts after the fireball, and the screaming stopped. Looking over at Grace, “All clear.”

The senior Guardswoman nodded and moved out. Beatriz took up a position on the other side of the street once again, an arrow ready on her bow.

As they crossed the next street, Rayelle looked down it to where Kristi’s fireball had landed. Charred and scorched corpses littered the street, and the stench of burnt flesh drifted down towards them. Monique looked a little pale, but the rest of them seemed unaffected.

Creeping down streets and through alleys, they eventually made it to within a hundred feet of the castle. Grace and Beatriz moved out ahead of them, scouting the way forward. Twyla and Tristanne brought up the rear, scanning behind the group for trouble.

When the rest of the group got to a street corner in sight of the walls, the two senior Guardswomen were waiting for them. Grace motioned for them to gather around the two.

“We’re almost there, but the Zhuravi have the castle heavily invested. We’ll have the best cover if we advance through the barracks area. However, that’s where the heaviest concentration of Zhuravi is, since it gives them the best cover too,” Grace said in a whisper.

“So what we’re going to do is break into two teams. Tristanne, Twyla, and I will provide a distraction while Grace, Kristi, and the rest of you move through the gate and secure a building,” Beatriz said. “Then the three of us will sneak over to your position.”

Receiving nods from all of the other Guardswomen, she moved out into the street. Grace pressed up against the wall and cupped her hands. Beatriz took three running strides, stepped into Grace’s hands, and went sailing up onto the low roof of the two-story building.

Tristanne looked a little doubtful of the slender Lady Commander, but backed up. Grace grinned at her, “I’m stronger than I look. But you might want to take a few more steps than Beatriz; she likes to show off.”

Nodding, Tristanne took four more steps away. Turning back, she gathered herself and ran full speed at Grace. The Guardswoman set her hands, and Tristanne stepped onto them. With a twist of her shoulders, she straightened and sent the lieutenant sailing into the air.

Tristanne landed on the roof, but she wasn’t prepared for the force with which Grace had thrown her. Stumbling forward, she almost lost her balance before Beatriz reached out and grabbed her arm. When she steadied, she nodded her thanks to Beatriz and started up the roof.

Twyla quickly moved onto the roof after her, and the three women crept to the crest of the roof. Tristanne and Beatriz readied their bows. The lieutenant looked over at Twyla, “Do you have a bow?”

“Not like yours,” the Guardswoman replied.

“Then what are you here for?” Tristanne asked, her voice sharp with annoyance.

“To look pretty,” Twyla replied with a grin. Then she seemed to produce a small crossbow out of nowhere. Putting it to her shoulder, she crept to the top of the roof. Beatriz and Tristanne followed her, staying low and out of sight. Looking back at the other two, Twyla whispered, “There are three companies of infantry and one of crossbows right outside the barracks. I can’t see what’s in there, but I think there might be some cavalry.”

Beatriz nodded and relayed the information to the group on the ground. Then she looked up at Twyla and nodded slightly. Rising to a crouch over the ridge of the roof, the Guardswoman brought her crossbow up, aimed carefully, and fired. The bolt sped out, suddenly bursting into purple flames as it neared its target, a Zhuravi officer. An enemy soldier gaped at the quarrel as it flashed across the street and buried itself in the officer’s throat. With a gurgle, he slumped to the ground.

As the Zhuravi started to turn, Beatriz and Tristanne rose and shot down into the mass of enemy below. The lieutenant drew and fired as fast as she could, sending over a dozen arrows into the enemy formation in half as many seconds. She sacrificed accuracy for speed and counted on the mass of enemies to grant her hits.

Next to her, Beatriz fired even faster, but each of her missiles found its target. Twyla whispered a word, then began rapidly firing bolts into the enemy. As each bolt left the crossbow, the string snapped back and another bolt appeared out of nowhere. As with the first quarrel, the following bolts burst into purple flames as they neared their target and all of her missiles when home.

Almost forty of the Zhuravi dropped in the first few seconds, before they even knew they were under attack. Most of those dead were officers. The remaining enemy leadership sprang into action, shouting at their troops to kill the attackers. The three rained more missiles down upon them, the two Guardswomen focusing on the officers.

Within moments, scores of Zhuravi soldiers were lying on the paving stones, dead or dying. Behind the three, Beatriz heard the rest of the group moving across the street, her enhanced senses only barely able to pick out their footsteps.

The arrival of enemy crossbow bolts brought her attention back to the task at hand. Tristanne dropped down as a swarm of crossbow bolts shot towards them. Beatriz and Twyla stayed up a moment longer, firing another pair of missiles each before ducking. Twyla dropped slightly slower than Beatriz did, but the senior Guardswoman had further to go, and a bolt skipped off her shoulder.

Cursing, Twyla moved to a crouch and fired a pair of bolts back at them. Half a dozen quarrels shot up at her, but skipped off the roof or went high as she ducked back down again. “They’re stirred up alright,” she said to the other two with a grin. “What’s left of the first company is coming our way.”

“They better hurry it up, or we might have to fight our way over,” Tristanne said, sounding a little worried.

* * *

Rayelle watched as Grace started out into the street ahead of her. Then she looked down, scanning the rain-slicked paving stones before she followed the Guardswoman. She was amazed by the lightness of Grace’s steps, the Guardswoman’s boots barely touching down on the paving stones. Looking up the street, she could see Zhuravi milling around as arrows fell among them. She was surprised to see what seemed to be bolts of purple fire slashing down into the enemy.

Dashing across the street, they quickly reached the gate to the barracks. Putting an arrow to her bow, Rayelle turned back to cover the street, while Grace snapped several small objects into her hand.

Cassielle and Fiona started into the street when there was a sudden commotion behind Rayelle. Spinning, she saw Grace snap her hand out wide. Half a dozen star-shaped metal objects spun out to strike down the squad of Zhuravi running towards the gate.

Cursing, Grace turned back and motioned for Monique and Danika to follow. Kristi dashed after them, whispering incantations under her breath. The five reached the gate before any more Zhuravi arrived. Grace led the way to one of the barracks next to the castle.

Standing in front of the door, Grace motioned for Rayelle and Cassielle to flank the door. Sliding her bow away, Rayelle slid one of the axes off her belt and moved her shield onto her forearm. Cassielle glanced over at her, and Rayelle nodded almost imperceptibly. The medic nodded to Grace. Taking a step back, the Guardswoman kicked in the door, nearly blasting it off the hinges, and rushed into the room.

Rayelle and Cassielle spun through the door behind her, into a room of startled Zhuravi soldiers. Grace darted forward, blade flicking left and right, decapitating the first two soldiers. Rayelle sent her axe spinning through the air, straight into the face of an enemy soldier.

Drawing her other axe, Rayelle waded in, cutting down the first enemy soldier she came to. Wrenching her axe out of the man’s chest, sending blood flying, she snapped her shield out to deflect a rushed blow from the next enemy. Spinning her axe over her shield, the crescent blade spraying blood, she slashed into the man’s shoulder, cracking bone and splattering blood everywhere.

Rayelle tugged at her weapon, but it was embedded into her opponent’s chest halfway into his body. Another Zhuravi soldier, seeing Rayelle apparently weaponless, charged her. Leaving her axe in the corpse, Rayelle turned, ducking under the enemy’s slashing broadsword. Coming back up, she drew the short sword off her belt and stabbed the man in the stomach. Warm blood sprayed out and washed over her hand.

Upon entering the room, Cassielle attacked the first enemy she saw, slashing him from shoulder to hip. Withdrawing, she parried aside the blades of the two men behind him. Rushing forward, she knocked one man’s blade aside with her vambrace, the other with her sword. Snapping the blade back, she opened up a gash on the man’s forehead.

Stumbling away, he reached up to grab at the wound, and Cassielle promptly stabbed him in the stomach. Whipping out her blade, she snapped it across to parry her second enemy’s sword. Stepping into the block, she turned and smashed her armored elbow into the man’s face. He staggered back a step, nose broken and bleeding. Continuing her spin, she leveled her sword and gutted the man, driving her blade through his body to come out his back, dripping red.

Rayelle ripped her sword out of her former opponent to parry another sword flying at her head. Their blades met with a clang, and she pushed the man’s sword back. His eyes widened as the smaller woman forced his sword toward his face.

Disengaging, he leapt back, sucking in his stomach as she slashed at him. Halting the motion of her blade mid-stroke, she lunged forward, stabbing upwards into the man’s chest. Her blade punched through his mail and into his chest, cracking bone and sending blood spraying out. She withdrew as he stumbled back, and dealt him a vicious blow across the face.

Stepping past her opponent’s falling corpse, Rayelle faced off against one of the two remaining Zhuravi soldiers. He retreated along the wall, shying away from the center of the room and Grace. The Guardswoman stood in the center of a circle of eight bodies spread around her. Blood seeped from the numerous deadly wounds on their bodies, but she seemed untouched and not a speck of blood marred her appearance.

Her opponent suddenly darted forward, thinking Rayelle distracted. Snapping her shield up, the blade skittered of the sheet metal surface with a clash. Stepping forward and throwing the man’s sword out wide, she stabbed at his right shoulder. He desperately tried to get his shield across to block her, but her blow slipped past his defenses. The sharp steel tip punched through his pauldron and split the mail beneath to cut into his shoulder.

Fresh blood coated Rayelle’s blade, and the man dropped his sword. Withdrawing, she slammed her shield into the side of his, knocking it out wide. Spinning back, she stabbed him in the throat, the tip of her blade coming out the back of his neck.

Across the room, Cassielle bore down upon the last surviving Zhuravi soldier. Charging him, she slashed down in a seemingly straightforward attack, but snapped her blade out to the side at the last moment, striking her opponent on the forearm. Her sword cut through his vambrace, parted flesh, and shattered bone with ease. Crying out, he dropped his sword and retreated behind his shield.

Taking her sword in two hands, Cassielle slashed down on the man’s shield. The powerful blow splintered wood and drove him back. Snapping her arms back, she hit the shield again. This time, the wood shattered, and her blade slashed into his other arm. With a cry, he fell to the ground. As he dropped, she opened up a gash across his torso, from groin to neck. Blood fountained out, splattering across the room, and he dropped the rest of the way to the floor lifelessly.

The three stood there for a moment, surveying the corpses strewn across the room. Then Grace turned and called out towards the door, “All clear.”

Fiona led the way into the room, Monique and Danika close behind her. Kristi brought up the rear, turning back to the door once she was inside. Making a gesture at the doorway, a shimmering wall of black sprang up in front of the building.

As she turned back, they heard shouts from the other side of the wall and saw somewhat indistinct forms moving about. Kristi grinned and moved to one of the other walls. Whispering a word, she pressed her hand to the wall. A shimmering portal appeared in the wall, then melted into the wall and disappeared.

* * *

Tristanne heard the sound of combat in the barracks area. Twyla and Beatriz muttered a word and disappeared. A hand suddenly touched her out of nowhere, and she nearly drew her sword before she realized it was Beatriz. Suddenly, her hand disappeared, then reappeared, along with the two Guardswomen. Twyla hurried to the edge of the roof away from the barracks compound and peered down in the alley. Seeing two squads of Zhuravi milling around, she moved back to the other two.

“We’re going to have to jump,” she whispered in Tristanne’s ear. The woman looked at the gap between the two houses, easily a ten-foot span, then back at Twyla, disbelief plain in her expression. The Guardswoman winked at her, grabbed her by the arm, and moved into a crouch.

“Ready?” she whispered. At Tristanne’s hesitant nod, she held up her hand, then chopped it forward. She and Tristanne sprinted full out towards the edge of the roof. As she leapt, Tristanne closed her eyes, expecting to fall far short of her target. Abruptly, at the top of their arc, the two of them became lighter, and her eyes popped open as they sailed through the air to gently set down on the roof of the other building.

Turning back, she saw Beatriz take two running steps and gracefully soar over the alley to land lightly beside them. Grinning, she led the way across the roof to the next building, leaping over that alley as well. Twyla and Tristanne followed her. In this manner, they made their way around the entire square in front of the barracks to a house near the wall on the left side of the gate.

Looking at one of the buildings, they saw a bubble of shimmering black force surrounding it. “How do we get in there?” Tristanne asked, seeing that dozens of Zhuravi soldiers already ringed the building, beating on the wall and trying to force their way in. So far, they were completely unsuccessful.

Glancing over at Beatriz, she saw the Guardswoman already making her way to the side of the roof. Peering down, she saw a squad of Zhuravi infantry rushing past. Looking back across the square, she saw enemy soldiers on the roof of the building where they had been. More Zhuravi were on the wall of the barracks compound across from them, but a sudden barrage of arrows and ballista bolts from the castle drove them back.

Gathering herself, Beatriz ran across the roof and sailed through the air, passing over the wall and dropping lightly to the paving stones in the compound. Twyla glanced over at Tristanne, and the lieutenant nodded. Running together, they too leapt across into the barracks compound.

The three of them walked up to the wall of force. Beatriz examined it closely, then grinned back at them and stepped into the wall, disappearing. Tristanne gaped after her, but Twyla merely grabbed her hand and pulled her to the same point. Grabbing her by the arm, the surprisingly strong Guardswoman pushed her through the wall. Tristanne closed her eyes, expecting to slam into the stones, but instead passed through into a room full of corpses, Twyla close behind her.

Everybody looked up when Kristi stiffened and turned to the wall. For a moment, Rayelle couldn’t see anything. Then Beatriz, Twyla, and Tristanne appeared out of thin air by the wall.

Beatriz grinned at Grace and the senior Guardswoman nodded to Kristi. “Let’s get into the castle. Have you contacted Lord Voln?”

The Archmage snorted, “Of course.” Then she led the way down a hallway to the back wall of the building. Whispering a word, she pressed her hand to the solid stone wall. It promptly disappeared.

Grace took the lead, darting quickly across the short distance to the castle wall. Slinking right along the massive stone block construction, she came to the gate. Palming some more shurikens and drawing one of her swords in the other hand, she turned back to cover them.

Tristanne and Danika moved out to either side of Kristi’s “doorway”, and raised their bows. Beatriz tapped Monique on the shoulder, motioning for her to cross. The infantry lieutenant moved out of the building, then sprinted across to the wall, the clanking of her armor lost in the general clamor still going up on the wall and in the streets around the castle.

As she moved along the wall, Beatriz motioned for Fiona to follow her. The ranger slipped out into the open and started to move to the castle. Suddenly, Grace motioned sharply for her to stop. Everyone froze except for Grace, who pushed herself more tightly against the side of the gateway, trying to minimize her silhouette.

Straining her ears, Rayelle heard the faint sound of booted footsteps and raised voices. Abruptly, a platoon of Zhuravi charged into the space between the barracks building and the castle from the left. Some had crossbows, and they opened fire on the Arbatrosians. Monique ran for the gateway, while Danika and Tristanne returned fire.

Caught out in the middle, Fiona made an easy target, and four crossbow quarrels hit the girl. One grazed her leg, opening up a shallow gash across her thigh. The other three slammed into her stomach and torso, sending her flying into the air, blood trailing behind her. Cassielle let out a soft cry and started to run towards the injured girl. Rayelle turned and grabbed onto her friend’s arm, restraining the medic as more crossbow bolts sped by.

As the enemy fire ceased, another unit of Zhuravi troops thundered around the other end of the barracks, cutting off the Arbatrosians’ route of escape. Tucked into the shadows of the gateway, Grace went unnoticed as the enemy charged by.

When the first platoon had passed her, Grace sprang into action. Snapping her hand out, she threw the shurikens in her hand into the enemy, dropping a dozen of them. Then, drawing the other sword from her back, she waded into the mass of Zhuravi. Her blades spun and twirled, flashing in the dim light, and every blow sent an enemy soldier reeling away.

As the enemy from the other end of the street charged, Rayelle drew her sword and ran to meet them. Monique, having turned back when the second group appeared, drew her own blade and moved up beside her. Tristanne and Danika slung their bows and entered the line. Both Twyla and Kristi drew swords as well, and joined them. Beatriz ran the other way, towards Grace, while Cassielle moved to help Fiona.

“Why don’t you just use magic to fry them?” asked Rayelle, bracing herself.

“Magic, especially evocations, are damped this close to the castle,” the Archmage replied. “I’d have to expend a great deal of energy just to get the spell to function.” Grinning, “Besides, it’s not like I can’t handle a blade.” To accentuate her point, the Archmage raised her bastard sword before her and charged towards the Zhuravi.

Twyla grinned as well and followed her. The other four Arbatrosians exchanged glances, then Rayelle let out a war cry and ran after them. The enemy seemed surprised, but merely lowered their spears and waited.

The Archmage dashed ahead, turning aside at the last moment to slash out with her sword. Her blade passed harmlessly over the enemy spears, but suddenly burst into black flames that shot out to slam into half a dozen enemy soldiers. They fell to the ground, smoking holes where their chests used to be.

The two Guardswomen charged into the gap, Twyla going left, Kristi right. The Archmage’s sword flashed out in a powerful two-handed blow, slashing in below a man’s shield with enough force to shatter his plate armor. Next to her, Twyla leapt into action, stabbing and slashing with her longsword, causing dozens of deadly wounds. The enemy fell back before the two fearsome warriors as the other four Arbatrosians engaged them.

Within moments, all of the Zhuravi were down, lying dead or wounded on the paving stones. Rayelle turned to see Grace and Beatriz standing in the middle of a mass of corpses. Both held swords that ran red from hilt to tip, but were only lightly splattered with blood themselves. Neither seemed injured.

“Alright people; let’s move!” Grace yelled. Then she and Beatriz ran around the corner of the barracks. Tristanne charged after them, Twyla close behind her.

When she rounded the building, Tristanne stopped for a moment to examine the scene of slaughter she had entered. The two Guardswomen were fighting in near-perfect tandem, spinning around each other, trading opponents unpredictably. Their blades flicked out so fast Tristanne could barely follow them.

Suddenly, the enemy ranks around them split, and a group of creatures moved towards them. Four ogres led the group, with over a score of the biggest orcs Tristanne had ever seen following them. All of the beasts were outfitted in half-plate and carried swords and axes.

Twyla cursed and drew her own battle-axe. Tristanne gripped her sword more tightly, and tucked her shield against her side. The two women exchanged glances, then charged forward together.

Four Zhuravi soldiers immediately charged towards them, two heading for each of them. Tristanne met her two head-on, noticing that they wore the distinctive half-plate of the Elite Divisions that were under the personal control of the Uplifted. She slashed at the man on her left, a shortened blow that halted his momentum. Spinning, she snapped her sword back across at the other Zhuravi soldier. He stepped in, putting his shield in front of her blow.

Her attack with her sword was merely a feint, however. Tristanne snapped her right foot up, her heel slamming into the side of the man’s knee. He screamed as his leg buckled and he pitched forward. He desperately swung at her, but she parried his blow aside easily and stepped past him. Sweeping her sword backwards, she dealt him a vicious blow to the head, her blade shearing through his helm and into his skull.

The other enemy soldier slashed at Tristanne, but she interposed her shield, and the blow bounced aside. Stepping forward, she started to bring her sword back, but realized the blade had caught in the first man’s skull. Leaving her blade behind, she snapped a longknife off her belt and rushed forward.

Seeing Tristanne’s short blade, her opponent advanced to meet her confidently. He slashed at her torso, then reversed, his blade heading for her unshielded side. She whipped her shield across and turned with the movement. Spinning around, she reversed her grip on her longknife and stabbed backwards. The blade slipped between his breast and back plates, puncturing his chainmail and slipping into his side. Hot blood washed across her gauntleted hand, and he slumped over her blade.

Wrenching her longknife free, Tristanne completed her turn to find herself only a few feet from Beatriz and Grace. Just in front of them were the orcs and ogres. Already one of the ogres lay dead on the paving stones, along with half a dozen of the orcs, but the rest were pressing the two Guardswomen hard. Sheathing her blade, Tristanne took a step back and seized her sword’s hilt. Putting one foot on the corpse of her opponent, she wrenched the blade free.

Beatriz heard Tristanne and Twyla fighting behind her, but the sword-wielding ogre attacking her held most of her attention. It swept its massive blade across, but she parried the blow. With her other hand, she snapped a dagger off the bandoleer across her chest and sent it spinning through the air at the monster. As with her previous attempts, the missile seemed to bounce off an invisible shield around the ogre.

Next to Beatriz, Grace growled in frustration as she saw her friend’s dagger clatter to the ground. She snapped her swords back, one of them clanging off Beatriz’s pauldron, then sheathed the blades and drew out a pair of longknives.

Understanding the senior Guardswoman’s signal, Beatriz took her sword in a two-handed grip, muttered a word, and slashed across powerfully. As it swept through the air, her blade burst into purple flames. Her blow slammed into an orc’s sword and shattered the weapon, barely slowing.

Grace dived forward, rolling under a surprised ogre’s clumsy blow. Springing to her feet inside its reach, she attacked with blinding speed, her blades slashing and stabbing at it, finding seams and gaps in its armor or just cutting though mail. Within seconds, it fell back, blood spurting from a dozen fatal wounds.

Grace was already spinning away to the next ogre. It whipped its battle-axe across, intent on slicing this puny human in two. Grace flipped over the weapon towards the monster, landing lightly on her feet less than a foot away from it. Leaping up, she slashed at its face. Crisscrossing her arms, she blinded it with one knife and slashed its throat open with the other. The enchanted adamantine blade shrieked as it cut through the ogre’s gorget.

Black blood sprayed out, spattering across Grace’s armor as she spun to the side. The ogre’s corpse toppled forward, and she went into a roll to get out from under it. She dove into another roll as the last ogre’s sword came slashing through the air towards her.

However, Grace wasn’t fast enough, and the massive blade slammed into her side. Her armor held, but she went flying. Twisting in midair, she managed to land in a crouch. Bounding back to her feet, the Guardswoman charged back towards the ogre.

Suddenly, a pair of orcs blocked her way. Leaping into the air, Grace kicked out to both sides. One foot connected squarely with an orc’s face, smashing bone and cartilage. Her other foot snapped the second orc’s neck. Landing lightly, barely breaking stride, she went down onto one knee and crossed her blades above her head.

The ogre’s sword slammed down onto Grace’s crossed longknives. The corded muscles in her arms stood out as they absorbed the tremendous force of the monster’s blow. Putting her foot back under her, she came back to her feet, forcing the ogre’s sword up above her. Suddenly, she snapped one blade out to the side, sending the massive sword out wide. Darting forward, she leapt up, reversed her longknives, and plunged them into its chest to the hilts.

Beatriz slashed down with a mighty two-handed blow that nearly split an orc from head to groin. Twirling, her braided hair flying out behind her, she ducked under another orc’s axe and sliced it in half at the waist. Flourishing her sword, which still blazed with purple fire, she advanced on a group of four orcs.

Abruptly, the back two fell, and Grace appeared behind them. Beatriz dashed forward, parrying both monsters’ attacks aside and drawing her short sword from its scabbard. She stabbed the first one through the throat and gutted the second.

Jerking her blade free, Beatriz fell back towards where Twyla and Tristanne fought more Zhuravi soldiers. Out of nowhere, a wall of black flames sprang up between the four and most of the enemy. Spinning, Beatriz and Grace ran back towards the castle gate. The senior Guardswoman send half a dozen shurikens spinning through the air to kill Twyla and Tristanne’s opponents.

The four women ran through the gates together. Glancing behind her, Grace saw a sudden burst of white slam into Kristi’s wall of fire, extinguishing it. She saw a dozen Zhuravi and a pair of orcs charge through the flames before the heavy Mithral gates closed.

Skidding to a halt, Tristanne doubled over, gasping for air. Beatriz put a hand on her shoulder, “You alright lass?” To Tristanne’s annoyance, the Guardswoman didn’t even seem to be at all out of breath.

“I’ve been better,” Tristanne replied, voice slightly sharp. She noticed a sharp pain on her hip, above her cuisse. Reaching down, she felt a hole in her scale, and her fingers came back bloody. Beatriz reached down and pressed her hand against the wound. She whispered a word and her distinctive cream healing light flared up from the cut, leaving only a pale white line on her skin.

Once Tristanne straightened, Beatriz took her by the arm and led her over to where Twyla, Grace, and Kristi were clustered. The five turned as Lord Voln made his way across the yard towards them.

Tristanne was surprised to see that Lord Voln’s armor had blood and gore splattered on it, and his Mithral chain shirt bore rips in several places. However, he moved easily, seeming uninjured. When he reached them, he clasped forearms with Grace, “Lady Grace, it’s a pleasure to see you, as always.”

The senior Guardswoman smiled, “It’s good to see you too, Lord Wulfgar. Although I wonder if you’re happier to see me or the troops I came with.”

Lord Voln put his hand to his chest in mock hurt. “You wound me with your cynicism, my lady. Nevertheless, I am glad indeed for the help of eight legions.”

“And almost half the Guard?” Grace asked with a light laugh.

“That goes without saying, my lady.” He turned and gripped Beatriz’s forearm, “Dame Beatriz, excellent to see you again.”

“And you, Lord Wulfgar. I trust you’ve been giving them a good fight?”

“Of course.” Turning next to Kristi, Lord Voln kissed her hand, “Archmage Placer, you’re as lovely as ever.”

She smiled, “You flatter me Lord Voln.”

Moving on to Twyla, he clasped her forearm, “Dame Twyla. It’s good to see you again. You seem to only come to my city during wars, though. I assure you it’s a quite charming place most of the time.”

“I’m sure it is, my lord. I really should visit when it’s less crowded,” she said, her mouth curving into the barest hint of smile.

Lord Voln chuckled softly, “You would have the hospitality of my household if you did.” Finally, he turned to Tristanne, “Lieutenant Bergman, how nice to see you again. Are you running around with these fine ladies of the Guard?”

Tristanne bowed slightly, “Yes, my lord. They’re quite hard to keep up with.”

“You seem to be doing an admirable job, lass.” He returned his attention to Grace, “My lady, might I assume by your comments that His Majesty has arrived?”

“Indeed he has. Most of the King’s Own, Steel, Silver, Obsidian, First, Second, Third, and Eighteenth Legions are moving into the city as we speak via the South Gate. Lieutenant General Sheridan has a large portion of the cavalry elements from all eight legions around the northeastern part of the city,” Grace said. “The plan is to use the Legions as the hammer and your keep as the anvil.”

Lord Voln nodded, “Sounds like a good plan. And simple enough that it might actually work,” he commented with a chuckle. “Did His Majesty plan on sending me any reinforcements?”

“We’re them,” Grace said with a grin. Then she glanced around, “Where is Allison?”

“She’s at the main gate. I’ll take you to her; I really should get back there myself.” He waved for them to follow him, and made his way into one of the massive towers that studded the outer curtain wall. Lightning flashed and thunder roared above them, and rain continued to pelt down.

* * *

A wicked hiss reached Jillian’s ears a moment before the crossbow quarrel slammed into her side. The heavy steel bodkin punched through steel plate and chainmail to sink into her flesh. Jillian staggered, pain shooting through her side, and she nearly fell. Gritting her teeth, she spun to the side, putting her shield in line with the crossbowmen.

Half a dozen bolts slashed through the air at her. Four skipped off her shield’s sheet-steel coating, but two hit directly enough to punch through it. Laura and Stephanie ran to her side as a squad of Zhuravi soldiers burst out of the inn from which the crossbowmen were shooting.

“Can you fight, Jill?” Laura asked, concern clear in her tone.

“I’ll manage,” Jillian replied, although the words were strained. Every movement sent pain shooting through her, and she felt faint. Tightening her grip on her longsword, she tucked her shield closer to her body.

Laura and Stephanie moved to either side of her as the Zhuravi bore down on them. Suddenly, just before the enemy reached them, two of them dropped, felled by black-fletched arrows. The three girls charged their foes, sticking close together as they engaged.

Jillian snapped her shield up, deflecting her first opponent’s sword. She slashed across, and the Zhuravi soldier brought up his shield. Twisting her wrist, she stabbed the blade over the shield and into the man’s shoulder. The bolt in her side sent pain lancing through her arm and side, and instead of punching through the man’s pauldron and mail, her weakened blow merely deflected aside.

Seeing his opponent’s weakness, the Zhuravi soldier slashed at the girl again. Jillian barely parried it aside before the man shield-rushed her, slamming his shield against hers. She staggered back a couple steps, then set her feet and threw her weight against her own shield. They skidded to a stop, shields locked, each of them struggling to push the other back.

The Zhuravi soldier had a substantial advantage over Jillian, in both size and strength, and he leaned over her, using his leverage to force her back. She slashed at his side and leg with her sword. Every movement of her arm sent waves of pain through her, and after a few blows, her sword slipped from her hand to clatter onto the paving stones.

Her opponent had begun striking at her as well, his sword hitting against the side of her shield and her armored side and leg. His strokes were powerful, scoring bright lines across her steel plate armor and leaving bruises beneath. When he heard her sword fall, he stopped hacking at her and bore down on her five foot, three inch frame with all of his strength and weight.

Jillian cried out as the force bent her backwards, then she snatched the dagger off her belt and stabbed over the rim of her shield, into the man’s face. The wickedly sharp point pierced his eyeball and continued, through the eye socket, into his brain. Blood sprayed out, coating her hand and arm. He collapsed on top of Jillian, bearing her to the ground. She slammed down onto the crossbow bolt embedded in her side, driving it deeper.

Black spots danced around the edges of Jillian’s vision and darkness overcame her. Before unconsciousness claimed her, she heard Laura shout her name, then cry out in pain. She also thought she felt the cold, rain-slick paving stones vibrate under her.

* * *

Vladimir ducked under the Zhuravi cavalryman’s sword and slashed across. The powerful blow shattered the other man’s breastplate and left a gaping gash across his chest.

Vladimir’s head whipped around at the sound of fighting behind him. He saw Jillian, Stephanie, and Laura engaged with a squad of Zhuravi on the left side of the battle. As he watched, Jillian went down under her opponent, and Laura was hit in the chest with a mace. The petite cavalrywoman dropped with a cry of pain. Easily wheeling Jeremy, Vladimir yelled for Hazel and Renee to follow him and galloped across the street.

Stephanie heard hooves behind her, but didn’t turn, instead focusing on the five Zhuravi attacking her. She picked off two blades with her shield, dodged another, and parried a fourth. The last one slid in below her shield, slashing into the lightly armored inside of her left thigh. She cried out and stumbled, then lashed out at the enemy who had wounded her. He brought up his shield, but she slashed down at the last moment and opened up a long gash down his leg from thigh to knee.

Stephanie’s lunge forward had left her open, and two of her opponents leapt in. Suddenly, the one on her right went flying away as a sword nearly cut him in two, sending blood spraying into the air. She desperately tried to get her shield into the path of the second blow, but her opponent’s sword slashed into her shoulder. The heavy blade clove through her plate and mail into her shoulder, breaking bone and sending blood flying. She flew forward with a cry.

With a thought and a nudge of his knee, Vladimir turned Jeremy and charged back towards the Zhuravi around Stephanie. Two of them turned to face him, while the other two moved in on the prone girl. The fifth man, the one who Stephanie had hit, fell back.

Hazel’s warhammer slammed into the back of the first man’s head. As the second man started to turn, Renee slashed across, nearly taking his head off. Pulling the wand from her belt, she sent a fireball flying down the street. It sailed through a window as a Zhuravi crossbowman appeared. Purple flames burst into the air, and the man pitched head over heels into the street below.

Vladimir slashed down at one of the two men before him. The Zhuravi soldier brought up his shield, but Vladimir’s powerful blow split the shield in half and nearly took off the man’s arm. He hacked down again, and the man reeled away, a grievous wound running from forehead to waist.

Turning, Vladimir saw the other man go flying away, a battle-axe buried in his back. The crescent head flashed back the other way, decapitating the wounded Zhuravi to the side. Its wielder halted her horse in front of Vladimir. She was a younger woman with shoulder-length dark brown hair hanging in sodden strands around her face. She had a kite shield emblazoned with argent weapons on a sanguine, or blood red, field.

As soon as he saw her, Vladimir bowed at the waist. “My Lady Enforcer. It’s certainly a pleasant surprise to see you out here.” Looking past her, he smiled broadly at Victoria, who was trailing the Guardswoman.

The Lady Enforcer rode up to Vladimir, slung her shield, and reached out to clasp forearms with him. “Always a pleasure to see you, Vladimir.”

“And you, Kristi,” he replied with a smile.

She dismounted and moved over to Stephanie. Vladimir joined her, kneeling beside the cavalrywoman’s motionless form and removing her shattered pauldron. With a whisper, he cast a healing spell on the wound. Silver light washed over her injury, fading to leave her flesh unblemished save for a thin white line. Kristina helped her to her feet.

Rising, Vladimir hurried over to where he had last seen Jillian. Rolling the corpse of a Zhuravi soldier aside with his foot, he came upon the girl. Moving her more gently, he moved Jillian onto her side. Seeing the bolt embedded in her side, he unsheathed his dagger and ran it down the side of her armor, slashing open the bindings. Grabbing the torn sides of her mail around the bolt, he tugged. Mail links snapped and cloth ripped, exposing the wound.

Vladimir started to reach for the bolt, but paused. The paladin sensed that there was something unwholesome about it. From within the depths of the wound, he saw a sickly green light pulsing in Jillian’s flesh. Victoria and Kristina rushed up beside him and examined the wound themselves. Victoria reached over and gave his hand a squeeze. He returned the pressure with a smile, then looked down at Jillian. Vladimir frowned, “This may well be beyond my skill to heal. We need to get her to a more powerful healer as soon as possible.”

Kristina nodded, “Eleesa should be with the king, and she’s probably the most powerful healer in the kingdom. If we wait but a little while, she should arrive.”

“Very well,” Vladimir nodded. Then he moved over to where Laura had started to rise. “Easy lass,” he pressed her back down. “Is anything broken?”

“I don’t know,” Laura said weakly, then coughed up blood. “Aw hell,” she cursed, and turned to the side to spit up more blood onto the paving stones. The motion made her curse again and slump back. “I think a few ribs are broken. May have gone into my lung.”

Vladimir nodded and helped her remove her dented breastplate. Reaching under her mail, he pressed his hands against her shoulder and stomach and whispered another healing spell. Silver light played along her flesh, then sunk into the wound without any apparent effect. Pulling his cross from under his armor, he pressed it to the wound and muttered its trigger word. More silver healing energy ran into her chest, restoring it to its normal shape.

Rising, Vladimir reached back down and pulled Laura to her feet. He turned to the Lady Enforcer, “Kristi, did you happen to bring any troops with you, or did you escort Victoria here all by yourself?”

Kristina grinned, “You know me. What would I do with other people? I don’t need anyone other than Victoria.”

“That’s what I figured. But that doesn’t help with our current situation.” He gestured at where Hannah’s company was still engaged with a number of Zhuravi. More enemy soldiers were streaming into the street, and their sheer weight of numbers began to push the Arbatrosians back.

In the midst of the melee, Hannah turned to Verity. “Can you drive them back for a moment, Verity?”

The mage nodded and began casting. Finishing a short incantation, she fanned her fingers out in front of her. Bright orange flames shot out, scorching the Zhuravi coming out of the side street, sending many screaming or silent to the paving stones.

Raising her sword, Hannah waved for her unit, now made up of soldiers from several companies, to withdraw. “Fall back! Fall back and form a line on me!” Wheeling her horse, she trotted back up the street.

Hannah pulled up in front of where Vladimir and Kristina were still gathered around Jillian. “General, we’ve disengaged for the moment. I was thinking a charge to set them back.”

Vladimir nodded, “Good idea. We won’t have reinforcements until the king gets here, which may take some time.” While Hannah rode off to see to her troops, Vladimir turned to the four girls of his bodyguard, “Take care of Jillian. Make sure no one gets to her.” They nodded. Looking over at Victoria, Vladimir asked, “How are you doing on spells, lass?”

“Not very well. I’m exhausted; physically, mentally, and magically.” Victoria pushed some sodden strands of hair out of her face, “I’m going to need a day or two of sleep to recover after this. However,” she pulled a short Mithral staff out of a pocket, “I’ve got a few toys still.”

Kristina’s eyebrows shot up, “You’ve got one of the Short Staffs of Evocation?”

Victoria grinned, “One of the three Great Short Staffs of Evocation, actually.” Looking over at Vladimir with a smile, “We got it on that vacation in Zhurav a few years back. The Charmer was nice enough to give it to us.”

“Oh, so that’s why you seemed so happy when you got back from that trip. Why didn’t you tell me you got a new toy?”

“I seem to recall I got busy with other things, like being redeployed to the front,” Victoria said with a smile. “As I remember, you were lazing around protecting the king.”

“You call foiling half a dozen assassination attempts in half as many months lazing?” Kristina asked, eyebrow raised. “Because if you do, I don’t want to be around when you have to work hard.”

Victoria laughed lightly, “We’ve been working hard since the Zhuravi got here.” She looked down the street to where the enemy soldiers were forming up into a line of their own.

Hannah motioned to Vladimir that her unit was ready. Nodding, he turned to the two women, “Shall we, ladies?”

Kristina and Victoria followed him to one end of the line. Vladimir raised his sword, then snapped it down, signaling the charge. Putting his heels to Jeremy’s flanks, Vladimir surged ahead of the line, sword extended.

The thunder of hooves echoed down the street, drowning out the sound of the torrential rain. Ahead of them, the Zhuravi spearmen braced for impact. Suddenly, Victoria slashed out with her staff, and dozens of blood red magic missiles sped out. They slashed into the enemy line, dropping a number of Zhuravi soldiers and breaking their line.

Before the enemy could reform, the Arbatrosians were upon them. Hannah slashed down with her longsword, sending an enemy spearman reeling away. A sharp pain exploded in her thigh as an enemy spear pierced her leg, punching through her cuisse. She cried out and hacked at the man, splitting his helm asunder.

Reaching down, Hannah gritted her teeth and yanked the spear from her leg. Blood flowed down her leg under her armor. Reversing the spear, she stabbed out, catching the next Zhuravi soldier in the chest, the sharp tip penetrating his mail and throwing him back. Leaving the weapon in her enemy, she swept her sword across, knocking her next opponent’s spear aside.

Petrova, Hannah’s horse, suddenly whinnied in pain and bucked. Her hooves lashing out at the Zhuravi soldier behind her who had stabbed her in the flank. He went sailing backwards, chest caved in. Another spear slammed into the horse’s peytral, punching through steel plate and mail to slam into her throat. Neighing in pain, Petrova staggered.

Hannah kicked her feet out of her stirrups and dismissed her faithful steed with a thought. As the horse vanished into mist, Hannah dropped heavily to the ground. Her foot slipped on a body, and she went down. She slammed into the paving stones, all breath blasted from her body. She hit her right elbow as she fell, and her sword fell out of her suddenly numb hand. Two enemy soldiers advanced on her, one menacing her with a spear, the other readying his sword.

The spear-wielder stabbed at Hannah, but she wrenched her shield across her body. With a screech of metal on metal, the sharp tip skidded off her shield’s sheet steel surface, deflecting aside. The swordsman slashed down at her. She snapped her shield up again. Her enemy’s sword crashed into it. Her shield held, but the blade dented the metal, splintered wood, and scored a bright line across her coat of arms.

Pain suddenly burst through Hannah’s shoulder as the tip of a spear slammed into her pauldron. The third Zhuravi soldier put all of his weight behind the steel tip, and it skittered off to drive into her shoulder, right beside her neck. Agony shot through her, and she screamed.

The other two enemies leapt forward. Tossing his weapon aside, the spearman reached down and ripped Hannah’s shield off her arm. She could feel hot blood spraying out as the third soldier drove his spear deeper. The swordsman slashed at her face, but she whipped her forearm up and his blade sparked off her vambrace. Drawing his sword, the other man slashed at her arm. His blade slammed into her elbow, shearing through the thin plate and cutting deeply into her arm.

Suddenly, a dark form landed above Hannah, straddling her prone form. It swept its right fist across, and he went flying away. Reversing, it felled the swordsman with a powerful left hook that pulverized his skull. Sweeping its right arm down, it caught the third man’s spear in its hand. With a violent wrench, it ripped the weapon out of his hands. Twirling the weapon, its tip still dripping with Hannah’s blood, the figure stabbed backwards, gutting the man. As he fell, the figure leapt forward and felled another pair of enemy soldiers with a lightning fast series of blows.

Lying on the cold, wet paving stones, black spots danced across Hannah’s vision. She could feel the blood pumping out of her shoulder, and her limbs felt like lead. The figured turned back and bent down over her.

Hannah struggled to focus, and saw Kristina looking at her shoulder with concern. Reaching out, the Guardswoman pressed her hand to the grievous wound. Warmth spread from her touch into the wound, and Hannah bit her lip to keep from crying out as the bones in her shoulder knit back together. Blood red light flared up, then died down as her skin sealed over.

Reaching down, Kristina helped Hannah back to her feet. Taking the cavalry captain’s elbow, she pressed her fingertips against the wound and sent her ring’s healing energy into Hannah. As the jagged cut healed closed, Kristina spun away, blocking the Zhuravi sword aimed at her head with her left vambrace. Continuing her spin, she swept her right hand up in a powerful uppercut that drove the spike on the back of her hand up into the man’s jaw and lifted him several feet into the air.

Snapping her hand back, Kristina drew a long-handled sword from its scabbard on her belt. Twirling, she cut down a pair of enemy with a single mighty blow.

Hannah bent and retrieved her sword and shield. When she straightened, she almost fell over as a bought of light-headedness took her. Gasping for breath, she waited for it to pass while she tried to get a better feel for the battle. The Arbatrosian charge had dissolved into small groups of soldiers locked in a pitched melee. The clash and din of combat surrounded her as sword, mace, and warhammer slammed against shield, weapons, and armor. While the Arbatrosians were more skillful than their opponents, they had been fighting all the previous night and the Zhuravi outnumbered them many times over.

Suddenly the clear, clean note of a great horn cut though the din. From around a corner, a wave of horses thundered into sight. At their head was a tall man armored in shining plate on a massive jet-black Percheron. The King’s flag flew from a spear borne by the man beside him. His scale mail shone equally bright, and his horse, a Percheron, this one dappled grey, bore similar armor. Behind them rode a great mass of Arbatrosian cavalry.

Their formation was flawless, but the soldiers were a varied group. Hannah saw heavy cavalry from the King’s Own and Elite legions next to light cavalry from the Standard Legions. Scouts and more heavy cavalry rode side by side. As they bore down upon the Zhuravi, the enemy broke and ran, trying to escape the oncoming wall of steel.

Running down the side streets and alleys, the Zhuravi met more Arbatrosians. Company upon company of infantry and archers filled their escape routes, and rangers darted across rooftops to rain arrows down upon their enemies from above.

Seeing no escape, the enemy formed up into spear walls, with their crossbows behind. This made them easy prey for the many mages scattered throughout the Arbatrosian formations. Flames of orange and yellow, green and blue burst among them, and blue-white lightning bolts rent the air. Arrows and crossbow quarrels flashed back and forth, striking wood and metal, or finding flesh.

Within moments, the King and his van had charged past Vladimir and Hannah’s troops. A group of riders broke off from the main body and trotted over towards where Vladimir stood, sword running with blood, next to Jeremy. Hannah, supported by Kristina, made her way over to him. Victoria joined them as well.

At the head of the group rode the diminutive Guardswoman Victoria had seen with the King on the wall. She was mounted on a rather short horse, little more than a pony, with unusual brown and white markings. Dismounting, she made way over to them. Vladimir took her hand and bowed low over it, bringing it to his lips. “My Lady Assistant Commander Berger. It is a pleasure to see you.”

She smiled, “Your courtesy is welcome in the midst of such a crude business as war, General Kapov.”

Vladimir returned the smile for an instant, then frowned. “One of my bodyguards was stuck with a cursed bolt, my lady. Perhaps we might put off formal introductions until she is seen to?”

“Of course. Take me to her at once.” Turning to the rest of her party, “See to the wounded. I want them triaged immediately,” she ordered before following Vladimir.

Vladimir led the way over to Jillian. Victoria, Hannah, and Kristina followed them. Kneeling next to the girl, she stripped off her gloves and passed her hand over the wound. She muttered to herself for a moment before pulling a cross from under her surcoat. Holding it above the bolt, she chanted an incantation. The sickly green light that had spread across Jillian’s back and side faded.

Reaching down, the senior Guardswoman gently pulled the missile from the girl’s body. Pressing her hands into the wound, she muttered another spell. Blood red light filled the hole for a moment before disappearing, leaving the girl’s side whole and unblemished save for a small white dot.

Flicking some blood off her fingers and tucking her gloves into her belt, the woman stood. She proffered her hand to Victoria, and the two clasped forearms. “I’m the Lady Assistant Commander Eleesa Berger.”

“Victoria, my lady,” the mage replied.

Eleesa turned to Hannah and took the captain’s hands in her own. She whispered a word, and Hannah saw a blood red spark pass over the Guardswoman’s fingers into hers. Warmth spread through her body, and much of her dizziness faded. “Captain Hannah Rockwell, my lady.”

Eleesa nodded and turned to Kristina. Both Guardswomen’s faces lit up with smiles, and they quickly embraced each other. Eleesa took a step back and examined Kristina closely for a moment. Satisfied that the other Guardswoman was unhurt, she surveyed Vladimir and Victoria.

Noting Victoria’s injuries, Eleesa quickly pressed a hand to mage’s side and thigh. Warmth spread out from her hands as her blood red magic played across Victoria’s skin. As she leaned close, the Guardswoman spoke softly to Victoria. “You really need to take better care of yourself, lass. It’s a wonder you’re still alive if you treat your wounds like this.”

“I try, my lady,” she replied in similar tones. “There just hasn’t been any time or magic to spare for healing.”

“Bull shit,” Eleesa said firmly. “There’s always time to keep yourself alive.” Reaching into a pouch, she produced slender steel band set with a ruby and slid it onto the forefinger of Victoria’s left hand. “That should help in the future.”

Stepping back, she gave Vladimir a quick glance. “Might I assume you’re able to see to your own wounds, such as they may be, general?”

“Yes, my lady,” Vladimir replied. He turned at the sound of hooves behind him, and saw the king, his standard-bearer, who now wielded a bastard sword as well, and several dozen other Arbatrosians ride up. He let out a cry of joy when he saw Beatriz, Cassielle, Rayelle, and rest of the group under the Guardswoman’s command riding behind the king.

From behind Vladimir, he heard Cassandra call out, “James!” Looking at the riders again, he saw the young scout sergeant riding towards the back of the group, Jason next to him. Then the king stopped in front of them and dismounted.

Vladimir bowed deeply to the king, “Your majesty.” Behind him, he heard the rustle of mail and the clink of plate as the rest of the soldiers did the same.

The king motioned for them to rise. “General Kapov. Thank you for your heroic effort to hold the city.”

“I was only doing my duty, your majesty. And I am not the only one of your subjects who defended the city.”

The king smiled, “That goes without saying, Vladimir. And do not fear that I will not recognize bravery and skill where recognition is due.” Turning to the group behind him, his smile widened. “And I shall let you greet each other before anyone explodes.”

The two groups rushed together, friends and comrades embracing each other. Voices were raised in joy at their reunion.

James ran to Cassandra and swept her into his arms, crushing her against his body. Then, leaning down, he kissed her on the lips. Wrapping her arms around his neck, she reciprocated energetically.

Beatriz threw herself onto Vladimir, hugging him with bruising force. He hugged her back tightly.

Rayelle, Cassielle, and Fiona ran over to Stephanie, Jillian, Laura, Hazel, and Renee. Jillian winced as Rayelle hugged her. “Careful Ray. I just got hit by a cursed quarrel. Lady Berger took care of it, but I’m still a bit sore.”

Rayelle smiled, “We’ve been roughed up a bit too, Jill.”

After several moments, Vladimir released Beatriz, who briefly embraced Victoria. He turned as the king’s standard-bearer made his way over to them. “Michael! It’s great to see you,” he greeted the man, then hugged him.

“Vlad, you old rascal. I see they’ve finally given you the rank you deserve,” the man said.

He was of similar height and build to Vladimir, although Victoria guessed that Vladimir was older by around a decade. He wore numerous weapons. There were a curved short and longsword with oddly shaped hilts belted around his waist. Over his shoulder on one side could be seen the hilt of his bastard sword, and another two weapon hilts next to it. On the other side, a long bow stave was strapped next to a quiver full of arrows fletched with gold feathers. On a pair of bandoleers crossed over his chest, he carried half-a-dozen daggers, ready to be thrown. When he turned, she saw a large, double-bladed axe strapped to his back.

The two broke apart, and Vladimir turned to Victoria. “Lass, this is Lord Commander Michael Brass of the King’s Guard.” Gesturing to her, “Michael, this is Victoria, my mage. She’s been with me for a number of years now.”

The lord commander took her hand in his and bowed over it, lightly brushing his lips across the back of her hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Victoria.”

Victoria colored slightly, “The pleasure is mine, my lord.”

Michael straightened with a smile, “Where have you been hiding this beautiful young woman all these years, Vlad? If I didn’t know better, I’d think you wanted her all for yourself.”

Victoria blushed, “I’ve always declined to visit the City of Stone with him, my lord.”

“That is rather understandable, lass.” He smiled more broadly, “With Vlad along, you never get to have any fun.”

“Oh, I don’t know. We’ve had some fun times together on vacation.”

Michael’s eyebrows rose, but at that moment, they heard the clatter of hooves. The lord commander’s hand strayed to his sword hilt, but he relaxed when he saw who the riders were.

Alexa and Allasra had galloped up to them. Dismounting, the two made their way over to the king, who in turn had moved over to join Michael and Vladimir. Both bowed to the king, then Alexa stepped forward to report. “Your majesty, we have routed or killed the remainder of the enemy. As we speak, I have units clearing and checking houses, block by block.”

“Very good, Alexa.” The king frowned, “What about Storm Shaper? He’s caused us more than his fair share of trouble.”

“Unfortunately, we were not able to catch him, your majesty,” Allasra said from beside Alexa. “Alys, Leanne, Joseph, and I tried to corner him, but he transformed into a great condor and flew away.”

“Ah well, we shall deal with him again, I am sure. What of the casualty count?”

“I don’t have any good numbers on that yet, your majesty. Josie is working on that still.” Alexa frowned, “I would say that less than half of the professional soldiers among the defenders are still alive, and perhaps a fifth of the militia was slain. As for the losses among the rest of the legions, they were fairly light.”

The king bowed his head for a moment. “Let me know when you know better.”

“Yes sire,” she bowed left with Allasra.

By this time, most conversation had stilled, and all were gathered around the king. He looked around at all of them, “I would like to thank all of you for your efforts on my behalf, in defense of Ereth Chul and its people. I will formally recognize individuals tomorrow, but I am sure you are all weary and wish to rest. Go now and restore your strength and spirits.” With that, he remounted his horse, along with a number of the King’s Guard, and rode off south.

Vladimir motioned for the rest of them to mount up, and they rode wearily down the street, north, towards the castle. As they went, the rain clouds, which had been dissipating ever since the king arrived, finally parted. A brilliant late-winter sun sent its bright rays streaming down, making the countless raindrops sparkle like jewels.

Copyright © Scott Schaper, 2012

List of Characters

The Royal House of Azvar
King William Azvar (XII)-Age 42, King of Arbatros, Lord of The Rock, and Lord of the Steel Belt

The King’s Guard
Lord Commander Michael Brass-Age 28
Assistant Lady Commander Eleesa Berger-Age 28
Assistant Lady Commander Grace Litel-Age 27
Jessica Kisel-Age 27
Beatriz Danelli-Age 28
Kristina Vespers-Age 28
Sarah Deering-Age 27
Nikki Gallows-Age 27
Allison Reed-Age 29
Kristen Placer-Age 27
Twyla Haminton-Age 26
Cassidy Lake-Age 20
Elizabeth Lindt-Age 28
Akshaya Buruchi-Age 24
Christina Nethers-Age 28
Jorie Kellerman-Age 26
Jaime Darakus-Age 28
Alys Morganne-Age 28
Elle Harris-Age 26
Ashley Downing-Age 25
Cait Yoris-Age 35
Jill Tarkew-Age 27
Leanne Doon-Age 27
Dana Sarowitz-Age 31
Marissa Sarowitz-Age 28
Stephanie Revel-Age 28
Cassandra Yarek-Age 28
Sara Thorew-Age 28
Marie Petrov-Age 28
Thomas Sanderson-Age 62
Ray Durant-Age 46
Joseph Tyler-Age 63
Samuel Garrison-Age 48
Nicholas Tunbridge-Age 41
Luke Hatridge-Age 38
Ken Bevel-Age 35
Dimitri Bryne-Age 34
Alistair Rhodes-Age 43
Raziel Langtree-Age 30
Suriel Langtree-Age 30

The House of Voln
Lord Wulfgar Voln-Age 56
Lady Jessica Voln-Age 54
Alexa Voln-Age 28
Alexis Voln-Age 25
Allison Voln-Age 22
Alexandra Voln-Age 19

Colonel Richter Turek-Age 56- Commander of Lord Voln’s personal guard
Lieutenant Richard Turek-Age 22- Lieutenant in Lord Voln’s personal guard
Sir Viktor Kapov-Age 63- Battle-master
Peter Yunvi-Age 46- Castle cook

The King’s Own Legion

General Alexa Voln-Age 28
Archmage Allasra Winters-Age 26
Legion Sergeant Major Josephine Herth-Age 27

First Regiment
Lieutenant General Vladimir Kapov-Age 36
Victoria-Age 25
Regimental Sergeant Major William Morell-Age 56

Regimental Bodyguard
Sergeant Hazel Riss-Age 17
Corporal Rayelle Harper-Age 16
Private Laura Thompson-Age 14
Private Stephanie Allen-Age 14
Private Jillian Olsen-Age 15
Sergeant Cassandra Roseti-Age 17
Corporal Fiona Perez-Age 15
Renee Owen-Age 15

Command Staff
Lieutenant Colonel Kristen Grendel-Age 28
Major Danielle Cantor-Age 21
Major Jessail Kilkel-Age 28
Major Rebecca Theska-Age 29

First Company
Captain Natalie Sanchez-Age 26
Rose-Age 23
Company Sergeant Major Franchesca Rivers-Age 24

Lieutenant Monique Oleron-Age 21
Lieutenant Melissa Turgon-Age 22
Lieutenant Nichole McIntyre-Age 25

Second Company
Captain Emma Athney-Age 20
Rachel Hawk-Age 19
Company Sergeant Major Anastasia Romanof-Age 16

Lieutenant Sarah Drommed-Age 19
Lieutenant Tristanne Bergman-Age 23
Lieutenant Hilary Paulis-Age 16

Third Company
Captain Victor Marsters-Age 45
Ginerva Marks-Age 33

Third Company
Captain Alisa Kapov-Age 23
Ginerva Marks-Age 33

Fourth Company
Captain Justin Pierce-Age 29
Jenny Gilbert-Age 26

Lieutenant Demetri Kallov-Age 26

Fifth Company
Captain Vincent Hogan-Age 41
Nesheram-Age 41

Sixth Company
Captain Clarissa Walford-Age 28
Tamara-Age 28

Sergeant Cynthia Evans-Age 16

Seventh Company
Captain Hannah Rockwell-Age 23
Verity-Age 21

Eighth Company
Captain Benjamin Halest-Age 43
Ivo-Age 39
Company Sergeant Major Patrick McDougall-Age 40

Lieutenant Caeleigh Beranson-Age 17

Ninth Company
Captain Annabelle Diego-Age 22
Arkana-Age 21

Tenth Company
Captain Juliet Morell-Age 28
Devin Serget-Age 25

Twelfth Company
Captain Michelle Ford-Age 28
Elly Patricks-Age 26

Thirteenth Company
Captain Jenna Miskovitz-Age 20
Evelyn Graham-Age 20

Eighteenth Company
Captain Glenvara Lake-Age 24
Daphne-Age 20

Regimental Scout Company
Captain Jason Thompson-Age 32
Octavia-Age 29
Company Sergeant Major Christine Mede-Age 27

Sergeant James Black-Age 17
Corporal Grigori Kulikov-Age 23
Private Daniel Fitzpatrick-Age 16

Regimental Cavalry Company
Captain Elizabeth Martin-Age 32
Ariana-Age 23

Second Reigmental Ranger Company
Captain Kristine Douglas-Age 23
Willa Rowan-Age 19

Lieutenant Petra Michelli-Age 22

Regimental Medical Unit
First Lieutenant Cassielle Archalus-Age 15

Second Company, Menzobarian Rangers
Captain Grace Azvar-Age 17
Emily Athney-Age 18
Company Sergeant Major Alexandra Voln-Age 19

Lieutenant Danika Hughes-Age 16

Elite Legions

First Regiment
Colonel Kate Henna-Age 23
Raquel Moore-Age 21

Standard Legions

Fourth Regiment, First Legion
Colonel Robert Whitaker-Age 48
Garis-Age 45

First Regiment, Second Legion
Colonel Elaine Nichols-Age 31
Tiffany Brinson-Age 24


Eighty-ninth Elite Reserve Regiment
Colonel Charles DuHavel-Age 62

"Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction." - Ronald Reagan
"Judge them not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." - Martin Luther King, Jr.
"Pick up a rifle and you change instantly from a subject to a citizen." - Jeff Cooper
"I like my enemies like James Bond likes his martinis- shaken, not stirred."
My first book, The King's Own
« Previous Page  1 2 3  Next Page »
Total War Heaven » Forums » Bardic Circle - War Stories & AAR forum » The King's Own
You must be logged in to post messages.
Please login or register
Hop to:    
Total War Heaven | HeavenGames