Castle Pentamorlo, Duchy Dargon, Baranur
10 Naia, 1014 B.Y.
“You’re right, Kimme, I don’t understand,” Morion said.
“I am not sure I fully understand either, my love,” the Araf commented. “All I know is what I saw in the vision. I do not know why this vision came to me. But I do know I must find the cause. And I must know which ending is to be.”
“But do you have to go now?” Morion asked, coming to sit on the bed beside the woman who so recently came into his life.
“Yes,” she said, stroking his cheek.
“But, Kimme, there is a war! I have to leave for Shark’s Cove tomorrow to meet with this Sir Ailean. I’d feel much more at ease knowing you were here, safe. Kimme, I have to see to the preparations for leaving. If you leave today, we won’t have time to say good-bye properly.”
Kimmentari smiled. “Then I shall have to delay my departure.”
“I’ll go and hurry my students along. The faster things get done, the faster I can get back. Then we can…discuss things.” Morion quickly kissed Kimmentari and then departed.
When he left the room, Kimme shuddered. She’d felt the nightmare coming on all the while they were talking and it had taken all her control not to let anything show.
Haltingly, she crossed the room to the door and barely succeeded in locking it with her shaking hands before the nightmare came in full force. Kimmentari collapsed in a heap as the now-familiar scene danced and swam in her sight. Once more, the gore-splattered room was revealed in all its horror. Once more, the cries of innocents echoed in Kimmentari’s ears. Once more, she threw back her head and screamed a silent scream as a face of pure evil turned to stare into hers. Once more, she heard the silent promise on the dead lips. And then, mercifully, the darkness welled up and she drifted into unconsciousness.
Castle Pentamorlo, Duchy Dargon, Baranur
11 Naia, 1014 B.Y.
“Kimme, please?” Morion asked as he prepared to mount his horse.
Kimmentari laughed, a musical-sounding laugh. “My love, no. I shall be fine.”
“But what about the–”
“The hoftanau will not take me while you are gone. It may not take me at all.”
“But you said that when one of your race falls in love with…with a…” Morion searched for the correct expression.
“Fast-liver,” Kimmentari supplied.
“A fast-liver. That the fire-love comes over you. And that it’s usually fatal.”
“True,” the blue-skinned, ruby-eyed Araf said. “But in the Dance I saw that our strands continued after the Dance was done. That may mean the hoftanau will not take me.”
“I would still feel better if you remained here.”
“No. I must find out the meaning of this vision.”
Morion put his hands on her shoulders. “Can’t you tell me what it is?”
“I can’t remember it clearly,” she lied. “Perhaps this journey will help me determine what the vision means and which of the two endings is destined to come to pass.”
Just as Morion was about to continue the conversation, a man wearing an unimaginably polished breastplate interrupted. “Sair,” he said, back ramrod-straight, “tha Battalion is ready tae march.”
“Thank you, Colour Sergeant. Start them off. I’ll be along presently.” The Colour Sergeant saluted, did an about-turn, and marched away. Morion turned to Kimmentari. He made to speak, but she silenced him with a finger.
“You must go,” she said.
Morion gathered her in his arms and kissed her lovingly. “I’ll be back as soon as I can,” he said as he mounted his steed.
“Be careful,” she said anxiously.
“I intend to be, Kimme.” Morion paused, unsure what to say. He and Kimme stared at each other for a long time. Finally, Morion leaned over and kissed his lover a long, thorough kiss.
“I love you,” he said.
“I know,” Kimme replied, smiling. “I love you also.”
“I know. Good-bye.” Morion put his helm on and rode out the gate after his men. He was riding to war.
Kimmentari watched him go, the ache in her heart painfully present even before he rode out of sight. She turned to go to the room she and Morion shared to finish packing for her journey to Dargon City.
She had just entered the room when the waking nightmare came again. This time, however, she saw a man dressed in black running down corridors filled with death and the dead and she saw the same man enter the room where cowered the innocents caught up in the struggle for power. Except this time, the man in black rescued those in the room.
As had happened many times over the months just past, the nightmare had had two endings; one for ill, one for good. Just what part she had to play, only Thyerin knew. And He wasn’t telling.
War galley HUNTRESS, flagship Beinisonian Expeditionary Force
Valenfaer Ocean, 150 leagues southwest of Shark’s Cove, Duchy Quinnat, Baranur
2 Melrin, 1014 B.Y.
Field Marshal Joachim Vasquez leaned on the railing near the bow of the Huntress and gazed out over the moonlit sea at the vessels carrying the thirty-five thousand soldiers under his command. One hundred forty transports, escorted by one hundred warships, fully half of Beinison’s complement of men-of-war, sailed slowly north. In the morning, the armada would split, fifteen thousand men and twenty escorts continuing north to Dargon, the remaining twenty thousand men and eighty warships diverting to Shark’s Cove at the mouth of the Laraka River, Magnus’ lifeline.
The war was now in its sixth month. The offensive begun by Beinison in early Naia was showing results even the most optimistic strategists had only dreamed of. After only two weeks of fighting, the Baranurian front in Pyridain collapsed. Even now, Beinisonian forces were racing north, hoping to reach Pyridain City before the demoralized enemy was able to mount an effective defense.
Vasquez was unaware of the success of the main offensive. His force had set sail as soon as the weather allowed. Vasquez was not overly concerned about the success or failure of the main attack anyway. If things went as planned, or even moderately so, Vasquez would be in Magnus inside three weeks.
His thoughts were interrupted by a young Marine. “Pardon the interruption, sir,” the young man said. “General Collanti sends his complements and asks you join him in the Admiral’s quarters, sir.”
“Good,” the tall, black-haired man replied. “See to it we are not disturbed unless there is an emergency.”
The Marine saluted and stepped aside to allow the Field Marshal to take the lead. Vasquez made his way below deck to Fleet Admiral Grieg Talens’ cabin. Although Talens and Vasquez shared joint command of the B.E.F., until Vasquez and his troops were ashore, Talens held authority due to his thirty years of experience at sea.
In three days, Talens would put Vasquez and the B.E.F.’s Main Body ashore at Shark’s Cove, whereupon it would be his task to ensure the lines of supply and communication remained open to what would then be known as the Shark’s Cove Staging Area. Talens’ subordinate, Commodore Alexi Tormana, would have the responsibility of seeing the B.E.F.’s Northern Force safely to Dargon, upon which his post-landing task would then be identical to that of his commander.
Vasquez entered the warm, spacious, brightly lit cabin due one of Admiral Talens’ rank and experience. Seven men were waiting for Vasquez’s arrival. Admiral Talens, Commodore Tormana and their deputies, Captains Danridge and Gromiko respectively, represented the Navy. General Collanti, Vasquez’s second-in-command, Collanti’s aide and deputy Colonel Jackson, and Vasquez’s aide and new deputy, Colonel Conti, represented the Army.
“Now that you’re here, Vasquez, we can get down to business,” Talens remarked.
Collanti stiffened at the tone Talens had taken in addressing Vasquez. He was about to make an oral protest when Vasquez waved the comment aside. There had always been bad blood between the Army and the Navy, but the current venture was too important for Vasquez to risk offending the man who would be his lifeline once ashore.
There was another reason Vasquez chose to disregard the comment. In the four weeks spent aboard ship, Vasquez and Talens had grown to respect each other’s abilities. Though neither had developed a liking for the other, neither had they developed a dislike. Both recognized a soldier when they saw one. Still, that didn’t mean the Army-Navy rivalry had to be put on hold.
“Good evening, gentlemen,” Vasquez said as he strode to the chart table covered not by naval charts, but by a map of the northwestern part of Baranur. “You all know the general outline for the invasion,” Vasquez said, dispensing with preliminaries. “Now, I shall outline the specifics.” Vasquez picked up a pointer and began his briefing. “In three days, Main Body will commence landing here,” he said, indicating a spot on the map, “at Shark’s Cove. Once Shark’s Cove is secure, Main Body will advance down the Laraka, laying siege to Port Sevlyn. Shark’s Cove and Port Sevlyn will each be garrisoned by a Regiment. In addition, two Regiments will hold the border with Kiliaen.”
“After securing Port Sevlyn,” he continued, “Main Body will advance on Gateway Keep in the Royal Duchy. That, gentlemen, is Phase One. It should take no longer than sixteen days.” There was stunned silence around the table. The Army officers were shocked; Gateway Keep was four hundred thirty leagues from Shark’s Cove. A long way to go in sixteen days through hostile territory. They were not confident the task could be completed. The Navy officers, for their part, considered the scheme to be that much more proof of the Army’s incompetence.
Vasquez let the silence continue a little longer, enjoying the reaction from his officers. Never one to let pleasure intrude on duty, he continued with the briefing. “General Collanti and Northern Force will land at Dargon in thirty-seven days’ time.”
“Enrico,” he said, speaking directly to his long-time friend and former deputy, “your task is to seize and hold all of Duchy Dargon. The details I leave to you with one exception: you must subdue Lord Morion’s holding at Tench. One more thing, Enrico. You’ll have to hold Dargon on your own. Expect no help from me. I simply don’t have the men.”
“Don’t worry, sir,” Collanti said in his booming voice. “We’ll hold.”
“I’m sure you will, Enrico. To continue, Phase Two will be the siege of Magnus itself. After taking Gateway Keep, I will pause for three days before advancing on the enemy’s capital.”
Vasquez paused to gather his thoughts. Once ready, he continued, looking each of those assembled in the eyes as he spoke. “Phase Two is vital to the entire operation. Magnus is the key to Baranur.”
“If we succeed,” he said, hitting the map with the pointer for emphasis, “the war is over. If we fail, Baranur has a chance to recover. Questions?” he asked. Seeing none, he said, “Then you had best get to your ships. Tomorrow, we begin a new era for Beinison.”
Shandayma Bay shore, 16 leagues north of Shark’s Cove, Duchy Quinnat, Baranur
5 Melrin, 1014 B.Y.
Sir Ailean of Bivar, Knight Captain of the Northern Marches, watched in grim silence the column of thick black smoke that marked the grave of the last of the war galleys from Baranur’s Laraka River Flotilla. Scout vessels had spotted the armada two days ago, somewhat earlier than expected, and Sir Ailean had immediately moved his troops to the most likely landing point. The fact that he guessed correctly was small consolation. Ailean had five thousand five hundred to oppose four times that if the scouts’ reports were accurate. From what he saw, the scouts were indeed accurate. Too damned accurate. “Why couldn’t they overestimate just this once?” he asked to no one in particular.
Ailean was nervous. The young man with the pale blue eyes and honey-blond hair had only recently been knighted after serving as squire to Sir Edward Sothos for two years. Ailean had found his former master to be a stern, but fair, teacher and disciplinarian. He deeply admired Sir Edward but was afraid that the older warrior never really liked him. He had desperately wanted Edward to like him.
And then, just three months previous, Ailean had received his Knighthood and appointment to the position of Knight Captain of the Northern Marches on the recommendation of Sir Edward. When Ailean heard that the Knight Commander had pushed for Ailean’s appointment, he was overjoyed. He vowed then and there that he would give his former teacher no cause for disappointment.
Now, here he stood facing a very real enemy for the first time and he felt fear at the sight of the armada anchored off-shore. He knew that all he could do was hurt the enemy, delay him until the Knight Commander could find the men to reinforce him. Ailean moved his line closer to the water’s edge.
Already, the enemy transports had released their boats and the first wave of Beinisonian troops were headed for shore. Ailean could do little more than watch as the Beinisonian light infantry disembarked and fought their way through the waist-deep water; Ailean had no archers, and of his infantry, three Regiments were heavy infantry and the other two were medium infantry. Lord Morion’s Battalion, in reserve, was composed of the best of his current and former students. While a group of Morion’s students was equipped as light infantry, their numbers were far too few for Ailean to commit them to engaging their Beinisonian opposites.
The Beinisonian officers shouted and cajoled their men into formation in knee-deep water perhaps twenty yards from the armoured ranks of their enemy. These were some of Beinison’s finest, elite soldiers hardened to the ways of war. At a shouted signal they charged, splashing through the water towards their enemy, screaming at the top of their lungs.
They collided with the Baranurian line, sabre against longsword, leather cuirass against chainmail and scalemail.
The Baranurians outnumbered the Beinisonians five-to-four. More importantly, the Baranurians far out-classed their opponents both in terms of weaponry and weight of armour. However, most of the Baranurian troops had never seen combat before and the Beinisonians fought like men possessed. The inexperienced Baranurians began taking a step backward here, two there as they fought to defend themselves from the foe.
Ailean saw what was happening and sent runners with instructions to hold the line, to stand fast, to drive the enemy back. Ailean saw and heard his Captains and Sergeants hitting, shoving, shouting, and cursing the men into immobility.
The bodies began piling up all along the beach as Baranurian and Beinisonian struggled to kill one another. And always there were the shouts of the sergeants, “Close up! Close up!”, as they ordered men up from the rear ranks to replace those in the front who had fallen.
The Beinisonians had succeeded in pushing the Baranurians back ten yards and were forcing the flanks, where the two forces were more evenly matched in terms of armour, back even farther. While his centre was holding firm, Ailean knew that if he could not bring the situation on the flanks under control he would be forced to pull back even more than he already had to avoid encirclement, thus allowing the enemy to bring heavier troops ashore. And that, he knew, would spell his force’s doom.
Ailean wracked his brain for a solution as the battle raged on, but he saw no way to prevent catastrophe. Perhaps, he thought, if I threw Lord Morion’s Battalion in to reinforce the centre, I could split them. Possible, he thought. But do I have the time? He looked towards his flanks for the answer. The left flank had finally managed to hold the enemy advance and was even pushing them back slightly. The right flank, however, had fallen back even more and was now bent back thirty more yards from the water’s edge.
And then, in a flash of inspiration, Ailean saw his chance. The very success of the Beinisonians on the right flank was also their greatest danger. In pressing their advantage, they too were now forty yards from the water’s edge. Being outnumbered, they could not afford to hold back a reserve. If Ailean could take his reserves into the gap between the Beinisonians and the water’s edge, he could roll up their left flank and fall upon their centre.
Throughout history, it has long been taught that the last general to commit his reserves usually wins the battle, all other things being equal. Sir Ailean of Bivar was about to prove that maxim once more.
Shandayma Bay shore, 16 leagues north of Shark’s Cove, Duchy Quinnat, Baranur
5 Melrin, 1014 B.Y.
Lord Morion side-stepped the Beinisonian’s downward swing and countered with a cut to the throat. Ailean’s plan to attack the enemy in the flank had worked beautifully. Ailean and Morion had taken the five hundred men and women of the reserve Battalion and led them north to the assistance of the hard-pressed 1st Regiment of the Pyridain Borderers. By the time Ailean and Morion had arrived, the Borderers had been pushed back sixty yards from the water’s edge. The Knight Captain led Morion’s Battalion against the enemy without delay. Unable to stand assault from two directions at once, the Beinisonians retreated rapidly south.
Ailean now had the enemy compressed into a horseshoe perimeter that was quickly shrinking. Light troops, no matter how good, simply can not stand toe-to-toe with heavy infantry and slug it out. Of the one thousand bodies littering the beach, eight hundred were Beinisonian. And of those eight hundred, two hundred had been wounded but had drowned before the tide went out.
“On! On!” Morion shouted, exhorting his students forward. “Press on! Drive them hard!”
Two Beinisonian soldiers ran at Morion. One stumbled and fell in the wet sand but the other kept on coming. Morion turned his enemy’s thrust with his shield and aimed a slash at his opponent’s unarmoured head. The Beinisonian parried with his sabre and dropped into a fencer’s crouch.
Morion thrust towards his adversary’s abdomen and was met by his opponent’s parry. The combatants’ blades never met, for Morion’s initial thrust was a feint. His real thrust was aimed at the Beinisonian’s left side. His blade slid deep between his opponent’s ribs and the man crumpled. Whether he was dead or not, Morion couldn’t be sure because the second Beinisonian had regained his footing and was after Morion once more after finishing one of Morion’s students.
Morion immediately saw this one would prove a tougher opponent due to the fact that his enemy was left-handed, making Morion’s shield useless, even a hindrance. He threw it aside and leaped at his opponent.
Though Morion was wearing much heavier armour than the Beinisonian, his enemy didn’t hesitate about grappling hand-to-hand. Both mens’ swords had met at the guards and each had the other’s wrist locked in a grip of desperate strength.
Morion pushed and strained, trying to gain enough leverage to throw the younger man off balance. His opponent was strong, stronger than his size would indicate. The wet sand under Morion’s right foot shifted and he fell. The Beinisonian was thrown off balance as well although he managed to keep his footing.
Morion struggled to his knees and grasped his sword just as the Beinisonian reached him. Morion caught a glint of sunlight off his opponent’s upraised sabre and knew he had time for one last act.
Desperation lending him strength, Morion stabbed upwards. His sword bit deep into his adversary’s neck, severing the carotid artery. The Beinisonian fell, his lifeblood rapidly soaking into the sand.
Morion stood, retrieved his shield and rested for a moment while drinking from his canteen. He looked around; the battle was going well for Baranur. The Beinisonian pocket had shrunk even further. The only thing preventing the Baranurians from enveloping their enemy was the water. Morion sensed that one more good hard push and the Beinisonians were finished.
He replaced his canteen on his belt and was about to re-enter the fray when someone pounded him on the right shoulder. Morion whipped around, sword poised to strike. It was Ailean.
Seeing the grim expression on Ailean’s face, Morion asked, “What is it? What’s wrong?”
Ailean started to say something then stopped and turned, pointing out to sea. A black line of boats was approaching, each packed to the gunwales with troops. Morion could see the tell-tale flashes of sunlight that meant the the oncoming Beinisonians were armoured in something more substantial than boiled leather.
“By all the gods!” Morion exclaimed. “They’re sending in their heavy infantry! They’re not waiting to clear the beach!”
“Yes,” Ailean said tightly. “It is the end.”
“We’re going to have to work fast if we want to extricate the bulk of our force,” Morion commented.
“Yes you will,” Ailean said in agreement.
Morion turned his head sharply to look at the young knight. “What did you mean by that?”
“Sir Edward personally entrusted me with stopping the Beinisonian attack on Shark’s Cove. At all costs,” Ailean said, gazing at the oncoming enemy.
“But he couldn’t have known the size of the force that you would be facing.”
“It matters little. We both know what the phrase ‘at all costs’ means.”
“Ailean, they outnumber us five-to-one! We’ve hurt them. It’s time to fall back and delay them as long as possible.”
“Well what is this talk of me taking command?”
“You’ll need a rear-guard,” Ailean said in a business-like tone. “The Borderers should be sufficient. That would leave you with the better part of three-and-a-half Regiments.”
“You don’t stand a chance!”
Ailean turned to speak. When he did, it was with determination in his eyes and a note of finality in his voice. “I swore to His Excellency–on my honour–that I would not fail him. Do you understand, Lord Morion? The fact that I have failed means my honour–or my life–is forfeit. My honour means more to me than life itself. And so, I shall die to preserve it.”
“Ailean, don’t be a fool!”
“Lord Morion, you placed yourself under my command when I explained to you the gravity of the situation. Do you now wish to revoke your pledge?”
“No. Neither do I wish to see you dead.”
“It’s decided, Morion. The longer you delay lessens the chance of escape.”
Morion stared at Ailean for long moments. Then, uttering a curse, he left the knight and began the difficult task of executing a fighting withdrawal, perhaps the most difficult of maneuvers a commander has to oversee.
War galley Huntress, flagship Beinisonian Expeditionary Force
Shandayma Bay, 16 leagues north of Shark’s Cove, Duchy Quinnat, Baranur
5 Melrin, 1014 B.Y.
“Well, Vasquez,” Fleet Admiral Talens asked in irritation, “what are they doing?”
Vasquez lowered the spyglass he’d borrowed and said, “They’ve spotted the second wave. They’re retreating.” He slammed the object shut. “We have them! I’m going ashore. Colonel Conti, see to it the rest of the force is landed.”
A boat was put over the side and Vasquez and a six-man bodyguard headed for the beach as fast as the oarsmen could row. Vasquez intended to personally oversee this battle to its conclusion. He had the chance to capture six Colours in one battle. That would be an achievement no other Field Marshal could rival.
Vasquez was intently studying the battle’s flow. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing. The Baranurians were succeeding in making their withdrawal, outnumbered as they were. Whoever their commander is, thought Vasquez, he is a worthy opponent. “I look forward to our meeting,” he said aloud.
Shandayma Bay shore, 16 leagues north of Shark’s Cove, Duchy Quinnat, Baranur
5 Melrin, 1014 B.Y.
Morion was slowly disengaging the three Regiments of heavy infantry. He split his own Battalion into two groups, one to cover each flank. The troops were holding up well, considering this was their first battle for most.
Morion was increasingly dissatisfied with the speed of the withdrawal. Ailean had something less than two thousand men to try and hold close to twenty-five hundred at bay with another four thousand about to land. Morion estimated he had another twenty minutes, at best, to get his troops away from the fighting.
Morion’s force was about halfway to the dunes. He turned his attention from his soldiers to the battle still underway. Ailean had been forced back but by some miracle was keeping the enemy at bay. But at what great cost. Half his men were dead or wounded and those still able to fight were trying to hold a frontage that five times their number had difficulty holding earlier that morning. And that was against the enemy’s light infantry. When the Beinisonian heavy infantry landed, Ailean’s force would be overwhelmed in seconds.
Morion knew he had to act quickly or he would not even have his twenty minutes. He called the Commanders of his three Regiments to him and briefly explained what he had in mind. There was shocked disbelief. Morion’s plan was dangerous and if things went awry, there would be no hope of putting up even a token resistance. But as one Commander put it, “We’d just be buying ourselves a few minutes more if we don’t.”
A few minutes later, Morion, now seated on his horse, was ready to implement his plan. Trumpets blew, drums sounded, and all three Regiments changed from line-of-battle to line-of-march. To be attacked now would spell disaster. At a signal from Morion, the Colours were unfurled and the signal given to force-march. All three Regiments moved off at a trot, the fastest pace they could manage in the sand.
Morion drove them mercilessly, seemingly uncaring about the difficulties the quickness of the pace and the heat of the sun presented to the men and women under his command. Once they were past the dunes and onto better footing, he ordered the pace stepped up even further. When he’d put a league between his force and the enemy, he slowed the pace to a walk. Riding to his senior Commander he said, “Keep them headed toward Port Sevlyn. I’m going back to see how Sir Ailean fares.”
He galloped back to the beach as fast as his horse could make it. He arrived just in time to witness the battle’s final moments. By this time, the enemy had landed his second wave and surrounded the remnants of Ailean’s force. Morion looked down on the scene with a mixture of pride and grief. Pride that both Regiment’s Colours, King’s and Regimental, still flew. Grief that less than fifty men warded them.
As he watched, the enemy’s commander came forward and asked Ailean to surrender.
Again the Beinisonian asked, almost pleaded, with Ailean to surrender. “Why waste your life? I shall have the Colours with or without your surrender.”
Again Ailean refused.
“So be it,” the enemy commander replied and slowly walked back to his own lines.
The end was swift. The Beinisonians charged Ailean’s group and it was over in minutes. Ailean was among the last to fall, preserving the Colours and his honour to the very last.
“Damn you, Ailean,” Morion cursed softly. “Damn you and your Code of Conduct. And damn you, Sir Edward, for accepting his pledge. Look what it’s brought.”
Morion turned his horse and made his way back to his troops. He knew he could not stop the Beinisonians with his small force. He probably couldn’t even delay them. But he must try, for Baranur was lost if he didn’t.
Shark’s Cove, Duchy Quinnat, Baranur
5 Melrin, 1014 B.Y.
The Melrin festival’s going quite well considering there’s a war on, the “owner” of The Tipsy Dragon tavern thought. Adrea Rainer was watching the tavern while her fellow trouble shooter (for lack of a better word) Rien was off on business elsewhere.
At thirty, the blond-haired, brown-eyed thief still had not lost her touch. She could pilfer your coin-purse while standing right in front of you and you would never be the wiser. Her five-foot eight-inch frame held her well-muscled one hundred thirty pounds with ease. There were not many that made the mistake of antagonizing her that got away without a scar or three for their troubles.
Adrea had been going non-stop since early this morning. On a normal day, she’d be lucky to get ten customers before night-fall. Now, late afternoon, The Tipsy Dragon was full to capacity and she was hard-pressed to keep up.
She was returning yet-again for a round of ale when a street urchin who worked for Gaius Caligula burst wild-eyed into the tavern. “The Beinisonians have landed!” he shouted. “They’re at the north end o’ town!”
The patrons panicked, trampling each other in their haste to reach the door. Adrea vaulted across the bar just in time and watched as the tide of humanity flowed out the door. She could hear screams almost immediately. Obviously, the Beinisonians had moved faster than the boy had said. Outside, she could hear the looting begin.
She threw off the apron she was wearing and ran to her room downstairs in the basement sub-levels, taking the steps three at a time. She had prepared for this. Before he had left, Rien had told her to be ready to move at a moment’s notice in case the Cove should be attacked. Adrea had scoffed at the notion. Shark’s Cove was so far north of the Beinison-Baranur border that the thought of Beinisonian soldiers running through the streets had been laughable.
Adrea burst into her room and quickly dressed in clothing more suited for travel. Next, she began shoving her belongings into her pack: food, extra clothing, everything disappeared into the backpack. She secreted a throwing dagger in her right boot. Two more disappeared up her sleeves. She began buckling on her shortsword but thought better of it. Wearing a weapon so openly would surely attract the attention of any soldiers she might run into on the streets. Reluctantly, she stowed the sword away in her backpack; her daggers would have to serve.
She ran up to the common room and was about to leave The Tipsy Dragon when she heard a woman scream just outside. She stopped, thinking quickly. Obviously she couldn’t leave just now, at least not by the door. Her only other alternative was to try leaping from an upstairs window. Adrea was on her way when the door to the tavern burst open.
Adrea turned and saw a young woman, perhaps eighteen, being pursued by six soldiers. The woman’s dress was ripped and she had bruises on her face. Apparently, she had escaped before the soldiers could overly harm her. She flung a chair at one of her tormentors but to no avail. The six caught her and forced her to the floor.
Adrea, at the back of the room near the stairs, went un-noticed throughout the entire event. She stood rooted to the spot, uncertain of what to do. The sensible thing to do would be to run immediately, before the soldiers noticed her. But that was not in Adrea Rainer’s character. She could not abandon an innocent to such a fate.
She crept closer to the soldiers, who by now were taking their turns with their victim. Adrea closed to within ten feet and drew both daggers from her sleeves. She stood and was noticed at once by a soldier just finishing with the now-unresisting woman lying naked on the floor. Adrea threw both daggers in quick succession, both finding their marks. The soldier who noticed her fell backward, a dagger sprouting from his throat. A second Beinisonian collapsed with a dagger protruding from his back.
One of the remaining four shouted something in a language Adrea wasn’t familiar with but could guess the meaning of. Adrea quickly drew her last dagger and settled into a fighting stance. She expected the four to rush her without regard for tactics but they surprised her, fanning out in a semi-circle.
At a given command, all four rushed her at once. Adrea swept her dagger in an arc before her and succeeded in delivering a deep gash to one of her attacker’s arms. Before she could capitalize on her accomplishment, she was grabbed roughly from behind in a massive embrace. She struggled but could not loosen the hold on her.
The soldier she had slashed came to stand in front of her, his hand clasped tightly to his wound. He looked her in the eyes for a moment before nodding to one of his companions who reached down and wrested the dagger from Adrea’s hand.
The wounded Beinisonian said something–evidently a crude remark–and the others laughed. Adrea spit in his face. Surprisingly, he did nothing except take Adrea’s dagger from one of the other soldiers.
The wounded man said something in a low voice, turned and walked over to the young woman sobbing on the floor, the dagger hidden from her sight. He knelt between her legs and Adrea heard her begging, pleading with the man not to rape her again.
The wounded soldier slowly brought the dagger into view. The woman screamed at the sight of it and began struggling against her assailant. The soldier brought the blade down. Adrea heard a sickeningly wet sound and saw the woman’s struggling legs go limp except for a slight twitching as her life gushed from her severed carotid artery.
The soldier stood and indifferently tossed the dagger aside. He nodded and Adrea was forced to the floor. She kicked and flailed her arms but there were too many of them. Her tunic was ripped open, exposing her breasts. She tried to resist but she was held fast. Her trousers were hauled roughly off her and she felt the cold metal of a steel gauntlet touch her thighs.
Looking around in desperation for something, anything, to use as a weapon, she spied a heavy spitoon within arms reach. She wrestled one arm free and grabbed the spitoon. She swung with all her strength and felt it connect with the body on top of her, sending her attacker to the ground.
Adrea ran for the stairs, hoping to reach a room upstairs so she could escape from a window. She had just reached the stairs when she felt something heavy hit her between the shoulder-blades, sending her sprawling. Rough hands dragged her to the middle of the room and the partially stunned trouble shooter was held down and violated repeatedly.
After they were through, Adrea was hauled upright and held in a standing position in front of the wounded soldier, now sporting a cut on his scalp. He said something but Adrea was aware only that she could feel a soreness between her legs. The Beinisonian slapped her and again spoke, this time much harsher. He saw she was still unaware of him and made a noise of disappointment. He drew his own dagger and held it in front of Adrea’s face. Still, Adrea did not respond. Deeming that there was no more pleasure to be had from her, the Beinisonian quickly and efficiently disemboweled her.
Adrea collapsed immediately, unable even to scream the pain was so intense. The four soldiers expertly looted Adrea’s belongings and left their hacking, naked victim to die slowly in unbearable agony.
Across the street, the boy who had shouted his warning to those in The Tipsy Dragon turned from the ghastly sight the tavern’s open door afforded him and retched against a wall.
Laraka River, 10 leagues southeast of Shark’s Cove, Duchy Quinnat, Baranur
1 Yule, 1014 B.Y.
Lord Morion sat his horse seemingly ignoring the rain pouring from the sky. Two thousand eight hundred men and women marched slowly southeast along the riverbank. The rain, and the occasional bolt of lightning, served to lower their already-low morale. Most of the survivors of the previous day’s battle were numb with shock. They had seen friends die or horribly wounded and what was worse, they had lost. The few veterans among them tried to keep up their comrades’ morale, but the veterans themselves were in a somber mood. Not because of the deaths–they had seen plenty of death during their service–but because they knew the odds they faced. Most wore the expression of soldiers that were going to die and knew it.
Morion rode at the head of the column. He was aware of what his soldiers were thinking; he had had those same thoughts himself many times in the past. He was tempted to agree with his veterans. Port Sevlyn was only six days away and had a militia. Morion discarded the city immediately. He had too few men and Port Sevlyn was too large for him to adequately defend. The only other option was Gateway Keep in the Royal Duchy.
Gateway was built for the very purpose Morion required; to stop an invader from reaching Magnus. “Yes,” he said aloud. “Gateway. For good or ill, we’ll make our stand at Gateway.”
Morion turned in the saddle and surveyed his men. They may look beaten now, he thought, but they’ll do. They’ll do. He faced forward once more and settled in the saddle for the long, tense march to Gateway. The Beinisonians would be close behind him all the way.