Note to the Reader: This story is a long overdue segment of the Beinison-Baranur war. Select reading will assist the reader in understanding the events leading up to this series. “Loren Armare” is a three part sequel to “Place Unto Wrath” (DargonZine v6n1). It follows up on the events from “Campaign on the Laraka, part 2″ (DargonZine v3n10) and precedes the siege of Gateway in “Campaign on the Laraka, part 3.1″ (DargonZine v7n1). The last part of this series will use characters that later appear in the already published story “A Rogue’s Gambit” (DargonZine v8n3).
Moreover, as I chronicle the bleak patterns of human deportment from one frontier of Cherisk to the other, it becomes presently evident that the only people to equal my own countrymen in the inhuman and often barbaric rituals of conquest are those the conquest is against.
“Videre Virile” (unfinished)
Lord Bistra Scire Deriman,
College Guild of Khronica
A bird call disturbed the normal night sounds of the forest and echoed among the trees until another voice picked it up and carried it further into the gloom of the night. A frightened rodent rushed between the roots of an old oak, dodging some unseen danger. Quiet again settled on the woods, only to be disturbed by distant voices.
“That was a wolf. I know that was a wolf.”
“I can’t believe you wanted to move camp because of a wolf.”
“There were three, at least three!”
“Oh, please! They were more frightened to find us than we were to see them.”
“You sure didn’t look that confident when it sank its teeth into your pack.”
A shrill whistle abruptly ended the argument as soldiers in dark clothes dropped from surrounding trees to the ground around the small party that was travelling in the night.
“I wouldn’t if I were you!” a soldier warned as one of the travellers reached for a weapon. A lantern appeared from nowhere, illuminating the apprehended party of six, who were all wrapped in cloaks and carrying packs.
“Drop your weapons,” a woman’s voice sounded from behind the lantern. The light moved forward, focusing on the figure among the group — probably a man — who was reaching beyond his cloak for a weapon. Armed soldiers surrounded the small group.
“Baranurian. You’re Baranurian!” One of the travellers advanced forward in spite of the soldiers surrounding him and his companions. He brushed back the hood of his cloak, revealing an aged face with dark, thoughtful eyes. His gray hair seemed silver in the flickering light and he raised his hand to shield his eyes from the lantern.
Two soldiers closed on him, creating a barrier between him and the woman holding the lamp. The man paused, but did not back off. “I’m Quillien Thorne …” he tried to explain. “We’re Baranurian.”
“On the ground, all of you!” one of the soldiers ordered. “Now!”
The circle of armed men tightened, confining the small group to their midst.
“Now, I say!” the voice sounded again. “Hands where we can see them. We’ll take care of your weapons.”
The cloaked travellers slowly began to obey, confronted with the weapons of their assailants. One, clearly an older woman, accepted the hand of another to get to her knees.
“Remain standing,” the woman behind the light said. The light focused on the older woman. “You too, Lord Thorne.”
The older man rose from one knee. “You know me?”
“I know the name of Quillien Thorne. I don’t know you.”
“I wish I could prove my claim,” the man answered, “but our hasty departure from Port Sevlyn did not permit us to carry out more than what you now see.”
“Matrosov, check for weapons,” the woman ordered.
A large man closed to arm’s reach with the cloaked people and walking among them, pulled back their hoods one by one, checking them for weapons as he did so. They were four women and two men, all dirty and clearly tired. None resisted the search. He came away with a sword from the younger man and a highly decorated dagger from the man claiming to be Quillien Thorne.
“Get up,” the soldier told everyone, standing among them. He held on to the weapons as everyone around him rose. “They’re not soldiers.”
The lantern light shifted. “Did you get all the weapons?” the woman asked. A sword and a dagger retrieved from six people well behind enemy lines did not sit well with her.
“Not much of a threat, ma’am,” Matrosov paused to challenge with his gaze the young man from whom he confiscated the sword. The man set his jaw, but did not answer and permitted the young woman next to him to pull him back.
“Here.” The weapons were handed to one of the other soldiers.
“Can you prove to me you’re Thorne?” the woman asked again.
“I wear his clothes, travel with his wife and friends … The signet had to be left behind when we abandoned Port Sevlyn. I could not risk our discovery by the Beinison troops.”
“Lieutenant Catalin Bellen,” the woman introduced herself, “Valdasly Garrison, Arvalia. You will be my prisoners until my men can deliver you to my captain. I hope you can prove to him who you are.”
“Magnus under siege,” said a soldier, elbowing another as they observed the shadow cast by their lieutenant as he crawled through the brush between two campfires of a Beinison scouting party.
“Shh!” The success of the Baranurian raid on the Beinison camp hinged on their ability to get all the men into place before alerting the enemy.
The whispers ceased and the men turned their attention to the clearing where three Beinison soldiers sat around one of the fires, roasting a piece of unappetizing looking meat on the hot coals. They were saying something in their native tongue and occasionally laughing over jokes not understood by the Baranurian troops. A second shadow twisted in the brush and rolled between two bushes. A glitter of metal, barely visible in the dim light of the fire, revealed the presence of a second man. He crawled to where a fourth Beinison soldier slept and carefully removed the man’s sword from the scabbard at his side. The soldier stirred, but did not wake.
“Skoji’s getting good, too,” one of the hidden soldiers whispered.
“Let’s give them a hand,” someone suggested from behind the whispering soldier and more shadows slowly moved along the ground, closing off the only remaining escape route. The small troop slowly dispersed along their side of the camp, settling into positions around the four Beinison soldiers.
A rock thrown from somewhere in the darkness landed in the campfire, forcing upward a cloud of embers and ash, and as the three men around it got up, coughing and waving away the ash, a shadow jumped from the bushes, tackling two of the soldiers and scattering the burning wood of the fire across the clearing. There were more noises as the man by the other fire awoke and was jumped on by the soldier who had already removed his weapon. The rest of the small troop charged into the clearing, quickly subduing the Beinison soldiers without shedding a drop of blood.
Lieutenant Hakan Magnus brushed the dust off his tabard and picked up his sword, which had been dropped in the struggle-turned-fistfight. His men held on to their newfound prisoners as he walked once around the clearing, checking the edge of his blade. “Sergeant, is it?” He glanced at the Beinison soldier who appeared somewhat older and more grizzled than the other prisoners. The man looked away, indicating he had no wish to talk. Magnus sheathed his sword. “Are we going to discuss your unit here, or do you wish to see my camp first?”
Baron ReVell Dower shielded his eyes from the sun, its glare coming down from the high point in the sky. His tabard fluttered in the light breeze, mimicking the motion of the leaves in the trees. From his high point on the north bank of the mighty Laraka, he could see the canopy of the forest reaching far to the south. There were no settlements here, halfway between Port Sevlyn and Magnus. There were the occasional village or town here and there, along the river, but from this remote spot along the Laraka, he had an unobstructed view of nothing. Before him, at the bottom of the cliff, the river ran rapidly to the west, rushing the free waters of Baranur into the enemy’s hands.
The war was not going well for Baranur. Rumors from the eastern front hinted that duchies were falling as quickly as Beinison troops marched through them. Pyridain, Westbrook, Leftwich, Equiville were all rumored to be in the enemy hands, hinting that in six months the enemy had walked halfway across Baranur.
Now the western portion of the country was threatened. From their landing in Sharks’ Cove during Melrin, the advancing force had taken almost the entire Duchy of Quinnat. And all in a fortnight. At this rate of advance, the Beinison force would march into the Royal City of Magnus before Yuli was half over. Baranur was unprepared and ReVell knew it well. The military command in the Royal City was more impressed with show than method. They flew their colors high and placed green troops on the front lines, but these images of readiness could not stand up to the onslaught of bows and swords, pikes and axes wielded by the enemy.
ReVell turned to Kamerad Bonhan, who was patiently waiting for orders, occasionally glancing back to the group of men standing in the distance. Unlike his baron, the old soldier wore light armor, eternally ready for a battle that might not come for days.
“They’ve been here,” ReVell stated flatly.
“Without a doubt.”
“A while back …”
“But by no means a fortnight,” Sir Bonhan agreed. “I’d guess a half dozen regiments in the least. Plain troops, mostly. Footmen. Not a lot of indication of horses. Not good territory to take them through.”
“Horses and catapults would have to go by water,” ReVell agreed. “That’s the only way in this forest.”
“But could they spare the ships?”
ReVell thoughtfully looked up-river. “Why not? They have Sharks’ Cove, Port Sevlyn. The only fleet they have to fear is in Magnus. The nearest help would come from Armand, but Narragan has already committed his ships to Pyridain. The next closest major port is Dargon and if they bother to come, they’re at best a month away. Probably two.”
“But the Laraka’s a big place to patrol. Navy isn’t the only threat, nor the most effective at this point. They’d be foolish not to expect extra land troops attacking their flanks.”
“Exactly like us!” Sir Bonhan raised his voice.
Both men realized all too well that their intrusion did not fit in the plans of the Beinison generals. The path of the Arvalian reserves took them almost directly south from Arvalia, in hopes that their rapid advance would aid the Quinnat and Royal Duchy troops, but instead, they discovered themselves far behind the enemy lines, after the enemy had marched through the duchy.
“I imagine that if Sothos still has his wits about him, he’ll try to make a stand at Gateway. It’s the last remaining garrison before Magnus,” ReVell declared. “They have maybe two regiments there. Plus those that retreat from Quinnat and any that come up from Magnus. The only question I have is if there is time. If Sothos over-committed his forces expecting an eastern assault, he’ll have nothing to reinforce Gateway. I see only one solution, my friend.”
Bonhan glanced at the river. “Nothing heavier than men on shore. That means there are ships. Many ships. And there are two goals. Supplies and provisions. We cut their supply lines.”
“Gather the troops, Captain. Trade on the Laraka has come to an end.”
Kamerad Bonhan turned on his heels in his stiflingly military manner and headed away from the cliff. Behind him, the gray waters of the Laraka, muddy from the spring run-off, continued to flow as if no war had ever been fought on its shores. It was a river much like the Ty in his native Arvalia, oblivious to politics or war, to knights and men-at-arms, to the agonizing cries of Beinison and Baranur locked in the bloodiest war that had ever been fought in the history of Cherisk.
His military background and life-long training were the tools and preparation for an invasion just like this, but with the dark days now here, with the fall of Sharks’ Cove and Port Sevlyn, there was little hope for Magnus and there was no hope for him to get his troops to the front lines in time. The stand against the enemy had to be made here, some one hundred leagues behind the enemy lines. If the battle was played right, there was just the shadow of a chance that his troops could be the boot to stand on the back of the invading serpent and give Baranur a chance to push back the aggressors.
“My Lord,” a man-at-arms rushed up to Sir Bonhan as the old captain headed away from the edge of the cliff. The senior captain paused.
“Sir, forward guard reports a squad returning with captives.”
“Good,” Bonhan nodded. “They’re just in time for my briefing. Is Captain Binu with them?”
“I believe it’s Lieutenant Bellen’s men, sir. Captain Binu took his men to the south shore this morning.”
“Then inform Lieutenant Bellen to represent her captain at the meeting.”
The soldier returned the way he came and Bonhan turned back to the party gathering up on the cliff. “One of the squads is back!” he called to ReVell.
The baron waved in acknowledgement.
“Baron Dower in camp?” Hakan Magnus questioned a sentry at base camp, having split from Lieutenant Bellen’s and his own squads after they arrived back at the heavily forested stretch of hills the four Arvalian regiments had been using as a temporary base. Magnus was a tall, broad-shouldered man with sun-bleached brown hair. He spoke with a slight accent, indicating he was not native to northern Baranur. His face and clothes were dirty from his nighttime patrol and he gave the distinct impression of not really wanting to talk to the baron.
“Yes, sir. He’s holding council at the overlook. They were looking for you.”
Magnus nodded. His return was well timed, if not convenient, and having prisoners from the patrol was not bad news to bring back. He had been with the militia for many years, having advanced from a man-at-arms through squirehood and eventually to knighthood. He was a veteran of many duchy patrols and confrontations with lowbrows and brigands and now, after all these years, he was in his first war. “Cat,” Magnus called his companion over, “they’re waiting for us.”
“Already?” the woman trailing behind him hurried up. She was a full head shorter than he was and of a slighter build, but without a doubt a soldier. Like him, she wore light field armor and around her neck, a small stone tear, representing her knightly order. “I was hoping we’d deliver the news first,” she added.
“I think it’s the Baron’s regular war council,” Magnus answered. “I’ve got half a mind to go on another patrol just to avoid it, even if it costs me another night of sleep.”
“We’re fostering communications between the regiments,” Catalin laughed. “Our seasoned troops need to share their wisdom with the peasants in the other regiments. Besides, I really want to know what Bonhan is planning. It’s coming down to getting our swords ready for battle and strategists like him don’t come along every day.”
“After you,” Magnus indicated, “but beware, I won’t let you go first on the battlefield.”
The two lieutenants made their way to the top of the cliff overlooking the river that had been their target for the past several days. Their troops had taken the hard path in, down the Windbourne Mountains through valleys so rough and narrow that no road would ever be laid through them. They had entered behind the enemy lines, four regiments total, on an unprotected flank, and cut through some of the densest forest in Baranur to come to their country’s major waterway and the Beinison army’s lifeline. Now the time was coming to confront the enemy and in a matter of days they would be taking on the Beinison troops from behind.
“… and if the patrol reports this area clear,” Sir Hardin’s voice fell into hearing range, “we’ll be able to advance sufficiently close to be within striking range of Gateway, no more than a two bell’s march.” He paused, glancing at the newcomers. “And that would be Captain Binu’s job …”
Catalin and Magnus saluted Arvalia’s military commander and took their positions among the other regimental and company representatives, forming a semi-circle at the edge of the cliff.
“We understand you brought back captives?” Sir Hardin asked. He stepped into the center of the semi-circle, letting Baron Dower back away to the very edge of the cliff. “You may as well report now with everyone here.”
Catalin Bellen took a step forward. “As planned, sir, we scouted the Laraka ten leagues upstream. There is sufficient evidence that a large military presence passed this way recently on both banks of the river. I would estimate ten to fifteen regiments, but they crossed the river multiple times, often marching on both banks. It’s hard to tell, other than that there were many.
“We recovered two independent parties. One consisted of six individuals of Baranurian origin. They claim to be nobility out of Port Sevlyn. The other consists of four Beinison soldiers, apprehended by Lieutenant Magnus shortly before we turned back.”
“Magnus?” Sir Hardin asked, turning to the other knight.
Hakan Magnus was the senior lieutenant in the regiment and by all rights should have been making the report to start with, but he often remained a silent representative of his captain, having more input on what had yet to be done over what had already happened.
“The soldiers, sir, are a part of a Beinison regiment holding a rear flank. They were neither prepared for us, nor organized enough to offer resistance. There were four men. We brought three back. The last one chose to resist rather than cooperate. Based on their answers, the main body of the army believes this area to be secure, which is the reason for a small and irregular rear guard.”
“How large a force are they with, Magnus?” Baron Dower asked. His tone indicated he had a plan before hearing the answer.
“Ten regiments marched up a sennight ago,” Magnus responded. “Several more followed, although we have no numbers. We did not perform a detailed interrogation. I felt it was more critical to return the scouting information than to take the time required for an interrogation.”
“You marched them ten leagues back?” Sir Bonhan asked.
“Actually, sir, I had them carried. Their pace would not have permitted our scheduled return.”
Sir Bonhan and Baron Dower exchanged a look that must have carried some meaning because Sir Bonhan nodded and the Baron went on.
“Have the Benosians transferred to Captain Bonhan’s staff and the nobles to mine. We will conduct the interrogations.
“Captain Hardin, I want you to take your regiment east and set camp at the ten league mark. You have one day to accomplish that. The other two regiments will be joining you shortly. Captain Binu’s regiment will be doing the same on the south shore. Questions?”
No one asked any.
Quillien Thorne faced off with Garrett Covington, his gray eyes turning darker at the contempt from the younger man. He could afford the luxury of an argument here in the tent, away from the prying eyes of their captors. Garrett had been belligerent towards the soldiers that captured them in the forest and this had to stop before things were made irreparably worse. His daughter kept an eye on the activity outside while he attempted to argue Garrett into submission.
“Please Garrett,” his wife, Tassy, pleaded, getting between the two men. “Lord Thorne got us this far, out of Port Sevlyn. Let him get us out of this, too.”
“Covington, listen to me,” Thorne said. “My social status has no standing with these soldiers. Yours is even more trivial than mine. Unless you can produce an uncle who just happens to be a duke, any demands you wish to levy will be thrown out and you’ll be lucky if they dump you in the wilderness to fend for yourself rather than handing you a sword and sending you into battle. Your healer training will merely inspire them to use your skills on the front lines where you are bound to get killed. Look at your wife. Do you want her to be a widow at her young age? Or would it be better if she was handed a sword, too?”
“I’m not going to –”
“Don’t stress yourself, dear,” Rolanda Thorne pulled Tassy away from the two arguing men. “The last thing I want is you in the middle when they come to blows.” She guided Tassy away, then cast a fierce glare at Garrett. “Sit down and shut up, if you know what’s good for you.”
Garrett glanced over at the two women, momentarily losing eye contact with Thorne. And that was all it took for him to lose ground in his debate.
“Now sit there and let me do the talking.” Thorne persisted until there was no doubt that he had won.
“Father, the guard’s returning,” Jannis Thorne warned. She let the flap to the tent close as she retreated away from the entrance.
“I’m ready,” he answered, without turning to look. He glanced at his wife, knowing she wanted to go with him. “Rolanda …”
“No, no.” He stepped towards her, placing his mouth to her ear. “Garrett’s a hothead. If we don’t rein him in, he’ll just pick a fight with the guards and we’re all going to be blamed.”
“Quillien,” Rolanda turned to face him, starting to protest his decision.
“You’re the only one I can trust to do this right,” he said.
She nodded, reluctantly.
“Keep them calm, Rolanda. I will talk to the commander of this regiment. Jannis, you’ll be coming with me. Remember, all of you are working for me.”
The flap of the tent was pulled open just as Jannis moved away and two guards entered. “Lord Thorne, the Baron will talk to you now. Please attend us.”
“With pleasure,” Thorne answered. He threw one last warning glance to Garrett and stepped to follow the guards. “Jannis, come with me.”
The guards stopped. “Just you, sir.”
“My daughter is studying to take over my business. She will come with me to see the baron.” His gaze remained fixed on the lead guard and he used the advantage of his height to intimidate the smaller man.
“Very well,” the guard gave in. “Just two.”
Thorne and his daughter were led across the military camp to a large tent that appeared to be the center of all activity. There were few tents at the camp — only a half dozen could be seen, including the one they were led to and the one where Thorne and his family were kept. The guard brushed aside the flap of the tent, then followed Thorne and his daughter in.
Inside were two men. One, about Thorne’s age, sat at a small table. He was comfortably dressed and visibly stressed. No doubt the baron. The other, a significantly younger man, stood next to him, looking at what appeared to be a roughly-sketched map. He was wearing armor and a sword hung at his side.
“My liege,” the guard said, “Lord Quillien Thorne and his daughter, Lady Jannis Thorne.”
“Thank you,” the older man responded to the guard. “Please leave us. Lord Thorne, would you care to sit?”
“I’m fine,” Thorne answered as the guard silently departed. Sitting would put him in a submissive stance and he wanted to have a firm grasp on any negotiations.
“And you, lady?”
“I’m fine as well,” the young woman answered.
“Very well.” The older man stood up, clearly understanding the tactic. “I’m ReVell Dower, Baron of Valdasly of the Duchy of Arvalia. This is Ariam Brand, my aide. I trust my men treated you well?”
“Somewhat better than a common thief, I imagine,” Thorne answered. “Better than the three Beinison soldiers that were brought in with us.”
ReVell smiled. “I am pleased to hear that my officers are also gentlemen. But I have a more significant issue to address. Lord Thorne, you stand before me dressed in peasant rags, dirty and tired. You are clearly Baranurian as you have perfect command of the language and no sign of an accent, but how can you help me identify you for who you claim to be?”
“I don’t believe I have a proper means of validating my claim,” Thorne said, “but I can share information with you that may help it.”
“I don’t know if you’ve heard my family name before, but I am the owner of Land’s Rim merchant house, the largest in all of Port Sevlyn. My older daughter, Brynna, is the captain of the _Vanguard_Voyager_, one of my ships. The Baranurian navy is very familiar with my small fleet and perhaps with me, if you have any naval officers present, I am sure they could confirm this.”
“I do not,” ReVell answered, “but go on.” The names and places rang familiar to him and for the time being that was enough.
“The eve of Yule nine the Beinison forces came in sight of Port Sevlyn,” Thorne continued his story. “They laid siege to the city and three days later broke through. The town guard and the few troops that retreated from Sharks’ Cove were slaughtered before the night was over. Then the enemy forces proceeded to burn and loot the city. My family and staff took refuge in a vault inside my house until the worst of it was over, then under the cover of darkness, dressed as you see us now, we walked out to the gate and requested passage. Rayna, my assistant, had suggested we pass ourselves off as pilgrims of the Stevene. The Stevene must have been smiling on us that moment, because the Beinison commander, Vasquez, in a moment of compassion, let us through while his men continued to destroy the city.”
“Joachim Vasquez?” ReVell asked. “Describe him.”
“I don’t …” Thorne paused. “Very tall. Black hair. Sharp features.”
ReVell nodded. “Go on.”
“There isn’t much more,” Thorne said. “We spent a fortnight in the forest moving east. We hoped to get to Magnus. Your men found us and brought us here.”
“East isn’t the way you want to go,” ReVell said. “You’re following the advancing Beinison army. Would information on their strength be too much to ask for?”
“I’m afraid so,” Thorne answered. “We only saw some of the looting. Our lack of apparent interest in the war was an element in our being able to leave the city.”
“Very well, Lord Thorne. I want you to gather your family and associates. I will supply you provisions and an escort to safety.”
“I would greatly appreciate that, Baron,” Thorne said. “I would also like to request that the items confiscated from us be returned. And, of course, if there is any message you wish to send with us, I would be happy to render that service.”
ReVell nodded, then called for the guard to take Thorne and his daughter back. “Ariam.” He turned to his aide once the merchant was gone. “I want you to select three men-at-arms and lead the Thorne party to safety. Take them to Arvalia. Go to Wachock or, if you can, up to Hawksbridge. And track down and return whatever Bellen took away from them.”
“I’d rather fight at your side, sir,” Brand answered. “Foot soldiers should be able to get them to safety. We don’t even know if they are who they claim to be.”
“I’m fairly confident that they are telling the truth, Ariam. And Lord Thorne would deserve nothing less than a knight as an escort. I’d rather have you at my side, too, but this is about alliances and the great houses of Baranur. Four men won’t make a difference where four regiments are concerned. Us treating Thorne well would benefit our duke.”