Don’t remember Baron Trendel? I don’t blame you. See his last appearance in the story here.
Terin heard the words Duke Arneghal spoke, but they barely registered as his eyes took in the sight of the careworn hound on the low pallet before him.
Mind racing, Terin tried to grasp the implications. If only his damned head would stop hurting and let him think straight!
Whatever Redwulf looked like, what was it the Duke had said? The Duke claimed he started as a normal hound. So, magic, natural, accidental or intended. A problem that came from Mordant, with a breed reknowned for their loyalty and obedience, two things Duke Hope was known to demand even more than competence and skill. An obvious assumption as to intentions, there.
No. Look beyond the surface, and challenge the underlying assumptions. The Duke may have claimed what he believed to be true, but he knows less about magic than I do. So, who would advise him on matters magical? Who would have been the one to investigate, to study, and to present these ideas as fact? Who would, looked at from a different perspective, be in a position to cast blame on a rival wizard?
Hah, who else?
Terin pulled his attention from Redwulf, and gave his undivided attention to Duke Arneghast.
“You know that you need but ask, and I’m yours to direct, my Lord Commander.”
Duke Arneghal smiled, a tight smile that showed no teeth through his thick, bristling brown beard. “Ever one to cut through to the meat, eh Baron? Come, attend me in the signals, and it may well be there will be a command at the end of it.”
The Duke moved briskly through the narrow doorway, and as the wizard moved as if to follow, called over his shoulder, saying “Stay you here, Malvoris, and attend to Redwulf. He needs to be strong enough to travel by morning, come what may.”
The wizard had been caught already in motion towards the door, but paused only for a moment, before turning gracefully towards the golden furred figure laying upon the pallet with a murmered, “As Your Grace commands.”
Terin followed the Duke back down the stair, and passed through the mud room where the pages sat in waiting, before moving into the Duke’s study, where the great sand table was still lain out.
Duke Arneghal waited until Terin had entered the room, before drawing the twin doors solidly closed. The Duke paused in place, his eyes searching Terin’s face for a brief moment, before striding straight to the heavy table that dominated the room.
Terin moved forward to join him. Gazing upon the table and the mountain features carved into it, he started by mentally identifying the flags for the supply and reinforcements that were networked along the trails cut to lead to this ‘hunting lodge’, and then worked his way out into the mountain passes, searching more for the density of flags and markers along the passes, and how deep they went, then for any real grasp of the terrain.
The first thing that Terin noticed with approval was that the Duke had scouted far deeper, and far more regularly into the high mountains than could have been expected. It was a point that Terin hammered home to his own students whenever the opportunity presented itself; the more you knew, the fresher the source, and the more eyes to see, the better your decisions could be. In the mountains, nothing was worse than ignorance. Ignorance of where to find water, food, shelter, paths, villages, flocks and hidden fields, and blind gulleys where a hundred Orcs could hide just the other side of a tree.
When it came to that, where to run to that wouldn’t leave you trapped in a box canyon with a hundred screaming Orcs chasing you, hungry for blood and revenge. And wasn’t that a bad morning, just.
As Terin’s trained eye searched for greater detail among the colors and shapes of the small flags stuck into the various mounds of sand and wooden carvings representing the mountains, he came to realise that the Duke was preparing for more than a push into the mountains. Signs were clear to see that the area just to the eastern side of Tor Baldwin, far to the south and east of Arneghast lands, were being scouted far heavier than even those just a league from the shared border with Mordant.
Tor Baldwin was a massive mountain, the largest peak of a chain that stretched out and away from the main chain, cutting into the lowlands a bit west and angling north for many leagues. The chain itself was long thought impassible, with Tor Baldwin anchoring it’s center, and it’s stone weight formed the base and back for Mordant Keep, the largest city in all the Borderlands, capital of Mordant and the center of Duke Hope’s power.
Laid out on the sandtable before him, Terin could see that on the eastern side of the chain, a series of canyons and gulleys fed into one another, deep into the valley formed between the main network of mountains and Baldwin’s western offshoot. More interesting to Terin, the entire valley and all of it’s branching canyons and wide spaces were cut off from Mordant. The first paths marked as passable on the terrain started well into Arneghast land.
And all along that wide valley, dotted here and there, were small scouting flags.
Terin looked up and caught the Duke staring at him. “Your Grace, is this right? There’s really an entire valley on your lands that leads behind Torr Baldwin and Mordant Keep, a valley that isn’t in Mordant hands? An inhabited valley?”
The Duke smiled that tight, grim smile again. “Aye, and as I said, you’ve got a damn fine habit of cutting to the meat. Yes there is, and yes it’s mine, or marked as, anyway.”
The Duke began pacing the length of the sand table, hands clasped tightly behind his back, eyes unfocused, looking down at the mud stained carpet. “It’s deceptive when you see it for yourself, but there’s only the one way in to that damn valley, without having to ford one hell of a stream that gets bloated with runoff three seasons of the year. Despite that, if you look close, you’ll see that no less than five steadholdings have been settled there, and each of them has, over the last decade, taken it in turn to survive their steading and claim their rights in our court to what they’ve taken and held.”
Terin looked closer, and studied the layout of the small valley nestled in the much larger mountains all around it. It was very nearly the southernmost area represented on the sandtable, which was focused more on the range of mountains directly bordering the eastern edge of the Duchy of Arneghast. The entrance to the valley, where the western chain began on it’s northern end, came quite close to the main foothills, close enough to make it narrow and easily held if fortified. Deeper in, the valley opened up, but the terrain stayed broken with massive outcroppings of stone and rockfall, especially towards the east. Several canyons cut into the eastern mountains there near the entrance to the valley, canyons that were marked as being plentiful in water runoff, streams and falls and the like, and good dense wood. It was among those canyons that four of the flags marked in clan standards were planted.
Past that point, however, and heading deeper south into the valley, it opened up and flattened out into a heavily wooded area roughly a third the size of Madrigal itself. And in all that immensity of land, marked as rich, tillable land heavily forested in old growth, there was but one flag that bore a clan standard, an unfamiliar tartan in black and green. While the four clan flags in the canyons furthest to the north end of the valley were all of a size to indicate the steadholders were decorated veterans, or other worthies among the common folk of the Duchy that had earned the right to have and hold, this one flag was marked as that of a Lord or Lady, or of a Knight of one of the Orders Duke Arneghal respected.
As Terin had noted, the valley itself was dense with scout flags, but they weren’t so much in the valley itself, as along the great eastern mountains. The valley itself, and the peaks to north and south of Tor Baldwin were nearly bare of sign.
Terin thought hard on what it all meant, and how it related to Redwulf up above, trying to concentrate through the pain in his head, which was settling slowly into a persistent ache in the muscles of his neck and shoulders. One thing Terin was sure of, was that if it didn’t all tie together, the Duke would have cut him off when he first made comment about the valley. And a heavily scouted valley backing onto Tor Baldwin, taken as a piece with a runaway magical experiment from deep within Mordant lands, somehow making it’s way to Duke Arneghal couldn’t be a coincidence.
Terin thought hard, and then decided to wait and hear what the Duke had to say. With what he knew, there was no reason for the scouting to focus on the eastern ridge rather than the Baldwin chain. And the Duke never wasted time or resources without a damn good reason.
The Duke continued his pacing, his heavy brown boots catching on the carpet occasionally when he pivoted in step. “You need to watch your eyes more, Baron. They give away what interests you from one moment to the next.”
Terin turned his attention away from the sand table and back towards the pacing Duke. He had let himself get caught up in the sand table, reading it’s flags and sign. He knew he had a bad habit of getting lost in studying and playing battles and movements across terrain in his mind in such situations, and such behavior was dangerous in the presence of any nobleman, even one as well disposed towards Terin as the Duke.
The Duke stopped his pacing to advance on the sand table. Picking up a pointer carved of thin, polished ash, he indicated the five clan flags, each in it’s turn. “Here are the steadholdings of Clans Treadwell, MacReady, Brudegaard, Mandagant and MacQuarrie.”
The Duke then used the pointer to pick out seven different clusterings of flags along the high mountains that formed the eastern wall of the valley. “These are where various Orc clans have made lasting camp in the high mountains there over the last two years.”
The Duke then indicated fifteen more areas, each higher into the mountains than the first seven, and each having significantly fewer flags. Terin noted that there were four solid black flags, indicating the last known reported position of a lost scouting party, near to those high positions. “These are also Orc camps. These reports are my most recent, reports that I’ve just received during the last month. What you may find interesting, is that these camps were noticed and reported a long time ago by my first scouting parties into the area, but at that time they were listed as empty and long abandoned, not even used as base camps when the Orcs pasture nearby sheep. But now, each is active. Aye, alive, and so active that I know for a fact that at least one of my scouting parties was taken by them.”
“What’s more, and you may find this of particular interest, Baron, is that these camps are not occupied by greenskins. These new camps are occupied, so the scouts report, by grayskinned Orcs. Orcs that are said to be bigger, stronger, and more cunning in laying traps and snares. They’re also, so I’m told, skilled at posting sentries that stay awake, and use scouting patrols of their own.”
At this news, Terin felt as though his head were being crushed, crushed by a steel band that tightened down harder and harder, until he was sure that blood must soon come pouring from out his ears. He felt dizzy of a sudden, could not tell if he was standing straight, or if he was leaning. Terin lurched just a bit and grabbed hold of the heavy, rough oak that framed the sand table, clutching it for support as he tried to regain his balance.
The pain was intense, and he focused on just one thing; to not look weak before his Lord and friend.
The Duke paused for a moment while Terin held on against the pain in his head. Then he spoke softly, while indicating one of the high camps of the greyskinned orcs with his stick, “I’m told that this camp, this one here, bears a clan standard of a red flag. Blood red, it is, with a black bear face, wearing a chain of wolf fangs around it’s neck.”
With that, the pressure in Terin’s head was gone, washed away in a flood of sweat that brought a sudden chill to his skin. The sudden release was so strong that he swayed where he stood, and despite himself, a low moan escaped his lips.
Terin stood up straight, feeling filled with a blazing fire within his heart fit to burn him alive while at the same time his skin shivered with the chill of sweat rush upon his back. He stared directly into the Duke’s clear, hard black eyes, searching for any sign of deception, any trace of mockery.
He whispered, almost to himself, “You know full well I hunted the Bleeding Bear for two years, Your Grace. You know that, and you know the why of it. And never could I find them, no matter how deep into the southern passes I searched. Tell me you brought me here to your lodge for the hunting, Your Grace. I beg of you, tell me I’m here for the hunting.”
The Duke reached forward, and placed his hand on Terin’s shoulder, a sign more of kinship than that of a Lord to his vassal. “Yes, Baron Trendel of the Mosley Vale, Captain of the 9th Company, and Knight of the Order of Radiance. Yes, I asked you here to hunt. But the Bleeding Bear is not to be your prey.”
Terin stepped back , letting the Duke’s hand fall from his shoulder. His eyes burned in his skull, and the fire in his heart threatened to consume him. Threatened, but hard though it battered, hot though it burned, Terin was a Knight and a man of his word first. He would not shame himself before Duke Arneghal.
“Your Grace, you know how long I hunted the Bleeding Bear. And you know why. M-m-Milia….”
Terin’s voice broke, despite his rigid control, but he firmed it and continued on, “Milia my wife, my father, my sisters and family. My d-d-daughter.” Terin’s voice broken again, and it took him a few moments longer to make sure he had complete control over himself before he felt able to continue.
“The Bleeding Bear took them, took Mosley Vale, took everything that I had and that I was, everything I finally knew I cared about in this world, and burnt it to the ground. No survivors, and no mercy. You know that, Your Grace. I daresay every man and woman in your service knows it. Aye, and knows the story of what I did after, which is why there’s not a noble born officer among your forces that will willingly serve under my banner, whether you order them to or no.”
The Duke didn’t try and step closer to Terin, but instead stepped away and turned to the sideboard, where heavy stone flasks with wax stoppers lined the shelf. He selected one at random, and pulling the plug, raised it and took a long drink.
Lowering the flask, the Duke offered it to Terin, but Terin just stared into the Duke’s hard black eyes with eyes gone cold, and waited to hear the impossible. Waited to hear what the Duke could possibly say that would prevent him from leaving at once for that valley, and the high mountains that cast their cold, dark shadow over the land.
“Baron, I told you you’re here to hunt for me, and I meant it. But I’m after bigger game than any amount of Orcs, gray skinned or otherwise.”
The Duke moved closer to the sand table, stone flask still clutched in one hard hand, stopper forgotten in the other. He pointed towards the higher flags with the stopper, the ones indicating fresh Orc camps.
“There is a reason I had my scouts range so far and deep into the mountains about that valley, rather than spending their time closer to here, where routes still need to be marked.”
“I had word from one of my agents among Mordant’s forces engaged in their war to the south of Mordant Keep. Never mind how I got ‘em there, but you know my feelings about Mordant, and where this war will drag us.”
“What word I had was that a Legionnaire was seen in the thick of the fighting between Mordant and greyskin, during one of the early fights where the penal battalions were first used.”
Terin started at that, despite himself.
“Yes, that’s right. A Legionnaire. And what’s more, she was fighting on the side of the Orcs.”
Terin had thought, with all seriousness, that there was nothing, nothing that Arneghal could say that would touch the fire in him after hearing of the closeness of the Bleeding Bear and being told he was denied his rightful prey.
He was wrong.
Terin sank slowly down into one of the rough framed chairs that lined the nearby wall, and felt the fire within him turn to ice from sudden fear.
Looking up, he sought out the Duke’s eyes, but this time it was for reassurance he badly needed.”Your Grace, do you mean that the Legion has chosen? They’ve taken sides with the Orcs against us? Wouldn’t we have heard of the fall of Mordant by now if that had happened?”
The Duke pointed once more at several of the higher flags ringed above the valley. “No, good Baron, the Legion has not formally declared against us. At least, not yet. But one seems to be living with the Orcs, here, in one of these newly occupied camps.”
“What I have gathered is that there was definitely one of the Legion amongst the new greyskin clans that Mordant faced, and that she fought, provably fought by their side against the humans of the penal battalions.”
“When I heard that, and heard as well that the Orcs had pulled back into the mountains to winter, I sent my scouts around and into the valley, to scout out those old camps. I sent them there to find for me where the new Orcs chose to winter, and find as well signs of the Legion standing by their side.”
“My scouts have told me that, while they didn’t see any overt sign of the Legion, the greyskinned Orcs mostly bear arms and armor of cunning manufacture, and most of it of well wrought, hardened steel custom made to their size. This, when they’ve shown no signs of mining, or of working metal with any greater skill than the greenskins we’re well used to.”
“Somebody is supplying them with the means to wage war upon us, weapons and armor at least, and from what I’ve put together, they’ve shown a far more frightening sign.”
The Duke sat down himself, not far from Terin, and looked with sudden surprise at the stone flask he still held in his hand. Lifting it, he sniffed, then threw it back with a long hard swallow before tossing the empty to a corner, where the stone broke with a sharp sound.
The Duke looked Terin directly in the eye, and then said, softly, almost too softly to hear, “The Orcs, the grey skinned ones, they don’t just fight clan to clan. They don’t stand blood to blood. They fight as we used to, side by side, clan beside clan, with trust that the others will scout, or secure their flanks, or hold in place as other clans manuever behind their lines.”
Terin found himself shaking his head in denial, even as the Duke continued on. “Even as we Borderlanders are losing the strength that kept us together, one united front, the Orcs are pulling together into groups beyond simple blood ties.”
“That’s right, damnit! We’ve always been smaller, weaker one on one than the Orcs when we fought, but always we had the one strength they lacked. We fought as one people, trusting in each other, strangers together but united in a common goal. We are borderlanders, and before that we are the last of the Diasporadic Guard, the last true remnant of the Imperial Army of Light, and we by Tyr won’t let some damn blood clan of green skinned barbarians stand between us and taking back the land that is rightfully ours!”
Duke Arneghal was almost spitting in anger, but Terin could see, behind the blood rising in the Duke’s cheeks, he was speaking almost as much to remind himself as he was to proclaim what had been.
“Yes, we were, and we had the strength of our skills, our stronger weapons and armor, our use of mounted tactics and especially heavy cavalry and the lance on the open plains, and we stood together without breaking, even though it was not blood of our own blood that might be holding the line beside us. That was always the greatest weakness of the Orc, and our greatest advantage. When the Orcs fight as a clan, blood with blood, they are the fiercest and bravest warriors I’ve ever seen, and that’s the truth, but their trust extends only so far as their blood ties bind them, and no farther. They have united against us many a time, but they have never trusted each other enough to truly work as one large force to make it matter. Once engaged, no matter how many clans they bring, it has always been the same, we stand united while they break into small clans and fight, each in their own small part of the war.”
“Yet here we are. You know better than most exactly what I mean. We took this land from the Orcs by being united, working together, and doing what had to be done to win. But now we’ve stopped our advance. We reached the storied mountains in my own grandfathers time, but while there is still land to be taken and held, what is left stands before us, the mountains rising across our world like the spine of a great dragon, promising nothing but pain. And of the land we have already reclaimed, it will be many generations before any man brave and bold enough will fail at finding his own place to plant a banner and call a steading.”
“In just two generations, we’ve begun breaking up into smaller groups, by Duchy, by province, by village and by clan. We’re on the road to becoming little better than the Orcs we faced, trusting ourselves and our blood kin, and showing a face of stone and a lack of trust to any stranger not known to us by a lifetime of close living.”
“I’m telling you all this, even though you’re the one that pointed the trend out first, and helped me see it clear what it could mean to us. And that’s why I’m telling you, the Orcs are learning to trust beyond blood ties and close kin. You’re the only man I know learned enough in the history of war to know what that could mean to us. And now this, the thought that the Legion may be the reason behind it, uniting them.”
“I told you above I wanted you to take Redwulf, and track back to the place he came from, and work that out. I said it in front of Antonin, and I meant it. That’s important work that I need done, even though I doubt me greatly that Hope is wasting his time trying to make an army of loyal dog warriors like Antonin is making out.”
“But I’ve got scouts that know that general area, scouts I could trust with a mission like that. The one thing I don’t have handy is a man that is brave enough to head into Orc territory on a fools mission, wise in the ways of the mountains and the Orcs to be able to beat them on their own trails, and at the same time learned enough in Legion history to know what signs to look for that will tell us if we’ve really got the might of the Legion against us, or if it’s just one lone Elven Guardian or Warden gone native in the back of beyond. Either one is bad enough, but the not knowing which is which… that’s got to stop. I have to know how bad this might be.”
Terin sat back, resting his weight againt the wooden wall of the lodge. The pain still hadn’t returned, not since the moment the Duke had revealed the Bleeding Bear had been found at last. But the fire, that fire that always burned somewhere inside him, still felt cold.
The Legion, here. And of all things, on the side of the Orcs. To have the weight of Ricardo’s Doom finally fall, just when Fellaria was once more within their grasp. So many years, so many thousands of years the Elves had stayed their hand, and to think it might happen now, the fall of humanity, here within his own lifetime…