The next morning found the young lady mage in a serious conference with the commanders of the assembled forces in Athenos. The four Karameikan generals were there, along with their aides, and they had been joined by a sizeable number of shire-folk, many of whom peered over the tops of tables at the maps and charts lying upon them.
Defenders of Darokin
Written by Alastair
The Duke's Herald
Lana entered the Athenos town hall, wherein the Karameikan generals were consulting with the Mayor of Athenos. Once inside, she was escorted to a small waiting area as the guards went off to find someone to deal with her.
After a short delay, the door opened and a man entered the room. He was of average height, with dark black hair and an unassuming air about him. Across his green tunic he wore a black bandolier, upon which glittered the rank insignia of a Captain of Karameikos.
"Good evening, madam," began the officer, "I am Captain Alverian, of the Karameikan Seventh Division. The guards told me that you wished to speak to one of the generals?"
Lana replied "Indeed good Sir Captain. I have come directly from the Duke's court carrying orders for the Karameikan forces here."
The captain looked surprised by this statement. "Indeed? Well, if that is the case I will of course show you to the Generals. However, if as you claim, you are an emissary from the Duke, I must ask your identity...?"
Lana fixed the captain with a serious gaze and said "I am the Lady Lana Budanter of Glaston, one of Duke Stefan's most trusted envoys."
A brief flash of recognition passed across the Captain’s face. "Ah. I see, m'lady. If you will follow me, I believe that your arrival will warrant interrupting the daily briefing. I know that several of the Generals will be desperate for a distraction at this stage..."
Holding the door for Lana, the Captain followed her from the room and directed her through the building towards the office of the Mayor.
Captain Alverian opened the door and gestured Lana inside. As she entered she saw several people standing around a table strewn with maps and documents. Five of the individuals were engaged in a heated discussion, while three others stood slightly back from the table, listening attentively.
The officer who had escorted Lana cleared his throat, and in the sudden silence that descended said; "my Lord Mayor, Sirs, may I present the Lady Lana Budanter of the Duke's Court, who bears news and orders from Specularum."
Four of the five interlocutors immediately looked keenly at Lana, while the fifth, a short an dressed in fine, almost foppish clothing, regarded her in a nervous manner. One of the four generals (for Lana assumed that these could be none but the Karameikan commanders) approached her and said:
"Lady Budanter... I don't believe I've had the pleasure. I am General Leivokos, commander of the 10th division. Welcome to Athenos."
"General, I'm pleased to meet you," replied Lana. She looked at the assembled military command. "It is good to meet you all. As your Captain indicated I have come directly from the Duke's Court, well," she digressed conversationally, "via Sundsvall yesterday in fact but that's a story for another time." Ignoring the startled glances that this elicited, she continued, "I do indeed bear orders from the Duke, and without further ado..." she reached into a pocket and produced a sealed scroll, "here they are."
General Leivokos was barely able to contain his excitement as he retrieved the document from Lana’s grasp. Breaking the seal he quickly glanced over the articles in front of him, then looked to his impatiently waiting companions and broke into a hungry smile. "We are at war!" he declared.
What followed next seemed to Lana like a melee of conversation. One moment an unidentified General was reading the document she had produced, the next they were interrogating her or issuing orders of their own.
The Mayor of Athenos whirled into Lana and, taking her hand, declared that she would be forever honoured in Darokin for bringing word of this great alliance between their nations. Lana was about to reply, but the strange fellow twirled away in a swirl of fabric, replaced by Captain Alverian once again.
"Lady Budanter. As you can see, the Commanders have much to discuss," he gestured towards the table where it appeared a fresh argument was breaking out between the Generals, "and many orders to be issued," he raised a hand in which was clutched a sheaf of papers, the ink still wet upon them. "I shall arrange for a guard to show you to some quarters, and in the morning we shall attend a conference with the commanders of the Halfling forces, if you are able to attend."
Lana nodded in assent, and bade the officer goodnight. Escorted by a guard to a small tent in the outskirts of town, she unrolled her bedroll and lay, awaiting sleep. As her weariness overcame her, the last thing she remembered hearing was the distant sound of Halfling voices, raised in rowdy song:
"The Hin marched in one by one
The foe just stood and laughed
But when the bloody fray was done
We laughed at the last..."
It was decided that two divisions of the Karameikan force should ride out to relieve Darokin, with one division moving to reinforce Port Tenobar, and the other remaining behind to guard Athenos. The Halflings too decided to split their forces - two divisions would go to Port Tenobar and five more would march with the Karameikans to the capital.
While the finer points of the deployment were debated, a door was suddenly flung open, and one of the town guards rushed into the room. He went directly to the Mayor, and delivered a report in hushed tones. The Mayor looked at the assembled military men in the room, gave a strange fleeting smile, and said "it appears we have some visitors. Our watchmen have reported a force of orcs heading towards Athenos."
General Ralvin stood up and asked, "how many?"
"Barely two hundred. We could probably hold them comfortably, but it would make our lives easier if they never reached the walls..."
General Alexandr Valzerian turned to regard Captain Alverian. "Justin – are your troops ready?"
Captain Alverian considered for a moment before replying; "yes sir. Our First, Third and Fourth regiments could be saddled in half an hour."
"Then go, Captain, and show these servants of the Master what to expect from Karameikos!"
Alverian looked directly into his commander's eyes and smiled. "It will be my pleasure sir."
A little under an hour later, Lana hovered several yards in the air, borne aloft on her magic carpet. Below her, the mounted battalions of the 7th division moved at a steady pace to engage the encroaching forces of the Master. At its head she could just make out the glistening green armour of Captain Alverian, whose voice issued calm confident commands almost drowned out by the noise of the horses hooves on the ground.
Ahead, Lana could see the approaching foe – a small force, but a formidable one, nonetheless. It appeared to be made up primarily of orcs, marching in a disorderly fashion and clashing their wicked looking weapons against their shields.
With an increased thundering of hooves, the mounted force beneath her surged into a charge. At its head, a group of riders lowered their lances and spurred their horses forward. Lana watched the monstrous opposition turn to face the oncoming Karameikans. She considered for a moment using her magic to shatter the invaders army, but she withheld herself – she knew that her fellow Karameikans longed to test their skills in battle. As a result she resolved to observe the army in action, and intervene only if it became necessary.
Suddenly, the rush of water drowned out the sounds of battle. A wave as tall as a man and as broad as four rolled out of the nearby river and into the back of the humanoid force. Lana watched with interest as the water elemental plowed through the exposed rear of the opposition army, then she began to scan the surroundings to identify its conjurer. A little way off, she saw a group of retainers observing the battle; amongst them sat a robed figure – it appeared that the 7th division had a formidable magical ally...
Between the lances and swords of the Karameikan soldiers and the mighty tidal blows of the elemental, the orc army was quickly overwhelmed. Little under fifteen minutes after battle was joined, the remaining assailants turned and fled the field, diving into the river in an attempt to escape their assailants.
Seeing his force victorious, Captain Alverian let out a rallying cry, and ordered his men to break off their pursuit and regroup. The day had been won.
Back in Athenos, the 7th were welcomed with much applause by the people of the town and their compatriots. Lana glided out of the skies to congratulate the battalion's commander. "Captain Alverian! Congratulations on your victory – it was a fine battle."
The spry knight dismounted and removed his helmet; "thank you, milady – I was most proud of the troops. They performed admirably for their first time in combat. I believe we lost some good men, but the losses on the enemy side seemed absolute." The officer glanced off to his left, seemed to see someone in the crowds, then gestured them over.
A young man in fashionably styled grey robes joined the pair. "Lady Budanter," began Captain Alverian, "may I present Zosimir Radu of the Magician's Guild of Specularum, our assigned magist on this venture. Master Radu, this is the Lady Lana Budanter."
"A pleasure to meet you, Lady Budanter," said the young mage in lightly accented Thyatian.
"And you, Master Radu. I assume you were responsible for the water elemental's presence? The army is lucky to have such a skilled spellcaster at their service."
The newcomer raised his eyebrow at the use of the word 'service', but if he was affronted by the term he said nothing to that effect. Instead he gestured towards his nearby horse and said, "in truth, I cannot take all the credit. While I did summon and control the elemental, its origin was not my own magic, but that of the enchanted item that Captain Alverian here," he nodded to the Captain, "has brought with him."
"Indeed," replied the Captain, "but you employed it with considerable skill – your timing and direction of attack was excellent, Master Radu. I am certain that with practice this elemental will be an even more valuable asset to the military."
Curious, Lana took a step towards the horse which bore the artefact in question. One of the saddlebags had a large, shallow bowl securely strapped to it, which Lana immediately deduced to be a Bowl of Water Elemental Control. Though she did not have time for a detailed study, she was able to make out several of the runes around its rim, and was taken aback when she realised that they were written in Hutaakan.
Turning back to the Captain she asked, "you found that in Karameikos?"
"Yes," replied Captain Alverian, "is there something wrong?"
"No, no. Nothing wrong. I just have a friend who would be most interested in studying that..."
The Captain raised an eyebrow, but before he could respond a young woman in plate mail armour came up beside him. Justin nodded towards her and said; "While we're introducing our volunteers I think you should meet our resident spiritual caretaker – this is Apolvara Santardos of the Church of Karameikos."
Lana regarded the fair haired cleric, noticing the Griffon emblem proudly displayed upon her armour. "It is a pleasure to meet you, Mistress Santardos," she said, "I am glad to see the Order of the Griffon has seen fit to lend its might to this just cause."
"Indeed, Lady Budanter," replied the cleric. Lana noted that Captain Alverian's face hardened somewhat, his comfortable disposition replaced by poorly concealed hostility. The cleric was about to continue when her commander interrupted her though gritted teeth; "many in the order have made their way to Athenos, and indeed beyond. Frankly, I am yet to be convinced that their assistance is all that it's made out to be. Present company excepted, of course." He nodded to the cleric.
"On that note, sir" began Apolvara, looking slightly uncomfortable, "I wanted to introduce you to a friend of mine. This," she gestured to an armour clad man waiting patiently a short distance away, "is Piotr Grevenov, a fellow member of the Order.
Lana looked round and found herself looking at a hauntingly familiar face. She was sure she knew this man, but had difficulty placing him. Captain Alverian nodded to the newcomer, but refrained from extending his hand in greeting. "Sir Piotr, I assume, is the preferred form of address?" the commander asked with an arched eyebrow.
"Nyet," the man shook his head, speaking with a heavy Traladaran accent and with an uncomfortable look on his face. "I have not yet been made a knight proper; Master Grevenov would be more fitting until then. Your battle vas most impressive, Captain, I..."
"Thankyou, Master Grevenov," said Justin, abruptly cutting the would-be knight off in midsentence, "I like to think we in the military know what we are doing in these matters. Now if you'll excuse me I have to report to the General and you," here he nodded at Apolvara, "have wounded to attend to."
As the disgruntled commander moved off, Lana turned to Apolvara and the stunned Piotr. "What was that about?" she asked the pair. Apolvara shrugged and said "he doesn’t seem to like the Order – I can't tell why. I knew he had trouble with it, but I never thought he would be so... hostile. I am sorry, Piotr," she said, turning to her friend.
"Is no problem," replied the young knight, "he has lost men in battle – perhaps this was not the best time for introduction."
"I'll say," replied Radu.
Lana found herself walking through the encampment with Piotr, who she soon realised had been a member of the young group of adventurers who had assisted in the defence of Kelvin all those years ago. Piotr informed Lana that he and many of his companions from the Order had come to Athenos seeking adventure. While many had gone on ahead into the heartlands of Darokin, he had remained with his friend Apolvara, and hoped to join the Karameikan militia as it drove northwards on the morrow.
The two parted company at Lana's tent. As the young knight walked off into the camp, Lana watched him go – she hoped that the enmity expressed by Captain Alverian wouldn't deprive the Karameikan forces of a strong sword arm. She let her gaze wander around the camp – already word of the battle had spread – here and there the rejoicing of victory was intermingled with the sorrow of friends lost in combat. With a great sigh, she came to a decision - while she felt a great urge to return home and see to her newly constructed tower, she knew in her heart that she could not abandon these brave people, her countrymen, in this heroic endeavour.
Turning, she entered her tent and began packing her belongings – the next day the Karameikan Militia would break camp and march north, to the besieged capital of Darokin. No matter what foes would stand in their way, Lana Budanter would be there to help in whatever way she could.
The long march
The next morning was pleasant and fresh. The bay beyond Athenos' walls glittered in the gentle sunlight, and the breeze brought the pleasant scent of sea air to Justin's nose. In stark contrast to the tranquil setting, the men and women of the assembled armies were moving to and fro in a seemingly chaotic fashion, breaking camp and loading their belongings into packs and wagons.
Justin regarded the mobilisation with a studied eye. As sergeants hollered at their soldiers, he watched the Karameikan Militia group together into the various battalions and regiments that made up the divisions. His own force, the 7th division, had been chosen to lead the army in the vanguard position, and when he saw that his men and women were nearly ready, he spurred his warhorse, Onyx, into motion and made his way towards the head of the rapidly forming column.
Reigning his horse in, he came to a stop beside his General, Alexandr Valzerian, a man not much older than Justin himself. He could tell from the General's fidgeting with his sword hilt that the man was nervous, but he couldn't blame him – ahead lay the greatest challenge that the Karameikan Militia had faced since its formation, and Alexandr's broad shoulders carried a heavy burden. Turning his head, Justin regarded the rest of the command group stationed at the head of the army. Most of the twenty or so horsemen were hand-picked lancers, for whom he had high hopes in the coming conflict. Just to his left stood the standard bearer of the 7th, the broad flag he carried being caught in the wind. Beyond him, Justin could see Apolvara and Radu, and a few other warriors on horseback.
Clearing his throat, Justin turned to his commander and informed him that the army was ready to move out. As he did so, a shadow fell across the pair, and they both looked up to see Lady Budanter hovering close by upon her magical conveyance. The General and his deputy gave the young mage a nod of greeting, which she acknowledged with an enthusiastic wave.
General Valzerian held his sword straight in the air, and an expectant hush spread out amongst the assembled soldiery. The only sound was the fluttering of the banners in the wind, the distant cries of the gulls, and the almost inaudible hubbub of the town of Athenos, sheltered behind its walls. Suddenly, the General brought his sword down, pointing it towards their objective. Justin turned his head to a nearby captain and said "move out" in a clear, commanding tone.
As the order was echoed throughout the force, the horses were spurred into a trot, the men picked up their packs and began the long march. Wagons stocked with supplies creaked into motion, and above them all flew a mage upon a magical carpet. The Karameikan Militia was on its way to the relief of Darokin.
The Master strikes back
Several hours into the march, Justin turned in his saddle to regard the army ranged out behind him. Satisfied by the progress that they were making, he turned to say as much to his commander when a shadow fell, once again, across the vanguard. Quickly glancing upward, Justin expected to see Lady Budanter executing more of her aerial manoeuvres, but was startled instead to find himself staring into the oncoming eyes of a huge, black dragon.
A second later, Justin heard Lana cry out in warning and alarm. Mere seconds after that, the dragon passed overhead, then wheeled in the sky with a beautiful, elegant motion that betrayed the evil intent behind it. Now coming straight at the head of the army, Justin could but watch as the creature opened its great mouth, and a dark stream of hissing acid was projected forth from its gaping maw.
Instantly, a line of soldiers and horses was engulfed in the dragon's acid. Screaming, begging for help, the men took terrible, painful seconds to die. The afflicted horses, flailed uncontrollably, whinnying and frothing as their flesh corroded and their skeletons were laid bare to the elements. Within mere seconds, a line of stinking death lay where once fifteen noble warriors of Karameikos had stood.
Panic broke out immediately. Those horses nearest to the horror immediately bolted in any direction they could to escape the scene, their riders too shocked to stop them. In the rank behind the vanguard, the infantrymen cried out in alarm and dropped their weapons, turning to flee and instead colliding with their dumbstruck colleagues. General Valzerian was fighting to control his panicked steed, and Justin watched as his commander was thrown to the ground by the frightened beast.
Justin himself was having trouble controlling his own horse – Onyx had seen much combat with his master, but even he was having trouble with the sight of so much death. As he struggled with his noble warhorse, Justin risked a glance into the air after the dragon, and saw it banking in a slow turn to bring it in for a second attack. Steely resolve overcame the young commander, and he pulled hard on his reigns, rearing his startled horse upwards and shouting in a commanding voice "Men of Karameikos! Stand Firm!!" He nodded to one of the startled captains standing by, who immediately snapped out of his dark reverie and turned to echo his command. Spurring the now calmed Onyx into motion, he quickly cut in front of his disarrayed force and rallied them to his side. As he moved by them, the horses instinctually followed the powerful presence of his mighty steed, and soon Justin found himself at the head of a line of cavalry, no longer defenceless and panicked, but controlled and full of resolve. As his column doubled back past the rest of the army, Justin called out in a mighty bellow "Archers!" and was immediately rewarded with the sight of several hundred of his men snapping out of their dumbstruck stares and reaching for their longbows and arrows.
Satisfied that some degree of control had been re-established, Justin turned to try and locate their draconic assailant. Once again, he found himself staring at its face as it approached with frightening speed. Once again that great, gaping maw opened to vomit forth its deadly power...
Suddenly, without warning, there was Lady Budanter. Shooting overhead on her carpet, she stopped in the air several feet in front of Justin, pointed a single finger at the oncoming creature, and spoke three beautiful, haunting, echoing words of magic. Lightning leapt from her outstretched digit, striking the dread creature with terrifying force. Justin watched in awe as the waves of bright energy coruscated over the dragon's dark skin, and the creature convulsed, turning its head uncontrollably and spraying its acid harmlessly into the sky.
Dazed, the creature was unable to maintain its flight, and clumsily smashed into the ground, tumbling over and over, and coming to a halt not thirty feet from Captain Alverian. Justin saw the opportunity that presented itself, and quickly reached behind him to retrieve his lance. As the precious seconds passed, he lowered the deadly tip of his weapon, and urged his steed forward.
Onyx's powerful hooves thundered on the ground as they closed the distance towards the dragon. Recovering now from Lana's deadly attack, the great wyrm shook its head and unfurled its wings, evidently ready to take to the sky once more. Justin urged his noble steed to ever greater speed and carefully took aim with his lance. The creature's head snapped round in his direction, and once more its mouth began to open. With a final burst of speed, Onyx lunged forward, and Justin's lance made contact with the great beast's exposed breast. The soft flesh of the dragon's underside gave way, and the tip of the lance plunged through the creature's heart.
Justin stared up at the great head which hung over him, and was shocked to see the almost human look of surprise upon the dragon's features. As he watched, the great wyrm closed its eyes, and slumped forward, its serpentine neck slapping onto the hard ground.
A great cheer broke out from the men and women of Karameikos as they saw that their Captain had felled the beast. Justin drew his sword, saluted Lady Budanter and reared Onyx up as he let out a loud cry of victory. His cheer was taken up by the men, and soon the planes of southern Darokin echoed to the sound of a thousand voices raised in chanting: "Dragonslayer! Dragonslayer! Dragonslayer!"
The price of victory
Several hours later, Justin found himself standing by the side of a row of graves. There had not been much left of the dragon's victims to bury, but a burial was expected. General Valzerian gave a heartfelt speech, expressing his sorrow that these poor men and women had been struck down before he had gotten to know them. Apolvara’s voice broke as she ministered to the souls of the departed and beseeched the immortals for their wellbeing.
Justin watched as the cleric went through the ceremony. "Never forget, Alverian," he thought to himself, "with every victory there comes a price." He was broken out of his reverie by the sight of a familiar face, and not one that he welcomed. At the side of the graves, standing close to Lady Budanter and Zosimir Radu was the unmistakable form of Piotr Grevenov.
Justin worked his way through the crowds to stand beside the young knight, staring straight ahead. "I was unaware that you had been assigned to the 7th, Master Grevenov," he said in a low voice, "I find that strange, because I am sure such a thing would have passed through my hands before being approved..."
Piotr glanced sideways at the commander, then he too refocused his gaze on the ceremony. "I thought that I could be of some assistance on this adventure."
"Adventure?" replied Justin in a near whisper. "This is no adventure, Grevenov. This is war. And your Order has no experience of war. To you, everything is a grand quest, but while you preen around, skipping from one battlefield to the next, it's these men and women who have to do the real dirty work. It's these people that will march over endless miles until their feet are blistered, and then be expected to fight. It's these people who live and die based on the decisions of men like you and me. When you understand that, you'll know the difference between adventure and war. Now, I've lost 17 good men today, so I need every bit of help I can get. But I want to make one thing abundantly clear – while you're in the company of this army, you take your orders from me, not your precious Order, nor the Church of Karameikos. You serve one man; Duke Stefan, and as far as you are concerned my word is his word. If I see any indication that you're putting the interests of the Church above those of this army or the Duke, I'll have you clapped in irons, and all the prayer in the world won’t help you then. Understand?"
Piotr remained staring ahead, biting back any reply that might have been coming to his mind. Instead, he simply nodded.
"Good," said Justin, "now that we understand one another, you are assigned to heavy cavalry. When in battle I expect you to take orders from Captain Korelan. When not engaged in combat you are assigned to guard Mistress Santardos and Master Radu – this will require you to ride in the vanguard. Do try to appear as if you have some semblance of military order."
With that, Justin turned and began to move away. Piotr watched him go for a few seconds, but could bide his tongue no longer. "Sir," he called after the retreating commander, "what have I done to make you hate me so?"
Justin stopped and turned his head slightly to look back over his shoulder. "It's not you, Grevenov. It's who you serve." With that, he resumed his slow pace away from the young man.
"But what has the Order ever done to you?" Piotr called. If Justin heard the question, he never replied...
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