Friday, 23 February 2018

1st Mittelerdian War: Game 3 - Clash on the Old Stoneway

Does evil exist?

Long ago, before Winter’s cruel war, before the breaking of the mirror, the philosophers of Mantica concerned themselves greatly with this question. Gazing out of their magnificent towers across a land of peace and balance, they contemplated the elusive subject, wrestled with it. There were many schools of thought. Most believed that ‘evil’ and ‘good’ exist as concepts in the minds of sentient creatures, rather than forces external to them. This led some to argue that the words hold no value, no expression of reality beyond that which the mind projects upon it. Others contested such a conclusion, claiming instead that the words describe real aspects of the inner-worlds of living creatures: darkness and light, wicked and shining. Ideally, it was maintained, these infinite potentialities would hold each other in balance, balance being synonymous with peace. A small number, who otherwise held to the above, challenged the idea of infinity in these aspects: “Far though the shadow of the wicked soul might stretch,” they wrote, “it shall find its terminus in an Abyss.”

Mantica has changed. The balance and peace of those days has been long forgotten. Cities whose renown once stretched across the face of the world are gone without trace, their names residing in nought but half-remembered myths. The lands, the peoples, the gods themselves have been rent asunder. And a great wound opens, yawns wide, striking terror into those who behold its flames.

Does evil exist? For today’s denizens of Mantica, it is a question that, quite simply, would not occur.

Welcome to the long, long overdue game 3 of our narrative campaign! This battle was actually played last September (real life will be the continuing bane of this project), just as my brother and I were about to start participating in the Edge of the Abyss summer campaign. As such, this battle is set chronologically at the early end of that great war, before all of the changes we players helped inflict on Mantica.

This game, like those before it, has a lot of narrative. For those who missed the previous parts, or who perhaps want a refresher, here are the links: Game 1, Game 2

For those who aren't so interested in the narrative stuff and would just like a battle report, please feel free to skip on past the fluff (although I hope you'll give it a wee look at least!). I'll leave the details of the game further down, but for now I'll say that we play a scenario from the excellent Destiny of Kings, and that it was a blast.

And now, on with the show!

Knights of Rhordia

And so, there they stand, at each end of the ravine, the knight on his steed, the orc on foot.”

The circle of men sat in rapt attention, firelight flickering in their tankards, held firm but forgotten. Some still wore their breastplates from the day's hunt, but most had entrusted them to the squires. All kept their battle-hammers in reach.

“The valiant man of the League begins his charge, and the sight of such martial excellence rends the orc's nerve asunder.”

Duke Farald Heirgenstatdt could not help but smile. He knew where Jeroen was going with this. The men, knights of his household, would not like it.

“And so he does as his instinct compels, and runs. Now, we all know that an orc cannot outrun a fine warhorse, and so his fate is surely sealed. However!” Jeroen's eyes gleamed with mischief as he savoured the expectation in the air. “In order for the knight, our brave champion, to strike down the foul orc, he must first reach the point from which the orc began his flight. As he does this, the orc, slower though he undoubtedly is, will have put distance between himself and that point. Now the knight must reach the orc's new position, during which time the orc will haver re-positioned anew, and so on....”

“Here it comes,” thought Farald.

“...thus, logically, the knight can never reach the orc!”

As one his audience burst into a cacophony of jeers and unkind words. Several men stood up to emphasise their disgust, and a number of chicken bones were launched Jeroen's way. Clearly delighted with such a response, Jeroen feigned indignation he as yelled over the din “Gentlemen! I am merely-” he ducked as an empty tankard soared past him, “I am merely observing what logic tells us! Surely such wise men as the Grand Order of the Axiom cannot fault me that!”

“No, Jeroen, you are merely re-observing Blokzijl the Befuddled's Paradox of the Infinite Fall!” shouted Calevelt, sergeant of the Order. “In their battle over the Plain, Eoswain and Zbortan never reach Mantica as they continue to half the distance in their descent! Surely you are not proposing that motion is an illusion, as Blokzijl did?”

“Perhaps, and perhaps not,” Jeroen responded. “Perhaps logic itself is the illusion.”

More jeering followed. To the unaware observer, it looked for all the world like the men were engaged in a genuinely heated exchange. But the Duke knew better. The knights of his Household spent their evenings discussing, with great enthusiasm, the most intricate matters of philosophical concern. One could not deny that their debating style differed from that found in the lecture halls of the University of Eowolf. But their love of learning, of reason and the mind, could not be matched.

Andries Wanschers, youngest of the Order, spoke up, “Jeroen, this is ridiculous, you know fine well that Alobart Rhor refuted the paradox before the League was even formed!”

“I do indeed! 'One cannot assume an infinite divisibility in distance'. How, exactly, does that challenge my assertion that logic cannot explain reality?”

“Well then! Logic is undone! To what does the great Jeroen propose we direct our attention in its place?” inquired Calevelt.

Jeroen grinned. “I am merely posing the problem, which is not to say that I have a solution.” His tone suggested, however, that he did indeed have a solution, and sure enough he continued, “I nevertheless offer the following: reality is unreasonable, ungoverned, and abounds in illusion – its nature is not logical, but magical. It is arcane.”

There was a pause as the group considered this declaration. Andries broke the silence, “But that’s no answer at all! Surely saying that reality is intrinsically magic is just another way of saying it is impossible to explain.”

“And why should it be possible? Besides, we all know that magic exists, so why restrict its reach to the conjurings of wizard-folk?”

“Indeed!” Calevelt got to his feet. “Many of us have witnessed magic first hand, and for those that haven’t...” he stepped around the campfire with purposeful strides, stopping next to Jeroen and placing a hand on his shoulder, before turning to address the circle. “I have just successfully moved from my spot to reach Jeroen at his – I must be a wizard!”

The men roared with laughter, but none more so than Jeroen. He stood up, faced Calevelt, and gave a deep bow, proclaiming “All hail the mighty Calevelt, sorcerer of motion!”

Wiping tears from his eyes, Farald thought it best to restore some sense to the discussion. Before he could begin, however, he noticed Captain Brasser approaching. The young officer’s face gave nothing away, but the Duke sensed the matter was important, and so moved to meet him, leaving his knights to their revelry.
The Duke

“Duke Heirgenstatdt,” Brasser began, “forgive the interruption, but I thought it best to inform you right away.”

“Have the scouts returned?”

“Yes, my Duke, and there is no sign of Visser and his men. They are now over two days late for the rendezvous.

The Duke frowned. Master Sergeant Gotthard Zeeman Visser was one of his best, and if he hadn’t made the rendezvous, well, that could mean only one thing. He had found trouble. In fact, he had probably gone looking for it.

“Assemble my war council.”

The Captain nodded and set off. Farald looked back at his knights, still the loudest group in the camp. He was about to head for the council tent when he noticed another group moving towards him. They gave the Order of the Axiom a wide berth as they approached, disgust plainly displayed on their faces. Clad in their golden armour, there was no mistaking the knights of the Order van de Zon, headed as ever by the Duke’s second-cousin, Lord Martien Kalenkamp. Bored by the mere thought of talking to Martien, but accepting its inevitability, the Duke began his walk to the tent at a pace that would allow the pursuers to catch up.

Farald, we must talk.”

“It’ll have to wait, Martien.”

The Duke felt a firm hand on his shoulder. He stopped and turned. It was one of the knights, who removed his hand and stepped aside, and the Duke found himself face to face with Martien. Young and handsome, his cousin was a little below average height, but had a solid frame that suggested personal discipline. His tedious arrogance would lead many to assume him nothing more than an aristocratic toy soldier, replete with expensively-clad goon bodyguards in his knightly order. Farald knew better. While the circumstances of his cousin’s not-so-humble origins were no doubt conducive to the rearing of blowhards, Martien was a skilled and courageous fighter, and his newly formed Order van de Zon had proven themselves in battle on numerous occasions.

Alright, what is it?”

We are too far delayed. It has been over two days since your deadline, and even that put us a week behind in reaching the Plain. How much longer do you intend to keep us here?”

“Only as long as necessary, cousin, I assure you.”

Necessity has little to do with it, I am sure.” He was looking past Farald, and the Duke turned to see what had caught his attention. The officers were gathering outside the council tent. He turned back to Martien.

“Worry not, cousin, we shall doubtless be marching soon enough.”

Matrien’s eyes narrowed with suspicion. “Indeed. I assume that you were also intending to inform me of a war council meeting?”

Of course,” Farald responded, which was true. He had no reason to exclude him, although Martien would never believe it. The responsibility for their troubled relationship was entirely one sided, and resulted from the current line of inheritance for Farald’s dukedom. By way of war and tragedy, fate had contrived to make Martien next in line to rule Mittelerde. Small though the dukedom was within the League’s power structure, such a position would nevertheless represent a major step up for Martien, even for his already prestigious estate. Furthermore, because of the vows Farald took when he joined the Order of the Axiom, he was, and would remain, unmarried and celibate. The only possible threat to Martien’s ascension, therefore, would be if Farald were to adopt an heir. It was unlikely, as he was largely indifferent to the whole matter. It was his brother’s untimely death that had made him duke, and while he did his best to live up to the attendant responsibilities of governance, he largely delegated the work so as to continue his chosen life within the Order. As for Martien’s suitability to succeed him, he held no strong concerns. Indeed, thought Farald, his ambition would no doubt serve the dukedom well, as he would work to raise its esteem among the other states of the League. For the young Duke-in-waiting, however, it was all too precarious. He alone had reinvigorated a stagnant family name (helped by its old connections, of course), and could never quite bring himself to believe that his future ascension could come so easily, nor that others would not seek to deny him. For Farald, the whole matter represented little more than a continuing source of boredom.

Excellent.” Martien responded, and they set off towards the assembled officers. Greeting his men, the Duke led them into the tent, where Captain Brasser had laid out a map of the realm. Farald took his seat while the rest of the men stood around the table.

Gentlemen, as you know, we have been ordered to the Ardovikian Plain, to play our part in the defence of the Great Wall. It is, in effect, an order to leave our own land defenceless at a time when it is under increased attack from goblin tribes. As such, I have delayed our march in order to see as many of our people as possible to the safety of our city walls, a task you have achieved with great valour.”

There were uncomfortable looks between a few of the officers. A number had voiced their opposition to the Farald’s alternative timetable for reaching the Plain, arguing that any deaths among the common folk of Mittelerde would be an unfortunate but necessary price.

The Duke continued, “You also know that I planned for us to begin our march two days ago, after our forces reunited here, and that I have further delayed our departure in order to wait for Master Sergeant Visser and his men. I shall be blunt: I am reluctant to leave without them. But out of respect for you all, I shall now take council on our next course of action.”

Martien was quick to speak: “We should leave at once for the Plain. Your decision to aid our people was indeed noble, my Duke, but there is more at stake here. We should be thankful for what we have achieved and begin the march immediately.” There were murmurs of approval from around the table, but no other spoke up. Clearly Martien had expressed the general consensus. He was, Farald felt forced to admit, correct. They had gambled by staying, and if there was ever a time to quit while they were ahead, it was now. And yet…

“Captain Brasser, if all had gone to plan, by what route would Visser have joined us?”

Here, my Duke, along the south road.” Brasser traced the line with his finger. Farald leaned forward to examine the area.

Tell me about this village, ‘Zuidelijkeweg’.”

“Less a village, more a hamlet, my Duke. An important locality in the area, but with too small a population to be prioritised in our evacuation plan.”

Not for Visser, thought Farald. He was sure that the halfman, champion of the people, would have decided to check it out.

“Let’s assume Visser made for Zuidelijkeweg,” Farald began, “that would take him about a day off course?”

A day and a half, my Duke.”

“A day and a half. So, if they ran into survivors, or trouble, that would further set them back, and account for their delayed arrival?”

“Perhaps, my Duke.”

Perhaps? Perhaps they are all dead!” Martien exclaimed. “Forgive me, my Duke, but we cannot allow wishful speculation to dictate our actions, not when the stakes are this high!”

Assuming then that Visser is coming to us from Zuidelijkeweg,” Farald continued, “he will travel through here.” He pointed to a small pass through rough uplands.

The old Stoneway,” read Brasser, “a risky choice, given the goblin presence, as well as their propensity for ambush. But it would certainly be the quickest route, my Duke.”

“I agree.”

Enough, Farald! The League has ordered you to the Plain, and you must not delay us further!” There was a murmur of disapproval among the assembled men. As much as they might agree, the disrespectful manner of Martien’s outburst did not sit well with the officers. Sensing the shift of mood, Martien moderated his tone, though not his position. “I understand that Visser and his men are valuable soldiers, but I ask that my Duke consider the bigger picture. Rhordia herself is at stake!”

I thank you for your honest assessment, cousin. I agree that we cannot delay the march further. Captain Brasser.”

“My Duke?”

Make ready the men. I want you to begin leading them north within the hour.”

His confusion was evident. “I am to lead them, my Duke?”

You, Captain. I will be riding south with my knights. To find Visser.”

The officers began to protest, but Farald raised a hand for silence.

I have made my decision. You will adopt a medium march, and we will catch-up to you before the Plain is reached.” All this talk of arriving at places reminded him of Jeroen’s silly paradox. If motion is an illusion of magic, perhaps we need a wizard, Farald joked to himself. Considering a moment, he decided that it may not, in fact, be a bad idea. He turned to Brasser.

“Has the wizard arrived?”

“He has, my Duke, earlier this afternoon.”

I shall request that he come with us.”

I am coming with you.” There was more than a hint of challenge in Martien’s declaration, as if he were daring Farald to deny him.

Of course, cousin. I expected nothing else.
***
The Ratkin Swarm
Heart racing, Blight Lord Festeek ran through the trees, darting from shadow to shadow. He had no idea how long he had been running. During that indeterminate time, darkness had fallen, but he had no intention of stopping soon. The overwhelming hunger that had driven his kin to battle was supplanted by a new impulse, just as primal, just as powerful – survival. Fight had become flight, a will to survive that granted the blighted warlock a burst of energy. Even the Other, the fellow occupant of his mind, whose maniacal voice rarely ceased its chittering, had fallen silent. Had he been able to consider his situation, Festeek would have realised that his stamina could not last much longer, and that once it was depleted his death would soon follow. As it was, the flight instinct consumed all thought. He would run until he dropped. Or until something broke through and released fear’s grip on his mind, such as, say, a particularly tempting smell. After all, his hunger may no longer be at the reins, but it was not gone.

Festeek paused for a moment after bursting clear of a particularly dense thicket. In that instant of indecision, it hit him: camp-cooked meat. The ravenous void reasserted its primacy in the Blight Lord’s priorities, and he began to follow his nose. As he moved towards the source, he became aware of what could only be the light of a campfire through the trees. A voice in his head (not the Other) urged caution, that a quiet approach would be best. It was drowned out by the void.

He attempted to run towards the light, but his energy had finally been exhausted, and he stumbled clumsily through the undergrowth. The sound of his gasping, lurching, blundering approach could not possibly have escaped notice. As he collapsed into the clearing, the camp owners were ready and armed. They were either to be his certain doom, or his potential salvation. Festeek looked up.

The glint of sharpened metal, held mere inches from his face, was the first thing that registered with his conscious mind. Gradually, the rest of the scene began to filter into his awareness, but disjointedly, in a haze of disconnected details: red robes, piles of plate-armour, a campfire perched at the top of an escarpment, mocking eyes, a spit, cooking man-flesh… His stomach let out an audible roar of desire, which was met with cruel laughter. It was a familiar sound, and acted as the final piece of his mental puzzle, bringing his present predicament sharply into focus.

Before his collapsed form stood some fifteen or so of the biggest, meanest looking ratkin one could be unlucky enough to meet. Sporting finely crafted armour and wicked pole arms, there was no mistaking a cohort of Shock Troops. They had made their camp in the clear space between the forest and a precipice, where the earth smoothly slopped away, giving them a clear view of the surrounding country. He spotted a basket of dismembered human limbs (still rare) and his attention returned to the spit, to the delicious looking leg.

“Little blighter’s hungry.”

“Hungry business, being a blighter.”

“Poor little blighter. Must be hard catching food, if all the food can smell your filth-ridden flesh from a league away.”

Anger shot through Festeek’s veins. They had mistaken him for a mere blighted-one! When they learned of their mistake, that he was a Blight Lord, they would be sorry, for he would… fear suddenly replaced anger. He would do what, exactly? He was exhausted, could barely think straight, never mind wield magic. If they doubted his station, they would leave him to die. Worse yet, if they believed him while intuiting his vulnerability, they may simply kill him themselves. It would be a rare opportunity for the non-blighted to strike at blight leadership.

Blight Lord Festeek

The blighted-ones, often referred to as ‘blighters’, are diseased ratkin, an ever present, ever disdained class of their underground society. As long as there have been ratkin, there have been blighted-ones. To observers, they appear laden with a multitude of different diseases, as they exhibit a great variety of non-overlapping symptoms. The key commonality among blighted-ones is behavioural – during their short lives they are consumed by a frenzied hunger, ramping up their aggression and rendering them an ideal vanguard element in ratkin armies. Within ratkin society, however, they are shunned for fear of contagion. The spread of the blighted condition is unpredictable and essentially irrational, as no pattern of infection can be discerned. Rather than burning through the population in waves of death and regrowth, the proportion of blighted ones relative to overall ratkin numbers remains more or less stable. Moreover, many who have been in close and prolonged proximity to blighted-ones walk away contagion free, while others who have never so much as laid their eyes upon them are cursed with the loathsome condition.

For some ratkin, however, the blighting comes not as a curse, but as a blessing. When those ratkin attuned to the ways of magic are infected, it is a gift. Like all blighted-ones they are externally ruined with sores, scabs, and other such symptoms of corporeal decay. But their minds are left clear; indeed, they are made potent. Some never achieve the ability to cast magic, particularly if they lack prior training. Others, such as Festeek, find their minor abilities heightened. All see their physical strength and resilience greatly magnified, in stark contrast to their ravaged form. While the lives of common blighted-ones are cut short by their condition, these Blight Lords could expect to persist far beyond the typical lifespan of their race. This combination of strength and longevity make the Blight Lords a powerful force in the upper echelons of ratkin society. Their true power, however, is in their ability to direct the common blighted-ones, an endowment shrouded in mystery, at the heart of which lies the Blight Lords’ greatest secret…

The blight, then, occupy both ends of ratkin society. At the bottom, lower than the lowest slave, the untouchables, the blighted-ones, ‘blighters’. At the top (or near it at least), the Blight Lords, their power pooled together for maximum influence. Festeek’s fate would be determined by which of these groups the Shock Troops judged him to belong. Moreover, he must show strength. Strength he did not have.

Slowly, with great effort, he got to his feet. Caution entered the eyes of his kin, and their grips tightened on their weapons. Their tone remained mocking.

“Stay back, blighted scum! Don’t want to foul our steel with your filth!”

Pushing down his fear, Festeek gave what he hoped would be interpreted as a furious glare. He needed to convince them of his station, but could not use his magic, nor hope to fight them. Think, Festeek, think! Nothing occurred to him. This was it, he was going to die. He shut his eyes and called to the Other, begging for help. But there was only silence within... and without? All laughter and jeering had stopped, and Festeek could hear only the crackling of the fire. He opened his eyes.

His kin appeared fearful and refused to look at him, their eyes locked on the ground before him. Yes! he thought, they have sensed my great power and position! And he was right... sort of. Following their collective gaze, Festeek realised that they were not, in fact, avoiding his eyes, but focused on what he had dropped upon collapsing into the clearing – his scrolls. They had slipped from his pockets, and been revealed when he stood up.

Among ratkin, as with many of the other races, the written word was a kind of magic in and of itself. At the very least it showed status. By the looks on their faces, the elite ratkin soldiers feared the worst, that the scattered papers held incantations which might, at any moment, leap from the page. In reality, they were mundane, a few important communiques from allies, a handful of reports on his political enemies. Not that he was inclined to allay their fears.

“Stand aside! Lower that halberd! Show some respect to your betters, back!” A whip cracked in the air, and an enforcer stepped forward from among the Shock Troops. “Forgive us, Blight Lord, we didn’t expect to meet such a high-ranking member of our kin out here.”

“Food...” Festeek hoped it sounded like a hissed demand, rather than the desperate supplication it actually was.

“Yes, yes, step this way, Lord, we have plenty...”

The Shock Troops parted, opening the way. The enforcer guided Festeek forward, and lifted the leg-on-a-stick from the fire. He handed it to Festeek who, letting his hunger take over, attacked it with relish.

“Good, yes? We hunted well today, caught a whole lot of them humans, lots of short ones too. With the hairy feet.”

Festeek could barely hear him over the sound of his consumption, much less summon any interest in what he was saying. Finishing with the leg, he reached for the basket and grabbed another, raw this time. As he worked his way through this second limb, he noticed that one of the rats had gathered up his scrolls, and was cautiously offering them back to him. Festeek snatched the papers from its paws, put them away, and resumed eating.

“We were lucky to find them too. It’s getting hard to find anything to eat up here, it’s all disappearing.” He leaned in closer, and lowered his voice. “If we hadn't run into this lot, easy pickings for the taking, it would have been impossible to keep the scum in line, Lord. They were close to mutiny.”

This caught Festeek's attention. Shock Troops were the most loyal and disciplined soldiers one could hope to find among the ratkin. In fact, loyalty was the point. Yes, they were excellent soldiers on the battlefield, but in the under-realm's rat-eat-rat world, operators needed muscle that they could trust. Not that bribery of (resulting in backstabbing from) Shock Troops was unheard of, but for hunger, an almost ever present state of being for ratkin, to bring them close to mutiny was surprising to say the least. He began to listen closely as he ate.

“Must’ve been about thirty families, avoiding the road they were, skirting the forest.” Thirty? thought Festeek. There should be far more meat left after a feeding of thirty families. He must be lying, probably caught closer to five.

“Like I say, easy pickings. Should keep us going until we get to Warlord Massiskikk’s camp up north.”

Festeek recognised the name. A minor warlord on the rise, Massiskikk pursued power by carving out hunting rights in human lands. The humans’ infamous plan for a Great Wall must have irked him, if he was moving his forces north. Regardless, it was clear to Festeek that these kin were his salvation, and he would have to stick with them for now. Which meant going north. He surveyed his new travel companions once more. They had settled down again after the commotion of his arrival, and were lounging in a way only possible for ratkin after a great gorging. Tough though they were, they would not be enough to protect him if they ran into those damn elves that had slaughtered his forces.

“We will need to travel carefully,” Festeek began, the strength to speak having finally returned. He looked at the enforcer, who was listening intently. “My forces were destroyed by elves not far from here.” To this truth he added, “We would have had them if they hadn’t outnumbered us. Also, it was an ambush.” The lie was clumsy and obvious, and the enforcer’s nod of acknowledgement betrayed amusement. Irritated, Festeek got to the point, “They were fighting alongside the humans. It’s likely they’re heading north too. We will take care to avoid them.”

“Oh, I don’t know about that, Lord,” the enforcer responded. He raised his voice so the Shock Troops could hear, “elf meat sounds like a delicious snack for the journey!” There were laughs from the soldiers, and their attention perked up. Seeing the confusion (and anger) on Festeek’s face, the enforcer decided to cut the joke short. “I think we will be more than enough for them, Lord.” He stood up as he said this, walked to the precipice, and motioned for the Blight Lord to come take a look. Warily, Festeek joined him, and peered out into the night. At first he saw nothing but darkness below. Except… the darkness appeared to be moving. And chittering. His exhausted mind remained perplexed until a slight change in the direction of the wind carried the scent to his nose, and suddenly the shapes below became clear. Writhing before him in a feeding frenzy was nothing less than a horde of ratkin warriors.


I guess that explains the mystery of the missing man-meat, he thought. The Other was laughing inside his head.
***

Prince Ingemon
  
Prince Ingemon Enneiros could smell death. He could smell it long before he saw the thin pillar of smoke on the horizon. The scouts had reported that a small farming settlement was the source. Night was fast approaching by the time the village came into view, and the officers had suggested they wait until dawn to investigate. “There’s no time,” he had told them, and now he led his contingent of soldiers through its dark streets. By moonlight and elf-sight it could be seen that the village did indeed appear to have burned, but not recently. After all, it was not burning farmhouses that Ingemon could smell. It was death.



Cautiously, the elves followed the road to the village square. Here the buildings were in better condition. A stone watchtower stood humble at one end, and in the centre of the square Ingemon could make out the shape of a statue. He moved to inspect it more closely. It was a Primovantian-era rendering of Mescator, hooded and looking down to those who required his justice. The statue was smeared in blood. Ingemon traced the smears with his gaze, following them to the cobblestones where it arced off in various directions. It was everywhere. He turned to Gaeron, sergeant of the Moon Shields. “There was fighting here.”



But where are the bodies, my Lord?”



Indeed. With this much blood, there are sure to be many.”



An elf approached them. “Lord Enneiros, I think we’ve found something.” Ingemon motioned for him to proceed. The elf led them out of the square, past the watchtower, through a narrow street, and out into what must have not long ago been a field. Although there was no longer a pillar of smoke, the smell told him they had found its source. Erected a little ways into the field was a great pile of burned carcasses, still lightly smoking in places. Even with the moon out and their keen elf vision, the shapes of the dead blended into one another, indistinct in form and repellent in affect. As they walked around it, their closer examination resolved the ill-definition, but only heightened their disgust.



Rats,” said Gaeron, the disbelief in his voice making it almost sound like a question. Close, thought Ingemon, but these are too big for rats. And too… man-like.



Rat...men?” he proposed.



My Lord!” The shout came from another of the soldiers, and Ingemon was irritated at so loud an outburst, but quickly forgot his ire when he saw what had provoked it. In the same field, but a good distance from the ratmen, were the remains of three small pyres. Even before he got close enough to examine them, he felt sure of what they would be. He was right – elven funeral pyres. Three of his kin had passed here. He allowed profound sadness to wash over him, sailed straight through it as one sails though an ocean in storm. When he reached the other side, he turned to Gaeron.



Well at least we now know for certain that they were here. Moreover, they clearly won the engagement, and took the time to deal with the dead. The question becomes, where did Iólon go next?”



Perhaps they can tell us something, my Lord.”



Gaeron was looking past the Prince. He turned around. Ten men were approaching, unarmed and hands held outward as a clear sign of peaceful intent. Ingemon’s soldiers began to encircle the newcomers, their weapons held alertly but without hostility, for now. The men stopped, and their leader spoke, addressing himself to Ingemon, whose regal armour left no doubt as to his rank. Ingemon was pleased to hear that the tone was cordial, friendly even, but unsurprised that the language was utterly incomprehensible. Sighing inwardly, he prepared to attempt more basic communication.



Did you see who did this?” he asked the men, pointing to the pile of burnt ratmen. “See,” he pointed to his eyes, then again to the pile, “this?” The man responded, gesturing to themselves and then the pile. “You? You did this?” They all nodded emphatically, and as one began to attempt even more non-verbal communication. Among the exaggerated movements and motions, Ingemon understood that these men were claiming to have fought against the creatures. He now noted their clothes, that they were all in a military uniform, ragged but a uniform all the same. Their leader began to speak again, and the men stopped their miming. He gestured for the elves to follow them and set off, walking towards the wall of tallspears that had completed their encirclement. The elves stiffened as the men approached, but Ingemon gave the order to let them pass. The soldiers parted, and the elves proceeded to follow the men through the village. They marched back across the bloodied square and up to a modest, seemingly unscathed hovel. Ingemon imagined that the humble dwelling would have attracted little to no attention during the settlement’s better days. In its current context, however, it was a palace.



They had stopped, and now men and elves looked expectantly to Ingemon. He addressed the human leader.In here?” He pointed to the door, and the man nodded. Ingemon pushed at the door, and it opened with a creak. He stepped inside.



The embers of a brazer, set in the centre of the single room, cast a dull light on its contents. Nearly every inch of floor space was taken up with makeshift bedspreads, about half of which were occupied by children. No, not children, thought Ingemon. Children don’t have battle wounds.



Halflings...” he murmured to himself. Of course. He had known that Rhordia contained the world’s largest population of the half-folk, greater even than that of the Golden Horn. This was, however, his first time laying eyes on one, and he now realised that before, on some level, he hadn’t really believed they existed.



Iólon,” came a voice from behind him. Ingemon spun to face the speaker. It was the human leader. He had followed Ingemon inside, and was speaking his incomprehensible tongue once more, as if their previous language difficulties had simply disappeared. He was either ignorant of or decidedly ignoring Gaemon, who was close behind, his wary gaze fixed on the man, his hand firm on his hilt.



Iólon? You said Iólon?” questioned Ingemon, cutting across the man’s verbalization. He smiled and nodded. Moving to the brazer, he picked up an unlit torch and touched it to the embers. Its light bathed the room. He crouched next to one of the sleeping halfings, and motioned for Ingemon to join him. As Ingemon approached, the man gently pulled back the sheet to reveal a wound in the halfling’s side. He leaned in to take a look, and saw that the wound had been grave, but was healing well, impossibly well in fact, if it were not for…



Iólon,” he whispered. Hearing him, the man nodded enthusiastically, and pointed to the wound to emphasize the point, before repeating the name himself.



Iólon.”



The halfling stirred, and the man quickly snuffed out the torch. They quietly slipped outside. “My Lord,” spoke Gaeron, “forgive me but I do not quite follow, what did he show you?”



He showed me that our kin did more than simply fight here. They fought alongside these humans and halflings, and took time to care for their wounded when the fighting was done.” Seeing Gaeron’s confusion, Ingemon further explained, “Only elven magic could have healed the wound he showed me.”



He turned to the man and, sure that he had his attention, pointed to the horizon. He then turned on the spot, tracing his finger in a circle until it had pointed in every possible direction, before facing the man again, setting his palms up in a questioning gesture and asking, “Where?”



That the man did not understand the word did not matter, the meaning was clear. He pointed north.



North? Right. North it is.” He turned to Gaeron. “Make ready the troops.”



The ten men watched as the elves reformed their marching order outside the village. As the last arrangements were being made, Ingemon approached their group.

Thank you.” He gave a small bow. They bowed low in response. As he turned to leave, he stopped to look out at the village once more. Nestled among softly rolling hills and bathed in moonlight, one could almost forget the horrors the settlement had lived through. It must have been pretty before, he thought. In a human sort of way. “What is it called, your village? What is its name?” They looked completely at a loss. “This again… OK. My name is Ingemon.” He gestured to himself as he said this. Then, gesturing to the human leader, he began “Your name is…?”



Huibert.”



Huibert,” repeated Ingemon, before once again pointing to himself, “Ingemon. Your name is Huibert, my name is Ingemon. What is its name?” he asked, referencing the village with a broad sweep of his arm. Comprehension dawned on Huibert’s face, and he let out a relieved laugh before he answered.



Zuidelijkeweg.”
***
The Goblin Horde

Move, maggots! Move!”

Rip-fang snapped at the straggling goblins of Grotti-khan’s crew. The goblin biggit kept a tight rein on his wolf, stopping him short of actually biting anything. He knew that, for once in their pitiful lives, every goblin was going to count if they wanted to kill those elves.

And Grotti really, really wanted to kill those elves.

Spotting another start to fall behind, he spurred Rip-fang to ride past and smacked the goblin with the flat of his blade. “My wolf is getting real hungry, boys! Anyone who can’t keep up is going to be wolf shit!” This gave a burst of energy to the rabble, and they pressed on. Grotti-khan had been driving them through the night, and would not stop until he had that knife-eared witch’s head. It wouldn’t be long now, not with Rip-fang on the trail. They were heading north.

Hoping to pick over the remains of the elves after the ratkin attack, Grotti had returned to the village only to see that the elves had won. And more than that, they now had men and halfmen friends with them! Rage consumed him, and as he had turned to gather his gits he had spotted that damned elf mage leaving the village, leading his forces north. Rallying every goblin he could, Grotti-khan had set off after them.

They were approaching the mouth of a valley, the only route through these jagged hills that their quarry could have taken. The smell was strong enough now that even Grotti could tell they almost had them, that the halfmen must have slowed the enemy’s march such that even goblins could nab them. Although, there was another smell in the mix. Something he remembered from not so long ago…

A cry rang out from the vanguard, and the column of goblins quickly stopped, wheezing and clutching their chests, some collapsing for want of rest. Grotti-khan rode to the front, impatient to get things moving again. “What’s the-” he started, and then he saw the problem. Skirting the rocky slopes, a host of ratkin approached the valley entrance from the west. As Grotti watched, the rats veered from their course, and began to fan out, forming battle ranks to engage the goblins.

“Ready up! Sharpsticks to the front! Spitters behind!” he cried, and the goblins immediately began to form ranks. It never failed to swell Grotti’s little green heart with pride to see his fellows showing such martial precision. For goblins, anyway. Confident of their readiness, he drew his eyes away from the sight of the war trombone’s crew loading their vicious weapon, and surveyed the impending enemy. Mostly a cluster of basically equipped warriors, who were being driven forward by a vicious looking specimen with a whip, he could also see a group of tougher looking rats carrying pole arms. These elite troops followed closely behind a hooded rat. For some reason, Grotti-khan was sure that this mysterious figure was largely responsible for the foetid stench that increasingly bore down on the goblin lines.

The rats stopped just beyond spitter-distance. The battle lines faced each other in silence. The air was still. Dawn’s light had begun to overcome the darkness, and to the east the sky was a blaze of vivid orange. Exhaustion, fear, and battle-lust formed a mad cocktail in the minds of the goblins, and their teeth chattered with anticipation. Hunger once again reigned among the ratkin, and they eyed their prey with barely contained yearning. The time had come.

Far, far to the east, Mantica is in pain. Like a rabid animal, the Abyss tears at the land, retching smoke, fire, and thousands of its demonic inhabitants out into the world above. For over a week now it has seen its advance blunted by the valiant efforts of the Green Lady’s Grand Alliance, and it is angered.

Not all that spills from the Abyss can be halted by swords, however. Not all that emerges from its depths can be seen.

For weeks it has poured into the world, extending in every direction. Its means of travel is unknown. Some say it is in the water, others that it is carried on the wind. Its coming is heralded in a variety of ways: a herd of cattle mysteriously dead, a spate of deformities in newborns, an inexplicable act of malice from a stranger. None can explain it, yet all can name it.

Evil.

Rolling unseen across the land, the evil of the Abyss meets sympathetic minds across Mantica, calls to them. Unity is its demand; fire and death its purpose.

And its promise.

As he drew in breath to order the charge, something touched Grotti-khan. His mind’s eye was drawn north, into the valley. He could sense his enemy there, vulnerable. He had an overwhelming sensation of vertigo, but it was euphoric rather than fearful, he wanted to fall, to fall upon his true enemy. He looked out once more at the ratkin arrayed before him. They were not his enemy. Not his friends, not at all. But not his enemy. He felt sure of this, sure down to the deepest part of his soul.

He was not the only one. Throughout the field, ratkin and goblin alike felt their minds strain towards the fleeing halfmen and elves. All notion of their previously imminent conflict was forgotten. Slowly, as if in a trance, the two armies turned and started the trek north towards the valley entrance. Their speed began to increase, yet still they kept their distance from one another, until finally the mouth of the old stoneway was reached. With neither concern nor communication, the two hordes merged into one another, pouring through the gap in a tide of fur and green skin. Grotti-khan rode at the front, certain that there would be no stragglers to chase in this mighty swarm.

I’m coming for your head, knife-ears. The thought caused him to shriek with joy.
***
The Alliance of Halflings and Elves

The sound of crude war horns echoed along the valley, ricocheting haphazardly off the rocky terrain. It arrived as little more than a distant whine to the elves and halflings, who had not long set themselves to preparing breakfast (the first of the day). All activity stopped, all ears strained for confirmation. After a minute the tension began to release, and a few nervous laughs could be heard. They were cut short, however, as once again a chaotic wail came to them from the south, approaching fast. It was underscored by the rolling thunder of war drums.

Sergeant Pennor sought out Iólon. The Mage sat cross-legged, and appeared for all the world to be lost in thought. Pennor knew better. He had seen enough war to know when a mage was making ready for battle. He gave three blasts on his horn, two short, one long – form up.
Mage Iólon
Seeing the elves moving quickly into position, the halflings got the message and began to assemble themselves, following the practised command of their Master Sergeant Visser. As he watched the hardy half-folk getting into position, the thought once again occurred to Pennor that without the halflings slowing them down, the elves would be far beyond the reach of their pursuers. It was a thought born out of concern for the Mage Iólon, whose life it was Pennor’s duty to shield. He pushed it away. The halflings were brave souls, but it would not do to let them face this enemy alone.

The soldiers had assembled on a raised area of the valley floor, the most defensible position in reach. All was still. The sound of their pursuers was growing clearer with every passing moment, squealing and chittering and cackling in a cacophony of mania. Not a one of the defenders spoke, but none could avoid wondering as to what horrors awaited them. Would it be goblins? Or those rat things? Or something worse? The echoes of their approach created phantasms in their minds, ever expanding in horror. But all stood firm.
Until they appeared. Masses of them, a seething, seemingly unending swarm of teeth and iron. An ungodly alliance of goblin and rat bore down upon them.

They were utterly outnumbered.

Slowly, elf and halfling alike began to move backwards, panic tightening its grip on their minds. There was a clatter as a halfling dropped his weapons and ran, and like a dam ceding to a flood the defenders broke. Pennor couldn’t believe it. He ran after them, blasting on his horn. Rally! Rally! It was no use, they would be overwhelmed. He could already hear the howls of goblin mounts.

SONS OF THERENNIA ADAR! STAND!”

Iólon’s voice boomed through the valley, magically amplified on the wind. All stopped. Even the goblins and ratkin appeared stunned, momentarily uncertain. The halflings, who had not understood the words, nevertheless halted their retreat, allowing Visser a window to attempt to rally them. Now it was the elves turn to listen without understanding, as the halfling leader gave an impassioned-sounding appeal to his fellow Rhordians. It was masterful, its tone at once grandiose and yet laid back, extolling his comrades to rise to the occasion. At one point he must have made a well delivered joke, as the halflings let our a roar of laughter. As he built towards his crescendo, the elves felt their emotion rise also. The words didn’t matter - all knew what they must do. While their natural haughtiness prevented the elves from joining in the resounding cheer that greeted the end of Visser’s speech, they still found their courage returned. Iólon said something to Visser, and he nodded, the playful twinkle gleaming in his eye.

The ranks of elves and halflings reformed. They were behind the hill now, and the enemy was almost upon them. The situation had not changed, their doom was all but certain. Yet they would face it together.

With steel.
Defenders Prepare to Face Their Pursuers
For this game we chose to play the 'Breakthrough' scenario from Destiny of Kings. The scenario involves playing 'short end to short end' of the table. The defending player starts with only half their army on the board ('force A'), deployed in an area toward the centre, and must wait for their allies ('force B') to arrive in turn 2. To win, the attacker must destroy 80% of force A. If less than 60% is destroyed, the defender wins. Any percentage between those is a draw. The game lasts 7 turns, and attackers go first.

We played at 1200pts, using Clash of Kings 2017. Force A for the defenders consisted of:
  • Regiment of Halfling Braves
  • Troop of Halfling Scouts
  • Halfling Master Sergeant w. Bow (sling)
  • Regiment of Kindred Tallspears
  • Troop of Kindred Archers
  • Elven Mage
Force B:
  • 2x Regiment of Household Knights
  • Duke, Mounted w. Quicksilver Rapier
  • Wizard w. Bane Chant, Heal, and Myrddin's Amulet of the Fire-heart
 The Goblin and Ratkin Alliance:
  • Horde of Sharpsticks w. Healing Brew
  • Regiment of Rabble
  • Regiment of Spitters
  • Troop of Fleabag Rider Sniffs
  • War-Trombone
  • Flaggit w. War-bow of Kaba
  • Biggit on Fleabag
  • Horde of Warriors w. Blood of the Old King
  • Regiment of Warriors
  • Regiment of Shock Troops
  • Blight Lord w. Bane Chant and Bloodboil
  • Enforcer w. Inspiring Talisman

Overview after deployment.

Goblins/Ratkin Turn 1
The attackers' first turn saw them push forward as fast as they could, and with no shooting in range it's over to the defenders.

Elves/League Turn 1
The elf archers move onto the hill and attempt to snipe the war-trombone, making use of the raised position to see over the sharpstick horde. They manage to score 3 damage, but the crew remain steady.

The rest of the army bides its time.

Goblins/Ratkin Turn 2
The attackers continue to advance at full speed.
The sniffs and goblin biggit Grotti-khan fire up at the archers, dealing 1 damage.

On the other flank, the spitters let off a volley at the tallspears, also dealing 1 damage.

Elves/League Turn 2
The archers back up to prevent a multi-charge, although there would be no avoiding the impending warrior horde. The mage heals their 1 damage, and they target the trombone again, this time only scoring 1 damage, bringing it up to 4, which is enough to rout it.

The halfling scouts and master sergeant open up on the warrior horde, dealing 2 damage. Meanwhile...


The helms of the knights still rang with the sound of the booming voice that had echoed through the valley. They had immediately called a halt, and looked to Farald for orders. The wizard rode up next to him, began to explain the magic at work, but the sound had sent the Duke deep into his memory. He couldn’t believe it, the voice had been in Elvish. He hadn’t been prepared, and so took a moment to summon what he knew of the tongue. It was a rallying cry, of that he was certain.



“How far?” he asked the wizard.



“Close, my Duke.”


Without a word he spurred his horse to a gallop, his knights in tow. They followed the contours of the valley, and emerged to see the swarm crash against the defenders’ line.


...the cavalry arrives! But will they be in time?

Goblin/Ratkin turn 3
Charge! The warriors swarm the archers!
The sniffs take a shot at the knights, and manage 1 damage.
The blight lord tried and failed to bane chant the warriors, who nonetheless put 6 damage on the archers. Unfortunately they only manage a waver, as the brave elves hold back the tide!


Elves/League turn 3
The reinforcements line up their charges for the next turn. The human wizard heals the golden knights. The halfling scouts turn their attention to the warrior regiment, dealing 2 damage.

Goblins/Ratkin turn 4

Grotti-khan couldn’t believe it. He wouldn’t believe it. He had them, he finally had them, and a bunch of fancy-dressed humans think they’re going to mess with his plans?!



“FIRE! STOP THEM!” His fleabag sniffs sent out a volley, but their arrows seemed to change direction mid-flight, clattering harmlessly around the approaching knights. He saw the source immediately: a wizard who had ridden to the top of a hill, and was protecting the knights with magic.



Grotti had had enough of these damn wizards on these damn battlefields! Drawing his bow, he snapped off a shot at the interloper. It was his finest display of marksmanship in his life, the arrow soaring gracefully in a majestic arc, before smoothly coming to a rest in the wizard’s throat.

He watched with glee as the human fell limply from his horse.


In an astonishing display of skill (and malice), biggit Grotti-khan put 2 damage on the wizard and rolled double 6 on the nerve test. Twice!

The warrior horde (now bane chanted) attack the archer troop again. This time there is no resisting, and those elves who are not killed, break.

Elves League turn 4
The defenders counter attack, multi-charging the horde with the knights, the braves, and the tallspears. Martien Kalencamp leads his knights into the fleabag sniffs, while the Duke charges headlong into the goblin rabble. The halfling scouts continue to pepper the warriors, bringing them up to 4 damage, and the mage heals the 1 damage on the tallspears. In the combats, the golden knights rout the sniffs and turn to face the centre of the field, while the Duke manages only 1 damage to the rabble. In the big central scrum the warrior horde is taken from 2 damage up to 19, and (understandably) breaks. All three regiments back up and await the next wave.

Goblins/Ratkin Turn 5
Sensing the greater threat from the golden knights, the rabble regiment corkscrew charge them in the front. The sharpstick horde charges the Knights of the Axiom, and the warrior regiment goes for the tallspears. Since the shock troops could not see either target, they move to the top of the hill.
Grotti-khan, spotting the Duke over the heads of the rabble, manages to deliver 1 point of damage and wavers him! This biggit means business!
In the combats, the warriors put 2 damage on the tallspears, the sharpsticks manage an astonishing 8 damage on the knights, enough for a waver. The rabble, in sharp contrast, fail to damage the golden knights.

Elves/League Turn 5
The braves live up to their name, moving to fight the shock troops on the hill. Everyone else, including the wavered knights, counter charges (thanks to fury). The Duke backs up to keep inspiring his knights, and the mage continues to heal the tallspears.

The Knights of the Axiom deal 8 damage to the sharpsticks, and roll just short of wavering them. The halfling braves put a mighty 5 damage on the shock troops, but they remain steady. The tallspears put 5 on the warriors, bringing them up to 9 and routing them.
The knights put 10 on the rabble, bringing them to 11 but, less impressively, they roll the dreaded double 1s.

Goblins/Ratkin Turn 6
The enforcer and the blight lord, in a display of heady confidence, charge to block the tallspears (they are positioned funny because of the hill). Otherwise it's counter charges all around. The sharpsticks used their healing brew, and recovered 3 damage. Grotti and the war-bow carrying flaggit again target the Duke, but aren't so fortunate this turn. The spitters, who have been creeping up the board, are finally in range of the halfling scouts, but the combination of stealthy and the obstacle proves too tricky for goblin marksmanship.
Combat goes well for the attackers, as the Knights of the Axiom are chased off by the wall of spears. The braves, taking 7 damage from the shock troops, understandably fall back (those who survived). The rabble manage to sneak 1 point of damage through the golden knights' armour, and the two ratkin characters put 5 damage on the tallspears. They remain steady, but with the shock troops turning to face them, who knows for how long...

Elves/League Turn 6
The tallspears counter charge the enforcer, and the golden knights continue to fight the rabble. The Duke charges the flaggit, hoping to remove the sharpsticks' source of inspiring. The mage heals 1 point of damage from the tallspears, while the halfling scouts and master sergeant focus fire on the spitters, hitting them for 7 damage and wavering them.
In the combats the knights finally trample the rabble after bringing them up to 19 damage. The Duke fails to see off the flaggit after only hitting him for 2, and the tallspears struggle against the enforcer, also only dealing 2.

Goblins/Ratkin Turn 7
The enforcer charges back into the tallspears, this time with some help from the shock troops. Blight Lord Festeek fails to be of any use, however, totally flubbing the bane chant. The sharpsticks turn to face the golden knights.

Grotti-khan takes a shot at the knights, and manages 1 more damage, but it's not going to be enough to stop them.

The combined might of the shock troops and the enforcer deals 7 damage to the tallspears, which is enough to break them.

Elves/League Turn 7
The Duke, spotting a clear route to Grotti-khan, leaves the flaggit to the knights, who charge in the hope of a long overrun into the sharpsticks (will need a 6).

The halflings focus their fire on the shock troops, and after dealing 2 damage manage to score a waver.
In combat, the Duke deals 3 damage to Grotti, wavering the biggit. The knights ride roughshod over the flaggit, dealing 12 damage, but the little goblin saps their momentum, as they roll a 1 on the overrun.

With the elf mage, the scouts, and the master sergeant coming to 250 points (41.666...%), the attackers have failed to rout 80% of force A, and the defenders have (just!) prevented 60% of force A being routed.

Defenders (narrowly) win!
Final Result

Grotti-khan ducked as the human lord swung at him, the blade of the axe passing mere inches above his head. As his attacker took the time to bring around his armoured warhorse, the goblin leader made a quick assessment of his predicament. He had been so close, so close! But then the interlopers had come and ruined everything. His sharpsticks, despite having seen off one group of knights, were close to breaking, and were now faced with the prospect of a second charge from the human horsemen. Perhaps the ratkin have fared better, he thought, and he twisted around in his saddle, hoping to see his new allies coming to the rescue. At first he thought he saw the elite rat troops standing triumphant on the hill, but before his little green heart could leap with joy he spotted their leaders retreating, shouting over their shoulders as they ran, presumably encouraging the others to stand and fight. Looking back at the shock troops, it was clear that they weren’t standing triumphant at all, but were wavering under a sustained hail of missile fire.

All was lost.

Pressing down the desire to scream his frustration at the human lord (now preparing to charge Grotti anew), the biggit spurred the nimble Rip-fang into action, darting clear of the fighting and back down the valley, back to the south. Ahead of him he could see the scattered mess of goblins and ratkin who had already broken, and therefore had something of a head start. Although the sky was full of morning colour, the tall hills meant that the valley floor was still drenched in shadow. They would escape with ease, no doubt about it, the darkness would provide cover from any archers that might seek to cut them down. Behind him, he heard the tell-tale screams of goblins breaking ranks and fleeing. He was halfway turned to take a look when a bright flash from the south caught his left eye, blinding it. After blinking and rubbing furiously, he tried to make out the source. The sun’s light had slipped over a hill, filling a section of the valley floor with its light. At first, it looked to Grotti like he had just been punched, and that bright flashes were floating in his vision, an illusion of the pain. The rats and goblins around him had stopped running, and were also confusedly trying to make sense of the lights. Then a horn sounded to the south, and Grotti-khan realised what he was seeing, its name writ large in his startled mind: more elves.

No sooner had this thought arrived when a volley of arrows cut through the dazed onlookers. Those who survived immediately scattered in all directions, some charging desperately south, most making to climb the valley walls, and some having so utterly taken leave of their senses that they turned and ran back north towards the pursuing knights. In the chaos Grotti saw the ratkin enforcer charge headlong into the readied spears of the elven formation, dying quickly in the process. To the west he saw the other ratkin leader, the filthy one, climbing deftly up the valley wall, occasionally grabbing a fellow rat’s tail to pull himself further up, ignoring their shrieks of pain. Looking east Grotti saw a route up the rocky hill that Rip-fang could (would have to) navigate, and spurred his beast to action. After a few tense minutes of ducking arrows and clinging desperately to Rip-fang’s fur, the biggit knew he was safe. His gits however…

Reaching the top of the hill, Grotti turned to take one last look down at the valley. The elves and humans had put down all resistance, and were now dealing with the wounded. He would have to head north, he decided. He had wanted no part of ‘King’ Smack-git’s plans to attack the Forest of Galahir, having instead opted to lead his gits in raids on the near-abandoned human lands. But now he had no gits, and so would have to curry favour with that grandiose warlord in the meantime. Getting there shouldn’t be a problem, one goblin and his mount can travel more easily than an army after all, can choose more... sneaky routes.

He tried to make out the elf mage among the distant shapes in the valley, but if he was there he couldn’t see him. Something in Grotti-khan told him, however, that the witch was alive.

“Next time, knife-ears,” he muttered, turning to leave. “Next time.”

*** 

Iólon touched the wound in his side. It was healing nicely, and would be little more than a scar soon. At times he felt a sharp pain emanate from where the goblin leader had stuck him with an arrow several days past. Now was one of those times. Some instinct led him to look east to the valley peaks. Obscured by the light of a new day, he saw the silhouette of a mounted figure disappearing into the hills.

Iólon brought his attention back down to the valley floor. They had lost many brave souls this day, but their saviours had arrived just in time to prevent a total massacre. Even with the surprising appearance of their rescuers the battle had come to a knife-edge. That goblin-kind and those rat-things were working together was an enigma he had yet to process, one that at the very least demanded a classification and study of this new enemy, these kindred of the rat.

“You’re a long way from your tower, Mage.” That voice… Iólon spun to face the source. It took great effort to keep from smiling when he saw Prince Ingemon striding towards him, a look of determination on his face.

“Why, if it isn’t the young Prince of House Enneiros. The state of our peoples’ armies must be dire indeed, if we must call upon children to lead them.”

Ingemon fixed Iólon with a cold stare, which Iólon did his best to return. Neither one held out for long, and warm smiles soon overtook their features. They clasped hands.

“It’s good to see you, Iólon.”

“And you, my Prince. I must say, I’m surprised to see you out here. And very grateful.”

A hint of annoyance flickered across Ingemon’s face. “Well, I suppose we were planning on coming this way. Not by this route, but this general direction at least.” He saw the questioning look on Iólon’s face. “It seems that there is much I must tell you. Events in the world have moved quickly and, for whatever reason, Tiriant Dalath has been isolated from such news. I’m sorry to say, old friend, that your little expedition could hardly have occurred at a less opportune time.”

Iólon didn’t know what to say to this. Before either of them could continue, however, they became aware of two figures stood nearby. They turned to see the halfling Master Sergeant Visser and a human lord, the leader of the knights who had come to their aid. He was bearded, and wore ornate battle armour draped in furs. Iólon could see the head of a great axe that was slung across his back. Visser began to present him to the elves, but it seemed the Duke’s enthusiasm got the better of him, and he introduced himself directly.

“It is a great pleasure to meet you, kin of Walldeep. Honour to your households, and to King Ariandaras. I am Farald Heirgenstatdt, Duke of Mittelerde, of the League of Rhordia. What brings you, pray tell, to our lands?” To the surprise of both Iólon and Ingemon, the Duke was speaking elvish. His pronunciation was poor, so poor that it verged on unintelligible, but it was grammatically flawless, if a little dated. Iólon was delighted; the Duke’s clear intelligence and learning could only spell good portents for the Mage’s diplomatic ambitions. He was quick to respond.

“The pleasure is ours, Duke Heirgenstatdt. Honour to Mittelerde and Rhordia. Allow me to present Prince Ingemon of House Ennerios,” Ingemon gave a slight but respectful bow, “and I am Iólon, Mage of Therennia Adar. As to our purpose in your lands, we come as friends, I assure you.”

“I have no doubt, Mage Iólon. Sergeant Visser has told me how you aided my men. I owe you a debt.”

Iólon gently waved this aside. “In the enlightened peoples’ stand against the darkness, there can be no debts. That said, I would appreciate any help you wish to offer in furthering the ties between our lands, particularly those between our peoples’ schools of magic.”

Curiosity was plain on the Duke’s face, as well as a little confusion. “Of course, I would offer what help I can for such a cause. Now, however, is hardly the time.” Fearing he misspoke, Farald quickly added, “I mean to say, while I am gladdened to hear that the realms of elves are able to prioritise such enterprises, Rhordia is currently…” he searched for the right word, couldn’t seem to find the one he wanted and, shrugging, settled for “… busy.”

“Believe me, Duke,” interjected Ingemon, “we elves are also busy. I’m afraid my friend has, through no fault of his own, spent some time cut off from the world.” He turned to Iólon. “As I was saying, Mantica is at war, Iólon. A great war, the greatest since Winter’s wrath.” Farald nodded at this, his face grim. Ingemon continued. “My orders were to join up with you at Tiriant Dalath and take our forces to Galahir. According to reports, the forces of darkness have dispatched their greatest ever attempt to level the forest.” Iólon was stunned. The sacred glades of Galahir lay close to the hearts of all elves, even those who had made the sea their home.

“Then your road takes you north,” said Farald. “We are marching to Ardovikia to assist the war there. We can travel together until our paths diverge, if it pleases you?”

Ingemon nodded. “An excellent suggestion, Duke Heirgenstatdt.” He turned to look out at the field. “We will leave as soon as the wounded are ready. Our healers are at your disposal, of course.”

The Duke gave his thanks. The two leaders shared a look of mutual respect, before turning to address their troops. They had a long march ahead.

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