Chapter 4: And All the North Aflame
Marrdin stepped through the portal Erygan had opened to Agrista. The first thing he noticed was the quiet. Turning to those who had left Dishmo Kornara with him, he gave orders. “You six, explore the city. Look for anything that might tell us why the city is so quiet. The four of you, get to as high of points as you can and do the same. You two, go to the barracks and see if either the Crystal Sword or the regular army is in the city. If they are, wake them up, and tell them to start doing their job. Everyone, report to me within the next hour. I will be in the palace.” His soldiers and advisors ran off to do the various duties he had assigned them, while he and his three guards walked to the palace. It was there that they encountered their first great shock. The courtyard before the palace had been a battlefield, and recently, judging by the blood stains that had yet to dry on the dead. It looked as though as many as two thousand of the Crystal Sword has fallen, but there were at least fifteen hundred Deshika lying among the Ristan dead. Two hundred of the Sword still stood in the courtyard. About fifty of those were burning the bodies of the dead Deshika. One looked up, and saw Marrdin. He shouted “Hail, Morschcoda” as loud as he could, so that his fellow soldiers, and as much of the city as he was loud enough to reach, heard him as well.
“What in all of Hesta happened here, Captain?” Marrdin shouted as he stormed forward through the stricken field.
“Deshik scum,” replied the Captain, spitting on a body that two of his men were dragging to the fire. “Climbed the walls. No ladders. They just pulled themselves up. Before we could even do anything, they were almost to the palace.” He stopped to spit again, and jerked his head backwards, towards the mass of white stone and ice that towered above the surrounding city. “We lost about two thousand of the Sword pushing them out of here. Six thousand regulars died between here and the walls pushing them out of the city. I think they could have lost as many as three thousand. Not more.”
“So, was this the same army that your commander attacked in the ice fields about a week ago?”
“I would ask how you knew of that, my lord, but I know that the council has faster ways of gathering information than any army. I assume it’s the same one. They crossed the Icto-Rista, and Agrista is the most northern city. This is their only likely target. I doubt that they’ll be back though, not without reinforcements.”
“Without reinforcements, Captain, we will not long hold this city,” said one of Marrdin’s advisors, running up to them. “Morschcoda, an army is approaching from the north. It must be fifty thousand strong, at the least.”
Marrdin paled, but lost no time. His stubbornness and quick thinking had kept him on the council for over one hundred years. He would not lose it now. “Prepare what soldiers we still have. They will not take this city while we live.”
When Erygan first stepped through the portal he had opened to his home, Toredo, he wondered if he had not gone somewhere else. Smoke hung so thick in the air that even what little light could pierce the heavy northern clouds was blotted out. Turning to those with him, he shouted “Find somebody who knows what’s going on, or else find out yourself.” Thirteen soldiers ran off in different directions. Erygan watched them go, and then started off towards the castle, the one building he could still see amid the smoke and natural darkness. As he made his way into the heart of the city, the smoke cleared. He was not happy about the increased visibility. Toredo had been almost destroyed. Taken by surprise, most likely, and then put to the torch. He could still hear the crackling of the fires, but now he could also hear the shouts of men struggling to contain them. He hated himself for having to do this, but, muttering under his breath, he spoke an incantation to dispel the heavy clouds that clung desperately to the northern sky, allowing the light of the weak northern sun to shine down upon the city for the first time in he did not know how long. He was on a hill in the middle of the city, and for the first time he could see the true extent of the city and of the damage that had been done to it. The northern half of the city had been all but destroyed. There were a few walls of demolished houses still standing. Some larger buildings looked mostly intact. The damage grew considerably less as one moved in from the walls, which, he now noticed, were no longer whole. Large sections of the seventy-feet-high wall had fallen. One of the breaches was almost fifty meters wide. He finally saw the cause he had begun to suspect, as he looked beyond the ruined walls for the first time: a Deshika war camp, not even half of one league from the city. At that distance, not quite three miles, he could even see individual warriors walking through the camp. As he continued to watch it, one of his Generals came over to him. “Morschcoda, they attacked without warning during the middle of the day. We were caught at unawares. They managed to take large sections of the wall, just by climbing, no ladders. Then they destroyed the wall that they captured. They did not penetrate far in to the city, though. We managed to repel them, with a cost.”
Erygan did not turn his gaze away from the broken circle. “We will never be able to repair the walls before their next attack. We would not even have the beginnings of a barricade before they noticed and made another move on the city.”
The two, General and Morschcoda, stared in silence at the destruction. Finally, Erygan asked why the city was so quiet. “In your absence, I took the liberty of evacuating as many civilians from the city as I could. The Portallers took them to Storinea. They are closer to our kind of people than anyone else in the south.”
“I wonder what Kallin will think when he discovers several hundred thousand lightly armed Torridestan civilians and Morschledu within his borders.”
“We cannot bring them back here. Not in a time of war.”
“I understand that, General, but … No, you have done well. You have done this exactly as I would have. You have my thanks for ensuring the safety of my people.”
“Of our people, Morschcoda.”
“Of our people,” Erygan agreed. “Now, take me to whichever building houses the center of your command. I would have a say in the defence of this city.”
“Not just yet, Morschcoda. The Conclave is demanding an explanation.”
“The Conclave can go and burn in all three hells at the moment. We have a city to defend.”
“They might not be pleased at being ignored.”
“I wonder if they would be more pleased to be dead with their precious Vault burning around them. I am Morschcoda. Right now, the fact that I sit on the throne and not the Five Lords of the Vault actually means something, General.” Taren’s comment had gotten deeper under his skin than usual. “I will deal with the Conclave when I choose to. It has been too long since they bought this city.”
The general actually smiled. “We are in the main courtyard, Morschcoda.”
Daken looked down upon the city of Airachni as his dragon circled high above it. Seven other Dragon Riders circled the city with him. Even from the height that he soared at, he could see each one of his men in the city, whether they were fighting, running along the walls in an attempt to hold the Deshika back, or fighting the fires that raged throughout the city. He could also pick out every one of the Deshika warriors that were attempting to storm the walls. He shouted “Land in the city. If we cannot hold it, we will die with it.” With that, he began to dive. With fifty feet left between him and the ground, he jumped off of his dragon, setting it loose to attack the Deshika camp. His men all did the same. With only ten feet beneath him before he hit ground, he summoned a current of air to slow him, allowing him to land on his feet as though he had just awoken and stepped out of bed. His men all landed in much the same manner, forming a ring around him.
“Morschcoda” a soldier yelled, running up to the group. “The Deshika have returned to Anaria. They have been attacking our walls for almost three days now.”
“How large is their army?”
“As near as our scouts can guess, there are no fewer than thirty thousand Deshika warriors still alive. As many as fifteen thousand may have been killed already. Ten thousand withdrew northward yesterday.”
“So they sent over fifty thousand men to take Airachni?”
One of the men with Daken spoke up. “Where did all these soldiers come from? During the last session of The Councils, almost a week ago, three thousand Deshika, at most, had crossed into Anaria.”
“Three thousand that were known of, Captain,” replied Daken. “I wondered how such a small force could have defeated so many of the Crystal Sword. They should have been utterly destroyed. But now I see that there was no such small force. A much larger one passed into Anaria, carefully deceiving us …” Daken let the thought fade as he wondered if the Deshika were really smart enough for the deception that it seemed they were responsible for. Turning to the general in charge of the defense of Airachni, he said “How many men have you lost to hold the city for three days so far?”
“Actually Morschcoda, our losses are fairly small compared to the number of Deshika we have repelled or killed so far. Four thousand of the Dragon Hearted are dead. Maybe six thousand regular infantry have died since the beginning of the fighting.”
“Ten thousand casualties, against fifteen thousand of theirs, with another ten thousand of their soldiers in retreat northwards. If we …” Harsh war horns interrupted him. Daken listened to the sound, confused. The horns were not the rich, powerful sounds that he was used to. They were powerful, certainly, but they were almost shrill, tearing at your ears, like the screams of gore crows as they fight over carrion, yet they lacked the power of fear. Daken understood when all along the walls, his men began to shout “victory” and “the city is ours.” Clearly, the Deshika leaders felt that the price they would have to pay for Airachni was too high. And then buildings all around began to explode, showering the Meclaryan defenders with large stones, wooden beams, and all manner of debris. Daken cursed the black magic that his enemy obviously wielded, but while he and his men were distracted, and many badly injured, the Deshika renewed their assault upon the gate and northern wall of the city. The ladders they had used in previous attacks clearly were not needed, as Deshika warriors swarmed up the walls like beetles.
“Captain,” shouted Daken. “Get any civilians still inside the city into the mountain paths, and hurry.”
Marrdin made his way through the twisting, narrow halls of the palace of Agrista. The palace was built in such a way that the hallways and rooms resembled the natural ice caves that honeycombed the hill that they were built into. Any outsider would be lost, but he had walked these halls by himself for as long as he had been able to walk. He knew exactly where he was going. In the exact center of the palace, in a hidden room that was known to only the current Morschcoda, the Council’s greatest treasure was preserved. The treasure was a book that detailed the lives of everyone who had ever held the title of Morschcoda, had ever sat upon Eliish Del Anaria, even who had commanded the Morschcodal Guard for each Morschcoda. It even gave detailed instructions for the forging of the Morschledu Rings, though, as the Forgers had not been of any race known, their language was far different from Morsch, and so no one could read more than a handful of the most widely known words. Marrdin could not allow that book to fall into Deshika hands. Not knowing how much time he had before the Deshika renewed their assault, he began to sprint through the slippery, winding halls. As he ran through the twisting passages, his guards were suddenly in motion around him. How he had not seen the seven Deshika warriors who suddenly barred his path, he did not know. But before he even had time for a second thought, his two guards had finished the Deshika. ‘It is difficult,’ thought Marrdin, ‘to take Tai-Aren Coda by surprise. And it is certainly dangerous to try.’ Aloud he said “We must now go more carefully. If there are living Deshika within the palace, then we can be certain the ice caves will be no defence. But what I seek cannot fall into the hands of the Deshika.”
Erygan’s debate with his commanders was not going the way he wanted, and it was his own fault. He had sent the Black Guard to the Ristan Border, and he had sent almost half of his army into Meclarya. Now, when he needed those soldiers, he did not have them.
“Do we have the strength to send out an attack that would do enough damage to their army to force them to withdraw?”
“Not without leaving us severely weakened, Morschcoda.”
Erygan had thought and debated long about what the best course would be for forcing the Deshika to withdraw from Toredo. “How many soldiers are in the city? And how close are the nearest Black Guard reinforcements? Common soldiers will not hold long against Deshika.”
“We have maybe five thousand men. Not more.” General Domrar Cadrick, like Erygan in looks, though nowhere near as immaculate, touched two points on the map. The points were hopelessly far from each other and from Toredo. “Six thousand more are on route from the Ristan border, and there are another two and a half thousand coming from the south. They will have just crossed the bridge over the Dak River, but I doubt that they will stay on the road. Our regular infantry likely got caught in the Deshik advance. A massive force went south to Airachni. If they met, our army wouldn’t be the victorious one.”
“So, we can’t do anything but hope we hold on until those eight or nine thousand men arrive in the city. We don’t have the strength to attack them, nor do we have the strength, really, to hold the breaches in the wall.”
“Morschcoda, what if we were to abandon the city as lost? Then we could attempt to retake it when reinforcements arrive?”
“We would never be able to retake it. If they get inside the walls, it would take a force I’m not sure that even the gods control to remove them.”
“What if we let them believe the city has fallen, but hide inside of the city, and then we use what strength we have in the city to push them out into our reinforcements outside of it?”
“Toredo will fall without any help from us, General” answered Erygan, grimly. “And without any help for us, it will fall swiftly.”
Daken and his men fought to hold an ever-decreasing area of the city from the Deshika. The Dragon Hearted fought valiantly, but stopping the fires had taxed them, and the explosions that had allowed the Deshika to get up to the wall unchallenged had badly damaged the Meclaryan lines. So, though Deshika were falling swiftly to the swords of the Dragon Hearted, and even more swiftly to the Eagle-Eyed, a group of Meclaryan archers who never missed, they still outnumbered the rapidly tiring defenders by more than three to one. Daken’s mind maintained just enough of a link with his dragon that he could see through its eyes as well as his own. The Deshik camp was in flames, but two other dragons had been shot out of the sky. Three others were fighting along the ground, but being unused to the ferocity of the Deshika, they were not dealing much damage to the still large army. Daken had only ever seen two dead dragons before, and he had never seen one actually be killed, but while he was watching through his own dragon’s eyes, he saw a Deshik War Chief run up to one and smash it with his axe. The dragon reared and roared, but crashed down again, biting off the War Chief’s arm with its last strength.
Taren slowly paced through the halls of Alquendiro. It had been almost two weeks since the abrupt end of The Councils, and he had heard nothing from any of the other Morschcoda since then. His spies had reported that Agrista, Toredo, and Airachni were all under siege, and that the forces surrounding each city were each fifty thousand strong at least. Makret suddenly appeared next to him. He was good at doing that. “Is there anything new?” asked Taren.
Makret unfolded a letter. “This just came from Torridesta. Toredo is breached and ready to fall. Armies of the Black Guard are approaching the city from the south and the east. They are marching, not using portals, because they think that if the Deshika hear rumour of nine thousand Black Guards moving in on the city, they may panic. There are, according to reports, only about twenty two thousand Deshika still alive surrounding Toredo.”
“Nine thousand Black Guards may be enough to turn the tide. It is a gamble, though, and one I would not bet on. Is there any news from Agrista or Airachni?”
“Apparently what remained of the Crystal Sword was able to repel a weak attack on Agrista. That army withdrew several days ago, only to be reinforced with another forty thousand soldiers. I would guess that the ten thousand Deshika who fell back northward are going to reinforce the army at Agrista.”
“No, they are not. Agrista is now surrounded by a force far stronger than it has to defend itself. Those men are going to Toredo. And so must we. General Druoth, prepare the Brotherhood.”
“It will be done, Morschcoda.”
Taren waited until Makret had gone, and then he sought out his brother. Elich was not happy about being pulled away from chasing the Lady Elshay Cabrinda or whichever courtroom butterfly he had his eye set on this week, and stared angrily up at his older brother. There was no love lost between the two of them. “Elich, I need you to marshal the army. And I need you to start conscripting new recruits from the provinces, especially Grathen and El Redro Delshoi. If we start training an army now, it will be ready for battle by the time the Deshika reach Drogoda.”
“The army is under my control, Taren. I will do what I want with it.”
Taren tried to hold his anger in check, but it would not yield to his better judgement this time. “Elich, you know what I’ve done to maintain control of this country. I will do it again if I have to. This is no time to assert your independence. If you want to stay in control of the Drogodan Army, then do what I tell you, and do it now.”
Elich offered a mocking bow, and then walked away. Taren let him, noticing distractedly that Lady Elshay Cabrinda removed herself from a group of other high blood ladies and walked after his shorter brother. He did not have time to deal with his Elich anyway, and instead ran to his room. The Brotherhood, for all its size, would not take more than two or three hours to gather its full strength. Setting Mishdonkar aside, he pulled his chain mail over his head. Over the mail went an ancient embossed breastplate of Dwarven Steel. A tall helmet topped with a carved Mordak’s head went on his own head, and around his neck he fastened a long cape of dark blue, fading to a faint green near the top. Buckling his sword belt back on, he reached into a chest near his bed and pulled out a Drog War Bow. The Drog War Bows were powerful magical weapons. The draw weight of a bow could exceed two hundred and fifty pounds, though because of their magic, most Drog Ringlords could use them. They could create enough force to send an arrow to kill an armoured soldier at a ranges of over half of a league. The magic that impregnated the bow made it so that only a Drog could pull the string, regardless of how strong any other person might be. Taren’s bow was one of his personal treasures, with a draw weight even heavier than most other bows of its kind, over three hundred pounds. The art of carving the bows had been lost tens, if not hundreds, of millennia before House Garrenin had been named Drogoda’s Morschcodal House. There were only forty of the bows left in the world, and all of them, save for Taren’s, were in the keeping of the Spear of Drogoda. With the bow went a quiver filled with fifty arrows, each one just an ell long, and made of the same dark wood as the bows. By the time he was armed, the Brotherhood of the Mordak was already prepared to depart. Beside the Drogs were mounted several hundred Torridestan mercenaries. They had heard of the attack on Toredo and would not be left behind. Their leader came up to Taren and bowed. “Many of us are Morschledu or Tai-Aren Coda, Morschcoda Garrenin. We knew that we would not have the strength to alleviate the siege of our home, but now that you are going, we would not be left behind. Several of us can make portals large enough for several riders to pass through at once. It will speed your journey northward.”
“We will use the portals, but let me speak to my commanders first.”
The Torridestan left, and Makret and the leaders of the five battalions within the Brotherhood all came forward and bowed to Taren.
Taren turned to the five Masters of the Brotherhood first. “We will split into three groups, I think. Grand Master, you and one other will take your men and go to Airachni. I don’t think that the Dragon Hearted will be able to hold the line for much longer. Two of you will go to Agrista, and help to defend it from the Deshika there. Whichever one of you is left will come with Makret and me to Toredo, where we will do what we can to relieve the siege and free the city. Choose which ones of you are to go where. We have not time for lengthy debate.” After a few moments discussion, he turned to the captain of the Torridestan mercenaries. “Your men don’t have to go with them, but if you could open portals to Airachni and Agrista, there is much we could do against the Deshika.”
“I know you would not ask unless it were important, Morschcoda, but for my men to make more than one portal large enough for your men would come close to causing their deaths. I can have them make one portal to some point between all three cities, but then you might be too late for all of them.”
“If only one portal can be made, then put it between Toredo and Agrista. If we do not go soon, then no force will be of any use. Airachni is close enough to Alquendiro that it doesn’t need a portal.”
Daken’s ever retreating, ever shrinking front line was still holding against wave after punishing wave of reckless and relentless Deshik attacks. The piles of dead provided the exhausted Meclaryan army with a way to slow the battle, as well as some protection. The dead were so many that the Deshika had to move them out of the streets to still have room to fight, which meant that the Deshika archers who had gained the wall were no longer fully able to see their targets. It did not stop them from trying, though, as the continued to pour arrows down upon the relatively few remaining Meclaryan defenders. Only two thousand of the Dragon Hearted could still stand and fight. Three days they had held the line behind strong fortifications, and now, another five days of nearly continuous fighting had pushed them back almost to the palace, which Daken was not unhappy about. The palace had tunnels leading into the mountains that stood just south of the city, but more importantly, the palace was defensible. It could be held by the few they still had even against twice what they still faced, or so he hoped. He had never had that particular theory tested, trusting in the ability of his commanders. At least ten thousand of the Deshika were inside of the city, as far as Daken could tell, and he dared not think of the forces still outside of it. He knew that five more dragons had died fighting the army outside, but his enemy’s numbers must have come down. As his sword flashed to end yet another life of his enemy’s, he thought ‘I can’t yield the rest of the city unfought, but if I don’t, then we may not live to defend the palace.’ As he thought this, one of his few remaining captains fought her way over to his side.
“Morschcoda, if we don’t do something now, we won’t have a later to do anything.”
Daken took the opportunity of a rare pause in the battle to cast his mind around and gain a mental picture of the battle within the city. It was depressing. “Sound the retreat, Captain. Fall back to the palace.”
She nodded and pulled a horn from her belt. The piercing sound it made stopped the battle for a few heartbeats as the Deshika clawed at their ears. And then every still leaving Meclaryan broke and ran south. Two Deshik warriors jumped out of an alley in front of Daken. He cut them down in a single stroke, not even slowing his pace as he ran with his army.
Erygan’s men fought long and hard. The nine thousand Black Guards had changed tactics, knowing that a rumour would not create enough fear in their enemy. The fresh forces had pushed the Deshika back from Toredo, but they had not gone far. After Erygan’s reinforcements had retreated, the Deshika had recovered all the land that they lost, and more. Several areas in northern Toredo had fallen. The Deshika had set up command centers in the market and in a rich area filled with large houses. The palace stood on a hill in the middle of those two areas. The Torridestans would not give it up, yet they could not keep the Deshika out of it. Erygan himself was preparing to lead one last desperate charge to either rid Toredo of the Deshika or die trying. ‘The dying is more likely,’ he thought. He knew well that he was neither a swordsman nor a hero. He had just raised his sword to signal his men to charge when he heard loud war horns coming from the east. At first he felt despair. He thought ‘If more have come, than no strength still in Torridesta has a hope of riding us of them.’ But as he listened longer, an all but abandoned hope began to grow in his heart. He knew those horns. Their powerful sound, as wide and deep and cruel and untamed as the ocean itself, announced the coming of one of the greatest Ringlords to ever walk in Anaria. Battle was about to be joined outside of Toredo, and Taren Garrenin the Second would be at its front.
The Deshika, with their discovery of the ice caves that led into the heart of the palace in Agrista, had redoubled their assault upon the city. They had sent warriors into the caves to prevent escape, and then attacked the walls with all the force they had left, almost thirty thousand soldiers, including the reinforcements that had come north from Airachni. The Crystal Sword had held the walls for long, but they were eventually driven back into the heart of the city. Marrdin, with what little remained of his guard and army, stood in the courtyard before the palace in a last desperate stand when, far away, but coming rapidly closer, he heard the deep-throated roars of large beasts. His few remaining men knew the sound as well as he did, if not better. The Brotherhood of the Mordak had been unleashed.
Daken’s men were desperately throwing everything they could find against the ruined doors of the palace of Airachni. It would not be enough. There were just too many Deshika, and not even the hatred that all Morschen had for Deshik kind, long though it had been since the two races had met in battle, could push the Dragon Hearted, oldest and proudest army in Anaria, to win one final battle. The few dozen of the Eagle Eyed still strong enough to pull a bowstring had their bows at the ready, determined to send as many deadly arrows as possible into their hated enemies before they too were destroyed, and before them stood the Dragon Hearted, refreshed by their short rest. They would protect their home until every last one of their brothers and sisters had fallen. There could be no other end for such proud warriors. Just as the doors finally fell, and battle was about to be joined in the great hall of the palace itself, before the Eagle Eyed could even release their arrows, the earth began to shake underneath the massive weight of a charging army. Daken knew of only two armies in all of Anaria that could shake the walls of Airachni. Only one could do it without magic. And by the roars that he could now hear, he knew which one it was. Drogoda had come.