Chapter 34: Where There is Smoke
The Whip Crackers were used to forced marches that dragged on for miles and leagues, but even by the standards of Vorteez’s First Legion, the march from the battle with Prince Eildar’s army was a marathon. They marched through the night, all the next day, and past sunset the next day. By the end of the third day since the death of Norrin, they had re-crossed the Baan-Taar below Lake Miliish and were moving north through Meclarya towards the Emin-Tal plateau.
Word came from Airachni that Daken had taken Criarr, and the Deshika were eager to finish the march and reclaim the land they had conquered. However, Volkure had other plans for the ensuing battle.
“Daken knows this land. However small his army, that gives him an advantage.” Volkure looked down at the map of Meclarya that one of his War Chiefs had found. “I will not make the mistake we made in Torridesta. Too much depends on capturing the Morschcoda.” Volkure’s War Chiefs exchanged glances. One drew his sword and attacked. Volkure looked up in time to duck the blow and reached for his own sword, forgetting that it no longer hung from his left hip. The Chief swung again, and Volkure leaned back, the sword’s tip singing inches from his face. Volkure snapped back upright and drove his fist into the War Chief’s stomach.
The Deshik giant collapsed, clutching at the smoldering hole in his midsection. He died as he hit the ground.
There wasn’t anger in Volkure’s voice. Instead, he sucked all the heat out of his tent. Ice began to form with how rapidly the temperature dropped. “Does anyone care to explain, or do I need to put a hole through another of you?” The one who had taken on the role of Master of War stepped forward, shivering and rubbing his hands together. “You gave us orders in Torridesta, after beheading the spy, that anyone who used the word ‘Morschcoda’ was to be killed on sight.” “And obviously, you idiots are moronic enough to assume that such an order would include the one who issued it.” Volkure remembered the order, and he knew his mistake. But he would never give any Deshika the satisfaction of hearing him admit that he was wrong. Slowly, he allowed the heat to return to his tent. “Get out, all of you. I will plan this attack myself, without the help of your incompetence.” The War Chiefs bowed themselves out of the tent and went in search of fire. Volkure stared at them, his eyes full of contempt, until the last one pulled the tent flap shut behind him. Volkure sat down, and shoved the stump of his right wrist into his armpit.
“Nyjeta! Iltin cush villn!” Swears and curses rolled off his tongue as he rocked back and forth on the chair. The beginnings of tears formed in his eyes, but he blinked them away and stood up. He pulled the map closer to him and picked up a pen.
His left hand drew with exaggerated caution to mimic the accuracy of the fingers that he no longer had. Slowly, a plan began to come to life on the map.
The plan was elaborate, and involved attacks in varying strength against every side of Criarr’s insubstantial walls. Another part of the Deshika would constantly circle the battle, so that the Morschen in the city would never know when, or from where, the true attack would come.
Daken saw the Deshik camp rise to the south and knew that his plan had failed. They had come too quickly, and from the wrong direction. Airachni hadn’t come. The First Battalion had.
“There has to be something else we can do, Morschcoda.”
“General, we don’t have options. We don’t have Dragons, we don’t have reinforcements. We don’t even have strong walls. Criarr is not where Meclarya makes its final stand.” “Morschcoda, you once said that you would rather stand beside someone who couldn’t win but would still fight, than stand with someone who couldn’t lose. You believe we can’t win this fight. But we are still here to fight it.” “No, General. Do not use my own words against me to make me agree to let you sacrifice yourself. The Morieden has arisen, and the Deshika may never retake it. That is a victory, and one you and the Remnant can build on to free Meclarya.” “But, Morschcoda, Airachni—”
“Airachni cannot be freed if you all die here.”
“No more, General. Airachni may be reclaimed from Drogoda, but it can’t be from Criarr. The point of my plan was to draw out the Deshika from Airachni, and my plan has failed. So, we need a new plan, and this one saves lives. Right now, that is all I am concerned with.” The General started to protest again. “That is the end of it, General. You have your orders.” …
“General Volkure, look.” The War Chief pointed towards Criarr.
Volkure could barely believe his eyes. “It’s Calmi himself.” Daken’s war-hardened and battered form was unmistakable from that distance. His bald head shone in the sunlight, and Volkure could clearly see that he was missing an ear.
Daken stopped not far from the Deshik camp. “Volkure. I know you’re in there. Come out and speak with me.” Daken waited for several minutes, but finally, Volkure came. “I see the war has marked us both, Armandan.” Volkure sneered. “You much more than me, old man.”
Daken touched what was left of his severed ear with the stumps of the fingers that he was also missing. “More frequently maybe, but losing a whole hand against losing the tips of a few fingers?” Daken shrugged. “Comparing injuries isn’t why I’m here. I’ve come to bargain.” “You’ve come to die, you mean.”
“If you intended to kill me, you wouldn’t have come out so far. You would have drawn me in so that there’s no way I could escape. I know Vorteez wants me alive. And I can imagine what will happen to you if I don’t stay that way.” Volkure scowled. “You’re honestly telling me that you’re here to surrender? What fun is that?”
“Surrender? Conditionally, yes. As I’ve said, I’m here to bargain.”
Volkure shook his head, disgusted with the Meclaryan Morschcoda. “I’d rather you fight. But what are your terms?”
“My men go free.”
Volkure waited for more, but Daken was finished. “That’s it?” Daken nodded. “What stops me from taking you and then killing them?”
Daken smiled, baring all of his abnormally sharp teeth. “Are you good enough left handed to disarm me without killing me? And then overpower me magically without killing me?” “Are you going to find out?”
Daken smiled a little. “You stand your ground at least. I admire that, in a way.” Daken put his hand on his sword. Volkure stepped back, but also gripped his own sword, careful to use his left hand and not bow to instinct. Daken saw the hesitation, the exaggerated deliberateness of the movement. “You aren’t good enough, and you know it, Volkure. But I know the First Battalion, and I know that they won’t run just because their commander is dead. So, you’re the only thing keeping my men alive, and I’m the only thing keeping you out of Vorteez’s torture chamber.” Daken let go of his sword and pulled out his pipe. He clamped it in his lips while he knocked some pipeweed out of a leather bag and into the bowl. “Be a good lad and light this for me.” Daken extended the pipe towards Volkure.
Volkure took the pipe, looked from it to Daken and back, and then dropped it. He kicked the pipe back towards Daken, who scowled. “Your manners are pitifully lacking, whatever other gifts you have. That was Dothorin Pipeweed, and that pipe was my great-grandfathers’.” Daken didn’t sound angry, just upset.
“I don’t care. I won’t kill you, but ask me to do you any more favours, and I won’t spare your men.”
“So, we have an accord. You let my men go, and you can take me to Airachni.”
“Fine.” Volkure extended his hand, and Daken shook it awkwardly with his own left hand.
The two rode into the Deshik camp together. Daken dismounted and let one of the War Chiefs put him in chains. Volkure turned to his War Master. “End this now.” …
As the first Deshika entered Criarr, the gate crumbled on top of them. Seventeen died, and another twelve were injured.
A Deshik soldier tripped over a wire that had been pulled across a narrow street. Arrows flew from the walls on either side, cutting through the Deshik patrol. Fifteen soldiers died before they hit the ground.
As the Deshika probed deeper into Criarr, searching for their enemy, they continued to spring hastily-prepared traps. Some killed one soldier. Some killed a dozen.
Finally, four Deshika went up into the only standing Dragon Tower to extinguish its fires. As they doused the last one, they felt the tower shake. Criarr’s final Dragon Tower fell in a glorious heap, showering stones down on Criarr and the Deshika, shaking the city. When the shaking stopped, hundreds more Deshika were dead or dying.
A day later, Volkure stormed into the tent where Daken was being held. Daken was sitting on the ground tied to a stake, watching the flap like he’d been waiting for Volkure to arrive.
“You know, don’t you!” Volkure pointed a finger at the smaller Meclaryan.
Daken almost laughed. “How many did you lose?”
“Not as many as you hoped.”
“Killing your Deshika wasn’t the point, Volkure. The point was to teach you some battlefield etiquette. You agreed to the terms. Then you broke them. There are consequences for that kind of thing. You are not untouchable.” Daken pulled on the rope that held his arms up and forced it to move enough to fold his hands behind his head. “So, how many did you lose?” “It doesn’t matter. You’re going to Airachni. Vorteez has special plans for you there.”