Part Four: Chapter 47
The ancient peak Gorm Nadur formed an achromatic backdrop for the battle over the realm. The mountain stood alone, segregated from the Seomyr range to the south by a healthy steppe of grass and shrubland. It appeared to hang from the diffused layer of livid clouds above like an iron curtain draped from the sky, inviting opposing armies to entertain the main stage that was the amber plain. A hem of gnarled evergreens and rubble ran anarchical around its base, warming its knees in winter and drinking its cold tears in summer.
The alp donned a veneer of ice that shown steely black in the feeble light of dawn. Stone outcroppings exploded from its facade into cruel, unusual shapes, made all the more prominent by the deep crevasses they contrasted. Some of the outcrops resembled the teeth of dreadful beasts, others the protracted spears of a wary phalanx, and still others the spewed guts of a severed belly. What titan of old had whetted his blade upon this giant? What mob of spirits had flogged this orphan rock with flails of thunder, whips of tempest, and cudgels of quakes? The mountain had persevered the ages to emerge a juggernaut of time. And its apathy was infinite to the events unfolding beneath.
From the west marched the hordes of the sorceress, Saedus of Ost, with her chariot at their head. Her contingent was stationed upon a slight incline of earth at the mountain’s base: a comprehensive vantage point except for an area to the northwest where the plateau’s rolling edge converged with the tree line and fell from view. There the witch placed a small detachment of warriors to guard her flank; yet should the lightly-armored and ill-trained Ûnathī savages be engaged, they’d likely be annihilated within moments. Guts would vomit from bellies, heads tumble from shoulders, and limbs litter the ground like driftwood. All to alert Saedus. That’s what the lives of the men from the dark forest translated to in her mind. Two hundred men for two seconds of warning.
In the valley below, Saedus’ main host advanced in loose block formations. The Domalins held the vanguard. Stalwart warriors not easily broken. Pride for their once-great people yet stirred in their hearts, and no longer did it matter to them why they were being led to war—only that it was them against those who weren’t them. They marched with determined eyes forward, each man wearing the expressionless visage of a professional.
To either side and behind was a motley of the remaining armies of the West: woodsmen from Ûnath, goblins from Gorm Vûdoc, cultists from Ost, and imps from Braured. They advanced warily, as if an invisible force was prodding their backsides. They were raiders, pillagers, thieves, assassins. The grand spectacle of war unfolding before them had set their eyes wandering about the panorama with looks of awestruck stupidity. To the sorceress, they were all bags of meat: no more than a fleshy bulwark to protect the Domalin flanks.
The armies of King Oen and his allies approached from the east, their ranks arranged similarly to their foe’s. The Sinian heavy infantry occupied front and center, led by Fedrin Rae himself. His blue banner appeared pallid against the gray sky as it fluttered in the morning wind. The bear had set his men in a saw formation meant to funnel the enemy between opposing rows of spears, swords, and shields—and there be chewed to pulp by steel teeth and ground into the dirt by the advancing army’s inexorable force. The light infantry were on Fedrin’s flanks. They’d harry the Domalins, control the enemy’s position, and force their foes to engage the Sinian front line. If they were pressed, they’d withdraw; and if pursued, they’d lead the witch’s forces into a trap between hammer and anvil: for the Mardothans held the extreme flank to the north, and a contingent of Ithirian and Tholmian allies held the south. A few battalions of archers, the king, and his personal guard of cavalry were in the rear.
“Rotate!” Dragan heard his captain shout from behind him, followed by two shrill whistle blows. The men holding the front line systematically stepped aside and retreated to the back of the column while the next warriors in line advanced to take their place. When the whistle blew again, it would be Dragan’s time to fight.
Perhaps. On his first tour of the front line, he’d been surprised to learn that not much real fighting took place there. The legion of light infantry was more concerned with taking up certain spaces on the battlefield than killing the enemy. The troops moved this way and that. Advancing, retreating, circling—but never overextending, even when the foe appeared most vulnerable. Every man was a spoke in the wheel. One small component of a greater machine. Wholesale rout and slaughter would never come to his company while the front lines held. But nor would it come to his foes—the soldiers across the line—for the same reasons.
And Dragan didn’t like that at all. He understood what they were doing. He was aware of this type of formation fighting, but he’d never paid it much heed in the past. He’d been a champion. He’d chosen for himself the manner, location, and style of his combat—and the fates of nations had wavered on the outcomes of his decisions. A champion indeed, he thought. Now a mere foot soldier! Is this worth Bronwyn’s shame? Astelidus’ death? For me to kill a few Ûnathī goat herders?
"Ahhhh!" screamed the soldier in front of Dragan as the tip of a blood-soaked sword jutted from the small of the man’s back. Dragan caught the Sinian as the soldier stumbled against him…and he held the body briefly before letting it fall. In front was the foe who’d done the damage, already on his knees from a thrust taken in the thigh. Dragan drove his spear halfway through the enemy’s neck, kicked the body over with a boot to its chest, and took up position on the front line. He was now shoulder-to-shoulder with allies on either side, spears looming menacingly over the tops of wooden round shields. His eyes darted side-to-side. He rolled to the balls of his feet and bounced gingerly. He readjusted his grip on his spear haft. All in anticipation of…nothing. The ragtag group of untrained Ûnathī and Ostian fighters kept their distance, loosing occasional errant spear thrusts to keep the Sinians honest.
“To hell with this,” muttered Dragan, taking a few steps forward. Two spear points came biting hard at his face. He lunged back to dodge then crouched to leap upon his adversaries while they were still exposed. In his mind he saw the sequence play out. His targets were already dead…they just didn’t know it yet. Muscles flexed to launch his body forward—only for him to be brought up short. Rough hands had grabbed him under the arms to haul him back in line.
“Are you dense, soldier?” asked one of his allies. “You’re gonna get yourself killed. Or worse, us!"
Dragan shrugged the soldiers’ hands from his person with an angry gesture. “Don’t you know who I am?”
“I don’t care if you’re the DoomBringer himself! You won’t be breaking rank like that again,” answered the bulky, gap-toothed Sinian to his right. The man spat in disgust before turning his attention immediately back to the line.
The son of Saedus felt a stab of rage well in his chest and creep up his neck. “What did you say?” he hissed. “I am the Doom…" But no, that was wrong. He touched his chest with the inside of his shield arm and felt nothing but a worn leather tunic above a ratty piece of chain mail. The time for proclamations was over. Speeches were finished. Boasting was done. Taunting seemed juvenile. He’d play his role as a normal soldier and be glad of it.
Yet…why did he still feel like the DoomBringer? Tiramas Vendhane’s words returned to him. That breastplate you wear holds no magic of its own. Your power lies within you…
“Rotate!” the captain roared, followed by the obligatory whistle blast.
"Damn!" Dragan cursed, reluctantly filing to the back of the column. There he found his captain talking with the legion commander and another man. A runner, he thought. The newcomer was out of breath, his voice wrought with fear—though at first Dragan couldn’t make out the words. The runner pointed southward. All four men mechanically followed the invisible line made by the runner’s finger. A great tumult in the distance surrounded Fedrin Rae’s banner like a pot of water reaching a roaring boil.
"How?" Dragan heard the commander’s voice clearly now. “How could they be through the van?”
“Sir…” the runner stammered. “The van’s routed! The witch has unleashed a…a monster…upon us. The heavy infantry’s falling back in retreat…”
For a single bright moment Fedrin’s blue banner stood tall amidst the rabble, like an unshakable oak in a field of storm-blown weeds. Then suddenly the flag teetered, fell, and became instantly consumed by the throng. Dragan vaguely heard the legion commander begin shouting orders—but orders meant nothing to him now. No, no, no! he thought, pushing his way through the troops in the direction of the fallen banner.
A hand grabbed his shoulder. “Where the hell do you think you’re going?” its owner snarled. Dragan glared at the hand as if it were a piece of smelly dung before locking eyes with the offender. It was the same gap-toothed soldier that’d yelled at him earlier. Meeting Dragan’s gaze, the man stumbled backwards, face pale, eyes swimming with fear. “Who are you?” he gasped.
A sleeping ember of fury blazed awake for an instant in Dragan’s eyes. “I’m the DoomBringer.”
Fedrin Rae reached down and grabbed his standard bearer under the armpit, jerking the young man back to his feet. “Get up, boy! Don’t let the flag fall!” he shouted. ”Do not let it fall!"
The old bear looked around. A mass of bodies, mostly his men, lay strewn about the field before him. The vanguard was broken, ripped apart by Saedus’ colossal ghoul. Sinian soldiers ran this way and that, heedless of horn blasts or whistle shrills or pleas for rally. Fedrin knew the battle’s outcome depended on the van holding the line, that the enemy was far outmatched on the other fronts, and that, in time, Sinia and its allies would work their way around the invaders’ weak flanks to surround them on three of four sides. Then they’d smash their foes or watch them flee, only to ride them down in glorious pursuit. It seemed that the witch knew this all too well, however, and thus she’d sent her hellish champion straight into the mouth of the beast: to smash the teeth from the Sinian army before the jaws could clamp tight. The ghoul had to be dealt with…or all would be lost.
A group of the captain’s guard remained behind him—perhaps a score or less whose courage hadn’t fully wilted—still holding a loose formation. Yet by the looks on their twisted faces, Fedrin saw what little heart was left in them fading rapidly. “Men!” he shouted again. “Master your fear! To me! Line up!” But only a few took a nervous step forward. ”By god! Where’s your guts? Are you boys or men? Sheep or lions? Would you not rather die than see Sinia’s crown on the witch’s head? To grovel before her as she rides victorious through the streets of Chalemos with this filth in tow? Our streets?” At this last he spat sour spit on the ground, appearing as if he’d wretch at the mere thought.
The old bear’s words hit home with the proud warriors. They gave a battle cry and ran to their captain, forming up. And just like that, the decision was made for each man: victory or death in a final charge.
Then, as if on queue, the beast G’nilbor loomed up from the body of corpses in which he’d been wallowing. He spotted Fedrin’s guard in a tenuous line: one drastically thinner and shorter than it’d been before he’d cleaved through Sinia’s vanguard with all Domal’s strength in tow. The ghoul examined his enemy and smiled at the futility of their resolve, revealing a mass of yellow fangs besmeared with blood and grit. More easily would a drop of water extinguish the sun than twenty men lay low the mighty G’nilbor. Without taking his eyes off of Fedrin, he reached down slowly and grabbed the nape of a nearby goblin, picking the smaller creature up and setting it down gently before his feet. Then he guided another in by the shoulder…then another…
“Little ones,” he said like a father to his children. “Form the line!” And he laughed in great mockery of the Sinians as he ushered more goblins in: each one more confused and terrified than the last. Across from them—no more than fifty strides away—the opposing soldiers were forming up below a blue banner; and from the looks of it, those warriors had no intentions of falling back like the rest of their brothers.
“Good, good,” G’nilbor drawled, inspecting one goblin with an approving pat on the head. “Now go!”
Nothing happened. The goblins looked at each other, bewildered. They were here to pull up the rear, to capture or kill the wounded, to scavenge the dead—not to charge into a score of heavily armed men. G’nilbor’s milky eyes opened wide in disbelief. ”I...said...charge, you maggots!” And with that he took the nearest goblin by the head and squeezed, sinking his talon-like nails through eyes, ears, nose, and cheek. A sickening crunch followed as the flunky collapsed to the ground. The others got the message: probable death in front, but certain death behind. They raised what sorry excuses for weapons they possessed and charged.
“Here they come, men!” Fedrin cried. “I don’t know if that fiend can feel pain or not, but its limbs aren’t made of steel. Hack it to pieces! Charge!”
The two lines met with a dull thud of metal. Most of the goblins were cut down in seconds, but that was enough time for G’nilbor to butcher five Sinian warriors. The hulk hovered over one of his victims: as if trying to resist the urge to feast upon the corpse right then and there while there was yet more killing to do. Then another five Sinians grouped and ran at the ghoul’s back. G’nilbor spun, the back of his hand rounding in a massive arch that swept all five men from the earth and sent them flying like leaves in the squall. He dispatched the rest with astonishing precision. A swat here: gnat. A stomp there: beetle. A pick here: itch. Until...
"Ah!" G’nilbor winced, grabbing the back of his right leg. A long gash ran the length of his bloated calf. No blood spilled from the wound. Only a gritty black matter remained on the blade that’d inflicted it. The blade of Fedrin Rae: lone survivor of the Sinian charge.
“Your time’s done, old man!” the ghoul growled. Fedrin raised his blade above his head and rushed in—but G’nilbor was too quick. He caught Fedrin’s sword hand in one fluid motion, crushing the veteran’s fingers, knuckles, and palm to pieces against the weapon’s hard hilt. Then the hulk’s free hand found the captain’s neck and lifted him high into the air.
Fedrin struggled with the iron vise that was constricting the life from him, his good hand feebly pulling at the ghoul’s meaty claw. But it would’ve been easier to tear through stone with his bare hands than to pry open one finger from that grip. His legs kicked, then trembled, then twitched…and finally hung limp.
G’nilbor snorted with pleasure and tossed the body like a pebble through the air. It crashed down in a heap some thirty strides away. Then he turned back to the corpses he’d been mutilating before Rae’s intrusion, drool already forming in the corners of his terrible maw.
“Bring me that one!” shouted G’nilbor, pointing with the severed arm held in his right hand as if it were a club. What remained of his goblin retainers scurried about, falling all over themselves to carry out the command. The ghoul laughed wickedly; then, lowering his voice, he went on in a sinister tone: ”Yes…I’ll feast now on the flesh of their fallen captain. Wear his bones about my neck…”
The colossal pale beast looked about then, as if seeing the battlefield for the first time. A large void had opened up around his location. His goblin lackeys were with him, but the Domalins kept their distance to press their advantage on both sides as the Sinians tried to give ground without breaking rank. Volleys of arrows still flew overhead, back and forth, mixing in the sky, striping the ground with evanescent beams of shadow.
“Why won’t the Domalins feast with me, little goblins?” G’nilbor mused. “Do they not enjoy my company? Ha! I’ll consume their souls with the rest when I’m done here. The witch also! The whole world shall be devoured!” But the ghoul cut his tirade short then, confused. Something he’d commanded hadn’t occurred. Unthinkable. He peered around to see who’d be first to die over the slight—and to his amazement, he found a pair of servants staring at him and shaking with fear. His lip curled in anger. ”Where is it?" he bellowed, smashing the mighty fist of his free hand down to pulverize the skull of one goblin. “I said bring me the old chief’s body!" He looked about stupidly, mouth open wide, and saw how the rest of his minions had slinked away behind him. Some were even fleeing now in a full sprint away from the area. ”What’s this?"
“Master,” said the remaining servant, voice unsteady with terror. ”He won’t let us near the body…”
"He?" G’nilbor seemed only now to notice the warrior kneeling over Fedrin Rae’s broken corpse. ”He?" The monster took a step forward—yet hesitated as the body’s protector raised his head. Two infernos of orange fire met G’nilbor’s milky white gaze. ”You…" the beast cooed, licking his lips in delight.
“Me.” Dragan removed his helmet and set it softly on the ground beside his vanquished companion. Then, taking up Fedrin’s sword, the DoomBringer rose to his feet.
“The witch said you’d come,” said G’nilbor, tearing off a bite of the arm he held with his jagged teeth. He chewed the chunk slowly in his massive jaws. “The thought of it made my mouth water, I confess. And now, here you are!” The beast pulled back his lips to reveal a hideous maw full of blood and meat. Spit oozed down his jowls and dripped in slimy lines to the bloodstained earth. He flexed his chest and arms, revealing bulging veins atop misshapen muscles that seemed to pop hard as iron from every nook of his gargantuan frame. “Lost your prize, son of Saedus?” A smile spread over the beast’s face as he examined Dragan’s gear and found the silver breastplate lacking. “Makes no difference. It was a lie. Your whole life’s a lie! The only power that armor held was the power to enslave you!”
A roar of laughter burst from G’nilbor’s mouth. “But you know it, don’t you? Else you wouldn’t have come here to die.” Another step forward. “You mean to redeem yourself in death, after all you’ve done? That will never happen! Look around you, Bastard. There’s no one to see. No one to know. I’ll grind you to pulp! Then the witch will ensure your name lives on in infamy. That all hate directed at her is deflected onto you until the end of time! A traitor, a liar…a murderer!”
And with that, the ghoul crouched and exploded into the air, razor claws itching to sink into Dragan’s flesh. But instead of that end actually transpiring, something unexpected occurred.
G’nilbor had miscalculated his leap.
Impossible! Mid-air, he lost his balance and came crashing down a few strides from Dragan’s feet. The hulk struggled to gain his footing, but no sooner had he risen than three stray arrows precipitated from a hail of them overhead, piercing him in the back, shoulder, and neck. He groaned at the impacts but paused only long enough to rip the most offensive bolt free of his neck. More furiously than before, he set his back legs to spring again—but in that very moment a sinkhole opened in the ground below his right foot, engulfing that entire leg up to the hip and causing his other leg to bend back awkwardly. G’nilbor struggled to loose himself, clawing at the ground; still the harder he fought, the more the earth’s grip tightened around his trapped leg like a vise. He looked up, face full of rage and confusion. Dragan Saedus was looming over him.
“You’re right about one thing, fiend. I do know—and that’s why I came. But it’s not for redemption. I’m unredeemable. And it’s not for glory. I’m infamous. It’s for a reason far less noble. For I am the Black King cometh, the GrimHelm of Ost. Fate is my dominion, and I bring doom to all my adversaries!”
The Black King lifted Rae’s blade and, with one fell slash, severed G’nilbor’s head. The massive lump rolled about the ground and came to a stop.
Some would-be meals are poisonous.