Commander Tiller stood in full battle dress, comparing several maps that covered the battlefield and the surrounding areas. The first wave of the Crusade had launched yesterday and was wildly successful. They had caught the enemy in the middle of their evacuation, and just over the next hill from his tent homes burned, some with the bodies of their denizens still inside them. His own army had lost more than a thousand but they had killed hundreds of Others and those were excellent numbers as far as he was concerned. Still, a slight frown tugged at his face.
Where are you, Earthbreaker?
After King Lynwood had approved the Crusade against the creatures who had hidden among them, he had requested a private audience. Tiller had expected a promise of riches and lands, even though neither meant much to him. Instead the King had issued a warning to him. He’d heard rumors, that the Others had a Queen with enough power to split the Earth itself.
The door to the tent flapped open, spilling sunlight into the room, and Tiller glanced up to see Officer Arlington stride inside carrying his helmet under one arm. Where Tiller’s short cropped black hair was graying at the temples, Arlington still had the golden locks that were the envy of many women. Even moments from going into battle the ever present smile was apparent on his face. That he had come to be known as Laughing Death was no surprise. Tiller waited for the poor attempt at humor that was sure to come. Arlington was a brilliant officer, it was why he was second in command, but his lack of concern could easily become grating at times.
“Still staring at those dusty, old maps Tiller? I sometimes worry I’ll come in and find you turned to stone from pure boredom.” Ah, there it was. Tiller kept his slight grin hidden. “It would be a shame for my promotion to Commander to come because of such a reason.”
“A ‘sir’ seems to be missing from your speech officer but I will overlook it.” Tiller said. “While you’re here, I want to run something by you that has been on my mind as of late.”
Arlington raised an eyebrow in expectation but said nothing.
“I find it odd that our enemy would build their small kingdom nearly at the base of this mountain. See here?” Tiller pointed to the map. “With our troops around the perimeter they have no hope of escape. Even if they tried to scale the mountain we could easily decimate their ranks with our greater range.”
Arlington smiled wider. “It’s likely they never expected such a large force to march to their gates. Arrogance can get the best of many. Even those abominations out there, masquerading around with human faces.”
Tiller grunted and moved to pour himself some water. “Strong words officer.”
The smile tightened. “Would you disagree, Commander?”
“Yes, I would.” Tiller said firmly and took a sip from his glass. “And we could argue at great length about the subject, except it doesn’t affect what we came here to do. Whatever brought them here and however they became what they are, they threaten our way of life. If we are to feel safe in our own homes, we must know that those outside our doors and sharing our towns are actually people.”
“Now enough of this.” Tiller said with finality, going back to his maps. “The placement of their kingdom is too strange to me. What if they never expected to find escape necessary? What if they always planned on having the superior force...or a secret weapon?”
“You speak of their Queen.” Arlington said and Tiller glanced up again to see the officer’s eyes merry with restrained laughter. “She exists in nothing but rumors and second hand stories. A tale that Others crafted to intimidate or scare little children, too foolish to know better. She would be able to see the destruction from her castle. Tell me Tiller, If she existed, would she not come to the aid of her people? It seems to me that an all-powerful Queen would not sit idly by while we lay waste to her kingdom.”
Tiller’s frown deepened. Everything the man said was true but he couldn’t shake the sense that things were going too well and he knew from experience that they never stayed that way during a war. “We have seen them move within shadows, transform into wolves, influence minds, command the elements, and the list goes on. Is it too farfetched to believe this Earthbreaker could exist? That there is something out there strong enough to reshape the land itself?”
“The men have already begun their march.” Arlington said, dismissing his question. “If it pleases you, I would like to go and lead them, rather than calling for a full halt because of an imagined boogeyman. Besides, there is no real evidence that this Queen exists. Feel free to stay and continue staring at your maps.”
Tiller took a moment to consider before standing and patting his officer on the shoulder. “Go then, but carefully. Have you made sure all the soldiers are carrying their tridents?” He asked. The three pointed weapon had been monumental against Others. It gave the men extended reach and by using different materials for the prongs they could capitalize on any weakness.
Arlington laughed. “Of course. I never forgot the rhyme you taught us during the Battle of Oak Forest.”
“Silver for the shifters. Wood for those with fangs. Cold, hard steel for anything. That happens to remain.” He recited. “Or just cut the damn thing’s head off. Tends to work for just about everything.”
Tiller nodded his approval “Very good. I wish you the best of luck on the battlefield. Perhaps I’ll join you for tomorrow’s march.”
“Perhaps you should join me now, before there is nothing left to march on!” Arlington called, already out of the tent and headed towards his horse. He didn’t bother waiting for a response from Tiller, choosing instead to ride towards the front line.
As Arlington’s horse disappeared in the distance, Tiller turned to his maps once again. The sound of marching soldiers and clinking weapons provided a familiar symphony to his ears while he went back to his studies.
I’m missing something. I can feel it. Does the mountain have some significance? It could be that their treasures are stored there. Distantly, he heard commanding shouts but his mind was elsewhere. A puzzle demanded his attention.