Of Armor and Bone: Chapter 11
The first stoking of the central pyre that morning had fallen to Shiloh. He had risen earlier than normal, even before the sun had begun to show itself. The ground around the central fire had been padded with excess straw and blankets and firs to provide a place for those without a bed to sleep. The families that were still intact huddled around each other for warmth as the heat from the fire slowly dispersed.
The guardsman followed the lit torches down to the front gate where the firewood had been collected and stacked to dry. The dark, rigid silhouette of the Lieutenant stood silently atop the platform that overlooked the road coming from the capital. “Sir, please allow yourself to rest.” Shiloh announced.
“You have no matter ordering me.” Terren reproached, unmoving.
“’Tis not an order, Sir.” Shiloh sighed. “But only a persuasion.”
Terren shifted back and forth with his eyes still turned outward towards the dark landscape, only lit by the pale moonlight. “I must await my men’s arrival. Until then, I should not rest.”
“They would not make such haste unaware as they are of the current situation.” Shiloh presented, unperturbed. “No reasonable group of men would travel at such an hour otherwise. If you should want, I can wake you when they arrive.”
Terren turned around to loom over the camp. With a swift movement, he dropped down from the platform and onto the ground with a dull thud. Shiloh crouched down by the wood pile to hoist a pair of sectioned logs under his arms. As he turned back towards the fire pit, he could make out the Lieutenant stiffly making his way up to the makeshift lean-to where the Commander and the other high ranking officers had taken shelter for the night.
By noon, the piling of bodies had reached it’s end. Anyone able to stomach the act had stripped the deceased of usable armor and pulled them past the north gate of the settlement towards the edge of the woods. The wind blew bits of dead leaves around the unsightly mound. Shiloh and the others brought lit torches that quickly caught to the bloodied clothing of the fallen men and loosely packed kindling. The rancid smell caught the wind and the brown smoke plumed up into sky.
Others poked around the cinders and ashes of the burned wreckage of buildings searching for anything of use. In total, one barracks, two worker’s longhouses, a store room, and close to two blocks of family dwellings had been completely burned. One of the mess halls had managed to escape the fire, but was destroyed by an unknown force. The fire had managed to pass over the main street and scorch a collection of homes, longhouses, and even threaten the forgery and mill before the fire had been put out.
Kiaren and Terren had taken up a command post inside one of the longhouses. The interior was drab with compacted dirt for flooring, and was lined with rows of bunks for the workers to rest in. In the center of the long building, a communal dining table lay, able to sit each of the men who would live there, if not shoulder-to-shoulder. The room smelled of sweat and earth, and the smell of the smoke outside begun to seep in.
Kiaren ground her teeth and traced the rough map of the tunnels deep inside the mountain. “I suspect this is how they entered the camp.” She said, pointing to a narrow stretch of passageway that seemed to abruptly stop. “Do you remember the skirmish when our tunnels met up- months ago? Workers lost it, but we avoided spilling blood. Sealed it off after that. Though, not good enough it seems.”
Terren looked down at the messily scrawled canvas. “And yet you saw no commotion at their camp?”
“Not but a single torch in the night.” Kiaren confirmed, rubbing her fingers together.
“I am both angered and relieved that they have no army at the ready to follow up on this attack.” Terren grumbled. “They are cowards, sending some sort of… juggernaut force to attack us in the middle of the night.”
“They wanted to confirm the same thing that we did…” Kiaren stopped him. “The same thing the King warned you of… that neither of us holds the artifact.”
“Could it be that another faction has found it?” Terren suggested. With a shrug, he stood up and began pacing around the table.
“The mountain and it’s tunnels are vast… but I doubt something like that would go unnoticed- either under our watch or that of Xiandol.” Kiaren snorted. “My instinct tells me that we can’t rule it out, though. It worries me that there are still other adversaries with their sights on the artifact.”
Terren paced to the door of the building and peered out between the slats of wood at the rising pillar of brown smoke. “Those so-called… demons, as well. Nobody can seem to agree about how many they saw. I don’t think it matters, though… considering the havoc they wrought here.” Terren turned back to the table and pulled a chair around towards him, sitting in it backwards. “If only Zethurus had not gone missing… we may have gotten a chance to determine what sort of magical power their wielded.”
Kiaren stood up from her seat and carefully pushed back the cloak resting on her shoulders. “I believe their source of power is not as unique as it seems.” She quickly replied. From beside her hip, she pulled at a sheath that hung low on her body, hiding the weapon inside from most glances.
Terren caught a glimpse of the figure eight shaped guard of intricately twisted metal leading up to a wide blade with three cleandivots running up the side. “The sword father gave you, no? Grandfather’s Katzbalger.” The lieutenant remarked.
“You have never held it, have you?” Kiaren said, offering him the wooden pommel.
“No, never.” Terren said. He quickly grabbed the handle of the weapon. The weight instantly pulled against his arm towards the ground. The brilliant polished blade struck one of the chairs on the way down at met the ground with a muted thump. Terren’s fingers lost their grasp and the gripped end fell to the ground as well. “I apologize… the weight… it surprised me.”
“No need.” Kiaren shook her head and crouched down to the ground to effortlessly retrieve the sword. “It feels much heavier than it looks no?”
Kiaren grinned and shoved the sword back into it’s sheath. “It is enchanted to my grip. To me, it weighs as it should.”
“You mean…?” Terren stood up and attempted to look back at the sword in it’s sheath.
“It seems it is somewhat of a relic… Grandfather had it forged by one of the mages of his time, infused it with magical power.” Kiaren sighed and grit her teeth. “I’ve been told it strikes with the force of an adult horse at full sprint. I would never use it in battle, though. The thought of striking something with it seems… sickening.”
“Something like that now would be a violation of the Mage’s Treaty, no doubt.” Terren rebutted. “It is no better than having the destructive power of a mage by your side on the battlefield.”
“A gray area at best, brother.” Kiaren assured him. “It seems few magi have the means or know-how to infuse some of the mana into the inanimate steel of an arm or plate of armor. At least, back home in Tulefore City.” She added, sneering.
“If our attackers wielded similar equipment… it would explain how their small group was able to simply walk into this place and… terrorize it!” Terren raved.
“I don’t doubt it.” Kiaren commented calmly.
Terren rocked back and forth in his chair uneasily and started to hyperventilate. “Sister!” He finally exclaimed. “We don’t know how many of these magically equipped forces exist. What if this attack was simply a test?”
Kiaren held her hand up in the air to stop him talking. I the distance, a rumbling crept up on them. The Commander and Lieutenant stepped outside to see the squad of horses approaching the gate in quick succession. By the time they reached the bottom of the road, the gates had been opened, and Shiloh had greeted the first of the men.
“The Lieutenant and Commander are holding a strategy meeting.” The bodyguard informed them while they stepped down off their horses. “You shall be brought up to speed in due time.”
“Thank you Mr. Shiloh.” Kiaren announced her arrival. “You shall return to your duties.”
“Ma’am.” Shiloh acknowledged.
The captain had already dismounted his horse and approached the group. “Terren.” He said with a nod. “Commander, I hope to see you well, despite… the circumstances.” He said, scanning the area.
Kiaren folded her arms and looked down at the man. “We have suffered losses, but we will make do. Unfortunately, it is too late for fighting, but you and your men may help us in constructing shelter and keeping lookout.”
“We will do as you order, Ma’am.” The captain nodded. “I believe we have something of yours.” He added, devilishly.
“Oh?” Kiaren raised her eyebrows.
One of the men farther back in the group had hopped off his horse and begun dragging the ragged looking wizard forward.
“Based on what he told us, we were afraid we would return to nothing.” The captain rebuked and shoved the man forward.
Zethurus looked up at the Commander with a gaze of frustration and anticipation. “Commander.” He said shortly.
“Zethurus.” Kiaren glared at him with daggers in her eyes. “I would rather you been dead than AWOL. What do you have to say for yourself?”
The mage struggled away from the grip of the solider and stood up to face the commander eye to eye. “There was little I could do to stop the men who attacked. While I managed to eliminate one, I was helpless to face the others.”
“We found him skulking around, ready to head off in who knows what direction.” One of the soldiers called out.
Kiaren ignored the taunting of the men and looked the mage up and down. “How…” She nodded. “Even with your magic, how did you manage to eliminate one of the attackers, while whole barracks full could not make a scratch?”
Zethurus looked down at his hands and the still fresh cut on his wrist that bled lightly into the cloth. “I have… no recollection.” He lied and shook his head back and forth.
Kiaren grabbed a fist full of his cloak and pulled him close. “Well, perhaps you’ll find it easier to remember once you’re on your way to trial for desertion.” Zethurus grit his teeth and avoided the commander’s gaze. With a push, she let him go and ordered him again. “There are those who need their wounds attended to. Make yourself useful, would you?”
“Yes, Commander.” Zethurus muttered.
The remainder of the men funneled into the settlement to rest their horses, and the gate closed behind them. Shiloh caught up to Zethurus and guided him to the building where the few who had more severe wounds were being treated.
A thunderous pounding echoed through the settlement, causing all inhabitants to stop in place and search for the source. Down one of the tall timber walls, the pounding continued, sending vibrations through the defenses. Terren quickly jogged to the wall and climbed the lookout platform to scout down the barricade.
The wall shattered into a mass of splinters and chunks of wood. The armed soldiers that had freshly entered drew their weapons as the horses around them jostled around against each other. Others scrambled away from the busted defenses. The guards approached.
Kiaren stepped up behind the rear formation of guards to see the dust clear. Mandabus’s dark armor gave off a dark aura glowing in the bright sun. The claymore sat limp in his hands, but looked ready to be lifted in the blink of an eye. A few of the guards trembled and shifted their feet as the massive figure scanned the area quietly.
Kiaren pushed past one of the shift men to call out to the invader. “Stop right where you stand or you will be attacked.”
Zethurus spotted Mandabus from across the flattened grouping of buildings. Before any of the soldier’s swords could move an inch, Mandabus shot past them, clipping a few unlucky individuals with the edge of the longsword.
The mage reacted quickly with a burst of cold energy that crept across the ground, slowing Mandabus’s progress. Shiloh entered the wide range of the claymore and narrowly blocked the attack, sending his sword flying out of his hands.
Just before Mandabus could reach Zethurus, Kiaren flew into him with her shoulder and sent him gliding against the icy ground. Mandabus stomped his feet against the slick surface and found traction in the mud beneath. Kiaren drew the Katzbalger from the sheath hanging at her hip.
Mandabus pushed off against the ground and bolted towards the Commander. Kiaren lifted the wide blade of the heirloom sword high above her head and pulled it downward as Mandabus released his own attack. The claymore took the brunt of the heavy blow and bowed back and forth with a metallic whine. Mandabus lost his grip and the sword flew past Kiaren, cutting a deep gash in her arm as it passed.
From the interior of the black armor a deafening, guttural roar was produced. Kiaren’s arm beg to fall limp from the weight of the weapon. She quickly passed the sword to the opposite hand and adjusted to the awkward grip. She stepped back tentatively with her eyes fixed on the strange knight. Mandabus regained his footing once again and focused his eyes on the Commander’s sword. Almost like an animal, he dashed forward with his hands held out.
Kiaren wound up another swing with her left arm and anticipated the attack. Mandabus’s gauntlet reached out for her forearm, but the weight of the weapon caught up and smacked into the thick plating on Mandabus’s back with an impact that echoed through the valley. The knight hit the ground with a thud that shook the cartilage of Kiaren’s knees.
Soldiers rushed up to surround the fallen knight. “Bind him!” The commander ordered. “There’s no way he’s dead. Try to remove that armor.”
Kiaren spit and grabbed at the bleeding gash on her arm. Zethurus’s worried gaze met with hers. Before he could pull away, Kiaren stomped towards him and grabbed his collar once again, this time lifting him off the ground.
“You lying sack…” Kiaren snarled. “If you eliminate an enemy, they should not be back to try and murder you.”