Sword of Kings: Tested by Adversity
by Bill W
Copyright © 2015 by billwstories
Copyright © 2015 by billwstories
Armies On the Move
After waking up and getting out of bed, Beraut dressed quickly and hurried downstairs, so he could enjoy a quick breakfast with Magistrate Odilon, King Brolin and Captain Baith. While he was eating, he decided to explain to the dwarfs that he would be leaving them shortly. He felt he needed to share his reasons for doing this before going on ahead.
"Although we made fairly good time on our trip here," the wizard announced, while looking very serious, "the rest of your march will go considerably slower. First of all, it's going to take a few hours to transport both your army and the Veledan army across the river – time which I could better use to make my way to the rendezvous point. I'm also afraid the men will not be able to keep up with your energetic pace, so you will have to adjust your cadence accordingly. Seeing I have many tasks that need to be taken care of before the battle begins, I feel it is imperative that I go on ahead. This means I won't be joining with you on the next leg of the journey."
"But I thought you would be staying with us the entire time," Captain Baith responded, somewhat bewildered.
"That was my original intention," the wizard explained, "but after reading the various correspondence I received last night, I've decided it is more important that I go on ahead and address some of the concerns arising out of those reports. I must use every hour of the day wisely and accomplish as much as I can in the time I have. With that in mind, I have calculated I will be able to save several hours by going on ahead and then I will be able to spend that time accomplishing other tasks that need my attention. Don't worry though, because we will meet up again shortly."
Although no one pressed the issue at the time, King Brolin pulled the wizard aside after they'd finished their meal. He wished to speak with Beraut in private.
"Will traveling with us really make that great of a difference?" the king asked, while searching the wizard's face.
"It is likely your journey will take you half a day longer on foot than it will take me on horseback," Beraut explained. "During that time I'll be able to meet with the military leaders of the other units we'll be combining with. Hopefully, they'll also have communiqués from the troops I haven't heard from lately and that information will assist me greatly in determining what still needs to be done. Those messages may also indicate whether I need to make any changes to our battle plans."
"It sounds as if this might something a senior advisor should be privy to," the dwarf king suggested. "Would it be too much of an imposition if I asked to accompany you?"
After asking this, King Brolin looked toward the wizard for a response. He was hoping this time Beraut would be more open to his suggestion and wouldn't try to convince him otherwise.
"I don't believe Magistrate Odilon has another mount to spare," Beraut replied. "He is allowing me to use his personal steed to make this journey, after indicating it was the only option, since the other horses were already spoken for and needed by his troops."
"That's not a problem," King Brolin countered. "I'm not very good on horseback anyway, so would you mind if I just rode behind you?"
"From what Odilon has told me," the wizard replied, "the horse is a magnificent beast and should easily be able to carry the extra load. It is not, however, a very dignified way for someone of your status to travel. I will leave the choice up to you though, so if that is what you truly wish to do, then I have no objection." Beraut now studied the dwarf to see his reaction.
"I've done worse, so I have no problem with doing this now," the king answered, with a wink.
"Then grab your gear and meet me back here in a few minutes," Beraut advised him. "Before we leave, I wish to bid a private adieu to Odilon."
"Thank you for agreeing to this, my friend," the king told him sincerely, before turning to go find Captain Baith. It didn't take him long to do this.
"Good speed and fair weather," King Brolin told his military leader, once he caught up with him. "Beraut and I shall meet up with you again later."
"So you're not staying with us either?" Captain Baith countered, shocked by this sudden announcement.
"No, I should be part of the discussions Beraut intends on having with the others, so I'll be leaving with him," the king answered.
King Brolin then went back to the room he had stayed in the previous evening and grabbed his belongings. He then waited in the hallway for Beraut to come out of the room he had used. Once the wizard stepped into the hallway, the two of them walked down the staircase together and went to find Magistrate Odilon. Beraut then bid him a fond farewell and thanked him for his hospitality before leaving. Then the wizard whirled around and headed for the exit, with King Brolin tagging along behind him. The duo then headed directly toward the stable, where they were going to collect the steed the Veledan official had so generously offered for their use.
As soon as they entered, the pair discovered the stable boy had the animal saddled and ready to be mounted. Beraut merely lifted his left leg, stuck his foot into the stirrup and swung his body onto the equine's back. As soon as he was situated, the wizard reached down and helped pull the dwarf up behind him. Then, he waited patiently for King Brolin to get comfortable and grab a hold of his waist. Once the king let Beraut know he was set, the wizard urged their mount forward.
With an increased sense of urgency, Beraut guided the steed out of the stable and through the various fortifications, until he was able to set off toward the river. He urged the horse to proceed as fast as he dared and the pair reached the ferry long before either army even had a chance to form up. After they boarded the craft, they slowly made their way to the far shore.
As soon as the ferry was secure against the opposite bank, the wizard thanked and tipped the boatmen for the safe crossing. He also gave them a forewarning about the upcoming task of transporting the two armies across the same expanse, because he hoped it might help to speed the process up a bit. Once the ferrymen understood what was ahead of them, the wizard and the dwarf set out as quickly as they dared.
The wizard guided the horse in a westerly direction, as he set out for the rendezvous point they had previously agreed upon. The time flew by quickly as the wizard and king sped across the plains, but it must have been a strange sight to behold as they raced by, with the dwarf clinging to the wizard's back. Beraut's hair and beard were whipping over his shoulder, forced there by the wind generated by their speedy mount, while the wizard's robes billowed out behind him. Even though there weren't many people around to take notice of their passing during this time, those who saw them probably didn't even notice the dwarf was there as well. Brolin apparently was hidden within the folds of the fabric, as the wizard's robes flowed out in the breeze and encircled his body, while other parts of the dwarf were obscured by the wizard's hair and beard.
It was nearly midday when Beraut first noticed movement in the distance, which he soon attributed to a great wave of warriors making their way northward. Even from his present location, he could tell they were trampling a vast sea of vegetation under their boots as they moved forward, which left a telltale trace of their passing. Focusing his attention on the front ranks, Beraut quickly guided his mount on a course that would intercept them.
As he sped across the endless ocean of grains and grasses, the wizard had little difficulty in keeping track of his destination. It was easy to see the troops moving forward, because from his vantage point, high up on the back of the steed, he could see their heads and shoulders extending above the top of the vegetation they were wading through. As he drew near, Beraut slowed his horse to a brisk canter, while at nearly the same moment he noticed a small party of mounted soldiers advancing toward his position. He was certain this group had been ordered out to greet him and confirm his identity. As the soldiers drew near, they recognized Beraut immediately and saluted him.
"We felt certain it was you," the leader of the party announced, "but deemed it prudent to be sure. Let me send one of my men back to inform the others and then the rest of us will escort you there personally."
"I am pleased to see your superiors are not lax in their duties," Beraut responded, "and I shall be happy for your company. Maybe you can fill me in concerning a few things as we make our way there."
While the small party rode along to join up with the main group, the officer in charge answered many of the wizard's questions. The trooper they had dispatched to return ahead of them had confirmed Beraut's arrival to his superiors. Since they didn't wish to wait for Beraut to come to them, those in charge quickly mounted their own steeds and set off in his direction. When the wizard saw them approaching, he guided his mount directly toward them and began shouting his greetings as he drew near.
"Hail, my noble friends. I see that you, like the dwarfs, were unable to keep the old war horses in the barn," Beraut joked, while releasing a muffled chuckle.
The others immediately, but shyly, glanced in the direction of the duo Beraut was jesting about – King Dylan of the Wood Elves and Balaster Rombaire of the River Elves. Upon hearing this comment, King Brolin peeked around Beraut's side to see whom the wizard was referring to, but it also allowed the others to see he was there as well. His sudden appearance startled most of them, but it barely fazed King Dylan, who was too busy trying to formulate a retort of his own.
"And to whom are you referring to as old war horses, you prehistoric fossil?" King Dylan shot back, which caused the wizard to feign a look of hurt in return. "There was absolutely no way I would miss this. You should know me well enough by now to realize I was not about to play nursemaid to the children or sit and embroider with the women while all of the able-bodied warriors were going off to fight."
"Well, said," King Brolin interjected.
This comment caused Beraut to turn slightly in his saddle, so he could stare at the dwarf. King Brolin merely acted as if he didn't notice the wizard doing this and Beraut didn't have a chance to offer a retort, because another voice was now speaking up.
"As for me, you old goat," added Balaster Rombaire, as he took up a defiant pose on his mount, with his hands on his hips. His posture didn't fool anyone though, because he still had a broad grin plastered across his face. "I agree with Dylan. If you haven't noticed, I am not yet dead and will not shirk my duties like some sleepy, old watchdog."
"Well, if either of you do happen to doze off," Beraut teased back, "please try not to do so during the battle."
The wizard snorted after seeing his friends' reaction to his jest, but they didn't have time to continue this playful banter. There were just too many other things that needed to be addressed.
"Well, I suppose I could use two more senior advisors," Beraut suggested. "If you are interested, of course."
Both elves quickly looked at each other first and then nodded their agreement.
"Getting back to the business at hand," the wizard continued, "what news do you bring me?"
"Nothing of great importance," responded Rombaire. "Our scouts have reported the enemy is forming up just south of the Devil's Horseshoe, as they too are getting ready for battle. According to the scouts' calculations, our foe's strength has not changed and is as it was reported at the Second Council of War."
"Aye, Master Beraut," chimed in General Daveel, "and no scouts have reported seeing Madumda anywhere in that camp. It is believed he is still holed up at Treblanc, but for what reasons we cannot conjecture. I believe it means they are not quite ready to wage battle just yet, for I suspect they would not dare do such a thing without him being present. Nor do I think the Dark Lord would allow them to attack us before he arrived to lead them. Something is bothering me though, because I'm finding it hard to imagine why he is not with his troops already. If I were him, I would be leading my army down to engage us in battle before we had a chance to join forces and come to full strength."
"Of course you would," Beraut responded, with a twinkle in his eye, "for you have a true military mind. Madumda, however, believes his forces to be vastly superior to our troops and his powers far greater than my own. I believe he is, therefore, allowing his arrogance to cloud his judgment."
"Nonetheless," began Andrieu, the military leader from Leander, "I will feel much better after we have joined up with the southern army and get word that the western and northern armies are in position."
"Quite true," stated the wizard, as a look of concern began to cover his face. "Speaking of the northern army, has there been any word concerning their situation?"
"Absolutely none," answered King Dylan. "There has been no communiqués from the men of the northern city-states since their representatives left Leander. If it's any consolation, there have been no signs the enemy has encountered them or learned of their existence either. Hopefully, this is only an indication that our communication network is not as reliable as we might have wished or that there has been some minor, unforeseen delay in their deployment."
"Not too long of a delay, I pray, if that is the case," the wizard acknowledged. "I am also troubled that Madumda has not made an appearance with his troops yet and it makes me wonder what he's up to."
As he said this, Beraut was reflecting upon his inability to monitor Kieren's progress the last time he checked in on his ward. He was still deeply concerned about this and hoped the Dark Lord hadn't learned about the teen's existence or discovered any information about their plan.
"I am also concerned about the weather," the wizard told them. "If it continues to stay this way or worsens, it could greatly hinder our maneuverability and reduce our effectiveness in battle. Our armies need to rely more on speed and agility than our foes do and I suspect both of these advantages will be greatly hampered if we have to worry about uncertain footing."
"Should we consider this another ill omen and a sign from the gods?" General Daveel asked, pointing toward the dark clouds on the horizon. "Do you think there's a possibility Madumda has had a hand in this sudden change in the weather?"
"Not at all," the wizard responded. "I believe this is just an unfortunate natural occurrence, no matter how ill-timed. I am confident it is not something produced by the Dark Lord, but the storm's approach should be enough to entice us into using greater haste."
After saying this, the wizard then pointed at the storm clouds on the horizon, as they drifted in their direction. Beraut also took this opportunity to move into position at the center of the front ranks, with King Brolin still behind him, as they joined up with the others. The military leaders shouted a series of commands, which caused the troops to stand up and take their place in the ranks again, since they had been enjoying a respite as they waited for the wizard. Now that they were prepared to march, they quickly set off across the plains, while those in charge took another quick glance at the mighty storm that loomed up ahead of them and extended off to the west.
Despite this threat, they had decided not to delay starting out or opted to change their course. They chose instead to continue on their current route, even if it would take them through the path of the squall. As they neared the outer edge of this front, the weather worsened, as the heavens opened up and pelted them with a huge deluge of rain. Large accumulations of water also began to appear in their path, but there was no way to avoid this. Having no other option, they plowed ahead and did the best they could to reach the rendezvous point on schedule.
After having breakfast with his guests and saying goodbye to them, Magistrate Odilon went to find Massil, the Veledan commander. He wanted to see him and his troops off as well.
"May your journey be pleasant and your path paved with much good fortune. I hope the next time we meet it is to celebrate our victory," the Magistrate announced to his army. After seeing them off, Odilon wheeled about to return to his home.
Magistrate Odilon still had many other duties he needed to perform and felt he had to get back them as quickly as he could. He was in charge of overseeing the completion of the defensive structures they were constructing to protect the city, just in case the army lost the battle. It was because Veleda would be among the first cities to be attacked afterward, right behind Tunstan.
Once the Veledan army began to form up, it took slightly longer for them to get organized than it had taken the dwarfs. For that reason, they didn't reach the ferry that would carry them over the River Sterling until after their counterparts had completed this process.
The crossing was a time consuming process, so the sun had traveled slightly more than half way from the horizon to its zenith before the men completed this task. Even though the dwarfs were in formation first, Captain Baith urged the Veledan commander to align his troops at the front of the formation when they were ready. The captain knew it would be easier for his dwarf units to slow down and follow their counterparts' lead, rather than to expect the Veledan army to try to keep pace with his command's upbeat cadence. When all was in order, the small army began to move forward.
It was soon fairly obvious to everyone that it wasn't going to be a very nice day, since a large number of clouds were slowly drifting into the area. The sunlight was almost totally obscured by the billowy covering and it was also considerably cooler than it would normally have been for this time of year, which might indicate they were in for an early winter. The temperature, however, turned out to be to their advantage, since it was more conducive to maintaining an invigorating marching pace. This minor factor should allow the human troops to proceed more quickly than they might otherwise have attempted, especially if the temperature had been warmer.
The combined forces were moving along quite well, although the dwarfs still found the pace a little too leisurely for their personal taste. These hearty souls never wished to spend more time on a march than was absolutely necessary. They believed that every moment saved was precious, and since they understood they were wasting a great deal of time by having to follow the men of Veleda, the dwarf troops began to grumble. They also started casting disparaging looks in Captain Baith's direction. Finally, he got the message and decided it was time to speak with the Veledan military leader. Moving forward on his own, it only took him a few minutes to overtake the front ranks.
"Commander Massil," he said, as he sidled alongside the Veledan military leader, "would it be possible to increase the pace slightly? My troops are very uncomfortable with this slow cadence and would appreciate it if you ordered your troops to move faster."
Massil eyed Baith with an icy stare, because he was upset by the dwarf's gall. Since Baith was of lesser rank, it was highly inappropriate that he would question a superior's decision.
"Being the senior officer," the commander began, "it is up to me to do what I think is best. Although I understand your forces may be unhappy with our pace, I advise you to remember your place and instruct your troops accordingly. This cadence is quite sufficient to get us where we need to be on time, so I see no reason to tire my troops by marching faster than necessary. You may return to your place in formation."
Captain Baith was infuriated that he was being dismissed so easily, but he wasn't about to give up just yet. If he couldn't get Commander Massil to order his troops to quicken their pace, then he'd try another approach.
"Then I ask your leave to lead my troops independently," Baith suggested.
Unfortunately, Captain Baith's facial expression and tone made this sound more like a demand, rather than a request. Massil noticed this as well and wasn't pleased by the implications.
"Permission denied," he stated, emphatically, while quickly contemplating how he was going to deal with this breech in military decorum.
Captain Baith was visibly upset with how things were going and was about to try another approach when the elements made his efforts moot. During the time he had been stating his case; the sky had grown increasingly darker and began to unleash the first hint of rain. However, as the discussion continued, the weather worsened even more. At first the rain was barely noticeable, as the droplets gently landed around them, but now the heavens opened up and unmercifully doused the area in a barrage of icy rainwater.
Due to this sudden, and seemingly unending deluge, the ground was rapidly becoming soft and mushy, which made the footing increasingly more difficult. The dwarf realized it was now going to take a great deal more effort for either army to navigate in this muddy quagmire; so making better time was going to be out of the question. Reluctantly, Baith returned to his place in the formation. When those under his command stared at him with questioning expressions, the Captain merely shrugged his shoulders and looked toward the heavens. He hoped they would understand the situation was now out of his hands.
The small army marched on like this for another thirty minutes, but the intensity of the storm never abated. The rain not only chilled their bodies, but it dampened their spirits as well. Seeing the growing futility in trying to proceed under these conditions, the Veledan commander signaled everyone to come to a halt and advised them to seek whatever cover they could find. The common soldiers merely huddled together and held their shields above their heads to deflect the rain. Eventually, they would overlap these protective devices with those nearest their position and establish a sizable 'roof' to make things more bearable.
Some of the soldiers were also instructed to set up the portable shelters they had brought with them. These tents were to be used by those in charge and were nearly up when the heavens released a veritable cloudburst. The rain was falling so furiously that the ground couldn't possibly drink up the vast quantities of moisture that were collecting upon the surface. It was becoming nearly impossible for anyone to find a dry area upon which they could wait out the storm, because the rainwater was seeping into every crevice and overtaking every previously semi-dry clump of soil. This, of course, was making everyone miserable and giving the troops the impression that even the elements were conspiring against them.
The officers used this time to discuss their options, while the foot soldiers merely tried to make themselves as comfortable as they could. The storm was still continuing a half hour after the officers' meeting broke up and it appeared as if the downpour would never cease. However, a short time later it suddenly began to let up and the sun started to peek through the gaps in the clouds, which lifted the spirits of the soldiers slightly. This change in fortune did a great deal to make the warriors feel better about the situation, as well as to brighten the land. It also gave the soil a chance to absorb a little of the moisture, as the clouds continued to drift eastward and took the remaining precipitation with them.
As the sky began to clear, the Veledan commander summoned Captain Baith to his tent. The dwarf's body stiffened when he heard this news, because he was sure this meant he was about to be disciplined for his earlier outburst. He wasn't particularly looking forward to it, because he'd been hoping nothing would be mentioned about their earlier encounter. He'd even prayed that if his luck were really good the incident would be totally forgotten by the time they joined the others. However, he now realized this wasn't going to happen, so he stoically went off to pay the piper.
As he entered the commander's tent, he stood at attention and waited for Commander Massil to speak first. A few seconds later, the Veledan looked up and eyed the dwarf.
"Let me begin by saying I don't like you personally," the commander explained. "I think you're arrogant, impulsive and insubordinate. If you were one of my officers, I would reduce you in rank and put someone else in charge of your command. However, I've heard the dwarfs and Beraut think highly of you, so perchance my views of you are stilted because of cultural differences. For now, I shall put the earlier matter in abeyance, as long as you don't repeat your transgression. I feel my time is best spent dealing with more urgent matters."
Captain Baith merely nodded and accepted the fact that he had been mildly dressed down, yet he understood this was probably far from settled.
"I think it would be best if we stayed put and allowed the ground to absorb some of the moisture before we start off again," Commander Massil continued.
Captain Baith, however, didn't agree with his assessment. He knew the ground wasn't going to absorb the moisture quickly, especially since it was already fairly saturated before this last deluge occurred. Either way, both armies were going to have to march through the mud, but the dwarf wasn't about to voice his objections this time. He didn't wish to risk a second run in with the Veledan commander and take the chance of aggravating the situation further.
"I've also decided it would be best to utilize our time by having the men eat," Massil continued.
At least this idea made some sense to the dwarf. If they were going to sit around for any length of time, they might as well spend it doing something useful. The more he thought about it, he considered this might also be his chance to make amends with his superior, at least partially.
"I'll spread the word to the troops then," Captain Baith advised Massil. Once the commander dismissed him, Baith went off to perform this duty. As he left the tent, the dwarf sighed, knowing the remainder of this trip was not going to be easy.
Once word was passed along to the other officers, the soldiers began to consume what nourishment they could, while waiting for the conditions to improve. They figured it would be some time before the water in these massive puddles drained beneath the surface, but they also knew it would take much longer than that for the mud to begin to dry up. However, they were professionals and would make the best of this situation, no matter what the conditions were when they resumed the march.
After nearly an hour delay, the sun had time to warm the air slightly and the ground had a chance to absorb some of the rainwater, although not much. Commander Massil, however, decided it was an appropriate time to continue their journey. Even though the footing was still questionable, those under his command were eager to be on their way again.
Once more, the dwarfs were placed at the rear of the formation, but their deployment was even more appropriate now. These hearty troopers were used to performing well, even in the worst of conditions, and their prowess was about to be put to the test. They would now be required to navigate across terrain that had been heavily pocked with the footprints of those that had gone before them, while still keeping pace. The dwarfs made no further complaints this time, since the increased difficulty of this task more than made up for the lack of speed.
The small army continued to make its way across the soggy soil throughout the remainder of the day and steadily moved forward even after it began to grow dark. Commander Massil felt they had to continue to push ahead, because they were already going to be arriving later than anticipated. About three hours after sunset, they finally spied the distance fires of the temporary encampment of the central army and cautiously approached the outer perimeter of the bivouac area. They took this precaution because their first concern was to verify this was indeed their compatriots and not some sort of trap, but they were challenged by the others first.
"Halt, who goes there?" one of the sentries on the outer perimeter bellowed out.
"It is the western army, led by Commander Massil of Veleda and Captain Baith of the dwarf kingdom," the commander announced.
Immediately, the sentry dispatched one of the other soldiers to verify this pronouncement. Once the guard was satisfied this group was who they claimed to be, he reported back to his superior and divulged this fact. Since the group's identity had been confirmed, the first sentry made another announcement.
"Beraut has ordered me to advise you that all of your senior officers are to report to his tent as soon as possible. I'll have someone escort you there and I'll have someone else show the rest of your troops where they may bed down."
After thanking the sentries for their assistance, Massil, Baith and a few of the other Veledan and dwarf officers followed their guide to the wizard's tent, to see what he wanted.