Sword of Kings: Tempered by Fate
by Bill W
Copyright © 2015 by billwstories
Copyright © 2015 by billwstories
Commander Elgin was still groggy from being awakened again, but he got up to see what was wrong. The dwarf military leader was beginning to think that being aroused before the night was over was becoming a far too frequent occurrence, as he prepared to listen to the guard advise him about the current situation.
"I was on duty when I noticed a significant glow in the east," the sentry stated, while pointing toward the brightness. "I thought you would want to know about it, since it appears to encompass a sizable area. I'm not certain, but I think there's a chance the glow might either be coming from the light of the enemy's campfires or a collection of crematory bonfires, which would mean the battle has already begun."
"If that is the glow from the enemy campfires," Elgin replied, "then we are indeed at a grave disadvantage. Any fires that would glow that brightly would indicate our opponent's forces are ten times larger than our intelligence sources had previously calculated, but I doubt our information could be that far off."
After hearing Commander Elgin's response, the young soldier looked embarrassed that one of his explanations had been rejected so easily. He thought he had sufficiently reasoned this out before he'd awakened his superior, so he was stunned the commander dismissed his suggestion so quickly.
"It might also be true that the battle has already begun," the commander agreed, "but I doubt either side would be taking the time to dispose of the deceased before one side or the other had been declared victorious. Instead, they would merely leave the dead where they fell and move the next day's battle to another location in the same general area. It would be done this way because clearing the battlefield of corpses would take a great deal of time and energy. They would then move the battle to a new area, because trying to navigate over and around the deceased could prove hazardous and negatively affect the outcome of the battle.
"Seeing I don't believe either army could possibly have been defeated so quickly," the commander continued, "I doubt that crematory pyres are creating the glow either. Even if by some remote chance the conflict had been settled already, the armies would be using whatever strength they had left to tend to the wounded first and ignore the dead until later."
The young trooper was totally flustered now, because he had been so far off on his assumptions. He decided to save face by asking for Commander Elgin's take on the situation.
"Then what might the light in the sky be from, Sir?" the guard asked in an uncertain voice.
"The glow is from a very large fire, that's for certain," Elgin told him, "but it seems much too large to be associated with a battle, unless an entire community has been torched. My first thought was that Treblanc had been set ablaze, but I don't think the location of the glow is far enough to the north for that to be the case. The only other community in the area would be Tunstan and I pray they haven't already been destroyed. If they have, then the role we were to play in the battle has just put Beraut and the rest of our army in severe jeopardy. The only other alternative would be that it is some sort of a ruse on the Dark Lord's part, to make us believe he has considerably more troops than he actually has, in an attempt to sow seeds of doubt in the minds of our soldiers."
The younger dwarf merely nodded unconsciously, once he realized these suggestions were much more likely than his own.
"I, uh, apologize for disturbing your slumber then," the guard offered. He was now afraid he had done something terribly wrong and would be punished for his inappropriate actions.
"That is not necessary," the commander advised him, "because I judge you to have acted appropriately. In fact, I would have had you disciplined if you HADN'T brought this to my attention, so return to your post knowing that you did the right thing. Just do one more favor for me before your duty ends and pass word along to your replacements that they are to wake everyone at the very first sign the night is ending. We must be prepared to march at daybreak in order to make up for lost time and to be ready for that blasted bird's next pass overhead."
The guard promised he would do as Elgin desired and then went back to his post. As soon as the sentry had left the area, the commander returned to his bedroll and attempted to catch a little more sleep before his day began.
It had been a hectic day in Tunstan and the city's residents spent nearly all of their time preparing for the upcoming battle. Most of the men and boys had been busy readying supplies for transport and loading them onto wagons, while others had been gathering and recording the final bits of intelligence still being collected throughout the day.
The small Tunstanese army had been busy performing the final tasks necessary to ensure they were ready for the upcoming conflict as well. The soldiers had spent their time checking and sharpening each of their weapons, while different support artisans were preoccupied with examining and repairing the various pieces of armor that would be used. The soldiers found time to exercise as well, because they wished to make certain that both their strength and endurance were at peak levels. They were determined to be in the best condition possible for whatever was demanded of them.
The women and older girls had spent the day working very hard as well. Some were busy stitching together and mending the uniforms the troops would wear, while others spent the day taking care of the children and preparing meals for everyone, civilians and warriors alike. In addition to those tasks, many of the women also volunteered to do whatever else they could to help the men in between, since they understood there was a lot to be accomplished in a limited amount of time.
Finally, as darkness began to overtake the city, the activities slowly ground to a halt and everyone moved off to eat their final meal, before turning in for the evening. The entire population was so exhausted from this long, grueling day that the city soon became unusually quiet, as everyone bedded down for the night.
Several hours after sunset, the calm came to an abrupt end and the entire population was rudely startled awake. This happened when the city's warning alarm was sounded, which indicated Tunstan was under attack.
One of the shopkeepers, still weary from working hard all day loading supplies, was both panicked and perplexed by this sudden development. Groggily, he leaped out of bed and made his way over to the window, in an attempt to determine what was going on. On his way there, he thought he heard the sounds of weapons clanging against one another and people shouting out in the street. Cautiously, he peered through a small gap in the shutter to see what was happening. Even in the limited light, it was fairly easy for him to determine that soldiers from the town's small army were engaged in a fierce struggle.
At first, the shopkeeper suspected the fighting might be the result of a disagreement between the mercenaries that had been hanging around the local inn as of late and some of the town's warriors. Both groups had seemed to be itching for some action, so this might have simply come about as the result of some minor dispute or disagreement. However, it didn't take very long before the shopkeeper realized the sounds of conflict had risen to levels that indicated this was much more than just a minor squabble and something major was taking place outside.
Hurriedly, he told his wife to take the children and flee the city, while he and his eldest son went out to see if they could assist the soldiers. Dutifully, his spouse gathered up their younger children and got them ready to depart. She gave each one a small satchel to carry, which contained either food or some of the valuables the family possessed, before she herded them toward the rear door. Before his family left, however, the shopkeeper hugged and kissed each one, before sending them on their way – hopefully to safety.
Once his family had departed, the shopkeeper grabbed an old sword that had been hanging on the wall as decoration and prepared to use it to defend the city. At the same time, his son grabbed a large knife and a meat cleaver to carry with him, so he'd also be able to defend himself. Together, they cautiously opened the door and stepped out into the street, where they were immediately thrust into the middle of the fray. Even in the blur of combat it was obvious who their opponents were, since most of those trying to kill them were clad entirely in black.
The duo fought bravely, but they immediately realized they were definitely outmatched. Fortunately, they were able join forces against their initial assailant and somehow managed to defeat him. Then, they quietly slipped away from their current location and sought a safer area away from the worst of the fighting. As they were doing this, they heard a Tunstanese army officer order his troops to start falling back and move toward the bridges. Knowing they needed to get there first, the shopkeeper urged his son to follow him toward the western edge of the city, where the bridges were located. However, when the shopkeeper looked back, he discovered his son had stopped to assist a neighbor who had been injured in the melee.
The shopkeeper immediately returned to assist the pair, but in the mayhem that followed his son left him with the neighbor, so he could help to protect their backside from the advancing foes. It was during this time that the shopkeeper and his son became separated, because the crush of bodies attempting to flee the city kept pushing the shopkeeper forward. Even though he did his best to break free and wait up for his eldest child, it wasn't possible.
Due to the mass of bodies trying to get away from the fighting and the advance of the black clad warriors, the man was finding it impossible to hold his position. Having no other option, he continued to move along until he reached one of the bridges, where he was finally able to step aside. He quickly passed the neighbor off to someone else to look after and then he waited for his son to turn up. There was no way he was going to flee the city without him.
The shopkeeper watched intently for his offspring to appear and eventually spotted him heading in his direction. At that moment, he was somewhat relieved, yet still anxious as his firstborn continued to move closer to his location. The boy had nearly reached the spot where he was waiting when out of nowhere a black-clad soldier lunged in his son's direction and ran him through with a sword. The boy fell like a tree toppling over in a powerful storm and collapsed on the ground. As the soldier rapidly withdrew the blade from his son's body, the shopkeeper screamed out in horror and frantically tried to make his way over to his eldest child. However, he soon realized such an attempt would be futile, because a horde of enemy soldiers began to trample over his son's lifeless form as they charged the bridge.
Even though he was grieving, the shopkeeper was now forced to fight against the advancing wave of warriors in order to save his own life, but he also wanted to seek revenge. Since he was both grief stricken and furious about what one of them had just done, he thought it might make him feel better if he was able to kill a few of the black clad warriors in return. Seeing he lacked the skills of a fighter and wouldn't be able to do this on his own, he quickly found another way to accomplish the same goal. He planned, instead, on killing the enemy combatants that were already engaged with someone else, so they wouldn't be able to defend themselves. With that in mind, he slinked about and delivered his fatal blows on the sly.
Sticking to this strategy, the shopkeeper killed or wounded a dozen or more of the merciless foes that had attacked the city. He kept this up until he was literally forced across the bridge by the retreating Tunstanese army. The last thing the shopkeeper saw was the bridge collapsing into the river, before he looked up and realized his entire community was being set ablaze.
When Elgin was awakened again later, he sat down to chat with his officers while they ate.
"Earlier," he began, "one of the guards woke me so he could point out a glow in the distance, which I surmised was the result of a huge fire. You will probably still be able to see the smoke rising from it if you look in that direction, but I can only surmise the source of the blaze and it concerns me. I feel this does not bode well for us, because after thinking about it in some depth, the only conclusion I could reach was that Tunstan had been attacked and the city burned."
The other officers were suddenly concerned that their eventual destination may have already been destroyed, even before they had reached it. This would jeopardize their mission, yet they had to accept Commander Elgin's assessment of the situation to be accurate. They were confident in his ability to evaluate the clues and draw an appropriate conclusion, so they were willing to believe he was correct in his analysis of the events he'd observed. Even though they didn't argue with his conclusion, many prayed there might be another explanation to account for what they had witnessed or else their current mission could have just experienced a major snag.
Once the conversation ended, they hurriedly encouraged their subordinates to finish striking camp, so they could get moving again. Although they were all still weary, since there hadn't been sufficient time for them to get fully rested, their biggest challenge was to get to the battle as quickly as they could. As they marched along, the officers became more and more leery about what they were going to find when they finally arrived at Tunstan.
The army had only traveled for about an hour when the scouts began to detect movement several hundred meters ahead of their current location. At first they couldn't tell exactly what was traveling in their direction, but it soon became apparent there was a very large group moving toward them. This immediately concerned those in charge, because they weren't yet able to determine if this group might be a threat. In order to make a more accurate determination, scouts were dispatched to investigate the composition and intent of this group.
After a fairly brief delay, it was reported that it was a large accumulation of civilians heading their way, so there was no need to worry. It was obvious this wasn't any sort of military force, because there was no glint of armor or weapons to be seen. Even from a distance, the scouts could tell there were a substantial number of smaller individuals in the mix, probably children, so it was assumed these must be the residents of Tunstan that had fled their homes.
Seeing the plight of this pitiful hoard of people, Commander Elgin felt for them, but at the same time realized there was very little he could do to ease their suffering. There was also nothing available to protect them against the condor, since they lacked the necessary supplies to assist them. Therefore, he felt it best not to mention this potential threat to them and deemed their welfare to fate, while at the same time praying the condor would not reappear to harass them.
As the dwarfs drew closer to this mass of humanity, they were able to determine these people must have left in a considerable hurry, since they were either only partially dressed or still clad in their nightclothes. They also had no apparent organization and were spread out in an extremely long and haphazard line, but the procession also seemed to grow denser the farther back the dwarfs looked. When the army finally met up with the first travelers coming in their direction, the commander called his troops to a halt, so he could question one of the civilians about what had taken place, since he felt he could glean some valuable information from the various individuals.
"What brings so many of you along this route?" he asked an elderly woman, dressed in rags. The woman stopped to answer him, while urging those she had been traveling with to keep going.
"We're fleeing our homes in Tunstan," she informed the dwarf military man. "The city was attacked last night by what appeared to be the Dark Lord's army."
Elgin merely nodded, once he realized his worst fear had been confirmed. This also explained the dazed and confused expressions on the faces of those now passing by.
"Would you please tell me exactly what happened?" the dwarf followed, since he wanted to gather as much intelligence as he could about the attack.
"From what I gathered, Madumda's soldiers appeared out of nowhere last night, well after it became dark and most of us had gone to bed," she replied. "I don't believe our army was expecting anything to happen, but we were suddenly and unmercifully attacked. From what I could tell, anyone who stayed behind to defend his home or the city was killed."
"What else?" Commander Elgin pressed. "Do you know how many soldiers the enemy used and did your troops try to stand against them?"
"I will tell you what I can," the old woman continued. "The first alarm sounded quite a few hours after sunset. Our army, which had been preparing for battle for many weeks, was quick to respond, but they were severely outnumbered and eventually overpowered. When the fighting began, many of the residents fled the city and took with them whatever belongings they could easily carry or pull in a small cart. I was among the first to leave, so I can't tell you much."
She paused briefly after saying this, as she recalled other details and momentarily choked up.
"So that's all you know?" Elgin pressed.
"I also know that many of the men and older boys rushed out to assist the warriors, but it soon became clear that they couldn't hold out for very long. That's when we started moving away from the city, because we were afraid the enemy would try to kill us next. If you'll excuse me now, I need to go, so I can catch up with the rest of my family. I told them to go on ahead when I stopped to speak with you," she apologized, while looking forward to see if she could locate her loved ones.
"Maybe someone else can give you more information," she yelled over her shoulder as she was leaving.
While Elgin and the woman had been talking, more of the residents of Tunstan had passed them by. Not wishing to fall further behind schedule, Elgin ordered his troops to start out again, but they only traveled a short distance before he stopped them once more. This time it was so he could question the first adult male he saw going by.
"Sir, would you please fill me in concerning any of the details about what happened tonight?" Elgin began.
"I'm not sure if what I know will assist you in any way," the man responded, "but I will tell you what I can. I was a shopkeeper in Tunstan before this happened and we had just finished a hard day's work preparing for the upcoming battle. I was sleeping when the attack began, but when I discovered what was taking place; I sent most of my family to safety. My eldest son and I stayed behind to assist our army and fought beside our soldiers until most of the city had been evacuated. Then I stayed behind to help defend one of the bridges for a short time, until there was nothing left to protect."
"What of your army?" Elgin pressed. "How many survived and where are they?"
"A great many of them were killed during the confrontation," the man informed the commander, but it was obvious he was visibly shaken as he recalled these details. "It happened because they were among the last to flee. At least two units stayed on the city side of the bridges and died while giving the others the time they needed to collapse the bridges and get away. Since then, I've been doing my best to catch up with the rest of my family, but my eldest son was killed just before he was able to escape across the river with me."
The shopkeeper was trembling at this point, as his emotions got the better of him. Since the commander could tell the man was struggling to hold back the tears that were building up in his eyes, he decided he wouldn't get much more from him and was ready to let the man move on.
"I'm truly sorry about your loss," Elgin stated, sincerely. "Thank you for the information and I wish you the best as you try to catch up with your family."
The shopkeeper was able to thank the commander for his kind words, but it was in a cracking and halting voice. Then, Elgin ordered his troops to start moving again. A short time later, they came across a warrior who had been badly wounded and was being carried by two of his comrades. The commander immediately barked out an order for someone to give medical assistance to the injured soldier and to provide a litter to help transport him. This time, however, Elgin commanded the rest of his army to keep moving, rather than waste more time waiting around for him. He was planning to stay behind and question the other pair of warriors, so he could finally get a military perspective about what had happened.
"We were not expecting an attack," one of the soldiers began, "but obviously our intelligence was faulty. It appears the Dark Lord believed our city's continued existence was somehow threatening his chances to be victorious and concluded it would be best to eliminate us."
"Unfortunately for Tunstan," Elgin responded in a conciliatory tone, "your community had been thrust into an extremely vital role in this conflict. Not only was your small army billeted there, but the city had also become a major supply base and a center for intelligence gathering. I can see why Madumda would feel uncomfortable about Tunstan's proximity to his fortress and why he might have determined it was a threat. Please go on. What happened next?"
"The attack was swift, barbaric and totally without warning," the trooper told him. "Our army responded as rapidly as it could, but we were greatly outnumbered, so it didn't take long before our defenses began to crumble. When that happened, we began an orderly retreat, but we also continued to fight as we made our way toward the bridges. We did our best to protect the city's residents from being slaughtered as we herded them to safety and I think the majority of the civilians were able to escape unharmed. My friends and I were among the last to flee, because we were part of a group that collapsed the bridges crossing the river."
The trooper stopped momentarily, as he thought back about what had happened next. It obviously shook him, because it took a few moments before he started speaking again.
"Some of our comrades volunteered to hold off Madumda's forces while the rest of us destroyed the bridges. My friend, whom you are having treated, was badly wounded while trying to protect me, as I worked to loosen the pins that would allow the expanse to collapse into the current. When those pins finally came free, the span in front of us broke apart and fell into the river, taking a few of Madumda's soldiers with it in the process. As we dragged our friend to safety, an enemy soldier use his bow to try to take us out and one of his arrows hit my friend's leg and wounded him a second time."
While they had been chatting, the dwarf healer had finished doing what he could to treat the injured man's wounds, but the soldier was weak from the loss of blood. All that the medical practitioner could do after that was to give him plenty of water to drink and then pray his body would be able to do the rest.
"Do you know how many others survived?" Commander Elgin pressed.
"From what I could tell, not very many," the soldier answered. "Those that did are now protecting our rear, in case the Dark Lord's troops discovered a way to pursue us, since we were afraid they might try to dispose of those that had witnessed their foul deed. There may be enough healthy men left to form a few squads, but most of our army was killed in action or executed after the bridges had collapsed."
"They executed the prisoners?" Elgin asked, appalled by the news.
Even though he had heard stories about Madumda's treachery, cruelty and thirst for blood, it didn't make it any easier to accept the slaughter of unarmed warriors.
"Yes, because we unfortunately saw it happen," the soldier continued. "I couldn't believe the viciousness they used to finish off those who were trying to surrender. After Madumda's men took their weapons, they made them kneel on the ground and then ran many of them through with their own swords from behind. Some of the others had their throats slashed, like hogs at a slaughter, or were beheaded. It was a terrible thing to witness and we all regretted not staying behind and fighting until the last of us were dead."
The dwarf involuntarily nodded as the man spoke, because he could understand and empathize with how he felt.
"After they had killed everyone, the enemy began looting the various buildings before setting them on fire. That was the last thing I saw though," the man added, while answering an additional unasked question for the commander.
Once he had time to digest everything he'd been told, Elgin thanked the trooper for the information and then made sure the wounded man would continue to be cared for. The commander found a family with a cart and talked them into taking the injured soldier with them, so they could care for him until they reached a safe location. Elgin then had the two other soldiers place their friend on the litter and position it crossways, resting on the sides of the cart. This way, the family could transport him, but he wouldn't take up valuable space meant for their children or what few belongings they had managed to save. It also freed up the two other warriors so they could return with the commander and fight alongside the rest of the Tunstanese forces that had survived.
The three of them and the healer now set out to catch up with the rest of the dwarf column. Recent events had now provided them with a new sense of urgency and a renewed purpose to fight. This, in turn, seemed to give them an added boost of energy, but this adrenalin rush had already passed for the men by the time they caught up with the others. At this point, the Tunstanese warriors admitted they were completely exhausted and about ready to drop. Understanding their predicament, Commander Elgin ordered his army to take a brief rest, to allow the pair a chance to catch their breath. While the men were recuperating, what was left of the Tunstanese army arrived at their location.
The senior officer who had taken charge of the remaining group from Tunstan immediately reported to the dwarf commander. The pair then hurriedly discussed the best way to integrate both groups into a single fighting force. Eventually, they took what was left of the Tunstanese troops and formed as many squads as they could, under the command of officers from Tunstan. The remaining men were then combined with dwarf volunteers to make up a final squad. Seeing there were no Tunstanese officers remaining that were unassigned, a dwarf officer was then put in charge of the final group.
This army was now organized nearly as Beraut had intended, except there were now considerably fewer units under Elgin's command. Regardless of this unfortunate fact, those remaining were still anxious to do their part in the upcoming battle. With any luck, they would discover there were still enough of them to complete the duty they had been assigned.
The dwarf commander energetically barked out the command to resume the march and the small army made its way along the same path the others had just traveled during their escape. While they were marching, Elgin and the temporary leader of the Tunstanese army discussed what other changes they might need to make in order to still be effective. They were just finishing this discussion when they approached what was left of Tunstan.
Even before they reached the river, the dwarfs could hardly believe their eyes. Although they had heard about what had happened, they were still stunned to actually see the extent of the devastation that had been wrought and the number of lives that had been lost. Even though they knew the city had been set ablaze, they were still surprised to discover only a very few charred timbers remained upright to indicate where Tunstan had once stood. Unbelievably, most of the buildings had burned completely to the ground, which indicated just how intense the blaze must have been.
Among the rubble were also the smoldering remains of those killed or executed by the horde that attacked them and the unmistakable, sickening stench of burning flesh still hung in the air. This caused some of the returning Tunstanese troopers to gag and even vomit, since they understood the true source of this ungodly odor, but neither their comrades nor the dwarfs said anything about how they were reacting. The others were well aware of what these men must be going through and refused to comment or joke about their response to it.
Instead, the sights and smells that surrounded them merely became another gruesome reminder of what had taken place just hours earlier. They would have to struggle with the stark reality of what had occurred and somehow deal with the consequences of how it affected them. No matter what had happened earlier, they understood they couldn't afford to let their emotions get the better of them and diminish their future effectiveness.
It was also difficult for the returning Tunstanese forces when they realized there would probably be no way to tell which remains belonged to whom when it came time to bury those who had been killed. The condition the corpses were in now would make any attempt at identification virtually impossible. What made it even sadder was the knowledge that the ashes also contained the remains of numerous women, elderly, youngsters and babies, as well as their fellow comrades. The Dark Lord's minions had indiscriminately slaughtered any living soul who happened to get in their way and didn't seem to care if they were brandishing weapons or merely bystanders.
The killing of non-combatants was always considered taboo by most armies, unless the person had somehow played a role in the engagement. If civilians had actually taken part in the fighting, such as the men and older boys had done when they came to the aid of their small army, then those deaths were understandable. If others were actively supplying the troops in some way, such as bringing them arrows or shields, and then were killed while doing so, it would have also been acceptable and considered collateral damage. However, this would not explain much of what had happened here.
In this case, Madumda's forces had intentionally murdered anyone they came across, no matter whether they were actively involved or not. Even though the slaughter of innocent women and children was not tolerated by any decent society, it in no way affected Madumda's warriors. Now, knowing this was what had happened only helped to stiffened the resolve of every fighting man, both human and dwarf. It also increased their desire to defeat the Dark Lord's army.
Although they were extremely fatigued, the warriors realized they couldn't remain where they were for very long. It was early morning and the commander feared the condor would soon be patrolling the area again. Therefore, they would need to make some decisions about how they were going to continue the disguise they were using with these additional troops. Whatever plan they came up with, they would need to do it quickly.
There were also other concerns that needed to be addressed as well, such as how they were going to get to the battle. In order to do this, they would have to find another way to cross the river, since all of the bridges had been totally destroyed. This meant they would need to come up with an alternative way to get to the battlefield, but how were they going to do it?
If you have been following this saga by Bill W, please let the author know how you feel: firstname.lastname@example.org