The enemy dead were dragged a ways off into the woods and left for the buzzards and wolves. It was too risky to form burial parties with marauder bands still moving through the open countryside. Their own dead they buried with honor within the walls of the village.
One of the defending heroes was buried later than the others. This was Jexebel. And the reason why was not because she had been neglected. Quite the opposite: her body had been claimed by a woman of the village and taken to her own home and laid out on her own bed. The woman's name was Auhxalys. And the battle to save her village had left her a widow. She was already childless.
When Jexebel had arrived with Myrdagyn and Company less than a week before, Auhxalys had noticed the tall, strapping young woman with the sword and could not take her eyes from her. At the earliest opportunity, Auhxalys offered her and her man's cottage to stay. The erstwhile prostitute had looked at the much shorter, much heavier woman for a long moment then nodded wordlessly and followed her home. When Auhxalys's husband finished his sentry-go, he was already informed of their houseguest before he came inside.
His wife still mourned their pubescent daughter who had vanished less than a year before, taken, someone had heard, by brigands raiding from the Masterless Quarter (MQ). At the time, Auhxalys had gone outside the walls to the fields where her daughter had been sowing with others when the raiders had descended suddenly upon them. "The Chief" had mounted a quick pursuit but it was vain. Times were getting very hard by then. Anyone moving through the open countryside risked capture or worse. Auhxalys prevailed upon her husband to take the risk and keep looking. But after a week the trail was cold. Their girl was hopelessly lost to them both.
Now, he could see that his wife had fastened her motherhood upon this grim looking woman with the longsword.
It was a strange sight to come home to. No pair of women could be more unalike to look upon. Where Jexebel was tall and lithe, the village woman was short and heavy. The neophyte warrior of Mytros was smooth-skinned, fair, with a tapered jawline. Auhxalys had a face browned by the sun and coarsened by the wind. And while not unlovely in its own way, she could hardly boast of a tapered jaw when her wide face and neck seemed all of a piece. As the man of the house approached he heard his wife's voice through a window beside the door, and he paused there to look inside. She was speaking in sweet tones as she held a dress of their daughter's for Jexebel to see and touch. It was to have been the girl's coming-of-age gown, sewn with intricate beadwork and dyed in starkly contrasting shades of crimson and bleached white wool. The swordswoman was silently fingering the artistry of the mother's countless hours of labor and listening attentively. Auhxalys's husband caught the most fleeting expression of something wistful on the face of Jexebel, before both women looked up at the sound of his opening the door.
For the next few days, Auhxalys spent every possible moment serving Jexebel's comfort. It made the warrior uncomfortable. But she hid this for Auhxalys's sake, knowing her need well enough. Hair in abundance Jexebel had. And she allowed the older woman to unbraid and comb it out and wash the black mass and do it all back up again. It took hours. There wasn't anything else to occupy the time but guard the walls and sit and wait to do it again. So Jexebel stayed close and let Auhxalys mother her. It would all end soon enough anyway.
But the manner of the ending was of course more sudden than Auhxalys could withstand. First the fighting suddenly ceased and she came out of her cottage as the other women did, their children following them into the streets where their menfolk ordered them back inside and away from the blood. Wounded were taken home. The worst injured "the Chief" said to bring up to his hall. And the dead packed in the narrow street where the battle had briefly raged were separated, enemy corpses to one side, villagers to the other. And that was when Auhxalys saw Jexebel's body. She dropped to her knees with the slightest moan escaping. She stopped looking for her husband then. She gathered up the hacked warrior woman's body and arranged her braid and folded her bloody hands on her blood-soaked breast and rocked back and forth, round head twitching on her thick neck, her own hair blowing wild. Villagers tried at first to speak to Auhxalys and hands tried to gently separate her from the dead woman's corpse, but Auhxalys only tightened her grip and so she was left alone. Even after nightfall she had not moved, and the street had been cleared and only the two of them remained against the blood-stained wall.
Sometime during that night, Auhxalys got up and carried Jexebel to her cottage. There she prepared the body by first divesting it of clothing and armor. She bathed the limbs, dried them and put on her daughter's dress, even though it was a tight fit and looked grotesquely undersized. The body was then laid out on the bed and Auhxalys laid herself down beside Jexebel and drifted into some sort of half-sleep.
The next day the dead were buried. All except Jexebel. Wordlessly, Auhxalys attended the others as they ringed the graves. And she dropped the first dirt into the massed grave where her husband's body was laid side by side with the others, nine in all (and later, several more succumbed to their wounds despite all that "the Chief" could do with his skills as a healer). But the woman would not allow anyone near the body of Jexebel all that day. Nightfall came and she laid herself down again beside the corpse. She seemed not to notice the dried blood on her own clothing. Her hair was wild and matted. People wondered quietly among themselves what was to be done. "The Chief" said to let it be until morning. If needed, he had a "cure" that would avail in such a situation as this. So everyone retired for the night and it was the second night since the battle.
Before dawn, the village was shattered awake by a coarse screeching. It went on and on. It came of course from the cottage of Auhxalys. The first neighbors to arrive saw the woman sitting bolt upright on the bed. Her wide eyes saw no one and sought far beyond the walls of her rude dwelling. Her mouth gaped and from it came a sound such as no one in the village had ever heard before: more than screaming, a cosmic shrieking that seemed an assault upon the world, more eloquent than words to a requiem. Most of those who had entered the cottage staggered back outside holding hands over ears and exclaiming and crying out themselves. After a long time, so it seemed, the primeval screaming ended all at once. The echoing of it mounted to the stars with a strange afterlife of its own. Then all was still.
No one knew quite what to do. No one knew if more of the same, or the gods forbid, worse, might manifest through the opened door of Auhxalys's cottage. And so no one did anything but wait. Most returned home. A few watched the place to see if anything would occur. And that's how dawn found them all.
"The Chief" came down with Disýngo the captain of the Mytrosim, and they entered the house of Auhxalys. They were there for a while. Then they came out. And when "the Chief" asked them to, women went in to help Auhxalys get ready for the obsequies of Jexebel. Captain Djo stood before the gathered villagers and announced that his Knights would perform the ordinances for a fallen Sister Knight, even though Jexebel had not fulfilled her wish to be fully accepted into the Order. All was attended to posthumously with solemn ceremony. And Auhxalys, now calmed and cleaned and freshly clothed in a massive dress of blood-red watched impassively while the body of her friend was laid out in armor, sword clasped to her bosom, and burned on a pyre. The remains were wrapped in a fresh mantel of the Order and buried. Then captain Djo departed to report at the commandery in Vylakros.
After that, "the Chief" (Xoniuqé) and Myrdagyn and Company prepared swiftly to depart. Within another week's time the village had to bid farewell to their chieftain and benefactor. He had managed to recruit a dozen worthy fighters to accompany them, half of them crossbows and the rest two-handed swordsmen, as were the magician's wont if physical blows would be required. Privately he looked upon his guards with a critical eye, lamenting the quality of swordsmen in his adventuring days, which was not to be found in common with these "upstarts and tyros". (Or so he believed, as older men will when remembering the exploits of their youth. Few of the present generation seem to be worthy of the accomplishments of earlier times.)
The party was bound for Klyph. There, Xoniuqé would call upon his bankers and withdraw funds to equip the party for a rapid assault on Melinarth the Dead, where this "Qurosh'g" supposedly held sway and was building a following formidable enough to threaten the empire again.
His final act before setting out was to gather his people together and pronounce, with official document held aloft by the village's headman, that they were all freemen now.
As they were about to depart, and the gate had been already thrown wide, Xoniuqé saw the massive form of Auhxalys among his infantry, trying fecklessly to blend in at the rear. From horseback, the sight of a "moving mountain" standing there coyly was very droll. His irritation melted and the wizard sat there not allowing himself to smile. When he caught Auhxalys's eye he waved the woman to come over. As she reluctantly obeyed she also did not allow herself to be cowed by the uncommon dread of staring her former lord in the face. Xoniuqé saw that the woman had purloined arms from the dead: mail cap-a-pie, a spiked shield, and that she carried across one huge rounded shoulder a cudgel to suit her size, in other words, heavy enough to dash out brains with alacrity. The shield she wore on a strap over her back. Under her shield arm was a full bascinet of the enclosed type. Only her eyes and a strip down her nose and mouth would be visible if she put it on. Something about her steady, slow approach made a tiny shiver trickle down "the Chief's" spine. He ignored it.
"Alys," he said in a clipped tone: "I forbid you to leave. This is not your road."
The woman never moved her eyes from his. "Did you not just grant all of us our freedoms?"
"It is so. But as one who cares what becomes of you, as a father of his people, I repeat what I said. This is not your road. Stay home."
She merely shook her head. Xoniuqé fumed inwardly but contained his emotion and set off at a brisk pace that he was confident would be impossible for the 300 pound woman to match. His troops in their armor would not be liking this much. But they were paid to double-time if necessary, in full armor when commanded to. And they were all fit fighters. She would see that this was not her place.
The short column of mounted and foot troops, the dogs, the pack animals, all issued through the gate and onto the track leading away from the village. Auhxalys waited until the last man, then set out with them. And Xoniuqé was right: she could not keep pace. Within an hour they had lost sight of her jogging, jiggling, sweating form. The last man was also falling behind, struggling to keep up. But as he snatched one last look over his shoulder, he could see the distant form of the mailed woman, or rather, the bright red of her massive dress over her armor, just cresting the previous hillock, before his own progress yards behind the next man ahead cut her off from sight.
That night, the party made camp in a ruined villa, one of many dotting the denuded countryside, which was fast returning to wilderness between the fortified places that had not as yet been overrun. A strong guard of half their number was placed in a circle beyond the banked cook fires.
Near midnight, Auhxalys staggered into the camp, hardly able to halloo the guard as she drew near. She collapsed in a heap. Xoniuqé slowly walked over to the woman from his village. She hardly looked at him, then proceeded to refill her water bottle, eat a cold meal of hardtack and then wrapped herself in her cloak and blanket and went instantly to sleep. Frowning, "the Chief" returned to his own bed and tried to sleep. But his dreams bothered him as always lately, even more so out here, it seemed.
Dawn came. The camp stirred early and was on its way. Auhxalys was left sleeping until the final moment. A swordsman nudged her thigh with his boot. It took a stiffer nudge to waken her. She sat up, quickly rolled up her blanket, and then lumbered to her feet after the tail end of the column that was already moving out at speed.
The party camped another night. And Auhxalys repeated her prodigious feat of continuing on the trail of her former lord and his companions, even narrowing the gap somewhat and arriving most of an hour earlier at the camp than she had the night before. There was a ruddy glow on her wind-chapped cheeks as she rummaged through her pack, ate, laid out her bedroll and sank into instant slumber. Xoniuqé did not approach her but out of the corner of his eye watched her every move. He was frankly having conflicted thoughts about what to do about the woman. But the night passed, morning came, the party set forth for its last day before they should reach the town of Klyph, and, he did and said nothing.
Auhxalys fell steadily behind as before. Toward the noon hour, from a long distance behind, everyone in the party heard distinctly that "cosmic shrieking". Without a word every man came to an immediate halt. They stared at each other and "the Chief". Xoniuqé bit his lip hard, and without a moment's hesitation wheeled around on his horse and started back at a stiff trot.
Myrdagyn quickly matched speed alongside. He said: "Shouldn't you stay here? I'll take Horgand and Nouvzé (the "father and son duo", by name) and Dhorbond (the serjant of the swordsmen and crossbowmen - he of the gatehouse rooftop defense fame) and swiftly aid the woman." Xoniuqé kept riding and increased his speed. Myrdagyn motioned to those men that he had named and the five of them rode back along the road, the wizard in the lead.
Rounding a bend they heard men's voices raised in anger. The angry shrieking of Auhxalys suddenly failed. Very soon after that, they all saw a small battleground and a cluster of four men bending over the mound of her prone body. The arrival of the horsemen startled the four brigands from their conversation: they had been trying to decide if this mountain of flesh was dead yet. Now they turned and ran off into the trees.
Three of the horsemen rode far enough to assure themselves that the brigands would not return anytime soon. Xoniuqé was off his horse and ministering to the stubborn woman of his village. She was sorely beat up but not seriously injured. There was nothing he could do at this spot to improve her condition. So the men rigged a litter between two horses and she "rode" back down the road to where the others were waiting nervously.
Her account of what had happened was terse. It comprised of an ambush. The first grinning man to come within reach of her club was brained as a reward for his underestimating her. The other three paused and she knocked another down. The other two turned and ran. And then so did she. Very soon after that she noticed four pursuers, the three she had left behind and another who had joined them. They were of course swifter than she. And before long Auhxalys had turned at bay with her back to a tree. The four men ringed her. They moved in together this time. And although she dealt a strong blow that laid one out senseless, she received a heavy hit that drove the wind out of her and pushed her down. At that point she couldn't say what happened next. Evidently, as there were four men standing when her rescuers arrived, the man she had knocked out got back up. They were kicking and striking at her and she was fighting back poorly. Thinking that they would soon kill her, she seemed to have pretended death. And despite more blows somehow she retreated within herself and lay perfectly still. Her next memory was of "the Chief" holding something pungent and nasty under her nose, and then asking if she were quite through running around in the woods by herself.
When she asked why they had happened to come back for her, the others told her that they had heard her screaming as if in extremis. She frowned and denied that she had made any sound at all. As before, on that night awaking beside the body of Jexebel in her cottage, Auhxalys had no recollection of her horrible screaming jags.
Chaos at Klyph
Late in the afternoon the adventurers came upon an outlying hamlet, untouched as yet by the mounting chaos overtaking the barony. "As yet" was no longer true, because even as they approached the buildings and fences, the leading men could see the forms of men running and weaving in a melee. From the trees not far off straggled a sizeable band of more ruffians to join those already overpowering the menfolk of the community.
By the time Myrdagyn had organized a flank attack, and the rest had advanced straight up the road and between the houses, most of the defending men were down. A few ran back toward the party, and their pursuers ceased and began to withdraw. A quick attack resulted in their rout, with a few of them falling to the weapons of swordsmen and Drulathim. Horgand and Nouvzé accounted for one thug apiece, despite the father having fallen from his horse in the crowded street and suffering an injury. He had angrily recovered himself and dealt deathblows. (For the time being, he vowed, all fighting would be done on foot. He had begun to fancy himself as a developing horseman. But it was more subtle work than he had thought.)
The few surviving men returned and women and children and old folk came out of the houses, stunned by the swift change in their lives and wondering at their timely deliverance. One young woman held a bloodied hewing spear and a dinted shield. She was slightly wounded and breathing heavily, her eyes wild. A brief interchange brought forth her identity and situation. She was now the sole surviving member of the headman's family, her older brother and father having just fallen to the weapons of the thugs. She had avenged them already with two lives. But it was clear that she was not finished.
Auhxalys was now walking well enough. And she went over to the girl and they spoke. The girl was grateful for the older woman's attention but said little.
As the people of the hamlet gathered up a few things and prepared to abandon their homes, an army emerged from the trees and arrayed itself, preparing to attack. Xoniuqé and several others recognized them as men of the empire, or rogues who had abandoned their feudal duty. It was unclear as yet. But Myrdagyn said he would parley. He went out with Ahnxst and a couple swordsmen, also Horgand and Nouvzé.
From the ranks of horsemen a lord dismounted and walked forward between a pair of mailed spearmen. Introductions were made.
The leader was the same Fulkh Marshal. He did not seem to recognize any at the parley as his foes from the village two weeks ago. There was not any reason to admit that they had opposed him there. So Myrdagyn kept that little detail close to his chest. The Marshal expressed relief that they were saviors and not reavers of his people. He further explained that he was on his way to Klyph to confront the treacherous baron, Nhyrblas. "He has invited Antania's troops to garrison our town. For this perfidy he shall die." The youthful warlord did not mince words. He invited no opinions and flatly stated that Myrdagyn and his people could continue to guard the refugees to the town. There was, outside the walls, already a considerable camp of the dispossessed. Baron Nhyrblas was not allowing such inside the walls. Nevertheless, there was greater safety in numbers and staying close to the town seemed to have dissuaded brigands, till now. "I am sure that these forces you have just chased off are part of the army sent from the Masterless Quarter. No doubt we shall meet more. Prepare yourselves."
The youthful marshal organized his troops into the van and main. He said that Myrdagyn's men could be the rear with the baggage and peasants. It seemed an arrangement that did not need to be argued about. And after getting into position the whole combined army set forth.
As they marched, enemy troops could be seen shadowing them in the trees. When the battlements came into view through the thinning wood, the general of Antania made his move. From up ahead three formidable bodies of elite Warriors and mounted Knights came from either side of the roadway and blocked their passage. Turning around, Myrdagyn and the others could see more enemies approaching from the rear; a mass of lesser thugs, stiffened by yet more Warriors of the Chaos Lord Antania. She had evidently sent some of her best, in this bid to take one of the empire's major towns without a blow. Fulkh Marshal had come barely in time to intrude. And the general had decided to pause long enough to destroy them all.
The marshal could see a battalion of Knights quite equal in size with his own chivalry. A unit of Warriors with halberds was foremost, and behind and to one side of them was an even larger battalion of Warrior pikemen, who turned and took station behind the cavalry. Supplementing this obstacle was a large band of Thugs in the flanking woods to the left.
Myrdagyn and Ahnxst knew immediately what should be done. A rapid assault on the weaker part of the enemy army to their rear would offer the most chance for success. Then they could turn and face the slower moving warriors between them and Klyph. They offered their advice to the marshal. But despite their plan being echoed by wiser, more experienced heads amongst his own knights, Fulkh decided to follow his own inclinations.
"We shall charge our equals, those Knights of the Chaos Lord. We shall win through to the town with our greater valor. My infantry will follow up in support as best they may. Our friends, please yourselves to do likewise, or not if you choose. I hope that you kill many of them while holding the rear. That is the best course we have in this tight spot."
And so saying, he arrayed his knights and serjants into a dense formation and trotted directly toward the enemy knights, who were led by the general of Antania directly toward the marshal and his cavalry.
The infantry followed up and as the cavalry charged into each other the Thugs and Warriors attacked the spearmen of the barony. The right body of crossbows moved along the flank of their knights in the woods. The left body of crossbows shot into the flank of the Thugs then drew their swords and entered the fight, desperately stabbing and hacking at the exposed flanks and rear. More crossbows there moved out and around to probe the rear of the Warriors, who turned and faced their lighter foes and easily saw them off.
In the rear, Myrdagyn and Xoniuqé had a very brief disagreement over what should be done. The veteran swordsman thought that they should form a defensive line and cover the rear of Fulkh Marshal's army for as long as possible. The wizard was having none of that. He ordered everyone to put on some speed and head into the wood to the left of the road. No enemies had shown up there as yet. And if they did, he said, there was something he would try to deal with them. In any case, it was their only chance to avoid combat, which he always would do for as long as possible. They did not owe Fulkh Marshal any allegiance. And his rash decision had practically guaranteed his own demise.
Despite their lighter arms, the knights of the barony prevailed over the Knights of Antania generally. Only in a few places did the heavier horses and armor of the invaders penetrate through the line.
Fulkh was assailed personally by Antania's general and driven back and back again. Then he recovered and began to assault the heavier foe and soon had him dismounted and slain under hoof. The morale of the Knights of Antania failed and they began to break. Their discomfiture spread alarm far and wide, until only a few units of Warriors and the supporting Thugs remained.
Fulkh led his horsemen around the flank of the Warriors with pikes. His crossbowmen followed to the flank. The pikemen stood ready to repel the cavalry, until it was apparent that they were not going to attack, but wanted to make for the town instead. The battle behind where the cavalry fight had taken place was going badly for Fulkh's infantry. They fought to the last, taking down many Warrior halberdiers and virtually wiping out the Thugs. But then the other halberdiers from the rear came up and the pikes advanced and charged. That was the end of the fight. And Antania's men held that part of the field.
Meanwhile, Xoniuqé, Myrdagyn and Company and the peasants had got into the woods and were outflanking the battle. When Ushim archers showed up on their flank. The illusionist "popped" one of his few prepared spells. And instead of seeing an exposed party of peasants and a small escort, the archers perceived them as just another unit of Ushim from the MQ. More Ushim and Urtukim arrived on the flanks and behind the archers. The illusion cloaking Myrdagyn and Company held and so they proceeded through the woods and exited in front of the refugee camp.
Myrdagyn ordered the peasants to go to the camp for safety. Out in the open during a battle, which looked likely to break out again, they would be easy prey. Xoniuqé had pulled the illusion back to expose the peasants for what they were. But by then, the party was screening them from the view of the enemy and they were still not aware of the subterfuge.
There was a thin veneer of martial discipline in the camp because of the arrival not long ago of a "chieftain" of dubious repute, though legendary background, which he himself spread around to augment his reputation and authority. It was under his guidance that the camp's perimeter was pulled back to be more enclosed by the old ruins. And he had brought with him some scrappy troops that at least have genuine weapons and some light armor.
The peasants of the hamlet obeyed Myrdagyn and diverged from the column. The headman's daughter of course accompanied her people. Auhxalys turned off with them unthinkingly.
Xoniuqé called to her: "Alys! Where are you going?" She didn't slow down and her expression showed her confusion. It was evident that "the Chief" was calling to her out of concern for her safety, deeming that best attended to if she stayed nearby, not by going over to the refugee camp which was likely to be attacked in force by the Ekbashim horde. The words of Myrdagyn and Xoniuqé warred in her simple head. But the girl's plight won out. Auhxalys said nothing but looked back at the others several times as she, the headman's daughter and the peasants from the hamlet went to the camp and entered it.
The "moving mountain" stayed close beside the headman's daughter, who took a stand at the closest facing perimeter of the camp to the approaching Ushim archers. They shot a couple of volleys with startlingly little effect. Auhxalys and the girl took several arrows in their shields as they stood defiantly waiting for the camp to be attacked.
And it was. Finally the archers tossed discipline, and their bows, and rushed in to attack the refugees. The peasant and ruffian mob lined the openings between the rows of tents and stood behind them as some sort of feeble defensive cover.
A few horsemen from the camp rode out in a thin line on the opposite side, to await an opportunity to charge upon the rear of any attack from that quarter.
As the Ushim archers threw discipline to the wind and attacked, the sound of horns signaled the arrival of the final army in the neighborhood: an imperial force sent by the regent, Randahl Korydohn. It was a collected force from feudal and civic militia, with a few Imperial Knights.
Fulkh Marshal rode over to palaver with these unlooked for newcomers, to make sure that they were friend and not rival or foe. One could never tell anymore these days.
The commander was the Sire Ohblohd of Rhodwyn, and he established his bona fides and asked for Fulkh's. Very soon, both men knew that they should work together nicely. The regent wanted to restore Klyph to imperial control. And Fulkh wanted nothing less himself. Once the baron was taken care of, Fulkh Marshal would be installed as "baron pro tem." This the Sire Ohblohd assured Fulkh would be the first order of business once the campaign was successfully concluded.
So as the day waned, the situation was rapidly establishing itself to see a final bloodbath. A fresh battle was about to begin, if Antania's troops stood to make a contest out of it. And even with the death of their general, the goal was clear enough: cut their way through to the gates, which were already being held to receive them by Baron Nhyrblas's men.
To Be Continued ...