Another tale in the saga of the Beckett Family’s adventures in Northumbria! These events follow Trial by Combat.
The session began with the PCs at the foot of Heinrich’s Horn, a steep and rocky hill about two leagues east of Blackwater Lake. Lord Balin Blackwater had just awarded the Beckett family the whole of Hickory Mountain, a rugged wilderness area of roughly a hundred square miles! Heinrich’s Horn sits at the southeast corner of that mountain. Lord Balin’s first command to his Beckett vassals was to clear the Horn of a band of wicked robber knights, who had recently established a camp there. They were to bring the brigands, especially the two leaders, Sir Raynald of Setmoor and Sir Aglovale of Kolkirk, back to Blackwater Keep, dead or alive. Two days ago, Lord Roger Beckett led a force of fifteen kinsmen and friends, bolstered by eight mercenaries, to the foot of the Horn. The winding path up the side of the hill—the only approach available to most—was treacherous, but they had a plan.
Cast of Characters
Most of the twenty-six party members in this campaign belong to one large extended family—the noble Beckett family. A few are retainers and allies, and there are also eight mercenaries on this expedition. The names in gray below were not present.
Elders and Elfin Relatives:
Wyrm Cormallen: Elfin druid/MU, distant relative to most
Tal Cormallen: Half-elfin fighter/MU, distant relative to most (Wyrms’s nephew)
Jade Cormallen: Half-elfin ranger, distant relative to most (Tal’s sister)
Granny Beckett: Witch, eccentric matriarch of the family
Thurin: Half-Elfin thief, quirky and flakey bastard daughter of Granny
Asher: Elfin thief, ward of the Cormallen clan, friend to most
Primary branch of the family (one set of brothers):
Lord Roger Beckett: Ranger, new family head
Sir Raynard Beckett: Cavalier, handsome and witty
Denston Beckett: NPC cleric of Pholtus, upright and inflexible
Daniel Beckett: Assassin, passionate and protective
Secondary branch (another set of brothers)
Sir Callum Beckett: Cavalier, noble and responsible
Sir William Beckett: Cavalier, sarcastic and brave
Brother Lewie: Cleric of St. Cuthbert, erratic but insightful
Elwood Beckett: NPC druid, simple-minded but goodhearted
Tertiary Branch (another set of brothers)
Raymond Beckett: NPC fighter, stoic and responsible
Owen Beckett: NPC ranger, quiet and self-sufficient
Kieran Beckett: NPC MU, sensitive and innovative
Rayner Beckett: Thief, bastard half-brother to Raymond
Friends, Retainers, Etc.:
Sven Ragnarsson: Barbarian, bastard of Granny, Bjorn’s twin
Bjorn Ragnarsson: Barbarian, bastard of Granny, Sven’s twin
Sergeant Blaine: NPC fighter, porter to the Beckett family
Brother Liam: Cleric of Cuthbert, assigned to mentor Brother Lewie
Dagis: Sir Callum’s young squire
Marin: Young scout and skiff pilot, recently taken in by the family
Mercenary Longbowmen: Reece, Purcell, Orkney, Medard, and Jonathan
Mercenary Spearmen: Winston, Lance, and Simon
Day 17, Ninth Moon
The assault force waited quietly on the steep hillside, spread out and squatting next to tree trunks and large bushes. The sun sat very low on the western horizon, ready to dip down behind the hills. Late-afternoon shadows gave the hilltops a hazy purplish hue. The weather had grown chilly—another taste of what promised to be an early winter. A howling wind from the south made matters worse, whisking away all traces of warmth, and also making it very difficult to hear past ten or fifteen feet. Everyone was hunkered down, waiting for Lord Roger to give the command to attack.
Crouching in the dirt beside a stout maple tree, Lord Roger fiddled nervously with a goose-feathered, bodkin-tipped arrow. Everyone should be in place by now, and he knew that all eyes were on him, but his mind raced. Had he forgotten anything? His mind drifted back to four hours earlier, when they had carefully laid their plans.
Jade had scratched a crude map into the soil with her elegant hunting dagger, and when she had everyone’s attention, she pointed to her diagram and said, “The brigand camp sits near the top of this rocky hill. The terrain leaves only one practical approach: up a steep slope that winds clockwise around the hillside. On the right side of the curving path is a sheer rock face, and to the left is treacherous ground with many steep drops. Last night, Daniel and I saw a fair amount by the light of the full moons. We spotted four guards at the top of the slope, armed with spears and halberds, and they have quivers of arrows lying nearby and boulders stacked up, ready to roll down the hill. Moreover, there seem to be natural patches of loose gravel on that slope, making it very easy to lose your footing. I saw evidence that someone had slid down some sixty feet at some point.”
Sir William, biting into an apple, commented with his mouth full, “This sounds typical. We spent the last two days picking our way through a trackless wilderness, and now we have to plod up a hillside in full armor, where peasants can roll boulders onto us. I say leave them on the hill. In a month, they will freeze their asses off up here. When they come down to steal something, then we kill them without a fuss. I think—”
Lord Roger interrupted him, saying, “This is our mountain now, cousin, and our new liege wants the brigand scum sitting atop it dead. We have to go make them dead. Continue, Jade.”
William simply shrugged, while the young elfin lass brushed back her golden hair and continued, saying, “The winding slope levels off about a hundred yards up, and if you turn to the right at that point, you will see an oval-shaped area about fifty feet deep and eighty feet wide. For clarity, call this the lower camp. The right side—or western side—of this lower camp is a steep rock face. We saw a few small pavilions there beneath some tall trees. The left side—or east side—of this lower camp features a natural rock wall about eight feet high, but beyond that is a sheer drop off the side of the hill. To the rear—or south—of this lower camp is a rocky slope that rises up about ten or twenty feet higher than the lower camp. Call the raised area beyond that rise the upper camp. We could not see much up there, but we saw plainly that some brigands were milling about. The path between the camps runs right up the center of that rise. To the left and right of this dirt path, natural outcrops jut up about ten feet or so, forming something of a border between the two camps. It would not be difficult to scale these, but those in heavy armor could not easily do so. The bandits have fire pits and stacked wood piled next to these outcrops on the left and right. The outcrops probably serve as wind breaks for the fires.”
Roger stepped in at this point. Using a stick to draw their attention to the map in the dirt, he said, “Ambushing the guards at the top of the winding slope is crucial. If we can kill them quickly, we can get a toehold in that lower camp. I want to place a few of our lighter bowmen on that treacherous ridge to the left of the slope… here and here. They could use arrows to slay the guards at point-blank range, allowing the main force to scramble up the slope almost unopposed. If we can get everyone into the lower camp without incident, we should prevail. We may actually have numbers on our side, and we likely have better-trained men, on average.”
Callum said stoically in his deep voice, “Those two knights were very well trained, cousin. Underestimate them at your peril. We lost two kinsmen when we faced them last.”
Roger nodded, saying, “What I meant was that we have more well-trained men than them, I think. You and William may have to tackle the knights, but Sven and Bjorn should be able to crush any non-knight that they face. However, your point is taken. Daniel?”
Daniel stood up and spoke, saying, “Roger and I will give us some extra leverage. Our dear elfin friend, Wyrm, has an enchantment that should render us completely invisible, and Granny gave me a sleeping potion that we can then pour into their food or water. Roger and I shall sneak into the camp unseen and neutralize several men just prior to the assault. With any luck, I shall slit that tall bastard’s throat before he pulls on his helm.”
William, still stuffing his mouth with apple, asked with raised eyebrows, “You plan to simply walk into the camp?”
Daniel replied, “No. A huge war dog ruined that plan, but we found another way in. Near the top of the winding slope, to the left of the ridge, there is a really dangerous path along the cliff face that leads clockwise around the lower camp. It lies maybe ten or fifteen feet below the level of the lower camp, below that natural rock wall and completely out of sight. Yesterday we saw it from below, and it leads around the hill, rising gradually to the back of the upper camp. No sane person would use it, as the natural ledge is only a few feet wide in some places. Roger and I will use that path to gain access to the upper camp.”
William rolled his eyes and threw the core of the apple into the trees, muttering, “Better you than me.”
“What of the horses?” asked Callum.
Roger replied, “We asked for volunteers to stay back, but everyone wished to go, even Granny.”
Callum nodded knowingly, “Granny can be stubborn. There is no saying ‘no’ to that woman. No matter. Dagis will watch the horses. Bring everyone else if they wish to come. We will likely need every sword and bow that we have.”
Jade, bow in hand, slipped quietly next to Roger, forcing his mind to return to the present. She asked, “Is anything wrong? Daniel should be in place by now. The lunatic twins and Asher are already hidden on that ridge, ready to ambush the guards. They await us. The archers are ready to lead the massed assault up the hill, firing volleys once they reach the lower camp. I placed the one named Jonathan in charge of the archers, for he seems to have some semblance of brains. Just behind them, Callum and William are in place to command the heavier troops.”
Roger’s mind raced. Had he forgotten anything? I do not think so, he thought, but so far today, nothing has gone according to plan. The caked mud on his face and arms were a constant reminder of that. As Jade waited for his command, he thought back on the day’s disasters.
While everyone was preparing their gear for the assault, Wyrm, Daniel and Roger had slipped out of camp, mainly to avoid the eyes of the Varangian twins, whose superstitious fears bordered on violence. Let them spy Wyrm making an incantation and they are liable to cut his throat, Roger thought. Once out of sight, Wyrm cast his enchantment on Daniel, which worked as planned, but his second incantation ended abruptly with a small explosion and a cloud of acrid, yellow-green smoke. The blast knocked Wyrm to the ground, while a tingling and burning sensation washed over Roger from his scalp to his toes. Coughing and moving away from the smoke, he thought, That could not have been good. To his horror, Roger then saw that his armor and skin were now invisible, but his internal organs, bones, and muscles were now grotesquely visible. He was speechless at first, filled with revulsion and fear. In those first few seconds, he knew not whether the spell had simply failed or if it had somehow flayed him. In the seconds that followed, Roger gaped in utter shock at his own limbs and torso, while Wyrm stammered about the lesser moon being full—something about ‘entropy’ and ‘random determination’.
When Roger finally regained his composure and managed to exhale, confident that his skin still remained, he cuffed the mage upside the head in frustration. After several failed attempts at negating the effect, Wyrm could only meekly offer his apologies. He was somewhat confident that the effect would wear off, he said, but for now, Daniel would have to go it alone into the brigands’ camp.
Knowing that his appearance would terrify most of his own kin and possibly cause the barbarian twins to go into a killing frenzy, he found a patch of loose dirt and made mud using the contents of his wineskin. Muttering obscenities, Roger smeared handfuls of the stuff on his arms and face. A borrowed cloak partially covered the rest of his harness. This is ridiculous, he thought.
The second glitch had come when Granny confirmed Wyrm’s fears about the lesser moon being full. She warned that even healing rites would likely go awry, however much the two clerics denied it. “Better to use my herbs,” she suggested, “for with our luck, a healing rite will kill the one it intends to heal. And another thing, darling… there is no guarantee that your… condition… will be temporary. That lesser moon is cursed.” She laughed to herself as she turned and walked away.
Great, he thought. Putting aside the fact that I look like floating contents of a slaughter house, we may be going into battle without the healing hand of Cuthbert. What next?
The third glitch had come later, after a solid hour of climbing the heavily wooded incline. Brother Liam and Thurin had lost their footing and had tumbled head-over-heels down the boulder-strewn slope. Liam was only a bit bruised, but Thurin had literally knocked herself senseless, gashing her head open on a large rock. Bleeding and dizzy, she eventually agreed to remain in the rear with her short bow. Granny gave her a foul-smelling herbal elixir and promised to keep an eye on her. Seeking in vain to keep his own spirits up, Roger tried to put a positive spin on the incident, thinking, This is nothing unusual. When is Thurin not near death? The half-elf is drawn to death’s door like a moth to a flame.
Jade impatiently tapped an arrow against a rock, snapping Roger back to the present. Roger was anxious. Hesitation is the kiss of death, he thought. Standing up, he silently reprimanded himself, thinking, Make a decision! You laid your plans as well as they could be laid.
Lord Beckett turned to Jade, cleared his throat, and said quietly, “We move.” They walked together to a fallen log, where Sir Callum sat with the visor of his iron helm raised. Pulling the longbow off his shoulder, Roger turned to the burly knight and said, “Daniel should be ready by now. On my mark, count to 300, while Jade and I get into place, and then go. The Saint be with you.”
Callum nodded and responded in kind, “The Saint be with you, cousin. I shall meet you at the top.”
A few minutes later, Roger was perched precariously on a steep, rocky ridge, hidden behind a large mulberry bush and looking across at the few brigands that were guarding the entrance to the camp. Looking down the cliff behind him, he saw the rocks descend sharply. If I slip, I shall plummet at least 20′ and probably crack my head open on that jagged rock, he thought grimly. His companions, also clinging precariously to the rocks and concealed behind a stand of mountain ash saplings, had their bows out with arrows nocked. Loosing arrows while standing on such treacherous ground would be difficult, he realized. Wind will also be a factor, he thought, as a gust of chilly air buffeted his face. Craning his neck to the right, he peering through the thick, mulberry branches, which rustled loudly in the wind. He strained for a few seconds and then caught sight of over twenty heads coming around the bend and up the path. The wind should mask their movement for a few more seconds, he thought, as he turned to his left and gave the prearranged hand signals. Then he drew back his string and took aim.
The goose-feathered shaft vanished from his bowstring and seemed to sprout from a brigand’s neck. The man’s dark eyes went wide as he clutched his throat in horror, his hands awash in crimson. Before he could react, a second arrow struck his chest, penetrating the studded leather jacket. Seeing the man fall, the others loosed their arrows. The common snap of bowstrings was strangely absent, for the howling wind and rustling leaves drowned all else out, but Roger saw the arrows rain down upon the brigands. Some hit home, and others ricocheted off nearby boulders and tree branches. One arrow took a brigand in the ear, dropping him instantly, while another struck a man’s leg. The wounded man wailed, but a second arrow cut short his cries by striking him in the back as he turned. The first few seconds were those of utter confusion followed by panic. One tall brigand, gashed across his face and pierced through the forearm, finally managed to let loose a blood-curling scream as he ducked down behind a boulder. Roger’s eyes darted rapidly back and forth, scanning for targets. Nothing. He snapped his head to the right and saw their five mercenary archers in studded leather jackets, trotting laboriously up the steep slope with bowstrings drawn back and arrows nocked. Fifteen yards out, Roger thought. Hurry! Running nimbly with the archers were the lightly-clad Rayner and Thurin, also with bows at the ready. A few yards behind them, three mercenary spearmen in similar armor trudged behind the slow-moving Sir Callum and Sir William, both clad head-to-toe in plate harness.
Roger’s eyes narrowed, looking for targets. He could not be sure that they were all dead, for he heard faint groans and cries of pain, but he saw no brigands moving. We have them, he thought excitedly. Putting his fingers to his mouth, he gave a loud whistle and then clawed his way up the rocks and over the ridge, pushing through the mulberry branches. To his left, over the ridge and through the trees sprang the two hulking Varangians, along with Jade and Asher. Roger waved them on, shouting, “Go! Go! Go! Find cover and loose at will!”
On the far side of the hill, Daniel crouched behind a four-foot-tall granite outcrop. Earlier, he had skirted around the outside of the cliff face, maneuvering along the treacherously narrow ledge that had several large gaps in it. He had used a rope to anchor himself to several saplings that grew wild out of crevasses in the rock. The terrifying trip had lasted an eternity, and he almost plummeted to his death when jumping across one of the gaps. However, he eventually found himself on the far southern side of the hill, not far from the top. He had clawed his way up the rocks until he found himself inside the brigands’ upper camp. There he had hidden for a few minutes behind a large rectangular outcrop of weathered granite. The wind was problematic, for it blew his scent right toward the muscular guard dog that he saw sniffing about the lower camp.
After a few minutes, he spotted a wooden table that they must have dragged up here somehow. Though he did not see a kettle or a cooking fire, he saw several brigands starting to eat. After he saw one pull a mug full of water from a wooden barrel, he slipped over to it and dumped the full contents of the sleeping potion in the barrel. The die is cast, he thought as he hurled the empty clay jar over the side of the hill and quietly drew his Aquilonian short sword. Crouching down behind a boulder to keep the wind from carrying his scent, he kept a careful watch on the camp, waiting for any sign that the assault had begun. Gently squeezing the grip of his Aquilonian blade, Daniel muttered to himself, “Come on, you big bastard. Show your ugly face so Daniel Beckett can cut it off.”
A knight in blackened plate armor did appear soon afterwards in the upper camp, making his way to the table along with a few others. Daniel grew excited, but then relaxed, thinking, Too short. That makes you Sir Aglovale. I shall deal with you soon enough, but where is your friend? Daniel then froze with sudden alarm, and his eyes widened. His pulse rate quickened, and his eyes darted left and right. Why is everyone in armor? he wondered frantically. Are they expecting us? An ambush? A trap? Calm down and observe, you fool! Then he spotted two brigands cleaning up in an open, grassy area. Daniel relaxed a bit, thinking, They must have been training. They look sweaty and tired. He exhaled and took a deep breath. Just then, he noticed that one brigand had dropped his head down on the table, and another was nodding off. A few others were yawning. Sir Aglovale and the few others did not seem to notice a problem with those at the table, and each simply elbowed them aside to clear a spot for himself on one of the weather-beaten crates that served as seats. They too began to partake of the poisoned water, and Daniel grinned. Just then, he spotted something in the distance in the lower camp. The coal-black mastiff was going berserk, and two brigands were sprinting from the lower camp to the upper camp, shouting something, though the howling wind drowned out all sound. Here we go, he thought.
Jade scurried lightly over the rocky ridge and through the ash saplings, her bow still trained on the fallen brigands. Bjorn and Sven were beside her, along with Roger and Asher. As they moved closer, Jade heard screams over the wind. Some still live, she thought. Careful! Then, a tall man with bloody hands and a halberd broke from cover, screaming and running toward the upper camp. Jade loosed her arrow, but the wind took it, and it ricocheted off the man’s steel pauldron. Asher fired too, hitting him in the back, but still he stumbled toward the upper camp. “Roger,” she yelled, “He’s going to make it. Take him down!”
But the ranger replied, “No matter! Keep moving! Our men are up the slope. Get to cover and hit anyone you can!”
Jade looked back and saw that he was correct. The five mercenary archers now came around the bend, bows ready. The one named Jonathan urged them on, leading from the front and shouting orders, though Jade could hear nothing due to the wind. Jonathan pointed upwards with his bow, and all five loosed their arrows at once. Jade snapped her head to the left and saw two brigands near the entrance to the upper camp fall, pierced through the shoulder and the leg. She then sprinted across the lower camp, moving agilely from tree to tree. She darted to the right, crouching behind a large boulder. From there, she turned to see the main assault force enter the lower camp.
Jonathan the archer ordered another volley, and they loosed on command. Up behind them came the spearmen and the knights. Jade caught sight of her uncle, Wyrm, running awkwardly in his green and brown robes. He stopped abruptly and began gesticulating. Here comes the cavalry, mused Jade. But then her jaw dropped as all five mercenary archers suddenly fell to the ground, as if blown over by the wind. Two spearmen dropped as well, followed by both Beckett knights, Brother Liam, and Granny! A pulsating orange cloud of dust seemed to swirl around the fallen for a few seconds, and then it began to dissipate in the wind.
“Varda’s eyes!” screamed Jade, horrified. Her head whipped about, looking for the source of this new danger. What weapon did they have? What trap had they sprung? What in Varda’s eyes just happened? she wondered in panic. Worse, she noticed that many of her lightly-armed companions—the twins, a spearman, Rayner, and Asher—were in front of those that fell, and they continued to run toward the upper camp, not realizing that their allies were no longer following! Jade went hoarse screaming a warning, but it died on the wind.
Daniel spotted the archers trotting into the lower camp. He saw their volley drop two brigands that were shooting back at the approaching war party. He saw the spearmen and the knights come into view. Perfect, he thought. He glanced back at the table, waiting to see a few more bandits fall asleep in their supper. Just then, the upper camp erupted into shouting as they realized their danger. The mastiff came bounding into the upper camp, barking like mad, and several brigands were grabbing their weapons. Then one realized that his fellows were asleep at the table. Even Sir Aglovale had just succumbed. For a second, Daniel considered racing to the table and cutting Aglovale’s throat, along with several others, but he stayed his ground. There are too many running toward the table now, he thought, and I want that other blackguard! Where are you?
Sword in hand, Daniel rocked back and forth on his heels, eager to jump into the fray. Hurry up, you slugs! he screamed in his mind, wondering what was taking them so long. Then his mouth hung open in horror as he saw the assault party floundering at the entrance. Unable to see clearly, he saw only that a half dozen or more had fallen just inside the lower camp. He looked with despair back at the nearby table, where frenzied brigands were now slapping their fellows to wake them up. Aglovale was the first to awaken, and his first act was to punch the brigand that had slapped him, hitting him square in the jaw and knocking the man to the ground.
“Curse it!” Daniel groaned out loud, seeing their advantage vanishing. Still he held his ground, waiting for Sir Raynald. Seconds seemed like an eternity, and still Daniel waited. His patience eventually paid off, for he then noticed the tall robber knight, clad in blackened plate, emerging from what looked like the mouth of a small cave, set into the hillside. Nine Hells! Daniel thought. What else is in there? Yet his eyes snapped back to the grizzled robber knight. As a half-dozen brigands raced around him, the knight stood confidently, surveying the scene and then pulling on his blackened great helm. Lifting his great axe, he strode toward the battle, stopping only to bark orders and to smack a panicked brigand.
For a second, Daniel swallowed hard. This guy is no joke, he thought. He is strong as an ox and deadly with that axe. In his mind flashed scenes of his two cavalier kinsmen that had perished while fighting these same robber knights on the lake some weeks ago—the pious Sir Declan Beckett and the noble elf, Jtvastaan “Jastan” Cormallen. Daniel swallowed hard again, but rage slowly vanquished his fears. Two phrases repeated endlessly in his head: You killed my kinsmen; Prepare to die! He stepped out into the open and began skulking towards the knight, slowly maneuvering behind him. The viscous poison on his blade glistened in the dying rays of sunlight.
Lord Beckett jumped behind a stout hickory tree as a half-dozen arrows zipped overhead. One struck the tree not six inches from his head. They are finally ready for battle, Roger thought. Poking his head out just enough to survey the battlefield, he saw several brigand archers behind the natural rock outcrops that led up to the upper camp. They were targeting the Varangian twins. Two arrows lodged in Svens’ round shield, and three others ricocheted off of Bjorn’s iron helmet, axe, and sword. Not so fast, thought Roger, taking aim at a fat brigand that was largely hidden behind a slab of natural stone. He paused for just a moment to adjust for the gusting wind and then let the arrow fly. It struck the man square in the face, knocking him flat on his back. Nocking another arrow in a smooth motion, Roger glanced back at the assault force, only to see half of them on the ground. “What in all the Hells!” he gasped.
Faint traces of orange mist still lingered in the air, though the wind was dispersing it quickly. Standing among the fallen bodies of her kinsmen, Thurin was the first to realize what had happened. She ran to Granny and slapped her hard across the face. The woman stirred, and Thurin slapped her hard again. From his vantage, some thirty-feet away, Roger could hear nothing, but he saw Thurin slap her a third time, and then Granny pulled herself up and slapped her back. Confusion washed over Roger, as he watched Thurin hop to Sir William, whose visor she opened. Roger’s eyes grew wide with shock as Thurin effortlessly slipped her dagger from her belt and put it to William’s face. Roger saw the knight jump up with a start, hollering, though his words were mute in the wind. Then he understood, thinking, They fell asleep somehow. She’s waking them up… Couldn’t slap William because of the helm. Why are they… Wyrm!
Roger finally spied the elfin mage, disoriented, trying to pick himself off the ground. Another botched incantation! Roger realized. Thurin, a wide grin on her face, was now eagerly slapping the five archers, one by one, whose faces were not protected by great helms. She seemed to relish the task, striking them with gusto—all for the common good. Granny joined in the act as well, rousing Brother Liam and finally Sir Callum.
Roger finally tore his gaze from the scene behind him and turned again to the battle before him. Curses! he thought. Wasted time! We could have been into the upper camp by now. “No matter,” he said aloud to himself as he loosed another arrow and ran forward to the battle line that started to form.
Roger saw the two hulking Varangians and a spearman clashing with some brigands and Sir Aglovale. He nocked an arrow but could not get a clear shot at the robber knight. Not in this wind, he thought. Jade had dropped her bow and now rushed into battle with her sword, followed by two other mercenary spearmen. Roger loosed another arrow and saw a brigand fall. We can do this, he thought, if only we can get more men on line. He turned to see the heavier troops now making their way across the lower camp. Sir William was in the lead, followed by Brother Liam and Sir Callum. Above the wind, Roger faintly heard Jonathan the archer, shouting commands to the other four archers. They loosed volley after volley into the upper camp. Roger, seeing their arrows waver in the wind, thought, Few of those will hit anything, but they are keeping the brigands’ heads down.
Adrenaline coursed through Jade’s veins, and she could feel her head throbbing. The Varangians were just in front of her, hacking at Sir Aglovale and a few brigand swordsmen. To her sensitive elfin ears, the ringing clash of steel, the shouting, the cries of anguish, the guttural curses, the incessant barking of a dog, and the ‘thwok’ of arrows hitting wooden shields seemed deafening. Still rather inexperienced in battle, she hesitated when three brigands rushed toward her. The spear that almost impaled her face finally forced her into action. She swung with all her might but missed. She pushed forward to the left, seeing that they were now on the threshold of the upper camp.
To her right, Aglovale and Sven locked weapons savagely, the knight’s arming sword tangled with the barbarian’s heavy Varangian blade. Then Jade saw a huge black mastiff leap into her vision with a blur. It pounced on Sven’s chest, driving him back as Aglovale untangled his blade. Sven smashed the dog in its muzzle with the heavy pommel of his sword, and the hound fell back. Aglovale almost brained the Varangian with his longsword, but Sven’s blade took the blow. Then Sven cried out in pain, as the mastiff bit deeply into his right calf. Taking advantage, Aglovale lowered his shoulder and drove into the barbarian, but he underestimated Sven’s strength. Even with a dog clamped on his calf, the hulking Varangian threw the knight back. Bjorn, to the left of his brother, kicked the dog in its head, forcing it to release its bite. Bjorn sliced the arm of the brigand before him and brought his axe down on a spear tip that was pointed at his face. He splintered the oaken spear shaft; the brigand hurled the broken shaft at the barbarian’s head.
Jade struck again at her foe, thrusting and jabbing, and then hacking at his arm. Her blade bit into the man’s wooden shield, sticking there for a second. It was too long. A brigand’s spear struck her in the right shoulder, causing a burning sensation like liquid fire to race down her arm. She shrieked in pain, but two mercenary spearmen suddenly appeared next to her, one on each side. Jabbing and thrashing repeatedly, they drove the brigands back a few feet. Feeling more confident with two spearmen next to her, Jade pressed the attack. Push them up the rise and into the upper camp, she thought. Her mind raced as she thrust and parried: Uneven ground. Watch your footing! They are off balance, backing up a rise. Take advantage.
She did not expect the brigand to charge her, but when he suddenly did, her elfin reflexes allowed her to lower her center of gravity immediately. He grappled with her, trying in vain to knock her over. His body odor and bad breath washed over her, making her stomach churn, but she managed to hold her ground. In the midst of this, her eyes shot to the crazed dog to her right, which again lunged at Sven. That split second of distraction was too much. The brigand’s iron shield-rim struck her face with great force, knocking her backwards into the dirt and blurring her vision. The bitter taste of blood began to fill her mouth.
Behind a gnarled maple tree, Rayner dropped his bow and quiver to the ground. We have enough bowmen, he thought. Time to get up close and personal. He slipped his short sword from its scabbard and stuck his head out to survey the scene. The Becket front line—namely the Varangian twins and the three spearmen—was slowly pushing the brigands into the upper camp. Jade was on her feet again, and with great agility, she slid under a brigand’s guard and sliced him across the hamstring. The man crumpled, writhing in pain. No bandits seemed to remain in the lower camp. Roger and Asher were picking off brigand archers. The mercenary archers were firing volleys into the upper camp, keeping several brigands pinned down behind a stand of trees. Sir William, Sir Callum, and Brother Liam were almost to the front. This looks good, he thought, but maybe I can get behind them.
Rayner suddenly darted from cover, racing to the left through the lower camp. He jumped clear over an abandoned campfire, and began to scurry up the granite outcrops, beyond which lay the upper camp. With the smell of burning wood still in his nostrils, he pulled himself up the ten-foot slope and paused for a moment on his stomach. From his vantage, he saw several brigands with bows trying to get into position to fire without exposing themselves to the constant volleys that fell upon the upper camp. Then, to his shock, several archers ran straight toward him and positioned themselves just below him to get better shots at the Varangians. This is my chance! he thought, slipping back down the hill and circling around even further to the left.
Rayner came right behind one of the archers, and he moved quickly to slit the man’s bearded throat. Perhaps the brigand saw something out of the corner of his eye, for he turned just when Rayner was making his cut. The man’s eyes went wide with fear, and he awkwardly shoved his bow into Rayner’s face. Unable to draw his dagger, the brigand fumbled and eventually used the arrow in his right hand to stab at Rayner’s neck. Frustrated, Rayner slashed at him wildly with his short sword. The brigand struck Rayner several times in the waist with the arrow, piercing Rayner’s belt pouch and wineskin. Rayner stabbed at the man repeatedly, slicing his bowstring, his tunic, and his chin, but he could not strike home. Dropping his bow, the brigand punched Rayner repeatedly in the head with his left hand, but Rayner countered with a right cross that made the bearded man reel backwards. “Oh, to the Flames with this!” Rayner shouted to himself, as he darted back around the outcrops and away from danger, leaving a trail of red wine in his wake. He then ran to retrieve his bow.
Daniel saw his kinsmen fighting their way into the upper camp. The twins were furiously hacking and slashing with their broad Varangian blades. Bjorn sheared the corner off of one man’s wooden shield and splintered the shaft of another’s halberd. Sir Aglovale and his giant hound were the glue that held the line intact, for they held Sven at bay. With alarm, Daniel then realized that Sir Raynald was moving right toward Sven. Already fending off the knight and his dog, the Varangian would have no chance against Raynald, and Bjorn would fall next. Daniel rushed forward, his mind racing as he did so. The chain aventail protects his throat. Look for an opening in that plate harness. Where? Where?
Aglovale struck Sven, hooked his shield, and yanked him off balance, while the hound was tearing at the barbarian’s leg. Raynald saw his opening and raised his great axe high, ready to decapitate the burly Varangian. His upraised right arm exposed a small, palm-sized gap that the plate harness did not cover. With a cry of rage, Daniel rushed forward, wrapping his left arm around the tall knight’s neck, while his right arm drove the poisoned Aquilonian gladius into that palm-sized gap. He thrust with all his might, twisting the blade to slide it between the ribs, punching through linen gamberson, chest muscle, and lung. Shouting in primal fury, Daniel rammed the blade hilt-deep into the knight’s heart. Over the howling wind and the clamor of battle, Daniel heard only a faint choking, gurgling sound from the knight’s throat as he fell. The great axe dropped from his hands, and he collapsed in a heap.
Daniel’s exhilaration lasted for about ten seconds. Then, he noticed that his arms and limbs were entirely visible again. Wyrm’s spell was broken. Worse, a brigand with a halberd, standing only two feet to Daniel’s right, saw the tall knight fall and just noticed Daniel standing next to him. Their eyes locked for a second, and then the halberdier brought the curved axe blade down in a deadly arc, aimed at Daniel’s head. The man went into a frenzy, perhaps out of fear, and Daniel was completely defensive. Again and again, the halberd crashed against his short sword, each time nearly knocking the blade from Daniel’s hand. Looking for any way to escape, Daniel drove his knee into the man’s groin and stabbed savagely upward at his face. The man groaned in pain, while Daniel’s thrust lifted the man’s conical, iron helmet clear off his head, slicing his face in the process. The halberdier screamed and continued his attacks, but Daniel stayed close, foiling his weapon.
Though grappling with a burly halberdier, Daniel’s mind was in overdrive. As he wrestled, his eyes fell on Sir Aglovale, still trading savage blows with Sven. If I can get free for just one moment, he thought, his back is to me.
It was not to be, for one arrow ricocheted off his Aquilonian blade, while another sliced the skin on his neck, just missing him. Another arrow whistled past his face, and another struck a tree just behind him. “Cuthbert’s crotch!” he yelled in alarm, finally seeing that two brigand archers were now entirely fixated on him.
Jade’s confidence was rising. Her fear of pain and death had vanished sometime after the spear pierced her shoulder and a brigand bashed her in the face with his shield. Her shoulder and face throbbed with pain, but she ignored it. Now, a surge of adrenaline mixed with the unfamiliar emotion of anger. She rolled underneath a set of spears and thrust her blade into a brigand’s stomach. He doubled over in pain and dropped to his knees. Jade jumped forward to finish him off, but another brigand’s halberd struck her blade with such force that it wrenched it from her hands. She instinctively leaped after the blade, but it was a mistake, for the halberdier rushed forward and struck her in the nose with his steel elbow cop. She reeled backwards, eyes watering so much that she became entirely blind. Her sense of hearing was as keen as ever though. It warned her that he was surging forward toward her, causing her to drop suddenly to all fours. With a cry of surprise, the man toppled over her, head-over-heels, landing hard on his back, while she reached blindly on the ground for her blade.
The melee swirled around her, steel clashing against steel. Just off to her right, she heard Sven cry out anew as the huge mastiff clamped down on his right thigh. The Varangian grunted loudly as he hammered the dog’s head again with his pommel. “Die, you miserable hound! Die!” he shouted. As she groped around on her hands and knees, her fingers finally closed on the hilt of her sword. She grabbed the handle and rolled to her left, just as the halberdier’s blade struck the dirt where she lay. She jumped up and took her guard, wiping the tears from her watering eyes. Her first blurred sight was that of about six more brigands rushing out of a cave, armed with bows. One jumped upon a wooden table, while others jumped up onto wooden crates. Another ran toward the cave, shouting at the top of his lungs, “Hurry up and get out here! Hurry, you bonehead! Move! Kill! Kill!”
Jade’s stomach knotted. How many more are there? she wondered. Her eyes still filling uncontrollably with tears, she saw a hazy image of the halberdier, posed to strike her yet again. His blow never landed, for in one instant, she heard someone yell, “Reece! Purcell! The lass!” A heartbeat later, two goose-feather shafts lodged in the man’s neck and eye, snapping his head back, spinning him around, and dropping him sideways to the ground. Jade stepped back to reorient herself, her guard held high.
She spotted Daniel a few feet away, wrestling with a halberdier. She then saw him spin about and gash the man on his forearm. To her right, she saw Bjorn catch a brigand’s spear on the forte of his sword. When it rode up his blade, the Varangian snapped the spear shaft with his axe and delivered a crushing blow to the man’s collarbone. He dropped the useless weapon and fell to the ground screaming. Next to him, Sven kneed the mastiff in the head and began to rain blows down upon Aglovale. The knight skillfully blocked all of the Varangian’s strikes with the forte of his arming sword, sending tiny sparks flying, but the barbarian’s great strength drove his foe backwards and onto his heels. Sensing that they had the momentum, Jade jumped back into the fray, trying to hack down the brigand spearman in front of her.
Then the tide turned again. An arrow struck Bjorn in the reinforced shoulder of his leather jack, knocking him backwards. A second arrow took him in the thick leather girdle that he wore around his waist. Then the spearman to Jade’s left reeled backwards, an arrow protruding grotesquely from the eyehole of his conical helmet. His blood splattered across Jade’s face, causing her to turn away. As she wheeled to her right, she saw her other spearman suffer a similar fate, two arrows striking him in the armpit and neck. His mouth gaping wide, he dropped his bow and fell backwards with both arms outstretched, finally crashing to the bloody ground. Time seemed to slow for the elfin ranger, as her survival instincts took over. She saw the mastiff, its jaws awash in blood and saliva, lunge at Sven yet again, this time clamping down on his upper left thigh. The Varangian howled this time, his eyes going wide. Dropping his sword and round oaken shield, he began to tear at the beast’s eyes and mouth with his bare hands. Given a second of respite, Aglovale wound up and smashed the barbarian in the face with the quillons of his sword.
And then she heard it. Above the moaning wind she heard heavy footsteps—big strides. From out of the small cave came some type of musclebound ogre or giant, clad in furs and wielding a small tree trunk as a club. Though she registered only a blurred form, perhaps twelve feet tall, she could see that it was hideous, its face disfigured and studded with warts. Around its shoulder hung a large leather bag of some sort, as well as a four-foot-long horn of bone or ivory. Just then, the wind died down for a few seconds, just long enough for Jade to hear William cry out, “You have GOT to be kidding me!” Then the thing growled in a booming voice and ran with giant strides into the fray.
An arrow tore through the crumpled hood on Daniel’s back, and yet another struck him in the wooden scabbard on his belt. “For the love of all—” he yelled, looking to escape the archers’ withering fire. Another arrow shot past his face like a thunderbolt, and another sliced through the top of his right boot. Thankfully, the halberdier that he had just cut was falling back, with blood now sheeting down his arm, leaving Daniel a way out of the fray.
Daniel turned to run, but first he shot a quick glance at Aglovale and Sven. The Varangian was starting to shout incomprehensibly, while he wrestled barehanded with the giant hound. Aglovale reached back as far as he could, arming sword held high in his right hand, prepared to deliver a death stroke to the hulking barbarian. Instead, he grunted in pain, as Daniel’s gladius jabbed his waist, just beneath the breastplate. Blood pooled through the fabric, but Aglovale whirled about to crush his unseen foe.
Daniel’s eyes darted back and forth, looking for a way to escape, but Sir William finally arrived, plowing forward in his plate harness and yelling, “Beckett! Beckett!” Aglovale turned to meet his charge, and the two crashed into each other with a loud clap, locking swords. Daniel fell back, ducking behind a tree as another two arrows flew past his face.
Breathing hard, Sir Callum jogged toward the battle line, shield held high and sword in hand. After what seemed like an eternity, he was ready for action. Saint’s Mercy! he thought with disgust. This is ridiculous! Hills and slopes in full armor! This is why we have warhorses, damn it! Only ten paces away, he instantly sized-up the opposition. The Varangians and William are on the last of the brigands and one of the knights, he thought. Where is the other…
Then he caught sight of the ogre and groaned to himself, “What in the Nine Hells is that?” After just two seconds of delay, he produced a deep rumbling from the bottom of his chest as he prepared to charge. As he ran forward at full speed, he shouted to his younger brother. His booming voice carried over the howling wind, saying “William! Kill that knight! Kill that knight! Leave the ogre to me!”
Jade gaped in horror when the ogre first emerged from the cave, but she snapped her attention back to the brigands before her. She jabbed again and again at a spearman with the point of her blade, deflecting a thrust aimed at her face. She had trouble concentrating, however, for Sven had gone berserk. The mastiff snapped viciously at his face, while the Varangian, bleeding from both legs, parried and pummeled its muzzle with his fists. Its teeth raked his forearm, causing him to grit his teeth in pain. Then, with one swift motion, the burly barbarian grabbed the hound by its forelegs and violently yanked it into the air. With a scream of rage, he swung it over his head and hurled it at the oncoming ogre. Jade lost sight of the flying hound, but she did turn just in time to see William deliver a powerful blow that destroyed the iron rim of Aglovale’s heater shield. The twisted metal hung awkwardly from the oaken shield, but Aglovale struck back with a vengeance, smiting William on the collarbone. The plate harness took most of the impact, but William grunted in pain. Not to be outdone, William drew up to his full height and leaped, bringing his blade down with all his might. Agolvale tried to block, but William’s Cimbrian blade sheered through the twisted metal rim of the shield and clear through the top of the robber-knight’s helm. The force of the blow spun the robber knight around, blood pouring from the top of his head. Dropping his blade, he then collapsed atop a giant heap of trash that sat to his left.
“Brigand scum!” William spat, adrenaline still coursing through his veins.
Two arrows impaled the brigand threatening Jade. She heard Jonathan’s voice again, struggling to overcome the wind. “Down the archers! Down the archers!” he screamed, his voice hoarse.
Jade spun around to see Jonathan directing the four other mercenary archers, and just behind them were Roger, Asher, and Thurin, also loosing arrows. Three struck the brigand on the wooden table, who dropped like a sack of rocks. A second brigand fell screaming from atop a wooden crate and crashed sideways into a barrel of drainage water, knocking it over and spilling its contents. Another brigand fell silently from a similar crate, shot though the throat. Jade tried to count how many brigands remained, but the rampaging ogre wrenched her attention away.
Sir Callum and Bjorn were there first, striking at the brute with their blades. Each sliced a deep gash into its chest, causing it to roar in pain.
“Drittsekk kill! Drittsekk kill those that hurt! You die!” he roared. With that, he swung the gnarled tree trunk over his head and brought it down abruptly, caving in the skull of a mercenary spearman and sending blood spatter everywhere.
Jade slid forward, looking for an opening. From behind her she heard someone yell, “Light it up, Granny! Do it!”
Fighting the wind, another strained voice yelled, “Archers! Volley fire on the giant! Ready! Loooooose!”
The giant whirled the tree trunk about its head and lifted it high, ready to crush another hapless human. Then there was a bizarre flash of brilliant pink and purple light, causing all to wince in pain. A smell of burnt sugar briefly filled the air, seeming oddly out of place. A second later, the ogre seemed to sprout four arrows from its chest, while two more impaled one of its bulging muscular arms.
In the midst of the chaos, there was a second or two of pause, as all stared in confusion. The screaming giant, transfixed with six arrows and stumbling backward, was now glowing with pink and purple energy. Arcs of this neon-bright electricity swirled about its limbs and rippled down its torso. Its hideous face was now grotesquely highlighted, and every coarse, black, goat-like hair on its chest seemed to pulsate a deep purple. Arcs of energy randomly leaped off his frame and to the ground, where they disappeared. Confused by the glow and still writhing in pain, the giant screamed again and lifted the tree anew.
It waited too long, for another seven arrows struck home from all sides.
Then Brother Liam leaped forward, silver cross of St. Cuthbert in hand, shouting, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined!”
At that, an intense, golden-white glare burst from both of the giant’s eye sockets, causing him to scream again. Sweeping his tree around him blindly, he knocked over two brigands and Jonathan the archer.
Just then, a cluster of brigand archers, crouching behind a large slab of granite, loosed a volley into the Beckett war party. Arrows struck three of the mercenary archers—in the shoulder, thigh, and buttocks respectively. Roger saw this and yelled aloud, “Archers, take down the giant! I have the brigands!” As he drew back his bowstring, others followed suit, save one, who fell to the ground screaming, “I cannot take down anything! I have an arrow in my ass! Reece! Purcell! Get it out! Get it out”
Ignoring his cries, the remaining archers loosed another volley into the ogre’s chest. Roger dropped a careless brigand with an arrow, while the rest scurried away to find new cover.
The ogre, bristling with arrows, stumbled about like a drunken hedgehog and screamed in rage and pain. Still blinded by the glaring light, it swung the tree trunk wildly and battered Callum’s shield, throwing the knight back two feet. Callum reeled from the impact, his left arm throbbing like it was broken. Sven then jumped forward and delivered a powerful downward stroke, hacking two fingers from the ogre’s outstretched hand, making it howl as dark blood spurted from the wound. Wasting no time, Callum and Bjorn drove their blades hilt-deep into its chest and back respectively. They pulled their swords free, looking with fear and wonder at the swirling pink and purple energy that rippled down the blades. The ogre swooned in its death throes and then tumbled backwards, smashing the wooden table as it fell. As he struck the ground, a bright purple blast of magical flame knocked all within 30 feet to the ground. Liam, Callum, Sven, and Born grunted in pain as intense heat washed over them. Nearby, a tree by the giant’s still radiating corpse exploded and caught fire, burning fiercely with purple-pink fire.
For a few seconds, all was quiet, save the relentless wind. Most were fixated on the giant’s glowing corpse or the colorful, flickering flames of the burning tree. Flipping his visor up, William panted, “Well, you don’t see that every day.”
Roger was first to remind everyone with a shout that enemies remained. He barked an order to the remaining cluster of seven brigands, hollering, “Lay down your weapons NOW or die!”
Trembling and gawking at the still-burning tree, all seven archers threw their bows and swords to the side, meekly raising their hands in the air. Jonathan and two others drew their strings back and trained their arrows on the hapless brigands. Roger, barked, “Tie them up and watch them. Thurin, cut their throats if they try to escape. Oh, and Thurin… only if they try to escape.”
Looking about, most of the kinsmen finally realized that no brigands or robber-knights remained.
Fr. Liam dropped to his knees and whispered a silent prayer to the Saint. Callum bowed his head. A few leaned heavily on their weapons, while others pulled off their helms.
Jade then noticed that a few other men had emerged from the cave, but they still had rope bindings on their wrists or ankles. Prisoners, she thought. Nevertheless, she watched them carefully, her hand still on her sword.
William looked disdainfully at the five disheveled men that stood beside the cave mouth, with rope bindings still on their limbs. The knight turned his head and spat, asking sarcastically, “You took your time escaping, no?”
A muscular soldier-type tried to respond, but Roger cut him off, waving his hand and saying, “We shall hear from you soon enough. For now just sit down and be quiet. William, keep an eye on them.”
Roger turned to look at his kinsmen. Jade could see that he was doing a quick mental count. “Is everyone alive?” he asked.
“A few mercenaries are down, and we have several wounded,” replied Jade.
“Granny. Liam. Lewie. See to the wounded, please,” said Roger in a weary voice.
Just then, Sven, his leather breeches now soaked black with blood, walked by with grim purpose and picked a spear off the ground. He inspected it for a second and then nodded silently. Roger could not help but ask in a soft voice, “What are you doing?”
The battle-scarred Varangian, absorbed in his task, did not even looked up, but he muttered in a deep voice, “I am so going to eat that dog!”