June 6th - Tabost
The night march from Oberndorf passed swiftly and without incident, everything but the essentials discarded in Moira's haste to rendezvous with the Rangers in Tabost. The baggage train could make its own way under Iraen's cautious eye and the men would be none the worse off for a night without ale or a warm bed.
To show her own resolve she'd even left Ironhoof in Iraen's charge, choosing to trudge the long miles across the northern plains in the same stoney silence as her men. Even the usually rowdy Yfain was quiet.
There were half-a-score new recruits following her Gryphon banner, hardy veterans eager to prove their worth alongside the famed Imperial Cagilan Guard. To stand proud in the company of men who'd crested the walls of Akesh Temple and Ashforth and cut a bloody swathe through the armies of the north was no mean thing to boast of, but they'd be expected to pay for the privilege. In blood.
As dawn approached they'd crested a low rise of hills just north of the muster point and halted for a hurried breakfast of, Rollo and his scouts bringing back a steady stream of information on enemy dispositions. The Elves were out in force just like the good old days when the Guards had earned their fearsome reputation in the bloody battles of Oberndorf, and there was every prospect of a worthwhile battle today.
"It looks like they've left most of their cavalry at home this time," Captain Carl Heinman was studying the Elven order of battle, "and that will cost them dearly."
"Aye, to the untutored eye it looks an even match, but wait until we've laid their best in the mud," Yfain sat on his haunches, sharpening the twin blades axe, "they'll soon enough turn tail and run."
"Then we'd better make sure we're in the centre of the line so as not to keep them waiting," Moira took another bite of the cold meat pasty that along with a skin of wine vinegar comprised her breakfast.
Sunrise found the two armies facing each other across an open expanse of farmland. The Elves seemed the better organised, but Moira doubted that would make much difference once things broke down into the inevitable perilous melee. It was too long since she'd faced a real army and the anticipation filled her with a cold fire, a quickening of nerve and sinew.
Volleys passed back and forth between the archers, veering wide of their mark in the gusting prairie winds.
The moment was almost upon them.
"BY THE JAWS!!!" Moira slammed shut the visor of her lion helm as the signal to advance rippled through the ranks and hurtled forward with axe in one hand and sword in the other. The wild battle cry of the Guards echoed all around her, the words almost lot in the gutteral, beastial cries as they followed her to glory. Her men had the scent of blood now, and there could be no holding their hunger.
The armies hurtled headlong into each other's arms, two chaotic tangles of blades and shafts and armoured limbs intent on death and destruction. The shock of impact brought a sharp, metallic taste to Moira's mouth but there was no time to savour it as her sword - the wolf's-head blade that Duke Aeneas had gifted her - and axe swept all before her. This was the life for which she had been born, and she revelled in it.
Wherever her Guards passed the Elven host fell back, unable to withstand the fury of their axes or penetrate their cunningly-wrought plate armour. Their Lion roar spread terror before them, and the rumour of their passing was like a black wind chilling the soul.
Moira yanked her helmet free and shook her head, a cascade of sweaty red-black hair tumbling down her back. Her battle rage had burnt itself out in the bloody melee, replaced by a strange sense of calm.
"Well that certainly gave the new men a workout," she smiled as Yfain loomed before her.
"That it did countess. That it did," his roguish smile was broad as ever.
"So what was troubling you last night Yfain? I'd expected a rousing chorus or three of Maides of Trawiy whilst we marched."
"Aye, well usually I would. You know me, never happier than with a bottle in me hand," he fell silent.
"But..." he pondered the question a while, idly studying the bloodied head of his axe, "I'll have to sharpen this, the blades are notched..."
"You don't have to explain Yfain," Moira's smile faded and the silence lingered, punctuated by the sounds of a victorious army dealing with its defeated foes.
"Yesterday," he suddenly continued, "was the anniversary of my Da's death. It's been four years. Four years and an ocean."
"Forgive me old friend. I didn't mean to reopen that old wound."
They were stood amidst a field of corpses, their arms and armour bloodied, but right now they might as well be in a different world all their own.
"Moira, did I... did I do the right thing? You know, leaving home and taking up this life?" most people never looked past the beard and the swagger, seeing a giant of a man and assuming him to be nothing more than a freebooter and a rogue and a mercenary. But underneath the bluster, well concealed, were the same weaknesses as any other man.
"A man has to walk his own path Yfain, and your father never held yours against you. He always spoke proudly: 'my son the warrior,' he'd say, and 'none can wield an axe like my boy Yfain.'," she could see a tear forming in the corner of his eye.
"I hope you're not going soft on me," she winked and playfully slapped his pauldron with the flat of her gauntleted palm, bringing the flame back to his eyes.
"Do you want to put that to the test milady? We could show these laggards a real fight!" and the two of them walked arm-in-arm from the carnage, reminiscing on older battles and youthful indiscretions.
June 12th - Tokat
The morning had been a bloody scrimmage, Fontan's army thrown into confusion by the treachery of the city administration. Somewhere within those walls Marquis Lorrie lay in a deep coma, wounded by Caligan hands, and in the confusion many of the garrison had thrown in their lot with the traitors. Such were the times which Fontan faced, attacked by five jealous and power-hungry neighbours.
Even as the Lions and the Fontan Rangers crested the ramparts there were those within the town of Tokat who looked to their purses and felt themselves well satisfied. Doubtless they saw the outcome of this war as inevitable, and gladly pocketed their gold in expectation of a comfortable retirement in distant Domus or Hamadan, or the gaily decked tournament grounds of Partora.
The only consolation for Moira and her hard-pressed men was the news that King Doombringer had fallen early in the day, hurled from the walls during the first assault. The melee was fierce, with no quarter asked or shown, and her Imperial Cagilans were clearly enjoying the slaughter. It brought back memories of the Ashforth campaign, when they marched with the Lions to death and glory, that being the way of the warrior brotherhood.
There was a brief lull in the fighting as the defenders regrouped, the walls momentarily in Fontan's hands, when Yfain lurched through her men like a giant of old, a ragged Caligean banner in his hands, a head transfixed on its shaft.
"I see you've been collecting trophies," she grinned through the open visor of her black lion helm.
"The previous owner seemed rather attached to it," his laughter was like a mountain rockfall, "so I made the arrangement permanent. How goes the battle elsewhere?"
"It looks set to be a close-run thing, thanks to those traitors huddling close by their Caligan masters," she cast a dismissive wave of her wolfshead sword in the general direction of the town square, "not like those Elves up in Tabost."
"Aye, well probably best that the new men see what war's really like," Yfain carelessly tossed his grisly trophy to one of them and sat on the rampart, watching the next wave head back to the walls.
"GUARDS TO ARMS!!!" that was the voice of Captain Heinman, her trusted right hand.
"Guess it's time to take a few more heads," she slammed her visor back in place, all trace of humanity buried beneath her black plate armour.
There was a roar of fury as the two armies once more smashed into each other, swords and axes and spears taking their deathly toll on both sides. Moira scythed through this like a hot knife through butter, their heavy-bladed axes whirling and cleaving as they cleared a path for the Countess, forcing their way from the heavily-contested ramparts to the ground below.
That was where they met the pretender, Marshal Sven Lious of the Red Gryphons surrounded by his men. Axes cleaved against swords and shields as her Guards opened a space for Moira to avenge her friend and confederate, cutting the Marshal off from his men and laying a fair few of them in the ground.
Moira tugged her helmet free and tossed it to Yfain as she addressed the Marshal, "This is for my friend."
She hurled herself forward, axe falling in a murderous arc and sword parrying deftly. Blows were traded and sparks flew as steel hammered mercilessly on steel and for a moment all hung in the balance, but today fortune stood at Moira's shoulder and with a murderous crunch she sent the Marshal flying, his armour riven and bloodied as he lay helpless in the mud, gasping for breath.
The Countess sheathed her sword and knelt to raise Sven's visor, studying his face impassively as the maelstrom of battle continued around them. After a long pause she said, "You don't look much like a Marquis to me," and with a signal to her men returned to the ramparts.
There would be a second battle.