"Well Ranulf, it looks like we've a nice morning for it," Moira and her men were gathered around a hastily prepared fire, frying eggs and bacon in their billycans as they recovered from the night's forced march.
The Rangers were a rough-looking bunch, dressed in motley forest buff and sporting an eclectic mix of weaponry. A few grizzled veterans sported shields with faded armorials, testament to the noble knights they'd served in ancient campaigns. Bright eyes glittered above their greying beards, deep voices thick with mirth as they calmed the nerves of the smooth-faced youths facing their first battle.
"I'd have preferred a few more days to get the men into shape," Ranulf turned his eggs gently so as not to break the yolks.
"War rarely gives us the time we'd prefer," Moira dropped a hunk of rough black bread in the boiling fat of her billycan and stirred it with her dagger. Soon it was indistinguishable from the blood sausage that was already sizzling gamely.
"How can you eat at a time like this?" it was Reynard, a young woodsman from Braga.
"Because if you don't eat now, you may never eat again," whispered the cold shadow of a voice Moira had never expected to hear again. With the first utterance she was half on her feet, billycan dangerously close to spilling its precious cargo in the fire, an astonished look on her face as she saw hulking form of Yfain emerging from the early morning mist.
"But I saw you die!"
Yfain's familiar roguish face seemed gaunt and drawn, "It seems death has found me less to his liking than he imagined."
A silence fell across the company: a silence so deep that a dropped pin would have echoed like thunder; a silence so long that the stars lost their morning splendour and drowned themselves in the sun's brilliant ocean.
"War never changes," his face lit up like the sun as he remembered his purpose, "And neither do her first-born sons."
"I take it you know this hulking brute?" Ranulf's tone was blunted by a mouthful of bacon.
"Ranulf, allow me to introduce you to the dirtiest son-of-a-whore reaver to ever steal his own mother's milk," she sat back down and a space opened beside her for the Cagilian giant.
"Aye lass," the old Yfain roared heartily as he slapped her on the shoulder, "and never a drop was wasted."
"Here, you look like you could use this more than me," she passed the pan to him, but he returned it untouched.
"Don't go worrying about that lass, it'll take more than an empty stomach to put my arm off its aim," and fetching a brandy flask from his sheepskin jerkin he took a deep swig.
The horn rung across the battlefield a third time as the Elven host advanced in its full splendour, infantry and archers screening the mounted knights with their gleaming lances and streaming pennants. Many times had Moira faced the massed Elven charge with her fallen shield-brothers, the Imperial Cagilan Guard, and even their cunningly wrought armour had been put to the test withstanding its brutal impact. She wouldn't risk the same with her Rangers as their light leathers would be like straw before the scythe so she formed them up behind the infantry wall with arrows set in the earth before them.
Moira's seasoned eye scanned the company, picking out the men likely to break at the first clash of steel and those who'd hold no matter what. And she'd been through enough battles to know that even the coward could prove a hero just as the bravest might turn tail.
"Lads, this is the first time some of you have fought a pitched battle and even some of you veterans may not have faced an Elven army before. Don't underestimate the foe arrayed against us this day for none is as deadly as a dear friend turned implacable enemy, and the rift between our peoples will drive them ever forward. So listen to my orders and those of your Captain, Ranulf. We'll do our best to keep your sorry skins in one piece, and if either of us tells you to run you bloody run! Got that? Battles are no place for heroics."
She'd given better speeches on the eve of bloody mayhem, but judging from the response of her men it was more or less what they'd needed to hear.
"I see you're still carrying that wolfshead blade," Yfain seemed to loom out of nowhere, his mighty axe resting lightly over his shoulder.
"It does the job," the sword danced from its battered scabbard, the gleaming steel of Asena which had been gifted to Moira before the Civil War. No legend was attached to it save her own, and many would considered that but a footnote to history, yet the blade was precious to her as no other and had seen her safely through a score of battles.
"And what of these ragtag woodsmen, will they do the job?"
"They may not look much Yfain, but they're tough lads and handy with both blade and bow. They'll give a good account of themselves," she was surprised at her own confidence in them, but there was something about the Rangers which reminded her of the good old days.
Still, now was no time for reminiscence. The first ranks of the enemy were thundering into range, a phalanx of shields and spears streaming ahead of their cavalry to strangely sonorous Elven battle cries and the coarser roars of their mannish allies. At their head streamed the banner of their Marshal, the Duke of Slimbar, as proud and beautiful an ornament as ever mortal beheld on the battlefield. An Elven Lord in all his might and arrogance came to claim Commonyr.
As the line closed the air was thick with arrows and men on both sides fell, lives lost before they could even lift a blade against their sworn foes. A few Elven shafts fell amongst the Rangers, peppering their ranks, but the bulk were aimed squarely into the front ranks where they steadily took a heavy toll.
"Hold firm lads!" Ranulf paced the line, bow in one hand and waving an arrow in the other as if it were a Marshal's baton.
Volley after volley arced between the lines as the melee intensified, the Elven horse storming into the packed ranks of Fontan in a vain effort to force an opening. The air echoed with the din of battle: the hammer of steel on steel; the cracking of bone and rending of sinew; the screams of horses pulled down and slain, and the the cries of the wounded and dying. It was a sound that never varied. And along with it there was a smell. A ghastly charnel stench heavy with the iron edge of spilt blood and faeces, the stench of the abattoir clinging to flesh and cloth and leather.
Press as they might the Elven cavalry were repulsed and their foot fought to a standstill, blow traded for blow and life for life until the Duke's guards finally broke in panicked flight. Even then the Elven archers rained their deadly hail into the melee which now veered dangerously close to the Rangers' position.
Moira and her men plunged into the fray, blades hacking and bow-strings singing as they helped drive the remaining Elven foot from the field. It was bloody and terrible work with no quarter asked nor given on either side. A second desperate hour passed and Moira finally sounded the retreat, letting others have the pleasure of routing the Elven stragglers.
Moira's Rangers had acquitted themselves well and once more an Elven army had been stopped in its tracks by the courage and determination of the Lords of Fontan. She looked at her men and wondered what price in blood Fontan must yet be paid if peace was to be restored to the northern realms. Was peace even possible?