- 1 January 1st - Krimml
- 2 January 2nd - Krimml
- 3 January 3rd - Krimml
- 4 January 4th - Hagley
- 5 January 6th - Greatbridge
- 6 January 9th - Commonyr
- 7 January 13th - Oberndorf
- 8 January 15th - Oberndorf
- 9 January 15th - Krimml
- 10 January 17th - Oberndorf
- 11 January 19th - Oberndorf
- 12 January 20th - Salta
- 13 January 26th - Oberndorf
- 14 January 27th - Oberndorf
- 15 January 28th - Oberndorf
January 1st - Krimml
The Imperial Cagilan Guard had been camped outside the fortress city of Krimml for two days now, their brightly coloured pavilions and silk banners arranged with military precision. From the battlements above an observer could clearly make out the young squires going about their daily chores, fixing food and polishing helms and pauldrons, mending torn surcoats and fetching fresh firewood.
But the squires were but bit players in the spectacle, and soon onlookers from all over the city had gathered to watch the half-dozen noble knights at their training. Arrayed in the finest plate that anyone could recall seeing in many a long year, the dull black surface with its scarlet enamel chasing easily worth a Duke's ransom, many a respectable daughter of Krimml found herself harbouring romances of elopement and high adventure.
Of more interest to the soldiers of the city garrison though were the mighty axes the knights wielded and their fearsome lion helms, which seemed to amplify their battle cries into the murderous roar of those magnificent wild beasts. True they acted individually as knights are wont to do but the whirl of blade and haft as they sparred showed a speed and ferocity that few would wish to be on the receiving end of, and a rumour was soon abroad in the taverns that these were but the vanguard of a larger force seeking a liege worthy of their skill and courage: high lords of distant Atamara come to fight a holy crusade against the evil foes besetting fair Fontan.
Many months before, Moira had researched her expedition to the East Continent with her sisters Aoifa and Brigdha, studying at length the lore of these lands that had reached Cagil before coming to the conclusion that in Fontan she would have the best chance of finding honour. The parting of their ways had been tough on all three of them, but especially so for Moira who would only be accompanied by a few faithful knights and their squires on the long sea voyage.
At first she had found the land and its customs alien - unwelcoming even to nobles travelling under the foreign banners of her kith and kin. All was aflame with war and the common folk sought solace in strange religions but the more she saw of the good folk of Fontan, the more she felt the justness of their cause.
But still she could find no Lord or Lady willing to accept her small company into their service. Doubtless their foreign garb and ways caused a certain mistrust, or perhaps it was just that their numbers were too small? She knew that once she had a liege she could soon muster others to her banner and that the East Continent would echo to the war cries of Clan Dubhaine.
"Captain Heinman, you have charge of the camp. I intend to pay my respects to Lord Alexi and see if he might have some use for our services."
"Do you think it's wise to go into town unarmed Mi'lady? We are strangers to these people, and for all that they hang gawping at us from the fortress walls I can't say that they've exactly made us feel welcome."
"Don't worry old friend, I know what I'm doing. I have heard good reports of this Lord Alexi."
"As you will Mi'lady, but I'd still be happier if Aoidh and Uthwyr went with you."
"If it will make you happier I'll take my squire Iraen. She can carry my axe, although what exactly you hope that will achieve in a fortress of this size save for my quick and glorious death I can't begin to imagine."
"Aye madam, and doubtless our own glorious deaths would swiftly follow. But none could say that I had shirked in my duty."
"Duty dear Heinman will yet be the death of us all, but let us postpone it until another day," her raised eyebrow and sardonic tone bringing a rare smile to the veteran's face.
And thus it was that within the hour Dame Moira Dubhaine came to be walking unarmed and unhindered through the streets of Krimml, oblivious to the curious glances cast at her extravagant scarlet livery as, accompanied by her squire Iraen, she made her way to the palace of Lord Alexi, there to offer her fealty and that of her companions if this good Lord should prove as worthy as rumours had lead her to believe...
January 2nd - Krimml
The tavern had fallen silent as the five burly Cagilan exiles entered, and now the patrons sat nervously eyeing their heavy-bladed axes and weather-stained cloaks.
"Yfain you old rogue!" Moira threw her arms around the bear of a man standing before her, half knocking him to the ground.
"Steady mi'lady," he spun her round like a small girl, a broad grin on his grizzled face, "I'll be no use to anyone if you snap my ribs."
"Quite right," she laughed as she dropped to her feet. "I was quite forgetting my exalted status," although the look on her face suggested that status was the last thing on her mind.
"Food and ale for my friends," she signalled to the serving girl, "they've travelled far and will be wanting some of your famous Krimml hospitality."
"So what brings you here to Krimml? The last I heard you were getting fat guarding some wealthy smuggler down in Isadril."
"Well, you might say our services were no longer required. We were hauling a cargo of Alowcan brandy up to Castle Ubent when it turned out he'd been skimping on his bribes," he took a deep pull of the ale that had appeared before him moments earlier.
"We were camped overnight in a gorge half a day's ride from the city, waiting on our contact. We told him he needed to post sentries but the bloody fool wouldn't listen, so I told young Rollo to take a scout around and keep an eye out for trouble. Good thing I did too as he found a company of the town watch sneaking up on our position down a dried-up ravine. Anyway by the time Rollo gets back to warn us he's got a fine new parting..."
"Aye captain," Rollo butted in, rubbing the fresh scar on his forehead and spilling the half-emptied tankard of ale in his hand. "I knew I should have worn my hat," and the company erupted in guffaws, tankards clanking and fists hammering the trestles.
"...and we had just enough time," Yfain continued, "to grab our axes and meet them in good order. We laid a few in the dirt but there were too many to drive off, so I had a couple of the lads stow our gear on to a pack horse and we retreated in good order. Last I saw was that fat pig being hauled off in chains, and the rest of his mob being done for. Here's to their memory, there were some fine lads amongst 'em" more clanking of tankards.
"I guess you won't be heading back south anytime soon then."
"No mi'lady, I reckon things are a bit hot down that way just now. Anyway, we heard rumours of some mad Cagilian woman trying to raise an army here in Krimml and I knew there was only one person they could be talking about," he grabbed Moira by the shoulders and she returned the gesture as the whole company burst into song...
Hey, hey, hey, hey who the heck are we, We are the warriors from the mighty CE...
January 3rd - Krimml
The ale had flowed freely and a good time was being had by all. Well all except the poor landlord and his staff who wanted to shut up shop for the night. A gold coin extra had kept them quiet, but eventually one of the neighbours had called the city watch and rather than get involved in a brawl they'd staggered back to their camp singing that old bawdy favourite The Abbess of Eaglin.
The guards at the city gate hadn't been too happy to see a dozen seasoned warriors rolling towards them, massive axes over their shoulders and singing incoherently in some foreign tongue, but Moira had somehow managed enough composure to convince the officer in charge that they'd be much less of a threat on the other side of the wall and he let them stagger through the postern with an audible sigh of relief.
Unsurprisingly she'd started the next day with a throbbing hangover, further compounded by Yfain's insistence on playing some damned drinking game when they got back to camp. The details were kind of hazy... Thankfully the camp sawbones Helion knew his leechcraft well enough and had concocted a vile brew to drive the evil humours away, taking most of her breakfast with them. She swore she'd never touch Alowcan brandy again...
Now Moira was sat in her pavilion with her squire Iraen unbuckling her black armour, every inch of her body aching from hours of training and the repeated pounding of axe on steel. The life of a warrior wasn't always the glamorous one the bards liked to eulogise...
"Mi'lady," the tent flap parted and Heinman entered, "there's a courier outside from Sir Niles Daray. He seeks a private audience."
"Send him in, I'll see what he wants."
"This way," Heinman held the flap open and signalled for the liveried messenger to enter.
"Mi'lady," the man bowed formally and Moira found herself feeling decidedly out of place sat amidst the heap of discarded armour in her sweat-stained arming jack and hose.
"You may go Iraen, I'll deal with the rest." The young squire followed Heinman outside.
In the meantime the messenger reached inside his tunic and produced a letter bearing the Daray seal, "My master Sir Niles sends his compliments and bids me present you with this."
"Interesting," she accepted the letter and broke the seal, reading the bold hand contained within and studying the attached letter of credit. "Did your master inform you of the contents?"
"No mi'lady, merely that it is of the utmost urgency."
"So it is," she paused, overwhelmed by the generosity of the gift.
"Extend my warmest regards to Sir Nevil. Inform him that thanks to this gift we march for Greatbridge on the morrow with as many fine lads as we can muster, and present him with this gift as a token of my respect," she paced over to her campaign trunk and withdrew the last bottle of Alowcan brandy. It was a twenty year vintage from the dry valleys of Irdalni - no wonder she'd felt so bad this morning, it was a sipping liqueur and she'd been knocking it back like ale!
"You'd also better tell him to be careful when he drinks it. That was a particularly distinguished year."
January 4th - Hagley
The column had come to a stop in Hagley shortly before dusk and Moira was bathing in a convenient brook when the herald came thundering through their camp.
"Victory! Victory in Montijo! The armies of Sirion have been scattered to the winds!" barely pausing in his headlong dash for Westmoor.
"Well that's interesting news," she mused, slipping beneath the icy waters to wash the remaining soap from her hair, "that's interesting news indeed."
An hour later she was addressing her men and the people of the village, dressed in her finest livery and freshly polished armour. Her squire Iraen stood to one side with quill and venom, writing down her spontaneous speech. She'd have to reward that girl for her efforts.
"People of Fontan,
I wish to announce my candidacy for the Lordship of Montijo.
Now some may think it a great impertinence for a knight newly arrived in this fair realm to aspire to so lofty a title - especially when the liberation of that fair province is the work of others' hands. Doubtless that is true, and were I seeking such endowement purely for my own comfort I would not dare shame my honour or that of my family by making such an outrageous proposal.
But comfort and profit are the least of my concerns. I am intent on building a company of warriors unlike any other in these isles: a hammer with which to smite the foes of Fontan; an anvil against which to break their finest knights. But warriors of such high elan will need a home to call their own, and thus I claim it as their right for the blood they will lay dawn in the months and years to come!"
The roar of approval from her small band fell drowned the bemused silence of the gathered commoners, stunned by the bragadiccio of the heavily armoured strangers so newly arrived in their midst.
"There are those amongst you who will say that I am unproven and that there are worthier candidates, candidates who have paid for this high honour in blood. That is definitely true. There is no knight in this realm that I do not hold in high esteem, for all have fought like lions in the bloody conflict which engulfs us.
But I ask you, who among them can be said to offer the promise of a fresh approach to our realm's troubles? Which if elevated would dedicate their efforts to the sole task of building the finest field force this continent has ever seen? And then unleashing it upon the enemies of Fontan?
I entreat you one and all to put aside the prejudice of experience and instead look at the heavy axes and plate armour of the men who follow me: are these not men who deserve a home on the marches of this realm? Mighty-thewed warriors who will give their lives without complaint that your burghers and tenants sleep soundly in their beds. Place your faith in walls of steel and hearts of oak, and we shall do honour to this realm and all her fair children!"
She turned to Iraen as her troops continued to voice their approval. "Have that copied and read in every public square in the realm. We are here to stay, and I want everyone to know it."
January 6th - Greatbridge
"So Heinman, it appears that I've created a rather unexpected controversy," Moira took a gulp from her canteen and passed it to the captain.
"Indeed ma'am. Who'd have thought it, eh?" he grinned as he took a deep draught and passed it back, replacing the stopper. They had been marching solidly for three days now, first on orders to join the garrison at Westmoor and now at the behest of a potential patron.
"Well it wasn't my intent Carl. But really, we're being asked to shed our blood for principles of democracy and yet many of our own would rather that this realm become a dictatorship!"
"You know you're overreacting Moira," he gave her that particular look that her father used when she'd been involved in a squabble with the estate lads.
"You're right. Chancellor Tal is a good man and I know he was acting in the best interests of the realm, but this notion of emergency powers unsettles me: they're words intended to make the bitter taste of tyrany taste sweet," she slung her canteen over her shoulder with a resigned shrug.
"Oh come on, we've seen plenty of tyrants in our travels but none here in Fontan with the stomach for it," and there was a hint of admiration in Carl Heinman's voice as he said it.
"And if that ever changes, then we can sell our liberty dearly," Moira's face brightened at the thought of battle.
"That's the spirit lass," he roared with laughter as his gauntleted palm slapped her shoulder.
January 9th - Commonyr
"So the oath is sworn Milady?" Iraen struggled to buckle her mistress's left pauldron in place.
"It is Iraen. I have joined our destiny to that of Marchioness Abigail of Negev, and now we must prove ourselves worthy of the trust she has placed in us," Moira flexed her fingers and studied the cunningly wrought steel scales protecting them.
Tonight her company would make the forced march to Oberndorf and on the morrow face whatever force Sirion and her allies could muster. The prospect of battle after all these long months of travel had her excited like a young girl preparing for her first hunt, and judging by the sounds her men were making they were equally as eager to get into the fray.
"There you are milady, every buckle is as it should be."
The newly invested Knight of Negev reached for her oak-hafted axe and tested its weight, gripping it in both hands as she raised it above her head with a frenzied battle cry. Down came the heavy blade in a perfect arc, stopping a hair's breadth above the seat of her arming stool.
"Yes, that definitely feels comfortable enough to march in," she lowered the head of the axe to the floor.
"If you don't mind me asking milady, will the battle go well for us tomorrow?" Iraen's voice was a quiet whisper, as if she was worried that she spoke out of turn.
Moira gave her young squire a warm smile. "Have you ever seen a battle close up Iraen?"
"Well few battles are ever certain. All that can be certain is that we will fight with honour, and if that should mean we die with honour then that is our duty. But the scouts say that Oberndorf is lightly defended and we will not be attacking alone."
"Thank you milady."
"Now go and organise the servants, we need to get this camp ready to move out within the hour," and she strode from her pavilion with axe in one hand and lion helm in the other to find two score fearsome warriors gathered around her colours, laughing and joking.
"Pull yourselves together, you look like common freebooters. At dawn we will arrive in Oberndorf and I want every man jack of you fit to fight as a unit. Do we stand together? Or do we die alone?"
"WE STAND TOGETHER!!!" came the rough chorus, heavy with Cagilan accents and the thumping of gauntleted fists against cuirasses.
"Then let's be about our business lads. We march for Oberndorf and hopefully on the morrow we'll make a bloody harvest for our new mistress. The baggage train will follow behind."
And without further fanfare the Imperial Cagilan Guard set forth to war.
January 13th - Oberndorf
"No Carl, it doesn't matter if our Chancellor is a good man. These drumhead appointments run counter to every principle of democracy," Moira paced her pavilion, flagon in hand and a scowl on her face that would shriven the flesh from the walking dead.
Captain Carl Heinman was sat at the campaign desk, his own tankard half-emptied during their heated debate, poring over the declaration that she had prepared. "But a public protest Moira, that's a strong step to take."
"Damn your impudence Carl!" she downed another mouthful, "I know my sister told you to keep an eye on me, but Brigdha'd stand by me on this. A Chancellor may be appointed to manage the nation, but in a democracy it's the right of the realm's knights to choose new Lords from amongst their number. Let that principle slip and we can no longer claim to be a democracy, but the blinkered lapdogs of a tyranny."
She turned to Yfain. The grizzled giant sprawled on a mound of cushions, a bottle inscribed with Alebadian markings gripped in his massive paw. "What do you think?"
"What do I care Moira," he took a long gulp from his brandy bottle. "I owe my loyalty to you, and that's fine by me. This talk of democracy means nothing, otherwise why are there fresh corpses hanging on the gibbets?"
He took another pull on the bottle. "Don't get me wrong, I won't shed any tears over a few peasants planning dissent. But what kind of men string up their fellows in the name of freedom? It's cowards work, and I'm glad we had no part of it."
Moira rounded on him, her eyes blazing like hot coals. "But we did Yfain. We stood back whilst they kicked in the doors and rounded up any man with the guts to damn our eyes for burning their crops. It's one thing to face a man in battle and cut him down before he does the same to me, but to see him strung up like a common criminal for wanting to protect his home - that's cold-blooded murder of a kind I have no stomach for. And we stood by and let it happen!"
She hurled her flagon across the room, spilling ale as it spun end-over-end and crashed into her armour stand.
"IRAEN!! BRING ME ANOTHER FLAGON!!"
"Coming Mistress," the young squire entered the pavilion with a fresh jug of ale.
"Thank you," Moira took the proferred cup of ale and downed it in one. "I fear there's not enough ale in this whole damned continent to wash this foul taste from my mouth. How much more of that Alebadian brandy have you got stashed away Yfain?"
"You don't want to know," his battle-scarred muzzle broke into a rogueish grin. "But I'll wager it's more than enough to get all of us paralytic."
"Good," she turned to her squire. "Care to join us girl?"
"I...I don't know milady," the young girl's eyes darted around the room nervously.
Moira slapped her on the back, "Of course you do! It's about time you had an education in drinking lass. Carl, dig out those brandy glasses from the bottom draw. Yfain? Fetch another bottle or two and we'll drink ourselves into a stupour."
January 15th - Oberndorf
Moira and her company marched through the night as part of the retreat column, pulling their wounded on improvised travois. Seven of her brave Cagilans had lost their lives in the battle. Seven men and women who'd been left in the alien soil of Oberndorf.
Her mind turned back to those last frantic moments as the exhausted Guards shielded their wounded in the heart of that ferocious melee. Two hours of pitched battle and they had barely moved, their mighty axes whirling as they held back the Elven onslaught and their lion helms roaring until they were hoarse. The cunningly wrought Cagilan armour stopped many mortal blows, but the Elves and their allies were ferocious fighters at close quarters and the fighting began to take its toll. Even Yfain was breathing heavily as he hurled his bulk into the shieldwall facing him.
"IT'S NO GOOD," her captain Carl Heinman yelled during a brief lull in the attack. His helmet had been discarded and his face was puffy and damp with sweat. "THE MEN HAVE FOUGHT LIKE LIONS MA'AM, BUT THEY'RE SPENT. WE SHOULD WITHDRAW."
Moira leaned on her axe handle, catching her breath. "YOU'RE RIGHT CARL. WE'VE DONE OUR BIT AND THE BATTLE'S ALREADY WON. LET'S PULL OUR WOUNDED AND DEAD OUT WHILST WE HAVE THE CHANCE."
It ran against her nature to leave the field whilst there were still enemies to fight, but she could see that her men were literally fit to drop and she wouldn't squander their lives unnecessarily. So it was that the Imperial Cagilan Guard gathered up their dead and dying and withdraw from the battle in solemn good order, carrying the dead on stretchers made from scavenged spears and scraps of light armour. As they did the banners of their liege, Marchioness Abigail of Negev, lead the final counterattack that would drive the Elven forces from the field...
January 15th - Krimml
The battle-hardened Cagilans formed a grim guard of honour for the three coffins being lowered into the waiting graves. Of the twenty-five warriors who'd followed Moira to Oberndorf ten had lost their lives, honouring the oaths they had sworn to their Mistress, and she the oath that she had sworn to the Marchioness of Negev.
"Let their names be spoken with honour throughout the realms, for their deaths were those of heroes. All praise them in the name of Fontan," the priest looked tired, but his voice remained strong and clear. Doubtless he'd been asked to officiate at several such interments in the aftermath of recent battles.
Moira had had her squire Iraen bring a wineskin with her, and now that the simple service was concluded she made a libation over each of the graves then shared the remainder with the survivors whilst the gravediggers filled the gaping holes with the rich, dark earth of Krimml.
"Let us drink my friends to the memory of our fallen brothers," and she spoke each of their names with the fondness reserved for family: Kieran; Uthwas; Neldor; Ercus; Sigwald; Belenus; Harrin; Donult; Melenis; and Jurrich. And after each name one or other of the company repeated his deeds in battle and the manner of his death.
"I have had this monument prepared in their honour, that a small portion of this alien land be forever home to the fallen heroes of Cagil," at her signal a local stonewright and his apprentices brought forth a simple slab of marble inscibed with the legend:
|THE HONOURED DEAD|
|THE IMPERIAL CAGILAN GUARD|
January 17th - Oberndorf
The air was thick with arrows as the charge broke across the open field, the banners of Fontan riding high on a tidal surge of plate steel and shimmering chainmail. The ground thundered under the weight of men and horses, the air rung with their hoarse battle cries, and the allied line drew ever closer: the unearthly Sirionite elves and their human allies rushing to meet them.
The sheer mass of the Sirionites swept the Fontanese vanguard from the field like grass before a winter storm. And then the real killing began. The first battle of Oberndorf had been a bloody affair, but it paled in comparison to the charnal house of those first confused minutes as arrows rained on attacker and defender alike, and the well-ordered lines broke down into a dozen confused melees.
Moira and her men, hastily reinforced but a few days earlier, were in the thick of the bloody fray, their mighty axes whirling, cleaving through man and elf with equal glee as they fought for ground. Against the enemy foot they were unmatched, but of a sudden the ranks parted and the cruel gleaming lances of their cavalry fell like a thunderbolt.
The Imperial Cagilan Guard stood their ground, forming a protective curtain around Galawyn the standard-bearer, but nothing could hold back that onslaught: within moments more than half her men lay dead or dying including Galawyn, his armour riven by lance and sword where he'd sought to protect the colours with his own body. A grinning Rancaguan knight had snatched them from the dying man and was making good his escape when Yfain loomed up behind him and brought his axe down in a deadly arc, cleaving rider and horse with a single blow, a ghastly mockery of their former grace...
Moira threw her helm aside so that her men could see she was still alive and heartened they turned on the horsemen milling amongst them and drove them off, reforming in a tight wedge to face the once more advancing enemy infantry. The lines clashed together again, the Fontanese inexorably gaining ground against the outclassed defenders, and the guard were soon pressed hard, their numbers dwindling until at the last only Heinman, Yfain and four of her men were still able to fight.
They had fallen back behind the front rank to momentarily catch their breaths, armour dented and smeared with blood, skin slick with sweat and grease, tired limbs numb and unresponsive.
"THAT'S ONE HELL OF A FIGHT THEY'RE PUTTING UP!!" one of the troopers, Kelin, had raised the lion visor of his dented helmet and was wiping a smear of blood from his left eye.
"AYE," Yfain took a deep gulp from the small flask of brandy that usually hung from his knife belt and passed it to him.
"I RECKON THESE ELVES DON'T FANCY BEING DRIVEN OUT A SECOND TIME," Carl waited his turn for the flask, the captain's usually serious tone lost to the moment.
Moira's flaming black hair clung to her face as she helped herself to a mouthful of the fiery liquid. A grimace of disgust crossed her face as she swallowed the vile brew, "I'M NOT EVEN GOING TO ASK WHERE YOU GOT THAT FROM. TASTES MORE LIKE ARMOUR POLISH THAN A DRINK FIT FOR HUMANS."
"WHO SAYS IT ISN'T, " he bellowed with laughter.
Regaining her composure Moira pulled her hair back out of her eyes and hefted her axe, "WELL GENTLEMEN, TIME TO GET BACK TO WORK."
"FOR FONTAN!!!" the small band hurled themselves back into the bloody carnage, axes rising and falling as they drove a wedge into the Rancaguan Templars facing them. Nearby companies followed their lead and the air was rent with the sounds of steel on steel, hoarse voices screaming in agony, the smell of blood and dung and fear. Moira could see the Duke of Oroya making a stand with his personal guard and sought to cut a path to him, careless of her own safety, but the enemy ranks were too thick. She was now separated from her men, caught in the bloody slaughter of the templars, her body black and blue where their ineffectual blows had sought to punture her plate armour.
The battle slipped into slow motion, the sounds muffled as she watched a Rancaguan knight bearing down on her. She could feel his eyes through the visor grill, the fetid breath of his maddened horse, the stench of death that preceded him.
She should have had the sense to dodge aside, but her reason was dulled by blood-lust and fatigue. She stood her ground, gripping swinging her axe above her head in preparation for the impact.
Closer. Closer. The drumming of hooves matched the beats of her heart as fear fought to master her limbs, but she stood her ground.
And then the impact. She brought her axe crashing into the rider's stomach, ripping him from his mount, but even as her momentum carried him clear of the panicking horse his blow landed squarely on her shoulder. She floundered in the churned earth and lost consciousness...
January 19th - Oberndorf
"Look lads, I know it's been a rough few days but there's more fighting to be done. Our advanced guard has already reached Salta and they need every man they can muster," Heinman tried not to study the half-dozen battered bodies crowding Helion's pavilion.
"You know I'm not comfortable moving them," the doctor had studied the orders received from Marshal Ertugrul with reigned forebearance. He had spent the greater part of his life mending the same hurts that in earlier years he'd been wont to cause, and he knew the practicalities of war. They were inside enemy territory and their only protection was to stay with the main body of the army - but how he dreaded that long march up country. Hi leechcraft would be sorely tested if the remaining half-dozen wounded were to be kept alive.
"I know," said Heinman, "and truth be told neither is her ladyship. We've fought two pitched battles in under a week for this damn patch of earth, and what will we have to show for it? The graves of sixteen men who will never return over the sea to their homes."
"Any news of the missing scouts?" Helion looked up from the young warrior he was tending, half the man's face was obscured by bandages and a foul-smelling poultice.
"No. But the chances are they're both dead by now. Her ladyship is taking that particularly hard seeing as Kelin and Hruthgar were the two who pulled her from the field. If it weren't for them she'd probably be dead or in an elven dungeon by now."
"Such are the fortunes of war," the leech turned back to his patient and administered a sleeping draught. "Admon here will need to be stretchered. I fear the sword which smashed his jaw may have left a fragment in the softer tissues within, and the bouncing of a baggage cart will probably kill him."
He stood and signalled Heinman out of the pavillion. The smoky air of the encampment smelt sweet after the dark confines of the sick tent.
"I'll be honest with you Carl, I don't give any of them more than an evens chance of recovering. I've done everything in power, but there's a certain point where it's a man's spirit that makes the difference. Call it fate, or divine intervention or whatever you like, but these men's lives are now in their own hands."
"Aye, well Dame Moira won't see it that way. In her mind she'll be the one giving the order for us to move out, and if any of them die on the march she'll see it as her responsibility. That my friend is the price of command."
January 20th - Salta
"Well that was a bloody waste of time," Yfain squatted swaying in the shade of a Jinbar tree, drinking surgical spirits purloined from Helion's wagon.
"But you've got to admit that was fun, haven't you?" Moira nudged him with her elbow, somehow missing the mass of bruises where a Rancaguan warhammer had repeatedly smashed his prone form, her mischievous grin drawing a hearty laugh and a splutter of blood from the massive warrior.
"Aye lass, just like the old days," he emptied the flask and hurled it into the surrounding bushes. "But look at you, barely a scratch on you. Anyone would think you'd been on a picnic or something."
She didn't quite know how she'd managed it herself. They'd pressed through the night as swiftly as they dared with the remaining wounded, and Helion being the miracle-worker he was had somehow managed to keep even Admon alive. Dispatches from the previous day suggested that Salta was held in reasonable strength by their advanced guard and she'd hoped to rendevous sometime around dawn, but much to the dismay of her company they'd found the field held by a Rancaguan army and a ragtag of Fontenese stragglers lining up to contest it.
She'd have preferred the Guard to be in the centre of the line where their impressive armour could have done most good, but battle was wbout to commence and it was clear to Moira that Fontan would not win they day. So her took up position next to the archers, ready to cover the retreat. The enemy charge was swift and deadly, engulfing the small Fontanese force in a storm of steel and feathered shafts.
Moira watched the ranks in front of her evaporate under the impact, and moments later she was engaged in the bloodiest melee of her life. But today her ancestors must have looked favourably on her, for as her companies fell one by one in the churned earth she somehow managed to keep her feet and fight on. The sheer number of assailants pressing against her made it impossible to wield her axe effectively, and when she felt the crunch of an ill-timed mace striking the top of her helm she had only a second to reflect on the futility of war as she staggered and fell.
When she came to an hour later it took some moments for the fact that she was still alive to battle its way through her dazed senses. Raising her head carefully so as not to attract attention she was surprised to find most of the enemy force returned to their encampment. A few scavengers were looting the fallen but with no little effort she somehow managed to crawl slowly through the surrounding mud and corpses and slip from the field, hoping against all hope that the baggage train had escaped the ruin.
After an hour of searching she eventually found it in a copse a few miles from the site of the battle, the young squires nervously standing picket with hunting bows and hatchets. There was muted euphoria as she strode nonchalantly into the makeshift camp, many of her followers having lost husbands and lovers in the bloody carnage of the morning. There were none though that were not glad to see their Mistress snatched so unexpectedly from the jaws of death.
Sending the squires out to round up any survivors, Moira sat in the lee of the provision wagon and ate the hearty breakfast that she'd foregone earlier that morning. And that's where the battered and bloody Yfain had found her.
"You know drinking that stuff will probably kill you," she offered him a hunk of coarse bread stuffed with butter and cold meats.
"It and who's army!" he guffawed, more bloody spittle staining his fearsome beard, his swaying squat turning into one of the least elegant sprawls Moira could ever recall seeing. By the looks of him he'd be out for a fair few hours.
"HELION! COME PATCH THIS DAMNED FOOL UP BEFORE HE COUGHS HIS LUNGS UP!"
January 26th - Oberndorf
"Now that really was like old times," Carl Heinman watched the fleeing Rancaguans with flushed excitement. The small band of Cagilans had arrived in Oberndorf just after dawn and the camp followers were busy preparing their breakfasts when Rollo slipped into camp with news of a detachment of Rancaguan infantry advancing on their position.
All thought of breakfast was set aside in the men's eagerness to face more of the treacherous elf-friends and a muster with Tzarina's archers was quickly arranged. Even without the archers the result would have been a foregone conclusion, the lightly-armed and armoured northerners would crumble, but Moira had expected them to put up more of a show. After all they did outnumber the Cagilans more than three to one!
Perhaps it was the ferocious lion roar of their baffled helms, or the careless ease with which they handled their axes, or perhaps the poor fools had expected to find the area undefended now that Fontan's main field force had moved on to Tabost. But whatever the case they routed like the very hounds of hell were upon them, leaving their bravest and best face down in the earth - another bloody offering to the spirit of Oberndorf.
Moira studied one of the dead troopers, a slip of a youth no older than her brother Cathal. She wondered how the lad was doing - probably still giving his tutors the merry run around no doubt. He'd always been such an unruly boy...
"Yes, just like old times Carl. Fools sending their children to a war they've already lost," she knelt next to the lifeless figure and gently closed his eyes.
"Fetch some shovels and let's give these foolish lads a fit burial."
"Yes Milady," and he left her momentarily to her thoughts. Thoughts of folly and glory and the old men who spin such empty lies into grand truths, all the better to achieve their ends. Old Rancagua would be a dead land before this war was through...
January 27th - Oberndorf
"Scouts be damned! I'll find the cowards myself," Moira swung herself into the saddle of her chestnut stallion, her black plate armour discarded in favour of a padded fawn doublet, her axe replaced by a light sword. The powerfully built steed from the vale of Calis whinnied its excitement at the prospect of fresh adventure.
"Shhsh! Shhsh Ironhoof," she leaned against he stallion's neck and nuzzled its ear. In recent weeks she'd spent precious little time with her beloved mount, instead tramping across the dusty highways of Fontan and beyond in step with her loyal infantry.
"You have a reckless spirit Moira Dubhaine," Carl Heinman gave her that same disapproving tone of voice she remembered from her days as a young squire, tilting at the quintain under his stern gaze. At times the Captain of her warband, a man she was proud to call friend, still acted more like her schoolmaster.
"How could I possibly fail to remember - you've been lecturing me on that point for as many years as I care to remember Captain Heinman. Perhaps you should have stayed at home with Brigdha."
Yfain roared with laughter as the Captain made to reply but thought better of it. "You're a good man Carl and none I'd rather have watching my back in a fight, but there're some battles you're never going to win."
"Aye, well much good though it does me I have my duty. Her ladyship's mother was very specific in her orders, and this sort of adventure is just the thought of thing she wouldn't approve of."
"Which of course is exactly why the lass is going to do it," the roguish giant took a gulp from his canteen and handed it to his nominal commander. "Have a dram of this Carl, it's a cheeky little spirit I picked up whilst we were down in Negev."
"If you two have quite finished I'll be on my way. And Yfain?"
"No getting the Captain drunk. I'd hate to have to lecture him on the evils of alcohol," and she set off at a jaunty pace, humming The Abbess of Eaglin, to see what she could learn...
January 28th - Oberndorf
"I believe our good Chancellor may have received one too many blows to the head," Moira tore another strip from the joint of venison she was sharing with her warriors and chewed thoughtfully on it. "I imagine a lot of my peers must have choked on their breakfast this morning though, or assumed this a cunning Sirionite forgery."
"You think it's genuine then Milady?" Iraen refreshed her cup with the light elven wine they'd liberated from a Sirionite baggage cart.
"Well the proclamation bears the Chancellor's seal, and Yfain here assures me that it's the genuine article."
"That I do lass. There's too much wear on the die for the seal to have been freshly minted, and I doubt an elven craftsman could bring himself to ruin such a fine work of art. For a race so cunning with their hands, they make lousy forgers."
"And you don't?" Rollo's fingers darted onto the giant's plate in pursuit of a tender morsel of meat, only to be slapped away with surprising deftness.
"I may have had cause to learn a thing or two in my travels boy. And perhaps when you've seen as many battles as I have you'll learn to keep your fingers to yourself," there was general amusement at the young scout's discomfort.
"Seriously though," Carl Heinman leaned across the trestle and reached for the cheese, "this is the kind of thing that if carried through lead to civil war. We're already fighting enough foes on the outside, without stoking the flames within."
"You're right Carl," Moira passed him the cheese platter with its small pot of precious Cagilan mustard. "The Chancellor has been very careful to stay within the bounds of the law even if not its intent. He clearly believes this strengthening of central power is the only way Fontan can survive her current predicament..."
"And he could well be right," interjected Rollo.
"That he could," she continued, "but the price would be a heavy one to pay. Foreign propagandists would have a field day, and at home there would be a growing sense of resentment as more of this realm's historic freedoms became expendable. Will all who currently serve Fontan's banner be as eager to take the field for King Tal?"
"I have to agree," Helion the surgeon rarely joined in their mealtime banter, but as the only one of the company who had be born and raised in Fontan this was clearly a matter that touched him deeply. "We Fontanese have never worn the yoke of tyranny well. It is not in our nature to let one man set himself up above all others and stand unquestioned in his governance of the realm."
"Nor we Cagilians my friend," Yfain raised his cup to the physician and the company followed his lead.