Dawn: above Cadroc’s Vale
Arising from where the feeble dawn light had filtered through the thick mist to bathe his face, Edric joined Bardic, Draic the war-prince, and Gollarn the battle veteran. Celo stood near, translating key phrases back and forth between Bardic’s council of war and the others.
During his devotions, Edric had recovered his wind. He noted that Celo and Morath too seemed well enough. Two of the Cimmerian striplings still looked pale and ill. he wasn’t close enough to Kuruk to make out any change of expression: but the little Hyrkanian sat his pony, ready for the descent. He turned back to Bardic:
“What have we decided?”
“We’ve not made a final decision. Your own thoughts on what Mitra might help with may shift our thinking. At present, I’ve suggested a double battle line to Prince Draic, myself and Gollarn to the fore along with four of the warriors, and himself with the remaining warriors in the second. And I’m thinking Hod should stand to the fore with us.”
“Mitra has many blessings to grant, but these must be balanced with my ability to heal, later. First, I will provide fortitude for we three affected by the thin air.”
“What about the armoring spell?” Morath asked from a few feet distant. “We murderers function best if we aren’t so worried about being hit by oafs swinging axes.”
“Let me await events: so far these have not really been needed,” Edric replied, “it will be far more important to get through the battle.”
He prayed, ignoring the scowls of the Cimmerian hillmen, and a feeling of vigor surged through his veins; and he could see that Celo and Morath felt the same.
“As for other aid, I can ask for Mitra’s blessings as usual, call doom upon a foe, pray that we smite harder and the enemy weaken… protect you from fear… just the usual save for one thing: Mitra has granted me the power of a warrior born, for a brief time, should I have dire need of it. So don’t write me out of the battle line.”
“That’s good! So you can stand in the second line. I think that is the key to victory: that is where the decision will be made. The lad that’s still fit enough to run can follow close, helping with wounded. The other two lads will have to wait here, ready to raise the alarm if we fail. The murderers – to use Morath’s word – can stay on either flank and fight as they will.”
“If your words are true, and the second line is the key to victory,” Draic commented, a note of jealousy in his voice, “why does not Gollarn stand there too?” He had taken several dints and gashes in the first day’s battles but stood proud and ready to fight.
“Ehrm, Gollarn? A fine idea by our Prince, Draic!” Bardic said, turning to Gollarn and attempting to telegraph the desired answer. Gollarn was no fool.
“A fine idea indeed! I only feared that the men who followed me would prefer me to stand in front with them, but true, they can stand before me, and then I can reinforce the front line at the vital time.”
And so, having ensured that Draic’s name was not tarnished but having protected him as much as possible, the council closed and the warriors, at a few words from Prince Draic, rose, drew off their cloaks, and began the descent.
Battle is joined
By word of mouth, all knew that Cadroc’s village was much more defensible than most, up a steep-sided cannock dominating the narrow part of the vale and overlooking the broader, more fertile part. As they moved towards it, the dawn mist effectively provided a cloak for their advance – but prevented them from being able to best plan their exact line.
Suddenly, a scream rang out: a warrior on the right of the line, loping in front of Gollarn, had sprung a stripling from cover: the lad cried out a second time as the invaders cut him down.
“That’s raised the alarm!” Bardic growled, well aware of how easily sound travels in mist. “Let’s lift our pace!”
Leaping down from rock to rock, and jogging where the turf allowed, the Danann war-band of eighteen advanced swiftly on the dimly-glimpsed cannock. Celo found himself wheezing and gasping, and lagging behind the right of the line. Over to his left he could see that the stripling and Kuruk were also having trouble keeping up, though in Kuruk’s case it seemed more because his pony could not easily scramble down the hill-slopes.
Over on the far left of the line, Morath was running to keep up with the swift Cimmerians, but thanks to Mitra’s help, had little difficulty. Then the baying of hounds reached his ears. He could see that Bardic, running a few yards in front of him, had heard it too. Morath pressed closer in towards Draic for safety. Bardic lifted his hand and cried out for the lines to Close up! Close up! Out ahead, figures could be glimpsed assembling below the village. Cadroc’s Callanach were not surprised, but nor were they ready!
No fewer than nine great war-hounds raced towards Bardic’s half-left, from one flank of the cannock. At full pace, still baying, they leapt and struck, jaws snapping and ripping. Had Cadroc had a steady rank of tried warriors to follow up, the Danann may have been in great danger: but the speed of the attack had prevented such. Instead, the warriors of the left files, including Edric and Hod, managed to cut the hounds down with no worse than one man downed. As Edric began to move to tend the man, Bardic sternly commanded him:
“You stand with the second line, Edric! The wounded must wait until battle is over!”
And sure enough, Cadroc’s warriors now charged, voicing their Cimmerian death-howls, crazy with berserk fury! Up behind them, Cadroc, a black-bearded, barrel-chested man, and two strongly-built lieutenants, advanced much more slowly, towards Draic’s end of the line.
The ringing clash of steel on steel and the sickening crunch of blades biting through bone and flesh could barely be heard over the raging screams of the warriors of both sides. It was the Cimmerian death-grip: the combatants would throw their lives away to kill their foes! Bardic let the rage feed his strength: lashed out with his great-sword, leveling two or three foes at once. Hod did his part, pragmatically chopping with his battle-axe, finding the death-heedless warriors he faced to be no match for his seasoned battle-hardness.
As the superior numbers of the Callanach began surrounding the flanks of the Danann battle lines, Draic and Gollarn struck, one at either flank, and the dismayed Callanach fell before them. In seconds it was over, the last of the Callanach falling, leaving a few skirmishers throwing javelins or loosing bows as they retreated back up the cannock. Again it seemed to the experienced, battle-hardened adventurers that Cadroc had not had time to properly co-ordinate the parts of the force.
Cadroc himself advanced to nearly the base of his cannock, and stopped. Dramatically, he lifted an arm, and pointed at Draic: beckoned him out. Clearly, this was a challenge of leader to leader!
Bardic turned a worried face towards his fellows:
“Prince Draic is a bonny fighter, but Cadroc is unwounded and a renowned warrior. I wonder if we risk too much by agreeing? But how to prevent this?”
“Isn’t Cadroc a known killer of small children and – as I understand your barbaric thinking- a man without honor?” Morath queried pragmatically.
“Aye, without honor! Thank you indeed, Morath! Then Prince Draic, you need not worry about meeting the cur – it will be my pleasure to cut him down for you!”
“That’s well!” admitted Draic, “I’ll pursue the skirmishers into the village and plead with the women to surrender, while you finish Cadroc. I have no doubt, cousin, that your blade will best his.”
“And I’ll take him on too,” added Gollarn.
“I’ll join the fun too – there’s three of them!” Morath added. Signaling Celo and Kuruk – pragmatically holding that the more cover the better – Morath set off alongside the two powerful Cimmerians.
Both sides advanced at a jog, then as they neared, Cadroc bellowed a command – and his lieutenants changed!
Appearing to burst out of the skin of the man it inhabited, a gray-scaled demon shrieked, and flapped its great batlike wings, and launched itself at Morath! The Zamorian was born knowing demons and their ways, and rolled under the worst of its taloned attacks, relying on speed and agility to keep it from overwhelming him. As he sprang past Cadroc’s oncoming rush, Morath stabbed shrewdly sideways, inflicting a cut, and dodged onward.
Appearing to erupt from every pore of Cadroc’s other lieutenant, a mound of stone and earth towered, still vaguely human in shape above the waist. The earth moved with it like a wave as it surged towards Gollarn – who stabbed, then backed off, attempting to ward it off with his shield. Unnerved by the uncanny attack, he kept on retreating.
Cadroc himself charged Bardic, who met him with a solid, bone-jarring crash. Still driven by the red mists of fury, Bardic smashed Cadroc’s guard down and cut deep into his side. But that one stroke, that could have finished the fight, was not enough. Cadroc was a fell and powerful fighter, and the battle raged on.
Now Bardic himself was in danger: the earth-creature seized him and began bearing him down into the earth! Morath continued to hunt Cadroc, dodging the demon as best he could, and Cadroc belabored Bardic with full force! Trapped, Bardic perforce drew his poniard and stabbed at the elemental. He sank to his knees in the earth. Then deeper.
With a mighty roar, Edric charged into the battle! Chain and cassock straining over suddenly-bulging thews, he wielded his quarterstaff like a matchless warrior! Mitra’s power flashed from his eyes! Heartened by this show of power, Gollarn began back towards the combat from where he had retreated – but fatigue now weighed down his limbs, and his return would be too late for Bardic, he could see.
Celo, now recovered again from the wheezing coughing that had weakened him earlier, ran towards safe bowshot and loosed at the elemental’s broad form. Kuruk galloped his pony in and two arrows buried themselves deep in the elemental’s form. Bardic, now with only his nose above the earth, held his breath and stabbed again with the poniard: and the elemental’s grip on him dissolved! Gasping, he drew himself up, and to grips with Cadroc, who was already assailed by Edric and the dodging, weaving Morath. Over their heads, the demon shrieked and struck!
The warlord, frothing with rage at not being able to put paid to Bardic, struck again and again, and Bardic found himself near fainting as the rage that had powered him thus far ebbed and Cadroc’s blade bit deep. As he clinched with Cadroc, he felt a hammer blow go through the warlord’s body: a sharp point nudged his ribs: he looked down: Kuruk’s arrow had taken Cadroc through the heart! With a convulsive shudder and a last look of hatred, Cadroc fell dead!
Edric, now able to help Morath, smashed the demon with his quarterstaff. Arrows from Celo and Kuruk finished the creature off. Morath winced as it struck the earth and dissolved into its true form. He knew enough to look away: men’s wits had been blasted before by things that mortal eyes should never witness!
After some careful words from Draic, an uneasy truce settled over Cadroc’s village. The women, most of whom had belted on a sword or held an axe, were willing to talk peace, especially as the foreigners had helped tend the wounded among the Callanach fallen. But few, if any, were able to say much about why Cadroc had taken children, or for what purpose.
Bardic, who would never describe himself as a deep thinker, was content.
“He wanted the children for sacrifice, for sorcery! And there you have it – a demon and an elemental!”
But Morath, a subtler thinker and more used to arcane skulduggery, objected.
“But Bardic, how would a hairy brigand like him – no offence – learn anything about sorcery? Demons don’t just pop up like mushrooms… unless you are drunk on a certain hill outside Shadizar at the wrong time of night! But we’re not here to talk about my mother… anyway, you need to find out a bit more.”
At last, at Draic’s earnest entreaty, a woman came forward. Draic brought her to Bardic.
“This is Mona. She knows of a child.”
“My child! I had one, I swear!” Mona swiped her wrist across her eyes, as though seeing a vision or remembering a dream. “She was with me… then she was gone! My man said we had never had children! But a woman remembers! And I remember Cadroc” – she waved her hand vaguely out west – “heading into the hills. “As a girl I learned to read sign as well as any youth, and I followed them for a while – out into the western hills!”
The fane of Babd
Cutting Cadroc’s trail and learning a true path from it had taken hours. Bardic, an expert at such matters, had been helped by Morath, who had a certain mountain-canniness, and Gollarn and Celo. Edric had largely made up the numbers until now, though he had restored a degree of health to Morath and Bardic. Luckily, the high summer was conducive to keeping the odd tiny dint or impression intact. Now, the elusive trail led down to a dell or nook, nestled below steep, south-facing sandstone shelves. A pleasant little brook fell in a tiny waterfall from the sandstone and meandered off, providing welcome sustenance to herbs and grasses. Bardic was reminded of the fane that Ettis tended. A suggestion of white could be glimpsed on the grassy floor, there by the brook: bone white, perhaps?
A woman emerged, seemingly from the blank sandstone, though all watching realized a moment later that it had merely been a trick of the light. Tall and fair-skinned, and dark of hair, her large violet eyes suggested a foreign origin.
“Welcome to the fane of Badb of the red sleeves,” she said, her voice low and thrilling. Bardic and Gollarn knew of Badb, the warrior-woman deity, often called on by Cimmerian women seeking courage in battle. But she had a more sinister reputation as well. Could this be truly a priestess of Badb?
The more Bardic thought, the more he found the woman fascinating. Her skin almost glowed. Her breasts, covered with a minimal band fashioned of some thin leather, were full and inviting. The girdle she wore left tempting shadows around her loins. Beside him, he was dimly aware that Edric was shouting something:
“Don’t look at her eyes! She’s ensorceled you!”
Morath and Edric were indeed the only two to be wary enough not to be caught by the woman’s gaze. Taking care to keep his eyes averted from her face, Morath drew his short sword, and advanced past Bardic.
Bardic sensed that Morath intended harm to this perfect woman! Loathe to kill the Zamorian, he dealt him a stunning blow with the pommel of his sword. Morath shrugged it off, and skipped nimbly over the brook – noting that indeed that the bones of many small children littered it – and stabbed at: what?
The woman’s shape twisted and grew lither and longer, a great tail coiling around Morath and sharp teeth burying themselves in his neck as the lamia wrapped her arms around him. He heard and felt her moaning in ecstasy as she drained his blood. Unable to use his sword again, he drew a dagger and stabbed as hard as he could, again, and again!
Edric was in a quandary: if he attacked, would he be cut down by his fellows? If he did not attack, would Morath be able to free himself? He darted over the brook, and barred the way with his quarterstaff, shouting for Bardic and the others to snap out of the trance!
Morath wriggled free, and stabbed again. The monster was weakening! Edric swung his quarterstaff and Gollarn, at last free of the spell, charged and smote with his sword. As Bardic and Celo started forward to intervene, the lamia fell writhing in its death-throes and they came to their senses at last!
Smoke rises against the moon
Bardic laughed loudly as he watched Morath dart in, dodge the inevitable bite of the stallion’s great yellow fangs, seize the tether, dodge back out again, then make a leaping tumble past the great horse’s lashing hooves in order to mount it.
“Morath! You ought to sell that stallion when we get to Hieratgate! A stud beast will fetch a huge price there where people know the value of such things!”
“That’s true,” Edric agreed, “and even though I suspect Pras of arranging the death of a good man, he does have the money and business sense to be Morath’s best chance.” He was feeling fitter after a night’s rest near the fane and another dawn’s meditation. Bearing word of the fate of the children back to Cadroc’s village had not been easy on Bardic nor Draic, even though it had ensured the amity of the women and promised peace for many years. Edric felt bound to give Bardic any moral support he needed.
“Hieratgate… how long do you think it might take us?” Celo wondered.
“Hard to say,” Bardic replied non-committally. “Not all of the valleys between here and the Ymir Pass are friendly, or even neutral. There’s going to be negotiations needed.”
“Just as long as there’s no Cimmerian diplomacy,” Celo laughed. “What do you say, Gollarn? Cimmerian diplomacy?”
“I don’t understand your humor, Aquilonian,” Gollarn replied glumly.
“Why the long face?”
“I had thought that once I had helped cousin Bardic, we could return together to the great council fires and help our kin against the hated invaders. That’s you lot,” he added helpfully, if not tactfully.
“Gollarn,” Bardic coaxed, “on the one side, the west, there’s fortress walls defended by Bossonian longbows. On the other side, the south, there’s a rich monastery full of evil friars waiting to be looted. Why don’t you throw in with us for a season at least?”
Gollarn looked up to the western horizon. Only one of the five men he had brought over with him was fit. It would hardly be a good look returning, and four men dead or wounded. He pulled his beard in vexation.
“Someone’s calling!” Morath called over. He placed his cap over the stallion’s eyes, tossed the reins to Zekias and leapt clear once the lad had tethered the stallion once more. From the western slope of Draic’s valley, a runner came shouting into the village.
“The fortress is taken! Venarium burns! The tribes have stormed the walls and have sacked the fortress! Venarium burns!”
As the villagers clustered around Draic and the messenger, Edric lifted his eyes to the western hills. He sent a brief prayer to Mitra, commending the souls of the brave Aquilonian defenders to Mitra’s care. He had now seen at first hand how Cimmerians attacked, careless of their lives, fighting to the death. Venarium sacked! What would this mean for Aquilonian expansion, and what of the role of the Damson Friars in the sack? He wondered if brother Keth Alkaran had fallen defending the walls.
Sensing either Edric’s sadness or the greatness of the moment in the course of Hyborian affairs, Bardic, Morath and Celo joined Edric, leaving the Cimmerians to discuss the victory. As they watched, smoke became visible as a brownish pall on the western sky. The moon, already visible over the hills, was shrouded, taking on a reddish hue.
The color of blood.