Sneak Peek - The Protector's Reckoning
Jurgen Klines watched the long grass of the veld sway back and forth, dancing to the music of the winds that swirled off the snow-capped peaks just a league or so to his front. It was a sight to be remembered, he thought, as the last of his troops rode through the greenish brown stalks that brushed against the deep chests of the soldiers’ destriers.
So better to savor and value the vision while he could, because who knew what the next day, the next hour, or even the next few minutes might hold for them. Although he did have his suspicions as to what the future might bring. And it wasn’t a pleasant thought.
The Blademaster and his troops had reached one of the more remote regions of Caledonia, the eastern edge of the Breakwater Plateau where the open grasslands butted up against the Northern Spine, the mountain range leading to the north and eventually connecting to the Shattered Peaks and the Winter Pass. He had been worried when they started crossing the plain and was thankful now that their passage was coming to an uneventful end.
The beasts who had invaded the Kingdom were an obvious concern and always on his mind. Yet even more alarming in this part of Caledonia was the weather.
The massive steppe was known for its potent, almost freakish storms. Tornados that could be as vast as a mile and run for leagues, plowing through the tall grass and leaving nothing but dirt and rock in their wake. Hail the size of a man’s head striking with such force that the icy onslaught could shatter a man’s arm while he was trying to protect himself with his shield. Thunderstorms turning the sky blacker than the night creating a dark abyss with no hope of escape. Driving rain blowing sideways with such power that it scraped flesh raw.
Lightning smashing into the ground with such violence that huge geysers of soil and rock shot up hundreds of feet into the sky, the charge often setting the long grass ablaze. Wildfires expanding in all directions courtesy of the gusts that swept down from the Shattered Peaks to the north crashing into the winds that broke off the Northern Spine to the east, those unstoppable flames leaving behind massive fields of black ash that tarnished the grassland for leagues in all directions.
These storms came on with barely any warning. Klines had seen firsthand the destruction possible when caught up in one, lucky to survive the tempest, so he had sought to cross the Breakwater Plateau while the weather was calm. With that desire driving the companies of Royal Guard forward with an added sense of exigency, they had made good progress.
Almost too good, Klines thought. Because even though he wasn’t superstitious, he believed that his luck was about to change. It was probably because of the soldier galloping toward him from the west, urging his horse on as he tried to catch up as rapidly as possible to the long column that just now was leaving the Breakwater Plateau.
“You have bad news for me, Sergeant,” said Klines.
Benin halted his horse with a gentle pull on his reins, the large man’s grimace telling Klines all that he needed to know. Even with Benin’s surly, concerned expression, Klines did take a second to admire his Sergeant’s long beard. The reddish whiskers that could trail below the man’s belt had taken on the appearance of a war hammer, which resembled the one tied to the Sergeant’s saddle. Klines’ believed that design was certainly appropriate considering what he assumed that they would have to deal with today.
“My apologies, Blademaster, I do,” replied the Sergeant of the Royal Guard. “Our western patrols screening us on the grassland just reported in with some troubling though not unanticipated news.”
“Three packs, Blademaster.”
“We can handle that many,” Klines replied confidently, feeling a little bit better. He had six companies of the Royal Guard with him, slightly more than six hundred soldiers in all. When he took a closer look at Benin, whose face was scrunched up into a discouraging frown, Klines realized that he had spoken too soon. “You have more bad news for me.”
“I do, Blademaster. I’m sorry. Three packs coming toward us from the west, behind us. Another three packs coming at us from the south. Three more packs of those cursed beasts from the north.”
Klines nodded, trying to keep his countenance calm and poised, as he took in the information. Those numbers were a bit more concerning. Twelve Ghoules to a pack. So more than one hundred Ghoules in all. Still, that many Ghoules, although a tad more worrisome, usually would not trouble him. The number of soldiers under his command would make even nine packs of Ghoules think twice before attacking them.
“What about the scouts we sent into the lower reaches of the Spine?”
“No word from them, Blademaster.”
Benin left the rest of his thoughts unsaid. They both knew what that discovery meant. The scouts sent to the east should have returned by now. Their failure to do so only increased Klines’ worry.
“Do you believe that the Ghoules have set a trap for us, Benin? Because I certainly do.”
“Yes, Blademaster. A rather neat one at that.”
Klines nodded his head in agreement. In his mind, he visualized the terrain around them, having traveled this way several times before on the Crown’s business. In this part of the Kingdom, his options for finding a defensible position were in short supply.
“And Elders, Benin? Any Ghoules with those blasted black staffs?”
“Yes, Blademaster,” sighed Benin, his frown deepening. “Our scouts report at least one Elder with each pack. Maybe a few more than that. They couldn’t get an accurate count. For obvious reasons, the soldiers feared getting too close to the beasts.”
Klines nodded his head once again. Yes, better for the scouts to be cautious. He was glad that they listened to him about not taking any unnecessary risks.
Having so many Elders with the packs changed things, limiting their options even more. Elders were a different matter entirely. More dangerous even than the Ghoules.
His soldiers could fight the Ghoules. Even with the challenges presented by those beasts, his troops could still kill the creatures if they were smart, maintained their discipline, and employed the tactics they had been perfecting during the last few weeks. Against the Elders, however, they had no way to defend against the Dark Magic that would be used against them. His soldiers would be nothing more than sitting ducks.
For just a few seconds, and not for the first time, Klines wished that he had a few Magii with him. He clamped down on that useless thought quickly. There was no point in hoping for something that he couldn’t have. There were no Magii available to help. Duchess Stelekel was a day or two behind him with the Caledonian Army. Lady Winborne and the others were all far to the west on a more critical mission.
So what to do?
Obviously, the Ghoules were herding him. The beasts wanted to push him toward whatever waited for them in the east. Probably even more Ghoules and Elders.
Klines had no control over a great many things at the moment. Even so, a plan did come to mind that might make things a bit more challenging for the Elders.
“I’m assuming that the scouts have not rejoined us, correct?”
“Yes, Blademaster,” replied Benin. “Only one rider from each scouting party returned to report. The remainder of the scouts are still several leagues away from us and staying well clear of the Ghoules.”
Which meant that soon the pursuing Ghoules would be closer to him than his scouts would be. His scouts would be outside the noose settling around his larger force. That was something that he could work with. Perhaps it would even give them a chance to slip the trap, slim though the odds of that happening might be.
“Benin, this is what I want you to do.”
The towering beasts glided through the long grass at a speed that matched the fastest horse, their passage leaving wakes behind them that resembled a shark’s fin cutting through the ocean that swiftly disappeared as the strong gusts of wind regained mastery over the plain. They had been chasing the humans since the night before, the Ghoules’ long, fast strides eating up the distance between them and their prey at a frightening rate.
A silent command from the Elder leading them, the creature raising his twisted staff of black ash into the air for all the beasts to see, finally brought them to a stop less than a mile from where the grass ended and the low hills of the Northern Spine began. For several minutes the Ghoules remained where they were, scanning the territory around them. Finding nothing that would give them cause for concern, they settled in to wait.
It wasn’t long before dark shapes appeared from the north, gliding through the grass, those shadows quickly materializing into more than three dozen Ghoules. And then from the south. Three more Ghoule packs appeared, a handful of Elders with them.
“The humans have changed their direction,” said one of the Elders.
“They know that we are here,” said another.
“They do,” a third replied.
“We saw their scouts. Once we slaughter the larger group of humans, we can return for the scouts. We can take our time with them. Enjoy the hunt. Enjoy the feast.”
“Just so,” agreed Nezgul, the Elder leading the Ghoule packs given the assignment of eliminating the humans’ advance guard. Nibli, second only to the Ghoule Overlord, had been quite specific. Not a single human coming from the west and heading toward the Winter Pass was to survive long enough to set foot in the Shattered Peaks. Nezgul meant to make that so. He would not disappoint Nibli. He would not disappoint his Master. “The main group of humans first, then the scouts. After that, we turn our attention toward the army about to cross the steppe. We will catch them in the open.”
“What of the packs to the east?” asked the Elder who had arrived first at the Ghoules’ current location.
Nezgul didn’t respond immediately, instead taking hold of the Dark Magic gifted to him by the Ghoule Overlord, a dark mist beginning to spin around the top of his staff as he closed his black eyes and turned his focus toward the mountains rising above them. For almost a minute he was somewhere else, his essence flying across the long grass then up into the hills to the east before he found what he was looking for. His remorseless eyes popped open when his spirit returned to his body.
“The Elders to the east of us have their packs in position. They have forced the humans onto a small butte with a large bluff at their back.”
“They are trapped?” asked another of the Elders, surprise rippling through the gathered beasts.
“They are,” Nezgul nodded. “They have nowhere to run. They have made it much easier for us.”
All the Elders nodded now, several licking their lips or running their tongues across their serrated teeth in anticipation. They could taste the humans’ flesh already. “Then we must be fast,” said another Elder. “We will be,” confirmed Nezgul, who then issued a series of commands, the Ghoule packs spreading out into a broad semicircle and sprinting off toward the lower hills of the Northern Spine.
Nezgul, following along behind them, watched the Ghoules implement his instructions with a great deal of satisfaction. The humans had made his task that much simpler by picking a place in the hills that limited their options for escape.
He thought very little of the humans to begin with. This decision only confirmed that they were fools, and they would pay for their stupidity with their lives.
“Sergeant Akiles, tighten our lines,” commanded the Blademaster.
Klines had ridden across the front of his soldiers’ formation before returning to his place in the middle of the long column, a second column of soldiers nervously sitting on their horses no more than a dozen yards behind it. He wanted as little space as possible between his men so that it would be that much more difficult for any of the Ghoules to slip between them. He had spoken in great detail with Captain Tentillin and the Volkun about the tactics that had worked so well for them when they fought the Ghoules in the open, and Klines meant to make use of those same tactics now.
Space was the key. Restrict the space and you restricted one of the Ghoules’ key advantages. Movement. That would give his soldiers a chance, perhaps even against the Elders if the approaching clash played out as he wanted.
“Yes, Blademaster. At once.”
Sergeant Akiles nudged his horse in the direction from which Klines had just come, spouting a few curses to get the soldiers in order. It didn’t take long for the adjustments to be made. All of the men in the advance guard had trained with the Blademaster for hours upon hours in the practice yard. They understood that any command he issued was always done with one primary goal in mind. To keep them alive. So they never hesitated to obey.
Klines watched as the soldiers shifted their positioning according to Sergeant Akiles’ instructions, though truth be told he was asking them to close up no more than a foot or two between each of them. He understood that his need to issue that command likely was more a result of Klines having to release some of the tension that he was feeling rather than any failings on the part of his fighters. His men were excellent soldiers, and they had spent a great deal of time practicing the maneuver that he had in mind for the Ghoules once they arrived.
As if his last thought was an invitation, the Ghoules picked that very moment to step up onto the small plateau. The beasts first appeared in a single line that stretched across the length of the mesa, their long, black spears held firmly in their sharp claws.
There were more of the beasts than Klines had anticipated. So many, in fact, that as the creatures continued to show themselves, these new arrivals forced those beasts already on the narrow plain to bunch up into a large mass rather than staying in the Ghoules’ preferred skirmish line.
On the one hand, the larger than expected number of Ghoules placed his soldiers in greater danger. On the other hand, the even more compact space for the Ghoules created by these additional packs could work to Klines’ advantage. If his troops did exactly as instructed.
Only time would tell. Sooner than he would like, he imagined, now that the first Elders appeared behind the Ghoules.
Klines pushed those thoughts from his mind. None of that mattered now. The battlelines had been drawn.
They were the Royal Guard. They would fight to the best of their ability. Regardless of the odds. Regardless of what was appearing to be a dire outcome.
For some strange reason, even as his gaze remained fixed on the Elders holding onto their staffs of black ash, Klines searched his memory for one of Declan’s sayings, struggling to recall the aphorism he wanted, his friend having so many and always willing to share them. Then he had it. The Master of the Gladiators had used it when the Blood Company was defending the Colosseum against Marden Beleron slightly more than a week before.
“Stand, fight, die,” he whispered to himself.
Yes, that certainly sounded appropriate to Klines right then.
He preferred to live. Although the odds of that happening decreased steadily as the number of Elders stalking arrogantly onto the plateau increased until there were more than a dozen milling about behind the Ghoules.
Stand. Fight. Die.
The soldiers of the Royal Guard would make their stand. They would fight. The cliffs would protect their backs, and if they could get in among the Ghoules, they might be able to limit the danger presented by the Elders’ Dark Magic. Even so, there were no guarantees other than the fact that some of them would die, as Klines didn’t doubt that some of those corrupted beasts skilled in the use of the Curse probably were more than willing to kill some of their own if it meant killing his soldiers as well.
That thought darkening his mood, Klines pulled his sword from the scabbard across his back, the steel shining brightly when it caught the sun.
“We are the Royal Guard!” the Blademaster shouted in a voice that he reserved for just such moments, his words echoing off the cliffs at his back. “If we are to die this day, let it be with our swords streaked with the blood of the Ghoules!”
With just a gentle nudge to his horse’s ribs, Klines’ destrier, already chomping at the bit, sensing the anticipation within its rider and the men and other horses around it, dug its hooves into the rocky soil and launched itself forward. Klines was at a gallop in seconds, and with the short distance to be covered between him and the greatly surprised Ghoules, who had not expected to be attacked, he immediately lowered his sword and aimed for one of the beasts who had inadvertently stepped right into his path.
Out of the corner of his eyes, he saw the streaks of color staying with him, his soldiers charging toward their enemies.
Charging to their deaths, most likely.
So be it.
They would take as many of the beasts with them as they could.
The Royal Guard smashed into the Ghoules, catching the disorganized and unprepared beasts at the best possible time. Just as they had been taught, the soldiers used their mounts as their primary weapons. More than half the Ghoules were knocked to the ground and trampled by the massive war horses during that first charge, the second line of soldiers either riding over the beasts to ensure that they wouldn’t rise again or stabbing with their steel to eliminate the handful of Ghoules who attempted to stagger back to their clawed feet.
Although that initial rush proved successful, it only removed fifty or so of the Ghoules from the battlefield. The other half hurled themselves at the soldiers with an unrestrained savagery, many jumping well above and over the huge destriers to pull the mounted soldiers to the ground from behind.
What had begun with so much promise for Klines quickly devolved into an undisciplined free-for-all as his soldiers desperately tried to bring their larger numbers to bear against the badly reduced Ghoules.
It was no easy task. The Ghoules were faster and more agile than the soldiers, the beasts cutting into and out of the action in a blur, their spears and claws slicing through armor and flesh to leave dozens of soldiers badly wounded or dying on the rocky ground.
The fighters who enjoyed the most success were the ones who tried to put into play another aspect of their training. Rather than attempting to take on a Ghoule by themselves, many of the soldiers banded together into small groups, seeking to isolate a Ghoule and then surround it. If they succeeded in doing that, they greatly improved their odds of killing the beast and avoiding death or injury to themselves and their comrades.
Unfortunately for the Caledonians, it didn’t take the cunning beasts long to adjust to the tactic. In response, the Ghoules formed into small groups themselves that would in turn try to slice a soldier or two away from their squads, killing the isolated men with ease and then going after the others in the now weakened squads at their leisure.
Recognizing the danger presented by the Ghoules’ new approach, Klines and his Sergeants began to pull the soldiers free from the beasts, hoping to gain a little breathing room so that they could reform their lines and perhaps use their horses again as they had done with such great effect during the initial charge.
A good thought, perhaps. But, it would go no further than that. Klines realized that the Elders were waiting for just such an opportunity. As soon as his soldiers began to separate from the Ghoules, the servants of the Ghoule Overlord called on their Dark Magic, a black mist spinning across the knobs of more than a dozen twisted staffs.
Nezgul coordinated the assault, directing shards of the Curse toward the first line of soldiers who had begun to reform for a second charge. The Dark Magic, against which the soldiers had no protection, ripped into the Royal Guard, who with the cliffs at their backs had nowhere to go.
They had stood.
They had fought.
And now many were dying.
“Steady, lads,” said Benin in a quiet voice. “On my command.”
Benin had followed the Blademaster’s orders to the letter. That was to be expected, because that’s who he was. When something needed to be done, he did it. Exactly how he was told to do it. And the Blademaster had given him very specific instructions.
The Sergeant had taken several squads of soldiers with him on a wide loop around the rapidly approaching Ghoules who sought to trap the Blademaster and his troops, linking up with the scouts situated at the various points of the compass along the way. Once he had his smaller detachment behind him, Benin trailed the Ghoules to where the Blademaster and the rest of the Royal Guard had positioned themselves.
They had hidden just below the fringe of the plateau and out of sight of the Ghoules, pleased to see their friends and comrades enjoy so much early success against the beasts during their first charge, less so when the Ghoules found their footing and closed with the Royal Guard. Benin and his squads very much wanted to help their friends when the Ghoules started to pull them from their saddles. They didn’t give in to that desire even though they were desperate to do so. Instead, they remained in place. Waiting impatiently. Getting frustrated. Angry.
Although watching the shifting fight gnawed at his gut, Benin did his best to ignore it. He refused to allow his troops to enter the fray. Not yet. Not until the time was right.
The Blademaster had been very clear. They were to join the battle at a very specific moment. Much to the scouts’ relief, Benin judged that moment to be now.
“Remember your targets,” said Benin, although there was no need for the reminder. The soldiers, having nudged their horses up onto the plateau in silence, arrows fixed to the strings of their bows, were well aware which of the beasts needed to be removed from the clash first.
More than three dozen arrows streaked through the sky.
“Release!” Another flight followed the first just a few seconds later.
“Release!” And then a third, the well-trained soldiers each able to send two more long shafts of steel-tipped death into the air before the first struck home.
And strike home the bolts did, several of the Elders crumpling to the ground with three or four arrows piercing their backs, the beasts completely unaware of the attack coming at them from behind until it was too late.
“Fire at will!” ordered Benin.
Before he had left the larger column on the Blademaster’s orders, the Sergeant had picked the best archers to go with him. Those men now were making their presence felt on the battlefield in a huge way.
More than half of the Elders were already dead with multiple arrows sprouting from their flesh, a dozen or more Ghoules as well who had gotten in the way of the targeted assault.
But not all of the Elders, unfortunately. And those surviving beasts were quick to turn their attention toward Benin and his scouts.
One archer fell, a shard of darkness streaking through the air and striking him in the chest, turning his body to ash in seconds. And then another archer, burned to a crisp just as swiftly. Followed by a third. And a fourth.
Through it all, the archers stayed true to their purpose, maintaining their attack, shooting arrow after arrow toward the Elders, even though their effectiveness was diminishing with every quarrel they shot now that the Elders had identified the threat they presented. As a result, the scouts were coming to the sickening realization that they had little chance of success against these beasts when they didn’t have the element of surprise.
Benin, just like the other soldiers with him, was resigned to his fate. He knew what was going to happen, and he knew that there was little that he could do to prevent it. He would follow the Blademaster’s command just as he promised that he would. To his own demise if necessary. He grimaced when he realized that his death would be coming sooner than he had anticipated when he saw the streak of black coming right toward him.
Having no time to get out of the way, he sat on his horse stoically, hoping that the end would be quick. To his amazement, rather than being struck by the needle of darkness that sped toward him, at the very last second a shield of white energy formed right in front of him, blocking the Dark Magic an instant before it pierced his heart.
Benin and his archers had done well. They had killed more than half of the Elders in just a few minutes.
Klines knew that despite that success it still wasn’t enough.
Their efforts had gained Klines and his soldiers the few precious minutes they needed to restore their battlelines. Yet even with so many Ghoules killed and seriously wounded, he and his soldiers stood little chance with another charge against the Elders. Their insipid Dark Magic would tear them apart.
There was nothing to do for it now. Better to die attacking than to allow the Ghoules to do as they wished.
Klines was about to order his cavalry to charge a final time when he and the men with him were forced to turn away from the skirmish, momentarily blinded as blazing streams of white-hot energy shot across the plateau from the north, burning through more than half of the Elders still standing and leaving behind charred remains that gave off the sickly sweet smell of overcooked meat.
The last few Elders tried to fight back, shifting their attention away from the archers to deal with this new, unexpected, and extremely dangerous threat. These servants of the Ghoule Overlord proved to be too slow. As soon as the beasts spun toward the north, two streams of energy blasted across the battlefield from the south and tore through Nezgul and the remaining Elders, the beasts collapsing to the ground with smoking holes in their chests.
With the Elders removed from the field, the streaks of flaring energy now shot across the plateau from both the north and the south, burning through the Ghoules and often leaving behind no more than a pile of ash.
Not one to question his good luck, Klines wasted little time.
The soldiers of the Royal Guard, though having lost more than a third of their number, were more than enough to eliminate the remainder of the disheartened Ghoules. The first line of cavalry did as it had done before, riding right over the beasts, killing most of the Ghoules with the steel-shod hooves of their mounts, those creatures not dispatched in the first charge left for the second column.
In just a few minutes, it was done.
The Royal Guard swept the Ghoules from the mesa, thanks in large part to the three figures who strode purposefully across the battlefield to stand before Klines. The three looked like schoolteachers. Klines would not have believed in the power that these three wielded if he had not seen it for himself. Then again, most of the Magii appeared to be no different than anyone else.
“My thanks to you,” said the Captain of the Royal Guard. “If not for you, we would be dead.”
“Probably so,” said a woman wearing mismatched robes, her eyes as sharp as a hawk’s. “If you don’t mind, I’m going to skip the chit-chat and see to the wounded.”
“I’ll join her,” said a tall, gangly man who began pulling what looked like small bags and bottles from a very large rucksack he carried over one shoulder.
“My apologies for my friends,” said a woman with a severe expression, her long hair tied tightly in a bun.
“No apology needed. I appreciate their willingness to help my men.”
“They are healers,” replied the woman, motioning to them as they walked among the blood and gore. “The woman is Maria, the somewhat awkward man Telly. I am Irelda.”
“My thanks again to you, Magus Irelda. My name is Jurgen Klines.”
“I know who you are, Blademaster. I recognize your sword. You did well against these Ghoules, but it was a tall task to begin with.”
“You’re right about that, Magus Irelda. We still had to try.”
“That we do, Blademaster. That we do.” For just a few heartbeats, Irelda stared at Klines, making him feel as if she had taken his measure and stolen his deepest, darkest secrets with just a glance. Then she gave him a surprisingly bright smile.
“I take it, Blademaster, that you are heading toward the Winter Pass.”
"Good,” said Irelda. “We will be joining you. This was a good fight, but this was nothing compared to what we will face once we reach the Shattered Peaks.”
“Well done, Corporal. Well done, indeed.”
Duke Kevan Winborne sat on his horse a little more than a mile in front of the Caledonian Army, which advanced across the Breakwater Plateau at a trot. The Royal Guard and the soldiers of four Duchies formed a column several hundred yards wide and more than a league long, leaving a trail of crushed grass in their wake. Kevan had no doubt, however, that within days the path would disappear, the long grass springing back into place and the wind whipping it about as if thousands of soldiers had never passed this way.
“It was nothing, Duke Winborne. I was just doing as you ordered.”
Kevan stared at the soldier for almost a minute, impressed by what he saw. The Corporal sat ramrod straight in her saddle, the tip of her spear bloodied from the encounter, the dozen soldiers with her waiting patiently just behind her. Clearly, every member of the squad respected the Corporal. It was obvious. He could see it in their eyes. In their postures. Not only respect. Trust as well. A belief in her abilities. And he knew from experience that was a hard thing to achieve.
He had been a soldier all his life. In fact, he saw himself more as a soldier than as a Duke, which was probably the reason why he chafed so often at some of what was required of him as the ruler of the Southern Marches. Yet that was a reality that he could not escape, no matter how much he wanted to or how hard he tried.
So there really was no point in thinking about that regular and unavoidable frustration now with more important matters at hand. Besides, right now he wasn’t in his office in Battersea, dealing with piles of paper. He was where he wanted to be. With his soldiers. Out in the wilderness. With a threat to negate.
“How did you know these beasts were hiding here?”
Kevan stared down at the remains of four Ghoules, the beasts who were each at least seven feet tall looking a bit smaller in death. Each one displayed multiple puncture wounds from the spears the Battersea Guard favored, as well as a few sword slashes, these cuts placed expertly along a hamstring or calf, the precise slices clearly meant to disable and force the creatures to the ground so that they could be finished off more easily.
Clean and efficient kills. Just the way he liked them. Just the way these soldiers had been taught by the Protector and the Captain of his Guard.
“I didn’t,” replied Dani, looking Kevan squarely in the eye. “Markus did. He caught a glint of light off one of their spearpoints. We investigated, then saw a flash of movement. Once we pinned them down, we made quick work of them.”
“That you did,” Kevan replied.
He then nodded in respect to the tall soldier who sat his horse just behind Dani, giving him a visible demonstration of praise for being the one to locate these Ghoule scouts. The soldier’s smile told Kevan that Markus was pleased to have been recognized, less so by him, more so by the fact that his Corporal shared the glory of their very brief skirmish with him and the other soldiers.
Obviously, another of Captain Tentillin’s traits washing off onto the Corporal. Giving credit where credit was due. It helped to build camaraderie and respect among the troops. Besides, you never knew when one of your fellow soldiers might be required to save your life. What could be a difficult decision would be made that much easier when you liked and respected your fellow soldiers.
“Have you discovered any other scouts besides these?” asked Kevan. “If we located these beasts, there are sure to be more.”
“None to the east,” replied Dani Langstin. “Some of our scouts to the north and south have reported contact with the Ghoules. However, no lengthy clashes with them yet.”
“Thank you for the update, Corporal,” Kevan nodded. “And, again, excellent work by you and your squad. Keep it up.”
“You can count on it, Duke Winborne.”
Tarin had recommended Dani to temporary second in command of the Battersea Guard when he and Jerad had gone west with Aislinn and the others in search of the Sanctuary. Obviously, Tarin knew what he was about because Dani clearly knew what she was about. That pleased Kevan to no end.
The Duke of the Southern Marches turned his horse back toward the main column, which was rapidly approaching at a steady gait. The Caledonian Army was almost across the southern section of the Breakwater Plateau. So far, they had avoided the storms so common to the plain that could form in just minutes.
He still wanted to get off of the grasslands as quickly as possible. No one could predict when or where a storm would erupt, although he did see one beginning to brew not too far off to the west, maybe two or three leagues distant.
He was thankful that they were far enough away to not have to worry about it, because if they were caught in the open a tempest like the one starting to take shape could cause them more damage in just a few minutes than a half dozen Ghoule Legions hungry for blood. Thus, his desire to get the troops into the rolling hills that led into the Northern Spine so that they could focus their full attention on an adversary that they had a better chance of defeating.
This first engagement with their enemy and reports of more and more of the Ghoule scouts tracking them were beginning to worry him. He had expected such activity on the part of their adversaries. He would have done the same if he were in their position. Still, he didn’t like it, and he felt the need to do something about it, because he hated the idea of fighting from the back foot.
“You seem lost in thought, Kevan.”
Noorsin Stelekel, followed by her personal guard of Murcian soldiers, rode up to him. With a light pull on the reins and a gentle nudge, Kevan’s horse was soon trotting right next to that of the General of the Caledonian Army. They continued across the grasslands toward the mountains rising in the east, which were growing bigger by the second.
Kevan gave Noorsin a quick update on what Dani had discovered and how she had addressed the threat. Noorsin then revealed what she had learned from a scout who had arrived from the Northern Spine just minutes before.
“Word from the Blademaster,” Noorsin explained. “Just yesterday the advance guard met and eliminated nine or ten Ghoule packs and a dozen or so Elders.”
“Correct,” Noorsin confirmed with a nod. “The Blademaster sniffed it out. The advance guard suffered heavy casualties. Despite that, they still eliminated all of the Ghoules.”
“With the Ghoules hounding us, this is what I expected that it would be like,” murmured Kevan. “The longer it takes us to reach the Shattered Peaks, the better it is for the Ghoules. The better their chances of breaking free from the Winter Pass.”
“I expect you’re right,” said Noorsin, although a stray thought suggested to her that perhaps there was more going on here than just that. Perhaps they were only observing the obvious and missing what the Ghoule Overlord didn’t want them to see. But what could that be?
“That’s excellent news,” said Kevan, breaking Noorsin’s concentration, that stray thought slipping from her grasp, though she hoped that it would return. “How did he do it? I don’t by any means want to belittle the Blademaster’s abilities, but how did he overcome a dozen Elders? Besides you, we have no one who we can call upon to defend against their Dark Magic.”
“He had a little unexpected but fortuitous help. The Blademaster reports that three Magii appeared out of the blue to assist against the Elders. Thanks to them, he was able to focus his attention on eliminating the Ghoules.”
“Your work?” asked Kevan.
“Mine or that of Sirius,” she replied.
“I should have guessed as much,” said Kevan. “You always have a trick up your sleeve.”
“That’s very kind of you to say, Kevan,” Noorsin replied with a smile. “Thank you.”
“Any idea how many Magii we can expect to join us? Without them, we’ll have a very difficult time taking on the Elders that the Ghoule Overlord can bring to bear.”
“Less than a hundred. Keep in mind as well that we have no way of knowing how many will reach us in time.”
“That’s not very many and not very comforting.”
“No, but we will do what we can with what we have.”
Kevan grumbled his agreement. The Magii were in Noorsin’s bailiwick, and there was nothing that he could do about the Elders, so he concentrated on an issue that he could do something about.
“Based on what Dani discovered and the reports from the scouts, it doesn’t appear that the Ghoules have massed into a larger force yet, other than the packs that the Blademaster removed from the gameboard.”
“You find that surprising?”
“I do,” he replied. “I thought that by now we would face the same challenge that the Blademaster did. The Breakwater Plateau plays to the Ghoules’ strengths. I would have thought that they would use our coming across the grasslands to their advantage by attacking us in the open.”
“Perhaps you’re right and the Ghoules were planning to take us on the plains,” said Noorsin. “Perhaps the Ghoules and Elders that the Blademaster defeated were to come for us next.”
“Likely so,” agreed Kevan. “We are too large an army for them to defeat us.”
“True, but what if their objective wasn’t to defeat us?”
“To slow us down, you mean,” said Kevan, nodding his head as he considered Noorsin’s suggestion.
"Whittle away at us until a larger force of Ghoules came at us?”
“That, yes,” agreed Noorsin. “Maybe to distract us as well.”
“From what?” Kevan asked.
“I don’t know, though I hope to find out,” said Noorsin. “In the meantime, we are at a disadvantage when fighting the Ghoules. They are faster and stronger than we are. The only way to improve our chances is to bring more soldiers to bear before they can form into groups larger than just a few packs. If we can do that, perhaps at the same time we can disrupt the Ghoules’ plans. Anything we can do in that regard works to our advantage and will prevent them from slowing us down.”
“What did you have in mind?” asked Kevan.
“We have yet to see the Ghoules outnumber our scouts.”
“True, yet even if our scouts are evenly matched to the Ghoules, they fight from a position of weakness because of the Ghoules’ inherent abilities.”
“That’s true, and I certainly don’t disagree. That’s why I’d suggest that we strengthen the size of our scouting parties once we get off the Breakwater Plateau. We create several companies of skirmishers charged not only with scouting our way forward but also with removing any Ghoules who get in the way. And perhaps offering a few surprises of their own to the beasts. That way the larger host can advance unimpeded.”
“You want us to do the hunting for a change,” said Kevan with a devilish grin, clearly liking the idea.
“We move faster, and we can bring greater numbers to bear,” nodded Noorsin. “That’s the idea.”
“Who do you want to put in charge of the skirmishers?” asked Kevan, although he believed he already knew the answer and he wasn’t sure what he thought about it.
“You, Kevan. This plays to one of your many strengths.”
“That’s kind of you to say, Noorsin. Are you certain you want me to do this?”
Noorsin caught Kevan with her eyes. Now she looked every inch the Duchess of Murcia, as she hadn’t expected him to balk at her suggestion.
“Why the hesitation, Kevan?”
At first, Kevan thought to hedge, then suppressed that initial response. There was no point in doing so. It wouldn’t take Noorsin long to sniff out the truth.
“I’m worried that something will happen to you if I’m not around.”
For just a heartbeat, Kevan’s concern pleased Noorsin. It meant a great deal to her as a person. As the General of the Caledonian Army, it had no relevance as she had to think about so much more than just her own interests.
“If you won’t do it, then I will,” Noorsin said.
“Noorsin, that’s not …”
“Besides, if you recall, Kevan, I was more than a match for the Elders who appeared right before we set off across the grasslands. I have no doubt that I can handle any dangers that come our way. I suggest you adopt the same perspective.”
Kevan stared into Noorsin’s blazing eyes. Clearly, she was not a woman to be challenged. He should have known that already. He did know that.
Still, he feared for her, especially after what happened with Tetric in the Broken Citadel. Nevertheless, Noorsin was right. He needed to adjust how he looked at her.
She was more than capable of protecting herself. In fact, she could protect herself better than he could protect himself as had been demonstrated by his enforced stay in Tintagel.
“That won’t be necessary, Noorsin. I’ll get started on it so that we’re ready to go once we’re off the Plateau.”
Noorsin nodded, pleased that it hadn’t taken much to convince Kevan to assume what she viewed as a critical responsibility. He was a fighter at heart, and whether or not he admitted it to himself, he needed to fight.
As she and Kevan continued on in silence for a time, the Shattered Peaks gaining greater definition, she felt good that they were shifting their approach, if only a little bit. Because Noorsin was getting the sense that they were doing exactly what the Ghoule Overlord wanted them to do. She didn’t know why she thought that. It was just a feeling, after all. There was nothing of substance to it, though she found it hard to ignore her instincts.
When she was younger following her instincts had proven difficult for her. Noorsin’s desire to think through every problem or challenge, over and over, identifying and considering every little related issue and consequence, though useful at times, became an impediment to making any decision at all. She would freeze, unwilling to take a risk, no matter how small.
Her mother had explained that making no decision at all often was worse than making the wrong decision. You were giving up your agency. You were allowing your decisions to be made for you.
Her mother’s favorite saying floated to the surface: “Thinking never hurt until you thought too much.” That was excellent advice, and she was glad that it came to mind frequently, but she wasn’t doing that now. Thinking too much. Noorsin was certain of that.
She was also certain that she didn’t like this feeling. Yet there was little that she could do about it. She could only hope that Bryen, Aislinn, Sirius, Rafia, and the Blood Company reached the Sanctuary and the Protector somehow learned how to repair the Weir.
In the meantime, she would think about what she could do to upset the Ghoule Overlord’s plans and make him work just a little bit harder for the victory that he craved. Just because it felt as if she was being guided by her worst enemy didn’t mean that had to continue to be the case. She would throw a few twists and turns in the Ghoules’ way and see what came of it.
Perhaps something. Perhaps nothing. But there was no good reason not to take a few chances.
THE END -- of the first two chapters.
I hope you enjoyed reading the first two chapters of The Protector's Reckoning.