An Epic

Never Lose Your Head in Battle

By Gerry Torbert


The full force of a dark folk battle surge can only be appreciated in person. It's accentuated a hundredfold when the attack is downhill. And the dark army's attack was bewildering. The entire wave of troops seemed to be in a line across the plain, not concentrated in any one location. They apparently felt that their downhill thrust would be enough to make up for a lack of formation, but in truth, it would have been difficult to use strategic formations when emerging from such a bizarre terrain as that of the Deadlands.

Farland's Second Legion (a term meant to refer to the second great amassing of troops in their history, not to be confused with the organization of several armies) had placed themselves in a most unfortunate situation. They could have camped longer in the previous two days to prevent arriving too early. But that still would have necessitated fighting in among the crags and crevices that made up the Deadlands, where the enemy was doubtless entrenched.

The Farlanders were over a hundred fifty thousand strong. With the core of that being crack troops from the Crimson Lion legion of Far City and its sister legions, the level of discipline was high enough to compensate for the lack of position. And with their renown for positioning and use of mass-combat strategy, they felt they had less of a disadvantage.

Their brawn was well accentuated by their brain. For months, a group of Farland's finest war-wizards, the Primus Bellivenicus, had undertaken a clandestine approach to the upcoming battle. They used their magic to spy from afar on the movements of the enemy troops. It was an undertaking on a grand scale, as they had to investigate the inner workings of the military and become aware of those who might be privy to such information, but avoid notice from the enemies dark mages and especially from the Dweller in the Wintervale. They had to so this to a group large enough to assure they would have a continuous flow of information. But except for a few who were noticed in their scrying activities and psychically slain from a great distance, the information proved to be worth their travails.

Farland was spread out to an extent, matching the width of the dark line. It looked for all the world as a plain-Jane type of formation - each army stacked two regiments deep in the center, the First, or most seasoned army in the center, with the Third taking the left and the Second, the right. Most battles that Farland had fought in recent years consisted of such a symmetrical, non-commital formation, relying on the Field Generals and Colonels to make split decisions and back each other appropriately. It was truly an impressive mass of troops that worked with a single mind - in the long run, it was their greatest advantage.

As the dark folk neared, charging at a breakneck speed, the first move by Farland set the tone. Three blasts of horns on the right and left sides of the First Army's position forced them backward in a mild crescent outward, leaving a funnel between them of a hundred yards. Another blast from behind them set the second flank of the First through the funnel, with cavalry leading the charge. What seemed to be a simple rectangle had become, within a minute, a powerfully piercing formation of high troop concentration, and flanking crescents to split the forces into two flanks. The speed and determination of the dark folk were now to be used against them.

Meanwhile, the greater number of stacks and piers on the left side of the Deadlands caused a much slower advance and concentration of enemy troops on that side of the battlefield, and several horn signals called for a simple frontal assault on what was becoming a distended line by the dark army. The line appeared to bow forward near the center of the Third army, not as much originating as a strategy as it was due to overaggressive troops in the center. The furthest company on the left even began to swing to the left to flank, as they were not involved in the main thrust.

Since the two armies had yet to collide, it was the best time for the use of some magic. Several wizards ran to the front of the Farland lines on the left and center stages and introduced the dark forces to the Primus Bellivenicus. Two fog clouds rolled in from seemingly nowhere, forming directly above the front and descending to the field. The soup-thick clouds enveloped the orcs and blinded them to troop movement. A few blasts of the horn directed the Farlanders in the second army to shift to the left slightly, with a few battalions moving even further to flank the dark forces.

Such a tactic was not unknown, nor was its counter. The dark mages produced a gust of wind that dispelled the fog, but not until it had served its purpose. The Second Army had moved enough to cause confusion within the orcs, as their intended targets were no longer in their sights. They began to slow slightly and readjust, losing momentum and even worse, the flanking move had begun.

The right side of Farland moved to intercept the Dark army in much the same way as the First army, although to a lesser extent. The two battalions in front split slightly, allowing the Second battalion to surge into the fray and wedge the enemy into two flanks. "Finally, some action!" shouted Owin. Thomas looked down toward his dwarf friend. "Yea, lad - let's do some fancy butcher'n, an' I'll drink to ya the next bar we see!"

The screams of self-motivational bravado mingled with the yells of sheer terror as the two armies collided. Horns blared orders or, in the case of the confused or terrorized soldiers, suggestions. Within seconds, the screams changed to the sounds of clanging, grunting and yelps of pain at the front. The oaths so pointedly uttered at the enemy commingled with the other sounds of battle, and soon it became a hum, a moan, a cacophony of sounds. For a while, one could hear the stirring squeal of a bagpipe. . .

Darmon's company, as Owin and Yngvarr called it, or Owin's company, as Darmon and Yngvarr called it, followed the first company up the chute of the funnel. Arrows from the crescents of the second and third regiments swished overhead, thudding into the heart of the enemy. They were answered by volleys of crossbow bolts from deeper within the dark army. One struck Balin's helmet and glanced off - always a dangerous and unexpected reaction - and plunged deeply into an Anarian's shoulder. The tall blonde soldier winced for a second, long enough to pluck it out. A mere inconvenience, he probably thought, as he continued to run forward.

The funnel formed by the First army didn't fare too well. The battalions weren't able to come together as quickly as they should due to the rough terrain and weren't able to concentrate their numbers. The funnel collapsed, allowing the enemy to reestablish a full front. It then became a game of man-to-man combat, and the seasoned vets held their own.

But more help was on its way in the form of constructive conjuration. The Primus Bellivenicus struck again, with lightning bolts lacing through the air. A crackling and hissing of the air just behind the First Army's front line gave some warning, but not enough to allow the dull-witted orcs to react. Lines of deadly blue-white light ripped through the front lines of the dark forces, incinerating the lucky while shocking the others into uncontrollable spasms. Several bursts issued forth, enough to allow Farland forces to begin to rush into the areas of the burned corpses and bulge the opponent's lines.

This tactic was effective, but short-lived. The dark mages strode to the forefront. A few bursts of their own lightning drove deep into the Farlander's ranks, melting armor and sword together and preventing further advance. Soon, both teams of sorcerers began firing bolts at the troops and each other. As the energies collided, they cancelled each other and disappated into fizzling air and smoke.

The Third army was not pressed as hard as the other two due to the initial deployment. They were able to maintain the front and still send a battalion to flank the left side. Seeing this, the dark folk fell back to intercept them, leaving a bulge in their lines. Over the period of the next half hour, the bulge became more pronounced, and they retreated fully into an angled flank just to maintain the line, but maintain it they did.

The right side had more success. The far right regiment sent out to flank to the right moved to engage along the right side, since the enemy stretched all the way to the cliffs. The second regiment came toward the center slightly, creating the funnel with the help of the third. The funnel pushed deeply into the mass, slicing the dark folk fighters into two groups. The flank to the left came head-to-head with the crack troops from the First army and were in disarray. But disarray is the preferred fighting method for such an unruly congregation, so they held their own against the veteran Farland troops.

The flank to the right was forced against the First regiment, which was engaged heavily against the dark folk attempting to flank against the cliffs. Seeing this, Sergius had his signaler blast twice quickly and then twice long, indicating the second regiment should veer the funnel to the right. As the left side fought a standing front and the right side forced to the right, the funnel moved to surround the right flank of the enemy, forcing them to retreat. Valuable ground was gained, but the new location was even more into the steeper part of the hillside as the front reestablished itself.

Darmon's huge claymore drove deeply into the shorter orc's skull and he pulled it through and down with a slight twist, to prevent it from catching in the bone. The orc fell to one knee and dropped his sword. Darmon savagely kicked his chest and walked over him as he fell backward and the glaze of death came over his eyes. Another step brought Darmon to a pesky goblin slashing at Yngvarr's leg with a poorly-made, dull falchion. Not wanting to waste Dragonslayer's next move on such a one as this, he lifted his leg and pulled the dagger from his hose, in one move slicing the little creature's neck while ducking the Anarian's backswing.

"Behind ya, brotha. What ya think o' the move, tiltin' the funnel?"

"Hush now, don't tell 'em what we're doin!" said Yngvarr, as his next swing clanged off an orc's shield. Darmon, with no one directly in front of him, thrust the Slayer deeply into the orc's guts and pulled it out quickly to defend his other side. The orc grunted and stopped moving, a strange look growing over his face. "Hey, thanks, Darmon. I didn't like him, anyway."

Darmon chuckled. "Dun wairy, Yng. These cretins dun 'ave any idea wha' the'yre a' doin'. They jus' charge an' swing. This Farland army's organized, fur shur."

"Agreed," said Yngvarr, as he swung to the right, just in front of Darmon's face, cutting deeply into another orc's right forearm just as he was getting planted to strike Darmon. "That's for the goblin."

Darmon finished his orc with a slice across the left shoulder and into his lungs. "Got the feelin' this ain't all they got, lad."

The battle raged through the night. Arrows took a toll on both sides, but ground fighting was the most important factor of a fight on varying terrain. Advances and successes were better measured by feet rather than yards, as each inch took its toll on both sides. The retreat on the left flank left the dark army in better position, as they now could defend the spires and towers of rock. The bulge and potential breakthrough that Farland seemed to be creating between the Third and First armies was shut by a wise retreat, establishing contact between the west and central dark forces.

The funnel on the right side turned but could only go so far as it ran against two crags which were well protected. It did force a retreat and threatened a breakthrough of the lines, but another retreat by the enemy bolstered the weak area. True to Darmon's fears, the dark army demonstrated why it was a powerful force and what had been seen so far was the tip of the iceberg. Dozens of trolls began to stomp through the lines as orcs and goblins made a path, more for their own protection. They pushed through toward Farland's right side, clubbing and clawing everything in their path. In the tight, craggy area, they were quite effective, filling the gaps and daring anyone to surround them.

"Ya satisfied, big guy?" came a voice behind Darmon. He recognized Owin, more by the peripheral view of a flashing axe cleaving an orc. "Now ya got yer wish. Ya know, axes and claymores are the best remedy for a troll. . ."

"I hear ya, Owin. Let's make 'ose warty beasts a little shorter!"

The two of them made a path toward the first troll. A few of the others saw what they were doing and redoubled their efforts, pushing the line toward one of the crags. Owin was the first to get to him as the morning's light began to push the darkness from the horizon. Darmon grabbed his attention by screaming and waving his arms. A rogue crossbow bolt suddenly buried itself in his chest, but he stopped for only a moment to pull it out. He could feel the cut closing as he laughed.

The troll took the bait, lumbering toward him. He watched the behemoth's eyes, his arm and club. Gotta time this right - the club won't kill me, but another strike while I'm down. . .The club began its swing toward him, and he grabbed the claymore with both hands, one on the hilt and one on the blade. He gauged the time correctly and spun backwards in a roll, just missing the club. As he turned his head up, he saw a grimace on the monster's face and a blast of a grunt from its twisted mouth. He looked down and saw Owin, his axe finishing a slice of its knee and hamstrings, forcing it to the ground.

He rushed to the troll, now on its hands and one knee, the other leg lying straight out to the back. As it looked up to the Creag, anger in its eyes, Darmon stopped long enough to judge the distance to the troll's neck and the corresponding "sweet spot" of Dragonslayer.

"This is for you, Tanarus." The head knocked Owin to the ground as the dwarf laughed. After another troll was dispatched in a likewise manner , he shouted, "Now we just got to keep 'em down. Anyone got fire?"

Suddenly the swooshing sound of fireballs filled the air. Fierce flame engulfed the wounded trolls, and a blast landed close to the next troll, whose eyes grew wide with fear. The monsters retreated at the thought of the airborn handiwork of the Elven wizards consultants and the powerful Primus Bellivenicus. As the fireballs raged, the dark mages began barrages of their own, and soon the air above the more conventional forces was alight with collisions of force and the smell of burning air, like that of a midday thunderstorm.

As the sun began to rise, another reinforcement came from the east, in the form of a company of Oluk orcs. These huge specially-bred orcs trotted onto the battlefield with massive swords and shields. Fully a head taller than the orcs and much bulkier, their presence struck fear into a few of the lesser-trained Farlanders. With disciplined fury, they attacked the center of the First army's position and began to push the line back.

Suddenly, four quick bursts of the horns set the Farlanders into a unique position. The companies on the front of the lines formed themselves into close, tight quarters, several ranks deep. "The Wheel," as it was known by the crack Farland legions, enabled fresh troops to take positions and fight for less than a minute at a time. The front troops would then make one last strike and wheel away to one side, ducking down and running to the back of the line. They would be replaced by a fresh line that would strike again quickly, catch the opponent off guard, then fight hard for half a minute at a time. This was one of the reasons the Farland forces were so feared - no army but a well-disciplined, well-trained one could pull off such a complicated move.

The tide began to turn. Oluk and orc alike began to whither before the Farlandish war machine. As the sun rose, the First army broke through the line and began a deadly spread that forced the enemy into two pods. The Third and Second armies pushed to the smaller crags, forcing the enemy from between them and into the flatter plain. The flanking regiments finally secured the sides and drove inward, surrounding the two pods.

Less hindered and less negated than before, the powerful Primus Bellivenicus began a volley of pyrotechnical devastation. Blasts of pure energy roared through the sky, dwarfing the mid-morning sun's glow. Troops stepped back slightly to allow the fiery death its respect, as it saved the lives of some of them in the necessary mopping-up operations that ensued.

As the final chase began, the armies ran through and around the crags, some of which were dozens of feet high and irregular in shape. Darmon's company made its way between them, killing off the last remnants of resistance. Darmon reached a tall pier of rock and rounded a corner to slice an orc.

"Darmon, look out!" came a yell from behind him. He turned, quick enough, but not expecting an attack from above. He felt a movement above him and turned his head as he stepped aside, away from the rock. But it was too late. He felt the steel blade enter his neck from one side and felt a tug. He felt a twinge on the left side of his neck an instant after that. His eyes blurred, then he saw the battlefield from a whirling view point. It turned and spun, then he felt a thump to his head. His view was still at last, and from out of the corner of his right eye he could see the body of a man dressed in a Great Kilt, holding a claymore. It slumped to the ground, headless.

"Nooooo. . ." he could hear a voice, distinctively Creag in lilt and brogue. He heard a few more sounds, mostly of battle, becoming softer as the enemy was routed and fighting their last. "Ye basta'd, hidin' like a coward. . . DIE!" A grunt and thump told him his killer was dead.

He recognized Hallvard and Colyn, walking over and peering into his eyes. Colyn smiled and clapped the Anarian on the shoulder. Hallvard's eyes started to well up, and he covered his face as he wiped them, trying to mask the motion. "Dunna wairy, lad. 'E was the best, an' it was a good life. I'm jus' proud ta meet 'im."

Darmon watched as they walked away. The sounds of battle mingled with a ringing in his ear. This must be the end..., he thought. Jonat - what was she trying to tell me. . .but for some whisky. . .I didn't have one last drink. . .at least we won. . .how long will I think, before I die?...I shouldn't have yelled at me Ma that time. . .

His vision was blocked by a shadow. It bent down to look at him directly in the eyes. It was an old man in a hooded cloak. The mysterious figure reached up and pushed back his hood to reveal a shining globe, swirling in hues of yellow, red, orange, then white, a brilliant white. It was blinding at first, but became calmer. "It's not that easy, old man. You won't escape that easily. You'll watch as birds pick you clean on the Towers of Waiting, if you make it that far." The little man threw his cloak back and walked away.

It was hours before his friends returned, but Darmon found he could still see, could still think! How could this be? There was no doubt as to his death. His head was easily ten feet from his body. After a while, Yngvarr, Colyn, Thomas and the Caembuhls returned. They fashioned a litter out of swords taken from orcs and from some rags. They wrapped his body tightly with his kilt, placing Dragonslayer alongside him and his bagpipes in his hands, folded across his stomach. Then came the hard part. Yngvarr accepted the challenge, lifting his head and placing it where it should be, before folding the fine thick wool over it. The last thing Darmon saw was Owin and Balin, their eyes watering, mouthing a prayer to Khuldul.

Darmon heard several heavy footsteps and a harsh voice. "Alright, barbarians. You've seen dead people before. He knew what he was in for when he signed on. We all did. We're goin' ta Borderhold. Let's get mo. . ."

A thud stopped the voice. Yngvarr's distinct Anarian accent spouted some northern curses. "We'll take our time, Sergius. Darmon was twice the man you'll ever be. Put that sword down or I'll shove it where you can't see. We'll catch up to you, if you're lucky."

"The same goes for us Khazak. Give us time," Owin's voice boomed.

The next thing the Creag felt was being lifted up and carried over rough terrain.

He had the impression of being lain down, actually being made comfortable. Strange, people treat you differently when dead, even better. I haven't had rest for a while. . . But he didn't sleep.

He heard the shuffling of feet and some discussions, some of which he couldn't make out. He heard the voices growing softer, further away. This is it. . .burning the body. . .hope I can't feel it. . .what a way. . . Fear filled him.

Soon the voices became louder again. He heard the dropping of what sounded like wood or logs. Then he began to make out what they were saying. . .

"Then he brings out that bladder of a goat, or something. . .he starts to play by blowin' in it. . .who's idea was it to do such a thing?" Owin's voice was quieter now.

Colyn said, "It's traditional. We 'ave ta slaughter the pig, the best one o' the herd, the biggest. Then ya open 'im up an' take out 'is tummy. Ya treat it wi' pig brains, wipin' it an' soakin' it many times, each time tannin' it in the sun. Then ya hollow oot the drones, tighly wrappin' 'em an' finishin' it off with tatters an' splashes o' 'is tartan. The pipe is made by the town piper; 'e tunes it an' makes it special for each man."

Yngvarr interrupted. "I can remember Owin's face when he first heard it. Thought a goat was bein' beat with a stick." Laughter filled the air. This was an "uncivilized" way of dealing with a loved one's death. Darmon never thought he'd hear his own.

"Well, Yngvarr, you danced to it! And it wasn't a very pretty dance, either!" The gang chuckled.

The fire started crackling. He could feel the warmth, but it was pleasant. Is this the way it feels, burning? It's not too hot. Maybe this is best. . .

"Hey, Colyn, can you play it? It would be fitting if you could play some song, some Creagish tune, don't ya think?" Balin was warming up to the bagpipes. . . Darmon never thought he'd see the day.

"I've played, and not tu bad, lad. Maybe 'twould be proper, an' 'e'd like it. Darmon felt the pipes being taken from his kilt. Colyn blew it full and began searching for a few notes. Then he found the scale, and began to play a soft, soothing Filled with Grace.

He finished the song and Darmon could hear Thomas. "Beautiful, brotha. Maybe something else, a little faster, happier."

Colyn then played a rousing version of Restless Feet, a traditional Buchanan reel. He could hear, even feel dancing. He could see the shadows of the fire on his kilt. He hadn't closed his eyes. Maybe an Anarian custom - so the dead could see where they were going. . .

The eulogies continued for hours. It was quite a few hours since he was struck, he thought. How long until they bury him, or burn his remains? Does it really matter?

What felt like several hours of talking about Darmon, then about the battle later, things quieted down and he could hear someone leave. After a while, he heard, "Hey, Uilliam, I didn't know the Caembuhls knew how to hunt!" Thomas laughed, and Colyn with him. "Now, lad, let's not start anotha clan war! I'll eat yer share, if ya dun' wannit!"

"Oh, I ain't crazy, brotha. I'm as 'ungry as the next. Where'dja find a deer aroon' 'ere?"

"This mus' be a pass they use. I fell doon in the battle, an' 'ere was a deer track right in front o' my face! Ya dun't need a sign ta get me belly a' rumblin'!"

Owin said, "Nice deer, Uilliam. I'll get some more firewood. Now please tell me ya ain't gonna make a musical instrument out of his manhood, or somethin'!"

They all had a good laugh. After another hour, Darmon heard the crackling of more wood and smelled the odor of cooking deer meat. "Beautiful moon, ain't it, Owin"

"Yes it is, Thomas. But it's full again. . .how is that?"

Darmon wondered as well. He gave up wondering when he was to die. Janora - why am I still here? Is this the way it's supposed to be, am I a ghost? Why haven't you taken me?

But he felt a little strange. He began to feel a sensation around his neck. This was the first sensation he had, other than smell, hearing and sight, since he was killed. It began to burn, to sting. He had the feeling of his throat being pulled, of blood pumping through his veins, of air. . .air. . .coursing through his neck. He pressed his fingertips together and felt them. . .his toes, he could feel them touching each other. . .he sat up. . .

"Hell, 'at deer smells gud. . .got some left?"

Owin was the closest. He stumbled backward, tripping over a log, spinning head over heels over the spit and catching his clothes on fire. "Khuldul. . .khul. . .DAMN! It's the walking dead! Undead!"

Everyone else but Yngvarr stood up, eyes popping, jaws dropping, grabbing the nearest weapon they could find. "What the. . .Darmon, i-i-i-is 'at yu?" stammered Uillaim.

Darmon smiled and rubbed his neck, feeling a slight scar that was rapidly receeding into smooth skin. "Yeah, I'd say it's me. Ya canna kip a gud mon doon, lads, an' 'specially a Stuart! An' I ain't dead, nor the walkin' dead."

"But. . .but. . .you were. . .we saw. . .yer head. . .what the. . .?" Agralin was wordless.

Yngvarr began to laugh, to chuckle. "Good ta see ya back, brotha. What took ya so long?"

Somehow Darmon knew. "It was the moon. Sullis had to come up. And she's full tonight. Again."

Ygnvarr reached out with his hand and clasped Darmon's. "You know now, lad. It's a curse. You can't die at night. Sullis will keep you from harm. Tanarus will make your days a living hell. They will fight over you. And Tanarus will keep you alive for a long, long time. . ."

Darmon frowned. "How did ya know, brotha? Why dinja tell me?"

"I didn't know myself, until just now. He called you 'old man'. That's what you'll be. And he told you to get some sleep. Now you can't."

"A long life sounds good ta me, Darmon," said Thomas.

"It could be, I guess. By the way, Colyn, the pipes are made from a goat's bladder in Slaugbeatha. An' yer a little bit of a pitch off on Filled with Grace.

They all laughed, then Balin said, "You could hear us the whole time?"

"Yeah, lad, I was waitin' for ya ta burn me body. Wasn't a pleasant time. Maybe I'll look up next time someone yells. Let's quit talking - cut me some o' that backstrap!"

They laughed a bit, then ate. It would be a good night, after all. And a long way to catch up to the troops. Darmon smiled at Yngvarr. He seemed to know more than he let on.