By Gerry Torbert
REST, AT LAST
The day drew on. It seemed to last for several days. The lunch and dinner were absolute necessities, as each of the disciplines were being trained and pushed, the warriors tested and driven to their limits. "Good food makes a good warrior," an old saying stated. It couldn't be truer.
The night came, but it didn't seem to bother their relentless trainers. Elk-noo, Kelmuk and (snort)Gak played their instruments like a band of musicians, curing mechanical errors, tweaking strengths, constantly bellowing orders, applauding advances, and building confidence. They fought by the light of a campfire, knowing full well that dark folk know no end to their aggression, be it day or night.
They taught their charges the fine arts of moving through shadows, hiding their movements as long as possible. They demonstrated how to read the enemy's shadows and how to anticipate their every move. And after four hours of constant fighting, they stopped. The archers, pikers, hammermen and fine weapon specialists all walked toward the swordsmen, and Elk-noo brought his yak-horn to his mouth.
"Kassa Nation, you should be proud. You have proven to me that you have skills, hidden deep beneath years of the peace and easy life we have all enjoyed. But they are very deep. I know this has been a rough day. But you will have to be rougher than the day. You will have to be rougher than the night. It is time to bed down. Find someone you don't know. Find someone you don't like. Talk to them. Drink tea and water with them. Eat with them. Sleep near them. Get to know them. They may save your hide. The orcs are two days away. Tomorrow, we will test your desire. Get much rest. You will need it."
With that, Elk-noo turned and walked toward his lieutenants, spoke a few words, and moved off toward their tent.
The support Kassa had done their work well. On the slight knoll where the fighters had stockpiled their bedrolls, they had built several large tents over the rolls, joining them into one large structure. A trench had been dug all around the makeshift barracks, turning ground water away. It was good that they did this, as a sudden rain had begun to pelt the would-be warriors, chasing them into their shelter. Light wind and lightning lent to the eerie feeling, as the night seemed to punctuate Elk-noo's declaration.
Daaigh found his roll, a blanket woven with a forest scene by his mother, and looked around for someone he didn't know. That was not a difficult task, since his farming job didn't lend well to traveling and meeting others. He wandered over to a few men and made eye contact. He extended his hand, as did they, and they smiled and waved their hands down to a spot. He unrolled his blanket and began to prepare himself for conversation and rest.
"I am called Dargoo Hightrunk, a woodworker from near Kassakosseh", said the taller one. Daaigh was familiar with the name. Their hut was situated near the Barkbite family, and as is the tradition, he owed a slight allegiance to the Barkbite name. These smaller sects often gather in the areas that are rich in the particular resources necessary for one particular vocation. The thick forests and proximity to the port of Kassagkakptgloo made this area excellent for woodworkers.
Dargoo was busy removing his chain shirt and leather vest, revealing the strong, powerful forearms of one who has planed, sawn, and hammered hard wood all his life. His strong but nimble fingers fit his chosen weapon, the bow that he gently unstrung and lowered to the ground. Daaigh had never seen such a beautiful composite bow. The fine slabs of wood were glued and heated as they were clamped together, and, as was traditional in this area, the woods were of alternating blue and tan. They were carved lightly and sealed with layers of bee-shell clear varnish, painstakingly buffed to a deep, shiny finish.
"It would seem a shame to tarnish such a fine work of art with blood", he said, with a smile. Dargoo smiled back, and retorted, "If I get blood on it, I'm not a good archer!"
"I am called Daaigh Leaf, a farmer in the southeast. I grow some of the best meg-gh you can find. Some of them may have found their way into our dinner tonight."
"And I believe I've had some of it - didn't I see you at Kassanyacta last week?" The voice was lighter, but strong, coming from his right. The shorter being smiled, running a leather strop over his cutlass. "My name is Gkakoo Seahut, a port worker and sailor, and I love the sweet roots. I may be speaking like a true Kassa, but I have never tasted anything so good as meg-gh. When I'm long at sea, it's the first thing I eat when I get on land!" Gkakoo continued smoothing and polishing the blade, taking great pride in his weapon. The shielded hilt bore an intricate sea-scene, completing a beautifully-crafted sword.
"I guess that cutlass has been in your family for a long time, Oom?" said Daaigh.
Gkakoo smiled, shaking his head. "No, we portsmen have a way of...finding things." He laughed for a few seconds, then continued. "A lot of us trade or bet to get nice things like this. Bestra knows, I may even lose it one day!"
Daaigh nodded, remembering Molk-k's longcoat. Dargoo and Gkakoo began talking for a few minutes, apparently having just met this evening, too. He began to let his mind wander. Do I have the inner fighter, the toughness I need to be a strong? I've just met these men, and they seem to be more ready to fight than I am. What is this wave of evil coming our way? Why do these orcs insist on conquering people, killing, raping, stealing? We Kassa do none of these things, we are good, kind people...
"Well, what do you think, Daaigh? You're a farmer, you might know." His thoughts were interrupted as he snapped back to reality.
"I'm sorry, I wasn't listening. I was daydreaming, I guess. Thinking things..."
Dargoo sat down, cross-legged, his bow across his knees, elbows resting on the bow. "I know, I know...we're all wondering what we will do if attacked. You're not the only one who has doubts, my friend. We're just talking about our families, about our jobs, anything we can think of, so we don't have to face the thought of killing. I don't butcher animals, so I can't imagine what it would be like to have to kill. It's not in us, at least I don't think so."
"We've been followers of the good goddess, and we all think about what she would want us to do. I pray, I teach my children to do the right things, but I don't know, any more than anyone else, what she wants me to do.
Gkakoo grunted in agreement. "I think she lets us decide, because that's what makes us the people we are. I think she wants us to stand up and protect our own, and to be steadfast in our love of our family and brothers. Other than that, we have to take what is given us and work with it. You learn that on the sea. You can't make the sea do what you want, so you tack back and forth into the wind to get where you want to go. You pull cloth and lay oar when you can't fight the wind. You set sail when the wind's at your back. Whatever it takes."
Daaigh nodded as well. "It's that way on the farm, too. If the rain isn't there, I irrigate. If the soil isn't right, I fertilize. If the grain in the wood changes, you go with it. I guess in that way, we all have a lot in common."
Thus began an hour of soul-searching conversation. Several others nearby entered the discussion, a very quiet one, from a Kassa standpoint, as they were too tired to wave or flap their arms. One by one, they nodded off, with a better sense of what they had to do. They were not, however, prepared for "how" to do it.
HILL OF HORROR
The morning began with the hollow, deep sound of a yak's horn. No particular notes, no words, just a powerful blast. A few leaped up to a sitting position immediately. Those were the ones who were trained military men or those who had a need to awake at a certain hour. The rest winced and groaned, or turned over in their blankets to try to escape the unwelcome sound, and even more, the reality it brought them. Blast followed blast, a few seconds in between each to allow (snort)Gak to breathe and clear his head. He didn't stop until every last Kassa was sitting or standing awaiting the call to arms. He looked around with some degree of satisfaction and began to speak into the horn.
"Brothers, this morning we have grain and grain cake to break the fast. We have yak milk, ek-a-ek eggs, reed sap syrup, sausage, fresh fruits from Seahut, and spring water. Roll your bed clothes, stash them where you can find them in this tent. Eat heartily. You will need every ounce of energy today. Take care of all your business, for you have two hours to meet at the pass road. Bring your weapons."
The instructions stopped as abruptly as the horn started. It was still dark, but several fires around the tent gave ample light for what had to be done. After Daaigh finished rolling up his equipment, he walked toward the mess tent. The dark morning left reminders of the storm over the thick grass slopes. He sloshed his way across the field, carrying his sword on his belt easily, as if it was already becoming part of him. What little talk that could be heard from the soldiers consisted of exclamations of hunger, yawns, and disgust at the wet carpet of green. Few were given to complaints.
The support group had come through, once again. Rough wooden slabs, almost the size of shingles, had been split by froe out of cut lengths of wood, and were used as makeshift plates. The soldiers queued in ten lines, walking from station to station, and a worker, generally an older woman, would cover the previous layer of food with another. Grain and cake were covered by syrup, followed by a slab of egg, links of sausage, and pieces of fruit. A traditional nukka-EE was used to pick up the food, after they found a place to sit or congregate. The nukka-EE was, quite simply, a half-inch twig, about six inches long, split half-way along its length, used for piercing or grabbing, much like chopsticks. The yak milk was poured into their skin bags at the final station. The slab of wood, or (howwkkk)ta, was thrown in a pile to be burned at the next campfire.
The soldiers then went to the woods nearby, where open pits had been arranged for sanitary purposes. A few waded in the nearby stream to wash off, and the morning ritual was completed. They began their trudge to the pass.
The pace that morning was lively, as most had slept well the previous night. The two miles to the pass was covered in half an hour. As they walked, the sun rising behind them cast a red glow on the orange rocks of the steps ahead. The grassy meadows and farmland contrasted well with the brilliant rock, and the blue sky and wispy clouds above combined to make a beautiful sight. The muddy, grassy path became slightly steeper near the end, and over the last hill, they could see the rock fence of schmooelk-k.
Once at the beginning of the pass, one could understand why it was more advantageous to use it rather than to walk the original road that led into the foothills. The pass was cut into the edge of the forest, along the bay, and was a direct shot for travelers going to the northeast. The foothills road was steep, craggy and generally difficult for carts or horses to traverse. It was windy and narrow in some places, which lengthened a day's worth of travel to three.
The foothills and steppes were impassable except for the road. One had to climb each ledge of broken rock, loosening stones and sending them hurtling down to those below. And the ledges were, for the most part, four to five feet high, not just ordinary one-foot high steps as in a building. Elk-noo stopped, planting a blue staff in the ground. He was joined by a shorter, less muscular Kassa sporting brown- and green-painted chain mail, with strange, tattered brown pants covering another, green, pair, giving him the look of the bark and leaves of a tree. Across his shoulder was a beautiful, re-curved composite bow that looked to be of about one hundred fifty pounds of pull. Daaigh recognized him as Olumoo Strongroot, and he planted the yellow arrow flag. Archers began to congregate around him.
To Elk-noo's other side, the red flag was plunged into the ground by Mookuk Pounding, a powerful, stocky blacksmith, holding the largest, sharpest, most garish Morningstar he had ever seen. The picks were hammer-forged to the ball, and consisted of highly sharpened scroll plates, capable of butchering an adult orc with each pass. His armor was angular, ill-fitted and rusty but had the look of being able to resist a tremendous impact. The warriors congregating about him were a frightening lot. Most chose the sundering weapons due to their strength and size, few being under six-foot-six tall, and the weapons were an odd assortment of blacksmith hammers, ghastly pikes, maces, scythes and iron-banded, spiked clubs.
Once gathered, the archers were led to the south by Olumoo, toward the dense forest that lined both sides of the pass. Elk-noo stood to one side as the crowd of bladed fighters parted. The top of a chain mail hood could be seen above the group, as a tall Kassa approached the blue and red stakes. Mostly everyone recognized Mek(snort) Longstick. The general and ultimate military leader of the Kassa, he strode with the confidence only he could possess, only he could exude. He turned to address his charges, chain rippling and ringing as he moved. He slowly looked over the troops, from side to side, front to back, and then held his hand to the side. Elk-noo placed the yak-horn in his hand and stepped back.
"Fellow Kassa. I have been watching you from afar. I have seen you develop in just a day's time. The skills you were born with are beginning to surface. But the training still has to go forward."
"Before you lays a huge expanse of some of the roughest terrain you will ever see, other than Garakesh itself. We will train here today. You will learn all you need to know about battling on rocks and in hills."
"Do not fail us, brave Kassa. Do not fail your sons and daughters. And do not fail yourselves." With that, he handed the yak-horn back and walked to the side, where a tent was being erected.
As he turned and left, Elk-noo raised the horn to address the crowd. "Swordsmen, sunderers, all of you. We will learn important techniques today. These fighting points are seldom taught today, only in a few places of the world. This includes the domains of the dark folk. We are to learn the art of battle over rough terrain.
We intend to attack the dark ones and push them to the rocks, where we will have an advantage. Our advantage will be that we will show you how to fight from a lower position. It may sound strange to you now, but you will see..."
And see they did. The fighters were instructed to line up at a nearby wagon. As they passed, they picked up wooden mock-ups of their weapons. The swordsmen were given planks with a wooden hilt nailed at right angles. The hammermen were given large clubs, crudely made, but comparable to their own hammers. Pikers were given long, blunt staffs. Each was given a simple single-handed shield. This "armor" they would keep - the rest were to be used for firewood when the battle was done, or pyres for the fallen.
They broke into two groups and spread out for several hundred feet along the pass at the base of the foothills. They thrusted and parried, blocked, sliced and feinted their way left, right, back and forth, then switched sides and continued. They worked their way down the ledges, forcing the lower group back onto the pass, each time.
Around late morning, Elk-noo stopped the sparring. He gathered all the fighters in to a circle.
"Troops, my instructors and I have been watching your progress. You have all learned to fight downward, but anyone can do that. Through no fault of your own, you have assumed that you are on the defensive, just because the enemy is above you. Now watch."
He pointed to a tall, rangy warrior who had been keeping his opponent at bay all morning. He motioned to the first ledge of rock, and the fighter took his stance.
"What is your name, brave one?" Elk-noo said.
"Gock Redroot, sir."
"I am not 'sir', Gock. Remember that. All fighters in the Kassa are to be known as 'brave one'. It is a tradition that we all must keep." With that, he raised the shield and smote the rock beside Gock's feet, making him 'dance' a bit.
Gock was surprised, a little embarrassed, but aware of his situation. "Very well, Brave One. Eat my..." he looked at his sword, smiled at Elk-noo, "wood!" He swung a mighty arc downward at the Lieutenant, who deftly deflected it with just enough force to cause Gock's weight to shift, thrusting his wooden weapon to barely touch the off-balanced man's stomach, and holding it there for a second, grabbed his arm and flipped him head-over-heels to the ground below.
The other fighters were speechless. Elk-noo offered his hand to the flushed Gock, helping him to his feet. "Do not worry, Brave One, I have done this countless times. Next." He pointed to another.
The downward stroke was easily ducked this time, as Elk-noo slapped his shins hard enough to produce a grunt, then continued his movement to gently poke at the man's groin. As the hapless fighter rose to his toes to try to avoid the thrust, the officer swept his legs out from beneath him. This time, several other soldiers caught him.
"Several things to watch. Do not stare at a man's eyes - they can fool you. Look at a man's center, at mid-chest. He cannot fool you with it, as it tells where he is going, what he is going to do. You can still see his arms at the side. Watch what his center does. He will always be out of balance. Then hit the leg that is holding up most of his weight. He will always go down, no matter how big."
"Attack the feet, the legs, the groin, anything you can reach. These parts are usually not armored. Use the hand-shield to deflect-it won't take a heavy, direct hit without shattering, so follow the blade down and move it just enough. It will make the best fighters lose their balance."
"Now split up into two groups and fight, Brave Ones."
The rest of the morning, and some of the afternoon, was spent fighting up the rocks, with the lower group learning the fine arts of blocking, deflecting, pulling the opponent off-balance, and attacking parts of the body not normally struck. Their confidence built as they sweated, bruised, and bled.
Daaigh fought hard, reaping the benefits of the hard work in the fields that had sustained his family through dry, wet, and cold seasons. His sweat coursed down his head, across his chest, and soaked his shirt. He ached from the bruises he sustained while on top and those he received while falling. But he fought on. He was earning the title of Brave One.
Daaigh looked back to the Azure Forest a few times, between switching positions with his opponent. At one point, he noticed his own home, perilously close to the field. He knew it was his, as he had built a small ledge over the southwest end, overhanging the edge of the forest floor. It was built so that Elok-k and Gekkt could play and pretend that they had their own house. Today, he noticed that his five-year-old daughter, Elok-k, was watching, probably trying to find her father in the mass of swordsmen. He thought, for a minute, that she could pick him out, that she was talking to him. He thought to wave, but then thought for the better, as he didn't want her to worry. Her little sister, Gekkt, played in the house, sometimes crawling onto the ledge. Elok-k clutched her little doll, Honeybird, carved by Daaigh only a year before. She scarcely went anywhere without the little one. He broke himself free and got back to training - can't have my attention on them; they're going to be well...
The faux-fighting went on through to mid-afternoon. Elk-noo gave a blast on his horn, garnering attention, and then motioned to the red pole. The troops followed him. He waited until all had gathered before addressing them.
"Your training is going well. You have fought on the level and fought upward. But what if you yourselves are backed up to the ledges? You will now be shown how to fight downward."
"How can this be done, Elk-noo, you are probably saying. You have just shown us how vulnerable you are on top. It will require speed and balance, that is how. You: come here."
He pointed to Daaigh. The farmer nearly froze. Me? How did I get chosen? He stepped forward, assuming a position on the bottom ledge, just where the officer pointed. Elk-noo climbed to the top, pointing to two other fighters to stand beside Daaigh. He assumed a guarded position toward him. "Do your best, Brave One."
Daaigh lifted his shield and hit his sword, deflecting it to the side. But Elk-noo brought the sword in a short circle back to the same position, deflecting the shield further. As Daaigh's sword came down toward his feet, Elk-noo jumped enough to miss the weapon, landing in the same place, thrusting downward toward Daaigh's shoulders. The farmer ducked backward slightly, putting himself slightly off balance. That was all it took. A kick allowed the lieutenant the opening he needed to hop downward to the ledge, landing on the vacated space as Daaigh caught his position four feet lower. As the officer landed, he turned toward one fighter, striking his shield, and then pirouetted to strike at the other. He pushed him back, spinning to face the first, striking him again. His shield caught Daaigh's thrust, and he struck with his sword again, pushing the first fighter back along the ledge. A well-placed kick moved the third warrior back, and he brought his sword down on an arc toward Daaigh again, striking his shield. As the first soldier came back with a strike, he deflected him to the outside, and he tumbled down onto Daaigh. It was a two-person fight now, and he disarmed the surprised, outmanned, and tired third fighter. As he too tumbled, Elk-noo stopped, reaching for the horn.
"I don't expect all of you to do that now. Remember, I've done this many times. But the key is this: be aggressive. Break the enemy's ranks and fight from level ground; this should be especially effective against the loose orcish lines. Take advantage of everything you see. Every move can be countered. Now get back into your lines."
The troops realigned themselves. They looked clumsy at first, having just learned how to use the same advantages they now had to counter. However, little by little, they found subtle moves they could use against each other. They fought until the dusk masked their movements, until they could no longer see clearly, and until fatigue began to grip them. Elk-noo stopped them before anyone could get hurt, at least any more than they already were.
"Another good day of training. You have shown me much today. The tent awaits. Also, some meat. Eat before you sleep tonight; it will build your muscles. We will train you tomorrow in movements and strategies. It will be easier on your body but harder on your mind. Get rest, Brave Ones."
Daaigh's shoulders slumped, hopefully for the last time today. As he walked to the food tent, his glance caught an oil lamp in the window of his den. Two little heads stared out to the field. One clutched a doll.
The third day started much the same as the second, with a relentless blast of the horn, although this time, they all leapt to their feet as quickly as possible, as it was obvious it was to continue until they were all awake. After breakfast and a cleansing dip in the stream, in which nearly all of them participated, they gathered at the red flag. The archers gathered at the yellow again, a hundred feet to the south, and marched once again into the woods. Daaigh couldn't imagine what they could be doing all this time. He assumed that they were mostly farmers and woodworkers, sea farers, and from other trades, weren't well skilled at shooting, and needed as much practice as possible. He hoped for the best, for all of their sakes.
The ever-present Elk-noo once again raised the horn to address the crowded men and women. "Brave ones, the enemy is nearing. They should be a day from here, sometime tomorrow morning. We will have an early breakfast and exercise, so that we look fresh and clean for our friends." This was met with laughter from the troops. "Today, we shall go over commands and troop movement. All moves will be called in Kassa, as they can't understand our language. Keep all of your speech to them in Kassa as well. They already think we're heathens - let them keep thinking that. Bring your swords and weapons, leave your wooden ones. We'll get used to their weight again."
With that being said, he motioned to them with a sweep of his arm, picking up his flag and turning to walk toward the pass, never looking back. The troops quickly changed swords and followed.
The bulk of the day was spent drilling the troops in the basic commands of battle. The three thousand bladed warriors were divided into battalions, companies, platoons and squads. Daaigh was made a platoon leader of twenty soldiers, making up the second platoon, third company, first battalion, and he was quite surprised and proud that he had shown leadership abilities to Elk-noo. The training was confusing, as he had to interpret orders and relay them to his men, adapting their advances to the enemy and terrain, but he began to put it all together.
The day stretched to evening. The physical portion of the troop training was low impact, but continuous. More time was spent on water breaks and lunch, as the enemy would be here soon, and no one wanted the army to be tired. As they ended training and had their evening meal, each Brave One went off for a walk, spoke silently with a few friends, or sat star-gazing. The gravity of the situation began to weigh upon them.
Daaigh found each one of his platoon and had them gather in one area, around him, and arrange their bedrolls in a series of circles. He began speaking a short prayer to Bestra, asking her for forgiveness for those parts of their lives she found wrong and strength for those parts of their future they found difficult. He then began speaking to the platoon.
"Fellow Kassa, we know what we are here to do. Most of us have never done this before. It has been against our nature to fight except when we are attacked, and it looks like we will be attacked. The news from our scouts is that a few little towns and farms have been cleared to the ground and everyone killed on this retreat. The dark ones were beaten, and now want to even the score with anyone they find in their way. And our city, our families, are in their way."
"We are here to protect our families and our way of life. Our children need us. Their children need us. Everything we have done must stand. It all rests on our shoulders."
"Look around you. The man next to you is someone you may see out of place, with a sword ready to strike him. You must help him. He may see you in trouble. He must help you. Spend some time talking, for the rest of the evening. Get to know each one, what their strengths are, what they think their weaknesses are. We are all brothers. We live as brothers. We must fight as brothers. If we have to, we will die as brothers. For the Kassa, for our families, for Bestra. We are the Brave Ones!" He raised his sword, and each one raised their sword, to the cry of "Brave Ones."
Livelier conversation ensued, and every member got to know a little about every other that night. Hopefully there would be more evenings like this one.
Emm Leaf opened the door of their hut to greet Moget Leafsun, a distant cousin of Daaigh, who had come to the den to tell her of the impending advance of the orcs, kobolds, goblins, and hobgoblins. Moget had brought some extra water skins for her to use. As per Daaigh's request, she gathered the food and clothing to be taken to Elm Suntree, wife of Eggnah, who was also fighting, and placed them by the door. She pried the children away from their favorite play area, the ledge, late in the evening and tucked them into bed. They usually asked for stories to finish the night, which was Daaigh's responsibility.
But this evening they asked about war, about fighting. It was difficult for Emm, as she had never had any experience in such matters and couldn't imagine the ferocity and brutality involved. She made up a few tales of warriors who managed to prevent their nations from fighting, who led the cause for peace. She could only hope that this would be true tomorrow. When the children were asleep, she took the skins, and a few she had borrowed from her cousin further living further into the woods, filled them with water, and hauled them to their roof, where they could be used in case of fire. She then slept restlessly.
Emm gathered her necessities and those of Gekkt and Elok-k into sacks on the morning of the third day. They all loaded up with the sacks and made their way to the Suntree home.