By Gerry Torbert
DAY OF THE BRAVE ONE
The yak horn was softer this morning. Just a few blasts, enough to stir some, who would pass the news to others. The platoon leaders were motioned to one side, where Elk-noo handed each one a carved stick about eight feet long, with flags attached to one end. Daaigh's flags were red and blue, and his staff was painted yellow. Yellow represented the battalion, the upper flag the company, and the lower, the platoon. Daaigh returned to his platoon and familiarized the men with their designation. They collected their weapons and marched to breakfast beneath a full moon that shone brightly enough for them to see the pass ahead.
He noticed that the archers were already headed to the woods. There were easily a thousand of them, marching double-time to the pass, then down toward the entrance to the thick woods. With the typically acute nighttime eyesight of a Kassa, he saw that some platoons turned off toward the steppes to the west, while some stayed in the woods on the ground. The rest climbed effortlessly and quietly into the branches above, finding clandestine spots from which to fire. "May Bestra guide your shots", he muttered. "Oom, Brave One, I agree", came a voice from behind. It was that of Gock Redroot, the fighter Daaigh had chosen to be his second in command and the leader of Squad 1. "We will need them, Daaigh. Stirring speech last night, friend. If we make it out of this, I want to raise a mug of yak milk in your honor at the market."
Daaigh flushed, even in the cool, dark night air. "You mean when, Gock, not if."
The platoons gathered by companies, and the companies by battalions. Elk-noo blasted a single note on his horn and turned to the pass. They followed him in step to a point about a hundred feet from the road. They stopped and stood at attention, while the hooded figure of Mek(snort) Longstick walked with a purpose to the front. Elk-noo handed him the horn and moved to a point in front of middle battalion.
"Brave ones, hold your weapons above your heads!" With a single motion, they obeyed. "This is how I expect to see you at the end of the day. Two villages have been wiped from the face of Núrion in the last two days. The women were raped, the men were killed, the stock were slaughtered, the children eaten. This will not be our fate. We are Kassa! Remember that Bestra watches. To live for her, to fight for her, these are our aims! If we need to die for her, so be it! But let it be death later, in a rocking chair, holding our grandchildren! Show these pigs why you are the Brave Ones!"
The cheer was deafening. At once, they felt like true warriors. General Longstick then handed his horn to Elk-noo, who bowed slightly. The hooded one walked through the ranks, smiling and shaking the hands of the battalion leaders. Then he made his way to the company leaders, then to the platoon leaders. Daaigh's throat felt dry, his mouth quivering, as he neared. Then he stopped directly in front of him, staring into his eyes. His age was overshadowed by his physical presence, and Daaigh took his elbow. Then came the unexpected. Old Mek(snort) bent over and whispered into Daaigh's ear.
"I walked among the groups last night, farmer. I heard your speech. We climbers have much to learn from such as you. Bestra guide your aim, Brave One."
Every muscle in Daaigh's body quivered, and if it wasn't still slightly dark, the whole army would see him blush. His knees felt like jelly, but he remained straight and proud. "Oom.." was all he could say.
As the old soldier smiled and passed to the next, Daaigh saw Elk-noo look out of the corner of his eye. The lieutenant let a slight smile creep across his lips.
A few clicks and whistles could be heard coming from the trees along the pass. Some lights, presumably torches, were seen to bob along the path in the distance. Mek(snort) moved to a position along the pass. Elk-noo quietly gave the order "By my hand signs, march", and turned to march to the pass. Upon reaching it, he put up one finger, then two and waved to the right, to the north, along the pass. Battalions one and two turned and marched to the right. He held up three, then four, then five fingers, and waved to the left. The remaining troops marched to the left flank, spreading along the bottom farmland to prevent counter movements. If stopped and engaged, the Kassa wanted to prevent the dark army from simply coming off of the pass through the woods to the south east, sweeping around to the heart of Kassanyek-k.
Daaigh's platoon fell into rank and file facing him, at the right side of the pass, the second platoon from the front line. Elk-noo personally arranged the men, silently with signals in the dark, in a wedge formation. He knew that his soldiers might not be able to deal with the dark ones on a one-to-one basis, and that this was the only way to fight in the confined width of the pass. The formation continued to move and sweep around until it appeared as a crescent.
The strategy would be to allow the enemy to charge along the pass, then sweep along its right flank and engage it along its length. The remaining Kassa, sweeping in perpendicular to the pass, would attempt to cut the dark line and separate it, while the southernmost of the remaining three battalions would come in at the pinch point and fight southward. It seemed to be the best way to use all of the forces and bring them to bear on a more even ratio. The southernmost dark lines would be taken by the archers, who at this time seemed to be an unknown quantity to the swordsmen and sunderers.
Over their shoulders, if anyone was interested, an eerily beautiful sunrise could be seen just beginning to form. The sun had not yet crested the sea's horizon, but the rays were illuminating the tops of the foothills and the slopes toward Garakesh to the west. The reddish-orange light reflected down on the site, a portent of what might be.
The dark folk broke through the woods lining the pass. At the lead was a large, burly orc. For some of the Kassa, it was the first orc they had ever seen. His blue-black skin was covered nearly from head to toe with plate armor, interleafed and riveted to allow movement. His helm surrounded his bulbous head, covering down to his neck in a wild, flaring curve. The top of it came to a point, making him look taller than his six-foot two frame. He had all the posture of a general, but a beleaguered look to his countenance, a look that was hardened when he saw the imposing figure of Mek(snort) Longstick. The Kassa general stood strong, feet shoulder-width apart, his six-and-a-half foot broadsword standing point-down in front of him, his hands resting on the hilt in an almost casual manner.
The orcish Hoth, or general, held his right hand up, and the signal was repeated rearward as the troops stopped. They had a beaten yet irritated manner, and looked about at the fifteen hundred Kassa amassed in a strange crescent. The armed dark force consisted of at least ten thousand hardened, battle-ready yet battle-weary warriors. Archers slid their bows from their shoulders, and torches were brought up to them by kobolds.
The general motioned to his flankmen, and they moved forward. He handed his ornamental pike to the attendant to his left, and then he took his sword out and handed it to the attendant on his right. He began his walk to General Longstick in a calculated, slow stride. So struck by the almost casual demeanor displayed were the troops that all were silent.
As he approached Longstick, the orc leader began to realize how impressive his adversary truly was. The Kassa had no armor, save the unusual hooded chain robe, and he stood a good ten inches taller than his dark foe. The orc looked the sword over from hilt to tip, wondering if it could even be lifted. He smiled a jagged-toothed grin, if for nothing other than to initiate conversation.
"I'm Hoth Azock of the Army of Darktongue. I assume yer the leader of these...men...here. You need'a move. We're gonna use this pass."
Longstick smiled and looked down, shaking his head. "Sun comes up, sun goes down. Things change every day. One thing never changes, orc. Always order people about. I am General Mek(snort) Longstick. No."
Azock's smile flickered to a stern look. "General, you and I, we're military men. We both know how things are. You live close'ta us, an' ya know we don' take crap from no one. We gotta long trip back'o'us, more ahead. We take what we want, atsa fact'o'life. We ain't climbin' up dose hills when we got a clear road ahead. Move now, or it'll be a lot worse on ya when we finish wit ya."
Longstick looked up from the ground. "This pass leads through Kassa lands. You are to stay off Kassa lands. That means you go around. Simple. The law was laid down a long time ago."
Azocks eyes filled with fire, as he strode forward, into Longstick's face. Spittle flew from his tusks, launched by the breath of a man long on the road. "Look here, heathen, we ain't gonna lissen ta you or any other tree frog. Ya want a fight, you'll get one. We'll burn yer little birdhouses to da ground, an' take care o' yer ladies, too. An' I hear yer tree-babies taste good over a fire. It's upta you, tree boy."
The Kassa general bristled slightly but maintained his composure and looked down into the orc's eyes with a steel-hard gaze that backed him up a bit. "General Azock, looks like you'll have to do what you'll have to do. We're not moving."
Azock gave Longstick a curt, meaningless salute, turned, and snarled over his shoulder, "See you in Hell, General."
Mek(snort) returned the salute in fashion, and replied, "I suppose you will, Hoth."
Azock returned to his men, taking his pike and sword from his seconds, and gave a slight nod and hand signal to the Hai behind him as he mounted. The lower officer held up his hand and three fingers, pointed to the pass and then to Kassa City. Longstick held up his hand in a steadying signal to Elk-noo, who held his up to the battalion behind him.
The orc archers raised their bows, and most of their missiles were lit by the Kobolds. Those with flaming arrow heads swung around to the trees, while the rest pointed toward the Kassa general. With a move of the Hai's hand, about fifty flaming arrows were launched to the woods. Another twenty were fired toward Longstick, who, with his hands still resting on his sword hilt, casually bowed his head and with it his hood, to protect his face. The arrows struck home at his chest as the Kassa held their breath. With a sickening series of swishes and thuds, he stood motionless as most of the arrows buried themselves only an inch or less, slowed by the chain mail, while some of them fell harmlessly to the ground. Once the volley had finished, he calmly reached up and picked those that stuck in him, tossing them to the side. One made it into his right shoulder deeply, and with no sign of even a grimace, he pulled it out. Some blood spurted from the wound; he wiped it from his shirt and licked it from his hand, all the while staring General Azock in the eyes. The orc's blood turned cold at the sight.
With a gasp, Daaigh watched as the flaming arrows hit his den. The tree burst into flames.
Elk-noo raised his elk-horn to his mouth and called, "Switook Nernock oom switook!" It was the call for the Kassa archers to fire on their orcish counterparts. Suddenly, a continuous swishing sound emerged, as the arrows tore through the air from the foothills and through the leaves of the overhanging trees. Two massive waves of arrows converged on the dark folk bowmen. With screams of pain, and some gasping, gurgling and oaths, the arrows struck their targets. Orc footsoldiers swung around, raising their shields to protect themselves. Yet no one on the ground could see their well-hidden foes.
Azock turned to his entreaties, waved his arm forward, and yelled "Charge!" as loud as he could. The soldiers raised their swords and pikes and roared, surging forward along the pass. Elk-noo blasted out "Swootkah rkneek," a call for the swords to charge, but barely could be heard. He let the horn fall to his side, raised his sword and pointed it forward as he began to run toward the oncoming wave.
Behind him, and all along the front, could be heard, "Schmooelk-k!" The Battle of Azure was enjoined.
"Hurry along, girls, we don't have too much time to waste." Emm was weighted down with sacks of clothing and a few other essentials and didn't have too much patience with her children. The Suntree hut was just a mile or two ahead.
Emm left the house bolted up; why, she didn't know. The orcs would tear it down to get inside if they really wanted to. Many tales of the dark folk circulated among the Kassa nation, and all were aware of how evil they could be. Sure, they were just stories, some placed in their heads by parents who were at their wits end trying to corral their children. And it worked, for the most part. Most children have a favorite horror story of orcs or goblins, often telling of their habit of eating little boys and girls, to siblings to scare them late at night.
As they knocked and entered the home of the Suntrees, Elm greeted them and helped Emm with some of the sacks. "Eggnah had built another room in the back, I hope you like it, Emm", she said. "If you don't mind sleeping with the girls, you'll be very comfortable. Elok-k, Gekkt, you know Jemna and Kakdu, my daughters, don't you? They will be happy to see you, and they have a lot of little dolls to play with."
Dolls! thought Elok-k - I forgot Honeybird! What do I do? She didn't say anything, for fear of being scolded by her mother, but just went into Jemna's room to greet her. Meanwhile, Emm sat at the table with Elm, who poured some tea into pottery mugs for each of them. Elok-k started to devise a plan to retrieve poor Honeybird. After playing a while, she excused herself to use the bathroom hut outside on the ground. "Be careful, dear," Emm said, and with that, Elok-k left the hut. She climbed down partway to the ground but then changed course and climbed up to the wooden bridge. She was on a mission.
Emm and Elm assumed for quite a while that Elok-k had taken care of business and had returned to her friend's room. It wasn't until forty five or so minutes later that Jemna walked in and asked Emm where she was. Emm climbed down to the bathroom, and when she didn't find her, panicked. She talked to Gekkt, who said she didn't know where she was. Emm noticed that Honeybird was missing and asked Gekkt about him. When she said the doll was still back at the house, Emm left right away, down the bridge.
Elok-k arrived, almost out of breath, at the hut when she realized she didn't have access. She climbed around to her favorite place, the ledge, and clambered in. Honeybird was sitting on her bed. As she picked him up, a flash of light sped past her and stuck itself in the wall. It was a flaming arrow. She looked out the ledge in time to see other arrows arcing toward her house, some sticking in the wooden walls, some on the branches of their tree. Within seconds, parts of the walls were ablaze!
Fire. One of the only things that Kassa fear. She shook with terror and begin to cry. But something inside her told her that crying wasn't going to do a bit of good. Would she want to have her family to find her in her room, crying? Or to die that way? No, that would not be the Kassa way, she thought. She grabbed Honeybird and tied her sash around his waist. She managed to climb out of the ledge, then suddenly remembered something. Her mother had hauled skin bags of water to the roof! She saw her outside, looking through the ledge, the night before. She asked what they were for. "To help put out fires, dear, now go back to sleep, it's late." Elok-k found this strange, as she didn't know why there would be any more of a danger of fire than there ever was, but went back to sleep. Now she understood.
She climbed up on the roof, not an easy task, since the overhang of sticks and rafters made it necessary to reach up and out, leaving nothing beneath her feet. She and several other girls had done this, on a dare. It seems that some of the boys had doubted their prowess, being "only girls." Elok-k won them over that day and had practiced it several times since. Once on the roof, she took care so as not to fall between the thatching of reeds. There, at the peak, with the orange-red sun lightly illuminating them, were a dozen skin bags, filled to overflowing.
The smoke was beginning to work its way between the reeds, and she knew she had to travel fast. One by one, she opened the bags, half-dumping them where they were, then dragging them to places where the smoke was leaking through. As the sizzling stopped, she pushed the reeds apart and let herself down into her parent's room, swinging from the rafters to the bed. Only then did she think to check the welfare of Honeybird. Luckily, he was secure. Unluckily, she began to choke on the smoke still in the house. She was disoriented, with not enough sunlight to see the door, and soon she collapsed.
Emm could see the smoke rising from her den in the distance, and it served to make her run faster. Breathlessly, she arrived at the house, with a lump in her throat that every parent dreads. But the walls of the hut were wet, still dripping, even though flames were all around on the ground. She unbolted the door and called her daughter. She ran from room to room, starting with the girl's room. The thick smoke kept her from seeing much, but she got down to her hands and knees to search. Finally, in her own room, she found Elok-k. She hadn't made it to the floor, where she would have been safer. Her hands were clutched around Honeybird, and water was dripping down from above.
Emm picked her up and carried her outside on the bridge, where she fanned her and pressed her lungs to get fresh air into them. She breathed a sigh of relief when the girl looked up into her face. Hugging her tightly, she realized Elok-k still needed plenty of fresh air, so she sat her up against the newel of the bridge. "You gave us all quite a scare, little girl! Don't do that again!"
Elok-k looked up at her mother and said, "I stopped the fire, Mommy, and Honeybird is safe again!"
"Yes, but..." Emm couldn't get the remainder of the scolding sentence out. She just hugged her again. They were quiet. Too quiet. They hadn't noticed the screaming, the oaths, the clanging of swords. Emm took her in her arms again, this time to pick her up. She picked up the doll, handed it to her, and made sure she held on tightly this time. She made her way away from the sounds, getting her precious cargo away from earshot as fast as possible. On her way to Suntree hut, she met a few other women and told them of the fires. The women made their way to their dens to fight their own fires. Elok-k just listened to the fighting as long as she could. She hoped to pick Daaigh's voice out of the melee.
The charge was ferocious. Like a wave of water, the orcs and goblins poured along the pass toward the Kassa. The orcs behind them, unable to move forward at first, could only shuffle forward slowly. The second and third battalions, true to plan, swept as two crescents into the slow-moving dark folk. The fourth and fifth battalions held fast, slowly moving their semicircular formations in to cover the flanks of two and three, preparing for any soldiers leaving the pass and attempting a counter-attack.
But the Kassa archers made their movements completely unnecessary. Able to hide in the trees and shooting with amazing accuracy, they emptied their quivers into the helpless soldiers below. Archers to the south fired at the rear of the evil one's line, and disoriented by the rising of the hated sun and unsure of the direction from which the arrows were coming, pushed forward along the pass, making even better targets.
Daaigh, his platoon second in line, screamed and rushed forth. The sounds of the first platoon impacting the orcs were sickening to many of the Kassa, most never having fought before. The first line of orcs waded through the first of the Kassa, swinging their swords back and forth, pushing and kicking as they trod. About a dozen Kassa fell in the first platoon, the saved orcs not having prepared themselves for the ferocity of battle. The orcs, although they were smaller, on the average, knew how to instill fear in their enemy, and even a small bit of fear can freeze a fighter for a moment of indecision.
The fight was taken to the back of the first platoon, and Daaigh's men surged forth. Steeled by their comrades' downfall, Daaigh yelled curses and slurs at the top of his lungs, making the orcs stay their surge ever so slightly. Daaigh's sword swiped across the first soldier he encountered and was blocked by his shield. As the right arm of the orc came sweeping from behind in an arc toward Daaigh, he froze. He had never imagined such speed and ferocity. He had time to get his shield up, but to no avail. The clang above his head told it all. The orc's sword was stopped, sparking from the impact of Gock Redroot's sword. Gock stepped in from Daaigh's side, holding the orc's sword motionless for a fraction of a second. The orc felt his power surging through the locked blades, and Gock twisted quickly to free them. His motion carried his sword directly across the orc's forearms, slicing them off just below the elbows. His sword fell down, still clutched by his disembodied hands, on Daaigh's head, with a mild "thump." Gok ended with his sweeping attack pointing his sword directly at the goblin ahead of him. He continued his move with a quick thrust, impaling the little greasy creature deeply enough to trap his blade. The screams of the armless one ringing in his ears, Daaigh blocked the strike of the orc next in line just before it met with Gock's head. A kick in the chest by the farmer gave him time to launch his own stabbing motion, stopping this one in his tracks.
In the midst of every episode of insanity comes a moment of crystal clarity. In this case, it was as if everything around Daaigh and Gock was moving in a slow-motion haze. They looked at each other, both knowing that they now knew how to fight. Without a word, they continued their selfless teamwork, and Daaigh's platoon caught on. They brought up the rear and joined the flanks, weaving their way through the masses of dark folk.
The second and third battalions continued their sweeping charge. They kept in formation, moving in two giant semicircles on an angle, piercing the orc lines along the pass. At the first, northern end of the circle were the heavy, sundering weapons led by Mooluk Pounding. His ghastly mace was swinging around above his head with deadly force. One orc took the swirling blades full flush in the face, hollowing out his head in a swipe. Mooluk continued with a downward sweep, halving a hobgoblin as he swung his sword. Other huge Kassa gave him room but attacked those few brave dark folk warriors trying to time their dash into Mooluk. Pikes, then banded and studded clubs smashed swords and armor with unwavering devastation as the formation acted like a pincher, cutting the orc ranks into two and surrounding them. There was nowhere for the orsc to go but into the ledges.
As they retreated, Mooluk gave a signal to his uniquely armed men, and they backed off a few yards. Surprised by this tactic, the orcs prepared for a charge. But the heavily armed soldiers moved to the north to engage the next part of a line, and the back ranks closed in. (Snort)Gak Threebranch signaled to the cutlasses and rapiers, and the fresh line of fine swordsmen rushed the orcs. Led by Gkakoo Seahut, they thrust, parried, and sliced their way into the lines, forcing them up on the ledges. One level by another, the orcs moved upward, falling victim to the Kassa's low-fighting techniques.
The Orcish Hai spotted his opponent. Calling to his favorite bodyguard-a heavily muscled, huge orc-he growled, "Soften him up fer me." The armored orc guard growled and ran forward. Rearing back, he attempted to slice the General with his wicked falchion, but the Kassa ducked to the left. Asock laughed as he watched his bodyguard press the assault. As the orc pulled back for another swing, Longstick whirled with an agility that didn't seem possible, considering his size, and he swept his sword from throat to groin, slicing through bone and muscle, punching through armor. The orc howled and screamed in pain, dumping much of his entrails as he collapsed. Azock snarled and started forward. "Son of a pig! 'At wuz my best guard, tree man! Git ready ta pay fer him!"
Longstick stood up, blood only lightly oozing from his worst wound, but painted in red the rest of the way. "Seems a shame, tusked one. Now you'll have to fight by yourself, like a man. Think you can do that?"
Azock roared a long-forgotten oath and ran toward the Kassa. He leapt over his fallen guard, swinging his sword downward as he descended. But the massive Kassa lifted his much larger blade with one hand, meeting his foe in a deafening clang. Other soldiers, both Kassa and orc, turned to see their ultimate leaders caught in a stalemate, and they backed off to give them room. There are certain rules of combat that transcend the orderless nature of such a battle. The generals would be left alone.
As Azock came down, his foot caught in some of the large orc's entrails, awaiting his arrival like writhing snares of a living trap. He fell to his face in the dust, and expecting the worst, he quickly looked up to Longstick for the death blow. The Kassa just looked at him and smiled, stepping back to let him stand. "You don't escape me that easily, pig-man. You'll have to work for your place in Hell today!"
Azock bounced to his feet, wiping the dust from his mouth, his eyes never leaving the larger foe. They circled each other for a few seconds, Azock defending himself with both hands on a four-foot sword, Longstick holding his six-footer like a fencing sword. From the north of the circle, while they fought, the Kassa soldiers could be heard chanting Schmooelk-k! Schmooelk-k!
Daaigh and Gock both dispatched their foes in unison, watching the two behemoths from the corners of their eyes. Azock strode forth and swiped at Longstick, down from right to left. The Kassa intercepted his strike with a glance of his weapon, then moved his sword down to counter the anticipated upward sweep. Azock saw the move and didn't launch it. He brought the sword back up in a jerk, realizing the chain-mailed figure was every bit his match. With one arm.
Back and forth, side to side: Orc and Kassa; follower of Vornoth, worshipper of Bestra; unholy and saved; they swept, countered, blocked, ducked, thrust and circled. Truly a master of swordsmanship, Azock was matched at every move by his opponent. Longstick's smile never left his face.
After a few minutes of deftly-played choreography, Azock's desperation got the best of him. Thrusting time and time again, Longstick parried each move and deflected it as if he was sparring with a fencing foil, until the last thrust brought both creatures to within a few inches of each other. They stared into each other's eyes. "Yer good, tree-boy", said Azock, nearly out of breath. "But ya know, we're the masters. You'll always lose in da end."
Longstick's smile widened. "I forgot to tell you something, Azock."
"Whassat, tree-boy? Got a trick up yer sleeve?"
The Kassa growled at his foe. "Might say that. I'm really left-handed."
Longstick pushed him to the ground, and as he arose, switched hands. The Orc spat and charged him with a flurry of what seemed several swords. Each strike was expertly blocked by Longstick, and as he reached back for another stroke, he left himself open too long. The Kassa grabbed the blade with both hands and came down upon Azock with such ferocity that the blade didn't stop until it reached his stomach. Azock looked surprised and remained motionless for several seconds, a line of blood reaching from his back, where the sword exited, up his neck to his head, then from his forehead to his chest, to the front , to the sword again. His steel helm fell into two halves. He gurgled the words "See you in He.." as he fell off the sword, in two.
Dragoo Hightrunk could see his captain behind the trunk of the next tree. They both had just shot their final arrow. Now was the time to test their fortitude. Olumoo Strongroot called out, "Rk-k-oomoop" (fall-attack), put his bow against the trunk, pulled his sword, and leapt down on the orc soldiers below. He aimed his sword at a particular orc on the way down, and with little effort, plunged it into the chest, below the armor, of the dark one. He gave the weapon a slight twist as it entered, to add to the damage, and to free it. The force of his fall caused another orc to lose his balance, giving him enough time to wrench the blade free. He ducked another soldier's blade while pulling his sword out, but another in the tightly-packed horde managed to get a swipe at his back before being dropped by Dragoo's sword. Olumoo's wound was critical but not mortal. His head still swimming from the drop, Dragoo pulled his dagger and gouged the throat of the nearest orc, giving himself and the next dropper some room. The fight from the archers quickly turned into a full-blown melee, with Kassa, orc, hobgoblin, and goblin alike swirling and mixing. Disoriented and confused from the tactics of the saved orc, the dark ones soon began to back up to the ledges that led up to the foothills.
Daaigh's platoon now pushed the orcs too far, into the foothills road. They had hoped to force them onto the ledges, splitting them into two factions. This would prove to be of only a minor inconvenience, as the orcs were still on the run. Elk-noo held the first and second battalions back slightly, moving them to the north to try to surround them. But the orcs, still stubborn, fought back and slowed the Kassa's movement up the road. The fighting on the ledges slowed as well, as some of the orcs also knew how to fight on uneven terrain.
At about that time, the sunderers broke free from their resistance, and led by the mad whirling dervish that was Mooluk, chased the remaining orcs just south of the intersection of the two roads on a dead run toward the old road. The remainder of the fourth battalion, those not busy chasing up the ledges, followed them, cutting through the lines and leaving disjointed pockets of lost soldiers, looking for a way to stall the quickly failing defense.
As the fighting continued to advance, however, a roaring noise was heard along the pass to the south. About a dozen furry masses approached. Each seemed to be an evil crossbreed of dog and bear, with wide-spread legs, thick necks, long lizard-like bodies and a huge mouths lined with deadly teeth. Worgs and Goblin riders, late to join the main army, trotted into view. Most of the Kassa had never heard of such an animal, and few had faced one. As they neared the fighting, they began to pick up speed, their riders whipping them and prodding them along. The slavering, toothy beasts growled and screamed in their guttural language as they ran faster and faster toward the rear of the fourth battalion.
A small figure toddled up from the rear of the fifth battalion, keeping up to the front line as best he could, as the soldiers girded themselves for an almost impossible fight. He stumbled a bit, hauling his pants up with one hand, holding a small purse with the other. As his little legs churned along, his yak-wool hat slipped over his eyes far enough to cause him to stumble over a simple chuckhole in the field. He righted himself, continuing along to intercept the horrific beasts. Kacko Laughing was not meant for this sort of physical exercise.
The fifth battalion, pinching in toward the fast-moving fourth, was sweeping in toward the pass, the north end leading the way and the crescent moving as planned. Now, with the emergence of the worgs, things would have to move a little faster. The captain of the battalion, Eyah-mek Goldtree, called out on his yak horn to the fourth, but he couldn't be heard. Seeing that the worgs were running toward the center of the fighting, along the pass, and that the Kassa would be taken by surprise, he ordered his men to divert them and attract them to his troops by making noise. They began to cheer and yell as they ran for the pass, and this seemed to attract the goblin riders, seeing that they might be caught in a pincers movement. The furry beasts turned and headed for the fifth, and the sunderers and heavy-weapon troops of the fourth, hearing the noise and being alerted to the newcomers, turned after them.
Kacko could barely keep ahead of the lines but knew he had to have an open field and line of sight to work his tricks. Ever since he was young, he knew by his stature he wouldn't be a fighter, a blacksmith, farmer, dock worker, or any profession that called for the traditionally large frame possessed by Kassa males. So he began to study literature, began to develop his story-telling skills, and began to travel. From Tusseltop to Sal'baran, to Vetemus, to Nopolitus, to Walin's Cap, he learned the seedy bar stories of the many races of Forntol. In Ropbadden's Hill, Bodop's Hut and Seahaven, he learned the art of magic and the power of spells.
Studying at the magnificent Beladanall's Institute of the Spire of Bestra, he attempted to learn the fine arts and great stories of the land, that is, until he managed to get himself thrown out for "rowdiness and behavior unbecoming a student of the fine arts," they said. Bah! How more artistic can one get than to move a dozen market wagons, complete with chickens and pigs, into the headmaster's quarters? They just didn't appreciate the different types of talent there are.
So he came back to the Azure Forest, earning a pittance here and there entertaining people, waiting for his big break. This looked like it. He managed to run about fifteen yards in front of the line, far enough to give himself room to work. Fingers fumbling at the purse, heart racing a mile a minute, he pulled out a wooden flute and nervously brought it to his mouth. With a few deft notes, a silly but catchy tune emanated from it, securing a sideward glance from the nearest worg. That was all it would take - that was his plan. He stared at the ravenous beast, and one by one, the rest of them looked his way. Taking the flute out of his mouth, he calmly said, "Fascinated by this flute, aren't you?"
The worgs began to slow down. The goblin riders, seeing this sudden change, began whipping and kicking their steeds to try to break the spell. Kacko smiled and reached back into his purse. He grabbed what was left, now with fingers less shaky - a small, unbecoming stone; a three-inch log piece of Kassamasteeka wood, and a tuft of simple grass. Holding them in one hand, he pointed to the first worg and began to sing:
"Say, there mister Worg, you can't catch me, not if you run like that! Not in this swamp, with such sticky mud, you'll ne'er e'en catch my hat! You're moving so slow, too tired to run, you're stuck in to your waist! And now, you can't catch e'en little Kacko, so cease your silly haste!"
The surprised looks on all two dozen evil faces told the tale, and were almost mirrored in the gazes of the charging Kassa fighters. The worgs twisted and groaned, spitting and screaming oaths that, in their bestial native language, would make even a Gnome blush. Their upper bodies moved with the same speed as before, but only in twisting and pulling motions, as they tried in vain to draw their feet off the solid, grassy field. Thinking they were in a swamp, with their hairy legs sunken deeply into mire, they could only move a step or two in the span of ten seconds or so. The goblins dug their heels into the sides of the behemoths but to no avail.
Seeing the predicament that the worgs thought they were in, Eyah-mek ordered the charge. The Kassa fell upon the worgs as if they were a band of hungry hyenas attacking a wounded yak. Taking care so as not to get too close to the snapping teeth and flailing tails, they easily killed the hapless beasts, while Kacko stood and smiled. A soldier, while passing him, looked down to see the same Kacko he and several others had chided in the marketplace, and patted his buttocks on his way to the carnage. "Good fighting, Brave One! I'll raise a mug to you any day!" Kacko felt warm all over. His acceptance would be complete.
A sharp pin was stuck in the balloon that was the almost unwavering orcish bravado. The deflating of their spirit was manifest in an almost audible sigh, as they began to fight to assure a retreat path. They fought more with blocking moves as they stumbled backward up the slopes of the foothills, gathering where they could to protect themselves. They struck with lackadaisical motions, even running away and back over the west edges of the hill, to the old pass. The dark army already along the old pass between the two foothills withdrew hastily to join their bloodied, confused companions. Waving their weapons in meek defiance, they began trotting along the rugged pass, squinting in the sunlight. Elk-noo, turning toward the Kassa, grabbed a lone pike from the ground and held it above his head, waving it side-to-side to indicate victory. Mek(snort) Longstick, still covered in his own blood, threw back his hood, turned to the assembled Brave Ones, and raised his giant sword above his head. As one, the soldiers raised theirs, just as he said they would, and began chanting, "Schmooelk-k! Schmooelk-k!" Running to the road to catch up, a little figure chanted in perfect intonation, playing a lilting tune on a flute and raising a purse to add to the salute.
It started out as any other day. The sun now was halfway up on its ascent, its warm rays healing the bloody grass, the bent trees, the wounds of those still alive. Out of the nearly five thousand Kassa, only had fifty left for Bestra's exalted throne. The normally hard-working saved orcs ironically picked through the bodies of the unsaved to find their own. The support group rushed to the field, donkeys and horses pulling wagons of food and supplies. Bags of water and milk were attacked by the same fighters that had attacked flesh just hours ago. Wraps and ointment were dispersed among the needy, and the news was sent back to the city by yak horn. Pairk of the Branch of Light rode quickly on his horse to greet Longstick. He dismounted the steed as it was still slowing down and strode purposefully to the huge general. He drew back a fist and hit the taller leader square across the temple, knocking the seemingly invincible man to the ground. As Longstick rolled to his knees, he shook the cobwebs from his head and assumed a kneeling position of attention. Elk-noo and the others dropped their weapons, as well as their jaws, in disbelief at what had just expired.
"That's for tying me up, old friend. Never do that again."
"If we didn't win, we would need a great leader, Sire. I will never do that again."
"Good." He walked around to the side of his friend and slapped him on the buttocks with a loud crack. Longstick smiled and returned the "salute." The rest breathed, finally.
The crowd gathered around both, as Pairk, the great listener that he was, heard of Elk-noo, Mooluck, Kelmuk, Goldtree, Strongroot, Longstick and their struggles. The loudest of all was a soldier of the fifth battalion, who sung the praises of a small bard and his magic. After he listened for a while, Pairk held up his hand, closing and opening it to silence them for a minute. "May I see Daaigh Leaf?"
Daaigh heard his name, and several looked his way, followed by the rest, then Pairk. A lump in his throat borne of uncertainty, he walked forward to the leader and stood at attention. Pairk smiled and said, "At ease, Daaigh. I have news of your home."
Daaigh trembled. He knew it was on fire, at least for a while. "Yes, sir, what is it?"
Pairk put his hand on his shoulder. "Nothing bad, Daaigh. Seems we have another "Brave One" to acknowledge. It seems a certain Elok-k left her dolly behind, went back for it, put out the fire and saved the house. Just like her daddy would have. You should be proud!"
Daaigh flushed with pride. "I am, Brave One!"
Pairk, Longstick and the other officers were indistinguishable from the rest, as all of the adult men took on the task of building a pyre for the fallen. The Kassa dead were placed on wagons, salted and taken to the clearing to the south of the city. The remains of the filthy dark folk were much more numerous. After armor and belongings were removed (presumably to bolster the general fund), probably about five thousand of them were heaped on several piles of wood, then burned.
Daaigh found Emm, and they held each other for what seemed to be an eternity. But it was interrupted by a little girl, Elok-k, who couldn't hang on to his leg tighter. And another girl, holding a doll, leaped to his chest, where a long, continuous stream of her escapades kept him busy listening. The five of them stood and hugged, a family once more.
The rest of the day was spent reuniting with families. They were gathered at the outskirts of the city, where food was brought out for their heroes. Pairk and Longstick personally went to each family to express their condolences. Families gathered around them, telling each of their heroic efforts, pledging help for the families.
As the sun began to set behind the ominous mountains to the west, the soldiers began to build a set of ten pyres. They were arranged in a semicircle, facing the north and the city. The bodies of the slain were placed gently on the piles, each family walking by to say their last goodbyes.
Pairk, now cleaned up and dressed in his finest brown and green clothing, walked to a point in front of the populace and addressed them. "Fellow Kassa, I salute you all. We have climbed a mountain. We have kept a line drawn on the ground. We have let Forntol know who we are. We are the Brave Ones."
Cheers erupted. A new feeling of unity was upon them. Pairk basked in the glow of the moment, then continued. "I would like to make known the names of those Brave Ones who gave their most sacred possessions, their lives, to the cause of our safety, of our families' safety." He proceeded to give, one by one, the names of each slain warrior. After each, he gave a little story of how he met each one, how he learned of what they do, and none of it was rehearsed. He truly knew each of his people.
As he finished, he began naming those officers and leaders of the new-found army who had distinguished themselves in battle. The entire presentation lasted two hours, but not a single Kassa stirred, except for a few children, who just wanted to be held. Daaigh's arms sagged, not from the fight, but from the two precious bundles who fell asleep against his chest. Finishing, Pairk then said, "And a special presentation to two heroes we will all come to know from now on. Kacko Laughing, please step foreward."
The diminutive bard stumbled on a sleeping child, but no one laughed this time. As he approached the leader of the city, Pairk pulled out a copper flute and presented it to him. "Kacko, for your bravery on the field of battle, I give you this flute. We Kassa expect to hear a lot of great tunes from it, from Kaasanyakta to Kassamasteeka, and on all the bridges that connect our great families. We owe you a lot, Brave One."
Kacko accepted it and bowed, taking off his hat and sweeping it in a stage-performer's bow. The city cheered. "And finally, would Elok-k Leaf please step forward!"
Daaigh looked at Emm, then both at Elok-k, clutching her doll. She barely heard her name, just enough to awake. "Elok-k, our leader wants to see you", said Emm. As the crowd parted, Daaigh and Emm brought the children forward, and put her to the ground so that she could take the last few steps on her own. Showing the same bravery she did when running back to the house, she walked to Pairk. He reached from behind his back and produced a wooden doll. It was a carved bird.
"For your bravery, young lady. You have the spirit of the Kassa in you. We are all proud!" The crowd cheered again, she thanked him, and ran back to her father's arms.
Pairk raised his hand again. "Now, for those brave ones before us. "Meetzak Bestra, Okeenyag oogoomoo ek glemkiCK! Okenyak okdoopmOOg emak-ikyak. YOOyoo ogoothEE ook pootoo nikuckamOOOp! (Long grunt, click)" (Great Bestra, we hope we have gained your trust! We hope we have followed your teachings! Please accept these brave ones to your throne!)
The pyres were lit. The Kassa slept well. Elok-k slept with Honeybird and her new friend tonight.
Daaigh pulled his hoe across the row. The weeds in this part of the garden were thick. He hadn't paid them much attention for several days, but the roots they crowded were sturdy and prolific. A slap on the butt diverted his attention. "Moluk-k, you dog. I could have pulled out a root!" He reached down, plucked one out, and tossed it to him.
"Back at the crops, oom, Daaigh? I thought you might change jobs and be a military man from now on."
"Are you out traveling again, cousin? Can't you stay at home for a while? I'm sure there's some nice Kassa girl waiting just around a tree for a guy like you."
Moluk-k bit into the root, savoring its juices. "Not bad, ground man. No, I couldn't bear to marry a woman just to leave her. I have to move, it's in me. Stay in any one place too long, and you'll start to smell like it. I'll have to find out where Kacko learned all those spells. Must have taken him most of his life. Best thing I ever saw - worgs that can't run."
Daaigh stopped working and turned to him. "You were in the fifth battalion? I didn't see you on the field, nor in training. You should have said something."
"Too busy getting into shape, Daaigh. I thought for a while I might like to join the new army they're putting together, but they're not going to travel to fight. It's just for protection, you know. I couldn't stand staying in one place too long."
"Yes, I'm surprised you could stand at attention that long. No, it's not for me, I'm better off farming, it's what I do best." Then he leaned forward on his hoe, his chin on top of both hands, and said, "But it sure was a glorious time, wasn't it?"
Moluk-k smiled and finished the root. He righted his pack on his back and offered his arm. Daaigh took it. "Don't come back with bad news, next time, trouble-maker."
He turned away and began walking down the road, an emptiness in his heart. The people he left behind, only to find them again. He was leaving them behind again. "See you next year, Daaigh."
Daaigh smiled and watched him walk down the road toward Ropbadden's Hut. He felt four little eyes watching him from a ledge. In the distance, he could hear a happy song, played as only a copper flute could. He reached down and pulled a root, wiping it on his still blood-stained pants, savoring a bite. The crop would taste good this time around.