The morning was surprisingly warm as the dwarven merchants trudged down the steep pass that wound through the mountains from Lenor to the Valthlamari border town of Uernach. Heavy mists rose and twisted in aethereal forms, beguiling the senses. Even so the peaks of the thatched roofs could be seen peeking above at the bottom of the slope. They were reaching the end of their journey.
Passing between the stacked stone walls which formed the outer reaches of the townlands, they were startled to hear the quick tread of unshod hooves behind, and shuddered yet more at the reverberating howls which followed. Hunkering down behind the meager protection of the wall, the merchants laid down their burdens and readied their weapons, wary for whatever approached.
Out of the mists, the vague form of horsemen appeared, pursued by wolves.
Not horsemen or wolves however, but centaurs and warg riders loomed out of the mist to raise their bows and rain arrows and darts upon them. The dwarves cried out in warning and challenge, hoping the sounds of the battle would carry to the nearby militia, as they clung to what protection was offered by the wall.
* * *
Thomas Montgomery stood watch at the edge of town, annoyed by the mist, the already too warm day, and the milling villagers which swarmed Uernach on market day. Though nothing compared to the old days among the Jech’aj’Avalnir, these days were trying to the nerves. There were always petty arguments and tensions where the multiple races came together, even in the apparent peaceful activity of trade.
Though he had retired hating those he had once served, he still got wistful from time to time wishing for something more meaningful than breaking up bar fights, capturing the occasional thief, or settling the squabbles of uppity merchants. At least among the Jech there had been purpose.
In bored ill-humor, he watched the merchants as they passed him on the way to the market square, coming out of his reverie at a sudden flight of birds from the south path. Standing away from the wall, he gazed into the mist, from which echoed guttural cries and the ringing clash of weapons.
Unsure what awaited beyond the shifting veil, Thomas ordered the scouts and the light foot forward. He hoped the Legionary patrol would be on time today.
* * *
Inach stood among the trees on a remote precipice above the small village below, breath quick with excitement. This was to be his shining hour, the first of many missions to come, and his coming of age within the Dralvani…if all went well. Grimacing, he drove that thought away, watching as the forward scouting party of centaurs and wargs rushed down the south pass towards the dwarves. The great serpents with their ragged vestigial wings and wicked claws waited behind, seemed to be sleeping with eyes hooded as they lay on the warming stone. Inach ignored them. They would do as they willed, and better he stayed out of range of their venomous breath.
The ogres snuffled beside him, sensing the alarm in the village below, and the approach of future prey. They broke away charging madly.
Inach tensed, sending forth a mental command of summoning, drawing upon the vivial force of the trees and grass around. Nothing.
He tried again, cursing as he watched the centaurs break against the spears of the dwarves, falling back in disarray. This time he felt a small tug and drain of power siphon through him as roughly armed men appeared from the pass above and began to shamble towards the battle. The grass immediately below Inach blackened and wilted to a rotten waste centered around him. He sighed in pleasure, sending the host on along the pass. They would act as shields if nothing else.
A great clash and howling interrupted the next summons as the ogres broke from the trees upon the dwarves, tossing many across the road. The merchants broke, fleeing for safety.
* * *
Horns cried in the north as the vanguard of the Valthlamari legions road in stately column down the main road and into the town. Vincent led on his great charger, eager to reunite with his brother and rest from the dust of the patrol over a pint…or two. It was immediately evident, however, that this was not to be. The villagers milled in the square in apparent panic, and little coherence was to be got from any of them. The horses were mired at the edge of town, unable to break a path through, as many of those within attempted to force their way out.
Instead, Vincent could only watch the upper hills in horror, as with a great snapping and felling of trees and stones great serpents slithered down the slope, jaws agape and fangs gleaming in the morning sun.
* * *
Outside Uernach, Thomas watched as the scouts set out, setting his men in a defensive posture. He could hear the crashing approach of something above, as well as the unearthly groaning of things not quite human.
Looking through his spyglass, he could just make out the scouts approaching the further outpost where the apparent conflict had begun, only to recoil in horror at the sudden filling of the glass by hulking ogre, followed by the quick blur that marked the obliteration of both dwarf and scout troops.
Dismayed and shaken, he ordered the immediate charge of his unit, hoping to lend aid to any who might yet live. He didn’t factor on the slope however, which weighed heavily on them in their weighty and ill-fitting armor. Nor did he factor on the ogres’ instincts which allowed them to cast boulders upon them from above, wounding many. He fell back, only to be pursued, the ogres falling to all fours, mouths slavering. They managed the dike just in time to turn back and plant their spears so that most of the beasts were impaled upon them, grunting as they died, continuing with reaching claws to scrabble after their prey. Thomas blew out a breath of relief, just as the horns of the Legionary patrol sounded behind. They would be saved.
* * *
The smell of blood drifting up the hill seemed to enervate the serpents, who began to coil and hiss agitatedly, breaking Inach’s attention from a further summons. He backed away nervously, reining in a group of thralls to stand between him and the spiteful beasts.
* * *
With a great crash of branches, small trees and rock, coil upon coil traversed the hill at breakneck speed, one falling upon the light infantry making its way to the dwarves, the other turning its baleful eye on the retired knight.
Thomas stood his ground, as, thankfully, did his men around him. They stabbed and slashed mightily at the scale-clad coils as they twisted among them, attempting to dodge vicious claws and sickening breath. Their weapons shrilled against the hard scales, some finding purchase between only to be dragged from nerveless hands by the great beast’s ceaseless coiling. There was little hope, though trails of blood flowed from many spear heads left embedded in the creature. It raged on.
Thomas fought on, continually rallying his men, urging them on to the last breath, when finally, he fell nerveless before the full onslaught of the serpent’s toxic breath.
* * *
Vincent watched in revulsion and sick satisfaction as his brother rose time and again from within the writhing mass of coils to stab at the great wyrm. The mist was replaced by a streamer of acidic green breath, which seemed to float weightless on the air, but dropped those who stumbled within its embrace.
Vincent laid about himself with the flat of his blade, urging his horse forward, hoping to reach the fray in time. The people were more frantic than ever, a human morass worse than any mud-pocked road traversed in patrol. His nimbler light cavalry managed to break through to finish off the remaining ogres, but Vincent could only watch as his brother fell before the combined might of looping sinew and acrid breath.
Enraged, now beyond caring, Vincent charged his heavy cavalry through the last clumps of panicked citizenry, little caring now for their welfare, breaking through at last to the open townlands at the foothills and base of the pass. Only now, upon reaching this point where his men might be able to turn the tide, the enemy had vanished, whether by magical means or simple retreat he did not know. Only carnage and terror remained.