JasonZavoda writes "The Charge of Caldni Vir
"Vir, you are to take the 3rd Mounted Prodromoi and search the north-east in force. Send out single riders to feel ahead, but I want you to keep your command together. If there is trouble, crush it. If you can't, then run. No heroics. I want to know what those damn barbarians are up to, but none of the patrols have returned. You are to turn back in three days regardless and rejoin the army at Spinecastle."
"Yes, commander," Caldni Vir raised his arm in salute then turned his horse and spurred away.
Astolpho, Lord Adri, Commander of the Northern Host, watched his most junior captain ride off in a cloud of dust. "To be that young again, Florismart," he said to his companion and shook his head wistfully.
"Such things are possible,: the battle-mage answered. "Though not my specialty."
"They always have a cost," answered Astolpho. "One that I will never pay. Besides, old friend, I don't think I was meant to live forever."
"An independent command!" Amaury exclaimed. "Vir, you always had the luck."
"Luck had nothing to do with it, Amaury," Caldni Vir smiled.
"Hah!" laughed Triamond. "Lancers," he shook his head, "too much to expect the heavy horse."
"Far too much," said Caldni Vir.
The three young nobles walked through the muddy camp at a brisk pace. Their cloaks were spattered and their armored boots thickly covered. Mud was everywhere. The hooves of five thousand horses had chopped the wet ground into a mire. Booted feet had done their best to spray the mire over and into tents then shower brown specks of the much onto every bit of cloth, pack, saddle, and suit of armor.
"A week of warm weather and sunshine," said Amaury.
"What?" Triamond turned a questioning gaze at his friend.
"He means, it would take a week to dry out this place," Vir explained.
"Stop reading my mind," laughed Amaury. "Another week of washing to get everything clean."
Triamond shook his head. "Why bother? It will only get dirty again."
"Why shave? Why eat? Why breath? Amaury snipped.
"There is something about an army camp that attracts the rain," Vir said looking up into the grey cloudy sky as he paused before the tent.
"Take of those boots, Triamond!" Amaury commanded. "You're not tracking up our tent again."
The young knight grumbled but joined his pair of friends while they sat and removed their boots.
"Not even a page to help us with our boots," grumbled Amaury.
"Lord Adri believes in traveling light. I happen to agree," said Vir.
Sitting side by side atop barrels and supply boxes the three were an interesting sight. Black-haired and clean-shaven, Caldni Vir looked young but no one would mistake him for a youth even though he had the outward appearance of a student rather than a captain of cavalry. His manner was one of command and his eyes were unflinching, honest and direct.
Amaury was red-haired and of an age with his two companions, though he most often wore a sly expression that made him look older than his friends. He sported a thin mustache and a fringe of beard cut close to his chin, but the sides of his face were shaved. Both Triamond and Vir had long hair that could be tied back in a tail that would reach between their shoulder-blades or drawn up and used as padding beneath their helms, Amaury's was cut so short as to be nothing but a red tinge over his scalp.
Blond-haired and broad-shouldered, Triamond wore his hair and beard long. He was so pale that his skin was almost white. It was the mark of Suel heritage. Triamond was the by-blow of a barbarian slave-girl and a powerful noble, but no one with an ounce of sense or thought of self-preservation ever mention it to his face.
Vir the Black, Amaury the Red and Triamond the White.
Caldni Vir's banner was a simple triangle of black. It fluttered from the lance of his standard beared who rode by his side. Small strips of black cloth adorned every lance of the troopers who had ridden with Caldni Vir before and now the rest of the 3rd Mounted searched the camp for black cloth to add to their own lances. Some troopers lashed a red scrap of cloth to their lances just below the black of Vir. That black and red was Amaury's banner while he rode under the command of his friend. His handful of followers sought to curry favor with the rich young noble. A score of such troopers and armsmen made up this small private guard of Amaury's.
Triamond wore a strip of black cloth and a strip of white on his right arm and eight troopers, recruited by him personally, did the same. His followers were skilled woodsman and trackers, men of the north and loyal to this outcast lord's bastard.
The 3rd galloped from camp, fifteen-hundred strong, lances raised in salute as they passed beneath the watchful eye of the outer guards and the captain of the camp. The wilds swallowed them quickly, the rolling hills lightly wooded here but further north and east growing into the Loftwood Forest. Then they were gone, never again to see their commader, Lord Adri, or many a thousand of their comrades who had served beside them in the Northern Host.
"Triamond," Vir called to his friend with a frustrated snap, "Anything, any sign?"
"No, Sir!" snapped back Triamond, The large man was just as frustrated.
Two days of patrols and searches had found no sign of the barbarians. The woods were thickening as they drew near the Loftwood and Caldni Vir was mindful of the time they no longer had.
"There must be something," Vir shook his head. He'd removed his helmet, a light contraption of leather and chain with a small steel skull-cap atop, and hung it from the pommel of his saddle. His black hair was flat and damp with sweat.
"We even had Miskurblindi casting the bones," said Triamond.
"That tame barbarian hedge-wizard of yours, "Vir swore under his breath."If he can't find a trail or sign of magic then there is none to be found."
"He thinks highly of you too," laughed Triamond.
"Well no one is going to be thinking much of us when we get to Spinecastle," Vir said to his friend. "Where are they?"
"North," spoke up Amaury. The noble was attired in gull armor, such as the heavy cavalry of Lord Adri wore, though his was enameled in blood red.
"You will kill that horse," said Triamond disgustedly. "Looks like you are ready to join Adri's 1st Cataphract."
"North," said Vir, interrupting the banter. "Amaury, how do you know?"
"Blessings of the War God," the young noble gave them a wicked smile. "Am I not his faithful paladin?"
Triamond spat on the ground, but did not comment.
"This is a true fortelling?" asked Vir.
"I would not joke about such a thing," said Amaury. "We have not found them because they are not here. I was granted a vision," the young man grimaced. His face bore signs of pain and lines which had not been there just that morning. "At a cost," he added noting the looks from his two friends. "Mountains, a pass, very treacherous, a score of barbarian warriors falling to their deaths at a time. Then rockslides, beasts and monsters, death, much death. These barbarians kept coming none the less. They crossed the mountains in a swarm like maggots on a rotting corpse. One dies, ten die, a hundred, but they still came on in their thousands. I saw a tribe of ogre's dispute their passage, they were swept aside in moments. They come for us."
"Here?" asked Triamond, surprised.
Amaury shook his head and wiped the back of his hand across his eyes as if to close them. "What? No, not here. What did I say?"
"You said, 'They come for us'," Triamond repeated the young noble's very words.
"Well I don't think so," Amaury shook his head. "How would they know we are here? And why would thousands of barbarians come looking for us?"
"You're the one who said... " began Triamond.
"Spinecastle," Vir said firmly. "They come for Spinecastle. Maybe for the Northern Host as well, if their spies were privy to the marching orders."
"How could that be?" asked Triamond.
"Hah!" laughed Amaury derisively. "The trooper who scrapes my boots knew Spinecastle to be our destination before we set out."
"Our men would not betray us," Triamond stated firmly.
Amaury just rolled his eyes, but Caldni Vir clapped his friend and lieutenant on the shoulders.
"Triamond," said Vir, "Our men are brave, but courage doesn't mean good sense or a still tongue, especially when loosened with ale."
"Many would say that good sense and courage are mutually exclusive," smiled Amaury.
"What do you mean by that?" scowled Triamond.
"Perhaps I should change 'good sense; to 'education'," Amaury laughed.
"What?" sputtered Triamond, his white face growing red.
"Proof positive," Amaury said casually to Caldni Vir, gesturing to their companion.
"Amaury! Stop playing about," Vir ordered with a commanding voice. "Triamond, control yourself. Now then, Amaury, how far ahead are they? How much time do we have?"
The smile faded from Amaury's face and the distant look returned to his eyes. "You are already too late," came a deep sepulchered voice. The words came from Amaury's lips but the voice... the voice belonged to no living man.
Asolpho had ridden hard the day before, ridden his troops hard as well. He'd pushed the endurance of both man and horse hard as he dared so as to reach Spinecastle while light enough remained to set camp. Though man and horse had been exhausted, staggering as they traversed the final miles
Dawn rose over Spinecastle. Sparkles of light reflected from the polished helms and spear-points of the castle guards. A chorus of hammer, saw and axe began to sing. The noise came from the town rising quickly around the keep. The voice of the morning belonged to the craftsmen and laborers hard at their work by the break of day.
In a nearby field a second town had sprung up overnight. Tents like rows of mushrooms lined the muddy oerth, neat and orderly as any planted crop. The smell of breakfast fires, a dozen hundred strong, wafted from the camp.
* * *
Astolpho had ridden hard the day before, ridden his troops hard as well. He pushed the endurance of both man and horse hard as he dared so as to reach Spinecastle while light enough remained to make camp. Though both had been tired it was the horses who'd had their meal and rest before the men who'd ridden them.
As Astolpho's weary troops were arriving a delegation was sent from the castle. These highborn ambassadors from the Keep waited with growing impatience for Lord Adri to leave camp and meet with them. A messenger was selected from among their number and sent within the seeming chaos of horses, men and wagons to find the commander of the Northern Host.
The Lord Commander took of his helm and gauntlets but left on his cuirass and heavy cloak. He felt the chill take flight and the warmth of honest labor heated his arms at first then spread throughout his body as he brushed down the back and flanks of his stallion.
"Lord?" one of his personal guard spoke up as he entered the rough canvas tent used to stable the Lord Commanders horse.
"Yes, Stephanos?" Adri replied without looking up from his work.
"Lord, a messenger from Spinecastle," sergeant Stephanos informed him.
"From Lord Andras, Marquis of Spinecastle," interjected the messenger with a measure of both pride and impatience in his voice. "Are you Lord Adri?" he asked staring at Astolpho as he tended his mount the same as the most common of the troopers was doing in the surrounding camp.
In his travel-stained cape and muddy boots Astolpho looked like an aging cavalryman, which he was, and not the powerful Lord who now ruled the North in the Great King's name, but he was that as well.
Without glancing at the messenger Astolpho stood back and removed his cloak, his cuirass and then his shirt. He wiped his brow with the back of his hand and went back to work, checking the stallions hooves and shoes for stones or damage.
"Tell your Marquis of Spinecastle," said Adolpho quietly, "to wait."
Finally he glanced up at the messenger and said, with a growl in his voice, "Horses come first. Something your Lord seems to have forgotten, or never learned."
The messenger bristled at the contempt in the Lord Commander's tone but was careful in his protest. "But my Lord, this is peasant's work," he exclaimed quietly as he could.
Astolpho paused in his work and looked at the man with some distaste, "Stephanos! Remove this... fop. In one piece mind you."
"Yes, my Lord!" sergeant Stephanos replied with enthusiasm, a smile on his lips. With a gesture of his head two burly troopers appeared from just outside the canvas door-flap and grabbed the messenger, hauling him roughly away like a sack of grain. Stephanos marched after them, while cries of protest and outrage merged with the noise and bustle of the camp.
The battle-mage Florismart appeared from the shadows of a wagon that formed one side of the temporary stable.
"What kind of fools have the sent out here," muttered Astolpho.
"The normal kind," answered the mage. "The kind you have no time for... unless you mean us?"
Astolpho ignored the mage's humor. "I now see why I have been ordered to this misbegotten wilderness, and where the source of all the problems lies," he nodded in the direction of the entrance where the faint shouts of the messenger could just be heard.
"You have no need of out priestess of Istus then?" mused Florismart.
"Your spellcasters have begun their work?" asked Astolpho in reply.
"My people have begun, yes," answered Florismart. "The sun is down," he looked into the darkening sky which was rapidly turning black. "An owl flies above the camp. Its eyes are ours to use. Cynthia, our Istun cleric, she consults her crystal orb..." he trailed off.
"Problem?" asked Astolpho.
"Yes," Florismart touched the bracers on his wrists in a nervous gesture. "There is a cloud. A greyness that she cannot penetrate. Something is coming, something that we cannot foresee."
"Something has already arrived," said Astolpho firmly. "Us."
Florismart raised his brow in speculation."