“Ah, Saiathra, you’re back at last,” Gretel remarked. Standing at the army’s cooking station with several hunks of meat before her, the dwarfmaid wiped her hands upon her apron and set her hands upon her hips. “We were beginning to think that you wouldn’t show until midnight or later. Got more food for us then?”
Saiathra turned to the human pack hunters who had accompanied her, laden with birds and beasts from the surrounding steppe. The dwarfmaid grinned and called out to her companions to assist. A male dwarf and a female human came out from behind the cooking station and began relieving the pack hunters of their burden.
“A fine effort indeed,” the dwarfmaid remarked. She turned to Saiathra and patted a hunk of meat upon her makeshift counter. “We’ll be in no short supply of food what with your catches, our own rations and the donations from the nearby ogres. Just look at this, will you? A whole mammoth! We’ve been spending the last few hours getting it sorted. Ogres hunt these things with as much ease as we hunt deer.” She sighed. “Shame that they send their goblins to deliver the goods though. I suppose that we should be grateful that they didn’t plant explosives in the carcass for a laugh or just eat half of it on the way…”
“Red goblins mean well,” Saiathra said, trying and failing to resist a smile. “Think of them as mischievous children.” The ice-elf glanced about. “Where are my kin? The other hunters? I have not seen them amongst the campfires as yet –”
“Ah!” the dwarfmaid exclaimed, clicking her fingers and slapping her hand upon the counter so loudly that Saiathra stepped back a pace. “They’ve been sent on an errand, and you – Lord Thaulvel told me to tell you as soon as you got back – you’re to go and see him quick.”
“I shall,” Saiathra answered, “but did he give any mention as to what is so urgent that my hunters and I must be dispatched so late at night?”
“Didn’t say,” the dwarfmaid answered with a shrug. Picking up her cleaver, she resumed chopping her mammoth meat. “But he did look a bit out of sorts.”
“He has fallen ill?” Saiathra asked in alarm.
“Ill?” the dwarfmaid repeated, pausing and glancing up at the ice-elf. “I don’t think so. We had a messenger fly in from the Winterlands earlier. Might be ill news rather than an ill feeling that ails him.”
“Ill news, ill feelings,” Saiathra murmured. “One begets the other. I shall go to him now.”
Small and mobile, Thaulvel’s army was encamped in the midst of the ogre lands known by the ogres themselves as Amogramok. A region of the Mammoth Steppe, it was a wild and untamed land, even without the myriad ogre tribes dotting its expanse. The Northern Alliance had long enjoyed friendly relations with many of the northernmost tribes, but those to the south had been an unknown quantity. With his typical tact, Prince Talannar had secured treaties with those tribes regarding military access, and the Alliance found that it was getting more than it had bargained for as several tribes had sent support in the form of food – a good sign that more ogres were interested in becoming allies to the Alliance. Why then would Lord Thaulvel be concerned?
That thought vexed Saiathra as she meandered through the encampment. The troops around her though seemed in good enough spirts. The humans, dressed in their furs, sat huddled around campfires, eating, drinking, joking and even singing. The ice naiads, inscrutable as ever, sat or lay upon the grass in silence, eating their fare of raw fish or small critters that they caught with their own hands. The half-elves, being hot-headed and easy to ire, sat somewhat apart from everyone else and spoke little, their eyes narrowed as they ate disinterestedly. The dwarfs ate loudly and uncouthly, drinking and swearing as they did so. Saiathra averted her gaze as she passed them, to hide her smile.
A breeze blew through the camp, of such strength as to cause the campfires to flicker perilously and cause Saiathra’s long grey hair to whip up and tickle her shoulders. Glancing skyward she noted that no stars shone in the sky. Perhaps it was just clouds, but the huntress couldn’t shake the thought of it being a more ominous portent.
When she arrived at her lord’s tent, she found it guarded by a pair of dwarfs – a long-bearded man and a long-braided woman who grunted in gruff satisfaction as they stepped aside to let the ice-elf pass. The interior of the command tent was sparsely furnished. A simple wooden table stood at the centre of the tent, upon which lay a myriad of items – food, maps, goblets and other items of curios. Standing at the table and staring intently at a map of the immediate area was Thaulvel himself. A mountain of a man with a mane of dark hair, he remained dressed for battle even at night. Tracing a line upon the map, his finger came to a halt. The lord tapped the point several times before glancing up and noticing his visitor.
“Saiathra,” he said quietly. “We are returning to the Winterlands. I have sent your scouts out to check the way back north – it might prove less empty than it did on our first passage south.”
Saiathra blinked in astonishment. “North?” she asked, shaking her head. “Why entertain moving north? Our orders were to make contact with the Brothermark and thereon Basilea. We were to encourage them to join –”
“The ordinance comes from Prince Talannar himself,” Thauvel said, waving the letter. “Circumstances have changed. They have changed quickly and for the worse. Nightstalkers have been appearing in great numbers in the vicinity of Chill. Our prince assumes that they are amassing to assault our capital, for little else of value lies there to justify so great a gathering of void-kin.” The barbarian sighed. “Whatever their true intentions, and whatever our feelings on the matter, we must change direction. We have been recalled to aid in the defence of Chill. At first light, the army will turn about and force-march back north.”
“The ogres will be bemused, no doubt,” Saiathra remarked ruefully. “All that effort to make military access treaties, then them donating to our efforts only to see us suddenly turn around and head for home…”
“Let them think as they will, so long as they do not hinder us on our return journey,” Thaulvel said. “It was by the speed of Gazgar’s ravens that Talannar’s recall reached us as quickly as it did. See how many he has on hand that are fit to fly immediately. They will be useful to you whilst your scouts are pressing on ahead. I want you to take a small, fast and manoeuvrable force and ensure that the path home is clear. I want the army to march at speed and not be harried by smaller forces assailing us left and right along the way. Your vanguard will forge ahead, locating and eliminating any such opposition that lies in wait. Catch up to your scouts and send word by raven of anything more they have to tell of the situation to the north. After that, continue ahead of us and clear the way. Set out at your earliest convenience – time is not on our side.”
Saiathra nodded. “I shall muster a vanguard and depart within the hour,” she said. Turning, she made her way to the entrance of the tent.
“Saiathra?” Thaulvel called.
“Hmm?” the ice-elf asked, pausing and glancing at the barbarian over her shoulder.
“Make sure that Gazgar keeps at least one bird back – we’ll need a swift-winged messenger to explain our withdraw to the ogres. Perhaps after they are done laughing they will be tempted by the prospect of a good fight and a fat reward if they march after us and fight on our prince’s behalf.” Thaulvel paused, then took up his goblet and drained it in one. “Better make that two birds,” he added as he set the goblet upon the table and drew a sharp breath. “The knights of the Brothermark should be forewarned as well. If they can assist us, then so much the better. Every ally we can muster will lessen the burden on Chill.”
Saiathra nodded. “I shall tell Gazgar so, when I see him.”
The warriors of the Alliance were finishing supper – not the best of times to be commencing a march, but as Thaulvel had said – needs must. Saiathra stopped first at a group of warriors she knew that were always eager for a fight. The half-elves.
Lightly clad in fur, the berserkers had already applied their warpaint and were sharpening their daggers. One half-elf in particular caught Saiathra’s eye – a maiden with long, blue-hued hair, indicating Ice Kindred parentage. “Aeanar, I’m in need of troops –”
“We are ready when you are,” the half-elf interrupted. She inclined her head, her eyes glinting. “How many of our number will you be needing?”
“How many of you are there?” Saiathra asked with a smirk. “Word is that the stalkers are more behind us than in front, by some dint of dark magic no doubt. I need fast and fierce warriors to carve a path home and I thought of you…”
Aeanar grinned, her warpaint making the expression all the more sinister. “I will have my fellows ready to depart – give me but a moment.”
Saiathra nodded and glanced about. “Where are the dwarfs? Where is Gazgar?”
“To the edge of the camp, tending to their birds,” Aeanar replied, pointing, “That way, by the cawing I heard not too long ago.” The berserker sighed. “Those birds…I long thought dwarfs cared for nothing but rocks, gold and violence, yet they fawn over those ravens as an elf-child dotes on a kitten.”
“Then I am comforted to hear that something of flesh and blood gives them joy, besides cold hard stone,” Saiathra said. “Give word to our naiad allies as well, whilst I rouse the dwarfs. We’re going to need them.”
Native to the mountain ranges of Abkhazala and Halpi, the giant raven was a bird of keen sight and smell, as well as bold temperament. Faster to fly and cheaper to maintain than airships, many free dwarf holds kept a healthy number of the birds to be their eyes and ears and to send swift word between their ranger patrols. Those who later joined the alliance quickly proved to Talannar the birds’ value and now the giant ravens served his purpose as well, flying across the peaks and reporting upon all matters.
“Gazgar,” Saiathra called as she approached the dwarfs, “are your birds ready to fly?”
“No, they’re ready to curl up and sleep, what do you think?” the cantankerous dwarf growled. He waved his arms theatrically and stomped about, grumbling. “What do you think, that I had them flown all the way here just so they could nest?”
The dwarfs nearby laughed and as one, they went to their respective beasts and began prepping them for take-off. Other dwarfs grabbed cases of grenades whilst yet others, further afield, got up and readied their hammers and axes.
“No, not you lot,” Saiathra muttered with a dismissive wave. “Your birds possess speed. Your stumpy legs do not.”
“Oi, who are you calling stumpy?” a female dwarf growled, brandishing her hammer threateningly. She brought it down upon a nearby rock, causing a significant piece of the boulder to break off. “We’re not scared of no stalkers, by day or by night!” The dwarfs around her muttered in agreement.
Saiathra stepped back a pace from the indignant crowd of bristling beards and irritably flicked braids. “No one’s doubting your bravery or the strength of your arms. Everyone in the Alliance brings their own skills to the battle, and yours is in the shield-wall, the first line of defence that the enemy crashes into.” Resting her hands upon her knees, the elfmaid bent down and regarded the dwarfs intently. “Your place is here, with our lord. You were hand-picked to defend him, being the angriest dwarfs in all of Chill. Keep your wrath warm, you will get to unleash it soon…just not yet.”
The dwarf infantry stared at her, then exchanged glances. As one, they turned and wandered back to where they had been sitting, several casting bemused, backwards glances at the elf as they did so.
As she watched them disperse, Saiathra turned to Gazgar, who was impatiently pacing back and forth as the war ravens before him were prepped for departure. “Keep two aside,” the ice-elf advised. “We will be needing swift-winged messengers to the north and the south.”
The expedition set out without incident, the war-ravens scouting ahead, near invisible in the darkness overhead whilst the half-elves and naiads force-marched along the ground. Saiathra sent one raven-rider far ahead to find her scouts. After several hours of the night-march and no sign of hostiles, the master huntress declared that they should make camp, await the scouts’ arrival, and then resume the trek together. The half-elves, hoping for a fight sooner rather than later, grumbled at the lack of action, as did the dwarfs, once their ravens had landed. Only the inscrutable ice naiads remained silent, and without need for shelter, they began to settle down upon the grass and earth.
As her disgruntled warriors began begrudgingly setting up a makeshift camp, the raven Saiathra had sent ahead arrived and landed before her, the dwarfmaid upon its back pointing emphatically back the way she had come.
“To the north,” the dwarfmaid reported, “I found your scouts, but they’ll be nought but bloody bones if you don’t soon lend a hand!”
“How far are they?” Saiathra asked, as her warriors gathered around her, eager to hear the news. “Can we reach them in time?”
“Course you can reach them in time,” the dwarfmaid muttered, rolling her eyes. “I’d not have bothered with the warning if those elves were beyond saving, now would I? But hurry yourself – they’ve got fight in them, and they’re as nimble as faeries, but they’ve a lot of things after them. They’ve been caught in a circle, the enemy ring the bottom of the hill that the elves were camping upon.” With that, the dwarfmaid reached back and patted her raven’s flank. “Up again, girl.”
“Wait!” Saiathra called as the raven spread its wings. “What assails them? Is it the nightstalkers? Is it something else? Not ogres –”
“Tentacles,” the dwarfmaid answered as her bird alighted, raising her voice to be heard as her altitude greatened. “Lots of tentacles, and fangs and faceless heads. This a-way! Quickly now!”
“Wait!” Saiathra called again as the dwarfmaid flew away. “What about our camp? Oh, never mind.” She turned to her warriors. “Grab what you can and get going! We can replenish our supplies from those ogre tribes we have treaties with, once our scouts are seen to and safe.”
Saiathra’s vanguard came upon the beleaguered scouts several hours before sunrise. As the dwarfmaid had reported, the hunters of the Ice Kindred certainly had fight in them. Despite the slinking, shadowy and occasionally ethereal horrors that swarmed the base of the hill, the ice-elves refused to give in. Some charged downhill to meet the enemy, striking hard, only to nimbly withdraw as their fellows unleashed few but well-aimed arrows, slowing the enemy advance. The elves’ magic user, an elven mage learned in ice magic, conjured localised blizzards, blasting the enemy back, or summoned chill winds to blow them clear off of their feet and send them tumbling back down the rugged slopes they were trying to ascend.
The dwarfmaid leading the vanguard darted ahead upon her raven, yelling to the icekin hunters that help was at hand. In her eagerness, she steered her mount too close to the gibbering void-host below, and amid a panicked flutter of wings and an explosive dwarven curse the bird dropped like a stone, weighed down by several gaunt and many-limbed creatures. Even as the appalled naiads and half-elves watched from afar, the raven was engulfed as more of the creatures leapt upon it from the darkness ahead, the dwarfmaid’s cries muffled as she too was buried under the press of bodies.
Saiathra didn’t need to issue an order. Even as she turned to the half-elves, the impetuous berserkers charged, shrieking, and within seconds they had crashed into the tormentors, matching their scything talons with their twin knives and berserker-rage.
The ice naiads, though eager, restrained themselves and formed up in a defensive line as undulating roars heralded another threat. Hulking beasts, the size ogres, turned about from part way up the hill and charged downward, their eyeless heads focused upon the naiads as they raised their immense sickles and cleavers. The naiads were spared the assault as upon the wind was carried another sound – but not the eerie shriek of a nightstalker. The noise grew rapidly louder and soon became a cacophony of insults and war-cries as Gazgar’s war ravens swooped low and glided over the battle hurling rune-etched grenades at the slavering butchers below them. The butchers ignored the sizzling metal balls that landed in their midst and roared back, only to disappear in a cloud of smoke and shrapnel. Amid the confusion, the naiads charged, piercing the flailing butchers through their chests with their icy tridents.
The dwarf raven riders, too busy looking back and jeering at the sight, were alerted to a new threat as their birds cawed in alarm and slowed, veering off at sharp angles. Another troop of tormentors had spied them and leapt far off of the ground to grab the low-flying birds.
Seeing several of the birds brought down, Saiathra took matters into her own hands and charged. The ravens were critical to the army’s scouting efforts and she would not let them all perish on her watch. Fortunately the dwarfs, ever tenacious, fought back with their usual resilience, cracking the bald-heads of many tormentors with hammer and axe and doing what they could to protect their cherished birds.
Catching the tormentors whilst their backs were turned, Saiathra beheaded one and cut the scything limbs from another. Her presence was enough to distract the nightstalkers from their initial quarry, and they turned and leapt at her, one biting deep into her arm. Not her sword arm, luckily, as the creature found when the elf’s blade cut upward, through its throat and severed its head. Amid the chaos a couple of the ravens managed to break free and flapped their ruffled wings, edging away before diving back in to rend the tormentors with beak and claw. Their dwarf riders joined in, demanding vengeance. Caught between the skilled precision of the master huntress and the rage of the dwarfs the tormentors were cut down and destroyed.
Further afield, the ice naiads had closed the distance to a crowd of ravagers. Though some had fallen prey to the creatures’ baleful flames the naiads’ regenerative powers had seen a good number of them pick themselves up and stumble on after their fellows. They charged, their ice-tridents and picks biting deep into the unnatural flesh of the massive nightstalkers who reeled back, outnumbered. However they did not yield and counter-charged, pummelling the naiads with their thick arms and bending low to snap at their heads with their translucent, knife-like teeth. Well-versed in the defensive use of their tridents, the naiads proved difficult for their opponents to strike, and when the icekin hunters charged downhill to join them, crashing into the ravager’s exposed flank, the creatures were cut to pieces.
With the scouts pushing downwards and Saiathra’s vanguard pushing up, the menagerie of monsters were caught in the middle and their numbers dwindled, though at considerable cost. The warriors of the Northern Alliance represented some of the best that every race on Pannithor could offer and the loss of each dwarf, elf and naiad was keenly felt. After a brief and bloody battle, however, Talannar’s warriors won the day. The two groups – the vanguard and the scouts – met halfway up the hill, though the half-elves continued prowling its roots, glancing this way and that, convinced that the battle wasn’t yet won.
“What news then?” Saiathra asked.
“Only what is evident to see,” an elfmaid returned, gesturing to the mounds of misshapen bodies. “We were checking the way as our lord commanded when we were set upon by far more than we were expecting – no mere wandering monsters but a coordinated host.” She glanced askance at the mage, who was preparing herself a mug of herbal tea in the welcome respite. “She claims that she can feel others are near, even if we cannot see them. They are a shadow on her mind.”
“Then we had best vacate this area and head for home,” Saiathra said. “At least once we reach the Winterlands we will have the rest of the Alliance by our sides.”
“More friends, and more foes,” the mage murmured. She took a sip of her tea and looked up at the ice-elves from the outcrop upon which she sat. “We will be no safer there than here, though we will serve our prince’s purpose better. The more of these void-spawn we purge from his realm the better.” The mage paused and shifted about to face the north. Her gaze abstracted, then focused, as though struck by a sudden thought.
Saiathra was not learned in mage-craft but she had been around such magic users long enough to know that any strange behaviour they exhibited ought to be taken seriously. “What is it?” the master huntress asked quietly. She came to stand beside the mage and looked to the north with her. “What do you see? Is Chill already under attack? Do you see the shadow they cast, even from so far afield?”
The mage didn’t answer immediately. She remained focused towards the north, then blinked. Seeming to relax, she shifted back around and resumed sipping her tea as the elves and naiads around her exchanged looks of concern. “Their shadow falls across Chill,” she murmured at last, almost to herself. Lowering her mug, she gazed intently into the steaming golden tea within. “But their shadow is vast, and it falls across other places as well.”
“What are you saying?” Saiathra asked. She knelt by the mage’s side. “Where in the north is there a place of as much interest as Chill? Chill is the north, is it not? Discounting the grand capital of the Alliance the land is peopled only by tribes of trolls, goblin warrens and the barbaric tribes of the Varangur…”
The mage glanced skyward and sighed. “Mage-sight is a strange thing, Saiathra Ulorian. It shows much that is hidden, but seldom enough that sense can be made of it until fate decrees that the proper time has come.”
Frowning, Saiathra stood and went to her scouts.
“What does she mean?” one asked in a whisper.
“Is there some other power in the north, one that we have not yet seen, or that Prince Talannar has not yet revealed to us?” asked another.
Saiathra glanced at each of them in turn, and, at length, turned to face the dwarfs who were drawing near, having landed a little further away to give their birds space whilst they checked them over after the battle. The master huntress regarded them in grim silence and nodded. The dwarfs looked to the scouts, to the naiads, and, at last, at the ice-mage who ignored them and remained staring intently into her tea. Nodding, they, as one, returned to their ravens and mounted up as their birds cawed.
Saiathra addressed the combined force as all made ready to depart. “Gather what you can and keep up the march. Lord Thaulvel will begin moving our army northward come daybreak, and we must make sure that his way is as clear as possible. Chill stands in peril, and we cannot afford further delay!”