In The Curse of Garnel Ironheart, Chapters 24-25, Khazav and the others meet a beleaguered army camp in the Midlands east of Varn. Each night, the soldiers are attacked by Undead forces and their numbers and morale are dwindling. Our heroes agree to help defend the camp but even they are almost overwhelmed by the Undead attack. It is only the unexpected arrival of Ziza Ze'id and the militia of Alladag which turns the tide and saves our heroes from certain doom. After the battle, Arian and Ziza decide to take the militia to Opale in Varn and help the Imperial army liberate that city while Khazav and the others continue to journey to Tzuba.
In the final draft, Arian and Ziza reached Opale without incident and joined the Imperial army there. But in the first draft, there was an additional scene cut because (1) the book was too long and (2) the battle was somewhat repetitious of the first Imperial camp battle. The purpose of the scene was to show Arian's skills as a commander but didn't serve to further the overall story. Recall that since this is an early draft, some racial names are different and there's more than the fair share of typos. Here, then, is the missing battle:
Arian and the men of Alladag rode swiftly over the open fields away from the Imperial camp, heading northwest to Opale. After several hours they reached one of the major highways that criss-crossed the land of Varn and headed east along it. The road was full of debris, the remains of caravans that had been attacked over the previous days. Of the people who had been in them there was no sign. Arian grimaced as they passed the overturned wagons and baggage that looked like it had been shredded by packs of wild animals. Dead animals littered the side of the road.
“It is as if the world had ended. What manner of creatures did this?” asked Ziza. The horses had slowed to a trot as they manoeuvred around the obstacles in the road.
“The same beasts we fought last night,” said Arian. “Do you know the nature of the enemy we are heading into battle against?”
“The Lord Maksoud briefed us before we left Alladag,” he answered, “but many questions remain in my mind. For me, death is the end of life. The soul goes to its reward and the body descends into the ground, never to return. How is it possible for that eternal order to be disturbed?”
“Blaze and Ritchar know more about it than I do,” said Arian. “The thought of the dead not resting in peace is a difficult thing to think about. But more than that, I am at a lack in trying to devise a strategy to fight them. In the normal order of things, even a victorious army shrinks as it moves from battle to battle. Not so the Undead. Their numbers only grow with time.”
They continued through the apocalyptic scene. As they moved on, low, wide hills appeared in the land. They passed the beds of streams that had run dry for lack of rain. The plants that had once covered their beds were now little more that clumps of green and yellow dust. The only thing that broke the endless monotony of greyness around them were sad-looking low shrubs scattered through the fields that clung to the ground. When they stopped to allow the horses to rest, a heavy silence fell about them.
Around noon they saw ahead of them a large pile of debris sitting in the middle of an open field. A road heading east and west passed near it. As they approached, they realized it had once been an Imperial camp but little remained intact of it now. The palisade had been broken nearly into splinters and the torn remnants of the tents covered shattered equipment such as broken swords and shields. Large gaping pits could be seen scattered throughout, the tunnels left by wights who had come in through the camp’s midst instead of its edge. Other than a dozen dead horses, there was no sign of any other creature, either living or dead. They drew to a halt to take in the scene.
“I guess Cordac’s regiment fared better than this one,” said Arian. Ziza looked confused as she spoke.
“Where are the bodies?” he asked. ‘If the camp was destroyed completely, they should still be there. If there were any survivors, they should have buried their dead and held their post.”
“There were no survivors,” said Arian sadly. “Those men who manned this post have been taken and are by now, no doubt, conscripts in the army of the enemy.” Ziza shuddered. Arian gazed over the wreckage and lowered her head for a moment in respect. Then she signalled for the company to continue.
Late in the day, a scout for the company reported that he had seen a column of smoke to the east of them. Arian ordered five horsemen to investigate and they returned with obvious excitement. The smoke was coming from a fire set by Imperial soldiers who, much like Cordac’s regiment, had been sent by their army to establish an outpost to the rear of the main forces and who now found themselves cut off and threatened by the enemy. They left the highway and quickly rode over the hills towards the group. When they arrived, they found the camp to be in better shape than the one they had left. A wooden barrier surrounded the large camp and appeared well guarded by archers who occupied positions all around. Many torches had been set up along the walls and throughout the camp. They made out dozens of figures moving throughout and several horses could be seen to one side. As they rode up, the soldiers on the side of the camp nearest them turned and began walking towards them, led by a short man in a green cloak.
“Halt in His Majesty’s name,” he called as they drew close. Arian signalled the riders and they drew to a halt. The captain approached her and saluted.
“I am Captain Astor Malron,” he said, “of His Majesty’s Second Army. This is a restricted military zone. What business do have you here?”
“I am the Lady Arian Goldforger of the Domain of Alladag,” said Arian, returning the salute. “We have come to help the Empire.”
“Have you?” said Astor. “Well, your timing is impeccable for the Empire needs all the help it can get right now.”
“Have you been under attack?” asked Arian.
“Aye,” said Astor. “The enemy hides by day and joins us in combat at night. Fate has smiled on us for a messenger from another camp, which was attacked a few days before, reached us while we were still travelling and gave warning of the nature of the enemy we face. Accordingly, we have prepared our defences well and they have not been able to penetrate them.” Arian looked impressed at his claim which seemed well-substantiated by the camp behind him.
“And your orders are to remain here to prevent the enemy from moving east?” she inquired.
“It is so, milady,” he answered. “We have spread out in a line from the Storm Mountains in the north to the Fartoon Mountains in the south. All the roads have been blocked to prevent the enemy from escaping the Midlands.”
“You are sure this line will do that?” asked Ziza. Astor nodded. “Well,” Ziza continued, “We bring you distressing news. Not all your comrades have been as successful as you have in holding off the enemy. We left a camp this morning that had been destroyed by the enemy. Many of their men, and all their horses were destroyed. The survivors of that contingent, led by the valiant Cordac Hesperon, are already marching slowly towards Opale to see what they can contribute to the fight there. Another camp we passed around noon had no sign of survivors. The line has been breaches and the route east is open.”
Astor’s jaw gaped as he said that. “You are correct. This news is most distressing and changes the entire nature of our mission.” He furrowed his brow then looked at them again. “Where is your company headed?”
“To Opale, to liberate the city,” said Ziza. “Would you join us?”
“In committing suicide?” asked Astor. “I think not. Do you not know what has befallen Opale?”
“Has the city fallen?” asked Arian hesitantly.
“I came from there not six days ago,” said a soldier standing next to Astor. “The city is besieged on all sides and the number of the enemy does grow day by day. There is little hope that any military force can rescue it.”
“How came you to escape?” asked Ziza.
“I am from the Fourth Army,” the soldier said. “We arrived after the siege began and engaged the enemy, only to be driven back by their superior numbers. Now what is left of our regiment camp in the hills around the city, watching helplessly as the brave people of Opale suffer.”
“The walls of Opale are strong,” said Astor, “but strong walls are of no avail when the food and water is all gone.”
Arian and Ziza looked at each other. Then Arian looked up at the sky that was beginning to grow dark. “The day is late,” he said. “Perhaps we may join you here tonight, captain.”
“An extra set of swords is always welcome,” said Astor. “As long as you understand that there will be little sleep in the dark hours ahead.”
The company rode into the camp and hitched their horses among the Imperial horses beyond. As the dimness of evening fell about the camp, the soldiers doubled their efforts to fortify the walls. Arian and Ziza wandered through the camp as their men joined the soldiers. After a moment, Arian turned towards Ziza, a stern look on her face.
“Now we shall see how well the student has mastered his lessons,” she said softly. She did not wish the others to hear their conversation, lest his stature be diminished in their eyes. “What preparations have Astor’s forces made to protect themselves from attack?”
“Well, milady,” he said carefully, “there is the obvious. A wall to prevent easy entry into the camp and torches all about the make sure that there is good illumination when the blackness of night covers them.”
“But is that all you noticed?”
“Not at all,” he said quickly. “Concealed in the ground just inside the wall are cauldrons buried in the ground up to their edges and covered with yellow tarp to camouflage them. I would assume they are filled with a flammable substance and would be lit in the event the walls are torn down.”
“Very good,” murmured Arian.
“Additionally, just outside the wall are many long planks of wood set with springs and covered with spikes that have been covered with a fine layer of dirt, making them look like mere collections of stones. No doubt, when the enemy approaches, the springs will be released by the trip wire set just beyond them and the planks will fly up, released their missiles at those who approach.”
“I am impressed,” said Arian. “You have obviously acquired much in your training.”
“Plus,” continued Ziza, “you will not have failed to notice the fine mesh that has been laid on the ground. It is covered with dirt to hide it but I would say, from the way it feels under my boot, that it is made of bugbear hair, a most flammable substance. My guess is that, should the camp be breached from below, as happened to the others, Astor means to set the mesh on fire, immolating them before they can even emerge from the ground.”
Arian looked down at the ground. The faint signs of a mesh could be seen beneath her feet. She hid the surprise in her eyes, and then patted Ziza approvingly on the shoulder. “Of course,” she said. “I’m glad you saw it too.”
As they walked, Astor joined them. He was carrying a sword and a large shield. Both were covered in black stains. “Have you finished your tour of the camp?” he asked.
“We have,” said Arian, “and we are most impressed. It is no wonder the Undead have been unable to defeat you. I should think you will make a fine Lord General one day.”
“Luck has been our companion,” said Astor. “Had we not been warned, we would have been decimated by now. I must say, as well, that I am most impressed by your company. My men could learn a thing or two from yours about effort and discipline.”
“Captain,’ said Ziza, “assuming tonight’s battle goes well for us, would you reconsider joining us on our mission?”
“I am not able to go against my orders,” said Astor. “I must defend the eastern roads.”
“The mission has already failed,” said Arian, “despite your tactical brilliance. Your remaining here will not make a difference for the Undead will merely travel south and north around you, but if you join us, our numbers may make all the difference for the city of Opale.”
“Let us survive the night,” responded Astor, “and then I shall consider your words.”
* * *
Night fell and as blackness settled about the camp, the soldiers assumed their positions around the walls. Ziza joined a group of his men near the western wall while Arian and Astor walked back and forth through the camp, checking on the defences and encouraging the men. The time passed quietly, then after midnight, they began to hear the groaning sound they had been dreading. The torches throughout the camp remained unlit and only a few candles in the tents provided any light at all.
“We were attacked by wights last night,” said Arian as the sound grew louder. “What manner of creature has assailed your camp?”
“I am not a priest that I should know how to classify such beings,” responded Astor. He described the Undead they had encountered and Arian quickly realized he had not seen any wights. As the noise about them grew louder, she drew her sword. In the blackness, its blue glow seemed stronger than usual. She walked over to Ziza who was standing near the wall, peering into the fields all about.
“Once again we shall practice our art,” he said to her and she approached.
“Does your father know what kind of danger he has sent you into?” asked Arian.
“The Lord Ze’id is well aware of what he has done,” Ziza replied. “I was not joking when I said it took a long time to convince him not to come. His armour was already on him and he had retrieved his finest sword, Barbarian, from the armoury before we caught him.”
“And how did you convince the old man to remain at home like a lion in its den?”
“I told you about the orcs in the northern lands,” said Ziza. “We had a choice. Either he would come here while I would remain to defend the castle, or the opposite. I appealed to his heart.”
“Yes, he does have one,” said Ziza. “You know very well, Lady Goldforger, that other than a few travels on business or pleasure, I have never been away from Alladag. As a child, I listened to all the tales my father and the other Lords told me about their journeys and adventures. I always wanted to be an adventurer myself, to explore the world and fight evil, but my father always told me the same thing. ‘I did not spend my life risking my neck to build this castle just so you would go out to go the same thing.’”
“That sounds like something he would say,” chuckled Arian. “His argument is a strong one.”
“Finally,” continued Ziza, “I told him that if he did not let me lead the forces, I would leave Alladag to seek my fortune without his approval. I shall never forget the look he gave me.”
“I am surprised he left your head on its shoulders,” said Arian, raising her eyebrows.
“At first he frowned, for this particular conversation took place in the courtyard and many of the men could hear us. Then he smiled and handed Barbarian to me.” Ziza lifted the sword and saw that it was indeed Helmy’s legendary weapon. Its blade was glowing a cold white and small, retractable barbs could be seen lining its sharp edges. “He said that if I wanted adventure so much, I could lead the forces in to battle. We would see, after I returned, if I still lusted for danger and glory.”
“And after one battle, and on the verge of another,” said Arian, “do you?”
“Yes,” said Ziza quickly. “All my life I have been Ziza, son of Helmy. I want a reputation of my own. I want men to respect me not because I am the son of the mightiest warrior in the Empire but because I have earned it.”
“If we survive this campaign,” offered Arian, “I shall publicize your name to the four corners of the Empire myself.”
“Also,” said Ziza, “I wanted to prove myself to you.”
“Me?” said Arian with astonishment.
“You were my finest teacher, excepting my father of course, but you never saw me excel anywhere except in the classroom. I have always wanted to show you that your lessons would carry me to success in true combat.”
“Ziza,” replied Arian quietly, “I never expected you to risk your neck for me. And there is something else, isn’t there? Another reason you came.” She looked at him and he blushed.
“Even though many years passed between us, you still know me,” he said. “I wished to see her lovely countenance again. Since your visit to Alladag, I have not stopped thinking about her. I am sure that, if I were to be given a chance, I could win her heart.”
“I warned you before about that,” said Arian sternly. “And things have changed even more since we visited you for her heart belongs to another. You dare not continue to think those things you have been.”
Ziza’s face fell, then turned grim. Arial chuckled quietly. If Oa-neth’s rejection of his advances had brought out a fighting spirit in him, hearing that she had chosen another to love would probably bring forth a rage that could single-handedly consume any enemy army.
“I see,” he said quietly. He turned and looked back towards the blackness. The groaning had grown louder and now they could hear the sound of shuffling faintly in the distance. “The enemy grows closer, much to their misfortune,” he said.
They stood and waited, as the shuffling grew louder. Even though the night was black, their eyes had accommodated enough to allow them to see some distance into the fields around them. Dark figures were approached the camp slowly from all sides, swaying as they moved on. The soldiers at the walls drew their bows and loaded them while the line behind them drew their swords. Astor walked over to the wall, bent down and picked up a fine thread.
“Steady,” he said softly, “here they come.” The figures grew closer and the noise of the groans grew loud. As they drew to within feet of the wall, Astor stiffened, then shouted, “Now!” As he did, he pulled on the string. The planks of wood Ziza had described flew up out of the ground, unleashing their long spikes at the oncoming army. They heard loud moans and screams and watched as the first line of figures dropped to the ground. A cheer rose from the soldiers but it quickly died down as a second line of creatures appeared in their place.
“Ready,” said Astor in a loud voice, “and fire!” The archers unleashed a hail of arrows, cutting down the second line. As they reloaded, a third line appeared in the darkness.
“There is something wrong here,” muttered Arian. “This is too easy.”
The archers let fly with a second volley, then reloaded as another line of creatures appeared. Ziza thought for a moment, then his eyes widened.
“The strategy of Grosk the Wicked,” he said. “They are using that stratagem and we are falling into the trap!”
“Of course!” said Arian. She ran over towards Astor who was talking with several soldiers. “Captain,” she said, “They are tricking us!”
“What are you talking about?” asked Astor in a puzzled voice.
“It is the strategy of an orc chieftain who conquered part of the Mayo Forest two hundred years ago. It took the Empire a long time to destroy him, so mighty and clever a warrior he was. He used to attack his enemies in a very simple manner. First he would send his weakest troops in as fodder for arrows. Maybe a thousand would fall but his opponent’s ammunition would be exhausted by the effort. Then his shock troops would descend on them, destroying them.”
“Then we are using up our arrows on a relatively weak portion of our foes,” said Astor.
“Exactly,” said Arian. “Every night you use up more and more of your arrows. What do their leaders care if you destroy a million of their underlings? After the battle, our bodies will replenish what they have lost. When the arrows are consumed, the stronger Undead who are no doubt hidden in the darkness yonder will descend on us.”
“What do you suggest?” asked Astor.
“We will not play the role of opponent in their strategy,” said Arian. “Rather, we shall respond with one of our own and put them on the defensive.”
“Give me one hundred men with their horses,” answered Arian in a commanding voice, “and light the torches on my command. We will go out into the field. Hold your fire as we do, until you see the targets worth shooting at.” Astor thought for a moment, and then nodded.
“Very well,” he said. “I didn’t like the repetitiveness of these fights anyway.” He called over two lieutenants and conferred with them. Then they began running throughout the camp, pulling swordsmen in small groups away from the line. They ran towards the horses along with Arian. After they had unhitched them, they formed a line between the tents of the camp.
“Forward!” shouted Arian. The galloped past the archers and leapt over the walls into the field beyond. They quickly reached the pile of corpses that had been accumulating around the camp and spread out, slashing madly at the figures which were still shambling towards the camp. It seemed as if they did not care that they were being cut down by the sword but fell as they strode on without offering resistance.
“Come on,” muttered Arian as she struck yet another three creatures down, “Show yourselves.” They continued to ride up and down around the camp and after several minutes, the line of creatures had begun to grow thin. Abruptly, she heard the sounds of screaming from the north. It was not the sound of the Undead being cut down but rather that of men having their very souls ripped out from within them.
Arian turned and faced the camp. “Lights!” she screamed at the top of her lungs and on cue, the myriad of tall torches surrounded the camp began to blaze, filling the entire field with their pale yellow light. The ground was covered in the bodies of slain Undead and their black ooze flowed everywhere. Three rider-less horses galloped passed her, their saddles stained with blood. She looked towards the north and saw a new group of riders. These wore long, grey hooded cloaks and carried scimitars that gleamed in the yellow light of the torches. Their horses that were but the animated skeletons. She counted perhaps fifty of them, then looked to the south and saw a similar number approaching. She turned her horse and, flanked by twenty soldiers on each side, rode over towards the group heading towards the north. The remaining soldiers rode towards the southern attackers. The Undead creatures halted their horses and awaited their arrival. Arian rode up to face them and held her sword in front of her.
“None of the Living shall join your ranks tonight,” she said firmly. “I shall not allow you to pass. Return to the crypt from which you are unlawfully absent.”
“We are the wraiths of Kas the Terrible,” hissed one the figures in front of her. Once, our kind ruled the world, casting fear on all we encountered. Now those days have returned. Surrender and we will give you the gift of Undeath, and all the power that comes with it. Resist, and you will also receive the gift but it will be as an eternal curse to you.”
“Leave now, and we shall let you return to your rest in peace,” growled Arian.
“Do you not know what a wraith is?” it asked in return. “Our breath is fear and our touch is ice. With the claws on our fingers, we can rip the very soul out of your body. Your arrows are as nought to us, and your sword as wooden sticks. You cannot defeat us.”
“To our last breath, we will oppose you,” said Arian.
“Of course you will,” hissed the wraith. “And after you have breathed it, you shall return to serve us.” He raised his scimitar and the two groups of skeletal horses charged forward. Arian lifted her sword and prodded her horse as well.
“To Victory!” she shouted. “To Life!”
The soldiers and wraiths clashed on the field and the sound of swords meeting scimitars echoed loudly about. Arian slashed at the wraiths but found that, unlike their lower minions, these creatures were skilled at fighting. She watched as two soldiers at her side were cut down by scimitars. The wraiths that held them streaked past her and towards the camp. She turned her attention back to the wraith she had been speaking to. They rode towards each other, their weapons meeting with a loud clanging noise. Then they turned and faced each other again. All around, the soldiers and other wraiths fought savagely but it was clear the wraiths had the upper hand in skill and strength. Slowly, the soldiers were moving back towards the camp.
“You have already lost,” said the wraith in its low, hissing voice. “You are a magnificent warrior. Why do you not do the logical thing and join us? There is no glory in dying in defeat.”
“There is no glory in serving evil.”
“I thought as you do, once,” said the wraith. “Like many others, I changed my mind once I reached the other side.”
“Who leads your army that I should consider serving him? I have heard tales of the Undead Overlord and will not be counted as one of his minions.”
“He has not yet returned,” said the wraith. “And Kas the Terrible, his Supreme General, has disappeared from the world of the Living and the Dead, so our allegiance has changed. There is another who has taken his place, who will return the great Ruler to this world and restore our rule!”
“Who?” asked Arian again. “Who is it?”
The wraith shriek in its low voice and the sound sent a chill through Arian’s body. Then it charged towards her. This time Arian did not move but sat on her horse awaiting its approach. As it drew close, it raised its scimitar high about its head. When it was only a few feet away, Arian quickly yanked on her reins. Her horse jumped on its hind legs, then fell forward, its forefeet crashing into the skeletal steed right in front of it. Its bones shattered, throwing the wraith to the ground. It jumped to its feet but before it could raise its scimitar, Arian swept around and lopped its head off with her sword. Silently, its body fell to the ground, black ooze flowing from its neck. She stopped and looked down at it, then turned and stared at the camp. The battle had already reached the walls. The archers were once again firing but selectively this time, trying to avoid hitting their own men. Many of the mounted soldiers had already been cut down by the wraiths and the arrows themselves seemed to have little effect on them, or their soldiers. She prodded her horse and galloped back towards the camp. One after another, she began cutting down the wraiths who were not expected an attack from behind. Then her horse leapt over the walls and she jumped off it. Once on the ground, she dashed about the perimeter, searching for Astor. She found him near the middle of the camp, calming men who were panicking from their contact with the wraiths.
“Captain!” she shouted. “It is time to destroy the camp!”
“What?!?” shouted Astor above the din of the battle around. “Are you mad? They have not yet even penetrated the walls!”
“They will shortly,” said Arian. “Most of the horsemen have already been cut down and the rest, if they do not withdraw, will be killed as well. They will slowly move in and then through the camp if we do not prepare ourselves properly.”
Astor drew closed to her. “You know about the mesh?” he whispered in her ear.
“And the cauldrons,” she said. “Fire will destroy them but we must get them into the camp to do that.”
“But if we do that…” the captain started to say.
“Get your men to grab their supplies, whatever they can carry, and head to the north. Once they have done that, order the rest of the men to pull back and let them come over the walls. Tell them to fight as they move back lest the enemy suspect a trap in our sudden retreat.”
“Very well, Lady Goldforger,” said Astor. He disappeared between the tents. A few minutes later, groups of soldiers carrying packs and other equipment began dashing past her, heading towards the north side of the camp. She turned and returned to the perimeter. Ziza and several of his men were still holding their positions, watching as the battle outside the camp continued.
“We must go out and help them!” he said as Arian approached. “They are being slaughtered.”
“On the contrary,” she said. “I am sounding the retreat.”
Ziza looked at her dumbfounded, and then suddenly, he smiled. “The Victory Tactic of Redmod Dumple? Of course!” He turned and looked at the groups of soldiers running toward the north side of the camp. Arian grabbed a torch, pulled it out of the ground and waved it in the air wildly. The horsemen who saw the signal pulled away from their opponents and began riding around the camp towards its north side as well. The wraiths drew to a halt, briefly confused by the unexpected retreat. Then they turned as one and began riding quickly towards the camp.
The soldiers near the wall pulled back, their swords held defensively in front of them. The skeleton horses reached the palisade and leapt over it, landing heavily on the ground inside the wall. As they did, Astor’s voice rang through the camp. “Fire!” all heard him shout.
At the signal, plumes of fire rose from the ground underneath the skeleton horses and flying up towards the wraiths riding them. The creatures screamed as their robes lit on fire, but rode forward throughout the camp. The soldiers who had been facing them turned and scattered, leaping through the flames burning by the wall and over into the field beyond. Suddenly, the entire camp was lit with bright flame as the mesh was ignited as well. The soldiers scattered as fast as they could as the wraiths rode through the inferno, their bodies aflame. Several fell into the fire but a handful managed to guide their horses back over the wall. Now, however, the advantage was to the soldiers who advanced on the damaged creatures and began slashing away at them. One after another, they fell from their horses and as each lost its rider; it shattered into a pile of bones. Finally the last wraith crumpled to the ground and dissolved into a pile of ashes as they stabbed away at it.
Arian ran over to where Astor was staring despondently at the camp. “What have we done?” he asked.
“Sometimes victory requires great sacrifice,” Arian said grimly. “I do not doubt that the appearance of those wraiths tonight means this was to be the final battle for this camp. Their defeat is a great achievement.”
“What are they?” asked Astor. “Where do they come from?”
“They are very old,” said Arian. “They are remnants of the Elder Days, returned to the world above to sow death and destruction among the Living.”
“The Elder Days? How can that be? I was always taught that all things in the world were destroyed at the end of that era.”
“That is what we were all taught about the Elder Days,” said Arian. “And did you ever wonder that so little else is said about them? I have learned too much about that time in history for my liking.”
“Who would bring such creatures from their hiding places?” asked Astor. “Who would have the power to control them?”
Arian did not answer but turned and looked through the field for Ziza. She spotted him eventually and looked at him in dismay. A large gash could be seen on his arm and it hung limply by his side. One of his men was assisting him to walk. She ran over and looked at his wound.
“What happened?” she asked.
“The Lord Ziza received this injury as he slew the wraiths,” said the assistant before Ziza could answer. “When the others could not even approach them because of the fear in their hearts, my lord ran forward and bravely engaged them in combat. Five he cut down before the sixth drew close and plunged its scimitar into his arm.”
“I got him too,” said Ziza. “It just took a little extra effort, that’s all. It seems, however, that I am a casualty of battle. Perhaps I shall return to Alladag while you go on to glory.”
“There is little chance of that, old friend,” said Arian. “When I find my belongings, you shall see that there is still a chance for you to fight again.” With that she ran over to where the gear and equipment from the camp had been piled up. With the help of two soldiers, she quickly uncovered her pack and opened it. The contents were a mess from all the travelling but at the bottom, where she had left them, laid a vial full of clear, red liquid. “The last one,” she said quietly as she pulled it out. Closing her pack, she dashed back over to where Ziza was now sitting on the ground. She opened the vial and handed it to him. In her mind she marvelled at his story. So far he had drawn strength from being rejected by Oa-neth, and then even more when he found out she had chosen another. What was she going to tell him to throw him into a rage for the final battle?
“This should do the trick,” she said. He eyed the liquid carefully.
“What is it?” he asked.
“A healing potion,” she answered. “I got it from an old friend of yours, Carter Armitzen.” Ziza looked at her, then pushed off the stopper and downed the contents. Almost instantly, he felt warmth in his arm. The wound grew smaller until finally it was only a scar. He lifted the arm and tried using it. There was no pain he could find. Slowly, he stood up.
“Remarkable,” he said. “Even after his passing, the wise man has a presence. Did you know him long?”
“I did,” said Arian. “I remembered the tales about him that were told in the Castle and when I moved to Melobam, I found him and lived under his roof with my friends. I never did tell him that I knew who he was.”
“I didn’t want to draw attention to myself,” she said. “At that point in my life, I was happy just being a common thief. I knew that he would treat me differently if I told him.”
Ziza starting walked back and forth. “I feel quite well now. What is the plan?”
“Let’s find Astor,” she said. As she did, she looked over and saw he was already approaching them. “All right,” Arian continued when he had joined them, “here’s the plan. We would remain here and wait for another group of the enemy to come looking for us, but I don’t think that’s prudent. It seems to me that the Undead are systematically wiping out this border posts with relatively small forces.”
“Small forces!” gasped Astor. “Were we in the same battle?”
“Hear me out,” said Arian. “If they have enough of an army to besiege a large city like Opale, this was not more than a regiment for them here tonight. I would guess that they are simply clearing your defensive line away one post as a time. Then, when Opale has fallen and the armies of the Empire are in retreat, they will march east unhindered. There is only one option left to us. We must march west to Opale and break the siege.”
“You’re mad!” said Astor. “I had two hundred and fifty men here and now I have ordered a recount and have found only that of the one hundred and six who survived, only seventy eight are well enough to fight. How many of your men are left, Ziza?”
“I have not counted them but I too saw many of them fall in battle. Our numbers are much less than I could have hoped for.”
Arian stamped her foot angrily. “Enough! If you wish to remain out here in this wasteland, I shall not hinder you, but I will ride west and if I must destroy the forces of the enemy alone, I shall.”
“Milady,” said Ziza, “I would not think of abandoning you. Where you ride, we shall follow. I just cannot speak for the captain and his men.”
“We have enough horses for the men to ride, and a few left over,” said Astor wearily. “We will come with you. There is no sense dying hopeless in the dark. I would rather we fight a good fight before dying and from what I have seen of your skills, I think it will be a very good fight.”
They spent the rest of the night resting in shifts. The fire from the camp burned down quickly leaving the area coated in the orange glow of the coals it left behind. Those on watch spent the time organizing the horses and gear and as the eastern sky began to lighten, Arian mustered the company. Ziza had counted his men after they had finished speaking. Of the three hundred men who had left Alladag, one hundred and seventy were still in good enough shape to go on to the next battle. The rest had sustained enough injuries for Ziza to excuse them from the battle.
“Two hundred and forty eight riders,” said Arian. “It is a small group but with the right plan, we could make quite a difference. How is the morale of the men, Ziza?”
“They have some concerns,” said Ziza. “Many wonder why, if the danger to the Empire is so great, we do not return to Alladag to reinforce it against the inevitable onslaught? Many wonder why they are being asked to fight and die so far from home.”
“I will speak to them,” she replied, “and tell them of the greatness of our cause. No true warrior can turn down such a glorious opportunity for battle.”
“I hope you are right,” said Astor. “I have told my men that they will die as heroes if they come, and as cowards if they do not.
“How far a distance are we from Opale now?” asked Arian.
“If we leave now, we should reach the ridge to its east by late afternoon. However, unlike out here, the Undead there maintain a constant presence by night and day.”
“I should expect as much,” said Arian. “That’s what the cloud cover is for. They cannot stand the sun. Captain, I have another request.”
“Name it, Lady Goldforger.”
“How many men of yours that are not coming with us can ride?” she asked. Astor thought for a moment.
“Perhaps ten or twelve,” he answered.
“And how many extra horses do you have, assuming they each take one?”
“About twenty,” he said, then he raised his eyebrows. “Of course,” he said. “You mentioned that Captain Hesperon had lost all his horses and is proceeding on foot. This will give him a chance to reach the battle not long after us.”
“Correct,” she said. “Have those men take the spare horses and ride southwest. Captain Hesperon will take them and hopefully join us in battle before too long.”
Astor walked back towards where his men were gathering to speak to them. Arian mounted her horse and began trotting towards where the men of Alladag stood. “Men of Alladag,” she said as she approached them, “you are far from home, fighting a war which seems to involve a land with no connection to yours. Many of your comrades have been injured or fallen in battle. Know this: Should we be unsuccessful, the enemy will cross the Midlands and do so quickly. This is not an enemy such as you have ever known. In victory, they become stronger and stronger. By the time their reach extends to Alladag, the very Lords of Alladag reassembled in the prime of their might would be swept away before them. Our only chance to bring peace not only to your land, but all the lands of the Empire, is to make a stand against them now. If we fail, the Empire and all those who rely on it are doomed. But we shall not fail! We are not fighting merely for our homes, or the right to live in peace. We are fighting for the right to live itself, against those who would see us as simple fodder for their evil designs. We are fighting for our children, and there children who are as yet unborn, for our friends and all those too weak to defend themselves against the storm. Ours is the just cause for Life must always triumph over its opposite. We will fight in the fields of Varn with such valour that our names will be remembered in song forevermore. Are you with me?” The men of Alladag cheered loudly although a few continued to frown.
“You will not be sorry for what you have chosen,” she continued. “One day you will tell your children how you saved the world. That is the day we are fighting for.” She turned and rode back over to Ziza. “Are you ready?” she asked.
“Yes, milady,” he answered. She turned and rode over to Astor.
“Are your men ready?”
Astor smiled and mounted his horse. “Yes, milady,” he said.
“Then let us go!” she shouted. She goaded her horse and as a unit, the company galloped west across the dusty fields.
* * *
Throughout the day, they saw no sign of the Undead but other signs of life did greet their eyes. They met three groups of Imperial soldiers throughout the morning and another two early in the afternoon. They too were the survivors of their outposts which had been destroyed and they had set off with what gear and horses they still had, hoping to join the fight in Opale. By mid-afternoon, the company had swelled to over six hundred men on horse with full gear and supplies. As they travelled along, they began to see a new cloud ahead of them in the sky, distinct from the grey ones which still stretched to the horizon in all directions. This cloud was low and dark, and it seemed to hang over the land rather than float in the sky. It grew larger as they continued west. They rode along quickly until the early evening, heading up a gentle slope. As the sky began to slowly grow dimmer, they reached the top of the ridge and looked down at the city of Opale in the vale below.