Chapter 33: Approaching War
Setting camp at the agreed location, the group took a meager meal. Without a fire to cook the meat or warm the people sitting around, in fear of enemy scouts noticing them, the woods seemed to be hiding a hostile soldier behind every tree and brush.
The smell of smoked meat lingering in the air reminisced each of the resting travellers different yet similarly meaningful memories.
The half-elf thought of the time he had spent on Blackquarry’s walls less than a quarter of a turn ago; soldiers roasting whatever they could get their hands on, from the smallest creature – rats and bugs included – they could find in the nearby woods to the ever shrinking ration they were bestowed by the quartermaster, always starving for more, never able to see further than the shadow of death looming over their heads. There had not been many casualties during this siege, but a stray arrow or an unlucky blow could still strike any time, more than one grave had been lining on the edge of their lines.
Yet, the stench that he was currently perceiving was completely different from that of a simple campfire in his mind. After an assault all that remained was always the screams of the fire mages’ victims, on both sides, and the crispy smell of flesh burning so slowly.
Fire had always been the most destructive element, blazing brightly, roaring with rage, quick to flare up and destroy anything standing in its way.
In those cases, the luckiest fighters were the water and earth practitioners, able to cover their bodies in a protective layer and spearhead the savage assaults. But one would always find someone stronger than itself in times of war, the screeches of those that had found their counterpart echoing in the darkness of the next night, the healers too busy to attend to them, their cries and the scent of fear, coupled with blood and iron, filling the air.
Of course this had not left Luthais’ soldiers unscathed either, being bombarded by rows and rows of casters was bound to mark the defenders, and by the sole grace of the healers were they able to last for another day, though unable to picture themselves further in the future, a sea of enemies stretching to the horizon monopolizing their attention, the heavy task of planning falling on the officer’s shoulders, and mostly on the half-elf who was the head of the army.
Even in those conditions, he had not resented his rank commanding him to take responsibility for every death; fighting for the King was flooding him with pride and fulfillment. As gruesome as war had always been, Luthais was able to take on the brutal reality, and fight for the people, driven by the will to protect them from the appalling sight of living beings violently slaughtering each other.
He could try to justify his actions over and over, but the screams of the injured was clinging to his ears, their smell forever burning in his nose, his eyes grasping gruesome scenes from another time in empty spaces; making the half-elf look devoid of substance, a ghost from the past.
One of Eldrin’s teachings to his son had been to respect the people he was leading, those who believed in him; the kingdom survived thanks to its people who stood up to defend it according to the elf.
Following the healing priests in their rounds amongst the disabled soldiers, the half elf was often giving them simple reassurements and thanked them for their sacrifice in the name of the persons they had saved by their actions, feeling all of their pain like he had caused it, repeating over and over that if he had been smarter and found a different solution, they might not had have to undergo these sufferings.
Nonetheless his convictions never wavered, Luthais strongly believed that he could help the people and the kingdom by accomplishing his duty. As a noble, he had to do it, and his limbs weren’t shaking when he thought back to those atrocities, disregarding the passing of time, waiting for the Sergeant.
Nisha on the other hand was associating happier memories with the savory smell, dating back to the time when the four dragons were occupying the simple cave for the first time, still ignorant of the ways of the world, barely understanding its brutality as they had already claimed their first kill.
The [Horned Rabbit] was only first on the long list of meals the siblings dragged back into the dark den.
Seasons slowly changed, and the warm winds of summer gradually turned colder, carrying the breath of winter, turning the small lizards into docile and lethargic creatures, unable to move around, with the exception of Little Flame whose inner flame was warming her up. When the leaves turned brown and fell from the trees, the other beasts and monsters preparing for a harsh winter, she was outside alone, trying to gather as much meat as possible to secure a little stock would the cold stay for too long.
Her recollections were rather vague, she had not the same level of awareness back then, her instinct was guiding her, warning her of an imminent trial, though snow was a foreign concept to all of them at the time.
When the white crystals wrapped the surroundings of the cave for the first time, the three apathetic dragons reacted rather calmly, partly because of the low temperatures hindering their thought process but also because they were convinced that their oldest sibling would always protect them.
Every night was harder to get by than the last, the icy bite drilling into the beast’s scales, piercing through the large pile of leaves they had collected in an attempt to keep some of the warmth in the cave.
Little Flame on the other hand was growing restless, the meat they had stored had long since run dry and each of her days was spent on trying to hunt down something to bring home.
In the most bitter time of the turn, she was still roaming the woods, looking for anything that could save her siblings, unfortunately an especially vicious snowstorm was haunting the Wilderness in that particular night.
Failing to find a single trail or detect any living presence, her empty stomach helplessly remained the only audible sound under the desolate flakes coating her in ice.
Convinced that her lack of skills in finding proper nourishment for her family would soon become her doom along with that of her loved ones, the black and red dragon lowered her head and returned to the cave, only to be startled by a campfire. Alarmed by the new flashing light, all of her senses screamed danger and urged her to abandon the cave immediately.
However Little Flame did not give in to her impulse and dared to leave the cover of the darkness, walking into the light, for the sake of her siblings.
The young beast silently approached the main room, ready to strike any danger lurking around her defenseless siblings.
To her surprise, there were no threats in the cave, only the heat of a fire burning from a stack of dry wood in the middle of the grotto while the bodies of three sluggish wyrms were rolled up in layers of furs and warm clothing.
Calming down a bit at the absence of menace, Little Flame observed the room more carefully, finally spotting an iron skewer behind the fire on two stones to hold a load of meat over the blazing heat, filling the air with a delicious mouth-watering scent.
Suddenly a sharp sound rang out behind the dragon, the ice snapped to give way to someone heavier than her.
Whirling her lithe body around, the small dragon caught a glimpse of a frame she would get to knew better years later, during her stay in the cottage of the hunting grounds; the figure then receded from the entrance into the storm, her family rescued from a colorless death.
The first cooked meat the dragons ever ate was warm and even more delicious than the piece of meat that was left for them upon their birth.
Lastly, Lydia and Annabelle were no strangers to the smell disturbing their companions either, it had came to mean something different for the two women over the past turn.
As servant’s daughters they had sometimes been fortuitous enough to get some of the leftovers from the noble’s meals on the Day of Light, a treat by far more extravagant than their usual diet as the noblemen were never eating all the lavish delicacies served on their plates.
Additionally, after each feast in the mansion the servants were ordered to participate in the cleaning and were allowed to gobble up everything that remained.
The life at the cottage was a great change for two women raised mainly on bread, vegetables and soup, as each day there was now either a meat or fish dish, fulfilling treats waiting for them to taste.
Lydia had been helping out in the nobles’ kitchen and thus knew some recipes, but the variety of wild animal meat combined with the high class kitchen and the numerous stored ingredients had made her chef’s heart bloom to the cottage’s inhabitants’ delight.
During the first times in the mansion, she was often stealing small snacks while cooking, as she used to do in the [Silverwood] branch villa to split them with her sister Annabelle, who had been working in the library, the chief librarian having taken a liking to her, teaching her the letters, hoping to have her take over the library one day -servants that could read being hard to come by.
Secretly the sisters were thankful for the instruction on the ways of aura and mana for another reason, the training being a good way to shed the extra weight they were gaining from a drastic change of diet. Of course they had not openly said it, but soon starting the day with a good meal and looking forward to a delicious treat at nightfall had become part of their routine.
Though cold, meat smelled of home, it was a small piece of something that had came to be their whole world, a place where they were friends with a curious little girl that thought of them as big sisters, making them feel loved for the very first time, the odd grandfather Eldrin replacing the parents that had discarded them out of fear.
It still hurt to think about returning to the capital and see those traitors again, but Annabelle and Lydia had agreed to face the future together, to build themselves a life together with their loved ones.
With each member of the party completely lost in thoughts, they almost missed the arrival of the weary horse and its rider in the dead of the night.
Snatching a piece of meat from the cargo space, Brandon Rivers had some thoughts on his own about the meat, yet very different from the group’s.
“I have to say, this is really damn tasty.”
Lacking the profound experiences on the importance of food the other had, the sergeant was simply enjoying the feeling of satiating his hunger after a hard day on the saddle; a life in the army often meant going with march rations when the supply chain was lost in a field expedition.
The arrival of the soldier stirred up the camp and Nisha rose from her spot, handing out some of the blankets from the various chests on the carriage to the sergeant who accepted them with a thankful nod. His mission was already urgent as it was, a single rider sent to find his commanding officer, the only chance to successfully defend the city from a serious assault that could scar the Kingdom deeply.
Now that the number of people had grown beyond the initial sole rider, making haste was still important but not to the point of sleeping at the side of the road with the horse bound to a branch. With a large army missing and no clear picture of the situation, scheming a plan was now the top priority.
He’s shivering, I wonder if he’s cold. I think the temperature is pretty pleasant for an early night, although Lydia and Annabelle probably wouldn’t agree with me, they’re completely mulled into their blankets.
Everyone seated in a half-circle, Luthais cleared his throat to draw attention on him.
“Let us talk about how to proceed from this point. We didn’t have much time earlier, but riding through these woods in the night is suicide, we need to look after our animals as well, a broken leg would be absolutely fatal in those conditions.”
Emphasizing the last part, he threw a worried glance at the girls before continuing.
“As for our goal, we want to arrive in [Blackquarry] and get behind the walls before the siege starts or resumes, the city is fairly big and you will be able to stay with the other civilians while I join the defense along with Sergeant Rivers, the enemy can’t be allowed to take the city.
Nisha, I know that the city must be new and hence attracting to you, but please stay with Lydia and Annabelle until the reinforcements arrive, I am convinced that King Cederic will send us help, I will leave some soldiers to escort you and the other citizens to the capital then.”
Her short trip in the forest earlier as well as the various stories Eldrin had shared with him had given the half-elf a fairly good insight in Nisha’s adventurous personality, therefore the warning was well deserved.
The dragon girl obviously did not share this opinion. Feeling sulky, she nodded her head, not saying anything else, she felt that it was unfair to single her out and specially warn only her.
It’s not like I’m always doing dangerous stuff. There’s only so much interesting stuff going on at a time, I can’t help it.
Distracted by her gloomy mood, Nisha missed a good part of the discussion, paying attention again when Luthais spoke up in a louder tone, the others silent.
“Ultimately, I think Sergeant River’s plan has the greatest chance of success. Lydia, I trust you will do what we have discussed?”
Waiting for the woman to nod once, the half-elf gave her an approving look.
“Alright, we will stay here for the night and ride tomorrow in the early morning hours. Get some good rest, everyone.”
Having planned the schedule for the following day, Luthais took his sleep gear and laid down beneath the carriage, next to his [Strider Deer], which got closer to him and went to sleep as well.
Nisha on the other hand took her bedroll and settled between her two big sisters, happy to feel their warmth, after sharing a bed with Eldrin for a turn, waking up alone felt chilly to her.
The soldier seemed about to say something at the scene of three girls huddling together under the blankets, but chose to remain silent, an amused smile plastered on his face.
Cuddling with her family was comforting the homesick kid ; Little Terra, Little Breeze and Little Stream were often on her mind as they got closer to the edge of the Wilderness, she knew that once they would arrive at Thurgau, she wouldn’t have the chance to see them again before a long time.
The sun wasn’t even rising when Luthais went from one bedding to the other to shake the exhausted people to get them ready for the trip.
Nisha was waking up early to take care of the animals at the cottage, enabling her to feel fine enough to help packing and prepare for the last stretch of their trip.
The journey was spent in silence, the convoy lost in thought, some afraid of the war they were about to behold, other endlessly reconsidering the possibilities. Nisha was lying on the cargo space under the covering together with Annabelle and Lydia so the half-elf could pretend to be a trader travelling with a bodyguard instead of the marshall, commander of the army defending the city.
Fortunately enough, there were no interruptions on their way and around midday Luthais allowed the girls to emerge from their hiding place and stretch their numbed limbs.
When the three of them stuck their heads out, a marvelous landscape welcomed them.
At the edge of the forest the sky was opened on an endless space, a large circle of stone could be witnessed quite some distance away in front of a green wall, another stretch of forest behind it.
“Quite the view, isn’t it? I remember when all of this used to be a forest. When the [Blackburn]’s discovered the mines, they started off by clearing a small glade, building a trade house and shacks for the miners. After that, the worker’s families followed, and this became a small town, developing from the original clearing to what you see now, many trees have been put down to build houses and plough a road towards the capital.
It took more than two centuries, but now it is a big city protected by a sturdy wall, the roads went from a simple dirt path to a paved highway and lumber has become one of the local products.
Incredible, isn’t it?”
Too astounded to react to the half-elf’s explanation, Nisha stared at the camps in front of the city, tents spreading as far as one could see, pitched between wood behemoths, probably the war machines.
So many people … How can they even live packed like this?
Unable to muster a response, the dragon just stared at the encampments and the city, wondering how many humans and elfs could be living at the same place as the party proceeded towards the magnificent [Blackquarry].