Flight and Founding: The Creation Story of Candle'Bre

By Christopher D. Hartpence

Author's Note: This is the "first story" of Candle'Bre, and as such, it lies at the root of everything that follows. It is the first canonical work, and an excellent place of beginning if you're curious to learn more about the world of Candle'Bre.

As ever, you are invited to join us at candlebre.com to learn more about the books, the computer game, or to participate in the ongoing discussions there. We hope you'll join us!

-Chris

OoO

And know ye, that these are the words of the HighFather:

Works and Deeds are to be performed always for the glory of the HighFather first, as a celebration of his gifts to you. The intellect to plan and design, and the skills of the hands to create works of wonder, beauty, and function. It is right and proper that these things be a boon to you, but never forget the commandment that they should, at all times and in all places, give honor and glory to the HighFather first, from whom all gifts spring. Only then will you walk in the path of righteousness.

To stray from the path of righteousness is to take for granted the comforts of hearth and home, or to celebrate your own cleverness. Never forget that J'honsa is the god of hardships and trials, and His People, His faithful must be ever vigilant against the sins of vanity, self importance, and complacency.

To think too highly of oneself is a failure to acknowledge that J'honsa provides all, including the abilities innate to all men. To grow too comfortable from the fruits of your own labor or from your own cleverness is to allow sin to take root in the heart, and J'honsa does not abide a sinner.

Those who forget this commandment shall suffer plagues born from the same cleverness that once provided comfort to the lives of men, and these shall be delivered by J'honsa's own son, Ollux, who was cast out of Heaven for his own pride and vanity.

~From the Book of Works and Deeds

Lightning lanced out across the night sky in an almost painfully brilliant blue-white, and the air was suddenly filled with the scent of ozone. Before the afterglow could fade from the dark tapestry, painted in inky black and angry, rolling gray clouds, a growl of fierce thunder bellowed behind it.

The tattered refugees, looking impossibly small and helpless on the vast stretch of plain, shrank away from the sudden light, knowing all too well that if the Nilroggi spied them and sent riders or runners, their flight to freedom would come to an abrupt, and violent end.

Blood.

It was on everyone's mind.

So much blood washing over the Empire this last year, and rumor held that the Nilroggi could smell human blood for miles.

They were hunters from the bowels of the earth...tireless and relentless in their efforts since the first attacks began just after last year's Harvest Moon.

To be sure, The Emperor's legions had fought bravely, but against such an onslaught as they faced...the endless numbers and terrifying weapons and tactics these creatures of the earth used against them, one by one, The Legions that had guarded Ravanna for centuries were simply swept away.

Gone.

Smashed and torn by an enemy that knew no pain. That did not want for sleep or mercy. An enemy that struck without warning and in such numbers that the outcome was no longer in doubt.

It was simply a matter of when.

Oh, the politicians made light of the matter, exaggerating the occasional victory, downplaying defeat after stinging defeat...but they could not stop the rumors.

Rumor gave way to rampant panic when the first of the refugees began arriving from the east. Ragged and beaten, they streamed westward in hopes of avoiding the fate that befell the Emperor's legions.

Many of these groups simply vanished in the night, leaving only a wide column of blood soaking into the ground where they had last been.

Some though, did make safe to the mighty fortress of Kehesh, which sat a scant two days from the Capitol and boasted walls so thick that the Fortress Commander once decreed that God himself could not break them down. They brought with them the grim stories of their travels. Tales of the lost, and of those blood-soaked hills and fields. Tales of the Fourth Legion's gallant but futile defense.

So it was true.

The armies of the Emperor had been broken entirely then, and soon it seemed, the mighty fortress and her proud walls would be put to the ultimate test.

For their part, the refugees took no comfort in the boasted protection of the walls.

They did not stop.

And their departure through the capitol set off another flight of the population.

Oh, not all at once of course, but it began.

And as more stories of the approaching horde of Nilroggi circulated, the flight increased.

Small bands striking out further westward, hoping...praying for release. Escape from this strange foe who knew not the ways of human mercy. Who cared not for parlay and discussion.

There was only battle, and the outcome was no longer in doubt.

And so when the lightening came, briefly and brilliantly illuminating the night, and marking their presence on the vast plain all too clearly, the refugees shrank back almost as one.

Many wailed in terror. Many wept.

But also, they did not stop.

No.

There would be no stopping now....the course was set.

Escape or die trying.

OoO

"Sir! Riders approaching!" Perrin shouted as he ran full-tilt down the hill toward the assembled refugees, and Arliss Castillar watched him come, a thin, sad smile on his face. Ahhh, the energy and exuberance of youth. Young strong legs carrying him fast over the ground.

A pity he was running to inform them of their impending deaths, rather than playing as most boys his age would be.

Should be.

"Are they ours?" Arliss called out, not allowing even the faintest glimmer of hope into his voice. It was well known that, although the Nilroggi were physically larger, they could, and in recent weeks had begun making use of horses…their pickets and patrols occasionally operating from horseback in an attempt to draw closer before being recognized for what they were.

Either way, there was nothing to be done. The refugees had makeshift weapons at best, and only a handful who knew anything about using them.

They were afoot, and the riders could catch them with ease and....

He didn't even finish the thought.

"Too far out to tell, Sir!" The young lad panted as he made to the "safety" of the group.

"Well then, I suppose we should prepare as best we can."

"Will we not try to outrun them?" The boy asked.

"Nay....we shall not. You said riders, yes?"

Perrin nodded.

"Then we stand firm here. Running would only stretch our group thin and make any sort of defense impossible."

A large man with vast shoulders and heavily calloused hands snorted at that. "Either way our defense is impossible, old man. I have but twenty-six with me who have any sort of combat experience, and our weapons are ill-fit for woman's work, much less battle."

Arliss spun 'round on him, flushed with more anger than the comment warranted. "And what would you have us do, McDougil? Run ourselves ragged from an enemy who can catch us anyway? Better that we stand and fight, or even piss on them in defiance than that!"

McDougil paused, and his normally stony face actually softened half a shade as a hint of a smile flickered onto his features. "Such language for a Priest, Father Castillar."

Arliss bowed his head, shamed into silence by the rebuke.

"But I agree. We'll make ready here. Pass out the weapons and at least take a few with us." He unhooked the signal horn from his belt and blew two short blasts in quick succession to call his men to him.

More lightning flared when he did so, immediately followed by that menacing thunder.

Twenty-Six men, armed with spears improvised from pitchforks, and sometimes even less likely weapons.

Yet they stood their ground with stoic bravery as the riders crested the slight rise and began down toward them.

A cheer went up from the refugees huddled behind the line of defenders.

The riders were human.

Better still, they bore the Imperial Crest.

Regulars.

A hard thing to find these days.

They approached slowly, and as they drew closer, the refugees began to see why.

Many were badly injured, including many of the horses.

Arliss winced and wondered how many men had started out in this company. At present, he counted fifty-eight.

As they approached the battle line, the leader of the group held up a hand, halting the horse behind him. "Who leads you?" He asked in a firm, clear voice, devoid of pain, fear, or despair (surprising, considering the gash in the breastplate of his armor which had cleaved the Imperial Eagle neatly in two, and the all-too-wet sheen of blood around it).

"I do...Father Arliss Castillar." The Priest said, walking out in front of the battle line and extending a hand.

The cavalryman took it, and the fear in Arliss' heart grew.

The man was quite pale, and his hand clammy.

That he was able to even remain in his saddle was a tribute to his strength and determination.

"I have lost a great many men in the past fortnight." The cavalryman told him simply. "My unit was cut off from the main body of the reserve legion....we...we tried for two days to fight our way back to Kehesh, but there were too many....there were just too many...." Professional soldier or no, he could not keep the emotion out of his voice, nor the tears from his eyes.

Arliss gripped his forearm in a gesture of comfort common to the men of the military. "So Kehesh has fallen then?"

"Aye....it has." The soldier let out a heavy sigh and shook his head. "We made for the Capitol with a mind to regroup, but it was all in chaos. No unit commander to report to...no organization...nothing. I tried to rally the citizens....the odd deserter that happened by, but it was no use.....so I led the men away....Ravanna is gone....she's gone."

The silence that followed those last words was extreme, and yet, Arliss knew they could not remain where they were. If Kehesh had fallen, then the Nilrogg would continue westward unopposed. He made some quick mental calculations. Their supplies were stretched thin as it was. Medicines were scarcest of all, and yet....how could he turn these men away?

"What is your name, soldier?" He asked, breaking the silence at last.

"Duncan....Captain Duncan Fury, of the Fourteenth Imperial Cavalry, or....what's left of it."

He nodded to McDougil. "Take your men, help get these riders off their mounts....clean them up, and see to their wounds as best you can."

"But sir, we have scarce enough medicines for...."

Arliss silenced him with a hiss. "Damn you to the Eternal Fires if you do not do as I say man! Help them, and help them now!"

McDougil gave the signal, and his defenders moved forward to assist the cavalrymen.

"We'd be honored to have you travel with us, though I know not how long any of us will live."

Duncan nodded weakly. Having finally arrived at something resembling a safe haven, his strength seemed to be fading. "Th...than...k...."

He never even finished saying it, slumping forward and falling off his mount, and into Arliss Castillar's arms.

OoO

Two Weeks Later

"Get that wagon unstuck McDougil...what, do you want the Nilroggi nipping at your arse before sunset?" Duncan barked from horseback, and McDougil glared.

Until the damned cavalryman came along, he had been responsible for the safety and well-being of the refugees....now he was...a grunt.

At best.

He threw his shoulder against the frame of the wagon and gave a mighty heave.

Slowly….stubbornly, it yielded from the pit of muck it had gotten stuck in.

He cursed under his breath and threw himself at it all the harder....finding a practical use for his simmering anger.

With a loud sucking noise followed by an almost prim-sounding "pop!" the wheel came free, and rolled forward onto more-or-less dry ground.

"Try not to do that again." He told the driver, punctuating his words with a withering glance.

The driver would not meet the larger man's eyes, and meekly climbed back onto the wagon.

"Duncan, a progress report, if you please." Arliss called out as he shambled wearily forward. Four straight days of rain had really set them back, and his aging bones were aching from too much exposure to the wet, miserable weather.

"Well, now that the rains have let up, I expect we'll be back to a faster clip."

"From half a league a day or less to a full league then, eh?"

Duncan laughed. "Aye...I fear it's not top speed, but not bad considering what we've got."

Arliss shook his head. "Duncan....your optimism is infectious, but I daresay you know full well that a pack of old crones with a hundred pounds of rocks upon their backs could likely outpace us."

"It has been so these last days, yes." The cavalryman said with a good-natured laugh. "But I think we'll be making better time now."

"How's the wound?"

Duncan put his hand almost protectively to his chest at the mention of it. "Your Clerics did their healing work well, Father Castillar....I thank you for that."

"But?"

"This cursed rain makes it throb...reminds me of how close I came to death's door."

The Priest nodded. "That you did. In fact, you ought not be out here on your horse giving orders even now."

"True enough...and how long has it been since you last slept?"

"Gods' truth, I honestly don't remember....too long I'd hazard."

"And you'd be right then....you must let the younger men carry more of the load, Father."

"Indeed....and what sort of example would that make? Me, sitting around on my arse all the day long like that damnable lout of a man calling himself Lord Jacob Mourngrym? No thank you....we lead by example, or not at all."

"Your words ring true, my friend....and, you answered your own question as to why I am out here now when I ought to be in one of the sick wagons.....times are...."

"Desperate?"

"And yet, somehow even that word seems understated."

"It does indeed, Captain....it does indeed."

A moment of comfortable silence passed between them.

"So, how goes things between you and our former Guardian, McDougil?"

Duncan shook his head sadly. "I fear he resents me and mine, sir....we displaced him."

"Yes, and you also very nearly tripled our number of available fighting men."

"I think not." Duncan replied. "Many of my men will never fight again....such wounds...." He fought off a shiver.

"Come now man....you can't honestly tell me that if the Nilroggi descended here and now, you believe in your heart that even one of your men would remain in bed."

"They would not, 'tis true....but as to fighting like they used to....I think many of your women-folk would fare better than they."

"Well...let us hope it doesn't come to that."

"Aye....two more days and we'll reach the shore of Loch Laern....and thence, to the lands of the Harradis, if they'll have us."

"They had better...after all, something tells me that the Nilrogg won't stop just because the Harradis have a few border pickets out."

"Something tells me you're right." Duncan said with a knowing, meaningful look.

"You're an uncommonly brave man, Captain Fury."

The cavalryman looked uncomfortable with such praise. "Nay, Father....'tis the least we could do....many of my men would have died in their saddles had you not taken us in."

"Still....with your horses, you could have reached the Harradis by now...ridden on ahead of us the moment you were well enough."

"And what would that make me then? I cannot abandon my friends....I will not."

"Well, I think it's safe to say that everyone in our ragged band is glad for your presence....even McDougil, though he'd probably swallow burning pitch, rather than admit it."

That remark drew a chuckle from Duncan. "Aye....I imagine he would." He paused a moment as a small knot of men in brown robes walked past, talking in quiet, guarded tones and occasionally casting glances over at Arliss and Duncan. "The new arrivals...." He said softly.

"What of them?"

Two nights past, another smallish band of refugees caught up with them in the storm, and, seeking safety in numbers, Arliss' band embraced them and their rather abundant supplies.

"I'm not sure....the eight monks with them are...very odd. They keep too much to themselves for my liking."

"Well....monks tend to be that way my friend, though I confess that I've not had the pleasure of meeting them personally yet, I am rather curious though...I'd like to know what order they're from, and if they have any news of the churches and temples eastward."

"You still hold out hope that the temples were spared? Even after all I've told you? All the things I've seen with my own eyes?"

"We must have hope, Duncan. If not that, then what in the name of the HighFather is left for us to cling to?"

"I admire and respect your faith, Father....but it has helped us not at all against the Nilroggi." He patted his sword meaningfully. "I'll cling to this...even if it's not helped us as much as I'd like...at least we've taken a few with us."

More silence, and then Arliss sighed heavily and bowed his head. "I am....so tired."

"I know, my friend....I know. Go rest a while. You've led by example enough for one day....even the gods rested, you know?"

"Tis true...but then the gods never had to worry over being gutted in their sleep by marauding Nilroggi.....still, you're right....as tired as I am, even my faith grows thin."

"Sleep then, friend....and I shall post a guard to make sure you're not disturbed."

Arliss nodded. "You're a good man, Duncan Fury. If we live through this, I shall see you knighted. You have my oath on it."

"The oath of a Priest." Duncan said, impressed and smiling sheepishly. "Then how can I refuse?"

"You cannot...and even if you did it would do no good....now if you please, kindly find that guard and let an old man rest a bit?" Arliss said with a slight, tired chuckle.

"Of course, and Arliss?"

The old man stopped and half turned around.

"Dream of better times....dream them for all of us, so that we will never forget that life was not always....like this."

"Aye.....I will."

OoO

The vote was held in secret, only three days after the Gypsy Caravan joined them. Well away from the likes of Arliss and Duncan, and even from Jacob Mourngrym, who had been sympathetic to their plight.

On the run and desperate, many of the refugees had begun to feel....utterly helpless. In time, as the leagues bore down on them and began fraying their nerves, that feeling led to frustration….desperation. They admired and respected Arliss for his tireless leadership, and respected Duncan Fury's courage and willingness to stand by them, risking his own life and the lives of his men to provide them at least some security, when all knew they could have easily ridden on and left them to their own devices.

But there was something about the arrival of the free-spirited gypsy folk that ignited a spark in the hearts and minds of the commoners who had banded together on their terrifying, exhausting journey. They Gypsy Lord, a young, charismatic man named Armando had started talking about taking a measure of control over their lives and their destinies...about not being led blindly by the same group of men who had gotten them into this predicament to begin with.

And there was a measure of truth to that. Oh, to be sure, neither Arliss Castillar nor Duncan Fury had been directly responsible for causing their current troubles, but they represented the archetype. The sort of leadership common in the Empire that was now crumbling apart under the relentless onslaught of the Nilroggi Horde. The sort of leadership then, that had brought ruin to everything good and stable they had ever known. So while there was certainly no resentment toward the men who led them now, it was widely held that "their kind" were to blame for the current chaos and bloodshed swirling around them.

With all that pent up desperation lurking not far beneath the surface, it was no wonder that talk of taking a measure of control of one's own destiny held a certain appeal to it. So, the common folk met one night in secret to elect a council.

Seven souls drawn from their own ranks....seven men and women who would be their voice and give them a measure of control....even if it was but the tiniest shred.

When you've got nothing, even a shred can seem like a glorious bounty, and so attendance at the meeting that night was high, and seven were chosen from among their ranks.

Not surprisingly, Armando the Wanderer was among the first chosen, but there were others as well. Farmers. Shepherds. Craftsmen. Even their former protector, T. McDougil (though he would never reveal to them just what the "T" stood for). More surprising still when the charismatic Armando approached him with a plan to see that he was made Headman of the Council.

"I would be honored to have the job, of course." Armando told him quietly. "But you see, I fear that my words would not have as much weight....given that I am but a Gypsy, and oft regarded by your people as an inferior class of man for it....but you....you once bore the entire burden of defending us from our enemies....your voice would have great weight indeed."

McDougil had been honored...flattered by that. He listened with rapt attention as Armando told him how Lord Jacob, of the House of Mourngrym had recently bought a number of their fine Gypsy steeds, and that now, Armando and his Gypsies were quite flush with cash....the lure of gold was a strong one, and he could easily be persuaded to use some of his newfound wealth to sway the hearts and minds of the others on the council in exchange for....future considerations."

And McDougil readily agreed. Here was his chance! His opportunity to get back what was once his! A place of respect among the group. A place taken from him with the arrival of that damned cavalryman and Arliss' all-too-ready friendship with him.

Once again his stony features softened slightly, but this time the ghost of a smile on his face was anything but pleasant. "Oh yes...." He whispered softly to himself as he strolled some distance from the assembly. "You pompous arses of men cast me aside like garbage at the first chance you got....but the people have spoken, and I am their voice now. I have all the power you tried to rob me, and more...."

He closed his eyes and listened to the night sounds for a moment. "...and more...."

OoO

Late in the night, Armando came to the tent of Lord Jacob Mourngrym and told him all that had transpired.

"...and, you are sure about the pickets?"

"Quite." Armando assured him.

"Then, if all goes well, a great many of our problems will soon be solved....if I know McDougil, and I assure you my lad that I do....I know his type all too well, his puffed up ego and over-inflated sense of self-worth will soon lead to confrontation, which will cause delays, and the Nilrogg picket will use the opportunity to attack."

Armando looked suddenly pained at having been reminded of the true purpose behind all the machinations of late. "Yes....but I do hope you're right about the outcome of it all....a great many lives could be lost."

"Young man," Mourngrym chided in a syrupy, condescending tone. "You don't get to be as rich as I am by being wrong....you will see. Watch and learn."

Armando shook his head and wandered back to his tent...to his own kind. And he left Mourngrym's presence feeling...vaguely corrupted.

He did not sleep very well that night, or the night after.

OoO

Three Nights Later

Twenty-Six ill-armed men strode to the makeshift hospital (four wagons drawn together in a square), their faces set hard, determined.

When they arrived at the guards (one of Fury's men), McDougil shoved him in the chest hard enough to knock him down, disarmed him, and then dragged him into the center of the wagons before the surprised man could even react.

One of the nurses in attendance let out a surprised squeal and started running out of the makeshift hospital.

"Grab her." McDougil said almost nonchalantly, and one of his men obeyed with glee, pulling the young woman roughly back into the center of the makeshift compound by her hair, and then shoving her roughly to the ground.

"What is the meaning of this?" The Chief Surgeon asked sharply as he stepped out of one of the wagons, hands and smock covered with the blood of the numerous wounded among them.

"The meaning, Deacon Briggs," McDougil said with a sneer, "Is that we've grown quite tired of being led 'round by the nose like mindless children by the likes of that mercenary Cavalryman and Father Castillar. The people have spoken....they have elected a council to lead them and make their wishes known. They are tired and wish to remain here for two additional days to rest."

The Deacon/Surgeon opened his mouth to speak, but then closed it when he suddenly realized he had not the slightest notion of what he might say.

Two more abortive tries later, he closed his mouth and kept it that way.

All the better, McDougil thought sourly. He was beginning to look like a land-trapped fish, gasping his last breath.

From inside one of the wagons came the frantic three blast call of a battle horn. Apparently, one of Captain Fury's cavalrymen was inside, and discerned what was happening. Tried to use the distress call to summon help.

Good. That was very good indeed.

"Lieutenant Fisk, secure that wagon....assign men to secure all the wagons. I want all of Captain Fury's men out here on the ground where I can see them."

The young, nervous-looking Lieutenant gave a sloppy salute and began giving orders to the men.

Sloppy salute or no, within moments, all sixteen of the wounded cavalrymen who were still at the hospital under the care of the clerics were tossed roughly onto the ground at the center of the wagons.

McDougil scanned all around, wondering from which direction he would come.

He did not have to wait long to find out.

Less than a minute later, there was a loud commotion northward.

Seconds after that, Captain Fury and three of his men stepped between the hitches of one of the wagons and made their way into the center. "McDougil...." He said in a low, even tone.

"Come to parlay on behalf of Father Castillar, have you?"

"Parlay? I was under the assumption we were not at war.....you will release my men, and then we will talk...as men."

"Pah!" McDougil spat at the cavalryman's feet. "When you came you cast me aside as though I were refuse meant for the hog's trough...and now....now that I have you at a disadvantage you wish to talk as men?!"

"McDougil...think about what you are saying for a moment....I have only three men with me, that is true...but even not counting the ones you hold here, my men outnumber yours, and are better trained to fight....if I chose to, I could order them to attack and be done with you....that I have not should convince you of my sincerity....my desire to see that no one gets hurt."

Just then there was another small commotion and Father Castillar came through behind the Captain. "Damn you, McDougil! Damn you and yours! As if we do not have enough problems, what with the Nilroggi out there J'honsa knows how close, and yet you must threaten us all with your petty squabbling!"

"'tis not petty, nor is it squabbling!" McDougil shouted. "You men of power and rank drive us like cattle to the slaughter without once stopping to think of our women and children! They are weary from the endless days of marching, and for what??! We are still so far from the Harradis, and we know not if they will have us!"

"If we are pushing hard, you fool, it is to drive us all away from the slaughter of which you speak! Do you not see that!? Are you so blind?"

"It is you who are blinded, Father. Blinded by the blanket of safety you feel because you have a ragged handful of Imperial Deserters at your side offering their "protection." I ask you, just how much did they protect fair Ravana?!"

At the word "deserters" Duncan had heard quite enough. Weakened and injured or no, he drew his blade and took two menacing steps forward. "You foolhardy bastard, how dare you speak of my men in that manner! We bled and died on the fields south of Kehesh for you! You have no idea what you're saying and you are so blinded by your hatred and anger at me that you risk all our lives! If it is me you want so badly, then draw, damn you....Draw and fight!"

McDougil shook his head. "I think not, Capitan. I know that you, even weakened, could best me in a contest of arms....that is precisely why such desperate action as this was needed! We had to get your attention in the only way we knew how!"

Arliss threw up his hands in disgust. "All right...all right, McDougil....you have our attention. In fact, I think it's safe to say that you now have our complete and undivided attention, so tell us....what is it that you want, exactly?"

Something very strange happened then. When suddenly face to face with exactly what he wanted, he was unsure how to proceed. Suddenly, he felt very much like a boor and a bully.

Suddenly, he knew that feeling was right on target.

"I...well I...er, that is...we....are tired."

"Yes! As the HighFather is my witness McDougil, I'll tell you that we're all tired. You did not need to mistreat our injured just to tell us that!"

"Yes but....our women and children....especially our women who are nursing children....they've not had proper rations in days, and it's taking its toll....they need full rations and at least two days rest or they cannot continue. We'll start losing people!"

"Don't you see, McDougil? Do you not realize that if we remain still for two solid days the Nilroggi could very well be upon us and we'll lose all present? That is what we are trying to avoid! We were forced to go on half rations to conserve what food stocks we have until we can make the Loch and...."

"Yes yes, and spend time fishing it on the way 'round....I know that...but we're not yet there, and our need is immediate. It simply cannot wait!"

In the silence that followed, he added. "The People have spoken Arliss....I know it pains you that they did not speak through you, but rather, chose to speak through me."

Arliss glared at him. "So you then....you are elected speaker for the People?"

"Yes. The Council of Seven, with me at its head."

"And you would supplant the Church as their shepherd?"

"If the shepherd leads them into the jaws of the wolf, or arranges it such that the weak are left to the wolf's mercy, then yes....yes I would."

Arliss nodded and scratched his stubbly chin.

"Well then...it seems we have no choice. Even though it will deplete our food stocks, I will release sufficient amounts to give your women and children one day's full rations, but it's right back on half after that and until we get to the Loch, understood?"

"And two days rest here?"

"One day's rest. If we make it two, we'll run out of food entire even at half rations before we make the shores of the Loch."

"One."

"Yes, one. Now what else?"

"I....nothing. That's....that's all. Our business is finished."

Duncan's eyes narrowed. "Your business with the Priest may be finished, McDougil, but I assure you that it's not finished with me. You will release my men, and you will release them now, or your deal with Father Castillar will be voided when I gut you where you stand."

McDougil did not back down, or even flinch. Arliss had to admit that the man was brave....or stupid...or something.

"The prisoners will remain in my custody until we break camp to move out again, Captain. They are my insurance against our agreement not being met."

Duncan was about to say something further, but Arliss grabbed his arm and gave him a meaningful glance, and then gazed at some point beyond the wagons.

The cavalryman nodded and began moving off with him, away from the hospital wagons.

Just before they were out of sight, he looked over his shoulder. "This is not finished McDougil....you have to realize that."

And from the shadows not far off, Jacob Mourngrym watched, a satisfied smile on his face.

OoO

The attack came just before noon meal the next day, and as with most Nilroggi attacks, it came utterly without warning or fanfare.

One moment the camp was bustling with activity, and the next, the sounds of terrified screams filled the air as twenty of the foul creatures burst into the camp, running on two of their legs and two of their arms as they were wont to do when in the open, leaving their remaining two arms free to wield those awful hollow blades.

What manner of ochre grew or was placed inside them none were sure, but whatever it touched, it began to dissolve, leaving behind some of the most horrific wounds imaginable.

It ate through solid steel, through helms and armor....through wood and leather....and of course, through flesh.

It was very, very good at eating through flesh.

And so they came...low to the ground and scuttling like lighting through the perimeter of the camp, some bearing torches and igniting anything that would burn, others (the ones at the head of the attack wedge) wielding those awful swords.

Four men and two women died within the first seconds of the attack, and then, the entire camp was in a mad panic.

Duncan was some fifty yards off from their point of entry into the camp, and the moment he saw them, blew three blasts from his horn.

From everywhere, his men began to rally.

They had to form up...battle squares and handing off shields as fast as they got ruined was about the only effective way of fighting them....if you could stay protected from the acid, or whatever it was that came out of those blasted swords they used, you could generally cut them down....they were strong, yes...stronger than a man by nearly thrice, but not particularly adept at swordplay, where physical strength mattered less than skill and speed.

"Battle squares!" He shouted. "Form up fast!"

And his men were, but not nearly fast enough. The Nilroggi were driving the panicked masses of refugees before them and causing a great deal of damage. If they didn't hurry, a great many would die today.

"Come on, damn your lazy hides" He yelled hoarsely at his troops. "Our vacation has come to and end...to battle! Forward...forward!"

Never mind that the battle squares were not yet completely formed, nor the spare shields close at hand. The time was now...risk or no.

Duncan led his men forward, drawing his blade as he moved.

OoO

"Sir! We've got to get you away from here!" Perrin shouted as he began pulling, tugging Arliss away from the sounds of the fighting.

"I will not leave my people!" Arliss shouted miserably, tears falling openly down his cheeks. "I will not!"

"You must, Father...you must!"

"Take him and go, boy." McDougil said sternly, striding forward with his contingent. "We'll drive forward and keep them busy....get him out of here."

McDougil's eyes met the Priest's and held his gaze for a long moment.

"I am sorry." He said sadly.

Arliss nodded, and then allowed himself to be pulled away by a very frightened young man.

"Men...to battle!" McDougil shouted lustily as he led his ill-armed men forward.

With no shields.

OoO

"God's Teeth, Captain, will you take a look at that?" One of Duncan's Lieutenants said in awe.

"I'm...." He replied as he hacked off the forearm of a Nilrogg who got a bit too close. "A bit...." Stabbed the armless-one in the chest, and smoothly reached behind him to grab another shield, since the one he was holding was quickly dissolving to nothing. "Busy at the moment, Lieutenant." Another Nilrogg beheaded with a grunt...and quite neatly at that. "Would you mind telling me what else needs my attention just this second?"

"Oh....nothing save for that damned fool McDougil charging six of them...shieldless."

"Whaaat?"

He blocked another blow and chanced a glance.

Sure enough.

The fool had no idea what kind of hell he was about to commit his men to.

"Lieutenant....you take charge here." He pointed at another square. "And you men...with me, now!" and he began running full tilt toward the looming clash between six Nilroggi and twenty-six unarmored, unshielded men who didn't know any better.

OoO

They learned that first, hard lesson very quickly though.

Thinking they could block those clunky Nilroggi swords with their spears, they charged forward eagerly enough, only to find a fine mist of something sticky and greenish-brown washing over the men in front.

The greenish-brown stuff quickly took on a darker, deeper, reddish hue that look an eerie amount like blood.

And then the screaming started.

His own, eager men, suddenly screaming in pain and terror, dropping their weapons entirely and grabbing at their faces, trying to wipe the stuff away.

All it accomplished though, was to spread it onto their hands, which also began to bleed.

McDougil watched in horror...unable to...well, unable to do much of anything. They were a hideous race. Blocky and rock-like in their construction and yet amazingly agile. Their mandibles gave them a decidedly insectoid appearance, although that brownish, rocky coloring and texture made them look anything but.

And as he watched, he discovered that those mandibles made formidable weapons in their own right....one of his screaming men was picked up by all four of the creature's arms and held high...effortlessly.

And then gutted with one swift click of the creature's jaws.

That's when McDougil realized they were one man closer to reaching him.

"Men...f....fall back! Fall back now, damn you!" He shouted.

But it was too late for two of his other men, and the shape of the creature's battle wedge made it clear that there was only one way to run...back toward the wagons, and then no further....they would be herded there and slaughtered.

Suddenly his words to Arliss the day before came ringing back in his ears.

"Like cattle to the slaughter..." He heard in his mind as he ran for his life with the remainder of his men.

And that's just how it was turning out.

OoO

They reached the wagons and spun 'round. Having reached the end of their short flight from the creatures, all that remained was to wait for the end.

At least they would die facing it, though...that was....

"Die you rotting bastards!" Came a fierce voice from nowhere.

No...somewhere.

Just off to the left, and suddenly there was a Nilroggi arm lying on the ground, and then a head! Someone was....

McDougil looked up and winced...physically affected by the sight of who it was.

A small knot of Imperial Regulars, with Duncan Fury at their head, coming to his rescue.

"God's Teeth." He cursed.

Duncan spied him and nodded. "Equip your men with some of our shields and you'll not be as vulnerable to the spray!" He shouted. "Watch me...like this" Duck...block...strike...duck...switch shields...repeat.

McDougil watched and learned quickly. This was one sport with a very small margin for error and quite punishing to those who didn't catch on quick.

He thought he had it and hefted up a shield, motioning for his men to form up like Duncan's.

Together, the two men fought on, slowly beating them back.

OoO

When the last one fell, an eerie silence ruled the camp-turned-battleground.

And in that silence, the oddest sound, suddenly.

Clapping.

Applause.

Jacob Mourngrym stepped out from between two wagons, positively beaming. "A splendid performance, gentlemen! Absolutely splendid!"

Duncan and McDougil looked at each other, and then at the man coming toward him.

"Well don't you see? Your infighting was sure to get us all killed, but that's all fixed now....look at you! Standing shoulder to shoulder like blood brothers....in fact, you are blood brothers now...bathed in the blood of the enemy! And better still, your mindless games will no longer put us at risk."

It took a long moment for his words and the meaning behind them to sink in.

"You....you did this? But h...wh...." The words simply would not come.

"My dear boys....I did this to save us....you may not have realized it, but the tension between you was nearing critical mass....I simply created an opportunity to diffuse it so we could get on with the business of surviving."

Duncan threw his blade to the ground and stepped toward Jacob Mourngrym. "I lost at least four men today....McDougil lost at least half a dozen....J'honsa knows how many women and children were killed....and I....you....what sort of monster are you?"

"Not a monster, Captain Fury....a survivor." Mourngrym said with cold, calculating glint in his eye. "A survivor....and if you but open your eyes, you will see the necessity of what was done here today. It is not so different really, than Castillar's willingness to allow a few of his flock to fall by the way for lack of food to reach his precious Loch, is it?....I think not." He said with a sneer. "I think not."

Before anyone could say anything further, Mourngrym turned to go. "I trust we'll be heading out soon....I'd very like to reach the Loch before much longer....I hear the fishing is excellent this time of year, and that bodes very well for us indeed." He called out over his shoulder as he vanished from sight around the corner of one of the wagons.

Duncan shook his head, not sure whether to be saddened at the loss of life, angered, or flat-out amazed.

He looked at McDougil and gripped his forearm. "Brother...I have not forgotten your mistreatment of my men, and I can't say I like you....but I do respect you."

"And I you." McDougil said earnestly. "I owe you my life."

Silence for a moment, and the two turned to walk off together to see to the men.

"That man is easily the most dangerous person here....you realize that, don't you?" Duncan asked.

No answer was needed, and silence ruled the day as the tattered band tried to recover from yet another blow....

OoO

Once inside his main travel wagon, Jacob Mourngrym allowed himself the satisfaction of a genuine smile. His features didn't look nearly so reptilian, calculating, and cold when he allowed genuine emotion to show through (which was quite rare in public…he did have an image to protect, after all, and there was immense value in the fact that everyone regarded him as a heartless bastard…yes…that played very much to his advantage). Nonetheless, in the privacy of his own chambers, the smile was genuine, and it really had been a good day.

Oh, the others might not realize it just yet, but they would. They would come to understand that what was done today was done with the future in mind, and was it not the mark of a superior man to always think into the future?

That, more than any other reason, was why it would be him. Quite simply because he was a superior man. A man with the cunning, intelligence, and resources to implement his vision of the future over the ruins of the Empire.

Take Arliss Castillar, for example. A good man with a good heart. But neither that heart, nor his faith made him a superior man. That much was clear by the way he was leading the ragged band of refugees. They were so focused on their day-to-day survival that they could not see into the future. Could not plan ahead for the day when they stopped running, and that was the difference. That was what set him apart from the rest.

And with that difference came great responsibility to all the lesser men he found himself traveling with. He would build a new future for them with the power of his vision, and his ambition and drive to make it happen, and in return for being the architect of their future, there was nothing they wouldn't do for him.

His smile grew.

A good day indeed, and one step closer.

OoO

At the shores of Loch Laern - First Night

"I know what you are." Jacob Mourngrym told them simply, and the eight in Monk's robes shifted uncomfortably on the cushions their host had set out for them.

"We are simple Monks, m'lord." One of them said in a hushed tone.

"Oh, and your act is most convincing, I must say....more than enough to fool the common folk here, and perhaps even enough to get you past Arliss Castillar's sometimes-keen eye....that bit of talking in hushed and humble tones is a nice touch, but I fear you'll have to do far better than that with me."

An uncomfortable silence followed, and Mourngrym reveled in it.

"If the Priest finds out, he will banish us." The leader among them said quietly. "Or worse."

"Mmm...agreed. And there's nothing like a good old fashioned public stoning or flogging to distract the minds of the peasantry from their current misery....I'd say that if our good Shepherd found out the truth about you eight, you'd be in an uncommonly wretched predicament, yes?"

They nodded stiffly, as though fashioned of wood, not sure if the conversation unfolding before them was moving in a direction that would doom or save them, and Jacob Mourngrym gave no sign either way.

For his part, Jacob let the tension draw out for nearly two full minutes before he said, "Of course....at present I am the only one who knows the truth of the matter, and I am not much inclined to reveal that truth to those who lead us."

As a single body, The Eight slumped forward in relief, and Jacob allowed himself to smile. As with most of his business dealings, this one was proving far, far too easy.

"I have, in my possession, a certain tome that, despite my vast resources, I have been unable to pay to have deciphered....if we can reach some agreement and I get your assistance in the matter, perhaps I shall become thoroughly convinced of your status as Monks?"

When no reply was immediately forthcoming, he said, "Gentlemen?"

"Where is this tome?"

"Ahhh....so I have sparked an interest in you then! What Wizard can resist the lure of a good book? But no....I think it unwise to just hand it over to you, so I have had Scribes copy down some of the text from the first few pages of the work....that should give you ample material that you can tell me, at least in general terms what it contains....what it might be used for."

He snapped his fingers, and one of his Attendants brought forth a bundle of scrolls, and spread them at the feet of the Wizards.

They took them up carefully, unfurled them and read, passing them around and murmuring quietly amongst themselves.

A few moments later, the leader among them gasped in surprise. "It cannot be...." He whispered.

There were few reactions that could have evoked a more delighted gleam in Jacob's eyes.

The leader of the Order looked up, eyes burning with questions. "I...I will need time to look these scrolls over more closely to be certain, if I may take them with me?"

Jacob nodded. "And your early impression is...."

"The...these words....phrases lost for a thousand years and more....they could be from the lost Tome of Talesian...where did you come by it?"

Talesian....that made a fair amount of sense, as he had acquired the work from a merchant of the Harradis, and those people were well-known for their love of witchery. Talesian was a name, almost mythical to witches, warlocks, and seers. Among the first, and perhaps greatest Warlock that ever was. If their words were truth, then the tome he had carefully hidden away in the third of his private wagons, with its cracked and withered human-skin cover and strange runes and sigils that glowed in moonlight was almost certainly not a listing of the Warlock's favored recipes, or a detailed accounting of the women he had bedded in his day....no, more likely that it was, quite simply, a prize beyond compare....a source of wisdom, almost certainly, and perhaps a weapon of untold and unimaginable power.

But Jacob said nothing of this, nor let any part of it show in his face.

"That is no concern of yours." He said simply. "You may take those scrolls with you and retire. Report back to me when you have deciphered them completely and are more certain of your findings. And until then, gentlemen, rest assured that your secret is quite safe with me."

Visibly relieved and excited, The Eight rose from the floor of the Pavilion Tent where they had been seated before Mourngrym, and made haste back to their own quarters, where they would no doubt be up long into the night, carefully pouring over the tidbit Jacob had given them.

He smiled and steepled his fingers together. Ahhh yes. The here and now was truly his time.

The old Empire washed away in a sea of blood. The people scattered and frightened, and in need of new leadership.

Leadership he was uniquely positioned to provide.

Suddenly he saw in current developments, a means to expand the scope of his plan for their future. He could be the father of an entirely new kingdom.

Better still, he could be its undisputed Master….again, because he was a superior man, and it simply would be him. He owed it to those of lesser station….those who would ultimately serve him, and ohhhh the prospects for fortune and power.

For the second time in as many days, he smiled a genuine smile of delight.

OoO

"So how are you and yours?" Duncan asked the much larger man as he sat down and handed him a plate of fish and onion grass.

McDougil took it gratefully, and shoved an almost too-large chunk of steaming, grease-dripping fish into his mouth. Juices dribbled down his chin, but he did not care, scooping the fish up with gusto and abandon. "Delicious." He said as he swallowed the first bit. "Absolutely delicious, and I don't even care for fish all that much."

He slapped Duncan good-naturedly on the shoulder. "Thank you, my Brother....and as for me and mine...what can I say but that Arliss was right? The fishing here is exquisite, and all have eaten their fill and then some this night!"

The cavalryman nodded. "Good to hear, and though I know you wish we could remain here, you must know that we strike camp again at dawn."

McDougil nodded. "Aye, but that matters little. Given our rate of progress, it'll still take us days to round the Loch, and all that time, we can spend fishing and fattening ourselves up for the last leg of it....Ahh, and thank you for the horses, by the way! A fine plan indeed to send fishermen riding forward so they could spend more time increasing our catch! We may grow tired of the menu, but I daresay that if our luck holds where the catch is concerned, we'll have fish enough to last us all the way to the Harradis!"

"We just may, and it'd be a heartening thing for all." Duncan agreed. "As to the horses...we had scant need of them anyway....I kept my Roan to use for scouting, but things have been strangely quiet since we destroyed that picket."

"And thank the Earth Mother, and all the Holy Saints for it!" McDougil said in agreement.

He really wasn't that bad a fellow, Duncan realized. True, his was a markedly different perspective, but the more time he spend with McDougil, the more he realized that his earlier actions had been born of a good intent, even if their execution had been...less than admirable.

Still, as he got to know the man better, he found it impossible to hold a grudge. He was strong and able, and with Duncan's assistance and training, was becoming quite a good swordsman.

In fact, their camaraderie had grown to the point where Duncan had reassigned some of his men to McDougil's command, giving him an official field Promotion to Captain, while Arliss had decreed that he himself, would wear the title of "Marshal of the Forces of Ravanna." Such as they were.

All things considered then, he truly did not feel as though he could hold much of a grudge against Jacob Mourngrym, either. It was truer than true that he didn't care for his methods, and the fact of the matter was that simply being around the man made him feel unclean. But another fact was plain enough to see. They were better off for what had happened.

Strange world.

Strange world indeed.

Idly, Duncan packed his pipe and lit it, drawing the acrid smoke deep into his lungs, and then blowing out smoke rings, wondering at what sort of times these were, when a man as dangerous and self-serving as Jacob Mourngrym committed an atrocious, heinous act that nearly amounted to conspiring with the enemy, and yet, somehow managed to make things...better?

A deep mystery indeed.

OoO

"Why the long face, young Master?" Armando asked the lad with the glum expression as he stepped up to the shore of the loch to survey the sparkling waters.

The youth regarded him for a moment, and then turned his attention back to the waters, sighing heavily.

"Come now," Armando continued undaunted. "It can't be as bad as all that…this is the best we've had it in weeks."

"I miss my mum." The lad told him glumly, and when the boy-who-was-verging-on-manhood turned to face him again, he saw all too clearly the lines of pain and loss etched into the young man's face. "I miss my mum, my dad, and my brother."

"Was your brother in the Imperial Guard?"

A slight nod. "As was my father."

"What's your name, young Master?"

"Perrin."

"Ahh…you are one of Father Castillar's students."

"Yes….two more years."

Armando put his hand on the lad's shoulder. "I know you miss them, but you are here now…and they live on through you…that is among the beliefs of your kind, yes?"

Perrin nodded.

"So take a measure of comfort in that….and take care not let your blood soak into the ground here, Master Perrin…you are the banner of your family. You."

What could have been a ghost of a smile crossed the lad's lips for a moment…quickly eclipsed by the lines of pain and loss, but there nonetheless…at least for a fraction of a second. "So…Lord Armando of the Free Folk…you know much of the ways of my people…what of yours?"

Armando shook his head and practically beamed at the boy. "Few of your kind have much interest in our ways. We are relatively small in number, and often written off as thieves and vagabonds."

"We have nothing to steal, and besides that, your kind have been nothing but helpful…at least that I've seen."

"'tis so, Master Perrin….we are frequently misunderstood. But what would you know of our ways?"

"I…know nothing at all, and so do not quite know what to ask…anything you tell me will be fascinating though…that much, I am sure."

"You flatter me, young Master…and you have a diplomat's tongue. The day may come when it serves you well."

"I would rather learn to fight, but Father Castillar won't have it."

"And you should abide by his wishes. Father Castillar is wise…and fighting is not always the best way to resolve a conflict."

"The Nilroggi don't care much for diplomats." Perrin said softly.

And there was certainly no worthy reply to that. The lad was right as right could be.

There was a long moment of silence between them, and then Perrin sighed and smiled. "But perhaps you're right. The day may come when we don't have the threat of the Nilroggi looming over us, and then fighting won't be so much on everyone's mind."

"And that will be a fine day indeed, Master Perrin."

He nodded. "So…tell me of your language. Your art….Anything."

Now it was Armando's turn to smile. "You're genuinely interested, aren't you? What a refreshingly wonderful surprise." He was rarely at a loss for words, and was not now, but a young man's sudden, unexpected interest in him and his culture…a mind open to the new ideas his kind represented…it very nearly made him so. He enjoyed the feeling for a few lingering seconds before taking a deep breath and beginning to speak.

"Well, the first thing I should tell you about the Free Folk then, is our love of dance and song….we…"

They talked long into the night.

OoO

Loch Laern - Fourth Night

"It is as we suspected, My Lord Mourngrym." The leader of The Eight told him in an excited, whispered tone. "The book you carry with you is, in fact the Tome of Talesian....a work of unspeakable, unimaginable power...rumor holds that it contains all of The Master's most potent spells."

Mourngrym smiled and his eyes glittered like onyx caught in the sun's rays at those words.

"What must we do in order to obtain the work?"

And the businessman could see in the Wizard's eyes that no price would be too high. He took a deep breath and prepared to cinch the deal. "Let me tell you exactly what I want...."

OoO

Loch Laern - Twelfth Night

"This cursed moor is going to be the end of us!" Duncan said bitterly as he spat at the ground in frustration. "We spend half our time digging the wagons out of the muck, meanwhile, J'honsa-only-knows how much closer the Horde draws."

"It is so, Brother." McDougil said as he and the cavalryman threw themselves against the back of the most recent wagon to fall victim to the seemingly endless mire. "The land here is....so low that the water seems....over-eager to devour it."

"Aye...." Both men grunted with effort and finally, with an almost painful, exaggerated slowness, the wagon came free."

"God's Teeth, but that was harder than it should have been." McDougil panted.

Duncan slapped him on the shoulder. "Come, Brother....there is no rest for us yet...by now, surely at least three others that we unstuck before have become trapped again."

McDougil rolled his eyes and smiled a weary smile. "One thing's sure, Duncan....if the damnable Nilroggi find us shortly after these exertions, we'll be nearly as physically strong as they!"

Duncan nodded, and the two men trudged wearily forward, in look of another wagon in need of rescue.

OoO

"Our pace of late has been treacherously slow....surely there is something in that cursed tome that can help us?" Mourngrym snapped in irritation.

Now that he had The Eight firmly under his thumb, it was all too easy to guide their thinking without using his annual "favor" with them.

Ahhh yes. Victory in this case had been sweet indeed.

He knew the wizards coveted the book, but he never imagined they'd simply give in and agree to ALL his demands.

Their true names, which bound them to him and made it impossible for them to deceive him.

And an annual favor....anything his heart desired....passing to his ancestors in the form of a favor every ten-year. Yes....the here and now was truly his to command.

He smiled. Nothing like the heady intoxicant of power to soften one's mood.

"We have been attempting to master Talesian's Incantation of Long Leagues, yes...but our understanding of it is not perfect."

The words of the wizard brought him back to the moment, and he sneered. "Tell me then...what is your current understanding of the incantation?"

"Well...as we understand it, we can move everyone in our current company long distances with it, but it requires a level of finesse and control that we are uncertain if we, even collectively, can accomplish."

"Nonsense! You are learned men, all! If I didn't know better, I would think that you eight were somewhat eager to see the Nilroggi face to face!"

They blanched at that as one, and after a moment of reflection, the leader among them said simply. "We will try, m'lord Mourngrym."

"Yes....do that." He replied.

OoO

That night, something decidedly strange happened.

One minute, the band of refugees was half mired in the muck of the land south of the Loch, and the next, the world seemed to darken and spin, and they were...elsewhere.

Many of the common folk screamed in panic at the sensation, and sudden realization of their new surroundings, and what happened next was even stranger still.

The screams of those ragged voices were taken up by the wind and the strange acoustics of the place and magnified until it sounded like all the souls of the damned had been released at once, and in the same place. So loud it was, that the crashing sound literally brought hundreds to their knees. This sound too...the sound of men falling was taken up and magnified until it sounded like thunder.

It echoed and slammed through the hills around them for long minutes, and only reluctantly began to fade to silence.

"Mother of the Earth." Duncan whispered (noting that even his whispered voice seemed unnaturally loud here). "What has....happened to us?" He asked in a tone as hushed as he could manage.

"I know not, Brother....I know not." McDougil whispered in reply.

"What in the name of all the God...." Arliss asked in a thundering voice, cutting himself short when he realized what effect the hills around were having on his voice.

After a moment, when the hurricane of sound had died away, he tried again...this time, in a whisper. "What in the name of all the Gods' Angels is this witchery? How did we come here?!"

Duncan shrugged, and was about to say he did not know, when he spied the eight monks making their way hastily toward the wagons of Jacob Mourngrym.

OoO

Jacob felt like shouting to the heavens, but having seen the results of that, he decided against it. "You did what?!" He asked in a harsh whisper.

"Our understanding of the spell was incomplete, and our control over its effect was even less so...we estimate that we have traveled back the way we came by some forty leagues."

Mourngrym let that sink in for a moment. "You mean to tell me we have lost days....perhaps weeks of traveling because your incantation misfired?! Do you realize the danger we are now in?"

Just then, he heard the almost frantic call of a battle horn...three short blasts signifying immanent danger. Those sounds were taken up by the strange echoing nature of the place and made to sound so loud that he wondered if his eardrums might bleed and burst.

His eyes narrowed and he stuck his head out the back of his wagon, looking eastward and knowing before he did what he would see.

True, they were still far off, but now in sight.

Swarming over the ground like man-sized locusts, and their numbers were legion and beyond.

They stretched out as far as they eye could see.

Thousands.

And more.

The Horde was close.

And, having heard clearly the arrival of the refugees on the hilltop, they were coming.

They were coming.

OoO

"Cast it again you fools....and this time, send us in the proper direction!" Mourngrym hissed. "We shall all die here and very soon if you do not!"

"M'lord, we cannot....the spell has drained us to the point that it will take at least a day to recover."

"A day...." Mourngrym said softly. And in a day's time....he fought off a shiver and tried to put the image out of his head. It could not be! Now was his time! He would be the Master of a new Kingdom!

And yet, the Nilroggi approached, and swiftly at that.

Too swiftly.

Just then, the curtain of his wagon parted, and Arliss Castillar entered without knocking, followed immediately by Duncan Fury and McDougil. To say that Arliss looked displeased was....understatement at its finest.

"Duncan." He hissed. "I order you to take these men into custody at once!"

Duncan put his hand on his sword and took a step forward.

Jacob Mourngrym stepped in front of the Wizards. "No...I will not allow this, Arliss Castillar."

"You have no choice in the matter! The course is clear. These men are practicing the Dark Art, and they will be put to death by public stoning or I am not a Priest!"

"Father....Arliss....have you not taken note of what lies just east of here outside these wagon walls? With all that's approaching us, it would seem you have greater worries than stoning these eight men, though if you think it will save us from the approaching Nilroggi, by all means, have at them."

"I fear he is right, friend." Duncan whispered softly. "I know what they have done is an affront to the HighFather, and I agree they must be punished for it, but at present, if we are to survive, then you must leave.....Now."

You must leave.

Those words stung like fire on his soul.

You.

Not us.

Specifically not "us."

He turned to face the cavalryman, now Marshal of their forces. "You mean to delay them as best you can while we make our escape."

Duncan nodded slowly. "Aye."

"No friend...there must be some other way....even with ten times the men in your company....even with a hundred times, you would simply be washed away."

"Look into your heart, Father...you know there is no other way. If some of us die so that more may live, then we must....."

He let the words hang in the air for a long moment.

"We must try." Duncan said again.

Finally, painfully and blinking back tears, Arliss gripped the cavalryman's forearms and nodded. "You are as a son to me....you know that, yes?"

Duncan nodded.

"Go....go before I change my mind on it."

Wordlessly, Duncan left the wagon, with McDougil right behind him.

Arliss wiped his tears away and turned back to Mourngrym and the wizards. "This is not finished. And when those men die, their blood will be on your hands! If we survive this flight, I'll see you all burn for it!"

Without bothering to wait for a reply, the Priest spun and made haste from the wagon, leaving no doubt in the minds of the men still inside that he meant every word he had spoken.

OoO

Half an Hour Later

"Okay, we've sketched out the beginnings of a plan." Duncan whispered. "Lead the wagons off now, due west, and make a production of it."

Arliss was about to open his mouth to say something, but Duncan held up a hand. "As soon as you're out of their sight, come about and strike due south, staying behind the hills and ridgelines so they cannot see where you have gone. Make for the coast, and thence westward to the Harradis. We can use the nature of this place to our advantage and make our numbers sound greater than they are. I'll break the men into three groups and we'll each take turns having a go at them from horseback...the damned fools never did learn how to effectively deal with a cavalry charge, and broken up as we'll be, we can hit them day and night, which will further the illusion of greater number."

Arliss again opened his mouth to speak, but could not bear to voice the awful words in his heart. "This is madness." He whispered at last. "It is madness and you know full well."

Duncan nodded. "Believe me, Father....I have no wish to die, so if you can come up with a better plan in the next span of minutes, then I would be happy to hear it....otherwise, your people....your flock needs you. They need you to lead them away from this...." Though he did not say the word 'slaughter,' Arliss heard it all too clearly in his mind and winced away from it.

He nodded one final time and hugged the cavalryman fiercely. "Fight bravely....my son."

"Aye.....I will." Came Duncan's emotion-laden reply.

The two men held each other's gaze for a long moment, and then Arliss tore himself away and made for the wagons.

There was work to do if any were to be saved.

OoO

"Sir! Armando and the Gypsy Contingent reporting for duty!" The cheery, brightly dressed Freeman said with a curt salute.

"Are you so ready to die, Master Armando?" Duncan asked him as he strode toward his men.

"We all die, sir....it is a question of how, and with what dignity."

That brought Duncan up short and he turned to study the young man more closely. "You are the leader of the Free-Folk, are you not?"

"When they have need of leadership, I provide it, yes."

"And if you die here, with us, what then?"

"Then one of my wives will take my place." He said simply. "The Free-Folk will continue....it is our way."

Duncan nodded. "And how many men to you bring with you?"

"Twenty-two...riders all, on some of the finest steeds you'll ever see." Armando said proudly.

"Steeds we need. We're many short if we're all going to go at them from horseback. Have you any extra?"

"Eleven not currently accounted for. I shall have them brought at once."

"And the nine he sold me." Mourngrym said, striding forward. "If you have need of them, Commander, they are yours."

Duncan met Mourngrym's eyes for a lingering moment, waiting to see if there would be any strings attached to the offer. When none was immediately forthcoming, he nodded. "We need them, and I accept your offer."

Jacob nodded. "I'll bring them out to you personally...and Commander?"

"Yes?"

"Good luck and Godspeed to you. I fear you will need every blessing the Saints can provide."

"Aye." Duncan murmured, feeling suddenly very tired. "Aye."

OoO

"How many men have we, in all?" Duncan asked, not really wanting to hear whatever pitiful number it might be, but knowing it was his duty.

"One hundred fifty-two, counting the volunteers who recently signed on."

"And horses?"

"One hundred sixty, exactly....granted, many of them were taken from wagon hitches, but they're what we've got."

Duncan nodded. One hundred fifty-two men, and unless his eyes deceived him, there were more than a hundred thousand Nilrogg approaching, probably closer to double that if he included the ones not yet in sight.

He sighed heavily.

"All right...here's how we're going to do this....we take shifts, each company operating eight hours at a stretch....that's a full day's work on, but sixteen hours to rest and prepare....on horseback, we are faster than they, and with the blankets co-opted from the wagon trains, we can cover the leggings of our mounts and our own arms....granted, it's scant protection, but we lack proper armor, and the time to fashion any...not that it would hold up much better to the spray from their cursed swords."

The men were stock-still, waiting for him to continue.

"The goal is to buy our women and children time to escape....make no mistake about this...we cannot defeat the forces approaching." As if you needed to tell them that, he thought sourly. "We ride in hard and fast, hit them once, come about and vanish into the hills. Understood?"

Nods of agreement all around.

"No one is to take any unnecessary risks....one strike...one charge, and you flee. There is no glory in this fight....only death. It is only a matter of time until they surround us, and we will let them....we draw them westward and north, letting them chase us...letting them surround us...the Nilroggi only attack what they see, and as long as Father Castillar heeds my advice and keeps to the western side of the ridgelines, they should not spot his group at all and they can make safe to the Harradis."

Another moment of silence.

"Join hands men....let us bow our heads a moment and pray....it will likely be the last chance we have."

As one, they did.

OoO

Somewhere South of Thunder Hill

"What is it, Mistress?" One of her Handmaidens asked, concerned when the Enchantress stopped, and went suddenly pale.

She waved her Lady in Waiting into silence. "I know not yet...but I shall."

She glanced behind her briefly, and drew strength from the ragged band of refugees she was leading away from the Southlands. Something....some form of magic had briefly lit up her senses. It was known that the Nilroggi understood not the Eldritch Ways, which meant....

She dared not hope. Could it be that there were others of the Art close at hand? The power they wielded was immense, and yet they were clumsy with it. It mystified her.

Slowly, Lady Dierdranna held up her moon crystal and willed a portion of its essence into the night sky. "Go, little one." She whispered. "Show me what awaits us northward."

She closed her eyes as the tiny firefly of golden light shot off into the night. It would serve as her eyes over the long distances she needed to survey.

The ground fell away in a rush, and she was made dizzy by the suddenness of it.

Two of her Handmaidens reached out and steadied her and she watched the world unfold from hundreds of feet in the air.

For nearly ten minutes and twenty she saw nothing out of the ordinary, and then....wagons.

In a column.

The band of refugees easily dwarfed her own small train. They must have been travelling quite some time to have picked up such a host.

And they were hurrying.

She could tell that much even at this great distance and altitude. Tell it in the frantic way the drovers moved about...the skittish way they looked Eastward.

She didn't blame them. The Nilroggi must be close, but that they seemed so concerned over it must be a sign that they were closer than she feared.

Brow furrowed, she willed the tiny globe of light past them and eastward. Marking their position so she could return instantly to that spot once she was done with her scouting.

It did not take long to locate the source of their fear.

Nilroggi.

And if not the whole host of them, then very nearly so.

Her heart shuddered.

The way north was blocked then.

She was about to leave them and return to the refugees when something about the bearing of the Nilroggi host drew her attention.

They were not making for the refugees, so they obviously knew not where they were.

It spoke of a deeper mystery to her.

Whatever held their attention drew them due west and slightly northward, not west and south.

Perhaps the leader of this large band would know more, and at that moment, she made up her mind to go to them and find out.

Letting the sight fall away, she turned to her followers, casting out the Incantation of the Whispering Wind as she spoke so that her voice would carry to all with her.

"Companions....the way to the North is blocked....Nilroggi approach from that direction. We must turn westward now and make for the Harradis, in hopes that we are far enough north to satisfy the Governor of Goroda."

"But Mistress, the Governor as much as said that if we..."

"I am well aware of the Governor's threat, Lady Ashlynn....but with such a horde of Nilrogg as I have seen fast approaching, we dare not risk traveling further north. We must strike a new course away from them, and continue toward the Harradis. Given my rank and station, they will surely let us pass, and we will at last find safety."

The crowd nodded. Satisfied, and trusting their Lady.

"We shall camp here this night, and make westward at dawn. I go now to meet with the leader of a much larger band of refugees that my sight revealed to me, in hopes of gathering more information to improve our chances." As always, she added. "If I am not back by dawn, you will begin the day's journey without me."

Without waiting for a response from them, and knowing they would abide by her wishes, she willed a new spell forth from her, and in a flash of light, she was gone.

OoO

Thunder Hill

"There's something you said earlier that I've been meaning to ask you about, Master Armando....you said one of your wives?" McDougil asked, amazed.

Armando nodded. "It is so, McDougil....our ways are quite different from yours, in that and many other things."

"How many....how many wives have you then?" He asked in a mixture of amazement and curiosity.

"Five, though only three are with me at present. Two are leading another band of Free-Folk somewhere north of here."

"Five...." McDougil whispered, with a curious grin on his face, as he continued to shred blankets and linens with his hunting knife, making them into longish strips with which to wrap their arms when their time came to ride. "Five...."

OoO

Somewhere north and east of Thunder Hill

The sound was unmistakable. That curious scrabbling noise that the Nilroggi made as they scuttled over the earth. Greatly magnified by both the proximity to those curious hills, and by the sheer number of approaching creatures.

"Steady men....steady." Duncan whispered, having no fear that his words would not be clearly heard by his small company. "Hold the line and ride hard on my command....stay together, and hit them as a solid mass....a wall of man and horseflesh, burying your lances deep into the ones in front, and then come about fast as I showed you."

It was the first time many of them had seen combat, both the men and the horses. He feared for them, but he also trusted himself and his abilities to lead them. If they listened, many would survive this first charge. If not....well, he preferred not to think too long on that.

A full minute passed in tense silence.

"Ride!" He snarled suddenly, his voice booming across the plains like thunder. The men, as he had instructed, let loose a ragged, lusty war cry, and as one, the tiny company of men and horse shot forward, crested a small rise, and then barreled down into the jaws of the Nilroggi horde.

For half a second, their surprising appearance over the crest of the small hill brought the entire host up short, but when they saw how pathetically small the band approaching them was, they surged forward, eager for blood.

To their credit, the men riding with him did not waver, though he imagined that many wet themselves as the Nilrogg advanced.

He didn't blame them if they did.

Whipping his horse faster, he urged them on.

"Ride hard men....ride hard and strike!" He screamed as the company impacted with the endless horde with a sickening crunch, almost immediately followed by bellows of pain from injured and dying Nilrogg.

"Come about! Come about now, damn you!" He urged them, wheeling his Roan around smoothly and leading the men away as quickly as they had come.

Ghosts.

That is what they must seek to become.

Appearing to strike suddenly, and then vanishing before the Nilrogg could gather their wits about them enough to return their sudden blow.

And it was working.

"So far, so good." He said under his breath, noting that on the first surprise hit, not a single man had been lost, and he counted some thirty Nilroggi down, no doubt trampled to death by their companions who continued forward.

He led the men away, mentally preparing to do it again as soon as they re-applied what scant protection their strips of blankets afforded.

OoO

Twenty Minutes Later

"All men accounted for and ready to move out again!" His Lieutenant reported.

"Excellent....and men....you did well, but remember, we took them by surprise that time....now that they know we're out here to spill blood, they'll be better prepared. You must be faster...smoother in your execution. I saw many of you fumbling to free your lances....forget them. If they break...if they stick, drop them and run...we can fashion new in a matter of minutes from any tree branch convenient....it is you we cannot replace."

The men nodded. Now that they had tasted combat and taken no losses, they were eager to give battle again.

"Are we cavalrymen?" He shouted the question.

"Aye!" Came the fierce reply.

"Then ride!"

And they did.

OoO

The second charge was cleaner than the first in terms of execution, but two of his men were not quite quick enough. They were flanked and dragged off their mounts.

It pained Duncan to see it, but he knew it would happen.

They would be slowly chipped away. Each charge they made, slightly fewer of them would remain to make the next.

And yet, they continued.

"Sixty to two so far, you Godless bastards." Duncan whispered bitterly. "Let's see how many more we can litter the ground with before you take the last of us."

Duncan and his men continued their raids all through the night, dancing in unexpectedly, ramming lance and flesh into the bulk of the horde, and then skimming away.

Sometimes without losing a man, sometimes without injury altogether, but the blankets that served as their armor were scant protection indeed, and with each charge, a few more of his men showed unmistakable signs of having been affected by the acid.

Arms were chaffed and bleeding. Hands raw from the friction of the lance.

And yet they rode.

OoO

Perrin

The land was empty, and with good reason.

Every creature in, on, or above the earth could sense the presence of the onrushing Horde of Nilroggi, and had fled before them, which was exactly what the refugees were trying to do, but Perrin had his doubts that they would succeed. The Witchery had done them in, he was certain of it. Too much ground had been lost…the Horde was too near now, and what warriors they had were out sacrificing themselves in a last ditch effort to get the bulk of the refugees out of harm's way, but what then?

Even if they succeeded in escaping from this calamity, who was to say they wouldn't be beset by some other, and then what? If they lost the few warriors they could muster to escape from this crisis, how could they hope to survive the next?

It was hopeless.

He shook his head bitterly and slowly allowed himself to fall further and further behind the fleeing column of humanity so he could be alone for a little while.

Alone.

Something that had been all but unheard of during their entire journey. Always the crush of thousands of refugees pressing in on him from all sides.

No…'alone' was something hard to come by in the here and now, which was why he was suddenly so desperate for it.

If I'm going to die today, he told himself grimly, then I'd like to spend a little time admiring the world that the HighFather created for us before I am taken from it, and I'd like to do that in peace!

He stopped walking altogether now, his hands on his hips, watching the caravan continue away as quickly as they could manage.

In their haste to escape the Horde, no one turned to look back. No one even noticed he was missing.

He smiled at that and took a deep breath.

Solitude.

If he closed his eyes and concentrated on blocking out the sound, he could almost forget that the Nilroggi were close at hand.

The thought was just forming in his head that he could get used to the peace and quiet, when it was shattered by a voice that seemed to come from every direction at once.

"Perrin?"

"Go away." He said without opening his eyes. "I'll catch up easily enough."

"Perrin?" The voice came again. Firmer and more insistent this time.

He opened one eye, and then gasped in wonder as he beheld a pillar of light descending from the sky, and upon it, a creature of indescribable grace and beauty. There was only one thing it could be, as unlikely as such a creature was to appear to the likes of him. It was an Angel of the HighFather.

He stumbled backward and fell roughly to the ground, cursing himself at his own lack of grace in the presence of such a being.

As hurriedly as he was able, he picked himself up and knelt before the creature as it approached.

"It's Arliss Castillar you want, not me!" He blurted out. "I am but a humble student…he is both learned and wise!"

"Even so," The Angel told him, "My message is intended for you. Will you keep the HighFather's commandments this day?"

"Yes!" Perrin said weeping into the sleeves of his threadbare tunic. "This and every day…with my dying breath I will keep them!"

"Then listen well, and know that these words are for you and you alone. They must not be written down or spoken of to anyone. It is your burden to pass on the information without speaking of it direct, or writing it down so that others may happen upon it."

"But….I don't understand…if what you're about to tell me is important, why can't I…."

The Angel silenced him with a gesture. "There are risks and dangers unseen and unknowable by you, but do not burden yourself with these…just know that this is the will of the HighFather for you…that in later years, long after your passing, hints may be gleaned indirect so that the whole may be pieced together, but in no way must anyone, save you, hear or read these words from our Father. You are their keeper. It is you who must find a way to abide by our Father's commandments to you, and make sure that the story is told when the time is right for the telling."

Perrin tried to speak, but found that words had failed him entirely. He nodded his assent firmly, and the Angel spoke the words of the HighFather:

"And lo, the day shall come when the Empire of the Faithful will be drawn astray, and J'honsa shall call upon his Son to corrupt the cleverness of man, turning it against him and sending forth a plague as a reminder so that man can begin anew and reaffirm his belief in the ways of faith in remembrance of Him.

He shall appoint Champions of the Faith as a sign of his power, and these will serve as beacons in the time of darkness, but the People will reject these Champions and be blinded to them, and in their lack of faith, they shall turn away from the HighFather, seeking their deliverance from elsewhere.

On seeing the devastation wrought by the hand of Ollux, J'honsa's beloved Kaylarr shall hear the cries of the faithless and take pity on them. Drawing enough numbers to fashion one tribe, She will press these to Her bosom when they call out for aid against His wrath, and from Her act of kindness, a new Kingdom shall be born, and at its heart, a lie will be told by men of faith. A lie that will be as a festering wound on the soul of the nation that will doom its every good act and intention to corruption at some level.

The turning away of the faithful and the lie at the center of the newly made Kingdom will tear at the heart of the HighFather, and forge a deep rift between He and his People. A rift made real by the sundering of the land itself…the opening of a chasm to be known for its sorrows.

So enraged and hurt by the faithlessness of his People, J'honsa will curse them, binding them and their descendants for generations, and delaying the day of reckoning.

It shall be the vanity of Ollux…Polluter and Polluted, that leads to the rise of a false prophet who speaks words of darkness and ushers in the time of reckoning. The new Kingdom shall be bathed in a sea of blood and the Line of Kings shall be brought low. A new god of darkness will be born, and will walk the earth to ravage the races of man, but in this hour will J'honsa's anger be overshadowed by love for his children, and he will again send a sign. As his Wrath descends, a Champion will appear, and thus will the future of man hang in the balance.

Three shall be chosen. One by the hand of J'honsa himself, and the other two, by his appointed Champion.

These will go to the hall of the newly made god and make their stand on behalf of all mankind.

If they go alone, then they will surely fail, and the day of reckoning will be at hand and undo the races of man entire, but if they go with the whole of mankind with them, then the rift shall be healed, forgiveness breathed into the land, and a new covenant forged with the People.

Then will there be a reckoning of another sort."

With the last of these words still hanging in the air, the Angel of the HighFather reached down and touched Perrin's shoulders, whispered a few words that he more felt than understood, and then vanished.

Perrin stayed where he was for more than an hour, shivering…sobbing uncontrollably.

Never before now had he imagined what an awful burden it was to know the truth.

To know the future.

Later, the truth of that thought would haunt him in ways he couldn't even fathom as he lay there on the cold hard ground.

OoO

Arliss Castillar's Refugee Column

She appeared before them in a flash of brilliant, white light which brought a surprised gasp from the refugees, and left Arliss Castillar with his mouth hung open in surprise.

The moment she saw the head-man's Clerical Vestments, she knew she'd made a mistake appearing so, but time was short, so perhaps....

She strode forward with confidence and extended a hand. "I am the Lady Dierdranna, of Newburn....come by..."

"I know how ye have come, Witch." Arliss said acidly. "Take this woman into custody at once!" He barked to some drovers near him.

Her eyes narrowed and she held her staff high, and then brought it to the ground resolutely. Thunder boomed before her as she did so, and the men who were making toward her stopped, eyes wide with fear. "I am no pawn for you to mishandle, Priest. I come to give you warning about what lies south, and to gather information that might help save the band I lead."

A tense moment of silence followed, and Arliss finally grimaced and cleared his throat. "If it were not for the troubles we currently faced, woman, this would be far from over."

"Well then, Father, you can have me stoned to death if we survive the Nilroggi, but for now, what say you to the notion that we cooperate and pool our intelligences. It seems we have greater concerns than ideology at present, yes?"

"True enough." Arliss conceded grudgingly. "What news of the south then?"

"The way is blocked to us and our kind. No refugees are to be allowed anywhere near the coast. What remains of the Emperor's armies are massing there for one final stand. We were instructed to turn back at once, or face death."

"Aye...." Arliss whispered. "And how many troops has the Emperor?"

"Some fifteen thousand when we passed that way, with more streaming in each day....perhaps twenty thousand by now."

The Priest shook his head sadly. "Not enough." He whispered.

"This is so...for I have seen the host with my own eyes."

He turned to the drovers at the head of the column. "Men....strike a new course eastward. The way south is blocked, and we can risk traveling no further in that direction.....we turn once more toward the lands of the Harradis."

"That is where we are bound for as well." Lady Dierdranna told him. "I shall instruct my people to travel north easterly and link them up with your column if you'd not mind traveling in the company of a Witch for a while yet."

"I mind greatly, if you must know the truth of it....but your witching ways may help us gain passage into the Lands of the Harradis, and I must see to the survival of my people above all else, so I accept your group into my own."

The Lady was about to say something in reply when Arliss held up a hand. "But as for you....stay well clear of my flock....I'll not have them corrupted by the likes of you and your kind. Bad enough that we've eight others traveling with us as it is."

Dierdranna nodded. "I sensed them....they wield a vast power, but they do so clumsily...in an almost child-like fashion. I should very much like to find out more about them, and inquire as to why the Nilrogg seem unaware of your presence here."

"Then as to the first, be off with you as soon as we're finished talking of matters of survival. One of my men will show you the way. And as to the second, if they do not pursue us direct it is because of the brave sacrifice that many of our men are making as we stand about talking."

"A diversion?"

"Aye....they buy us time with their blood."

The Lady nodded in understanding. "Then let us make the most of that time, shall we?"

Without waiting for a reply, she strode away from Arliss, and made unerringly toward the magic she felt emanating from one of the wagons in the column.

OoO

Duncan Fury's Command - North and East of Thunder Hill

"How many men of the company remain, Lieutenant?" Duncan asked wearily.

"Thirty-two, Sir."

Fury nodded. "Our business here is finished for today, men. We ride now back to our base, and let others take up the battle standard."

The men nodded as one. Not a soul still standing was left unmarked by the day's fighting. Some worse off than others, but all now had a battle-hardened edge about them. There was no doubt in his mind that every man present would be ready to ride forth again when the time came.

With a practiced flick of his wrist, he turned his Roan and led the men away.

It was time to rest.

OoO

Thunder Hill

"Sir, the Free Contingent stands ready to take your place!" Armando said, executing his snappy salute as he readied his company.

"Make it so, Master Armando. And may the HighFather be with you."

The young Freeman nodded, not bothering to correct the commander in matters of religion. Duncan Fury didn't know enough about their ways to know that J'honsa was not their patron. Rather than split hairs, Armando simply smiled and nodded. "Aye....from the look of you and yours, we shall need every blessing we can get."

"It is so." Duncan told him as the company of fresh troops began making their way down the hill and into the jaws of the beast.

He wondered how many of them he would see on their return trip, eight long hours from now.

OoO

Castillar's Refugee Column

Scholars. The voice in her head whispered as she groaned inwardly. Academians....it is no wonder that they wielded their powers like children.

"What man leads you?" She asked them as she let herself into their tent unannounced.

"I do." One of their number stood and bowed shyly. "Merwynnar of Gaslow."

"And what drives that power I sensed from your group, Scholar? Surely you eight on your own do not possess such strength."

They blanched, but said nothing, knowing she was right. Still, they were reluctant to tell her.

"I will have my rank from you!" She spat angrily. "You learned men may be wise in the ways of the Arts, but by the Mother Goddess you know next to nothing about its practical applications! If there is a way that it might be used to save us all, then you will show me and you will do so now!"

It was not a request, they knew at once, and she did hold rank over them.

Merwynn cleared his throat, and then nodded for one of the other scholars to produce the tome.

Her eyes widened when she saw the cover. "It cannot be...."

"I assure you it is, M'lady." Merwynn said as he held it between them almost like a shield.

She contemplated for a long moment. "Aye....and it will take many days to decipher the words it contains to find out what spell may serve us best in holding off this host....for we must....it is not enough now to simply make off with us all....the Emperor's men are gathering for a last stand at the coast....it falls to us to find a way to deal the Nilroggi a mighty blow such that what remains of the Legions have a chance against them....by the Goddess I wish there were more time."

Merwynn cleared his throat again. "M'lady....we have already begun deciphering the tome as we have been traveling...."

She waited a moment to see if he would continue unasked. When he did not, she said, "Well, out with it man! The Nilroggi approach with haste, in case you have forgotten!"

"There is a spell, but we dare not wield it...."

"You dare not wield it."

He nodded.

"Tell me."

"It....it is known simply as "God's Teeth.""

Her eyes narrowed. It was a common enough oath or curse, but a spell bearing that same name? "I have heard of this incantation not at all."

"Nor we, until the reading of this tome....but it is...."

"Yes yes....with a name like that, I would imagine it is not to be wielded lightly, but there is no time. Our doom awaits us not far from here....show me."

She crouched in the wagon with them, and then huddled together as Merwynn opened the dreaded tome.

OoO

Lightning flickered between the brooding, heavy clouds that hung overhead like a funeral shroud.

Lady Dierdranna took in both the sight, and the underlying meaning before shaking it off as best she could and moving toward the head of the column where she knew she could find Arliss.

OoO

Twenty Minutes Later

Arliss' eyes narrowed, and she knew what he was about to say.

"I know you don't like it." She told him before he could speak. "I know it runs against the grain of everything you believe in, but Arliss....Father....what other choice have we? If we run, we may well elude the Nilroggi, but what of the Emperor's men? Their numbers have no chance against the Horde."

The lines of pain and indecision were almost etched into his face, and he opened his mouth to speak, but could not find the words.

She put a comforting hand on his arm. "You are a good man....a good leader, but it is clear that something must be done if the Horde is to be stopped. We have in our possession the power to make a stand....let us."

"My...faith...." He said weakly.

"Father, the very worst that could happen would be that my fellow Wizards and I die in the effort, and if we do, there may still be time to make your escape...and you'll not have to worry about us corrupting your flock."

"You would....sacrifice yourself for those who hate you?...That's a surprisingly charitable virtue for a witch."

She smiled at him. "I think if you would but study us and our ways you would find that we are not so different....and yes. The Nilroggi are a problem for us all. It is a sacrifice we stand ready to make if needs be, but Father...the need is immediate, if we are to do this...the need and the time, is now."

He considered for a long moment, then cast his eyes to the ground and sighed heavily.

"Yes." He whispered. "Though this is far too much for one old man to bear."

Lady Dierdranna touched his weathered, balding head in a gentle, soothing caress. "Rest for a time, Father....if this does not work, then your people will need you at your very best if any are to survive."

In a quiet flash that drew no reaction from the priest this time, she vanished.

OoO

Thunder Hill

Before the golden light of the outline of her image had disappeared fully in one place, she reappeared in another, and less than a foot from McDougil who was leading his horse toward the crest of the rise.

He gasped, stepped back clumsily to avoid colliding with her, lost his footing and fell with a loud gasp, which echoed and rumbled all through the place.

"Wha...Who in the name of...."

"Lady Dierdranna, at your service." She said with a smile as she extended a hand and helped him to his feet. "I have come to rally your forces and have them begin making for the refugees....I can sketch out the path that will lead you to them."

"Has there been some change in plan then? We were initially to...."

"Aye....a significant change....we now have the opportunity to deal the Horde a mighty blow. Should we succeed, we do not want to inadvertently kill our finest warriors, and should we fail...."

She did not finish the thought, but McDougil nodded in understanding nonetheless.

And, thanks to the uncanny acoustics of this place, rallying the men back to here should be an easy task.

"Aye.....it shall be indeed." McDougil said with a grin as he took in a deep breath and bellowed out a return order to the Free Company.

The sounds of it crashed almost forever through the valley surrounding the hill, fading with stubborn reluctance, and leaving no doubt that the message had been received. A slightly fainter answering cry was heard in the midst of the order's echo.

With the sounds of men's hoarse voices crashing all around her, she surveyed the camp. "You have wounded."

"Indeed....Duncan Fury's men were the first out....too many were lost, and many of those that returned are in no shape for further fighting."

As if summoned by the sound of his name, the wily Cavalryman appeared seemingly out of nowhere, sword not drawn, but loosed in its scabbard as his eyes measured the Witching woman in their midst.

"I mean you and yours no harm, Duncan Fury." She told him plainly, taking him in as well, and impressed that his approach had even eluded her eldritch senses.

A rare man indeed. She was about to smile approvingly when her eyes were drawn to the discoloration of his black cloak, and the way it clung to his left side.

Blood.

"You have been injured....how bad is it?" She motioned toward the covered wound and Duncan winced, an almost guilty look crossing over his face.

A handsome face, in a rugged, no-nonsense way, she noted.

"Many of my men did not return home at all...my wounds are of scant concern to me until this dark business is concluded."

"You are a leader of men, Duncan Fury....let me help you, for it is within my power to do so....if your wounds do not receive attention, you will be too weak to do what you were born for."

He shook his head and their eyes met.

"First, to business. Tell me how you have come to our encampment, and why a recall order was just issued to the Free Company. Then...time permitting, I have men who need more medical attention than I."

She smiled at his stubborn determination, drew in a breath, and began to speak of her plan.

OoO

It was a hastily concocted plan, that much was true.

Held together by fraying nerves and odd bits of magic.

Fear ran through the ragged human horde like a living current, and not far off, the scrabbling sounds of the approaching Nilroggi host (with such vast numbers that they dwarfed the humans by a factor of so many that it boggled the mind) were steadily growing louder.

For their part, the humans had arranged themselves in the best way they could, Arliss leading the refugees through what amounted to a ribbon-like valley that ran between two craggy, difficult-to-navigate hills. The tattered remains of Duncan Fury's command, The Free Company, and McDougil's men were lined up stoically at the mouth of the valley, determined to buy what time they could for the Wizards to do…whatever it was that they were planning.

And speaking of the Wizards….stationed behind the wall of human flesh by some forty yards, standing in a circle with Lady Dierdranna at its center, holding the large, strangely menacing-looking tome that seemed almost alive with power.

Above and behind her by a few feet were a pair of globes floating in the air. Perhaps a dozen feet off the ground and two feet in diameter, the globes were their "eyes" that let them see places normally hid from their view. The first showed Lady Dierdranna's own small band of refugees, still moving toward them, but still quite far away. The second was placed perhaps half a league east of the mouth of the valley the refugees were moving through, in an attempt to keep watch on the progress of the approaching Nilroggi.

Already, they were quite close, and would soon be passing directly under Dierdranna's seeing-eye.

It would not be long now.

"Are we ready?" Dierdranna asked the scholars surrounding her.

They were, as a single body, too terrified to speak, but they nodded at her in turn.

She nodded back and smiled what she hoped was a confident smile, wondering vaguely how many of them would survive this spell.

Then it occurred to her that if they failed, it wouldn't matter, for surely none would survive the wave of Nilroggi.

She opened the Tome, took a moment to find the dreaded Incantation, and began to speak in the language of the Witching Folk.

OoO

At the Mouth of the Valley

Duncan strode up and down the line, inspecting the men. How long ago had it been when the men who came to him were simple villagers? Men with no fighting experience at all? God it seemed like forever, but surely it had only been hours….days at best. He couldn't remember.

But now, standing before him, shoulder to shoulder, blocking as much of the mouth of the valley as they could with their bodies, were soldiers.

Brave, valiant soldiers….poorly armed, many injured, tired beyond reason.

Yet standing.

Defiant.

He could not have been more proud of them.

"We will probably all die today." He told them simply. No point in sugar coating it. Not in the eleventh hour, outnumbered a thousand or more to one.

No one spoke, but he also noted that no one flinched, either.

"Yes….we will probably all die today, but…we will die on our feet, and as free men."

Nods from the line.

"Our mission….the only thing that is important at this point, is that we keep the horde from breeching the line and reaching the Wizards until they have completed whatever magic they think can save us….we give them time to do what they do, by doing what we do….questions?"

There were none, and after a lingering moment, Duncan nodded.

"Fight well. Die well, my brothers." He whispered, and then drew his own blade and stood with them in the line.

It was all over but the waiting.

OoO

From the moment that the Lady Dierdranna began reading from the Tome, invoking the dreaded spell known only as "God's Teeth" things began to swirl and change.

The air around them filled up with crackling intensity and energy. So much so that the hair on everyone's arms began standing on end. You could smell the energy and power building up….almost hear the humming coming from the earth itself as the Witching Ones spoke words of power that had remained unspoken for centuries…and longer.

But through the mists of time, a huge, unseen beast marched closer…drawn by the sounds of those words.

It was vast. So vast that it defied comprehension by mere human minds.

But she could feel it.

They could all feel it.

And even before the spell was a third complete, she knew there would be no controlling it.

Even now, so early into the incantation, it was all they could to do wrestle with it….clumsily guiding it with their feeble efforts, and hoping to for the best.

Still, she kept the circle intact, kept her aids focused on her as best she could, and wrestled with a power as old as time itself.

OoO

The Nilroggi burst over the low rise just east of them, and paused for a moment…made unsure by a pair of things.

First, was the fact that the wily humans had stopped running. For weeks they'd chased them across the plains, hunting down odd bands and rooting out scattered pockets of resistance, and always it was the same. Outnumbered humans ran. They performed hit-and-run attacks to preserve what numbers they had.

These humans were…different.

Soldiers standing in a thin line at the mouth of a valley, defiant.

That would not do.

And behind that frail line of flesh, the ground and air swam with the magical energies, and the Nilroggi were wary.

They had no Witching Folk of their own, so Eldritch Powers were terrifying to them, and these…these were greater than anything they had ever sensed.

Still, their numbers were beyond counting, and they had bested the humans at every turn using that very advantage, so after a momentary pause, the assembled horde let out a blood curdling battle cry loud enough to threaten to crack heaven itself open, and surged forward.

It would not be long now.

oO

McDougil, who's job it was to monitor Deirdranna's refugees till the last minute and then take to the line the moment the Nilroggi drew near, cursed at the report.

"Freak storm, you say?" He shouted louder than he needed to into the mysterious floating globe. "Got the wagons bogged down?"

"Yes," Dierdranna's hand maiden informed him. "The menfolk have remained with the wagons to get them unstuck, and sent the women on ahead…I am leading them…I fear that the storm swept up on us was caused by the strange magicks contained in the Tome our Lady wields."

"I fear you are right." McDougil muttered. "Well…keep me informed…but know that if this doesn't work, then you are all walking into a death camp."

The HandMaiden answered back a sad, meaningful nod.

OoO

As the incantation neared its completion, a strange, hot wind with no source swirled around the Wizards….a vortex of power forming up directly over the head of the Lady Dierdranna.

Each word she spoke became harder to speak than the last, as though the whirlwind above her was leeching the life and magic from her…channeling it. Focusing it. Directing.

Beads of sweat popped out on her forehead, and the veins in her delicate neck bulged with the effort as she continued to march toward the end of the incantation, drawing so much strength from the Scholarly Wizards around her that three of them were doubled over in pain…barely standing at all, and all of them were pale and drawn as their essence fed into her.

Finally, the last word was uttered, and silence roared into the valley almost deafeningly. Half a heartbeat later, a drum sounded.

But…not a drum…something though.

From deep inside the earth.

Deep enough and loud enough to make the ground itself tremble slightly, as though some titan had awakened far off, and was making his way here.

After the second beat, a light began forming at Dierdranna's feet, expanding and enveloping her with each succeeding beat.

"What have we unleashed….?" She whispered.

One thing she knew for certain…they would all find out soon enough.

OoO

Several of the men chanced glances back toward the wizards when the mysterious beating sound began.

"Eyes front!" Duncan hissed. "Keep your mind on your business, men!"

All eyes snapped back to the front, to take in the sight of the approaching horde.

"Sounds like the heartbeat of the earth itself." Armando whispered as he leaned closer to Duncan.

"Aye." Came the hoarse, whispered reply.

OoO

It took her the span of several heartbeats to decipher what the wizards around her were mouthing in unison.

"c….can't….ho…ld….it…." Over and over again.

And they couldn't.

She couldn't.

This was folly, and they would all die here.

The light that surrounded her had coalesced into the most extraordinary shape. A man, fine and proud and strong…with ancient eyes.

She recognized him from legend.

"You." She whispered.

If he heard, he ignored her, save for the fact that he floated above her now and connected himself to her and the others in a chain of unbroken magical energy.

The earth's heartbeat sounded again…louder now, and the legendary Eldritch Master began channeling the life force of all those in their circle into himself, and then into the earth direct.

She felt herself dying.

All the wizards felt themselves dying, but the Titan was being awakened.

Another heartbeat, this one loud enough to rattle them all where they stood and threaten to knock them off their feet.

Then another, even more powerful than the last.

She felt as though her teeth were being rattled right out of her head.

Another, and she heard several hundred refugees cry out in terror.

It was almost upon them.

And so were the Nilroggi.

They would be too late.

She squinted and looked toward the frail line of human flesh and muscle and bone, watching to see how easily they were washed away.

Shedding tears for the men who would die in mere seconds.

Another heartbeat, this one so powerful that it seemed to sway and stall the Nilroggi advance for half a second, and then….

….Impact. The crunch of body against body as Nilroggi and human met in battle and blood.

Amazingly, the line held.

With a mighty heave, and at the direction of Duncan Fury, the defenders threw the weight of the Horde off of their lances and the survivors braced for another charge.

Another heartbeat, and more cries of terror.

She tried not to think about how many men had just died.

Vaguely, in a dream, she wondered if Duncan himself had survived, and then she saw a flash of flowing black as he hacked off the arm of a Nilrogg who had tried to sweep around him.

She smiled, weakening further still…the life fading and gone from her…leeching into the demanding earth.

He was a good man. A fine, strong….

Blackness.

OoO

"Hold the line, damn your hides!" Duncan snarled! "Can you not hear the beast awakening behind us!?"

The Nilroggi charged.

The line braced for impact as a single, living thing.

And held back a second charge.

Again, with a heave, Duncan's men threw them back.

And the Nilroggi were amazed.

Never had they faced such stubborn determination.

The humans now numbered less than sixty, and yet they would not yield.

In fact, the Horde simply could not brush them aside.

It defied reason! Defied…everything.

Furious, they prepared another charge.

"Gods be with us." Duncan whispered as they surged forward again.

OoO

The laughter seemed to erupt from the earth and sky at the same time…from everywhere at once.

It was deep and brassy and rumbling, and by itself, it stalled the Nilroggi advance mere feet from the remnants of Duncan's line.

The wily soldier wasted no time in taking advantage of the enemy's distraction, and began carving a hole into the endless horde of creatures.

His men joined him seconds later.

Soon, the laughter was replaced by a rushing sound.

A waterfall, but…thicker. Heavier.

The ground trembled and shook.

Steam vents suddenly opened up all around them.

Pockets of earth began shaking loose and separating.

It was all madness and chaos.

The earth itself seemed to be coming to life.

Then, a series of sharp, barking explosions which cast an impenetrable cloud of black dust and dirt into the air.

The shaking continued to intensify, but now it was quite impossible to see what was happening around them.

In truth, it was quite impossible to see what was happening mere feet in front of them, much less anywhere else.

In the distance, he heard the collective wail of a thousand thousand terrified Nilroggi, and then that sound was simply washed away by the rumbling of the earth.

Everything was washed away by that sound, until nothing else remained.

There was only the angry titan.

The earth itself.

God's teeth.

OoO

An Unknown time Later

Duncan picked himself up painfully and dusted himself off.

Coughed twice and rubbed his eyes.

Everything hurt. That which does not kill me makes me....really achy and sore. He thought sourly.

Another cough off to his right.

"Armando?"

"'tis I…I think." He mumbled as he tried to stand.

Duncan helped him, and then helped dust him off.

His eyes were beginning to adjust to the thick dust that floated everywhere like a fog, and in the midst of it, he detected hints of movement all around.

"Gather up men." He shouted hoarsely, but the dust seemed to swallow his words. They were barely more than a whisper.

"Sound off….and if Nilroggi be near ye, let us know where you are."

None of his command made any mention of Nilroggi, which was nigh on impossible. There had been so many.

What had happened?

How long had they been out of their senses?

His men would surely ask him these questions, and expect him to know the answers.

Suddenly, he felt very tired.

OoO

Forty-Six men remained of his command.

He sighed heavily and fought to hide his tears. Assuming the Nilroggi didn't simply finish them when they recovered from their fear of magicks, there would be a great many burials to see to in coming days.

"McDougil, Armando, divide the men by thirds and form search parties. We must determine how many survivors there are, and if there are Nilroggi about. I will keep one patrol with me here to watch this way and guard the Wizards…we must….we must at least try to understand what has happened here."

"It will be done." His two Lieutenants answered in unison and they picked their men and departed.

For his part, Duncan led his patrol to the spot where he'd last seen the wizards.

OoO

Later

It was impossible to tell day from night, the dust was so thick.

But as the refugees began banding back together, coalescing back into the family of survivors they had become, the stories began filtering in with them.

Grim stories of unimaginably painful death as the ground swallowed whole families, heroic rescues, sights and visions before the dust cloud obscured everything.

Amazing rumors.

And sorrow from the south.

Most of the menfolk of Lady Dierdranna's band had been caught up in the wild magics unleashed in an effort to save them, and had simply vanished when several impossibly large mountains sprang beneath their feet in an instant.

Already, the refugees had begun referring to those southern mountains as "Widow's Peaks."

In a matter of hours, legends and stories were taking root as the people tried to heal themselves and make sense of the madness they played witness to.

As for the Wizards, three were outright dead, and the rest were unconscious, with no indication if or whether they may awaken again.

Arliss Castillar charged his best Clerics with their care, but even they could give no firm answers.

There was simply no way to know.

OoO

Approximately Four Days Later

"She's asking for you." McDougil said as he clapped Duncan on the back.

"Awake?" He asked in wonder.

"Aye….eyes clear and burning once more." The big man said as he shook his head. "You're a good man, Duncan Fury….staying by her bedside for two solid days."

The cavalryman blushed. "I'd be by her side now if not for the fact that I'm the best rider we have left, and was needed to scout the north ridge."

"It is so." McDougil replied. "Nonetheless, you were the first person she asked to see."

He broke into a grin and sprinted off toward the tent where they were keeping her.

OoO

"Duncan….I…." She didn't quite know where to begin, and the soldier sat down next to her and took her hand.

"I'm glad to see you awake, M'lady Dierdranna."

She blushed. "Aye…and thank you for sitting with me while my mind fought its way out of the darkness."

He sighed. "I was hoping you could feel me here. Hoping my presence made a difference."

"It did." She said with a nod. "I focused on the sound of your voice as I made my way back."

An awkward, but no unpleasant moment of silence between them.

"So tell me….what is the latest news. I feel as though I've been sleeping forever."

"Most of the news is not good." Duncan said as he straightened.

She liked the way his voice changed. All business when talking about the safety of the group, and then…softer…more tender, when they spoke quietly between themselves.

"It seems the rumors are true. There around mountains everywhere to the south and east of us, though we do not yet know how far they run, apparently they sprung up right beneath the main body of the Nilroggi horde."

"Well, instead of sending riders, we can survey the mountains with my magics now that I am awake."

"I was so hoping, and refrained from sending out riders for that very reason."

They smiled at each other again.

"As to other news…Armando has signed on formally as a cavalryman, and I've divided what remains of my command between myself and McDougil, to give some teeth to the Council of Seven. Each of us now command a company of 23 men. It's not much of a defense force, I know, but….it's what we have to work with, and we're trying to scare up new recruits."

"No sign of the Nilroggi though?"

"Yes and no." He told her. "We have skirmished with them, but my guess is that the mountains killed the greater portion of the horde and scattered the rest. They seem to have lost the stomach for battle, and we've never seen more than half a dozen or so together…unorganized but terrifying in its way."

"As always, your bravery serves us all well…."

Impulsively, he kissed her, and their smile together grew.

OoO

The assembled crowd watched as the images played out on Lady Dierdranna's globes. She had conjured four "eyes" and sent them out along the major compass points, skimming over the ground and taking in the new terrain.

As she suspected, the magics had indeed summoned up "God's Teeth" to do battle on their behalf. And that vast maw had simply devoured much of the horde.

Within hours, the eyes had spun their way out and around them completely, and they had their answer.

They were totally surrounded. Hemmed in by a ring of natural-but-unnatural mountains. New, sharp, jagged, upthrusting mountains that had not been worn away by time and nature.

Mountains that had no roads, paths, or passes through them.

"Trapped." Someone said.

"In a way, yes." Someone else answered, "But better to be trapped here, in a land large enough for us to spread out in, and one without the Nilroggi than to be on the other side of the mountains!"

And suddenly, everybody seemed to have something to say about that, one way or another.

OoO

Three Hours Later

Arliss stepped into the clearing around which the collected populace had gathered. "Silence! Silence I beg you!" He shouted.

In time, the raging debate died down to a simmer, and the Priest could be heard.

"Debating the merits of being here or not solves nothing." He said simply. "The fact of the matter is that we are here….now, whether that proves to be a blessing or a curse is something that we shall all find out together, but the first, most pressing need we have is that of deciding upon our leadership….we must assume that the Empire is no more, and even if it is still intact, their decrees cannot pierce the veil of the mountains."

No King.

It was unheard of.

A situation that must be remedied at once.

But who would be King?

"Arliss Castillar should be King! Him that led us to our salvation!" Someone in the crowd shouted.

Many cheered at the nomination.

Many did not.

It took Arliss nearly ten minutes to get the crowd quieted again.

"Good people…I am honored that many of you would consider me worthy of the job…but there are a number of reasons why I cannot."

He waited until they had quieted a bit more, and then continued.

"First…it is the power of the Church to sanctify and ordain the King we select…to guide and help him, but not to rule outright. The separation between the Church and the power of the King must exist as a point and counter point. Balance and counter balance. To do otherwise….well, suffice it to say that it invites certain dangers that I do not wish to consider, nor invite into our newfound Kingdom. And aside from that, there is the simple matter of my advanced age. We need a young, strong King to lead us."

Silence all around for what felt like an eternity.

"The People should decide." McDougil said finally. "The Council of Seven was formed by the People, and they should select a list of potential leaders and vote on it."

"Vote on the King?" A number of people whispered.

And as the idea was passed around the group and debated, it was clear that it had some support. The number opposed to it vastly outnumbered the supporters, but it did spark some interesting conversation.

At least for a time.

"This will not happen!" Jacob Mourngrym said in a thunderous voice. "The Council of Seven has its uses, there can be no denying, but the will of the People is fickle…mob rule will result if this plan were to be carried out. I will not stand for it!"

"And who are you?" McDougil challenged, his jaw thrust defiantly toward Mourngrym.

"Your better…manchild." Mourngrym said icily.

McDougil took two steps forward and as if by magic, Duncan Fury was there, stepping between the two men.

He put a hand on McDougil's shoulder. "Brother…don't. We don't need this fight."

"Listen to him." Mourngrym said with venom.

"Shut up or I'll slap you in irons!" Duncan told him in a tone that left no room for doubt. He meant it.

Mourngrym opened his mouth to protest, and then closed it.

Diffused.

For now.

Just then, Arliss stepped back into the center. "Ladies and Gentlemen…I would like to propose that Duncan Fury be given your consideration as our King."

The crowd went wild at the thought. In Duncan they had a steady, reliable hero, and while there were some dissenting voices, they were easily drowned out by the waves of support.
"Fury, Fury, Fury!"

The crowd was loving it.

"No!" Came another hiss.

Mourngrym again. "This will not be, either, as we will simply trade one form of mob rule for another!"

Duncan looked up at the rich man and took two steps forward, and then paused.

This time, he was not alone.

Behind him were twenty young men, all dressed in hastily fashioned uniforms, and all carrying bows.

"That's right." Mourngrym said in answer to the surprised look on the Cavalryman's face. "They may not be well trained, but they are well paid and loyal. You did not think I would allow you to be the only force of arms in our band, did you?"

Duncan's men rallied behind him, and the ones who could still ride mounted up.

A hush fell over the clearing as the two men stared…eyes burning.

"Stand down, Lord Mourngrym." Duncan whispered. "I have no wish or desire to be your King. It is a job I am ill suited for."

Duncan took a deep breath and addressed the crowd. "Thank you for your support of me…but this is a job I do not want, and cannot do."

"It is precisely because you do not want it, My Lord Fury, that you would be perfect for it. The Wizards support you." Dierdranna said softly.

"Aye….the Lady makes sense." Arliss said in agreement.

"Wench!" Mourngrym hissed angrily. "You and yours belong to me!"

"No." Dierdranna said in a soft, even tone. "I know of your agreement with the now-dead head of this order. And since the agreement was made with one who is no more, I submit to you that your hold on the Order has weakened considerably."

Mounrgrym glowered for a moment. "This is not finished between us, woman. I will either have your loyalty or I'll have my property returned."

"And we shall talk about that, but later. For now…let us continue addressing the issue at hand."

Silence reigned for a lingering moment.

"I…cannot….and that is my final answer." Duncan said slowly.

"Then who will lead us?" Someone asked.

A babble of voices broke out and Arliss left the center of the clearing in disgust, shaking his head.

While he was away, the volume of the assembled mass as arguments broke out debating the merits of various potential Kings among them.

After several minutes, Arliss returned, one of his younger charges in tow.

"It is clear to me that the power groups that have developed in our band during our long journey together have made choosing any one of them an impossibility, so I submit to you that we must look elsewhere. Thus, I present Perrin for your consideration. I have tutored him in the ways of the Church. He is a bright lad, young and strong, and he will need our support and guidance if he is to be the kind of King we all wish him to be. The Church, with I as it's head here in our new Kingdom, pledge my support to Perrin, as King."

The boy, no more than sixteen, gaped and looked down at Arliss, who kneeled before him.

"Father Castillar, I…no….this is…." He looked around frantically for support. For someone…anyone who might pull him out of the fire he suddenly found himself in.

What he got instead was Duncan Fury striding toward him and kneeling next to Arliss Castillar. He took the boy's hand and looked up at him. "I pledge my life and my sword to defending your crown and your honor, Majesty. I will sit at your feet and serve you faithfully if you will but guide us."

McDougil was next. "Aye….the Council of Seven would support the coronation of Perrin as First King."

Only the Wizards and Mourngrym remained silent, weighing their options. The majority of the powerful in the band of refugees though, had spoken.

The future of the Kingdom was held on a stillborn breath, as all waited to see what the others would say.

"The Wizards support the coronation of Perrin. We will assist his rule in any way we can."

"And you?" Arliss asked in the direction of Mourngrym. "What do you and yours say?"

"Of course we would support Perrin as King." Mourngrym said in a too-kind voice. "In fact, I will personally provide our new ruler with a treasury to ensure the stability and survival of his realm, and pledge my assistance in any way I can….and I will also be watching you…" He glanced meaningfully at both Duncan Fury and McDougil, "to ensure that our new, young King is not swayed by mob rule or force of arms."

A lingering moment of silence, broken only by the quiet, confused sobbing of a boy, too young to be king, suddenly thrust in exactly that role by men and women who expected more from him than should ever be expected of children so young.

OoO

The coronation was a quiet, solemn affair, and the Kingdom had it's First King before it even had a proper name.

As the ceremony ended, and as King Perrin's first official act, his eyes sought out Armando, and summoned him forth.

"You and your Free Folk have served side by side with us tirelessly, and yet, I know that our ways are very different from yours."

"That is so, My King." Armando said quietly as he kneeled before the First King.

"You have bled with us though, and endured our trials with us….and because of that, I decree that your people will live both together and separate from us. Living too close together with us would destroy who you are, so you shall be as separate as you need to be, in order to preserve the ways of your People."

Armando smiled. "You will make a fine King, Majesty….and you are off to a grand start indeed….The Free Folk pledge their support and friendship to King Perrin." He stood and bowed, then leaned in closer. "And Majesty, may I recommend that your second act would be to come up with a name for our new land."

Perrin blushed and just then, something caught his eye. Torches in the distance.

It seemed that Lady Dierdranna's band had finally arrived to join their number. "They look like tiny candle's in the darkness." The King whispered.

"Master Armando," he asked more loudly. "What is the word in Free-Folk Speak for Strength….Courage?

"I think I know what you're asking, my King, and that word would be 'Bre.'"

"Then our new home shall be called Candle'Bre….may we, each of us, strive to be as a candle in the darkness. Pushing the shadows away. Pillars of strength and honor….and should the day come that danger threatens us and ours as it did the Empire which spawned us, may we remember this day, and our long journey."

And so was the Kingdom born.

-=Vel=-