Chapter 3
First Contact

Watchpost Vasiliy, Byrn; Anno Regis 1285

"The first battle often sets the tone for the entire war. With the initial victory comes the momentum to push forward with ever increasing speed and violence. An early defeat often sets the tide of war against the defeated. As failure pile upon failure, ultimate defeat is all but inevitable. Eleventh hour miracles are not unheard of, but they cannot be expected."
--Excerpt from the assorted writings of Mark the Guardian

Named after the first King of Byrn, Watchpost Vasiliy was raised on the very spot where the Gladian lines were broken two hundred years ago, thus driving the invaders out of the kingdom. The one hundred thirty-eight souls stationed there were not meant to repel an invading army, only to impede the enemy's advance and to raise the alarm. If they were lucky, they could stave off the invaders until reinforcements arrived. This time, however, luck would not be on their side.
The beacon at the top of the watchtower was lit as soon as the Marauders emerged from the forest. Lights soon appeared to the north and south. Soon all of Byrn would be alerted to the Gladian advance, but it would be too late for the men of Watchpost Vasiliy.
Holding the main force back, Randwulf sent the vanguard forward to draw out the watchpost's defenders. The ploy was successful, for the Byrnans thought they had the advantage with their plate armor and horses, but they underestimated the skill of their opponents and discounted their numerical advantage. Although it was not necessary, Randwulf called all the Marauders forward to overwhelm the Byrnans. In half an hour, the entire garrison was dead with only minimal casualties on the Marauders' side.
While the men looted the watchpost and her defenders, Randwulf looked out on the unfamiliar expanse to the east. He turned to the warlock's apprentice, who had been summoned earlier.
"What manner of land is that?" the King asked.
"It is a desert, sire," the apprentice replied. "Imagine the sand of a beach spread across an entire plain. It is rather hellish, actually. Hot in the day, freezing at night, few plants, hardly any water. Our friend Tariq could tell you more."
Randwulf frowned. "What is a desert doing here?"
"Oh, it is not the work of Nature, sire. The capital city of old Ban was in that place, you know. The nonhumans destroyed it during the Great War, leaving the desert in its place."
Randwulf had almost forgotten that Byrn was once known as the Kingdom of Ban, the birthplace of the Great War. By the time the nonhumans finally succeeded in cutting out the kingdom's heart, the war was already larger than any single nation. What should have been a major coup only sped the way to the nonhumans' defeat. It was a story worth remembering, but it was more important to focus on the present.
"How far across is it?" Randwulf asked.
"Not far," the apprentice replied. "A day's march across, maybe two, but the heat would quickly wear on men geared for battle. It would take three or four days to go around."
"How many watchposts will we find along the way?"
"We have Watchpost Aleksei to the north," the apprentice said, pointing to their left. Then he pointed to the right, saying, "And Watchpost Fyodor to the south, each a day's march away. The beacons will stay lit for three days at least, so it will be no trouble to spot them."
"Who could come to their aid?"
"Watchpost Vladimir is at furthest edge of the forest, a day and a half's march from Watchpost Aleksei. Watchposts Pavel and Piotr are to the southeast on either side of the crossing between the lake and the marshlands, even farther away. Even if help comes, it will not reach them in time."
"Where is the nearest town?"
Snaking his arm around in a wide arc, the apprentice said, "If we follow the road due south and around the desert, we will reach Arita in four days."
Randwulf took a moment to devise a strategy. It did not take him long to decide.
"Cadmus," he said, motioning to the commander.
"Yes, Your Majesty?"
"Bring me the Five Generals and Tariq the Assassin."
"Right away, Your Majesty."
Cadmus shouted at his adjutant to fetch them and soon the five division commanders arrived along with a swarthy man in foreign dress. They bowed before the King, who wasted no time giving them their assignments.
"General Leifson, take a detachment of four hundred men to the watchpost north of here. Wipe them out and go around desert until you reach a town..."
"On the south side of the plateau, sire," the apprentice volunteered.
Without skipping a beat, Randwulf continued, "The main force should arrive around the same time. If the Byrnans try to send reinforcements from the north, your men can hold them off.
"General Giles, take three hundred men ahead of the main formation, destroy the watchpost to the south and move directly on to the town. Strike them before they can harden their defenses. Kill them all. Man, woman, child. Show them no mercy.
"General Ulfson, to the southeast there are two watchposts guarding a river crossing. Take four hundred men and destroy that crossing. It will set back reinforcements from the south for days.
"Tariq, you are familiar with deserts from your native land, yes?"
"Yes, King."
"Select two hundred men you deem fit for crossing this desert. Wait for General Giles on the other side, join your forces and launch the attack. Let none escape."
The warlock's apprentice slithered over to Tariq and embraced him from behind. Leaning forward, he spoke directly in the Assassin's ear.
"You'll like it in Arita, Tariq," he said. "The Wayfarers have an abbey there, you know. Plenty of infidel blood to spill."
Overcoming the initial surprise at the apprentice's behavior, Tariq broke free of his embrace.
"Unhand me, villain!" Tariq barked, reaching for the hilt of his blade. "Do not confuse me with you barbarians! I do not thirst for blood as you do!" He narrowed his eyes. "In all this world, there is only one man I wish to kill. Other than him, I will only cut down those who turn their blades against me."
"As long as you do not interfere with my men, you may fight as you wish," Randwulf said. "Now go, all of you. I want those four detachments on the march within the hour."
The six of them bowed to Randwulf once more and dispersed. Only Cadmus and the warlock's apprentice remained. The King glared at the apprentice.
"Get out of here."
The apprentice bowed with his usual feigned propriety.
"As you wish, sire."
With a wave of his rod, the apprentice vanished, leaving Randwulf alone with Cadmus.
"What of the main formation, Your Majesty?" Cadmus asked.
"We stay here for the day." The King looked up to fire at the top of the watchtower. "Keep the beacon going so the other watchposts do not suspect what has happened here. It will make things easier for Leifson and Giles. We set out tomorrow morning."
"Yes, Your Majesty." Cadmus looked out into the desert. "A pity, though. These Byrnan dogs were all dead before I could cut down even one. My blade is thirsty."
"It will have its fill before we return to Gladius," the King said. "As will you."
Cadmus grinned haughtily. "Your Majesty underestimates my blade's appetite... and mine."
"Then I chose the right man to lead my Marauders on this campaign."
Cadmus bowed at the compliment. "I look forward to proving that, Your Majesty." He paused. "But you seem troubled. Is it about the division of our forces? The detachments will be fine on their own. I do not think the Byrnans can muster the bulk of its forces before we reassemble."
Randwulf shook his head. "No, it is nothing like that."
"Is it the story that whelp told you? You should pay it no heed."
"That apprentice is a lying snake to be sure," the King said, "but that story was the truth. The events of ten years ago set the gears in motion. If we do not end it here, our enemies will bring the fight to Gladius."
For Cadmus, the answer was simple. "Then we kill them all, raze their cities, burn their fields, leave nothing behind."
Randwulf nodded. He had every intention of destroying Byrn, but it was not his true goal. The Eagle in the East was everything. Unless he captured the Eagle, there would be little profit in this expedition. Deep down, he feared he was already too late.