Chapter 26
The Calm Before the Storm

North Crimson Forest, Gladius

"The great, earth-shattering events in one's life tend to come unexpectedly, but every now and then, you can see the clouds looming on the horizon and prepare for the coming storm. However, sometimes over-thinking a problem is worse than being caught by surprise."
--Excerpt from the assorted writings of Mark the Guardian

The rebel army had set up its camp within the eastern edge of the North Crimson Forest, only a couple miles from Castle Darkwall. As the old wizard had promised, the two hundred who rescued Mark and his companions was only a fraction of the forces that had been gathered to challenge Randwulf. There were over a thousand native sons of Gladius and the combined forces of the Scotians, Amazons and Ziphites numbered six hundred and fifty. Truly it was more than the band of warriors could have ever hoped for.
However, it was not all good tidings. One of the rebel leaders had been noticeably absent during the group's rescue. Abbot Octavius. Apparently the abbey's ties to the rebel cause had been betrayed and two weeks earlier the Gladian Guard launched an attack on Cruz. The abbey was razed and most of its inhabitants slaughtered. Only a handful survived.
In fact, the group's captors were the core of the detachment responsible for the attack and its leader none other than Harald Svenson. The tables had turned and now Svenson and sixteen of his subordinates were captives, ten of them wounded. Teresa, the one who had the most reason to want vengeance, pleaded for mercy. That and the practical value of any intelligence the Guardsmen could provide were the only reasons they were kept alive. Even so, two of their number did not make it through the first night, secretly appropriated by Adrienne to speed her recovery. Another would later die of his injuries.
Time was no ally to the rebel cause, but it was deemed prudent to spend a day preparing for battle. The Marauders had yet to mobilize, so there was no reason to rush things. The leaders gathered in a large tent in the center of the camp to discuss strategy. Before that, the wizard formally introduced himself for the first time.
"My name is Shadowstryke," he said. "I was once a member of the Shadow Clan, the court wizards of the King of Ban."
"Ban?" Edward interrupted. "But that would make you hundreds of years old!"
The wizard simply nodded. "There was a time when living a few centuries was not so rare a thing. Indeed, the Dragons can speak of the first days of the world the same way you would speak of the founding of the old League of Seven, but we do not have the time for such stories. If you please, young Prince, do not interrupt me again."
When it became abundantly clear that Edward would not speak up again, the wizard continued, "For many years, we of the Shadow Clan honed our abilities while observing the progress of this world. We were oath-bound not to meddle in the affairs of ordinary mortals, but we did not hesitate to act in times of great necessity.
"Long ago, we sealed away a great evil, but not without consequences. The very same evil power corrupted Shadowbright, one of the most gifted in my order. Changing his name to Shadowblight and immersing himself in the dark arts, he wiped out the Shadow Clan and I alone survived.
"Shadowblight disappeared after that and did not reemerge for two hundred years. He returned with some master plan, the aims of which I can only guess. He was seeking a human ruler, possibly a puppet to grant him greater license to do as he pleased. His first attempt a hundred years ago ended in failure, but it was in the young Randwulf he found success at long last.
"Back then, I still adhered to the ethos of my order." He bowed his head. "I regret my inaction. I do not know what good I could have done twenty years ago, but perhaps things would not have turned out as they did." He looked up again, his eyes brimming with resolve. "This is my penance for failing to act.
"I have spent the past twenty years trying to uncover Shadowblight's true aims while moving to upset his plans. I do not believe Shadowblight himself realizes the gears that have been set in motion. I have gathered all of you here so that can put an end to it all while we still can."
"Well, that's all fine and good," Sonia commented, crossing her arms, "but what do we do?"
"What do we know about Randwulf's forces?" Mark asked.
"The Marauders returned from Byrn several days ago," Siegfried said, "but that is not all. Most of the Gladian Guard has been recalled to Darkwall. The garrisons have all been reduced by half or more. The attack on Cruz was but a foretaste. He is clearly aiming for a purge."
Although the circumstances had changed considerably, Mark saw no reason to abandon the plan he had developed after the group left Porto Sul. If nothing else, it would spur some debate on the best course of action.
"My companions and I were discussing strategy not too long ago," the swordsman began, "before we were blessed with so many allies. I believe the spirit of that plan is still valid. My companions and I will infiltrate the castle and eliminate both Randwulf and the warlock."
"And how do you plan on doing that?" asked the leader of the Sons of Greystone, a young man who called himself Boss Milby.
Gesturing to Ignatiy, Mark replied, "My friend Ignatiy here can make a concoction powerful enough to blast open a hole in the castle wall. We will confuse the castle's defenders with two decoy explosions and then make our way in.
Bertram, the old veteran from Stormtree, did not seem too impressed. "And how do you plan on approaching the wall in the first place?" he asked. "There's a moat there, you know."
"We have enough time to improvise a raft, do we not? Hollowing out a log should be more than enough for our purposes."
"If you're going to be using rafts," replied Boss Milby, "you need some good rivermen. Me and my boys will take care of getting you across quick and quiet. If your friend will teach us how to use that concoction of his, we'll handle the decoys, too. We'll even go into the castle to draw 'em off you."
Mark shook his head. "I can't ask you and your comrades to take that risk."
Young Conrad, who was acting as a sort of adjutant for Boss Milby, piped, "Hey, we're all in this together. Leave it to us."
A burly blacksmith named Gerard, one of the leaders of the loyalists from Eagle, leaned forward to make his own contribution to the plan.
"While we's talkin' of playin' tricks," he said, "I got an idea. We got plenty of the foemen's gear. We brung every piece of any count what we could get our hands on. The stuff we picked off the Guardsmen what caught ye is more'n enough. We almost got it all cleaned an' fixed up, too. What if we act like that lot was still bringin' ye in?"
"If Brenok hadn't escaped, it might work," Mark replied. "Besides, if most of the Guard has been called up, they'll be able to recognize a bunch of imposters right away."
"We just need to get in the gates," Gerard said. "Ye can't fight the whole Palace Guard and whatever else Randwulf and the warlock throw at ye, not on yer own. Let us get in and we'll deal with the common bodies."
Mark was not so sure. "It's dangerous," the swordsman warned. "They could capture and kill all of you before you do anything."
"Then I'll go with them," Giles volunteered. "I'm the only one who knows how Randwulf's men operate."
"You were one of the Five Generals," Edward said. "How do you think you're going to fool them?"
"I disguise myself as a common soldier and coach whoever's going to take the lieutenant's role."
"If that Brenok's given a full report," Sonia said, "they'd see right through the plan."
"Yes, but that requires the apprentice to be faithful and consistent," Giles noted. "From what I've seen, he's neither."
"That's true," Mark said, "but it's still an awful risk."
"So is trying to blast a hole in the castle wall without getting spotted by the guards on the ramparts. We cannot avoid risk in this venture."
"We will do our part to lessen the risk to Lord Mark and his team," Siegfried said.
"In other words," the pikeman replied, "you intend to use the main force to draw out the Marauders."
"Of course."
Giles furrowed his brow. "You will be outnumbered two to one. Those are not favorable odds."
"We can play the field to our advantage by using the forest as cover," Mark suggested. "Randwulf's men would be easy prey for the Rowanites and Amazons."
Mark's suggestion met with swift opposition from Bertram. "Fighting in the woods is no good against those people," he argued. "They'll just slash and burn their way through. How do you think the Crimson Forest got split in two in the first place?"
"How many fighters did you have back then?" the swordsman asked.
Bertram scratched his chin. "We numbered about forty score to a thousand of them. Better odds than we have now."
"But you and your comrades were exhausted," Mark noted. "The Marauders had chased you all the way across the kingdom. We've got fresh troops now, and, in my opinion, a more diverse fighting force." He glanced at Giles, asking him, "What do you think Randwulf will try to do?"
"Well," the pikeman said, "I imagine he'll play to his numerical advantage and try to surround us. It's essentially a siege. When we do sieges, the divisions are broken down into combined contingents. Irregulars will be in the very front. They'll be the ones you fight first. Skirmishers, mercenaries, conscripts. They're not particularly strong. They're only meant to soften up the enemy's front lines before the advance. The makeup of the unit proper is fairly conventional. Pikemen and spearmen will be at the front for first contact with swordsmen and axemen waiting to rush forward when the two sides get in close. The archers will be in the rear launching blind volleys until the two sides mix together. Then they'll move in closer to pick their targets.
"The Guard is something new. We've never used cavalry tactics before. I can only guess they'll be used to sweep in and harry the flanks, pursue any attempt to retreat. Guardsmen may not get much respect, but the crossbowmen are fair shots even while they're on the move. If they try to rush us, we'll need to pull spearmen together to take out their mounts. They're not much of a threat unhorsed. They've got lighter armor than the average Marauder and they tend to be less skilled as fighters. Mobility is their greatest strength.
"The Marauders are best suited for fighting in the open. They're going to avoid getting drawn into the forests unless they're destroying the cover as they advance."
Spread out on the table in the center of the tent was a rough sketch of the castle and surrounding area. Taking a stick of charcoal, Giles began to mark different locations on the map, explaining as he went.
"I see the main force lined up in front of the castle to push north toward the forest. They'll probably break of a detachment to come around on the western flank. There should also be a contingent here, in this bottleneck between the forest and the moat. This group will move on the eastern flank, using the morning sun against us."
"What if we just take our troops around the eastern edge of the forest and fight them at the bottleneck?" Sonia asked, tracing the path with her finger. "It takes away the advantage of their numbers and puts the sun at our backs."
"It leaves the camp exposed," Giles said. "Nothing would stop a detachment from charging in and wiping it out."
"It sounds like we should move the camp," the fencer replied.
"Where do you suggest?" Bertram asked irritably. "We can't afford to delay our attack for long. The palisades are nearly finished here. If we move somewhere else, the defenses will be much poorer. We need a secure place for our supplies, the noncombatants and the wounded. This is the best we've got."
Undaunted, Sonia offered a different variation on her plan. "Well then," she said, "how about we break off a few hundred to swing around. It'll keep the jokers at the bottleneck busy so they won't be bothering the east flank."
"Our numbers are too few to be spreading all over the place," Mark argued. "As it is, I don't like this plan for all these men to be entering the castle, but I'm willing to make the concession. We've got to give the main force the best chance against the Marauders we can."
"About that, how do we know Randwulf and the warlock will even be in the castle?" Sonia asked. "What if it's a trap? From what I've heard, Randwulf's thinking of nothing else besides getting his hands on Mark."
"Leave Shadowblight to me," Shadowstryke said. "He will not hesitate to answer my challenge personally. You should have no trouble handling the rest."
"And what about Randwulf?"
"Like you said, he's obsessed with capturing me," Mark said. "I don't doubt that he's thought far enough ahead to lay a trap for us. Still, our odds will be better inside the castle than fighting our way through the Marauders first." He turned to Giles. "That reminds me, what kind of unconventional forces will we be up against?"
"Well, counting the one you call Brenok, the warlock has six apprentices," Giles replied. "We can expect to face them. Then there's the warlock's creations. Randwulf doesn't like to use them, but they might show up anyway. Mark, didn't I hear that you've fought a Red Demon before?"
The swordsman nodded. "Yes, at Crimson Field, then in the swamp. Edward killed one there, too."
"What about the Threshers?"
"The what?"
"You mean those little green devils with the sickle claws?" Bertram asked.
"Yes, you know them?"
The old veteran stared at the floor. "They were at the Battle of Greystone, and at Crimson Forest. Randwulf sent them to distract us before the main charge."
"I've never seen them in actual combat," Giles said, "but we've been given demonstrations of what they can do. They're only about the size of a chicken and they jump like grasshoppers. They aren't especially strong, but they're fast and good at sticking their claws in the gaps in your armor. Unless they're being directly controlled, they'll start feeding once they make a kill. They're easy targets then. Also, they can't jump as far after they've gorged themselves. They're still dangerous, but not nearly as much as when they're hungry.
"We can't afford to trade one-for-one with our numbers," Bertram said.
"I never suggested anything of the sort," the pikeman replied curtly. "I was just stating the facts."
"Ah'd be obleig'd tae ye if ye till us aboot thae Reid Deimons," King Breandan said. "Thay soond a muckle mair dengeroos than thae Thrashers."
"Of course," Giles replied with a slight bow of respect for the Scotian King. "They're bigger than the average man, stronger, too. They've got sharp claws and even sharper teeth. Their hides are thick and their bones are hard to break. They've got plenty of ways to attack you. They bite, claw, kick, and stomp. They ram with their heads, gore with their horns and swing their tails. Any one of these attacks can kill a man outright. Although Mark and Edward have been fortunate, no one should try to take a Red Demon head-on. Or alone for that matter. Fight at a distance with spears, pikes and javelins. Arrows and bolts don't do much good unless you can get a heartshot." The pikeman's eyes swept across the assembly to make certain they appreciated the gravity of his words. "All of you, make sure that if your men see a Red Demon, killing it is your first priority, no matter what the Marauders are doing. They're that dangerous. Make sure they appreciate this."
"If that's all for the warlock and his creations, what else is there?" Sonia asked. "What about those people Randwulf sent after us in Arma?"
"Those were the Five Stalkers, the best of Randwulf's special operatives. We've already killed two of them. I don't know if the Assassin ever made it back here from the desert or not, but just to be safe, we should expect to see him. Then there's the Dark Knight."
"The Dark Knight is mine," Adrienne said, appearing suddenly in the tent.
The dhampir's exchange with the Guardsmen the day before had ruined her old set of clothes, forcing her to seek out a replacement. She wore the ragged cowl of a Niccolan anchorite, which was darker in hue and looser than the habits worn by normal members of the order. It was left ungirded, possibly to mask her movements. Although the cowl covered up her other injuries, her arm was still in a sling and bandages were wrapped around her eyes.
She flashed a characteristically devious smile. "Don't worry, I'll be sure to kill anyone who gets my way before we face off."
Edward was not the only one who looked at her incredulously, but he was the most vocal. "What can you do?" he scoffed. "Just look at the shape you're in!"
Adrienne flexed her right hand, which was supposed to be long since dead, and drew her arm out of the sling. Then, in front of everyone, she unwrapped the bandages to reveal her severed forearm fused to the stump as if they had never been separated. A fading scar was the only evidence that remained.
She then bowed her head as she unwound the bandages around her eyes. When she looked up, the others did not see empty sockets but her cold, steel-grey eyes. Seeing the shock on the faces of the rebel leaders, the dhampir grinned.
"I'm feeling better," she said.
Although her secret had been largely betrayed by her defense of Teresa, only Mark and Shadowstryke knew the full truth. Mark could only guess that this little display was a calculated move to emphasize her powers without revealing their origin. Before anyone could ask any bothersome questions or even think too deeply on what they had just seen, she moved to redirect their attention.
"You were saying, Giles?"
The pikeman continued his report somewhat haltingly. "Yes, uh, in addition to the warlock, his apprentices and creations, and the Five Stalkers, Randwulf has a small corps of spies and assassins. The Stalkers Algernon and Marcella were the best of each group, but there are plenty more where they came from. Randwulf deliberately keeps their identities secret, so we have to be ready for anything. There's a fair probability at least one of Randwulf's spies has infiltrated this camp.
"Surely Catherine could seek out any infiltrators," Mark said.
"If they had any inkling of her powers, they may have moved on before we arrived. It will be enough that Randwulf knows our numbers and location."
"Anything else?" Sonia asked.
"There is one," Giles said, "Randwulf's blunt instrument of choice."
"What's that?"
"A giant called Ursus. He's big, strong, and ugly as sin. I don't know if he'll be kept on the castle grounds or deployed on the front. Either way, we should be careful. He's getting along in years, but he's still more than enough of a threat."
"How about the leadership?" Mark asked. "More than anyone else, you should be able to tell us about that."
Giles nodded. "Naturally, Randwulf is at the top of it all. He won't personally take charge unless he's displeased at the way things are progressing. He usually just gives a general outline and expects us to execute. Below Randwulf are Cadmus Martial and Terentius. Cadmus commands the Marauders. He thinks very highly of himself, but he isn't particularly gifted as a warrior or a tactician. He's foul-tempered, domineering and completely ruthless. He dispels any conceit of patrician refinement."
A chuckle from Adrienne momentarily drew attention away from Giles.
"What's so funny?"
"He describes the old man so well," the dhampir said bemusedly. She then waved her hand dismissively. "Don't mind me. Continue."
Once again, Giles picked up where he left off, but his patience seemed to be wearing thin. "Terentius is the Captain of the Guard, both the Palace Guard and the Gladian Guard. He's hopelessly slow-witted, mocked by practically everyone. His subordinates hate him and plot against him at every turn. If he didn't have such a cunning wife, he would probably be long since dead."
"Pathetic," Edward grumbled. "Hiding behind the skirts of his wench."
"Maybe you could learn a thing or two from him," Sonia replied. "We'd all be better off if you had a woman to keep you in line."
Irritated by the interruption, Giles asked the fencer, "You volunteering?"
"The hells will freeze over first."
"Our time is short," Siegfried said, also tiring of the interruptions. "Could we please focus on the task at hand?"
Sonia held up her hands in surrender. "Alright, alright." She nodded to the pikeman. "Sorry, Giles. Go ahead."
"Below Cadmus is the Five Generals, the commanders of each division. As most of you know, I was the commander of the Pikeman Division before I deserted. Although the divisions are specialized, the units are often mixed when smaller forces are deployed. Most expeditionary forces numbering more than a hundred men is commanded by one of the Generals, just to make sure the mission is done right. I have no idea who replaced me as commander of the Pikeman Division, but I can tell you about the other Generals. Of course, I'm assuming they survived the campaign in Byrn. Who knows? Maybe some Byrnan got lucky. Anyway...
"Sven Leifson is the commander of the Axeman Division. You know Harald Svenson, the lieutenant we captured? He's General Leifson's son. They really are quite alike. Sadistic, temperamental brutes. He's recklessly brutal. If you can't outmuscle him, you can definitely outwit him.
"Einar Ulfson is the commander of the Swordsman Division. He can be a bit of a hothead at times, but he's got more self-control than Leifson. He's slavishly loyal to Randwulf and will follow orders to the letter, no matter if the situation dictates otherwise. You stand a chance against him if you can manipulate his lack of creativity.
"Reinard is the commander of the Spearman Division. He's very much a middle-of-the-road sort. He's low-key, which makes him hard to predict. He's more adaptable than Einar and not prone to grand-standing like Leifson. My advice: play him at his own game, a measured response that doesn't leave any openings for him to exploit.
"Then there's Sir Drusus, the commander of the Archer Division. He is probably the most gifted strategic mind in all the Marauders. He's patient and calculating. He keeps a tight rein on the men under his command. He will chew up an undisciplined advance. Above all else, don't be hasty when you go up against him."
"An' hoo can we ken whilk is whilk?" Breandan asked.
"Our armor is distinctive from the junior officers and common troops. Leifson is a short-legged ape with a big bushy beard that goes all the way down his chest. Einar's taller, slimmer and has a shorter beard. Reinard has a long moustache, but no beard, and he's the only General other than myself who carries a shield. Sir Drusus always rides a horse in battle, doesn't wear a helmet, has close-cut hair and is clean-shaven. Does that answer your question?"
"What do you plan on doing if Randwulf decides to lead from the front?" Boss Milby asked. "Getting into the castle won't do you much good if the prize is outside."
"On the contrary," Mark replied, "taking Darkwall will devastate the Marauders' logistics. There's merit enough in that. At any rate, now that I'm so close, I have the feeling Randwulf is going to let me come to him."
"Or there could be a massive ambush waiting for us," Sonia said, "have five hundred Marauders pounce on us and lead us to Randwulf in chains."
Mark was undaunted. "Well, one way or another, I'll be confronting him."
Sonia shook her head. "This is crazy."
"There is another strategy I feel I should mention," Siegfried said. "The brave souls gathered here do not represent the whole of our allies. Because the presence of the Guard has been reduced around the kingdom, our other comrades are currently assailing the garrisons to seize control of the cities. Everywhere but Corinth should be in our hands by tomorrow."
"I think those forces would be better used here," Giles said. "We can always claim the cities after Randwulf is dead and the Marauders broken."
"If we face setbacks here," the blacksmith Gerard noted, "we will have safe havens waiting for us."
"If we have 'setbacks'," Giles countered, "the Marauders will have no trouble retaking the cities one by one."
"That is why we mustn't fail," Mark said firmly. "It's too late to change the plan now. With the cities already in our hands, the transition will be easier once Randwulf is defeated."
"If Randwulf is defeated," Sonia said.
"Failure isn't an option," the swordsman insisted. "We mustn't even consider it."
Sonia was not so easily convinced. "We're going to be in a bad place without a plan if things go wrong."
Mark managed a weak smile. "If things go wrong, we won't be long for this world anyway, so I wouldn't worry about it if I were you."
Mark had unwittingly highlighted the desperate odds they were facing. A silence fell over the assembly. The swordsman knew that defeatism could take hold if they were left to think on their chances too long. He quickly moved to return the focus to the practical details of their strategy.
"Going back to our plans for getting into the castle," he said, borrowing the stick of charcoal from Giles, "I was thinking about setting the decoy charges here and here, but that'd be too dangerous if the Marauders deploy the way Giles thinks they will. We'll still enter through this northeast wall, but I think we should move the decoy charges to the south and southeast walls." He marked each location with a small X.
Ignatiy, who had been quiet the whole time, was suddenly compelled to speak up. "If we've got a bunch of people disguised as Guardsmen, how are we going to tell them from the bad guys?"
"Well," Giles said, "I don't think there will be any ordinary Guardsmen garrisoned in the castle for one. Also, anything we used to mark our allies will be picked up by our enemies."
"What if we wait until the fighting starts?" Conrad asked.
Gerard, who had come up with the plan in the first place, was none too convinced by the young rebel's suggestion. "Do you really think you'll have that kind of leisure?"
Not willing to give up just yet, Conrad thought on the problem for a while before coming up with a solution. "How about this? We tie a white kerchief or something like that around our arms and tuck it under the brigantine. Then when the fighting starts, we just pull it down."
"That might just work," Giles said. "At any rate, we need to be careful and not attack anyone who isn't attacking us first."
"Kinda hard to get the drop on someone, don't you think?" Sonia said.
"It's better than killing our own," Mark replied. The swordsman looked at the map and then at all the rebel leaders gathered there. It did not look like there was anything left to add, so he said, "Well, this is about as good as we're going to get it. Are there any other questions or complaints?"
No one said anything. Whether the leaders were all satisfied with the plan or if they simply wanted the strategy session to end, it was difficult to say. Whatever the case was, there was nothing to be gained by standing around in the tent, so Mark moved to wrap things up.
"Okay then, we'll leave small-scale tactics to the individual commanders. We need to move out before dawn. Ideally, the main force should engage the enemy the moment the charges blow. If there's nothing else, I say we close here. Everyone needs to be well-rested for tomorrow. Godspeed to us all."
With the session adjourned, the leaders muttered amongst themselves and exchanged words of encouragement as they exited the tent. They had prepared as best they could for the daunting task before them, but was it enough? Indeed, many of them were not likely to survive the battle, but such was the nature of war. Now was the time to steel their hearts, for come dawn, there would be no turning back.

* * *

Randwulf loomed over a map of Gladius spread out on the table in the map room. Cadmus Martial, Terentius, the Five Generals and Sir Vincentian were assembled before him to receive their orders. It seemed like only yesterday the same men had been gathered in the throne room on the eve of the Byrn campaign. In truth, half a year had passed, but now all his plans would come to fruition at long last.
"The time has come," the King told his men. "This is the day we have been preparing for. Byrn is in ruins, her people scattered. Now is the time for us to face the enemy within. Already they have massed at our gates. At least sixteen hundred in total, both traitors and their foreign allies."
Except for the emotionless Vincentian, all were visibly shaken at the news.
"How, how can this be?" General Reinard stammered. "How can there be so many?"
"One reason," Randwulf replied, "and one reason only: the son of Luther. He has gathered our enemies together and given them the courage to challenge us openly."
Cadmus was more than a little skeptical. "So Your Majesty believes this son of Luther is not only real but the leader of this rabble?"
"I don't have to believe," Randwulf said. "I know." The King placed a hand on his chest. "I have felt him. The moment he succeeded his father as the Guardian, there was no mistaking it." He nodded to Vincentian. "The Five Stalkers have confirmed as much."
"Even if he is real," Cadmus continued, no less incredulous, "Your Majesty gives him too much credit. Were you not the one who slew the father?"
"Do not underestimate the Elemental Knights," Randwulf said sharply.
Lest Cadmus incur the King's wrath, General Drusus spoke up, "What would Your Majesty have us do?"
"The main rebel force will form up before the castle as a diversion. You will ride out to meet them."
"A diversion, Your Majesty?" Drusus asked. "A diversion for what?"
"Their true objective is to infiltrate the castle. They want me, and I will be here waiting for them."
"Your Majesty, that is too reckless!" Terentius exclaimed. "Why play into their hands when we can make them come to us? They could not possibly overcome us in a siege."
"Coward!" General Leifson barked. "The Marauders will not cower from these churls! We will ride out and we will crush them!"
Terentius had neither the wits nor the courage to challenge General Leifson and was duly silenced. The axeman's bravado often did as much harm as good, but on this occasion, Randwulf saw fit to support such sentiments.
"Quite right," the King agreed. "The Marauders cannot show any weakness. Besides, I want them to infiltrate the castle. We are going to let it happen."
Drusus, who could not be cowed by Leifson, affirmed Terentius' fears. "But, Your Majesty," he said, "it is too dangerous."
"I will not be alone," the King assured him. "I want the son of Luther. His companions will be dealt with by the Palace Guard and the Stalkers." He looked to the Dark Knight. "I will be counting on you, Vincentian."
Vincentian bowed slightly. "Leave it to me, Your Majesty."
Randwulf placed his hand on the map, saying, "Here is how we will conduct the battle. The Marauders and the Guard will be mustered at dawn and divided into three units. The first two units will consist of one hundred mercenaries in the front, eight hundred Marauders and two sixty-man Guard detachments on either flank. The first unit will be positioned in front of the castle and commanded by Generals Leifson and Ethred." He pointed to a spot a short distance from the castle gates. His finger then followed along with his instructions. "The second unit will be located further west to extend the line of battle, support the first unit and close off the enemy's western flank. Generals Ulfson and Reinard, you will be in charge of this unit. General Drusus, you must hold this choke point on the north side of the castle. You will have eighty mercenaries, five hundred Marauders and two forty-man Guard detachments. Expect to be harried from the forest, but do not let them draw you in. If the opportunity presents itself, move in on the enemy's eastern flank. If the enemy retreats into the forest in any significant numbers, we treat it just like we did twenty years ago. Slash and burn everything in your path, steal their cover and beat them back until they are forced to surrender."
As he listened to the orders being passed down, Cadmus became restless, finally interrupting with, "Your Majesty, I--"
Randwulf thought nothing of the patrician inserting himself into the conversation. "Afraid you were going to miss out on the action? Relax, Cadmus, I have a special assignment for you. Take your pick of one hundred men to lead behind the enemy lines." The King pointed to the North Crimson Forest. "Your goal is here, the enemy camp. They do not have the numbers to afford a robust defense. Wipe them out, cut off the support to the main force. Once the camp is wiped out, hold your position to intercept an enemy retreat, delay them until the rest of our forces can catch up."
Cadmus clearly seemed disappointed at the seemingly trivial assignment given to someone of his standing, but nevertheless bowed obediently. "Yes, Your Majesty."
Meanwhile, Drusus pointed to a location where the treeline of the Ancient Forest came close to the moat of the castle. "Your Majesty, what about this choke point on the west side of the castle?" he asked.
"I doubt they will gather there," Randwulf said, "but if they do, we will not engage them unless they have somehow got their hands on any siege weaponry. Even if they have such equipment, I doubt they would use it while they are trying to infiltrate the castle. They will not want to leave their camp open to a direct attack and I do not think they will want to risk massing somewhere else as a ruse."
Drusus paused a moment before expressing his true concern. "Your Majesty, it has only been five days since our troops returned from Byrn. I fear they have not recovered enough for another full-scale campaign."
General Leifson scoffed loudly at this. "The Marauders are not made of such weak stuff," the axeman boasted. He then gave his fellow general a particularly contemptuous look. "You sound like the Savage with such lily-livered mewling."
Drusus returned the look with one of his own. "You would do well not to impugn my honor by comparing me to traitors, General Leifson."
"Enough," Randwulf intervened. "There is nothing to be gained by your bickering. This will be the men's incentive: I will be forfeiting my share of any plunder won on the field. It will be distributed amongst the men."
Several of them exclaimed at once, "Your Majesty!"
"I have no need of it," the King replied dismissively, "not that I expect our enemies to be bearing much in the way of riches."
"Your Majesty," Cadmus said, "I do not think this strategy of allowing the rebels to infiltrate the castle is prudent."
Randwulf could see that more than anything else, the patrician was trying to weasel out of the assignment given to him. Such a menial task was befitting a man such as Cadmus. At any rate, the King saw fit to take the comment at face value. There was no point in letting Cadmus know just how transparent he really was.
"I want the son of Luther and his companions," the King said, "and I want them alive. Rather than wasting manpower trying to capture them, why should I not let them come to me? I am no frail creature, Cadmus Martial. I have more than enough support on the castle grounds. They will enter here, but they will never leave. Focus on your mission. That should be enough for you." He then looked to the others. "Are there any questions?"
Terentius had been quiet ever since he was shouted down earlier, but managed to muster the wherewithal to speak up again. "Your Majesty, why do we not raise a levy and bring in conscripts to support our forces? Surely we could use the extra manpower."
"You lack vision, Captain Terentius," Randwulf said coolly. "The rebels and their sympathizers are but a fraction of the populace. If the people at large are unaffected, they will not care. I want their apathy." He paused. "That reminds me..."
With startling speed and violence, Randwulf overturned the heavy oaken table, nearly crushing the hapless General Ethred, clearing the way between him and the Captain. Before anyone could react, he sprang forward and delivered a stiff punch to the unsuspecting Terentius. Were it not for the Captain's helmet, the King would have surely broken his jaw.
As Terentius lay sprawled out on the floor, Randwulf stepped on his chest, holding the Captain down with his boot.
"That was for your foolish actions in Cruz," he growled. "Do you think I did not know about the rebel operatives working through the abbey? Moles bury deep." The King emphasized his point by shifting more of his weight on the foot holding Terentius down. "When threatened, they only dig deeper. I had them right where I wanted them, and you ruined it. You inflamed the locals and gave the rebels a whole host of martyrs. This is why you will never be anything more than a lackey."
Randwulf lifted his foot off the Captain and walked to the door. As he was leaving, he told his men, "Ready the troops. It begins at dawn. You are dismissed."
Cadmus and the Five Generals filed out of the room, leaving only Vincentian and Terentius. The Dark Knight looked down at him scornfully.
"You're such a sterling example to all of us, Captain," he said. "Thanks to you, we all know what not to do."
As Vincentian walked out of the room, Terentius struggled to his feet. His jaw throbbed from the King's punch. It was a small price to pay for incurring the wrath of Randwulf the Conqueror, but this was not how it was supposed to be. The attack on Cruz was not his idea, but he had been assured it would be a major coup against the treacherous forces at work in the kingdom. Then again, perhaps the most treacherous forces were not the ones who openly sought the King's overthrow. Whatever the case, one thing was certain: this battle would be his last chance.

* * *

With the strategy session over, Mark knew that the best thing for him was to get as much rest as possible. Everything was riding on this battle. He had to be at the top of his game. Still, not all of his companions were able to attend, and he wanted to check up on them. After all, there was a very real possibility he might never see them again.
While he was walking, he noticed someone sitting near the edge of the camp, removed from the tents and everyone else. Mark recognized the person as Giles and wondered why he was by himself. Just to be safe, the swordsman thought it best to make sure nothing was wrong.
"What are you doing here by yourself?" Mark asked.
"I just wanted to clear my head a bit," the pikeman said.
"We're all nervous."
Giles looked at Mark in mild surprise. "That obvious, huh?" He shook his head. "How I ever managed to lead men into battle is a mystery..."
"You've got the most experience of any of us," Mark reassured him. Switching gears, he asked, "What are our chances? Be honest."
The pikeman looked at Mark for a moment, as if he was weighing his options. "If it was anyone else, I wouldn't be honest. I don't doubt the courage of these volunteers, but too few are professional soldiers and the ones who are have seen a few too many winters. I can't speak for the Armans, but my hopes aren't too high. The senior Marauders are the very people who conquered Gladius and the younger troops have been battle-hardened in the Byrnan campaign. Randwulf had it planned from the start. If he couldn't capture you in Byrn, he'd deny you an ally and give his men the experience they needed to crush any attempt to strike out against him."
After a brief pause, Mark asked, "Is it hard for you to face the Marauders again?"
Giles bowed his head. "Most of them are greedy, back-stabbing criminals, but they're the only family I've known since I was pressed into service. No one could say I was well-loved, but even so..."
"Are you going to be okay?"
"Don't worry about me," Giles said, lifting his head back up, "and don't worry about them." He rested a hand on Mark's shoulder. "Focus on Randwulf and Randwulf alone. If you can best him, all the other pieces will fall into place."

* * *

The Dark Knight Vincentian stood impassively, leaning against the wall of the barracks. Thanks to Brenok's meddling, the Stalkers' mission to subdue the son of Luther in Arma ended in failure. Two of the King's prized operatives were dead, and yet the Stalkers were nevertheless charged with the vital task of confronting the son of Luther and his companions here on the castle grounds. Vincentian vowed to prove himself worthy of the King's faith, but it could all be for naught if that accursed trickster interfered again.
Speaking of the devil, Brenok appeared suddenly, no doubt with the intention of tormenting him as usual. The Dark Knight pretended to ignore him.
"Looking forward to the big battle, Sir Knight?" Brenok asked.
"I follow orders," Vincentian replied bluntly.
"Aw, that's no good. You've got to enjoy your work. Like me." The apprentice grinned broadly.
"You enjoy yourself because you only seek your own pleasure."
"You got me there. Are you waiting on someone?"
Vincentian did not answer him. He hoped that Brenok would eventually get bored and go somewhere else.
Brenok clapped his hands. "Oh, you're probably worried about our friend Tariq. I forgot about him."
Drawing out his rod, Brenok began to chant a spell. After a few moments, Tariq the Assassin appeared before them, covered in sand and dripping with sweat. By the looks of it, he had been walking in a desert just before Brenok called him back.
"So good to have you back with us, Tariq," Brenok said cheerily. "How did your little adventure go?"
It took a moment for Tariq to realize what had happened and where he was. Once he saw Brenok, he was immediately thrown into a rage.
"Fiend!" he howled, swinging his sword to cut down the conniving apprentice where he stood.
Aided by his powers, Brenok dodged the sword easily. He was not the least bit frightened of drawing the Assassin's wrath.
"Now, now, now. No need for violence. Not here, at any rate."
Vincentian put his hand on Tariq's shoulder. The intervention was enough for him to rein in his temper.
"I went to the Triad," Tariq said, "but that Nasrani and his companions were not there."
"Oh, you must've just missed them," Brenok said. "Perhaps if you didn't waste time with those silly prayers of yours, you wouldn't miss out on so much."
Tariq was moved to draw his sword again, but Vincentian intervened once again, this time putting himself between the two. The Dark Knight would have loved to see Brenok dead, but now was neither the time nor the place. For the time being, he thought it best to inform the Assassin of their situation. Perhaps that would be enough to distract him from his burning desire to hack Brenok to pieces.
"The son of Luther and his companions will be coming here," Vincentian said. "Our orders are to keep them busy, capture them if possible."
"What of the Nasrani?" Tariq asked tersely. "The blood-guilt of the old Franj is on him. I demand his blood."
"If you mean the son of Luther, he belongs to the King. We will see that he reaches the throne room safely. If you interfere, you will have to face me."
"Monster!" the Assassin barked. "Do not think that I fear you!"
"You should," the Dark Knight said coolly.
"Come now, gentlemen," Brenok chided, "we mustn't quarrel amongst ourselves."
Vincentian glared at the insincere mediator.
"This is all your fault," the Dark Knight said. "If you hadn't killed that old knight, we wouldn't have this problem."
"I seem to recall it was your sword that killed him."
"Guided by your witchcraft."
Brenok shrugged. "Well, let bygones be bygones, shall we?"
What Vincentian wanted to do was take the very sword Brenok had used to kill the old knight and split the treacherous apprentice right down the middle, like a piece of firewood. However, it was not a wise course of action on a number of levels. He had little choice but to stay his hand and make sure Tariq stayed his.
About that time, the giant Ursus lumbered over to where they were gathered. He was too blunt and instrument for the Five Stalkers, Vincentian thought. His only advantages were his size and strength. There was no real skill to it, but regardless of his qualifications, he was now counted as one of their number.
Brenok greeted the giant, almost sounding like he cared, but not quite. "Ah, Ursus, so you've decided to join us? How nice. We're all assembled."
"All?" Vincentian asked. "There's only four of us."
"Well, Algernon's replacement is already out there amongst the enemy."
The Dark Knight did not like the sound of that.
"Even Algernon would not risk that, and I doubt this person has even half his skill. What about the mindwalker?"
Brenok waved his hand dismissively. "Oh, don't worry about her. I made sure she won't be causing too many problems. She still clings to the flesh. That's her greatest weakness, and I exploited it." He paused. "Well, I suppose it's her second greatest weakness. The second follows the first. Cause and effect. Her greatest weakness is the reason why she continues to cling to the flesh." The apprentice paused again, this time licking his lips. "I look forward to taking that away from her."
Vincentian's face did not betray any response to Brenok's little display. Officially, he had been purged of emotion. Indeed, if the heart could be compared to a fire, then at best all that remained were smoldering ashes. Even so, the Dark Knight could not help but feel a touch of pity for those who were about to fall prey to the mad apprentice.

* * *

Mark entered the hospital tent. It was only big enough for a couple dozen cots, sure to be grossly inadequate once the fighting started. A few survivors from the abbey and a couple Ziphite physicians were milling about, checking supplies and tending to the handful of patients currently there.
Jasper was leaning against on of the tent poles, watching Teresa change the bandages of a wounded man. Mark nodded to Jasper and then called out to Teresa.
"How are you doing?"
Teresa was still in shock after learning what had happened to the abbey. Also, she had a habit of being unreachable while she was preoccupied with a patient. Between the two, she did not seem to notice Mark's question or even acknowledge his presence.
Jasper answered for her, "She's ben wo'kin'. Doktrin' thim o' owl peple. Oi kin't seh Oi seh 'ow she duz i'."
Mark recognized the man Teresa was tending as one of the Guardsmen they had captured. Three of his comrades were lying in nearby cots. Indeed, it was difficult for the layman to understand why she was helping the very people who had slaughtered her brethren.
"It's my job as a healer," Teresa said quietly.
The swordsman felt bad for her, but what she was doing was probably the best thing for her. On a related note, it reminded him of the reason why he had come. It was not simply to check up on her.
"Teresa," Mark said, "I want you to stay here at the camp and treat the wounded who come in."
Teresa simply nodded. It was terrible what she was having to go through, but at least she was not alone. Mark turned to Jasper.
"Thank you for staying with her like this. I know you'd rather stay here with her, but we're going to need you tomorrow."
"Oi noo," Jasper said. "Oi doan' won' tah leve moi gel boi 'ersel', bu' sum of 'er mahnk frinds ar' 'eyah, too."
One of the Niccolans checking the supplies walked up to Mark. He was an older man, probably in his fifties, but showed little sign of infirmity. He was healthily stout and his gait vigorous, much like Abbot Octavius. Judging by the shabbiness of his habit, Mark guessed that he was a mendicant friar.
"Master Mark, I presume?" the friar asked.
"That's right," the swordsman replied.
The friar smiled warmly. "It's good to meet you," he said. "The Father Abbot spoke of you often. He had such high hopes for you. I think he would be pleased to see what you've accomplished."
The swordsman shook his head. "This is the wizard's work, not mine. I can't take credit for it."
"The wizard provided the how," the friar said pointedly. "You are the why. Why have all these people come together in this place? It's because of you."
"I really don't think--"
The friar interrupted him. "Would you care for a walk? Come with me, frater."
It would have been rude to turn down the offer. Teresa was holding up well under the circumstances and at any rate, Jasper was with her. There was not much he could do by staying. Also, he had questions that he hoped the friar could answer.
After exiting the tent, they walked for a while without any words passing between them. There were things Mark wanted to know, but he was not sure of how to go about asking. As if he could read the swordsman's mind, the friar finally took the initiative to speak.
"I know what you're thinking. Go ahead and ask."
Despite the invitation, Mark was nevertheless hesitant. "Were you, were you there... when it happened?"
The friar slowly nodded. "Yes. And now for the next question." He looked off into the distance. "Don't hold back on my account. I brought you out here so you could ask without upsetting Sister Teresa."
"Will you tell me how it happened?"
The friar took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, as if he was preparing himself to tell the story. He started slowly, "As you may have realized, our brethren outside of Cruz are few. Few of the patricians or other lords have ears for the Evangel. Ever since our brothers converted the pagan Thebes to that shining city on a hill it is today, they have distrusted us, seen us as a threat to their power. Not many people are moved to outrage when our kind is persecuted. That is the backdrop for what happened. Above all else, it happened because the Guard knew it could get away with it.
"Now, as you know, the Father Abbot was always loyal to the Mountain Kings. I should know. I was a chaplain for the army and I remember when he was still a common soldier who dropped in on my sermons from time to time. You also know that he was collaborating with various groups bent on Randwulf's overthrow. I won't deny that I helped him. After all, it is easy for a simple friar to travel about unmolested, easy to pass messages hither and thither." He paused, biting his lip. "Either through our carelessness or some enemy within, we were betrayed.
"The Guardsmen rode in a hundred strong, led by that man you now hold captive. Svenson..." He said the name with all the venom usually reserved for the Devil himself, actually quivering in anger as he said it. "God forgive me, but I will curse his name to my dying day."
He had to stop for a moment to restore his composure. Once he was ready, he continued, "With the garrison blocking the gates to ensure no one got out, they charged into the cathedral and the infirmaries, which are the only ways to get to the abbey's interior. I did not see what they did, but I can only imagine. Then they poured into the abbey proper. It was as if Hell itself opened up.
"Most of the adults were slain, cleric and layman alike. The tertiaries, God bless them, they tried to protect us, if by no other means than using their bodies to slow down the Guardsmen. Some townspeople rallied to the abbey's defense, but they were too few and too weak. We got most of the foundlings out, thanks be to God, and some of the more precious relics. Most, but sadly not all."
He stopped once again. Although he deliberately looked away from Mark while he recalled the terrible story, it was all too clear how much he was suffering. Somehow, he found the strength to keep on going.
"The Father Abbot had planned for something like this and had secret tunnels dug. The survivors were able to take refuge on the estate of Lord Godfrey, one of our brethren. Even that Svenson, a plague be on him, would not dare encroach on a nobleman's land. However, I cannot say for certain that he bothered to track those of us who managed to escape. He was too busy desecrating our sanctuary, killing, looting and burning."
The old friar sighed. "More than five hundred of our number were killed. If only we could have held the Guardsmen back longer, more could have been saved. By the time the alarm was raised, they were already in the abbey grounds. Like lambs to the slaughter... That's how little chance we stood against them..."
"And the Father Abbot didn't get out in time?" Mark asked.
The friar laughed ironically and shook his head. "The brave fool picked up a pitchfork and declared that a shepherd does not abandon his flock, that he would be the last to leave." The friar finally turned to face Mark and the swordsman could tell from his tear-stained cheeks that he had been weeping ever since he began retelling the tragic events of that black day. Smiling weakly, he added, "Though I may bring judgment on my head, I hope he was able to take a few of those wolves with him."
Mark bowed his head. "I'm so sorry."
"For what?" the friar asked. "I brought you out here so I could tell you." He rested a hand on Mark's shoulder. " You needed to know. Everyone should know what happened and we should never forget it. And if you are feeling some sort of misplaced sense of responsibility, stop it. There was nothing you could do. You have nothing to be sorry for. The blame rests entirely on the shoulders of the men who did the deed and the one who commands them: Randwulf. It is up to you to bring Randwulf to justice." He straightened himself and made the sign of the cross. "God be with you, frater."

* * *

Harald Svenson lay on the ground of the prisoners' tent, chained to a stake along with nine of the survivors from his unit. The rebels had not yet killed him, but it was only a matter of time. If only that accursed apprentice had not ran out on them...
While he was stewing over his impending doom, a cloaked figure slipped into the tent through the side, apparently trying to avoid the guards' attention.
Sitting up, the lieutenant looked suspiciously at the figure. "Who are you?" he demanded.
"A friend," the cloaked figure said.
Although the light was exceedingly poor, Harald was able to make out the outline of the figure just well enough to recognize who it was. The sight alone was enough to make him angry.
"Rubbish!" he snapped. "You're one of them!"
"Keep it down, would you?" the figure said. "You want to hear what I have to tell you."
Harald scowled. It was not like he had anything else to do with his time.
"Fine. Spit it out."
With no small amount of snideness, the figure remarked, "What a charmer you are. Are all Gladians so lacking in refinement?"
The lieutenant's patience was wearing thin.
"Either tell me what you've come to tell me or get out."
"So be it. I am no ally of these people. I am on your side. The band of miscreants we know so well has left the Five Stalkers short-handed. I have been selected to fill one of the open positions."
Harald did not believe what he was hearing. "You? A Stalker?"
Even in the low light, Harald could see the flash of the figure's teeth.
"Yes."
"Well then, what are you waiting for? Cut me and my men loose so we can regroup with the rest of the Guard."
The figure held up his hand. "Do not be hasty. We have another use for you."
"And what would that be?"
"Once the main force rides out tomorrow, the defenses of this camp will be weak. A detachment will be coming to raze the place. With you and your men here on the inside, its collapse will happen all the faster. With no place to return to, the enemy will be set adrift. Finishing them off after that will be no great task."
Harald grinned. "I like it, but how are we supposed to fight them? You don't really expect us to challenge the guards bare-handed, do you?"
"I will provide you with the weapons you need. All you have to do is be patient, and be ready."
With that, the figured slipped away with the same stealth he used to get in. Harald thought about his options. It could be a trick, an excuse to get around that nun's plea and kill them off. Then again, if that man had really been recruited into the Stalkers, this would be his last chance. If he were rescued as a prisoner, no lie could save him from the dishonor of his capture. He had to take this opportunity. It was the only way.

* * *

There was one last place Mark wanted to visit before turning in for the evening. Largely due to her status as a noblewoman, Catherine was sequestered in a small tent all to herself. Naturally, Stefan was there with her. When Mark entered, he saw that she was still a long ways from a full recovery. She was lying on a cot, in a heavy-lidded daze.
"How are you doing?" the swordsman asked.
Catherine's head feebly tilted in his direction. With considerable effort, she reached out to him. Mark walked up to her and held her hand, ignoring the dirty look he got from Stefan.
I am weak. The drugs Brenok used on me were more potent than I expected. I used up much of my power to send you from mind to mind to overcome that dream spell. It will take me a long time to recover. I am so sorry. I wish I could be of more help.
"You've done more than enough already," the swordsman said. "Leave the rest to us." He looked to her bodyguard. "Stefan, we're going to need you out there."
"I know," the fighter said. "Lady Catherine has already instructed me to help you."
With the little strength she could muster, Catherine squeezed the swordsman's hand.
Listen carefully, Mark. The plots run deep here. Wheels within wheels, plans within plans. Be careful. Of course Randwulf and the warlock are dangerous, but I fear Brenok will be the greatest threat. Kill him if you have the chance. He cannot be allowed to live any longer. With every breath he takes, more and more people suffer.
Mark nodded. "I understand."
No, you do not, but at least I have brought the threat to the forefront of your mind. There is so much I want to tell you, but time and circumstance works against us. Pausing, she managed a faint smile. Be careful, my dear, and come back safely.
"I will," Mark vowed. "I swear it."