For a heartbeat, the battlefield stood still. Heath felt his breath freeze as a swirl of emotions tumbled in his chest. Nambu stood tall in his blackened armor, helmet discarded to the side, his hand still raised in the air. Looking down from the height of the sloping road, the ranger could see everything in the small courtyard below him.
A moment of apprehensive silence passed. The Alerian soldiers held their positions, cautious and confused as they looked around. As the bandits hesitated, several of the soldiers shifted, and Heath saw the familiar readying for an attack.
“Hold!” Cassian’s voice cut through the silence, causing the lines to flinch and draw back from each other. Heath saw the young man’s hand raised, but his entire posture and focus was on the tall bugbear standing in the center of the line of raiders.
Nambu stepped forward, placing a hand on the shoulder of one of the bandits, dipping his head towards him ever so slightly as he passed. As he passed their line, Nambu threw down his blades towards ranks of uncertain and bloodied Alerian soldiers.
As he held out his hands in front of him, Heath saw the lines of darkly-clad raiders slowly take one step back, then two. Cassian stepped towards Nambu, the Alerian soldiers moving to encircle him. A handful of the raiders hesitated, and they were quickly surrounded as well, though most broke back towards the walls in a hasty retreat. They dashed towards rough timber ladders and broken sections of the village walls, fleeing as their leader knelt before Cassian Romero. The young soldier gave them no mind.
He stepped up to Nambu as the bugbear’s wrists and arms were manacled and chained by two soldiers, looking down at him. They were too far for Heath to tell if words were exchanged, but he could imagine what transpired between them.
Nambu and the other captured raiders were quickly hauled to their feet, and marched back up the road towards the larger ring of Valenwood. Heath gave a single scan of the fields beyond the broken walls of the village, catching the last fleeting glimpses of figures vanishing over the hills and into the sparse woods to the west.
As the first soldiers approached flanking the restrained bugbear, Heath met Nambu’s eyes as they passed. He held what he hoped was an emotionless, cold stare, one that didn’t betray the conflicting emotions he felt inside. Nambu met his eyes, briefly, and in the moment Heath saw remorse and bitterness move across his face, though not an ounce of regret. It was the look of a man resigned to an unforgivable task, but who had made peace with his decision. It caused a shard of ice to grow in Heath’s stomach. It was a look he knew well.
Following behind the soldiers and their shackled prisoners, Cassian slowly plodded up the road with Svrcina at his heels, her dark staff clutched in her hands. Heath saw weariness in Cassian’s eyes and concern in his sister’s expression as she watched her brother carefully. As he moved to walk past him, Heath reached out and grabbed Cassian’s arm.
“Tell me you know what’s going on.” Simple. Not a question. A statement that was meant to focus a soldier like Cassian, shaken as he may have been at seeing an ally standing against him from across the battlefield.
The young man looked up to meet Heath’s gaze, and the ranger saw how uncertain and conflicted he was. It passed in an instant, but it was the first time Heath had seen Cassian’s confidence break. His head hung forward and his sword rested wearily on one shoulder.
“I need to talk to him,” Cassian muttered, as much to Heath as to himself. “He said we shouldn’t be here, that we’ve made it worse.”
Svrcina clutched her brother’s shoulder, giving Heath a worried look.
Clenching his jaw, Heath reorganized his thoughts. “Are we still in danger here? Do we have their captain captured, and does that mean they’ll scatter? What do we know?” He asked forcefully, holding his grip on Cassian’s arm.
He just shook his head. “I don’t know,” he said quietly. His gaze drifted around them at the smoldering buildings and scattered soldiers dragging bodies from the roads. He shook his head, it seemed to focus him somewhat. “I need to talk to Nambu. I need to get him to talk.”
His eyes went distant as he pushed past Heath, and the ranger let him go. He had resolved to do a difficult thing, confronting a friend like that. Heath knew it wouldn’t be easy, especially for a man like Cassian. For even in the weeks he had known him, Cassian had a very clear mind for what was right, what was wrong, and what was honorable. He wasn’t a man that compromised well or often. It would be wrenching to see someone he viewed as an ally and leader betray him.
As he walked off, Heath looked at Svrcina. “He said nothing useful then?”
She shook her head, eyes locked on her brother as he walked away. “Only that we should not be here. I think he knew the others would get away, and I think we would be wise to expect another attack. Their break away felt more like regrouping than a retreat, and I think it was at his behest.”
“I worried as much,” Heath growled, resolving not to let his personal feelings for Nambu cloud his judgement. “Go with him, he’ll need you. Find out whatever you can, anything that might aid us.” He looked around, eyes moving from the men and women around him to the buildings to the walls of the village to the sinking sun in the sky above. “I’ll see to the village and our defense. Once you’re done, we can make a plan for what comes next.”
Svrcina gave him a cautious look, as though he should not be the one coordinating a defense, but nonetheless nodded and strode after her brother.
With a small shake of his head, Heath turned his attention to the remarkably poor situation in front of him. The remaining Alerian soldiers were bloodied and tired, and were torn between looking to Cassian and their commanding officer. Heath turned his attention from them, they wouldn’t heed his order, nor did he wish to extend his focus to them. It wasn’t his place.
The people of Valenwood had started to come to the center of the village as the sounds of fighting had stopped. A few were wounded, more were smeared with smoke, but they were all frightened. Cornered prey, he thought sullenly.
He went to work quickly, asking with accentuated brusqueness which of the men were still able to fight, which were hunters with keen eyes. A few he sent to the Alerian soldiers, telling them to assist in restoring the gate or barricading it. He found a dozen men with hunting bows that he sent to the outer walls. Two he sent to the road overlooking the lower ring. He told them to keep vigilant watch, roaming across the platforms that rings the inside of the walls, never staying still for long. He positioned men inside the walls with torches, waiting to spread the word should any returning raiders be sighted. It wasn’t much, and it was a thin defense, but it might give them enough warning.
The rest of the villagers were gathered in a cluster of stout buildings towards the center of the upper ring. A few cooking fires were kindled as the townsfolk came together as the sun dipped towards the horizon. Heath had watched as the captured raiders had been taken into one of the abandoned houses, and Nambu into another. Guards were posted outside both. Cassian had gone into the house holding Nambu, and Svrcina had remained outside, glaring at the Alerian soldier on guard until he took a few steps away from the doorway.
Convinced that there was little more he could do to make the ragged gathering of villagers into a defending force, Heath saw to the Alerian soldiers at the gates before slipping over the walls. None of the villagers or soldiers saw him vanish, and it didn’t offer him any satisfaction how easy it was to move past them unseen.
Moving low through the tall grass in the failing light, Heath’s careful movements and mottled cloak made him move as a shadow as he carved a wide arc from the walls of Valenwood. He moved northward, the direction towards Alerian, then swung towards the west, the direction he had seen the surviving bandits flee.
The northern boundaries of the village were bare and open, with little concealment for any scouts or approaching raiders. Heath was confident that the fields held no threat, but the path that led to the cliffs overlooking Valenwood, along with the dense shrubbery and forest above, brought less confidence. With too many shadowed outcroppings and nestled recesses, Heath consigned himself to the fact that whether the north was clear or not, they would have to treat it as though raiders were there. There wouldn’t be time to properly clear it, and even then, it would be too easy for a small group to slink their way over and insert themselves. There would be no safe escape to the north.
Moving to the west, the valley extended farther. Wheat and grain fields that were partially burned in the attack stretched close to half a mile before arriving at the outer reaches of a light forest and gentle hills where the shallow valley became more narrow. Tall, thin trees dotted the landscape with twisted trunks and rising branches towards their canopy. They would offer some cover to anyone watching Valenwood, though far from total concealment. Moving through the fields, Heath went from a low crouch to a crawl, trusting himself to be smooth, slow, and silent. It took nearly an hour before he reached the halfway point to the edge of the trees, arcing diagonally through the grain fields of Valenwood.
As he crouched low, he craned his eyes to scan the edge of the forest and the dim shapes at the edge of the fields in the failing light. The sun had nearly fallen beneath the edge of the horizon, and Heath strained to pick out any detail. Slowly, a dozen shapes distinguished themselves from the dense scrub brush that covered the ground and the twisted trees. Watchers. Scouts. All arrayed across several hundred paces, keeping a quiet and careful watch on Valenwood. They kept still, waiting and watching. None of them had the bearing of anticipation or expectation.
Heath allowed himself a small breath of relief. It would be unlikely that they were awaiting an immediate attack. He watched for a while longer until the failing light of the sunset fully faded before continuing his wide arc back towards Valenwood.
He crested the broken walls of the lower ring of the village, and walked in the open up the path towards the upper ring. Reaching the town center, he saw several more bonfires had been lit, with groups of villagers and Alerian soldiers circled around them. Heath saw the stationed guards outside the low houses where Nambu and the other raiders were being held. At one of the fires, Cassian sat conversing with a handful of soldiers, including the officer who seemed to be in charge. Svrcina leaned against a house a few yards back, quietly watching her brother and staring out in the darkness.
Heath carefully walked over to the guarded tiefling, leaning against the wall next to her. He pulled his hood back, looking towards Cassian.
“What did Nambu say?” Heath asked, keeping his voice low.
Svrcina took a long breath, letting it out with a heavy sigh. “Not everything, but enough. Cassian didn’t tell me much, but from what he did and what I overheard, Nambu has been tied in with this group for some time. They follow a man called the Bloodbeast. They’re bandits and raiders who have been ravaging the countryside for a while now, but only recently have made their way this close to Aleria.”
“Nambu. Most of these men fought alongside him in the war. They fought beyond the frontlines as raiders and saboteurs, often on their own and without support. That was back when Nambu earned a fearsome reputation for brutality amongst the Alerian army and the southern forces. Back when he earned the name Bloodbeast himself.”
“So they’ve been following him? That seems unlikely, he’s been in Aleria for months.”
“You’re right. It sounded to me like another took the name Bloodbeast to rally the former soldiers together. They did some pretty awful things during the war, and the Alerian army seemed content to scatter their company when the peace was settled. They had few options, and most of them turned to banditry. Nambu seems to think it started as desperation, but it’s only gotten worse.”
Heath nodded slowly. “Then how did he get mixed up in all this? Kriv said he’s only seemed off recently, only a week or so.”
“That’s where we don’t know, but I think they have something, or someone, he cares about. He just kept saying, ‘I can’t, I have to go back.’ He sounded hopeless that he was captured. ‘I have to get back, or they’ll kill her.’ I didn’t hear more than that.”
“And anything about an attack? Retaliation of any kind? Or any word on why they needed him?”
Svrcina shook her head. “No, nothing. Cassian seemed convinced that the bandits we captured are a liability, but won’t do anything since they’re prisoners.” She took a breath, weighing her words carefully. “This shook him. He’s looked up to Nambu since the Guild started, felt a kinship with him I think. They both fought in the war, and I think they both brought their own ghosts back. I don’t know if they ever talked about it, but just knowing that they weren’t alone… that there was someone else who understood. I can’t imagine what he’s going through.”
Heath clenched his jaw. He forced himself to breathe. “Well, you won’t find out lurking back here.” He said gently, gesturing towards the group with his chin. “Come on, we could all use a little companionship tonight. Who knows, may be our last chance.”
With a small nod, she followed him over to the fire where the soldiers were conversing in low voices. Immediately, their faces all turned to Heath and Svrcina, but with a nod from Cassian, the soldiers all visibly relaxed. They offered simple expressions of thanks, but no words came. Svrcina lingered at Cassian’s side, her hands clasped together, and looking torn between wanting to hold to her brother and trying to give him his space.
As the silence held, Heath got the clear sense that they were interrupting something. Not unwelcome, but the camaraderie between soldiers was something he and Svrcina weren’t privy to. Looking across the fire at Cassian, Heath caught his eye.
“There are watchers on the walls, they should be in place through the night in case anything happens. Did they get the gates repaired?”
Cassian nodded. “Well enough. Commander Elrin’s troops barricaded the broken front gate, and the side gate was repaired.” He continued staring into the fire.
Heath resisted the urge to roll his eyes. Have one ally end up on the other side of the battlefield and he gets mopey and contemplative. He pushed the biting contempt back, recognizing his own fractured response to Nambu’s betrayal. He leaned back, looking across the faces of the soldiers around him. Worn. Scarred. Several bearing fresh wounds, bandaged simply.
“I think if they attack, it won’t be until the morning.” Heath continued, carefully studying the men and women around the fire. “I counted at least ten escaping over the walls. They reached the woods to the west. The road to the north is too exposed with too many vantage points for an ambush. I ranged out past the walls, and the road looked clear. But it’s too exposed to the ridge, and too large to cover. The road isn’t an option for an escape or evacuation.”
“Damn,” the Alerian officer muttered, a handsome elven man with a scar across his left cheek. “I would have felt better if we could at least send some of the civilians towards Aleria in case we get overrun.”
“If they go past the walls and they have archers up there, they’ll all be dead before reaching the top of the road. I’ll guarantee that.” Heath turned to face Cassian. “Their camp must be to the west. That’s the direction they fled, and I spotted a dozen scouts at the edge of the trees watching the village. So there clearly are more than the ten that escaped. They were waiting, and it didn’t look like they were preparing for an attack at sundown, so I think we have until dawn.”
“Dawn…” Cassian mused, almost to himself. “Defending a village from a second assault, bloodied and exhausted against an unknown force. Who would have known.”
Heath pursed his lips. “We couldn’t have known any more than we could have known who was fighting with them. What matters is what we’re going to do about it.” He held Cassian’s gaze. “So tell me what the plan is.”
The young man stared forward for a moment longer before stirring himself. He looked up with renewed strength. “We defend Valenwood. We’ve pulled back to this ring, this is where we make our stand. The three of us will coordinate the defense on the walls while Commander Elrin holds the square awaiting any potential breach.” He looked over to the elven officer. “His heavy infantry will be best served on the ground. The remaining Alerian troops will support the villagers with us on the walls. We’ll position them along the entire length of the walls, at regular intervals. One archer with one skirmisher to defend them. Once we know where an attack is happening, we’ll coordinate the defense in that direction. No part of the wall is ever unmanned.”
Heath slowly nodded. It was simple, and it left their forces widely spread, but to defend Valenwood meant their few numbers would always be a liability. One of the soldiers spoke up.
“Is there no way to get word to Aleria? We cannot evacuate civilians, but maybe one rider could slip past in the night?”
The Alerian officer looked at the man, a young half elf. “Are you volunteering?”
Determination in his gaze, the young man nodded. “If it means we might have a better chance of saving lives here, then yes.”
“I’ll also go,” another man said, a craggy faced human with grey in his beard. “Two have a better chance than one.”
“I might be able to help,” Svrcina said. “As long as you have no aversion to magic. I have a spell that temporarily allows me to transmute your form, shifting you into a creature. An owl, something at home in the dark and quiet. If we send one rider with two horses, they have some chance of reaching the road safely. If they’re successful, the rider can join you who flies farther up the road. If they don’t make it, you’ll be on foot, but will have a better chance of breaking any perimeter the raiders have.”
Cassian looked to Commander Elrin. “What say you? These are your men.”
Nodding slowly, the elf agreed. “If they understand the risks, then see that it’s done. Rest shortly, we’ll make horses ready to leave within the hour.”
The rest of the night settled into quiet preparations for the soldiers leaving. Cassian and Svrcina gave the soldiers messages for Guild #237 and Commander Elrin gave each a written missive for more troops. Through a darkened gate, the grizzled human rode fast on two horses and a few minutes later, a white snowy owl took to the air on quiet wings, wheeled once in the sky then flew north.
Svrcina settled in to sleep in the partially burned husk of a hut, resources tapped from the prolonged events of the day. Cassian remained around the bonfire with the Alerian soldiers, while Heath settled close by against the exterior of a building wrapped in his cloak. Cassian took initiative on the defense of Valenwood, working with the local militia and the soldiers under Commander Elrin. Heath was content to let them worry about the details, it would be enough to keep the young Romero occupied.
Both Cassian and Svrcina had interrogated Nambu, as well as the other raiders they had captured. Very little of what they had said was useful, and they had been left in their chains for the night. Heath had no desire to go speak to Nambu, nor to allow himself the possibility of further interrogation of the other prisoners. He wouldn’t condemn Nambu, Heath had no right. But neither would he excuse the decisions he had made. His choices had put him there, had brought him to that point where he was chained to a post and helpless, and he would have to endure those consequences.
As Heath stared at the darkened doorway to the hut, he felt a cold determination settle in his chest. These were the results of Nambu’s choices, despite what all had happened in his past. He had been too stubborn, or too weak, to ask for help in fixing this problem. Perhaps he was too proud to be seen as the cause for all this trouble. And as a result, there would now be more lives lost and more blood would be shed. With a spike of empathy, Heath knew this would be something Nambu would have to live with, and with an unforgiving determination, hoped it would be something he would never forget.
As the village slowly grew quieter, the circle around Cassian began to share stories and reminisce about their time in the war. Even amongst the villagers, several were veterans of the War for Vengeance, and there was a shared experience that drew those men and women together. As scouts slowly walked the walls of Valenwood, former and current soldiers alike passed wineskins around while low conversation drifted through the night air.
Bits and pieces met Heath’s keen ears, and though the warmth of a fire and brotherhood has a draw for all men, he held himself at a distance. There was a distinct openness that he saw in Cassian, a willingness to speak about things that he hadn’t shared readily even with the guild since Heath had been there. From low mentions of wartime and soldiering, of memories and nightmares shared, a heavy weight settled onto Heath’s soul as he sat and watched from the outside, feeling more and more like a stranger as he saw the bonds of men and women who had fought and bled and sacrificed.
As he slowly nodded off to sleep, the gentle reminder of his demons haunting his memories echoed in his ears, made louder with those around the fire speaking them to life.
The next morning, Heath rose early. The sun was hidden beneath a blanket of fog and mist that hung to the grassy hills that encircled the valley which held Valenwood. Within the valley, the mist sat low in the fields, giving everything a ghostly feel though only obscuring the ground. In the distance, he could still see the faint shapes of the tangled trees of the forest to the west. And somewhere in those trees, the raiders of the Bloodbeast would be waiting.
Cassian had been up before dawn as well, quietly moving through the Alerian soldiers and the militia. By the time the fields surrounding the village were visible in the morning light, Svrcina stood atop the walls of Valenwood with pairs of Alerian soldiers and Valenwood huntsmen. Heath was carrying the last of the bundles of arrows to the walls when Cassian pulled him aside.
The young man ducked his head, and spoke with his voice low. “Nambu’s gone.” Heath started suddenly, but Cassian grasped his arm to hold him in place. “Stay quiet. It’s not a mistake, I left him a dagger last night and told him to make a choice.”
Heath remained motionless. There was a steadiness back to Cassian in the morning, something he had missed the night before. “Why?”
“They have his daughter. This Bloodbeast. The man who took the name. They told him to take Valenwood, and that it must be done in entirety, otherwise she dies. So there will be an attack, likely very soon. If he joins in the fray, we treat him like any other enemy. He’s made his choice. Our job is to protect these people now.”
Heath nodded slowly. “To the defense of Valenwood then.” Without another word, he walked away towards the walls.
Climbing to the narrow walkway above, Heath stood on the south western corner of the wall. More than half of the defenders were arrayed across the platforms. The plan was Cassian’s by design, created the night before with help from the Alerian commander. Whatever misgivings Heath felt, he kept them to himself. Valenwood would be difficult to defend, and an organized force could only accomplish so much with reduced numbers. He would trust Cassian, he had been the one to speak with Nambu, he understood the strategies of soldiers, and more important than having an ideal defense plan was to have a dedicated and unified front. Having the defenders already split between listening to Cassian and Commander Elrin, questioning their plan would only fracture them further.
The villagers were positioned across the walls of the upper ring of Valenwood. The huntsmen carried strong yew longbows, and stood vigilant as they looked out across the misty fields. Each archer was positioned within running distance of each, and each was paired off with a single Alerian soldier to defend them from any attackers that reached the walls and began to scale them. The remaining soldiers were positioned in the town square with Commander Elrin, waiting to defend the barricaded gates should they be breached, or in the case of attackers clearing the walls in an attempt to open the gates from the inside.
Heath was positioned on the corner to the south west, with views towards the forest the raiders had retreated to, as well as to the lower ring of Valenwood. However unlikely, he didn’t want to rule out an attempt to fight through the buildings towards the upper ring. Cassian would take the western wall, above the western-facing gate. Svrcina was positioned opposite Heath on the northern wall and above the main gate. She had the most elevation from her wall, and would have a view of the entire upper ring of the village, as well as any movement revealing a flank to the north or the east.
It was Svrcina who spotted the rider first, as they came down the winding road from the north. Too far for Heath to make out any details, a call from a sentry drew his attention to the heavily armored figure astride a brilliant white steed that flew across the ground, effortlessly riding towards Valenwood. Heath lost sight as they fell beneath his view from the far wall, but the barricades at the northern gate were quickly removed as the tall figure entered the courtyard, leading his mount.
Heath felt his tension relax as Cassian strode forward and clasped the rider on the forearm. Throwing back a heavy riding cloak, Heath recognized the familiar helmet of Iden, the champion knight of Heironeous. Cassian greeted him warmly, and gestured towards the north, with Iden only shaking his head.
So no others will be coming, Heath thought.
Cassian nodded, and motioned towards the gathering of Alerian soldiers in the courtyard. Iden clapped the young man on the shoulder and jogged over to join their ranks, pulling his battleaxes from his belt. Slightly encouraged, Heath turned his attention back to the fields.
On the far hill to the west, where the shapes of trees were just shadows in the mist, figures began to materialize. They were arrayed side by side, all standing together up from the mists. They were closer than Heath had expected. They must have crawled through the fields in the low mist to get closer.
Standing in a show of force, Heath felt his heart sink as he counted more than two score figures. The defenders numbered barely thirty. He spotted ten pairs of men, each carrying something long. Ladders. With a rising shout, their battle cry echoed across the fields of Valenwood.
Heath barely noticed the startled reactions of the defenders who had only just begun to notice the gathered raiders. Cassian began shouting orders as the Bloodbeast’s forces shouted and chanted, shaking their weapons as they slowly began to advance through the mists. Cassian shouted to the defenders atop the walls to reposition, shifting the focus to the west while not leaving any other wall fully exposed. Heath took a long slow breath as he pushed the orders from his mind and ignored the clusters of shaken men around him.
He calmly drew an arrow from a quiver that leaned against the wall at his feet. As he nocked the arrow, he kept his gaze on the warband of the Bloodbeast striding confidently across the fields towards the village. He gently caressed the goose feather fletching. It was a good arrow. It would fly well. Heath knew his bow. He knew its reach, he had been the one to make it.
Watching the warband, Heath carefully judged their distance. They had stood at close to five hundred paces from Valenwood. Close enough to startle the defenders, but far enough away to approach unseen in the low light of the morning.
They reached four hundred paces, keeping a slow pace as the chants continued. Slow enough to allow the dread to sink into the defenders. Heath took a slow breath, settling his breathing into a steady rhythm.
The warband reached three hundred paces, closing in on what his old bow could reach. That had been a thing of beauty. He could stretch this bow that far, but Heath needed certainty. He needed to be sure.
Two hundred and fifty paces. Heath watched their line, how quickly the men were walking, which of them stumbled. He found one man near the center of the line between two ladder groups with a clear stretch of ground before him where the knee high grass was barely swaying in the wind.
Heath drew back on the longbow, angling it up towards the sky. He counted in his head, measuring time between heartbeats, no longer watching the men as they walked. In a moment, it felt like the world held its breath as even the gentle morning wind stopped.
With a snap, he released the bowstring and the arrow shot into the air. It arced upward, nearly vanishing against the pale sky. The approaching raiders must have seen him silhouette atop the walls aiming upwards, and some gestured and shouted in his direction with raised weapons.
The jeers cut off suddenly as the man Heath had marked in the center of the line toppled to ground, a bloody arrow protruding from his neck. At two hundred yards, the details of the figures were still barely distinguishable, but all Heath needed was his hold. The line stumbled to a ragged halt as the bandits looked amongst themselves in disbelief. Their reactions were predictable, they were frozen just within his reach.
With only a quick look, Heath sent another arrow which punched through the chest of another bandit, this one farther down the line. Shouts filled the air, shocked and then angry. The bandits rallied and fell into a jog towards the walls of Valenwood, those with shields raising them as they ran.
With their halt and slow start, Heath sent one arrow after another into their line as they crossed the open field. He sunk arrows into the meat of men’s thighs as they raised shields to protect their heads, and shafts of death carved through exposed chests and necks of those who ran without shields or carried ladders. Emboldened by his actions, several villagers raised their own bows from the walls to send arrows of their own.
“Hold,” Heath called between shots. “Hold until they get within fifty paces of the walls. Make every shot count.” Despite consolidating their resources, the archers on the walls only had a meager supply of arrows, and they had to make them last.
By the time the raiders of the Bloodbeast reached the walls, half a dozen of them lay dead or dying in the fields, another dozen bleeding from arrows loosed from Heath’s bows. He had stopped two ladder groups and slowed another, while the Valenwood huntsmen had stopped another. The raiders reached the western wall with shouts and a hail of their own arrows as they raised their ladders and began to scale them.
Within moments, multiple skirmishes broke out along the western wall. Cassian was quickly surrounded as attackers spilled up the walls, barely slowed by the beleaguered defenders. Heath shouted to the men on the southern wall to reposition to help the other defenders, as he pivoted to face the western wall. Half of the defenders on the south-facing wall rushed to reinforce the western wall, as Heath sent two arrows into one of the raiders harrying Cassian.
A shout from the north wall caught Heath’s attention as Svrcina pointed outward, past the walls. Another attack, this one from the north. She split her forces, rallying some to hold against the western wall attack while the others focused northward. A flash of armor indicated Iden was moving, and the massive knight hurled two javelins into a raider that crested the western wall close to Svrcina.
Heath took a quick look to the south, but saw no sign of a flank from the fields or the lower ring of the city. Small comfort, he thought dryly. He sent more arrows into the attackers on the west wall, they had already divided the defenders and were threatening to spill into the village. Cassian shouted a rallying cry, and a thunderous boom cracked through the air. The bodies of multiple attackers flew through the air as the defenders rushed back into position. One shouted to shove the ladders down. Heath saw blood on Cassian’s face.
An explosion shook the ground suddenly, and black smoke belched up into the sky from where the smoldering remains of the northern gate lay. Iden immediately rushed towards the ruined barricade where a dozen black armored figures were already rushing in. The Alerian soldiers in the square were only steps behind, long pikes and heavy shields held in formation.
Gritting his teeth, Heath spared one last glance to the south. Still no attackers. They needed a decisive shift.
“To the western wall!” He shouted, pointing to the other men on his wall. “Defend them! Push them back!”
Without hesitation, the men ran to join the fray, barely starting to resist the onslaught of attackers. Heath held his position, holding hope that if any assault would be coming from the south, he would see it before it was too late. He fired one arrow after another, picking off attackers that broke onto the western wall, those that went for the backs of defenders, or where they seemed to be about to overwhelm the bloodied defenders of Valenwood. The quiver at his feet was already empty, and the one next to it quickly emptied as well. The defenders began to hold, then they started to push back the raiders. Then they held the upper hand.
Through the crisp morning air, a single horn sounded. The raiders immediately broke off the attack, several leaping from the tops of the walls instead of attempting to climb down the ladders. A cheer rang out from the battered defenders, but Heath stoically pressed himself to the rough-hewn wall and drew another arrow.
With a clenched jaw and every ounce of self control, he held the black anger at bay as he sent one arrow after another into the backs of the fleeing raiders. There was no honor in it. And he took no pleasure in it. Four more black garbed men fell into the grass with arrows in their backs before Heath lowered his bow. At least a dozen had made it past his range, and they vanished over the low rise and into the trees.
Heath looked around. More than a score of the raiders lay dead, several in the field, more on the wall to the west. Bodies where the gates had been defended showed Iden and the Alerian Guard’s effectiveness. He also saw nearly the same number of defenders were either dead or badly wounded. The Alerian soldiers were exhausted and bloodied. Any triumphant feelings at repelling the attackers had quickly faded at the realization that they wouldn’t survive another assault.
Soldiers and huntsmen alike began dragging bodies from the walls into the central square of Valenwood. Those few who weren’t wounded remained on the walls, watching intently to the west. The others quietly settled into binding and treating wounds. Heath walked over to where Svrcina was tightening a bandage to Cassian’s side while he took a drink from a waterskin. He was covered in blood, but it looked like only some of it was his.
Cassian raised his head in greeting as Heath approached. “They’ll be back, won’t they.” The hunter nodded. “Are you wounded?” Heath shook his head. Cassian grimaced as his sister tightened the bandage and gave it a pat. “Then make ready, we’re going after them.”
“Leave the village?” Iden asked, walking up wiping blood from one of his battleaxes. His heavy armor clanked, and his voice echoed from within the full helm that obscured his features. “They have the advantage in numbers and training, wouldn’t we be better to defend from within the walls?”
Cassian shook his head, and stood up with Svrcina’s help. “We don’t have the numbers to defend Valenwood, not after our losses. No, we’re going after them. Just us four. To finish this. More of them escaped, but not so many that we can’t handle them. They’re just as wounded as we are, this is the best chance we’ll have. We can’t afford to let them regroup and rearm.”
Heath nodded. “He’s right. They won’t expect it. The sooner we leave, the less time we give them to reorganize. They didn’t expect us to be here, their plan today was rushed at best. If we give them time, they’ll find a way to get into the village and cut our throats before we know it. We need to finish it before then.”
“Then arm up,” Cassian said. “Gather what you need, I’ll see you at the gates in five.”
Heath walked over to the southern wall, refilling his quiver of arrows and slinging a second over his shoulder. He gave a few short words of direction to the huntsmen, then met the others at the gates. With unspoken determination, Cassian gave them all a nod, turned to the west, and set off at a run. As they ran, Heath fell into step next to Svrcina.
“I didn’t see Nambu in the field,” he said between breaths. He assumed she also knew about Nambu’s escape.
“I didn’t see him either,” she replied, almost hesitantly as she ran with short, powerful strides. She paused, as though reluctant to speak. Her voice held a hint of worry. “I’m glad he wasn’t there, but… I hope his capture… I hope nothing happened to his daughter.”
Heath wondered at the truth of the matter, but kept his thoughts to himself. The ramifications of the day would be Nambu’s to carry. Heath wouldn’t allow himself to feel that guilt.
The pursuit from Valenwood followed the shallow valley Heath had scouted the night before, and the heavy boot prints of the Bloodbeast’s raiders were easily tracked. The scattering of trees became a light forest no more than two miles from Valenwood. Another few minutes of running through the trees, Cassian slowed to a jog, then came to a stop. He raised his head, holding his hand up. Heath smelled it.
“Smoke,” Cassian muttered.
“Their camp is close,” Heath whispered, quietly stalking forward past the Romero siblings. He took the lead, gliding silently through the trees while the other hung back twenty paces. It wasn’t long until he spotted the camp.
Barely more than a collection of tents and rough timber barricades, Heath immediately saw it as the work of former soldiers. The defenses were strong and were given far more attention than the shelters. He saw clusters of darkly clothed raiders arranged within the circle of tents, many of whom were in various stages of having their wounds treated. As Cassian, Svrcina, and Iden crept up beside him, Heath pointed to the center of the camp.
A tall figure stood in heavy black plate armor, similar to what Nambu had been wearing, though this armor was onyx black with a red rune scribed on the front. The Bloodbeast. Next to the figure, and the object of his focus, was Nambu. The tall bugbear was shackled to a post, his arms manacled above his head and fastened to the post by chains. Even from a distance, he looked badly beaten and bloodied.
Just as Heath was about to suggest a flank to ambush, the shift of metal to his side indicated that Cassian was already moving. Before his heavy sigh could be contained, Cassian rose and strode out from beneath the trees towards the camp. Svrcina and Iden quickly moved to follow, leaving Heath shaking his head.
Shouts rose from the camp as a sentry noticed the group walking from the trees. Heath counted a dozen raiders forming up with weapons. Most were wounded, and he saw a handful more who were too badly wounded to fight. The black armored knight strode forward through their ranks, a longsword in his hand as he called a challenge.
Cassian rallied forward with an ice cold determination, settling into a run as he hefted his massive two-handed greatsword, matched by Iden’s battle roar from his left. Svrcina dashed beside him, a crackle of arcane energy wreathing her body as the scythe blade formed at the end of her staff. Two beams of pale magic carved through the air from her raised hand.
Before they had time to react, two of the raiders collapsed to the ground with steaming craters in their chest. Seeing her opening move, Heath sent two arrows arcing over the heads of his allies into the chest of another raider, dropping him. He got two more shots off, dropping another brigand before the two groups collided, arcs of magic erupting from Svrcina as Iden and Cassian met blades with the forces of the Bloodbeast. Heath saw Cassian lock blades with the black armored knight, likely the one who had taken the Bloodbeast name, just as a heavy thunk came from the tree next to him.
He spun to see a second arrow splinter into the trunk less than a foot from his face. He ducked, dropping to a knee as he drew an arrow, searching for his target amongst the trees. Simultaneously, two more arrows flew towards him. One cut his shoulder, the other punched into the thick leather of his chestpiece, driving the breath from him.
He saw two figures darting through the low cover from the camp, clad in dark clothing and hoods with longbows trained on him. He made it behind the tree as their follow up shots impacted the wood. Heath grunted, feeling the scrape of the arrowhead in his armor against his skin. He snapped the shaft, and steadied himself.
He circled the tree, quickly sighting and loosing one arrow at each of the archers. Both stumbled as they both found their mark, but they slowed to fire shots of their own. Heath ducked behind the tree, but felt the hot burn as one arrow cut across his leg. Grimacing, he ignored the pain and drew another arrow.
Separated by nearly a hundred paces, Heath traded shots with the two archers, moving through the trees and making use of whatever cover they could. Even outnumbered, Heath’s accuracy and experience served him well. Both archers soon fell to the ground unmoving, and Heath leaned heavily against a tree, blood flowing from multiple wounds.
At the cusp of the camp, Svrcina and Iden cut down the last of the raiders, the air abuzz with magic and the scent of blood. Cassian centered a missive kick into the chest of the Bloodbeast before slamming his sword into the warlord’s chest, his roar eclipsed by the thunderous crack that erupted from the greatsword. The smoking body fell backwards into the dirt, unmoving.
The few surviving raiders fled. Scattering into the trees, most fell to Heath’s arrows and Svrcina’s magic before the remaining six disappeared from view. Heath tore a strip from his cloak and tied it around his leg to stem the flow of blood. His other wounds still bled, but none were threatening.
He limped slowly down to the camp, giving a nod to Cassian where he knelt next to the body of the Bloodbeast. The others quickly went and released Nambu, who stumbled to a large tent on the edge of the camp. Heath focused on clearing the battlefield, methodically checking the bodies of the slain and then the tents. He looked for any markings or identifications of other affiliations, anything beyond the unfamiliar red rune that adorned the chest of the Bloodbeast’s armor. Whatever reason they might have declared to Nambu, Heath had to be certain the raiders had been acting on their own accord, and not on the orders of another. He found no sign, only remnants of former soldiers who had desperately turned to savage banditry. Each man wore a version of the same red rune, either emblazoned on their armor or on an armband. He collected each one.
Before long, Nambu returned from the tent with Iden and a cluster of people following him. They were battered and filthy, and the hostages of the Bloodbeasts raids. Nambu thanked the group, promising to explain everything in Aleria. He said he would see the hostages returned and resettled at their homes, and that he had to see to it before returning home to Aleria. When Cassian moved to protest, Nambu stubbornly shook his head. Svrcina rested her hand on her brother’s shoulder, and he reluctantly relented.
As the group made ready to return to Valenwood, Heath looked to the trees and told Svrcina that he would meet them at the village. Without explanation, he set off into the forest.
Before the sun reached its height at midday, Heath limped through the fields surrounding Valenwood towards the village. An old, and frighteningly familiar, coldness arose from him. His jaw was clenched as his fist tightly held a clump of six bloody black rags, all adorned with the red rune of the Bloodbeast. His quiver was empty. His hunt completed, he handed the adornments to Cassian without a word. With silent acknowledgement, Cassian took them and they never spoke of it again.
The Romeros relayed their success to Commander Elrin, and the group returned to Aleria while the soldiers remained in Valenwood. Over the next week, the Alerian Guard oversaw the rebuilding and reconstruction, returning to Aleria as their relief came to escort them back. At its conclusion, 78 men and women lost their lives in the attack and following defense of Valenwood. The raiders following the Bloodbeast were finished, with the few survivors brought with them to Aleria for trial and judgement. The brave efforts of the men and women of the Alerian Guard were celebrated, as well as the huntsmen of Valenwood for their heroic efforts. Commander Elrin saw that Cassian Romero and the members of Guild #237 were offered special commendation for their actions.