Blood and Hatred in Semmerholm
The smoke from dozens of pillaged farms and small manor houses scarred the sky as Bitterblade paused on top of the tower. He dug his claws into the stone battlements and inhaled with satisfaction in the morning light. Wet winter mud, smoke from burning Dawnish lands, and the sweaty busy stink of the army gathering below, the Great Northern Offensive of the Druj Superiority.
He turned. Apart from the three-story watchtower he was perched on, the manor house of… some Dawnish twit… was a sprawl of small buildings and a large hall. As per his instructions, Toad 17 had already begun ripping down the roof of the hall, and he could see the first Seers setting up tables within. There was a slapping of leather on stone, and a call echoed up the stairwell. “General, it’s Sharkey, got the despatches and your horn!” As his aide gained the top, Bitterblade released his hold on the matt-black sword that he took his name from. It grumbled in the back of his mind, an acrid yellow presence thirsty for blood.
Sharkey, a short and wide orc with a big nose, paused at the top of the stairs, panted for a moment, and then passed his superior a bullhorn and a roll of parchment. Bitterblade unrolled the latter and scanned the contents. “If you can’t take these stairs, Sharkey, it’s a damn good thing I didn’t command the Southern Offensive into the mountains….”
“No chance… heh… of that General. ….heh…. You still want payback for…. Heh…. Holberg.”
“Breathe. Nobody’s poisoned you…”
Their yellow eyes met with a toothy grin at the old joke, which they finished together, “yet!”
“Are the hordes assembled down there, Sharkey?”
“All but Manticore 1, they’re a few hours out. They sent a runner, they’re just sacking a keep, apparently they ran into some actual opposition.”
“Ah, Manticore 1” Bitterblade gave a toothy grin of pride. “Well, they can catch up.”
He turned back towards the battlements, and raised the bullhorn. It was warm to his touch, with the enchantments running through it, of clarity and volume.
“Hello boys and girls, and welcome to Dawn!”
He was echoed by a rowdy cheer from the tens of thousands of orcs gathered below.
“I hope you’ve been enjoying yourself so far, hang on a second…”
Bitterblade dramatically scanned the vista of ruins and destruction, shading his eyes with one hand from the weak morning sun, to a rumbling laugh from the army.
“Yes, you’ve had a busy week or two! I’ve got some news for you burnhappy lot, but are you all here? Manticores?”
A roar from a mass of armoured orcs near the front.
Whoops erupted from a low rise covered in green-cloaked orcs.
A forest of halberds stabbed the air above the horde.
There was much stamping of feet in time for a few beats.
“We’re behind you!” came a rolling call from a swarm of orcs sitting at the back of the horde. Bitterblade gave them a long-suffering glare.
“Get a hobby Scorpions…. Good news Druj! Our seers have just got a look at General Grashnak and the Southern offensive! They’re pushing back the preachers in the mountains, and the wizard towers are burning on the heights!” (A cheer rolled around the army for a moment) “and the Black Wind are even making themselves useful!” Another laugh, which Bitterblade let die out.
“But for us, we’re about to get some decent action! The Dawnish have finally got off their fat arses and are coming to give say hello! We’re expecting three armies of them, so there should be enough to go round… I know some of you may be a bit disappointed, but it seems this is the best they can do! They had a fourth lot, but it seems it’s stuck up to its neck in walking dead! Even their own dead don’t like the Dawnish!”
He let them digest that for a bit, before the bad news.
“Now, as they haven’t got enough bodies to throw down your throats, the Dawnish have had to call up the pixie armies as well! I know this will annoy some of you, yes Scorpion, I do mean you… because once you stab them up, they bloody vanish! But there’s plenty of damn Summer faeries to go round, so you should all get a go!”
“Of course, we’ve got a few tricks as well…” Bitterblade looked over his shoulder to behind the manor house, where a handler prodded something heavily on cue. There was a rumbling bellow, and an answering cheer from the army. “So we’ll try to get a good fight and not kill them all off too quickly! Now the Dawnish will be along this afternoon, so have a bit of a rest and a bite to eat while we wait. We’ll be fighting them around here… unless you’d like to head back thataway?”
Bitterblade waved a hand at the mountains to the east, and was answered by a chorus of “No!” “Stay here!” and “No stepping back!” He grinned. “Good lads! Warchiefs will be coming round with orders later! And finally!” He paused for effect. “I want you to fight damn hard today! Remember your comrades, felled outside the walls of Holberg! Remember how the Empire cut off the Stone Toad in Reikos and butchered them! Remember how they turned our friends against us! I want to see them drowning in their own blood this day! And is any of you feel that you’re getting tired and want a rest…. Remember, this could be your last chance to get some Dawnish vengeance! We beat them now, we might just wipe the buggers out forever! So fight! All day, and all night if we have to! Let this battle be the dusk of the Dawn!”
“That is a fuckton of summer fae.”
“Yes sir,” replied Sharkey. “Good thing they glow in the dark.”
“Aye, it’ll take hours to kill them all….”
Bitterblade swept his gaze across the battlefield from atop the tower. The Dawnish armies had charged straight at him and got stuck in hard and fast to his west. Typical. The Summer knights, though, had swept across the ground with elegant grace and formed into one huge army to his north, from which lines of glowing troops, cohorts of singing archers, and (he checked again through a spyglass) antlered knights riding antlered fucking lions, were charging his lines.
Muttering to himself, he decended the stairs to the hall. Seer-Captain Ghosteye nodded to him as he entered. Behind her was an array of tables, each with a wide basin, each watched carefully by a Druj seer. A knot of runners stood, bouncing from foot to foot or stretching out muscles, beside the doorway.
“Status of Manticore 1 through 10?” Called Bitterblade, causing a dozen seers to stare fixedly into their scrying basins.
“Heavily engaged, holding well, light casualties, Sir!”
“Runner! Order Toad 15 to 20 to Manticore 1 through 10! Orders are to relieve and rotate!” A runner darted up to Bitterblade, repeated the orders, and dodged past to Ghosteye, who gave him swift directions, without looking up from her own crystal mirror, to where he needed to go.
“Status, Wyvern 12! 13! 14!” Wyvern 12 had taken the most recent charge from the lion knights.
“12 is routing out Sir! 13 and 14 are in position and holding the line”
Bitterblade grunted in satisfaction and nodded approval at Ghosteye. She didn’t move, but grinned. The Seer Council had been here idea, and had needed a lot of work, but was a hell of a lot better than the usual confusion of outdated run messages.
“Runner! Order Wyvern 15 and 16 up to support Wyvern 13 and 14. Orders are to back them up and hold position!”
“Runner! To the Beastmasters, instruct them to make their charges ready, it’ll be dark soon enough!”
A gravelly voice cut through the room. “General Bitterblade.” Commander Jorkesh of the Viper army had spent too long inhaling smoke in the retreat from Reikos, and he sounded annoyed at the best of times as a result.
“Jorkesh, you should be with your troops….”
“Bitterblade, the Dawnish are fighting… wrong…”
“You can’t tell from up here. But in the front lines…. They charge, they slash, they fall back when they need to…. But they aren’t pressing in as hard as usual.”
“Hoping their faeries do the heavy lifting?”
“It’s the Dawnish, sir, when have you known them not to charge, all the time, whenever possible?”
“Then what are they doing?”
“Getting tangled. I’ve got knots of them holding behind my lines. I’ve got knots of mine holding behind their lines. My Vipers are holding ground and not doing anything stupid… but so are the Dawnish.”
“Runner! Orders to Toad 7 through 12. Move up to support Vipers, crush Dawnish pockets if practicle! Use them well Jorkesh, and watch out. It sounds like a trick.”
“General…” a much sweeter voice slid into the conversation, from Ghosteye, “you should head up top. The Knights of Ellionaris are doing something… I can’t really describe…”
Running up the steps, Bitterblade had a moment of sympathy for Sharkey, and a shortness of breath as he retrieved his spyglass. The Summer Faeries, he soon saw, were… flickering. Never easy to count at the best of times, in the early twilight they were glowing and should be easy to distinguish, but they were blurring into each other, like reflections in a disturbed pool of water… and then they parted, and in a flash of sunlight a figure strode forth from among them, looking like a tall muscular human male in shining armour, with the head of a great lion and a mane of… metal shards. He stood nearly eight foot tall, and the pixies around him were cheering. He gestured, one hand holding a long curved sword of apparent glowing crystal, the other demanding cries from his followers. Bitterblade could hear their cheers faintly across the battlefield.
“Sir, sir!” The trouble with this damn tower was that to watch the field you had to have your back to whoever came up, and Sharkey narrowly ducked as the Bitterblade hummed over his head, with an air of disappointment and a yellow vapour trail.
“For fucks sake Sharkey! Do you want to die choking?!”
“Ghosteye says… heh… the fae….heh…. Are concentrating and redeploying energies… heh… of the Summer realms… heh… sir!”
“Redeploying? How? Where?”
“Dunno sir, neither does she.”
The General swept up his telescope to watch. The night was coming on swiftly, and the Summer fae drew the eye, and he could see four glowing mists forming amongst their ranks. Why? It wasn’t as if they needed the light, and the Druj were fine fighting in any light, the only ones who’d find the dark a problem would be the Dawnish…. And then the mists focussed, and contracted, and four huge birds, each the size of a war-rhino, leapt skywards from the ranks of Summer, glowing like a bonfire and trailing sparks. Beneath them the battlefield, on the edge of night, lit up into a warm hazy twilight, illuminated by the quartet of circling phoenixes.
“General… heh…. I didn’t know they could do that.”
“We live and learn, Sharkey. But I don’t think it’s going to get any darker, do you?”
“Not unless you deal with those… oh General… oh please, can I give this order?”
Bitterblade grinned. “Go for it. Their cages and Beastmasters are just out the back. Don’t get bitten when they open up.”
Sharkey dashed back down the stairs, and Bitterblade returned to scanning the field. He leant over so he could shout through the opened roof. “Runner! Orders to Scorpion, 18, 19, 20! Orders are to move up and rotate in for Scorpion 3 and 4!”
A bellow rose from just down the hill. “Beastmasters of the Druj! Your General commands! Tear down those firebirds! Release the harpies!”
Bitterblade laughed as a dark cloud erupted from the Druj support wagons, and swept overhead, resolving into wiry and dark skinned bat-winged humanoids against the sunset. The harpies had been a right pain all the way from the dark forests of the eastern lands, and they stank of rotting meat, but they looked terrifying as they swept upwards.
Glancing down at the field, he saw several formations on both sides had stopped to watch the clash overhead. “Runner! Oi pay attention you dozy barrack rat! Orders to Manticore 16 through 20! Move up to Manticore 11 through 15! Orders are to replace and rotate out!”
As the runner dashed off, he looked up again. The screeching of the harpies had been joined by the trumpeting scream of the phoenixes, and the harpies, vicious buggers that they were, had swarmed the nearest firebird and almost covered its light. The screaming both sides intensified, and there was a small explosion, then fiery feathers, and a few charred harpies, fell from the skies, to cheers from all the Druj except those standing right underneath. The other three phoenixes converged into the pack, screaming and trailing ribbons of fire through the air. They wove around and about and through the harpy pack, and small burning figures tumbled from the skies.
Bitterblade checked. Scorpion 12 was frantically getting out from under the aerial battle, but he winced when a slow orc got flattened by a plummeting burning harpy. Above them, the screeching had reached a fever pitch, and one of the phoenixes peeled off and dived, dark figures clinging to it and slashing with claws and talons. The firebird came screaming down, barely able to direct its course, and slammed right into the fleeing company of Scorpion 12, harpies and Druj alike outlined for a moment in the ball of fire that was the dying Summer beast. None of them got back up.
The Generals attention was dragged skywards again by a harmonised scream of loss and triumph, and he saw the much reduced harpy pack break off and fly frantically to the east, and the distant mountains. As amazed foes on the ground laid into each other again with enthusiastic bloodlust, the two remaining phoenixes resumed circling over the battlefield. With only two of them, there was but a dim light, clear but ephemeral, but enough for the damn humans to fight by.
He turned his telescope to the Summer Fae, and saw that big lion-headed lout pointing straight at him. Their eyes seemed to meet, and the leonic face snarled, and Bitterblade suddenly knew, as hot burning chunks of knowledge dropped into his skull, that Lord Shattermane, Herald of Ellionaris, intended to hunt him down and eat his heart.
Hours later, and the battle continued in the dim clear light from the phoenixes. It reminded Bitterblade of something, but he couldn’t quite place it. It unnerved him, and the headache from damn Shattermane wasn’t helping.
He could see the Dawnish were doing much the same as him, rotating troops out and back, resting them for as long as they could, and then returning to the fray. They seemed intent on making this into a long fight… Jorkesh had been right, this was unlike them. Were they intent on waiting for the morning, or for…something else?
He descended the stairs for what felt like the fiftieth time that day. “Ghosteye! I’m going to need a bunch of seers to check long-range.”
A seer piped up “General, Vipers 7 and 8 are being overrun!”
“Runner! Orders to… shit. Orders to Toad 19 and 20! Run up and reinforce Viper 7 and 8! If they’re dead, hold their position!”
“General…” interjected Ghosteye, “fewer seers watching the battlefield will mean we start to miss things… we’re getting tired enough as it is…”
“Noted. Check north, west and south. Up to thirty miles out. I want to know if there’re any more humans out there. Four seers each way!”
“That’s a lot of eyes off the field Bitterblade…”
“Yes! I know! Do it!”
He stomped out the door and glared out at the field, at the tangled lines of humans and orcs, both sides exhausted, both still fighting, using in many cases the bodies of their comrades for cover. “Runner!”
A wiry orc approached him somewhat nervously and saluted.
“Orders to the Beastmasters. Take the Trigoni, and release them into the humans on the southern flank. Go wide and come in from behind if they can, but I want those beasts out within 20 minutes!”
Bitterblade leant for a moment against the cold stone wall. Too long a day, too long a night. He hoped his much younger troops had more energy than him. “Runner! Orders to any and all companies of Scorpion not engaged, and escort the Beastmasters.”
Sharkey ran up to him with a hot tankard of something and a bundle. “Eat, General! We could be at this a while yet.”
He gulped a few mouthfuls of what turned out to be mulled wine, and a loaf of trailbread stuffed with pork. Bitterblade waved the tankard at his aide appreciatively. “Last of the cross-keys stuff?”
“Yes boss. Thought you needed some now, never mind the victory toasts. Was that the Trigoni going in?”
“Yeah. Hope they do better than those harpies.”
It was well into the small hours of the night. The Trigoni, un-nerved by the pheonix light, had fared badly, but they had turned the Dawnish flank. Despite the whips of the Beastmasters, few wished to engage, instead looking for some dark corner in which to hide. But the entire southern Dawn army had been forced to curve round, watching the ruins and hills which may or may not have Trigoni ready to sweep out at them, and certainly did have what was left of Scorpion sneaking in when they could.
Bitterblade spat out a mouthful of bile, as he looked over the battlefield and realised what that light reminded him of. As he’d come up those fucking stairs again, it’s been like emerging into the light of an early morning. He was fighting the Dawnish in dawnlight. Not a good omen.
“Seers!” His voice cracked. He’d been shouting orders for hours. “Status of all Manticores!”
It took too long before the report returned. The seers had been drinking their elixirs and tonics to keep going, and several had collapsed. Ghosteye responded, her voice also hoarse.
“Manticore 1 through 4 are resting. 5 through 8 dead. 9 to 17 still engaged. 18 and 19 are dead. 20 resting.”
He winced. If he won this battle over a huge pile of dead Dawnish, the price was already too high.
“Send in…. dammit, who’s available?”
“Viper 16 through 20 sir…”
Fuck, is that all….? “Runner! Orders to Viper 16 through 20! Step up to back up the Manticore lines, engage where needed!”
As another runner staggered out into the darkness, a seer jerked upright and screamed. “What in the hells?” muttered Bitterblade as Ghosteye hurried over to get an explanation.
“General, it’s something to the south. Apparently quite close, and covered in shadow. And warded against scrying.”
“Seer-captain!” came a call from another table “North is clear, we checked all the way to the Semmerlak!”
“Ghosteye, find out what in the sixth hell that is in the south! I need to know if it’s a diversion or more humans! Anything yet to the west?”
A shaking of heads answered him. “Get back on the field, I want every available unit gathered together as a single reserve. Runners, find their positions, orders to that effect.”
He dragged himself back up the stairs to the tower. His reserves would probably be down to a dozen companies across the five armies. At least he could trust Manticore 1 to lead the charge.
He’d lost track of time. Maybe it was nearing the end of the long winter night, maybe it lacked an hour towards that. Beneath his gaze, the two mighty armies had battered each other into exhaustion. The Dawnish were STILL not charging… the only group on the field with any apparent energy left were the Faeries, and Bitterblade had noticed that even they weren’t charging around as much….
He realised with a start that he was being called, and leaned over to look down into the hall. “General…” called up Sharkey. If he felt as bad as he looked, he shouldn’t be standing. “Ghosteye’s found something…”
The seers had indeed found something. Several were collapsed on the floor. The mood in the hall was tense with fear. “What?”
“We broke the protections against us Bitterblade.” Ghosteye’s stare was accusatory. “I lost several good seers doing so, but there was another army there.”
“What?! The Dawnish fourth?”
“No, it’s one of the northern mobs. A sigil of a big stone fist.”
“Less than an hour out, coming in straight from the south.”
The Fist of the Mountain. They must have marched all through the night, Bitterblade thought, but what the hells are they doing here…? He looked for a runner, but their station was empty. When had that happened? “Sharkey…”
“Your will, General?”
He smiled at the traditional response. “Let’s throw the whole box at them. Tell Lady Bahrash to head south. Pick up any Scorpions and Trigoni she can find, and hold off those northern humans for a while. That’s hold, not get stuck in…”
As Sharkey left, Bitterblade stepped outside the manor and looked down. The field was quieter, both sides have lost the breath for battle-chants and songs, just a miasma of howling as knights and Druj gathered the energy for a few more swings. His shadow stretched out long and low before him. Wait, what? He turned, to see the sun peeping over the mountains behind him. The battle had lasted all night, and the day looked to be cold but bright.
He whirled and whipped his telescope up. If the Dawnish were going to do anything, it was going to be now. Damn dramatic fools never could resist their cue, but the Dawnish lines, though apparently heartened by the sunrise, were holding steady. Looking south, he saw the dozen war-rhinos of Bahrash, his last real reserve, heading towards a dark mass in the distance, no doubt the Wintermarkers. And then a peal of trumpets from the west grabbed his attention.
From the hills to the west of the battlefield, shedding dark cloaks and emerging from the shadowed valleys, came another army of Dawn. At their head was a great golden sun banner, carried by a proud figure in red and silver armour. And screaming down on their flanks came small companies of troops in a dozen different heraldries.
And his entire, battered, exhausted army could see them too, shining in the damn sunrise as they charged to the aid of their friends.
Bitterblade nearly sobbed with exhaustion and failure. They taught us valour and hatred, he thought, and we taught them trickery and deception….
He could already see small groups of Druj peeling away from the back of the lines and stumbling off east, away from the battle. And a large mob coming up the hill towards him.
Wait, that was the banner of Manticore 1! His piecemeal reserves, excellent, this was salvageable! And it had to be salvaged, too much was depending on this host. He skidded down the slope towards them, to find the proud captain of the unit, as he’d know he would, leading the troops from the front. He couldn’t meet her eyes for a moment, and gestured down the field.
“I want you to take these troops and go to the south flank. If you pull out the Toad companies there and send them up here, we can withdraw from this mess and start pulling back. Then…”
She backhanded him hard across the face.
He gaped for a moment. And then the instincts that had accompanied his rise to power penetrated the fog of fatigue, and he sprang back, drawing the Bitterblade, and gasping as she continued.
“You have failed us, General. You’ve failed our people, and this host, and Manticore army.”
Around her the hardened veterans of Manticore 1 stepped forwards, weapons ready.
“And you’ve failed me. Get him, boys!”
They charged in, and the General swept his sword up, but he was heavily outnumbered and perhaps outclassed. The Bitterblade whined in his hand and his mind, sinking serrated black teeth again and again into flesh that turned to steaming black pus, but eventually they knocked him down and kicked it from his grasp, while those he’d cut screamed in their death throes.
“I’m sorry about this,” said the orc captain, handing off her sword and lifting the Bitterblade, the symbol of his office, “but I intend to survive this.” And she thrust the Bitterblade straight into his gut, all the way through and into the mud below.
As he thrashed and screamed at the burning horror eating him from the inside out, a small part of him noted the two armies still locked in combat below, like two war-dogs, each unable to let go, each unable to sink their teeth in properly. Neither unable to let go of their hatred. Neither able to win alone. But they have more friends than we do…
She spoke again, but he barely heard it. The acrid yellow burning feeling had stopped actually hurting now, and he’d stopped breathing and thrashing about. It was almost peaceful. She pulled the Bitterblade out from him and slung it over a shoulder. “I’ll take this with me. It is, after all, traditional. Be proud of that, Father.”
And as she marched off with her troops close behind, the dying general had a last amused thought flicker through his ruined and poisoned flesh. That damn herald Shattermane was going to be so disappointed…
And down in the valley, with allies racing to their aid, surrounded by dead and dying in the thousands, covered in the blood of their friends and their foes…. Dawn took a step forwards, towards the rising sun. It was to be the first of many.