Monty Bust & Carlo – Part Four

marblebust

“Croesus! Good to see you. What can I do you for?”

Croesus sauntered into the shop. Then stopped, mid-saunter, before he’d reached the counter. “What did you just say to me?”

“Eh?” asked Fletcher. Suddenly the man looked wary and shady, ready to dive for cover behind his counter, which was carved into the crenellated shape of a castle wall. “I only asked what I could do for you. You know, doin my bit to be friendly. Helpful, like. Providing a spot of customer service. Not that I’d take you for a routine customer. You’re not usually in the market for arrows. What’s up? Taken up archery in your spare time?”

“No. Before that. ‘Good to see me’. What was that?” Croesus advanced with eyes narrowed.

“Friendly. You know. Being nice. You oughta try it sometime.”

“All right. Never mind.” Croesus relaxed, laid an arm atop the counter’s faux battlements. The fact was, he didn’t have a lot of spare time for archery or anything. And he stood to get a few more answers if Fletcher wasn’t on the defensive. He let the unexpected friendliness go this once. “What you can do or me is tell me if certain items have shown up in your shop.”

“Arrows, you mean? Certain types of arrow? We only sell arrows here, mate.”

“Don’t get cute.” Fletcher had inherited his original trade from his old man, but it had quickly turned into a front for more underhand commerce. He was a pasty-skinned fellow with red hair and a moustache that drooped to partially hide a droopier face. Croesus would have deemed him well-suited to boredom, but he had found the business of churning out arrow after arrow to be pointless drudgery and had sought to spice up his life by fencing stolen goods.

The shelves and racks out front were stacked with arrows. Every possible variety plus bolts for crossbows over in their dedicated corner section. But Croesus knew if he hopped the counter and wandered into the back rooms he’d find other treasures missing from their rightful homes. Not necessarily the specific treasures he was looking for, but still several hot items waiting to be sold that were not cakes.

Not only did he know that, he knew that Fletcher knew he knew it. And knew that he could have guards summoned for an impromptu store inspection and shut him down. Which was quite a lot of knowing between them and Croesus framed as much knowing as he could in the look he gave the bushy-lipped storekeep.

“All right, all right,” Fletcher caved. He leaned across the counter and muttered through his moustache. “What sort of items d’you have in mind?”

Croesus reeled off the first few objets d’art like he was reciting his week’s grocery list. “Two commemorative silver sandwich platters marking the centenary of the Battle Of Thistle Fjord; glass galleon threaded with dragonscale filigree; one sapphire-collared porcelain Pekinese; seven authentic gold-framed triptychs by Avgost Velophin depicting the Trials Of Lady Jenoise; diamond chess set with pearl and jet gameboard and hourglass pawns; twelve Sinoan warrior figurines fashioned from pure – ”

“Wait, wait,” Fletcher waved him quiet. “Can’t you just give me a list?”

“What does it sound like I’m doing?”

“No, no. Written. On paper. A proper list list.”

Croesus wrinkled his upper lip. “Because I don’t have one.” He tapped the side of his skull. “It’s all up here. Committed to memory.”

“Really?” Fletcher eyed Croesus’ head dubiously, as though doubting there was room for so many words between his ears. He sniffed eventually though, apparently impressed. “Quite a feat if you ask me, to keep that lot stored in your head. Some days I can’t even remember whether I’ve brushed my teeth or not.”

Croesus would hazard a guess not today. Although the smell of stale food may have emanated from morsels lodged in the man’s moustache.

“It’s not that difficult. The King has me do routine inspections all the time. Number of times I’ve toured that vault and checked inventory, wasn’t hard to learn it all. What’s more I don’t just know every item in the collection, I know exactly where it is.”

Croesus nodded, allowing Fletcher time to be impressed some more.

“Except now, you mean,” said Fletcher.

Croesus grumbled irritably. He straightened, tired of leaning on the counter. “Yes. As it happens. Except now. What I mean is, I keep a mental picture of all the items and their position in the vault – as they should be. Bit like I now have a vivid mental image of you languishing in His Majesty’s dungeon feeding the royal rats.”

“Steady on, Croesus, I’m doing my best to assist.”

“All right then. I’ll keep going. You just nod if anything rings a bell.”

Fletcher made a face like he was all ears. Leaned forward some more.

“Right, where was I?” Croesus shut his eyes momentarily to recall his mental picture. Turned the image of the vault interior around in his head. Noting each item again in turn, up to the Sinoan warrior figurines.

“Go on then,” urged Fletcher, a touch impatient.

“Wait,” said Croesus. That was odd.

He stared hard at the insides of his eyelids. Wherever his mental image was projected, everything was in its place. Except –

No marble bust of Montgomery Prye.

Funny. Why wouldn’t he have memorised that?

 

 

[To Be Continued…]

Monty Bust & Carlo – Part Three

marblebust

“The King wants results, De Vere. I understand results may take time, but do not fool yourself that you have an ample supply of hours to play with.”

Croesus fought the urge to yawn his way through the Chancellor’s lecture. If he pretended attentiveness and showed a keen eye, that might buy him some allowance when negotiating terms for his investigation. He had to be free to operate on a lengthy leash. So that, at a minimum, he might be able to wing it until some inspiration struck. For now, Chancellor Seedgrape was not quite done.

“But in the meanwhile, you must have theories. Something to impart. It falls to me to report to the King and I cannot go to him empty of words.”

Croesus considered it very unlikely that Seedgrape ever found himself empty of words. He appeared to have paused his speech for now though.

“Well, best I can tell you is we’re dealing with an absolute mastermind. A genius to rival my own. But I’m sure you figured out that much yourself.” Croesus cracked a smile like he used to crack safes. “But the good news is, we don’t have to trouble ourselves with working out how it was done.”

“We don’t?” queried Seedgrape.

“Not a priority. We’ll have to eventually. Well, I’ll have to. There’s some security loophole about the size of a volcanic crater, obviously, so I’ll need to see about plugging it at some point. But the beauty of stolen goods, from our current point of view, Chancellor, is that regardless of how they went walkies they have to go somewhere.”

“Ah.” Seedgrape nodded sagely. And with an arch of his nostrils that hinted of disapproval. “You mean to contact your associates of old. Fences, I believe, is the term.”

“Well, yes. The goods have to be handled. And I know all the leading players in the business.” Croesus leaned in to confide – and also because he knew the closeness would get up Seedgrape’s sensitive nose. “Thing is, I have to act quickly – most of these items will be hotter than hot potatoes so our thief won’t want to hold onto them for any length of time. Same goes for the dealers. Some folks like to sit on the fence, but fences rarely like to sit on anything for too long. Trickier aspect is, I’ll also have to tread carefully. Most of my old associates care less for me than you do. Since I turned coat and started working for the law they don’t appreciate when I come calling. And I don’t know if you’ve ever done anything quickly and carefully at the same time, mate, but try running a tightrope some day.”

Seedgrape sniffed and spent a while clearing his throat. “Yes, well, I quite appreciate the difficulties. But I will not concern myself over the methods, De Vere, as long as you produce the results. Recover the goods – as many of the items as you are able. And bring the criminal to justice. You need not apprehend him yourself. Merely supply his identity and the guards will do the rest.”

“Right. I’d best get my careful skates on then. Leads to pursue, inquiries to be made. I take it I’m free to go?”

Seedgrape stepped aside. The guards parted to make an exit. Croesus started along the aisle they’d created between them.

“Just one thing.” He halted and spun about in detectively fashion. “Out of curiosity. What’s the story on that marble bust?”

“That thing?” said Seedgrape. “Well, it’s not marble as such. But it is a bust of Montgomery Prye. Brother to the King.”

“Oh? The King has a brother?” Couldn’t be much love lost there, figured Croesus. The King prized the valuables (that had been) in his vault, but surely such a fine likeness of his own sibling would carry additional sentimental or emotional attachment and you’d give it pride of place somewhere you could look on it every day. Unless it was a poor likeness, in which case the reverse would apply. In other words, you’d give it pride of place if you didn’t like him. Love, hate. Either way, emotional attachment was involved.

“Had,” amended Seedgrape. “Regrettably the King’s brother – passed away some years ago.”

“Oh.” Croesus wondered if a ‘sorry’ was called for. But he had no idea how Seedgrape felt about the dear departed Montgomery Prye. He ran through his reasoning again, calculating how a deceased state might alter the rules. But no, it didn’t change a thing. You’d keep the statue or bust in daily view if you loved your brother and the sculpture was a decent likeness. You’d display it even more prominently if you hated the guy and it was a shabby likeness. Emotional attachments deepened when the subject was dead. Especially if the emotion was loathing.

“What happened to him?” Croesus wondered.

“Ah – an unfortunate riding accident. The King does not care for us to speak of it. Now, if that will be all – ”

Interesting. Relevant? Possibly. Or possibly not. Croesus filed the information away right next to whatever Seedgrape wasn’t telling him.

He had people to see. Most of whom would not be wanting to see him.

 

 

 

 

[To Be Continued…]

Monty Bust & Carlo – Part Two

marblebust

Scene of the crime.

The first, most immediately obvious thing that struck Croesus was that Chancellor Seedgrape had told a porky. The Royal Vault was only mostly empty.

A solitary bust, mounted on an ebony pedestal, observed Croesus from one alcove. Croesus did his best not to let the stern gaze bother him as he completed his third circuit of the chamber.

Nope, he thought. This was wrong. All wrong.

The vault was housed under a sixteen-sided dome. And no, Croesus did not know the geometric term for the structure. He thought of it as hexadecagonal as that was adding ten and six and putting pieces together was his specialty. In his old days, the maths had been more about subtraction: one vault minus much of its contents. Rarely all though. All wasn’t often practical.

All was to make a statement.

He finger-drummed on his lower lip. Shot a glancing frown at the marble bust. “Curious. Between you and me,” he addressed the sculpture, “this has me foxed. Temporarily.” He wagged a finger. “Yes. Only temporarily, mind. So no need to go blabbing to old Seedgrape.” Seedgrape would pounce on any opportunity to have Croesus fired. Seedgrape was probably one of the advisers who whispered in the King’s ear when the question arose of where to house Croesus while on staff. “Not in the palace, Your Majesty. Anywhere but the palace.” Yes, Croesus could hear the old sourface muttering those exact words. “Well,” Croesus declared aloud, “stumped is not out.” He was about as familiar with the sport of cricket as he was with geometry. “The pieces are all here – even if they’re also all gone.”

Croesus toured the chamber again. Examining the mosaic floor, bending to inspect individual tiles – both to check for scuff marks and to be too close to view the overall picture. Although he was fully aware the mosaic formed a portrait of the King, graced with a pair of eagle’s wings and framed against a burning sun. Croesus had heard that fable and knew how it turned out. He poked around in every alcove. Recalled how he’d told the King alcoves were a bad idea. Alcoves afforded hiding spots for thieves. But the King liked them as an architectural feature and for the presentation of some of his valuables. And to be fair they only worked as places of concealment when masked by curtains or with things other than thieves in them. Objets d’art of concealment. There were none here. And no thieves.

The chamber stank of emptiness. It echoed of cleaned out.

The echoes were trapped inside, obliged to bounce back off the high hexadecagonal dome.

The shutters were closed, allowing in only slatted light. Narrow shafts like harp strings, waiting to be played by the waltzing dust. The shutters were part of his security installation, the oculus and decorative petal windows being an early-identified weakness that any thief unafraid of heights and rooftops would have cheerfully exploited. All the windows had been fitted with bars over the stained glass, but Croesus had ruled it insufficient. Armoured shutters routinely locked into place over night and clearly Seedgrape or somebody had ordered them to remain closed, perhaps to guard against further break-ins. Yeah. In case the thief came back to steal the mosaic tiles off the floor. Or the bust. But nobody in their right mind would want that thing.

Croesus was accustomed to working in shadows, had a good pair of dark-adaptable eyes. So the current gloom of filtered winter daylight was nothing to him.

Even from the middle of the chamber he could tell the bust was ugly. Well, not ugly exactly. But the subject had been in some kind of mood whenever he’d posed for the sculptor.

Bald as a dragon-egg, the subject had a nose that might have served well as an axe-blade and a set of cold marble lips that sneered at the world. The eyes had been left as a pair of blank orbs and that didn’t help make the subject’s expression any rosier. Add to that the chiselled bony cheeks, the wattled turkey-neck and a forehead with more ridgelines than most mountain ranges and Croesus could see why a thief might leave it behind. Few fences would want that face staring at them from some corner of their warehouse. It might have some value as a piece of art, he supposed, but who would you offload it on?

But – but – but –

Croesus sauntered in a small area in the centre of the vault and those dead pupil-less eyes seemed to follow his motions. If only they could tell him what they’d witnessed during the night.

He shrugged. And slouched out of the chamber.

He set his shoulders straighter and firmer as he met Seedgrape outside, waiting in the antechamber with a dozen guards. “Well?” said the Chancellor.

“There were a few telltale clues. I’m optimistic,” Croesus lied. What he really wanted to do was climb all over the building and inspect the exterior inch by inch. Or go home and think for a week.

Fat chance of the latter. He could tell from Seedgrape’s scowl his investigations were on a clock. At best, if he couldn’t produce answers, he’d be getting all the thinking time he could ever wish for. In the dubious comfort of a dungeon cell.

 

 

[To Be Continued…]

Monty Bust & Carlo – Part One

marblebust

COME AT ONCE. STOP. THE KING. STOP.

Croesus De Vere re-read the telegram through a haze of lost sleep and steam from his hastily brewed cuppa. He wished he could read it another way – like, come at once and stop the King from doing whatever. Sending telegrams before breakfast, for instance.

But once broken, the code of the telegram’s manner of punctuation allowed little room for misinterpretation. The King demanded the presence of his Court Investigator.

Croesus massaged away the sleep-deprivation, knocked back a gulp of his tea, then threw together his outfit with the same care as he’d taken in tossing the tea bag into the mug.

The morning was as bracing as a torturer’s rack. No sense wasting time stretching his legs. Croesus ran, hurdling the neighbourhood cats who populated the maze of narrow lanes he called home. Although an appointee on the staff of the Royal Court, Croesus was not of worthy enough stock to qualify for quarters within the palace grounds. Truth was, he had been born in a district not unlike this one and risen only so far as was needed to climb in through people’s windows. A shady past, long-since pardoned, followed him like his shadow. And while the King employed him as ‘Thief Of Police’, the royal visage probably held him in about as high regard as the scruffier felines of the Crippling Narrows.

Pah. Kings. What did they know?

‘King’ was the world’s shortest verb. To be king was to do precious little. Duties included a lot of sitting on thrones, which were only a form of chair made grand and impressive enough to accommodate all the sitting that had to be done by blue-blooded behinds.

Ah but, Croesus, some had argued, kings preside and decide over a host of difficult and weighty issues. But Croesus had observed this process in what might be termed ‘action’. Matters were raised, questions begged of the monarch’s ears. To all of which, the kingly head would nod, before turning to ask advice from a collection of counsellors, experts and authorities on this and that. And if a matter fell outside of the comfort zone of any one of the available advisers, new experts were sent for. Once equipped with the facts and a number of possible answers, the King would pick the solution he liked best and, by voicing it while wearing a crown and sitting on the aforesaid throne, convert it into law. It always seemed to Croesus that you could achieve much the same with just the council of experts and a bucket, in which they could chuck little scraps of paper inscribed with the best solutions to any problem. And hold a lucky dip. A governmental tombola.

But until anyone thought to replace the King with a bucket, Croesus was among those experts called upon to counsel and advise. His own purview: crime. And the position provided a steady income. With the only downside being the occasional emergency summons, like today’s.

Warmed up a tad, Croesus slowed his jog for the middle stretch of his journey. Progressing through the market district at a more seemly rate and taking care not to bump baskets out of shoppers’ hands. Then he upped himself to an energetic dash for the last leg, demonstrating a committed sense of urgency once within sight of the palace walls.

Croesus darted across the bridge, running the gauntlet of twenty-foot statues. All of them brandished polearms with blades that looked set to fall on faintly treasonous necks. And thoughts of replacing kings with buckets probably qualified as treason.

The actual ordinary flesh-and-bone guards ushered him through with half-salutes and tips of their helms. But the figure awaiting him in the Palace forecourt was ready with a greeting that had a bite similar to the ‘fresh’ morning air.

He stood to the left of the great needle of shadow cast by the giant sundial that was the courtyard’s centrepiece. As though to imply he had stood there all the while that shadow crawled by over him.

Croesus figured he’d been there a minute or two at most. “What’s His Maj panicked about this time?”

“If I were you, I would not compound my tardiness with disrespect.”

Croesus slapped on a fake smile. His disrespect was all for this bloke. Chancellor Seedgrape always had a pinched-nose look like he was helping down a bad taste. “I was only implying if there’s such a flap on, His Maj is unlikely to be very jesty.”

“Indeed. Perhaps even you will be keen to set such humours aside once you learn what is amiss.”

Amiss? Croesus hadn’t imagined anything was actually amiss. The King was a security hypochondriac. Always perceiving flaws and potential weak points where there couldn’t be any. Because Croesus had devised the system himself and he did not do flaws.

“Go on then – what’s amiss?”

“Everything,” said Seedgrape. “The entire vault has been emptied.”

Croesus swallowed some tea that wanted up again. “Stone me,” he said.

Knowing full well that was one very possible outcome.

 

[To Be Continued…]

Casus Bella – Conclusion

casusbella

There were no cheers. There was no victory celebration. There was more a sense of mourning. And recrimination in the eyes that bothered to glance our way as we rode in through the pass.

On this, our return to the Elven city, I could have wished for the blindfold. Not to protect me from the glares – I deserved them. Guilty by association with the deceased Knight-Captain Meister. Had he meant to bring war here? I did not know for sure and yet I judged him and judged myself. Shame hung heavy on my shoulders.

But the shame was the lightest of burdens compared to the gloom and ruin that met us as we rode up the broken terraces and wrecked paths. Fissured and cratered gardens, fallen bridges, collapsed caverns, palaces and humbler abodes no longer distinguishable as they lay about in rubble. Smoke rose from blackened flowerbeds. And even the misty spray from the crashing falls could not season the scene with any sparkle.

Fortunately, there looked to be few Elves among the dead. There were a number of wounded being nursed and tended, but even the heaped Orkan corpses that littered the mountainside outside did not mitigate the cost to these people.

I mourned with them and silently invited their accusations. I did not have to wait long for them to be voiced.

Our small party was met, our path barred, by a group of what I assumed must be nobles and councillors. They wore majestic robes of multiple layers and glorious natural colours and appeared unblemished. Whether they had taken no part in the hostilities or simply changed quickly in its aftermath, I could not tell. One had a stony-eyed handsomeness, as though he had been carved from finest marble, and he wore a crown of flinty stalagmites atop his mane of golden hair. I reasoned him to be the Prince. And although we faced him on horseback he was able to look down on us.

“Our hearts weigh heavy at the prospect of further loss,” he said, “but we must request your immediate departure.”

Shinvar guided Surefire a few steps forward. Her horse’s muzzle came close to kissing the Prince’s flawless face. The Prince seemed to take the proximity like a slap on the cheek.

“Hear me out, Prince,” said Shinvar. And it sang more of command than request.

“Speak then.” The Prince waved a hand as ungraciously as he could while still appearing princely.

“Whether through carelessness or intent, Knight-Captain Meister brought this war to your door. And he was wrong to do so. I condemn his action and I wish we could have saved more than we did. This came upon us before I heard your decision. I don’t know whether this has changed your mind or merely reinforced a mind already made up. But consider something further. The war goes on, down at the foot of these mountains. Whatever contempt you have for humans right now, would you prefer a world of Orkans for your neighbours? Think on the future. A leader – a Prince – stands taller than his people so he should see further.” Shinvar bowed in her saddle. “And now I’ll go. Although I’d like to ask – would you ride with me, Your Highness? There is a view I would like to show you and I think you will find it the equal of your town.”

The lightest tug on the reins turned Surefire around and Shinvar rode back through the crowd. I steered my horse to follow.

We left the Mountain Elves behind.

*

We rode for barely half an hour together, Shinvar and I, before we were joined by a column of Elven warriors. The Prince and other nobles rode at their head and they trotted up to travel side by side with us.

The day and the landscape journeyed by without much conversation between us. There was some further speculation on the matter of the Knight-Captain’s motives and Shinvar’s answer was short. “What was in his head, we can’t guess. But what was in his heart, I don’t doubt for a minute he believed right. Where he was wrong lay in giving you no choice. Choice is what I aim to give you.”

And she did.

Nearly two days’ ride from the realm of the Mountain Elves, Shinvar presented the Prince and his escort with the view she had promised.

From a promontory above Royal Hill we looked out over rubble and ruin. Shells of buildings that might have been homes or palaces, for all that I knew many had been factories. Crumbled chimneys could once have been regal towers. Fires burned here and there amid the ruins and the bulk of the Orkan army camped in the wasteland of their making.

“This?” The Prince stared, as though mortally offended by the scene. “This is what you wished to show me?”

“This.” Shinvar nodded. Her gaze roamed the devastation slowly, as though studying every broken brick. “It was a beautiful town once.”

“Not according to the tales I have heard.”

“No, Prince. Not according to any tales.” Shinvar smiled a gradual smile, like a budding flower. “But a beautiful town and an ugly town are hard to tell apart once war has paid a visit. The only beauty left lies in what can be imagined, what might be rebuilt. Before we get that far, we have to fight. Not for what was, but what could be. Your people and our people – ” Shinvar gestured to include me “ – we have that much in common. This. We have this, what you see before you, in common.”

She left the Prince to contemplate and trotted over to side with me. We sat in silence a longish while. I recalled the last time we had shared such a silence and this time I would not break it. Not for the world.

“I have to go,” she announced. “Return to my Order and help raise a new army. You have to find all the stragglers and collect together a fighting force locally. Harry the enemy where you can. Keep them occupied. Keep them here. And work with the Elves.”

I frowned. The Prince and his cohorts seemed just as trapped in indecision as ever. “Will they work with us?”

“Elves will fight for something beautiful. Humans will fight for anything. I’m not sure which is worse. But here and now, the possibility of beauty will be enough. They’ll commit their forces.”

I nodded. “The possibility of beauty…” I repeated the phrase because I could not help myself. I looked upon Shinvar and she understood where my thoughts strayed.

“Attraction,” she assured me, “is a powerful thing. You think I’m beautiful – and I’m flattered. But do you know why?”

“Why you’re beautiful, do you mean?”

She nodded. “Mm hmm. In your eyes, in your heart, it feels like destiny. Like we belong together. But really, it’s just because my mum and dad were good looking. Mostly my mum. Although people tell me I have my father’s jaw.” She shrugged. “That’s all. And the reason we don’t belong together is not because it’s not fated or not meant to be. And it’s not because you aren’t good enough. It’s only – all it is, is that I don’t feel it the same. You’re a good guy. A good knight. A good friend.”

The smile she gave me then was heavenly to behold and cut deeper than the Orkan axe that had dented my armour and, in effect, introduced us.

She turned Surefire and rode away and I watched her go.

Knowing it would hurt again when I next saw her. But, I could hope, a little less with each time.

 

 

SAF 2016

 

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all our readers! Here’s to more adventures in 2017!

Casus Bella – Part Fifteen

casusbella

We fell upon our enemy in stealth, stealing into the woods from their right. The grind and crank of their siege engines covered our approach. The Orkan engineers roared and watched as they let every missile fly. They had no attention spare for thirteen attackers darting swiftly between the trees on their flank.

Thirteen. Unlucky for them.

Several of our number scaled trees to the high branches. Arrows whispered deadly goodnights to their pick of targets. Orkans dropped, here and there, around us as we darted in and sang our own steel lullabies with our blades. I cut down one loader as he bent to collect another boulder for his machine, then slew his officer with a thrust through his fat back, my free hand clamped over his snout before he could grunt an order. Orkan drool spilled out between my fingers, but not a word or other sound escaped him. He slumped against me and I ducked aside to let him fall. Then I ran to my next victim.

Shinvar and the Elves were swifter than myself. They moved in gusts, like shushing breezes that barely stirred the leaves. Every flash of blade ended with an Orkan corpse crashing into the undergrowth.

Ultimately, it wasn’t the dead that alerted the remaining crews. It was the siege engines fallen quiet and not doing their bit. Fewer missiles arcing through the air. Soon, heads turned to see why some machines were slacking.

The first two to turn stared. Their shouts died in their throats, because Shinvar was already there between them. The next few drew axes and crudely-toothed blades. There was some clash of weapons, scattered struggles. More arrows flew in to hurry the fight in our favour.

For my part, I rushed from one duel to another, swinging heavy blows and not a few urgent parries. My final snarling foe bared his tusks and swung his battleaxe well back for a killing strike, leaving his beer-barrel gut exposed. But an arrow grew in his forehead, saving me the effort of finishing him.

He keeled over backwards and I vaulted over the body, seeking another target. But our work was done. The crews lay strewn about the forest floor, between their silenced engines of war.

Shinvar whistled and Surefire came running, the other horses following like devoted friends. Shinvar saddled up, as did I and our lead Elven companion. Elven archers slid down from the branches to land, one apiece, on horseback behind us. Each with our passengers aboard, we spurred our steeds away.

The remaining Elven warriors knew their part. They hastened to their tasks around the captured machines. Between them they would be able to operate two or three of the engines.

We rode up the wooded slope, soon breaking onto open ground. Ahead and up the incline, the mass of our enemies crowded into the pass. They formed a swelling estuary of armoured bodies, battling to force their way upriver. So much poison fighting its way back into a choking bottleneck. The rear of this unruly formation covered a broad expanse of hillside like a seething clamshell. Snarltails waded deep in the mass of infantry, pressing forward, competing to lead a charge that had stalled.

Shinvar raised a hand, signalling a slowdown. We eased down to a patient trot.

Two boulders sailed past overhead. Rolling stones, gathering no cloud. A blazing fireball trailed just after them.

Not one Orkan head glanced skyward. Not one looked back in our direction.

Shinvar kicked, spurring the pace. We rode level with her. Our passengers loosed arrows into the Orkan morass.

The first three fell unnoticed. The second three, the same.

The boulders crashed to earth, crushing the intervening carpet of Orkans. The fireball slammed into the edges of the enemy rabble, bursting with flame and shrapnel. Dead Orkans flew like ragdoll acrobats. Live Orkans scattered in panic, but there was no room for them to flee. They were packed too tight.

Shinvar spurred us to a full charge.

Arrows flitted forth. More boulders and fireballs hammered down after brief flights through the heavens.

The Orkan mass surged everywhere at once. Everywhere inward, crushing many of their own number.

Into this field, we ploughed.

Swords scything, cutting down a blighted crop. Arrows flew left, right, aft.

The enemy were slow to turn in on us. And by the time they did, Elven warriors were pouring out of the pass. Defenders became attackers, van became rear and the Orkans knew they were lost.

 

 

[To Be Concluded…]

Casus Bella – Part Fourteen

casusbella

Shinvar grabbed the Knight-Captain’s horse from its custodians. She mounted and raced for the narrow pass out of the Elves’ mountain city. Gone. Just like that.

So fast, I had not realised Knight-Captain Meister was dead. I glanced at his still form and wondered when his last breath had escaped him. The Elven guards all looked to me. Every shining eye envenomed with accusation.

One beautiful fellow grasped me by the arm. His lip curled in an expression of such disgust and anger he almost ceased being handsome. The stream of words he spat in my face were in his own language. But I needed no translator. The bolt in the Knight-Captain’s side told most of the story and the reason for the Mountain Elves’ ire was painfully clear. They were furious that the Knight-Captain had not died sooner. Much sooner.

It was an ugly message to read in so many beautiful faces. And more were gathering. Summoned by the yell of alarm or a mood that blew through their community like an ill wind, Mountain Elves emerged from their homes and gardens to congregate on the paths and terraces. To watch and question and murmur in fear.

My accoster shook me, urging some response. But what could I offer?

Hoofbeats sounded in the pass, like the drums of war being struck. Shinvar pulled her borrowed steed to a halt.

“Leave him go!” she commanded. “Save the blame for later. What’s done is done and they’re here now.”

My guard unhanded me. All the guards around me drew their blades or unslung their bows, but stopped there. As though they had worn weapons their whole lives but had no clue what to do with them.

“I count over a thousand infantry. Twelve hundred, perhaps.” Shinvar drew her own blade and pointed its tip behind her, towards the pass. “Some forty riders on Snarltails. And siege engines amassed behind the tree line. May the Huntress help us all. But for the time being we need to save ourselves. Every warrior needs to hold this pass. At all cost. All cost. But you – ” she pointed her blade at the fellow who’d grabbed me “ – you need to pick ten of your best scouts and show me and my friend the other way out of here. NOW!”

The Elf, thus addressed, wasted only half a second being startled, then threw orders in every direction. The entire crowd leaped to action, swelled by greater numbers springing from every cavern and building.

While most rushed to the pass, as ordered, others burst forth bearing more swords and bows – weapons by the armful – and tossed them to every unarmed man and woman. From somewhere, our horses were fetched out. I was handed reins and helped into the saddle. Shinvar hopped from her borrowed mount onto Surefire’s back. And my Elven accoster helped himself onto the Knight-Captain’s steed. He steered us swiftly through the tide of Elves surging the other way. Ten fighters flocked after us.

Somewhere under that stampede, I remembered, lay Knight-Captain Meister. Deceased. By accident or design, he had brought this chaos here. Now he was first to be lost in its midst.

We rode through a sea of anxious, frightened, determined and beautiful faces. The peace of the place was as forgotten as the Knight-Captain.

Then the stones and fireballs rained down.

Arcing in over the town’s natural battlements, the ammunition sang – in shrill whistles and black smoke. They slammed into the mountain walls, crashed onto bridges and terraces and cracked the stems of mushroom buildings. Houses and palaces toppled and burned.  Some were smashed into shingle under direct hits from boulders. Missiles splashed into the river, hissing fountains of spray and steam. People ran and screamed and dived for cover and dived to cover one another. Paradise shook to its core as we rode on through.

“Exactly what I was afraid of!” yelled Shinvar. “Come on!”

We spurred our horses on and our Elven company sprinted beside us.

We struck a path that climbed into a cleft in the mountain wall. Behind us, the Elven city shattered under the punishing bombardment. Flames leaped high where greenery had flourished. Warriors, men and women, crammed into the narrow pass where an Orkan vanguard now pushed through. Above the ugly heads of the infantry a vicious Snarltail wedged its way in, threatening to crush its allies in its hunger to get at the Elven defenders. Its rider bowed low in the saddle to allow the wolf-head tail to curl in overhead and snap its fangs at the sword-blades that waited for it.

Déjà vu, I thought. As we rode into the cleft and the scene of hard-pressed defenders and ruin disappeared from view. Leaving another town behind us, on a mission to save it.

Did the urgency hurt more because this was the second time? Or because this place had been so beautiful?

 

 

[To Be Continued…]