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!

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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…]

Casus Bella – Part Thirteen

casusbella

Even golden silences long to be broken. We humans cannot help ourselves. Breaking things, I mean. No matter their beauty.

Quiet, if allowed to persist too long, fills with imagined conversations, all the could-have-saids and unspoken thoughts. And I suppose we speak up out of some fear the unsaid words might be somehow misinterpreted.

Waiting on the decision from the Elven council, I could not have made wanted for a more idyllic setting or for better company. Time flowed by with the patience of the tributaries spilling forever into the river gorge. Never any hurry, for all their rush. The peace of the gardens, Shinvar’s presence, her nearness, could have continued for an eternity and I would have no cause to complain.

And yet my thoughts churned like the river. Words surfaced. And I had to speak.

“I – ” Of course, I began with me. Faltering, as though stumbling over all the speeches I had not made. “That is, I meant to tell you – I worked out why. When you asked for my help with the mine carts. Why I was so slow to act.”

Shinvar’s brow folded in a soft frown. “That? It’s not important. Forget it. We made it here. And we’ve done all we can. For now.”

“No.” Despite the awkwardness of my speech, I could not simply return to the perfect peace we had shared. “That is, I have done all – what little – I could. But I have not said all that I should.”

“Are you okay?”

“Hmm?” I touched my forehead, where it was wet. Perspiration, naturally. “Oh, it’s nothing. Spray from the river.” I indicated the crashing falls. For once, I could not bring myself to look on Shinvar. “But – the thing is – my heart, you see. In you, I have met – ” Somehow I forced my head upwards, with the effort of a salmon trying to climb the falls – and I met Shinvar’s gaze. Her expression was one of guarded concern. “I did not hurry to your aid because – because of my feelings for you. My respect and affection are – I recognise your strengths and capabilities. I did not think you needed my help. But what little help, what service I can be to you – I pledge it. As a knight and – and as more, if you will have me.” I laid a hand over my heart, as though that might stay its gallop. Perhaps arrest the words charging forth from me. But it was too late now. The silence lay in ruins and I may as well press ahead with the finishing blow. “I am not the warrior you are. But under your guidance I am learning. We belong together, you and I. We make a great team.”

“Oh,” she said. “Wow.”

It was a rare thing to see Shinvar so stunned. To think, I had been the one to render her thus. For a while, I feared we might return to the silence of before. Feared, because it could never be so idyllic as it had been before I had broken it.

“Listen…” said Shinvar. And her voice was music to my ears, but the word a prelude to something I felt sure I did not wish to hear.

“Please,” I interrupted, “you need not answer. Not now. There is no – after all, there are far more pressing concerns. I should have said nothing. I should have waited until all this was over.”

“Well, the world doesn’t stop for the sake of people’s feelings,” she reasoned. “And people’s feelings don’t stop while the world carries on.”

Her gaze drifted out over the scenery, exploring some of the sights that had so inspired me earlier. I frowned. I had followed her so far, trusting to her guidance. But with this, I had no idea where she was leading.

She bit her lip lightly. Then opened her mouth to speak.

And a yell of alarm erupted over everything. We turned. The shout had hailed from below. Somewhere near we had arrived and where I had first been relieved of my blindfold.

A mounted figure rode in and was instantly surrounded by Elvish guards. Fenced in, the horse danced about uncertainly, spinning in search of an escape route. The Elves closed their circle. The rider toppled from the saddle and crashed amid the ring of guards. The clatter of his suit of armour rang all around the walls and hollows of our oasis, like a bell tolling in warning of some dread disaster.

Shinvar was running. I ran after her.

She raced down the path and dived into the band of Elves now crowded over the fallen knight. Two Elves calmed the horse and grabbed its reins, tugging it clear. The others made some respectful space. Allowing me through to see Shinvar kneeling beside the battered figure of Knight-Captain Meister.

His teeth clenched, beard matted with dried blood, he struggled to focus and hissed his words through great pain. “It is – done. Lost. Look – to yourselves!”

Shinvar turned the man over. The sawtooth-flighted shaft of an Orkan crossbow bolt jutted from his flank. The blood was wet. Running freely.

“This is recent. Too recent.” Shinvar looked to the narrow path where he had ridden in. “What have you done, Knight-Captain? What have you done?

 

 

 

[To Be Continued…]

Casus Bella – Part Twelve

casusbella

It rings of treason to speak of beauty greater than Shinvar’s.  For she had no rival in my eyes.

Beauty lay in the eye of the beholder. But true beauty, when you find it, resides in the eyes of the beheld. Deeper, even. Sunlight on water may attract your admiration, but what stirs the heart is the irresistible draw of mystery beneath the lake. People – rare people – possessed an invisible radiance, perceptible to senses we don’t realise we have. Until they encounter the beauty they were meant to find.

That was why I registered the other faces and sights around me, as soon as I was freed from the blindfold, with mere glances while I sought out Shinvar right away. Above all, I had to know she was here with me.

She was there, sure enough, still on horseback.

She smiled. “You good there? You must be tired of riding in the dark,” she sympathised. “Sorry. Climb down, stretch your legs, enjoy the view. I won’t be long. I hope.”

“Long? Where are you going?”

I slid from the saddle, like a heavy dustcover falling from old furniture. Shinvar leaped down from her horse and handed the reins to one of the waiting Elves. There were more gathered here than had escorted us. One, an impossibly pretty slip of a girl with hair of mead and ginger wine, took my horse and the animals were led away.

“To address the council,” explained Shinvar. “To appeal for an audience with the Mountain Prince. To make our case and persuade him to commit his people to a war. Our war.” She offered up an unhappy grimace. Served with a roll of her eyes. “Come to think of it, I might be a while. These folks are big on ceremony and procedure.”

I nodded. She had the difficult task. I was not sure what I could contribute. Other than to wait and to accompany her back. At the head of an army, if her negotiations should prove successful. “Good luck,” I wished her.

The Elves fell in around and behind her and walked with her, away to a tree-lined staircase rising through garden terraces. Leaving me alone for now on this natural ledge, sculpted into an enormous balcony overlooking one of the most glorious views ever to grace my vision.

It stole my breath – and breathed renewed life back into my lungs. In the way some natural splendours can energise the eyes and the spirits.

Of course, this place, this oasis was not all natural. But the architecture and artifice involved in its creation had been in harmony with Nature. They had partnered and sung a duet from rock and water, from verdure and the mountain air. Bridges, terraces, buildings – all bore the contours, the fingerprints, of the elements having had some hand in their design.

From houses to palaces, all the buildings possessed the elegance and simplicity of beehives, curves sculpted from the rock. Some rose direct from the ground, colonising ledges like smooth barnacles. Others stood tall on spindle-thin stalagmites. While still others hung suspended beneath overhanging ledges, rooted to their natural ceilings by stalactites. More stalactites clustered under the linking bridges and walkways, arranged with precision like cathedral organ pipes. Several tributaries plunged and churned through the community and arbours and gardens adorned every shoulder of rock like epaulettes of green and red and gold.

I wandered up towards one of the gardens. The stairs I climbed were smoothed, sloping waves of stone. The Mountain Elves were not lovers of angles. They wanted your eyes sliding freely from one glorious sight to another.

This, I thought, was a beauty worth fighting for. Truly a world away from the grime and brick of the town that – if fortune could only favour them so far – men and women were still battling to defend. Could they have held out this long? I wondered – then doubted – then forbade myself further thought on the question. We would ride to their rescue, bringing with us an army like this same river, forged here between these tributaries, coursing down to the besieged town at the base of the mountains. If humans built their cities with a fraction of the beauty of this haven, then there could be no doubt. The Elves would lend their aid. And we did, didn’t we? I had visited some of our picturesque cities and towns. Humankind had crafted much that was worth saving.

That was a thought to stir the soul. Send it soaring, even, like an eagle out over the mountain vista before me.

My gaze travelled, I do not know how long, while I roamed. If, as was probable, I was to be blindfolded when I departed here, then I meant to drink deep of the views on offer.

The locals paid me little heed. Occasionally acknowledging me with curt bows of their heads at most. Their perfect smiles and sparkling eyes were part of the scenery. Beautiful and inspiring in their way.

But my heart leaped to another level as I turned to see Shinvar jogging up the path to meet me. I stilled the flutter and focused instead on the heart of the matter over matters of the heart.

“Do we have their answer?” I asked.

“They’re talking it over,” she said. “So now – we wait.”

I nodded.

We both understood the cost of that wait. We understood that cost may already have been paid in full.

The scenery went on being beautiful. But it had lost some measure of its power to inspire.

 

[To Be Continued…]