Broken Front

The soldiers that exited the bush were more orderly then the first batch. It was a retreat rather than a rout. Men helped their wounded comrades while others watched for attack. They moved steadily past the scene of carnage, their eyes widened as they recognized the figure of Light Koarl covered by blood and gore.

Welsley, Samuel, and the four surviving guards watched the second wave of retreat from their position around the body of the undead bear. She knew they looked a sight: torn and broken bodies all around them, armour trashed and bloodied, the exhaustion evident in their stances. But there was a defiance to them as they watched the other soldiers emerge from the trees, their weapons at the ready.

The newly arrived soldiers from the front did not seem to pose much of a risk. They were all at least as exhausted as the Light and her group. Half of them, Welsley estimated, were horribly injured while the remaining half showed signs of minor trauma. Not a single one of the soldiers Welsley observed didn’t show signs of a battered morale.

“Help them,” Welsley ordered the remnants of her guard. This group of fleeing soldiers were from Falson Peak, she realized, the emblem of that tower was everywhere among the wounded and tired men. It was a little disturbing to think that her army had broken so much more completely than the Falson’s had.

She couldn’t deny the discipline on display. The officers had already begun assigning men to tend to the wounded, collect and burn the dead, guard the perimeter, and setup a basic camp. This was a decision made solely by the presence of the light.

“Why are you stopped here? Who gave the order?” Welsley heard Commander Mortimer’s voice boom out.

“Light Koarl,” Mortimer’s voice changed to surprise and then to concern, “are you hurt?”

“I am unharmed, Commander,” Welsley answered. “What happened?”

“We’ll make our stand here,” Mortimer informed the men around him. “See to the defences.” He crossed over to where Welsley stood and stared down at the bear’s body.

“Good job,” he said after a moment, “these beasts broke our lines. We lost a lot of soldiers in their initial attack. They’re fast, vicious, and strong. You’re lucky to be alive.”

“Not luck,” Samuel nodded toward Welsley, “it was Light Koarl. She brought the monster down. We would have died without her.”

“Really,” the commander arched one eyebrow in surprise. “No simple feat, Your Eminence.”

“Indeed,” Welsley nodded, “you were telling us what happened at the front, Commander.”

“We came across a large field late in the morning,” Mortimer’s gaze shifted between the soldiers, hard at work as they prepared the defences, and his two partners in conversation. “It was there that we saw and organized force waiting for us, something we hadn’t seen since that first day. An army making a stand! Finally we could stop crawling through the woods picking them off one by one. We could finally fight like soldiers again.”

“I allowed myself to imagine we might finally be through their lines,” Mortimer smiled for a brief moment. “I was elated. The troops’ spirits were high as well. It looked as if we might finally be able to gain some ground on our enemy.”

“Commander Roberts and I agreed to let my men take the lead,” he continued. “My soldiers were more heavily armoured and very eager to land the killing blow on our enemy. I led my soldiers across the field, our enemies in our sights. We never managed to engage.”

“The land around us exploded,” Mortimer explained. “We found ourselves suddenly swamped by large, feral bear-things. We went from marching toward our enemy to swimming in an ocean of danger. I could hear the sounds of battle all around me, but my focus was limited to what was directly in front of me. By the time we had defeated the beasts and reassembled the bulk of our troops were dead or gone. The undead line was unmoved and untouched.”

“There just wasn’t enough of us left to launch an attack,” he went on. “We gathered our injured and made an ordered retreat. We collected soldiers and destroyed any undead we encountered on the way.”

“What happened to Commander Roberts?” Welsley asked.

“I lost him when the battle started, Your Eminence,” the Commander responded. “I don’t know where he wound up.”

“Thank-you,” she replied. “Go. Finish with your troops. Try to get some rest.”

Mortimer bowed and left Welsley and Samuel.

“You and a handful of men?” Welsley turned to Samuel.

“Just myself at this point,” Samuel answered.

“Go kill the necromancers, they cannot be allowed to return to the Lady,” Welsley declared. “Bring Shan home.”

“And the Falsons?” Samuel asked.

“I don’t care,” was the reply.

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Two Steps Back

They didn’t encounter any real resistance until late into the fourth day. By the start of the fourth day they had settled into a routine that, although slow, was ordered and efficient. They stretched their front line as far off to the sides as their numbers allowed, they moved forward while they checked anywhere a person might hide. Behind the front lines roamed squads of soldiers whose entire job was to catch any of the undead that slipped through any holes in the line.

Welsley, Samuel, and her bodyguard had been busy scouring the bush behind the bulk of the army since the sun had risen. It had been an easy task compared to the previous day, not only were there few animated enemies to be found there were also fewer bodies.

“Maybe we defeated the bulk of their numbers,” Welsley mused aloud.

“Maybe,” Samuel replied. His eyes roamed across the bush on the lookout for signs of movement. “They have a four day advantage on us. It could be difficult to catch them.”

“Light Falson is old, she moves fairly slow,” Welsley said,” it should still be easy enough to catch them.”

“Give me a handful of sharpshooters with crossbows and I’ll hunt them down. An army is too slow,” Samuel froze in place.

“What is it?” Welsley asked.

“Surround the Light,” Samuel barked.

The soldiers in her bodyguard moved fast and had her in a protective circle almost before she could react. There was a rumbling sound coming from the forest ahead of them, a sound that seemed to be building in intensity.

“The tree,” Samuel pointed behind Welsley. They moved quick, pushing Welsley until her back was against the tree’s trunk. The soldiers arranged themselves in a half-circle with weapons at the ready.

The noise became thunderous; a cacophony of pounding feet and cracking wood. Soldiers burst out of the woods in a state of panic. They seemed not to see anything in front of them. Welsley watched her bodyguard push the running soldiers away from her. She was immediately thankful for her men’s stoicism.

Still, her fleeing army was a concern.

“What’s going on?” Welsley asked Samuel, her voice raised to cut through the din.

One of her guards grabbed a man as he ran past and pulled him into the safety of the semi-circle. Samuel grabbed the soldier by the arms and looked into his eyes. The man’s eyes were wide and unfocused, no weapons were in his possession and his armour was ripped and bloodied.

“Soldier!” Samuel yelled into the man’s face. “Report. What happened up there? What do you flee from?”

The man’s eyes blinked slowly: open, closed, open. His mouth moved as if he was speaking but no sounds could be heard.

“Look!” one of the bodyguards interrupted.

Welsley watched as Samuel pushed the frightened soldier away, almost tossing him off to the side. Quicker than she would have thought possible for anyone to move he had pulled his crossbow off his back, dropped to one knee, and loaded a bolt.

Welsley felt a body slam into her and knock her into the tree behind her. She slumped to the ground; her vision blurred, the breath knocked out of her, a body on top of her.

She tried to make sense of the noises around her as she attempted to right herself. The sound of fleeing soldiers were dissipating into the distance. The sounds of battle were all around her: flesh being torn, bodies falling, the cries from wounded men, the twang of a crossbow being fired. Over all of it was a deep, guttural, bestial sound that seemed a strange mix of a roar and a growl.

Welsley pushed the body off of her and forced herself to her feet. She used one hand against the tree to steady herself, she drew a deep breath and took in the view in front of her.

There were bodies all around with deep gashes and missing limbs. Broken and discarded like old toys. In the centre of all the blood stood a massive animal, akin to a bear, it stood on three feet with its back to the Light. To its side was one of its front paws that had been hewn from its body. There were four members of her bodyguard, as well as Samuel, standing in front of it.

There was no hair on the beast. Its skin was cracked and torn across its body. The leathery surface was tinted a pale green. A thick, dark ichor dripped slowly from its wounds. Welsley counted three quarrels stuck in its body.

Welsley kept her eyes on the beast in front of her as she slipped her mace from her hip. The loss of its paw seemed to have made it wary of its foes, it stared them down, growling and snarling as it waited for an opening it could use to push its attack.

Her bodyguard, what remained of it, had formed a barrier between the creature and Samuel. He had used the distance they provided to prepare his crossbow and take a more careful aim. He had managed to hit the beast a number of times but had so far failed to score a head shot.

Perhaps, Welsley considered, she could help with that.

She gripped the mace’s handle in both hands. Her heart raced but her breathing and vision had steadied. The beast didn’t seem to pay her any mind, it focused its attention on the threat in front of it.

Welsley moved cautiously to the side of the creature with the missing paw. She moved in toward its side, the mace raised above her head. The mace was slammed into the beast’s rear knee with all the force she could put behind it. The result was spectacular as bone shattered and skin broke under the blow.

The creature whirled on Welsley, its roar pure rage. Death shone in its eyes. It bared its teeth as it turned its head toward her. A crossbow bolt exploded through its head; bone, brain, and ichor splashed all over. The beast howled in rage and pain while it turned back to Samuel and the guards.

It stumbled.

Welsley threw herself at the beast. She drove her mace into its head, a double handed swing with her full weight behind it. The sound of the bone as it was crushed by the blow was almost as satisfying as the thud the massive body made as it hit the ground.

“What,” the Light asked between breaths, “was that?”

“A bear at one point,” Samuel answered as he collected his quarrels from the beast’s body. “It looks like some type of ghoul. Smarter too. I’ve never seen its like.”

“Sorry about the bolt,” Welsley offered as she pointed to the smashed skull.

Samuel just shrugged.

The bushes ahead of them shook again.

Clean Up

Welsley flicked her mace at the ground in a futile effort to clean its head of the gore it had collected. The action was a reflex, she was covered from head-to-toe in what, at one time, was another person. The downside to dressing all in white was that everything stained easily.

Her arm was sore and tired, she could barely move it enough to shake the mess off. She had a new respect for her soldiers, she had only been out for a short time cleaning up stragglers and her arm felt dead, her soldiers had been fighting for hours with heavier weapons and armour. Welsley wasn’t a stranger to using a mace, but short practice sessions had not prepared her for actual combat.

Welsley glanced around her. She had been accompanied by her standard bodyguard of a dozen soldiers. They had been handpicked by Commander Roberts who insisted they never leave her side while she was near the front lines. Samuel also stuck with her, a habit she had begun to look forward to.

The cavalry had made quick work of the undead that had stood on the grassland before the forest. The undead, without a leader, would not flee or give any ground. Despite their fearlessness they were no match for the thundering hooves that rode down on them. They had been efficient, by the time they were finished not a single zombie was left standing.

It was when the infantry entered the forest that the battle changed. The closeness of the trees prevented the horses being used in the conflict; the shelter of the trees provided a shield from arrows, archers were no longer useful en masse. The foot soldiers had to search tree by tree as they pushed their lines forward. Zombies and skeletal warriors hid behind every tree accompanied by worse monstrosities.

The biggest loss of life among her troops came from the pockets of ghouls that were hidden among their slower brethren. Little bubbles of rage that exploded onto the searchers with almost no warning. The melees were fast and furious, over before any of the men realized it. Those soldiers caught in the initial attack were, most often, torn to pieces by the vicious teeth and ragged claws of the ghouls. Those that survived were left with large, festering wounds.

These collections of ghouls made advancement through the woods slow. Every inch taken driven by a relentless Mortimer and his contingent of Falson troops. Their desire to break through the enemy lines and rescue their Light pushed them to their limits and beyond. The majority of the casualties came from their camp.

They had erected a makeshift hospital on the edge of the forest after the first day of battle. Welsley’s attendants, along with those of Light Falson, scoured the sites of battle and brought the wounded back to be tended.

The bodies of the undead were thrown onto a pile and set alight, the smoke was dark and greasy. The bodies of the fallen soldiers were also burned, but in a more solemn, respectful ceremony. With the bodies destroyed it was hoped that no more corpses could rise up to oppose them. There had been no sightings of any of the necromancers.

Welsley’s gaze fell onto Samuel. He had knelt down beside a body to pull a quarrel from its skull. He wiped the crossbow bolt on the body’s tattered clothing in an attempt to clean it off. He gave it a quick examination before he slipped it into a quiver hidden in the recesses of his cloak. It was a routine he followed after every combat. He wasted nothing.

“I suspect none of the necromancers stayed behind,” Samuel offered as he rose to his feet. “The undead we encounter seem to be staged to slow down our advance but there is no indication that new ones are being animated.”

“I think you’re right,” Welsley responded. “Every battle allows them to put more distance between us and them. Allows them to get closer to the Lady with their prizes.”

They were on day two of their attempt to smash the undead. The day was already getting long, it was unlikely they had cleared the way up ahead. With her arm as tired as it was there seemed little point, to Welsley, to push on. It would be better to attempt to get a solid night’s sleep and continue on in the morning.

“We should call it a day,” she offered to Samuel, “my arm is numb. I don’t think I could possibly swing it again.”

“It’s late,” Samuel replied, “they’ll be digging in for the night at the front fairly soon. If we head back to the field hospital we should be able to eat and rest a bit before the runner arrives with an update from the front. Maybe we can even clean up a bit.”

“A warm meal, a hot bath, a soft bed, clean clothes…,” Welsley trailed off as they began the walk back to the hospital. The soldiers that made up her bodyguard fell into step in a circle that surrounded her and Samuel.

“You should be able to get half of your wishes,” Samuel responded.

That was true. Welsley had additional clothing stored at the camp. There would be a hot meal prepared for the wounded that were able to eat as well as the soldiers who pitched their tents nearby. There was no real way to accomplish a hot bath or a soft bed.

“That will have to do,” Welsley sighed.

They walked in companionable silence the rest of the way to the camp.

The Goddess Provides

“I take it things didn’t go well,” Commander Roberts greeted them as they returned to the river fort. “Wait. Where’s Light Falson?”

“I need you to draft a summons,” Welsley addressed one of her waiting attendants, “I need to convene a Council of Lights. Here and without delay. We’ll need a copy for each tower. Eleven… no, ten. We don’t need one for Falson Peak. Go. Hurry.”

She watched the attendant hurry off to do her bidding.

“I’ll need your best riders on your fastest horses to deliver these messages,” Welsley addressed Commander Roberts.

“Right away, Your Eminence,” Alister Roberts gestured to one of the many soldiers around them sending one of them off to make the arrangements. “What happened out there?”

“Light Koarl!” a man’s voice rang out above the noise of the camp. It was an angry voice that belonged to the highest ranking member of the Falsons’ bodyguard. He pushed his way through the crowd on a direct route to the Light. Behind him trailed a handful of his men.

“You handed Light Falson over to those monsters?” he accused. He stopped in front of Welsley. “You held spears at my men’s throats?”

Welsley only half-listened to the man demanding answers from her, her mind was lost within itself trying to see every aspect of the situation and plan for every eventuality she could see. Her priority was to remember what this man’s name was.

Out of the corner of her eyes she could see Samuel shuffle about, he cradled his crossbow in his arms but had adjusted it so he could fire it in a moment should he need to. He had also quietly moved his body between her and the angry man.

“Watch your tone, Mortimer,” Robert admonished. “You are addressing the Guiding Light of Norasburg, chosen of the Goddess. Best you be remembering that before you speak again.” There was a tone of warning in his voice.

Mortimer. That was the name. Not only was he the commander of the Falson bodyguard but he was also related in some way; a cousin or a nephew. He had not just failed in his duties but lost two members of his family as well.

“I serve only one Light,” the man called Mortimer replied, “and she betrayed her to those monsters.”

“I chose the safety of all of the tower cities over that of a couple individuals,” Welsley faced down Mortimer, a man twice her size. “A Light is chosen to serve her people, even if that means sacrificing her life. Light Falson knows this and accepts it.”

Lies. All of it. The words seemed to placate the man. It gave an almost heroic lean to the story, Light Falson would be seen as bravely sacrificing herself for the people. Not entirely true, but it was an acceptable lie.

His voice was calmer when he responded, “Why do I still see them lined up at the forest edge? They show no sign of leaving.”

“The Lady’s representative believes we will betray him and attempt to rescue Light Falson,” Welsley explained. “His lack of trust has proven him right. I will not have an army of the dead standing on my border indefinitely. We will destroy the undead, burn their bodies so they can’t be raised again, track down the necromancers and free the Light. But I need your help to do this.”

“What do you need, Your Eminence?” Mortimer asked.

“I need your soldiers to fight with mine. To join Commander Roberts forces in the coming fight,” Welsley explained. “I also need you to summon reinforcements from Falson Peak. Horsemen, archers, whatever can be spared. We need to be able to take this fight through the forest and to the lost tower.”

“My troops are yours, Your Eminence,” Mortimer agreed.

“Excellent,” Welsley replied. “Commander Roberts will let you know what he needs.”

The mass of people broke up quickly after that. Before long she was left with only Samuel at her side. She had dismissed her remaining attendants. All around her the soldiers moved around busily preparing for the upcoming battle.

“Was this your plan?” Samuel asked.

Welsley shook her head. “Everything just fell into place,” she said. “Giving up the Falsons bought us time. Their lack of trust separates the undead from at least some of the necromancers. It is an opportunity to destroy their army. We’ll pursue the necromancers and with a little luck catch them before they reach Her land.”

“And the Falsons?” Samuel asked.

“She wants them alive,” Welsley shrugged. “If we catch up with the necromancers we should be able to free them.”

“You don’t approve?” Welsley responded to Samuel’s frown.

“You don’t seem very concerned with their well-being,” he answered.

“They can be replaced,” she answered. “It is vital we eliminate the necromancers before they get back to the Ruined Tower. Without them She is harmless, Her creations can’t leave the wasteland.”

“How do you know this?”

Welsley smiled in answer. “The Goddess provides.”

A Deal Struck

“What?” the younger Falson exclaimed.

Welsley could almost feel the shock radiate from the people around her. She understood the reaction, it would have been hers if positions had been reversed, but she needed her soldiers to react before the Falson troops did.

It was Samuel who recovered first. He moved his body swiftly between Welsley and the heavily armoured soldiers, a bolt loaded in his crossbow which was now pointed at the nearest man. At this distance the bolt would punch through not just the front of the breastplate but would exit through the back as well.

“You can’t do this,” Light Falson snapped.

“I can,” Welsley replied. “Two lives are not more valuable than tens of thousands. Even if one of those lives is one of the Goddess’ Guiding Lights.”

The Falson soldiers were frozen in place. They had been unsure of how to react, an issue quickly overcome by the Norasburg soldiers. They had followed Samuel’s example and pressed their spear points against the necks of the other soldiers.

“You would make the same choice,” Welsley turned to face the other women. “We save many lives in exchange for your sacrifice.”

“Do we have a deal?” the necromancer’s hoarse whisper interrupted.

“Yes,” Welsley answered.

“No,” the younger Falson offered her own answer.

“Welsley…,” Light Falson began.

“Light Koarl,” Welsley corrected. “Light Falson, there is no need to attempt to manipulate me by pretending a friendliness that doesn’t exist. The proper form of address is Light Koarl.”

“Light Koarl,” the older lady forced the words out,” think about this, please. We can work together. I can use my influence to get you the support of every tower not just that of Falson Peak. As a nation we can work together to defeat these invaders.”

“How many of my people die before reinforcements arrive?” Welsley asked. “It would take days for troops from our closest neighbour to arrive, months for our farthest ally. That’s assuming they sent soldiers today. Norasburg could fall before any help arrived. You would find the undead installed in the tower, their numbers swelled by the corpses of my soldiery and citizens. Each victory will only bring them greater strength and swifter wins.”

“No,” Welsley continued before anyone could reply, “the people of Norasburg will not be sacrificed so the other tower cities can prepare their defences. There is little chance of victory as the undead numbers grow and the tower numbers fall. My people would die in vain, that I will not allow. Not when I can sacrifice two people and remove the threat to everyone.”

“Well said, Light Koarl,” the necromancer applauded. “Very well reasoned.”

“We won’t just go willingly,” the younger Falson promised.

“Not a concern,” the necromancer smiled, “my servants will drag you if necessary, although they won’t be gentle.”

“Our guards won’t allow it,” the youngster declared. “When they’ve finished with you they’ll take Light Koarl into custody.”

“I doubt that, little pig,” the necromancer shot back. “Those spears at their throats tell a different story. I doubt they’d manage two steps before they’d be ready to join the ranks of my army.”

“Enough,” Welsley broke in. “I give you the Falsons and you take your army and go home. Do we have a deal?”

“We do, Light Koarl.”

“Take them.”

The necromancer gestured and the two women were surrounded by a dozen zombies. They acted in an almost respectful manner, they encased the women in a prison of animated flesh, trapped but untouched.

“We will treat them with as much kindness as we can. The Lady will want them in as close to one piece as possible. You have brought great comfort to the Lady this day, Light Koarl.”

The necromancer bowed respectfully before he fell into step behind his zombies as they moved toward the forest. The remaining undead had begun to close in around him when he stopped.

“Light Koarl,” he turned back to her. “In case you change your mind on the deal I will be leaving my army at the forest’s edge. They will cause no problems for you unless you attempt to take the Falsons back. They are, however, there to stay.”

Negotiations

“Breathe through your mouth,” Samuel whispered his advice into Welsley’s ear. “It’ll help reduce the desire to gag.”

It was advice he had offered her as they walked across the field to meet with the waiting undead. Each step they made toward the meet seemed to increase the smell of rot and decay exponentially. As they stood across from their opponents the stink was almost crushing with its presence, coughing and gagging could be heard from all the living.

To her right stood Samuel, of all her companions he showed the least discomfort with only the occasional soft cough to betray his unease. On her left were the two Falson women, coughing and gagging as they stood waiting. Directly behind Welsley were the Falsons’ soldiers spread out in a slight arc. Behind them were the Light’s own troops. Coughs could be heard at random intervals from the ranks of warriors.

Welsley felt a twinge of concern for the Falsons’ well-being. She, herself, found it difficult to breathe, she worried that it wouldn’t just be difficult for the older woman but that it would be debilitating. She found herself unable to display her concern as the sight in front of her was impossible to turn away from.

The view in front of her was a mockery of her own group. Roughly three dozen corpses in varying states of decay were lined up in an arc facing the Norasburg contingent. None of the undead were armed with weapons although the same could not be said about the bulk of the distant army; the numbers were greater than expected and the ranks of the undead seemed to trail off into infinity under the leaves of the forest.

In the centre of the arc of zombies stood a single individual: one of the necromancers. He was clad in black robes that had seen better days. The robes were tattered and frayed, there were noticeable holes peppered across its surface. Dark coloured clothing could be seen peeking out from underneath the robes, most likely they were in a similar shape.

His hands were pale and almost claw-like in appearance. A knotted wooden staff was held in his left hand. The staff was splintered, a leather strip was wrapped around it to provide a comfortable handle. The top of the staff was crudely carved into the shape of a skull.

His head was uncovered. He had long, lifeless black hair that hung from his head, like his robes his head had small bare patches where his hair seemed to have fallen off. The skin of his face was pallid and sickly, his eyes were dark and cold.

Unlike Welsley’s group he seemed unaffected by the weight of the decay that hung in the air.

“Who are you?” the man in the black robes whispered, his voice cracked and raspy. His eyes flicked quickly across Welsley and her three companions.

“I am Light Koarl,” Welsley answered, “this is Samuel. Light Falson and her granddaughter.” She indicated each of her companions as she introduced them.

The necromancer’s gaze lingered on the two Falsons and a grim smile flashed across his lips.

“Light Koarl,” he turned his eyes back to Welsley, “you are the one I was sent to contact.”

“And you are?” Welsley asked.

“Irrelevant,” was the reply. “The only thing important about me is that I represent the Lady. I have been entrusted to see to Her interests. My judgment is Her judgment. I speak with Her voice.”

“You come from the Sister!” the younger Falson spat out between the hacking coughs. The hatred was evident in her voice.

“I serve the Goddess, Falson pig,” the necromancer snarled. “Keep your lying mouth shut.”

“What does your master want?” Welsley asked. She knew from her conversations with the Lady that the myth of her being the Goddess was a narrative that the Lady desperately wanted to maintain. Welsley didn’t believe it, her talks with Abeth had only reinforced that opinion, but she saw no value in sharing her doubt with this man.

“Only what is hers by right,” the necromancer responded smugly. “The towers.”

“She wants the towers?” Welsley repeated. “All twelve of them?”

“She wished to have each of the towers surrendered to one of my brotherhood,” he explained. “The people can stay, live their lives as they will but their loyalty belongs to Her. Every Light must swear fealty to Her, publicly. The Council of Lights will remain as figureheads but will answer to the brotherhood in all matters.”

“Never!” Light Falson responded.

“She is right,” Welsley agreed. “I will never turn my tower over to Her. I would never place my people into Her grasp. I would rather die fighting Her.”

“You would never be allowed to truly die,” he smiled.

Welsley felt a chill run up her spine. She hadn’t considered the idea that she might be raised up as an undead slave. The thought of never being able to go to her final rest and spending eternity as a rotting corpse did not appeal to her. It changed nothing.

“We’ll take our chances,” Welsley declared. “I would rather fail fighting for what’s right than surrender to evil. We are done talking.”

“The Goddess shines on you, Light Koarl,” the necromancer said as she started to turn, “She favours you. She is willing to give up Her claim to all the towers in exchange for another, more important, desire.”

Welsley stopped. “What would that be?” she asked.

“Them,” he pointed at the two other women. “Give me the Falsons and She will forget Her claims to the towers.”

“Okay,” Welsley agreed.

Security

“This is quite the mix,” Samuel shared in hushed tones.

Welsley glanced in the direction of the Falson addition to the envoy. Light Falson stood surrounded by her people, she looked regal and confident in her white robes. There were double columns of three men on each side of the woman, shiny in their heavy armour with swords strapped to their sides and round shields on their left arms. The Light’s granddaughter stood beside her, the two conversed together in hushed tones.

“I am surprised she’s bringing her replacement along,” Welsley indicated the younger woman. “Seems like a huge risk to the Falson dynasty if things go bad. The Council might have to choose a true replacement for the Falson Peak tower.”

The younger Falson was clothed in a yellow-brown robe, a very light shade that was closer to white than brown. Neither her nor her grandmother seemed to be armed, they seemed to be relying entirely on their guards for their safety.

“She most likely feels secure being surrounded by heavily armoured soldiers,” Samuel guessed. “Heavy armour will protect them from claws and swords for a while but it slows you down. They get swamped by zombies and they’ll fall faster than they realize. Fast and agile is what you want. Plates of stiff leather will protect from the claws should they get unlucky while the light weight will allow you to outmanoeuvre your enemy.”

Welsley looked over her soldiers. They all wore suits of leather armour, soft and flexible except for rigid plates of leather strapped onto their chests, backs, arms, and legs. Short swords hung at their sides while spears rested in their hands. It seemed that Commander Roberts had taken Samuel’s advise to heart.

“They are more likely to survive,” Samuel followed Welsley’s gaze, “than those metal-clad troops. They’re more likely to get you out safely if things turn bad. Those spears will keep the dead from getting too close. Nothing beats a sharp, heavy short blade in close combat.”

That statement brought a sense of relief to Light Koarl. Six of these soldiers would lead the group as they made their journey to meet the undead envoy. Welsley and Samuel would be next in line followed by the Falson contingent. A half dozen more of Welsley’s soldiers would bring up the rear.

That was the agreed arrangement. Unknown to most of the participants, Commander Roberts was going to add another six soldiers to the rear guard as they passed out from the walls of the fort.

These additional troops were for Welsley’s peace of mind; she had no desire to enter into a potential dangerous situation with an enemy in front of her and behind her with less troops than either of her opponents. The additional troops provided her with numerical superiority over the Falson troops. They would also provide Light Falson with a subtle reminder that she was still a prisoner.

Welsley’s soldiers were made up of men who had been born and raised in the Norasburg region. Their loyalty was more likely to reside with the tower at Norasburg rather than the tower at Falson Peak; with Light Koarl rather than Light Falson.

“I wonder why she decided against bringing her attendants?” Samuel mused after a bit of silence.

He was dressed in armour of a similar style coloured a wonderful mix of browns and greens o he could blend in almost seamlessly with the forest. His crossbow was slung across his back, a short sword rested at his hip. He wore a hooded cloak that hid his face and head.

“You’re going to wear that?” Welsley indicated Samuel’s cloak. “You don’t think it’s a bit dangerous to give them something to grab onto?”

“With all these brave, well-armed soldiers protecting me?” Samuel indicated the men around them. “I’ll take the chance. I feel naked without it.”

She cocked her head slightly and fixed one eye on him.

“It has always been there for me,” Samuel explained. “It extends the shadows to keep me hidden. Keeps the sun off my skin when it’s warm. Provides warmth when it’s cold. Shelter at night. It can catch and tangle an attacker in a fight. It can keep people at bay the rest of the time. It provides me comfort and security.”

“Not a city person then,” Welsley smiled.

“The wilds are where I belong,” he replied.

“You Eminence,” Commander Roberts approached Welsley and Samuel. “Everything is ready to go. You can leave whenever you’d like.”

“Excellent,” Welsley replied. “Should things turn ugly, Commander, please make sure the rest of the Falson troops are in the front lines of the attack. They’ve been eating our food and drinking our wine, it is time that they earned it.”

“I will,” Commander Roberts bowed and left.

Welsley raised her voice. “Let’s get moving. It’s time to have a talk with the dead.”

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