Archive for the ‘Tall Tales’ Category

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.

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“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.”

“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.”

“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.

“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.”

“Where are you off to, Light Koarl?” Light Falson’s voice demanded in the silence of the tent.

Welsley resisted the urge to sigh. She was not surprised by the older woman finding out about the undead army’s desire to talk, she had expected the information to reach the other Light she just hadn’t expected it to be so fast. It had been her hope to be in the middle of the field engrossed in conversation with the other army’s envoy before then, far away from the other, angrier, Light.

“I am off to speak with our enemy,” Welsley straightened out her outfit as she turned to face Light Falson. “But I am sure you knew this already.”

“I did,” the older lady replied, “what I don’t know is why? What do you hope to gain by talking with these monsters?”

“I am hoping to avoid any unnecessary loss of life,” Welsley answered. “Avoiding battle is a benefit to us. Their numbers will grow with every fatality we take, they benefit from battle. If they want to talk, I want to know why.”

“Have you considered that perhaps they just want to separate you from the safety of your army?” Edith Falson asked. “Kill their enemy’s leaders in one blow and secure an easy victory?”

“I have considered it,” Welsley replied. “I’ll be taking Samuel and a dozen guards that were hand-picked by Commander Roberts. The commander will keep our cavalry at the ready, should anything happen to me he will unleash the horses and smash the enemy. There will be no time for our opponents to take advantage of my demise.”

“Besides,” she added after a thought, “I am sure you have chosen my replacement already. I mean… the Goddess has, of course.”

“There are about three dozen of the creatures waiting for you,” Light Falson pointed out, “correct?”

“Correct,” Welsley replied. “For camp gossip your information is remarkably accurate.”

“You will be outnumbered three-to-one,” Light Falson stated.

Welsley shrugged. “Samuel assures me that that will be sufficient. He has far more exposure to our enemy than anyone else. I suspect we can trust his assessment of the situation. I am not concerned.”

“I am concerned,” Light Falson offered.

“And what would you suggest?” Welsley asked. She picked up a small mace and gave it a quick, but thorough, inspection. Satisfied with the weapon, she hung it off her left hip.

It was a reasonably substantial weapon, very suitable for crushing skulls and bones. She had changed out of her robes and into a more functional suit of soft leather armour. As with most of her outfits it was white in colour. Although not as functional as her soldiers’ hardened leather armour or metal suits it would still provide more safety than her regular garb.

“You will take a dozen of my soldiers with you as well,” the older lady raised her hand to silence Welsley’s protest before it began. “This is not up for debate. I will be accompanying you, I cannot trust that you will look after the needs of all the towers. I will be doing any negotiating, you will stand silently in support.”

“I don’t think so,” Welsley responded. “You may accompany me, but I will be handling any negotiations. It is my tower, my lands, my people that they threaten so I will talk peace with them. I will decide what concessions will be made and what demands issued. I don’t trust you to look after my people’s needs. This is not up for debate.”

A glare filled with rage was the only reply.

“That’s how it is going to happen or you remain here. Your choice. I have more than enough soldiers at the fort to make this happen,” Welsley let the threat drip from her lips.

“As you wish,” Light Falson snarled.

“We leave in an hour, with or without you,” Welsley smiled as she watched the other Light storm off. “Bring me Commander Roberts,” she instructed one of her attendants.

“Your Eminence,” Commander Roberts announced his arrival a short while later, “your escort is ready whenever you are. Our mounted units stand ready to attack at a moment’s notice.”

“Light Falson will be joining me,” Welsley explained. “Make sure my escort is larger than hers in size. There is enough uncertainty and danger without underestimating her.”

The fort’s commander bowed in acknowledgement and exited the tent.

Welsley closed her eyes and drew in a deep breath. She couldn’t shake the thought that things had suddenly become more complicated.

They could smell the decay long before the undead shambled out from the cover of the forest. They numbered in the hundreds as far as the tower’s scouts could determine of the ranks of the undead that stood on the plain before the treeline. The nearly motionless ranks of the dead soldiers disappeared into the depths of the wood, many more could be hidden beneath the eaves of the forest. Somewhere in that mass of nonliving flesh were three living beings: the necromancers responsible for this unholy army.

The proverbial needle in the haystack, Welsley thought. She stood atop a makeshift tower that had been hastily constructed by her troops in the three days it had taken for the dead to arrive. The standing ranks of undead were too far away for her to make out any difference in the figures, she could make out some movement among the ranks but could not even begin to guess where the necromancers might be.

“Goddess,” Alister whispered from her left, “that’s a lot of monsters.”

Welsley kept her eyes on the distant ranks of enemies, her only acknowledgement of her companion’s statement was a slight nod. There were only three people on the makeshift tower: Commander Roberts, the man called Samuel, and the Light herself. The tower was more of a raised platform with a tightly spaced railing that provided cover up to their midsections. The platform allowed them to rise above the field to get a more complete picture of the activity around them. It did not provide much privacy; conversations on the platform carried.

It was not an issue for the troops on the field ahead of them. A shallow, hastily dug trench lined with sharpened logs separated the viewers from the rows of soldiers that waited to repel an attack. Foot soldiers at the rear as a final defence. There were archers that made up the front ranks, after an initial few volleys they would step backwards to reform their lines safely behind the infantry. Heavily armoured cavalry waited to be launched against their foes after the volleys of arrows had been released.

It was in the camp behind them that their voices carried. Conversations heard were spread among the tents faster than an arrow in flight. Such was the nature of camp gossip, anything and everything heard or said was added, and twisted, in the pool of misinformation. There was enough anxiety within the ranks before a battle without the addition of speculation or rumour.

The smell of decay and the faint sounds of moaning that came from the army lined up before the forest already had the camp on edge. They could see the nervous shuffling of the soldiers and horses on the field in front of them. The silence from the camp behind spoke volumes about the unease felt throughout their forces.

A misinterpreted comment by one of their leaders was not an element Welsely wished to add to the mix.

“I don’t see anything that looks more dangerous than the lesser undead,” Samuel offered from her right. “Your horses with the weight of their armour and riders would easily smash through their lines. Their numbers might look impressive, but they are slow and mindless. No real threat to a fast, mobile opponent.”

“Where are their leaders?” Welsley asked.

“The necromancers?” Samuel answered. “They are most likely within the forest. Keeps them safe and gives them some privacy for any rituals they might perform. Zombies don’t respond fast enough to orders so there’s no need for the necromancers to be among them.”

“Who commands them in battle?” Roberts asked.

“No one,” Samuel replied. “They don’t war the same way we do. They can be given very basic instructions: guard this, stand here, follow them, go over there. Instructions like that. They can recognize people designated as friendly, the necromancers who created them are always safe. Once they engage in battle their instincts take over. They fight like animals, it is not odd for them to feast on a kill in the middle of battle. They are far from a disciplined army.”

Samuel cradled his crossbow in his arms almost lovingly as one might cradle a baby. His gaze rested on the distant army, his mind seemed even more distant. Lost within itself.

“There are other types,” Samuel continued, “the ghouls that we hunted initially. Faster, not so stiff, more fluid. More wild, rabid beast more than anything else. Too hard to control and not suited for a large force. Too violent and unpredictable. They didn’t create any of those while I watched them.”

“At the ruined tower,” his story went on, “we met a decaying corpse that walked and talked like anyone else. It seemed like he was able to retain his intelligence, his personality, his being, even in his undead state. It would take a lot of power to pull someone that far back from the afterlife. A power these necromancers don’t seem to possess.”

“Thank the Goddess for that,” Commander Roberts offered.

“Someone does,” Welsley stated.

“The Lady of the Tower,” Samuel began. “Look! They’ve started moving.”

A small group had broken off from the opposing army and begun to move toward the fort. Two, maybe three, dozen of the undead soldiers walked in a block across the plain and stopped just out of range of the archers. Above the heads of the undead rose a white flag.

The most obvious thing about the new arrival, Welsley noted to herself, was his exhaustion. His breathing was ragged and his chest heaved with each breath he drew. His clothing was coated with dirt and soaked through with sweat. He stood just inside the wooden walls of the fort, his eyes drooped slightly and his body swayed ever so slightly. He seemed on the verge of collapse.

“He burst out of the forest right on top of our logging crews,” Alister Roberts intercepted her as she approached the partially built wall of the fort. “Stumbled into their midst and demanded to be brought to you. I sent for you as soon as he arrived here.”

“Good,” Welsley responded. “Do we know who he is?”

“No idea,” the commander answered, “he hasn’t spoken since he arrived.”

“Who are you?” Welsley asked as she approached the stranger. The Light noticed a handful of soldiers lounging nearby, their casual demeanour a mask to their intent watchfulness of the exhausted man. Commander Roberts stood at her left side, her entourage of attendants and bodyguards stood behind her at a respectful distance.

“Are you the Light?” his eyes looked intently at her face. He was dressed in dark shades from head-to-toe, a green outfit buried under a black cloak. The handle of a blade could be seen protruding from the hidden depths of his cloak. The handle of a crossbow rose up from behind his back. His rhythmic swaying had stopped as his attention turned to her.

“I am Light Koarl,” she replied after she had taken in his appearance. “And you are?”

“My name is Samuel,” he replied. “I accompanied your servant Shan across the forest and through the wasteland to the ruined tower.”

“Shan?” Welsley questioned. The last contact she had had with Shan’s party had been days ago, back before she had come to the river outpost. She felt a rising anxiety about the fate of her explorers. “Is she alright?”

“Last time I saw her, she was alive and well,” Samuel replied, “but that was many days ago. Just after we arrived at the tower. I stayed out, she went in. I haven’t heard anything since.”

“Why are you here?” Welsley asked.

“I followed a group of necromancers and zombies from the tower out of the wasteland,” he answered. “I followed them through the wasteland as they meandered in this direction. They stopped here and there pulling more corpses out of the ground and into their army. They must have raised hundreds of them in various stages of decay. There is, as we speak, and army comprised of skeletons and zombies shambling through the forest in this direction. Slow moving, but on its way.”

“I’ll send for more troops,” Commander Roberts gestured to one of his soldiers. “How long do we have?”

“Two, maybe three days,” Samuel replied. “I pushed past them as they crossed out of the wasteland. The necromancers’ need to sleep slows their progress or they would be here already.”

“How many necromancers?” Welsley asked.

“Three,” was the answer.

“Should be easy enough,” Roberts added.

“You’ll want to keep your distance or move faster than they do,” Samuel agreed. “It would be very easy to get overwhelmed by their numbers. They don’t tire, they ignore wounds that would kill a man. Archers and horsemen would provide the biggest edge. Smash through the zombie lines and kill the necromancers before they can raise more of the dead.”

“Go,” Roberts turned to the soldier that had stepped forward. “Ride to the garrison. Bring back every archer and cavalryman stationed there.” He pointed at another soldier. “I want runners at the forest edge and scouts in the trees looking for this army.”

“Go!” He punctuated his instructions.

“Get this man some food and drink,” Welsley instructed one of her attendants, “find him a bed before he collapses.”

“Thank-you,” Samuel nodded.

“Get some sleep. We’ll meet with our captains in a few hours and come up with a plan of action,” Welsley declared.

Welsley left with Roberts quick on her heels. She headed toward the command building, the sound of the outpost’s commander barking orders trailed behind her.

Only one thought ran through her head, things were finally going to get exciting.

Things were proceeding nicely. As far as Welsley was concerned at any rate. Her arrival at the river outpost had sparked a rush of construction projects. Over the first few days she watched as her soldiers erected a shelter for her and her attendants. Wooden and solid, it was luxurious compared with the spartan tents her troops lived out of.

The focus of the outpost’s soldiers impressed Welsley. They had broken their focus to build a more permanent structure for their Light but after that they were back to building up the defences. Their own comfort was of low priority, their focus was on protecting the bridge across the river and the people beyond. Armour, weapons, and horses were more important than the men themselves. A stable, a forge, and an armoury were in the process of construction while the soldiers still slept in the mud and the dirt.

Welsley Koarl considered this as she walked through the camp, her goal the beginnings of the outpost’s gatehouse. She could hear the sounds of wood being chopped, sawed and hammered increase in volume as she and her entourage – four soldiers, two attendants – approached the edge of the camp that lay beside the well-used logging road.

There were no villages on this side of the river only logging camps. The road had been worn into the ground through years of carting wagons loaded with cut trees and the occasional military patrol. Most days the road was barren and unused.

The soldiers that made up the population of the outpost had made good progress on clearing the trees from the riverside. Their need for building material had bared the land and pushed the edge of the forest further back. The wide open space would make it significantly more difficult for an enemy to approach the bridge unnoticed.

An open plain made mounted warfare possible and would make the outpost’s garrison more effective.

“They keep stealing my lumber,” an older man approached her as they arrived at the construction site.

“Good morning, Commander,” Welsley inclined her head in greeting. There was no need to ask who was doing the stealing. It was the Falson troops. Under their matriarch’s orders they had taken to “requisitioning” hewn lumber with which to complete the work on the command bunker. The dust and the dirt were a hardship her guests just couldn’t accept.

“I don’t care if they want to waste their time making the building livable,” the old warrior grumbled, “but they should cut their own trees. Every log they take delays the building of the walls. The walls are more important than their comfort.”

“I will mention it to them again,” Welsley smiled.

She had liked Commander Alister Roberts immediately upon meeting him. He treated his command, the river outpost, as he would his own realm. He refused to show deference to ranks or titles and treated everyone who entered his “domain” the same. He worked tirelessly alongside the troops under his command which created an aura of awe and loyalty among them.

The men’s attitude amused Light Koarl, the same could not be said about Light Falson.

“For all the good that will do,” the man grumbled.

“It might just be simplest to harvest more trees yourself,” Welsley offered.

The man grunted in response.

“Any news from our scouts?” she asked, her eyes drifted across the edge of the forest.

“None have returned so far,” was the reply. There was a pause before he added, “the soldiers at the forest’s edge will let us know as soon as the invaders are spotted. In the meantime we’ll continue the work on the walls, with a bit of luck they’ll be erected before the enemy arrives.”

“Is there anything I can do to help?”

“Stay out of the way,” his voice dropped in volume, a rare display of respect to his Light, “your presence makes the men nervous.”

She nodded. “Carry on.”

“I’ll let you know as soon as a scout is spotted,” he offered.

“Thank-you, Commander,” Welsley replied as she walked back into the camp.

There was little she could do at the moment but wait. She allowed herself to take a leisurely walk among her soldier’s tents. She had no desire to return to the Falsons and their complaints. Better to let the other women tire themselves out working on their project to civilize the command bunker than to allow them to tire her out with their nagging.

“Your Eminence!”

She was interrupted by a shout.

“A man has emerged from the forest.”

“Just one?”

“Yes, Your Eminence. Not one of ours.”

“Whose?” she asked.

The runner just shrugged as they headed back to the gatehouse.

Welsley lay her head back and closed her eyes. The pool she lay in wasn’t overly deep, its bottom was paved with small, smooth stones; in a lot of ways it was like a man-made bath. The pool was fed with water direct from the river, it swirled lazily through the circular basin before lazily flowing back to the river it had started in. The result was a constant wash of water over the body of Norasburg’s Light. The water was cold, crisp, exhilarating and a prime way to welcome the start of a new day.

She would have preferred more privacy to her morning reset. Her balcony in the tower was far enough up toward the heavens that she felt secure in her privacy, but the newly built garrison was just across the river and within easy visual range. Welsley was less concerned about the possibility of being watched as she bathed, what bothered her was the inability to relax enough to fully commune with her surroundings.

It wasn’t a religious experience, she had never felt the presence of the Goddess or any other deity. It was a personal ritual to wake herself up and prepare herself, mentally, for the day.

The entourage from the tower had chosen to make their camp across the river from the newly formed river fort. The fort was a fort in name only, it consisted of tents surrounded by a partial wall made of dirt and peppered with sharpened logs. It was barely serviceable as a military base and would not serve as a temporary seat of government.

It was certainly not suited as a prison for a captive of the caliber of Light Falson.

Wagons and attendants were an added perk to the camp that was the current, albeit temporary, home of Light Koarl. These were luxuries not often seen in an army’s camp but none of the faithful could go without them.

The Falsons, Welsley had discovered, were no better company as captives than they were as her captors. Arrogant, obnoxious, demanding were all apt descriptions of the two women. Welsley was certain it must be a family trait, they seemed to go out of their way to dissuade people from feeling fondly of them.

Welsley mostly left them to themselves with just enough of her soldiers to guard them as was needed to outnumber the Falson troops. The two Lights met for meals which were either spent in angry debate or silently focused on dispatching the meal. The rest of the time was spent trying to avoid each other while displaying a false friendliness to outside observers.

It was tiresome but not without amusement.

The reaction of her “guests” was priceless when she announced they would be taking a trip across the river. The two Falsons raged at her until she threatened to drag them behind horses to the new outpost. For a brief moment Welsley had worried blades would be drawn, in the end they submitted the fear of losing their cushy seats in a wagon too great. They had been nothing but cold since.

That suited Welsley just fine. She had no interest in revealing the coming attack by an unknown number of undead. She had no desire to get into a discussion on how she knew of the impending invasion. She didn’t know the size of the force that was headed their way, she only knew it was coming.

And it was coming soon.

No. As far as Welsley was concerned it would be better for the Falsons to assume the attack was unexpected. Better for them to assume the Norasburg soldiery was better prepared than they thought. If they repelled the undead with ease perhaps the Falsons would leave with all their troops and leave her tower for good.

One could hope.

The young Light took a deep breath and tried to silence her thoughts. She tried to focus on the spinning of her body, the gentle current of the water spun her slowly round and round. Almost imperceptible waves washed over her body turning her skin into goose bumps.

The faint sound of nature waking could be heard all around her. In the distance she could hear the sound of rushing water from the river. Hidden behind the sounds of nature she could just make out the sounds of the camps: horses, footfalls, pots and pans, orders barked.

The world was waking up around her.

“The sun rises, Your Eminence,” the voice of one of her attendants arrived at her ears.

“Just a few more moments,” Welsley paused, what was her name? “Tara.”

Welsley tilted her head back and opened her eyes. It had been dark when she had wandered down to the pool, her way lit only by the stars and the torch carried by Tara who had accompanied her. The sun had since rose and bathed the world in light.

Light Koarl took to her feet and stepped from the pool into a waiting towel. She dried herself off and dutifully dressed herself in the clothing provided by her attendant; an outfit of supple leather, tan in colour.

“Is that roast pig I smell?” Welsley asked as they walked toward camp.

“I believe so, Your Eminence,” Tara answered.

“Excellent,” Welsley said, “a wonderful way to start the day.”