It was not only the tension of the incoming battle for Randall, but it was also the fatigue of the responsibilities of so many lives. Lives of comrades and friends.
His hand was white from the strong grip on the hilt of the sword that belonged to Andrural, the commander and his mentor, his friend. The sword was made of strong steel, forged by the dwarves of Shining Grotto.
A single drop of sweat descends from the worn leather helmet, eyes staring at the nearby woods, no more than two hundred meters from him.
The village was not easy to defend, just a couple dozen houses made of wood, clay and straw. As per many villages in those areas, far from the main urban centres and close to the eastern borders of the kingdom, those people were poor settlers that moved into the new lands after the great wars of unification. They didn’t have any militia e they surely didn’t think about building fortifications, considering themselves secure in those remote lands. But things changed and since the Red Month, these villages once far from conflicts become more and more prey of wandering tribes of humanoid fleeing from the south.
The main road was just a narrow, muddy line, barely large enough for two carts to drive side by side. No walls, obviously, but not even palisades. Just some fences used to keep the calves and the cows contained, fences that now were used by his men as protection.
The village chief didn’t have much as a payment. Wine and provisions for a week, ten rough but sturdy leather sheets and thirty-five kilos of iron already smelted. That was enough for the company to be able to reach Varingad in the south and get a few days free while the company treasurer would spend time converting the raw materials into coins and equipment maintenance.
The villagers were poor folks but proud of their work and Randall could see the shame on the rugged and hardened face of the chief. He would not have asked for mercenary services if he would not have been sure the menace was real. And according to Grevis, it was real.
Grevis reported that the orcs warband was coming from the woods, most likely they would use the protection of the trees to advance and the fences were the only line of defences they could use, too damn close to the village.
There was not enough time.
Grevis waved his hand, indicating the men on the right.
“We can only hope the orcs don’t have bows or our defences will be useless,” said Randall to Grevis. He was standing behind a bunch of trees near the borders of a field, looking at the marshalled troops around them.
“I didn’t see any during my patrol, it seems they are one of those savage tribes of orcs from the far south. They don’t use much for protection and are armed with crude or looted weapons, I doubt they have the skills to use a bow.”
Grevis was his second in command, a weathered veteran specialized in recon and fortification, he was over forty, short but well-built, the men respected him. Randall looked at him: Why did he refuse command? He was the first choice of the men, he has their trust, it doesn’t matter that Andrural gave me field command before dying, I am not the first choice of the men.
”Go with the spears Gravis, hold the fence, if they break through fall back to the second fence, next to the stables.” Randall glanced at the big, ugly building some twenty meters behind the unit of spearmen deployed in two ranks, defending the fences.
”We will hold,” Gravis promised with a lopsided smile ”the contract is good, the men are resolute, a band of savage orcs will stand no chance against the Company of the Glaive, Commander!” He said the last word louder and stronger, Randall couldn’t understand if it was an encouragement or he was just trying to tell him to not fuck it up.
It didn’t matter, still holding the blade too firmly than necessary he looked around the disposition of the troops. The spearmen deployed on his right, where the fences were close to the woods, most likely direction of the attack. Ten archers were standing about fifty meters behind, in the middle of the road. They piled some barrels and boxes to use as cover, as Gravis ordered. Randall was standing with the footmen on the left side of the village, behind some trees and bushes, they had good visibility of the village borders and the woods. Fourteen footmen, armed with a mix of swords, maces and axes were the company principal offensive unit. The tactic was simple, the archers will rain arrows as soon as the enemies cleared the woods, hopefully attracting the savages towards them with the spearmen in their path ready to hold the charge. The savages orcs tactic is usually straightforward, they simply charge ahead with the sheer brute force of their infantry. If the spearmen could hold the initial charge Randall will then lead his footmen on the flank of the orcs, kill the leader and the rest of the orcs will flee. He never fought savage orcs before but the chronicles of the company have a detailed description of a battle waged more than two hundred years ago, this tactic worked then and he was hoping to add a new victory to their chronicles journal.
A gritty roar exploded from the woods.
”They are here!” The soldier next to Randall was a mountain of a man, wearing a boiled leather jacket too small for his broad chest, he was holding a huge double-bladed battleaxe that had seen better times.
”Ready the men, Hark, keep an eye at the leftmost part of the woods, I don’t want to have any surprises if you see something yell.” Randall tension disappeared all of a sudden, the fight was here, now, the time of waiting was over, soon he will know if the company second choice for the commander was a good choice.
Fear. He could smell it. And the smell of wet humans and their leather and metal vests.
The savage orc chieftain was on top of his mount, a crokadas, a large saurus two meters long, bulky with a green-yellow carapace over which a rough saddle was mounted. The beast had long jaws and the snout was covered in yellow fangs. Four eyes on top of its small cranium assured it unparalleled visibility and despite the four massive legs, the creature was surprisingly fast. Orcs used crokadas as warhounds because they are not usually big enough for orcs warriors to ride them, but every once in a while a specimen grow substantially larger than others, and with a thick, chitinous carapace capable of supporting the weight of an adult orc. Those specimens are often ridden in battles by the orc chieftains that manage to submit them. Trukk was one of these chiefs.
The raiding party was ready and hungry, his scouts reported that the humans in the village were now armed and ready for a fight. This was unexpected because the previous vanguard reported the village defenceless and an easy target. But humans are unpredictable, they always seem to have tricks and surprises. Orcs were much simpler. They needed supply, livestock, furs, whatever this little village could provide for the tribe. And a few humans with metal poles and clubs would not be a problem for his war party. Five-fists-and-three warriors, ready to fight, and a little surprise for the humans, he licked his uppermost canine in a grimace of appetite. He raised his metal warmace and roared the order. ”Chaaaarge!!”
The rain was gentle but it had fallen for hours by then, the soldiers were completely soaked and large pools of water and mud were reflecting the dim light of the sun. When the orcs leapt out of the cover of the trees the already nosed arrows began to rain on the savages, no order was issued, the archers knew they have time for just a couple volley of arrows before the orc reached their comrades.
Grevis was yelling, ”Second line, ready the spears! First line, ready the spears!”
The orcs were attacking exactly from where Randall had hoped they would. Large humanoids with short legs, long, primitive arms and white-yellow skin, hard as leather. Their heads were small compared to their bodies, they wore pieces of furs adorned with bones, most were armed with crude blunting weapons made of bone or wood, a few had rusty metal weapons probably trophies of past raids, all were charging regardless the arrows, straight into the line of spears. What they lacked in strategy was compensated by the number and the pure ferociousness.
Grevis was counting, ”Hold the line! Hold the line!” about thirty orcs but something was not right, ”Prepare for impact! Shoulders! Now!” the orcs were on them, some without even slowing, continued to rush once impaled by the spears, tearing apart muscles and bones, too enraged to even notice the wounds.
But the men of the Glaive were tough and they’d seen their fair share of battles, the line was holding.
”First line, hand weapons! Second line, one step back! “ Grevis gave the order before dashing towards the fight.
The tactic was a classic of the company, let the spears create a deadly cage of spears so that the front line could get close and personal with the orcs. The fence contributes to slow down the impetus of the charge.
Grevis realized what was wrong the instant he heard the noise coming from the left flank. The orc chieftain was not with his troops, he was attacking from another direction.
Hark wailed to his men the moment he saw the gigantic brute riding out of the southern woods. He was brandishing a huge spiked mace, his body as big as a gorilla, the skin was yellow decorated with freshly smeared tribal tattoos, he was directing the charge against Hark unit.
Around him a fist of crokadas, smaller than the mount of the orc but faster and ferocious warhounds with thick scaly skin and long jawbone.
Randall quickly recovered from the surprise and instructed his men to form a semicircle, along with the trees and stumps between them and the charging beasts. “Use the trees to cover your flank, we outnumber them, the big orc is mine,” Hark noticed a strange expression in his commander’s eyes, like pupils blasting out in flames, but in a moment it disappeared. “Archers! Support!”
That was the last order shouted by Randall before being overcome by flames.
The crokadas jumped on the footmen with the deadly jaws wide open, despite being in numerical superiority the speed and aggressiveness of the beasts was such as to crush any semblance of tactics. Three men died on the spot, horribly mutilated by the scaly hounds, the orc chieftain slammed his warmace on the side of Hark who was thrown on the ground like a broken doll, unconscious, his battleaxe lost in the mud. Trukk turned is snout, with a triumphant grin, and looked at the man standing in front of him, then his expression changed once he realized flames were rising from the man’s head. And from the hands.
With a cracking sound a red light blinded the savage beasts and men alike, Randall was standing in front of the chieftain and his mount, the head completely enveloped in flames, the face turned into fiery lava, eyes of shining darkness. Flames erupted from his arms and wrapped the sword dancing in front of the terrified orc. “The spirit of Tarak!” he moaned, hands firmly holding the gigantic crokadas from fleeing. Randall lashed out violently on the nearest scaly hound, cutting and burning half of its face, then he whirled around and slashed another war beast, the footmen stepped back afraid of that flaming demon that once was their commander. They never saw before sorcery like that. Trukk took control of his mount and slammed the warmace towards the flaming warrior who dodged and sprinted forward hitting the eyes of the crokadas with the flaming sword. In the air there was an acrid smell of burned scales, the other war beasts run towards the safety of the woods. Trukk regained balance and control of his mount before kicking Randall in the back who in turn rolled on his side and plunged the blade into the unprotected belly of the gigantic crokadas. The beast fell dead to the ground, and the orc was thrown off the saddle. Randall was a fury, he jumped up and with a swing of the blade he cut off the head of the chieftain, his piggy eyes wide open in shock. Blood sizzled on the sword. The battle was over, the orc head lying in a pool of mud and blood.
Randall loved the smell of grass after the rain, it reminded him of his early days in the fields of Lorentha, were he spent the first years of his life as a servant in a farm. He and the other kids were usually allowed to rest during the rain, and they spent the time telling stories to each other behind the big granary.
He knew something changed forever this day as something changed forever when the armies of Togoth invaded and destroyed the farms, so many years ago, sealing his fate as a mercenary.
It has been so powerful, so astonishing. And so natural. It happened, just naturally, like when a newborn foal jumps up and start walking.
And this was not magic, not the one the Magis learn from the books anyway. This was something more visceral, coming from inside him. He looked at his arms. Not a single scratch or a burn, only his sleeves were burned. And his helm, of course, that went out like paper.
Grevis appeared from behind the curtains of the tent he was resting in, a half smile on his tired face. ”Hey, kid, it didn’t go too bad after all,“ Randall knew there was a risk the company would have simply left him there, alone and without provisions. And the folks in the village would not have wanted him there either. After all, he was a magical freak. And probably dangerous.
”How many dead?“ it was still his first command. ”Four dead, two with serious injuries and several with scratches. It could have been much worse. You did good kid.“ It was true, the orc chieftain could have killed several men if it wasn’t for his magical outburst. ”Most of the orcs escaped, we killed eight, and you took care of the chieftain and some of his pets. The warband has been hit hard, they won’t come back. The village chief is going to pay as agreed. If it wasn’t for your, unexpected flaming show, the men would be drinking and singing right now. It was a good victory.“
” But…, “ he didn’t care what the company decided to do with him, he made his mentor proud. First command, victory and few casualties. The contract honoured, that’s what mattered.
”You can come with us to Varingad. You can take your part of wage as a commander but you are not part of the company anymore. Your contract will be terminated right now.“ He looked at him with cautious eyes. Randall could see the veteran scout was observing him for any sign of danger. He also didn’t trust him anymore. Not after what he saw. ”Look, kid, our company is composed of people that have seen a lot of shit, we know and fight magic, we know that there are things out there only Magi can understand, but they didn’t expect what you did. They didn’t expect their commander to be able to do that. Without telling them.“ Grevis was disappointed, obviously he was part of the ones that didn’t like to have a commander with secret magical powers.
”You have to believe me, I had no idea I had this power, this, this, just happened.“
”And tell me, how is this going to make me feel better about it? A leader with magical powers that cannot even control? How do they know, how do I know that you’re not going to incinerate everything around you during a battle? How do we even know if you can control them and not burn us all?“ Randall remembered the words of his commander, “as a leader you just need to do three things: keep their bellies full, keep them men with honour, and keep their trust. And not in this order.”
”You are right of course, and I have to be glad the men decided to let me travel with you. I also need some answers and I don’t want to cause any problems. I will follow the company to Varingad as a non-combatant and then I will go searching for answers on my own.” At least his first and only command has been good, and honourable.
Grevis approached Randall with parchment in one hand and a piece of charcoal in the other ”Let’s arrange the contract then, the company has chosen Hark as the new commander.” Randall smiled. ”Hark’s a good man, an honourable man, the men will trust him.”
While signing the contract, in which he was passing the command to Hark and resigning his service, touching the charcoal, he could feel the old wood, engulfed by flames, being consumed by fire, he could feel it in his hand, he could feel it in his mind.