The enemy shield wall drew closer. It contained hundreds of men and spanned the road from one end to the other. The approaching formation of soldiers only ended where the edge of the forest got in the way.
“First rank, fire!” Herad yelled.
A swarm of buzzing arrows leapt into the air. They rose from all along the wall and then descended upon Werrick’s men. The sound of all the arrows hitting the enemies’ shields was almost like the patter of raindrops on a roof, only with more screaming in the background.
Unfortunately, while some of Werrick’s men did fall as arrows slipped through the gaps in their defensive barrier, most of the enemies remained unharmed. They continued marching towards the wooden barricade Herad had erected to block their way.
“Second rank, fire!” Herad yelled.
Another cloud of arrows hit the enemy, with much the same effect.
“Should we do something?” Geralhd asked Saeter as he stared at the enemy.
The hobgoblin and them were standing at the wall and peeking between the crude wooden posts that composed most of its length.
“Feel free to run out there if you want,” Saeter replied sarcastically. “I plan on staying right here unless I’m ordered to move.”
“I think-ss I should go scout something out in the woods,” Blacknail added. “Just in case the enemy attacks... somewhere else.”
The hobgoblin's guts felt a little watery as he stared at the approaching army. Standing in its way didn’t seem like a great idea.
“You’re staying right next to me,” Saeter ordered Blacknail as he turned to give him a level stare.
The hobgoblin grinned nervously back but nodded in affirmation. He would have to wait until things got more chaotic before making a break for it.
“Do you think he will want to parley?” Geralhd asked.
“Who, Werrick? What would be the point?” Saeter answered condescendingly.
“To settle his differences with Herad without getting hundreds of people killed?” the other man asked with uncertain hope.
“Ha, neither of them will give ground. They have nothing to talk about. This is a fight to the death,” Saeter replied.
“Why are we even fighting again?” Geralhd wanted to know. “I know Herad and Werrick hate each other, but how does Werrick profit from a huge fight like this? Shouldn’t he be more concerned with robbing people and other bandit activities?”
“Feelings have very little to do with this,” Saeter told the other man. “Things in the North are changing and there isn’t room for two top dogs.”
“Wait, I thought the boss was just protecting our territory from intrusion. She never said she wanted to rule over any of the other bands!” Geralhd remarked in surprise.
“You don’t know Herad very well,” Saeter explained knowingly. "Holding this patch of land and setting herself up as its ruler was always but the first step. With a firm footing here she could quickly expand all through the North.”
“That’s just great,” Geralhd remarked sarcastically before sighing deeply.
“Yep, if you can conquer more land why would you ever stop?” Blacknail exclaimed excitedly. He had always assumed that Herad was going to kill all her rivals.
“So that you don’t get killed in a stupid battle in the middle of nowhere?” Geralhd countered as he frowned at the hobgoblin.
“Everyone dies, but not everyone gets the pick of all the best loot,” Blacknail pointed out.
Geralhd sighed and looked back at the wall. He didn’t seem convinced. In the background, another volley of arrows flew into the air at Herad’s command.
“This is an enlightening conversation but perhaps we should focus on the battle that is about to be joined,” he said. “I’m still not sure what I should be doing right now.”
“If Vorscha didn’t order you to do anything then just stay back,” Saeter huffed. “You can join one of the reserve units if you want, but it’s not like you’re even properly equipped,”
Geralhd turned and gave the old scout an annoyed glare. The younger man was dressed in lighter clothes than most of the nearby bandits. Instead of armor he was wearing a long cloth shirt and a thin leather vest. Even the leather jackets Blacknail and Saeter wore offered much more protection.
“I like being able to move freely, and I don’t see you manning the walls,” he remarked dryly.
“Not my job,” Saeter countered. “I just got back from a scouting mission. I’m not a grunt.”
“I’m not a grunt either,” Geralhd replied.
“Oh, then what are you? A camp follower?” the old scout joked as he grinned with obvious amusement.
The younger man stared at Saeter coldly. It looked like he wanted to say something but he bit his tongue instead and remained silent. After a few seconds he turned to look at the approaching army.
“Why doesn’t Herad just have Mahedium blast their formation? They are all tightly packed together,” Geralhd asked to redirect the conversation.
“Do you think Werrick doesn’t know we have a mage? This entire attack could just be bait,” Saeter told him. “If Mahedium shows himself then Werrick’s own mages will bombard him with everything they have.”
“Oh, I had forgotten about them. Why is Werrick even bothering with an assault? His mages could just blast our barricade to smithereens,” Geralhd asked.
Blacknail turned to look at the wooden wall that was a mere three feet away from him. He could easily picture it exploding into a hail of deadly splinters.
“Why are we standing here?” he asked his master doubtfully. “This seems like a bad idea.”
Saeter shook his head and rolled his eyes condescendingly.
“He doesn’t want to lose his own mages,” he told Geralhd. “Herad probably has Mahedium lying in wait, ready to drop a ton of war magic on Werrick’s mages the second they try and assault our barricades. The first side to reveal its magic users is at a disadvantage in a fight like this.”
“So both Herad and Werrick are holding back in hopes of forcing the enemy to commit their mages?” Geralhd mused.
“Or whatever other tricks they have tucked away,” Saeter confirmed.
“Obviously,” Blacknail added smugly as he took several large steps away from the wall, just in case it suddenly exploded.
A squad of Herad’s men ran up beside the hobgoblin’s group. The enemy was only a few seconds from the wall now. Herad could be heard yelling for reinforcements at the gate.
Both Blacknail and Geralhd turned to look at Saeter for guidance; he was the only one who knew what was going on. However, the old scout didn’t appear to be in a hurry. He seemed content to just stand there.
There was a furious scream. Blacknail winced as he instinctively covered his head and ducked. Werrick’s men hit the wall; their formation seemed to ripple as it halted their advance.
“What are they...” Geralhd stared to ask before he was interrupted by a chopping sound.
He flinched as an axe blade hit the barrier. It was swiftly followed by many more blows as the enemy started chopping their way through the barrier. Ladders appeared from out of the mass of enemies and were thrown up against the wall.
Arrows continued to fall on Werrick’s troops but men with shields stopped most of the deadly projectiles. Several bandits near Blacknail started using spears to push ladders down or to stab through the wall at the axemen, but most of Herad’s minions didn’t seem to know what to do. They could only wait for the enemy to make their way through or over the wall.
More intense fighting was happening at the entrance to the camp. A mass of enemy troops were trying to force their way through the gap in the wall there. However, that was also where Herad had most her troops.
Both friends and foes were pressed closely together as the wall channelled Werrick’s troops towards the entrance there. Bandits hacked and slashed at each other relentlessly as they fought for space.
Herad wasn’t fighting on the front lines. She was watching and yelling orders from behind as her minions fought to push the enemy back.
Blacknail took a step back as an axe head burst through the wall near him. As a pair of bandits stepped forward to deal with it, the hobgoblin noticed the top of a ladder appear above the barricade. It began to shake as someone started to climb it.
His first instinct was to let someone else deal with the problem but then an amusing idea occurred to him. After a quick look around, Blacknail jumped onto the wall and began to climb. His claws had no problem gripping the wooden posts and they easily supported his weight.
Once he got to the top, Blacknail waited a few seconds. Soon enough, a man’s head popped up and looked around. He froze when he noticed the hobgoblin staring up at him from only few inches away.
Blacknail smiled and sliced one of the hands the man was using to cling to the ladder. His knife cut cleanly through several fingers.
The man yelped in pain and flinched backwards. His face was an agonised red and his eyes were wide with terror as Blacknail pushed over the ladder he was standing on. The hobgoblin smiled as he watched the man crash into his fellows below.
With that done, Blacknail scampered back down the wall to safety. He’d had his fun and hanging around would be dangerous.
Saeter and Geralhd were still standing in the same spot, so Blacknail walked back over to them. The hobgoblin gave his master a happy smile. Saeter just rolled his eyes.
“Unless either of you feel like joining the defense here, I see no reason to stay,” Saeter commented before turning and striding away. “I want to get a better view and right now I can’t see the forest for the trees.”
“I don’t think I’d be much help here. Lead the way,” Geralhd quickly replied as he threw a nervous glance over his shoulder at the fighting going on near the wall.
The young man then quickly hurried after the old scout. Blacknail didn’t feel the need to stick around either, so he joined them.
Saeter led the other two over to a small hill that lay closer to the camp’s entrance. The old scout stepped up onto one of the crates there and began looking around.
At the gate something was happening. The fighting slowed down as the front rank of the enemy split. A man with a chainmail shirt and a steel helmet that covered his face stepped forward.
Wielding a long sword in one hand and large round shield in the other he began cutting down all of Herad’s men within reach. The effortless way he swung his heavy weapon around seemed to indicate he was a Vessel.
The forces Herad had guarding the entrance to her camp hesitated. As the Vessel stepped forward, none of them went to meet him, instead they held back.
“Cowards, all of you!” the Vessel bellowed arrogantly. “Will none of you face me? Not even your useless bitch of a leader, Herad?”
The bandit chieftain didn’t budge. She simply glowered at the enemy without answering. After a few moments she began yelling out new orders.
“Is that Werrick?” Blacknail asked inquisitively. Maybe things were finally coming to a head!
“No, Werrick is taller than that and would never expose himself so early,” his master explained.
“Ah, Herad should just go kill that human,” Blacknail remarked as he frowned in disappointment. “He doesn’t look so tough and she’s scary strong.”
“That’s what Werrick wants, you green idiot,” Saeter countered gruffly. “What do you think will happen if Herad steps out onto the front line?”
“Er, something bad?” the hobgoblin replied uncertainly.
The old scout reached over and smacked the side of the hobgoblin’s head.
“She will be roasted like a feast day duck! Werrick will bombard her with all the magic at his disposal and that will be the end of us,” Seater explained heatedly.
“Okay, she shouldn’t do that then,” Blacknail replied sheepishly as he rubbed his sore head.
When no one appeared to challenge him, the enemy Vessel charged. His sword slammed into the neck of a bandit and then he stabbed the chest of another. He wasn’t alone either; a squad of heavily armed soldiers protected his flanks.
“I hope Werrick doesn’t have many more Vessels at his disposal,” Geralhd remarked. “We only have Herad and um... Blacknail.”
“Herad has trust issues when it comes to other Vessels, but it seems like the Wolf doesn’t,” Saeter explained.
“Except for me, because I’m so loyal and handsome. I’m the boss’ favourite!” Blacknail added cheerfully.
Herad’s minions seemed incapable of stopping the enemy Vessel's advance. As the flow of the battle turned against her, Herad yelled out a new series of orders. Suddenly, the center of the bandit formation defending the gate began to pull back.
Werrick’s men surged forward unopposed, especially the Vessel and those around him. Rather than fight him, Herad’s minions retreated.
The Vessel lunged forward to attack, but his sword smashed harmlessly into the shield of a defender. The bandits nearby all raised shields and stuck together as they fell back.
“Cowards!” the Vessel roared.
However, he didn’t chase them further. He was already too far ahead of most of his companions. Only a few of Werrick’s men had kept up with him.
The Vessel raised his shield and banged his sword hilt against it angrily, as he held his position and waited for reinforcements. Before that could happen though, Herad yelled another order and flight of arrows descended upon him.
Most the projectiles missed as the Vessel dove to the side and then raised his shield defensively. His companions weren’t all so lucky; several of them fell to the ground with bloody wounds.
However, the rest of the arrows bounced ineffectively off the Vessel’s shield and armor. For a moment, he hesitated, unsure of whether to advance or retreat.
Herad ordered another volley and the man made up his mind. He roared a challenge and charged forward. A horde of Werrick’s men raced after him towards the defenders.
The enemies stepped through the gap in the wall and into the bandits’ camp. Before they could steady themselves though, more of Herad’s troops emerged from both sides. They slammed into the attackers.
A fierce melee erupted at the entrance of the camp as the defenders attempted to encircle the Vessel and the men near him. More attackers poured through the gate in an attempt to stop them until the fight was a chaotic mess.
In the center of it all, the sword wielding Vessel continued to batter Herad’s men around. It seemed like he would hold his ground long enough to create a hole in Herad’s defenses and allow the attackers to gain a foothold in the camp.
That was when Herad joined the fight. She drew her sword and charged towards the melee, with her bodyguards at her back. Her minions quickly got out of the way as she raced forwards.
The enemy Vessel was fighting hard to hold his ground. He bashed one of Herad’s men aside with his shield and then slashed at another. His sword battered another man’s weapon aside and it went flying.
That was when Herad attacked. The bandit chieftain dashed out from behind a group of her minions and struck. Her blade lashed out towards the enemy’s neck with viper-like speed.
He managed to step back and block the first blow but then Herad smoothly launched a barrage of lighting fast attacks. He could only stumble backwards and try to hold his shield up in front of himself.
As Herad kept the Vessel busy, two of her bodyguards charged in from the side. They were big men in dark leather armor and they held long spears, which they stabbed towards the enemy’s chest.
The Vessel had no option but to try and block this new attack, and Herasd took full advantage of this. She ducked under a swing of his sword and then slashed his groin. Crimson blood splashed onto the ground and the enemy stumbled.
Herad tripped the stunned warrior and he hit the ground with a metallic crash. She then drew a knife from a sheath on her belt. Its oddly thin blade glinted in the sun as she stabbed it down through his chainmail shirt and into his heart.
“She did it!” Geralhd observed happily.
“Of course she did. That was the easy part,” Saeter grunted in reply.
Without wasting a second or reclaiming the dirk, Herad immediately turned and started running away. Her body guards were right behind her.
From somewhere at the back of the enemy formation, several dozen feet outside the camp, a ball of energy suddenly appeared. It hung in the air and glowed with an odd green light. Then, without warning, it arced off towards where Herad had been fighting.
The crackling orb flew over the heads of fighters from both sides before hitting the ground a few feet from the fallen Vessel’s body. A second later, it exploded into green flame.
Dozens of men were thrown off their feet and the smell of burning flesh filled the air. Herad was well out of the blast zone though, and most the victims were Werrick’s own men.
From atop one of the archer platforms behind the wall, a blast of fire descended at the origin of the magic. Mahedium had revealed himself.
The scarlet flame flew towards the location of the enemy mage, only to be stopped by an invisible barrier. However, the flame didn’t completely disappear. Tongues of flire slid of the barrier and rained down on the men below. More screams of pain and horror filled the air.
Immediately, Mahedium launched another attack. This time, there was a screeching sound as a blast of energy hit the ground beneath the barrier. The earth beneath the target burst open. Jagged shards of rock flew into the air as the ground tore itself apart in a violent eruption. All the nearby troops were thrown off their feet as the earth sliced into them.
There was no way to tell if the enemy mage had been hit or not, but no more obvious magic was cast by them. Mahedium also stopped his attack. Blacknail saw the mage jump down from the platform and quickly hurry away.
More magic wasn’t necessary, though; the enemy’s advance halted. They had managed to cut their way into Herad’s camp but they had lost their Vessel and been hit by several damaging magical blasts. Herad’s troops redoubled their efforts and started to push the intruders back. The enemy’s morale had been crushed.
Someone else had noticed the attackers’ poor position as well. Trumpets called out from across the battlefield. It was the signal to retreat, and Werrick’s men began to disengage from the fighting.
The first day of fighting was over but there would be more. Off in the distance, the wolf head banner continued to fly above a still mostly intact hostile army.