[Illustration: “Den” © 2006 by D’Wayne Murphy.]
Den had made himself a good life after leaving the service of King Alexander. He started a small farrier’s shop in the northern border town of Gladia, the kind of town that was full of a variety of passersby on any given day, but without much to speak about except a few shops and the old fort that hadn’t been manned for a hundred years. He made a decent living forging weapons, horseshoes, and whatever else he was contracted to make. He had a wife of five years, and was forty years old. Before his retirement from the King’s army, his service, being both voluntary and full of illustrious duty, had earned him the highest honors and recognition, along with a measure of fame. Some considered him one of the greatest Kingsmen of the age, and tales of his heroic deeds were well known throughout the land.
Den reached such a place of esteem during the many years of his service that King Alexander even offered him knighthood, a position of honor typically never entrusted with someone not of royal blood. The last commoner to receive such an honor had saved the King’s life on two occasions, nearly two-hundred years past. Den respectfully refused, choosing a simpler life, hundreds of miles from the glory, the riches, and especially the intrigues associated with positions of power. He wanted a simple life for his family, to retire in peace. Let the stories speak for themselves; he had lived it and no longer wanted the glory. Besides, the realm was settled, peace was gained on a level that had not been known in hundreds of years, and he believed his duty to be done.
But it was not to be. Five years after his settlement in Gladia, a northern race known as the Dumerians invaded, a surprise attack that spread nearly the entire length of the border west of the towering mountains. The main force marched on Castle White, many days ride east of Gladia, and raiding parties were sent into the western lands. Den was on an errand south to Cambria at the time of the invasion, to obtain ore from the foundries there. When he returned along the packed-dirt road, he spotted the hulking creatures smash into a home on the outer edge of town. Seven- to eight-feet tall, wearing leather and fur, their lumbering gaits and large, hairless heads were unmistakable from even hundreds of yards out.
He jumped from his iron-laden cart and ran, sword in hand, into the heavy wood lining the road. Crouching low in the undergrowth, he sprinted through the cedars towards the side of the village where his home was, dispatching an oblivious Dumerian lookout silently on the way with a thrust to the throat. Without hesitation he ran to the edge of the wood and, peering from behind a tree, looked into town. The small but sturdy building that was his home still stood. A glimmer of hope flickered in the depths of his chest. When he was sure he was not going to alert the scattered Dumerian soldiers, he exited the woods and ran up to the back wall, creeping up to the window. His heart dropped as he pulled the clean woolen cloth aside and peered inside. The room was ransacked, the table overturned, chairs broken and cupboards hanging open, food and clothing strewn across the floor. Near the broken front door lay a giant in a pool of red blood.
He found her in the only separate room of the house, sword in hand, slumped against the far wall, golden hair over her face. The red stain was unmistakable on the front of the white dress she was wearing. He felt an emptiness growing as he stood in the doorway, as if his body were disappearing from the inside out, as if something had blown out the candle of life that had burned inside him. His wife was gone. The woman who had pledged undying love to him. The woman he was supposed to live out the rest of his life with, raise a family with, die with. She did not deserve to die in this way, not like this. And he hadn’t even been there to protect her! All those years saving lives and protecting the King, and he couldn’t even be there for the one thing that mattered the most to him! Den collapsed to his knees, defeated. He took up her hand. “Allessandra,” he sobbed, brushing the hair off of her face. Suddenly he felt like dying, to charge out of the house and end his life in one final flash, taking as many of the murderers with him as he could and meeting his wife in the halls of Valmeria.
You can’t. You mustn’t, he thought, a moment before it would have been too late. What about your oaths, Den Armory of the Realm? I, Kingsman, vow to uphold the law, serve the King faithfully, honor the ways of valor and protect the people until death. Sound familiar? Or have you forgotten?
“No,” he whispered, rising to his feet, his jaw set in determination despite the tears gleaming in his eyes. “I have not.”
Loosing a few floorboards to a compartment he had hollowed out under the house, he removed a large haversack he had stowed there years before. Slinging this over his back, he picked up his wife’s body, trying not to look at the wound that had been inflicted upon her abdomen. He left out the window he had entered, carried her into the wood, and gently laid her down next to a large oak tree. Then, returning to town, he looked into the stable for his horse. It was not there, so he sprinted to the other side of the dirt pathway and flattened himself along the side of the small, unpainted wooden church, trying to get a better view down the main road. He spotted him immediately, rearing against the attempts of two Dumerian soldiers across the road trying to position a yolk upon his neck. Dumerians do not ride horses but use them for pulling siege weapons and carts. He unsheathed his sword and ran towards them, cutting one down by slicing through its neck from behind, paralyzing it instantly. Flowing with the momentum of the swing, he efficiently dispatched the other by removing one leg and driving his sword into its chest as it fell to the ground with a guttural scream. Wasting no time, Den swung onto the back of his warhorse, and spurring it on burst out of town, knocking and cutting giants down as he escaped to the south.
Later that day when he believed it was safe, Den returned to see to the burial of his wife. He took her body to a place overlooking a miraculous forested valley with a three-hundred-foot waterfall that spilled into a turquoise pool. As newlyweds fresh from the east they had frequently visited this valley to picnic and take in the scenery of their new home. Den remembered clearly the day they met. He was serving as interim commander of the Kingsguard, with the Commanding Knight Gerold the Good leading an expedition to recover scrolls in lands across the eastern sea. She approached Den during a tournament that he was observing for recruitment prospects. He knew of her, as the daughter of a Noble, but in his mind at that time he was too busy with his duties to pursue a relationship. She was persistent, however, and before long he realized how beautiful she was, and it wasn’t long after that he noticed how comfortable and carefree he felt around her. A year later, they were married, a union heralded joyously across the kingdom. In this majestic spot they had made plans for the future, and pledged their undying love for each other. Remembering these things, he wept. Later, Den placed a rose-colored stone over her grave, said a silent prayer, and rode south for Cambria.
* * *
Twenty miles to the south at Cambria, he found a rabble of soldiers setting a hasty defense to repel the attacking force. Speaking to an army regular, he learned that a Knight from the west was visiting all the villages in the western territories, rallying all able men to Alain’s Port for a great expedition into the north, to strike at the heart of Dumerian leadership in one of the only continually occupied cities of that land, Hardvalley. Den set off immediately.
It took him almost two weeks to arrive at Alain’s port, the rallying point for the expedition. Two white towers over seventy-feet tall marked the gate, the golden streamers of Friedland blowing gracefully in the sea breeze. The town was nestled between two great mountains bordering the sea, and standing on the road leading down to the gate he could see ships moored in the bay.
Den decided to approach the city by way of the mountain gate, a smaller gate accommodating travelers from the North, to avoid the typical pageantries that would be afforded someone of his renown entering the main gate. He was challenged by two guardsmen wearing shimmering golden cloaks and carrying long spears, gold-pointed helms glistening in the clear coastal air.
“Halt, rider! Identify yourself,” the guard on Den’s right said, taking one step forward with a military clip and lowering his spear halfway, facing Den.
“I am Den Armory,” he replied, reining in his horse.
The guard with the upraised hand seemed to falter a bit, looking at the other. “Den Armory the Kingsman?” he said, recognition inflected in his voice. “If you are truly him, why are you dressed as a commoner?” the guard asked, seemingly unsure of the next step to take.
“If I am not whom I claim to be, then would I be wearing this?” Den said, and he pulled from under his shirt a golden medallion fashioned in a circle, with the outline of an eagle in silver in the middle, the symbol of a Kingsman. After a close look they were very amazed and gracious that a living legend would appear at their meager gate. But Den asked to be admitted without fanfare, as he wanted to survey the town without escort.
After learning that a man going by the title of Marshall and named Hevrill was coordinating the embarkation at Alain’s Port, and learning that he could be located in the city palace, Den reined his horse around and rode through the gate into the coastal city. Along the brick causeway were two-storey white stucco buildings with slate roofs; some windowsills had potted flowers on them. At the far end he could see the towers marking the main gate. He turned west towards the coast and continued along a similar street until he reached the docks area, which was a noticeably busier area than the rest of town. Vendors lined the streets, selling food, weapons, and other provisions necessary for an expedition into the arctic regions of the North. Seagulls were everywhere, lining the thatch roofs of the shops, sitting on pylons supporting the docks, eyes constantly searching for anything that might be dropped, be it food or not. It was at that moment Den realized the town was much too empty of people — there was no great army here.
Den estimated there were three-hundred fighting men gathered on the streets at most, sitting in groups here and there or talking with the vendors. Counting the men inside the inns and stores, it being midday, Den estimated a total force of probably no more than eight-hundred men in the entire city. Then he noticed that the ships in the harbor were not warships, as he had initially thought, but rather whaling and trading vessels out of the south. He saw two galleons and one frigate, capable of transporting about three-hundred men, not nearly enough for a serious attack on Hardvalley.
He dismounted and led his horse to a vendor who was selling oysters. Den bought one, and looking at the old woman asked, “Been busy lately?”
“Oh, for sure” she smiled, dumping a bucket of oysters on to the table. “Last week was my busiest ever. It’s slowed down a bit this week, since the ships left, though,” she said.
Den thanked her and, smelling the oyster, deposited it off the side of the dock when he was out of her line of sight. Quickly, he found an inn and stabled his horse, renting a room for the night.
When he got to his small room, he took off the haversack and emptied the items on the sleeping pallet. First, his breastplate. He put this on, securing the clasps of leather at the side. Next he fashioned his steel boots, then the gold cloak with kings crest that indicating him as a Kingsman. He adorned his steel gauntlets and strapped his shield over his back, which bared his family crest of a massive oak tree with extending branches on a crimson field.
Leaving the front door of the inn, many patrons stared in awe as he walked out the door, some of the younger ones even got up to follow him. He entered the stable and put a green blanket unique to the service of the King on his horse, and attached the steel breastplate to the front. Mounting, he left the stable and headed for the town palace, which he could see towering quite majestically for its size against the mountainside over the buildings to the north.
He entered the palace through the large oaken door and found himself in a great hall, a large circular room lined with arching pillars that met at the peak, fifty feet above. Between the pillars were gigantic stained glass mosaics, depicting great sea battles and mythological creatures. The marble floors gave his boot step a sound of authority. The clerk stationed at the desk at the end of the hall stood and gave him an awkward salute as he approached. “I am here to see Marshall Hevrill,” Den declared.
“Mmm…Marshall Hevrill is not seeing anyone right now,” the clerk replied, clearly terrified, but doing his duty, albeit clumsily.
“Tell him Kingsman Den Armory is here to see him,” Den said. At that his jaw dropped; apparently he had not recognized him, and the authority in Den’s voice broke any thought of opposition in the mind of the clerk, who mumbled a “yyyes sir” and hastened to the rear of the palace.
It wasn’t long before the Marshall arrived. He was maybe a head shorter than Den, and was wearing a black shirt and trousers, which complemented the near pitch black of his hair and short beard. The sword at his side was slightly curved in the fashion of eastern merchants, but given the long scar that ran from his ear to his chin, Den made no mistake in taking him for one.
“Sire Armory, it is an honor to finally meet you,” the Marshall said, saluting him, sword-less, as was the custom among fighting men when not during ceremony.
Den considered correcting him, as Sire was a title traditionally reserved for Knights, but he did not want to sound wantonly modest.
Den saluted him back. “Well met, Marshall Hevrill,” he replied. “It is good to see the city in such good repair after all these years.”
“Well,” Hevrill replied, “we do what we can in the service of the King, which, I assume, is why you are here?” Hevrill considered Den with an appraisingly hopeful eye.
“You assume correctly,” Den replied.
“Excellent, we are in need of good men such as you. Come, let us go to my office.”
Hevrill’s office was simple and utilitarian. A solid oak desk sat in front of a wide window, with an ornate rug under a pair of simple chairs in front of it. On the wall to the left was a map of the region under Marshall Hevrill’s management, a large portion of the western seashore and one island to the south.
Traditionally, a Marshall was a sort of clerk of land. He would not give orders to landowners or direct Knights or Nobles; however, certain duties are allotted to him, including the tax collection and overall municipal decisions. Marshall Hevrill had proven to be of particular use to the King, and being so far from the throne, Hevrill had been giving particular freedom to dictate in this area, including the coordination of this counter-attack into the North.
They were seated and Hevrill took a moment to go through his notes. “Here is the situation, Sir Armory. Hawk-borne messages from the first wave indicate that the battle is not going well. Our ships have been burned in port and our men are driven into the mountains to the northeast of the city. Apparently the Dumerians were prepared for our attack, and allowed us to believe they were unaware so that they could spring their trap.” Hevrill’s fists were clenching slowly, his knuckles turning white. He stood, turning to look out the window that overlooked the city, and clasped his hands behind his back. “Messengers out of the east say the situation is nearly as dire. The Barbarians have taken the bridge over the river Herodolphis, and there is a good possibility they will succeed in placing the white castle under siege.” Den felt the coldness settle into his bones again. Must he lose everything? “We are in need of a leader for the second wave,” Hevrill said. “Someone with experience, who has seen bloodshed and knows the ways of the Dumerians.”
This time, Den was the one who stood. It was plain what Hevrill was suggesting, and some part of him had expected it, but still he was not sure he was ready. He knew he must fight, but he wasn’t certain he wanted to lead any men into the fate he had already accepted as a possibility for himself. But this wasn’t only his fight, was it. Thousands had already died, and some of the men out there surely had lost somebody in the course of this newborn war. The goal of the mission was his goal, the destruction of Hardvalley and the severing of Dumerian leadership; so why was he holding back? Shamefully, Den realized that somewhere in the depths of his soul he was still expecting to die. Remember your oaths, Den, he thought, gathering himself. He realized that Hevrill was waiting on him. He turned suddenly, a new fire in his heart. “I will need a meeting, tonight, with all the men.” Den said.
“I know the perfect place,” Hevrill said.
* * *
The small coliseum really was the perfect place, Den thought, although he was used to giving rallying speeches on the battlefield. There were more men here than he had estimated at first, at least twelve-hundred. Torches burned along the sides of the crowd, reflecting off the white stone around them. Den stood on a raised, torch-lined platform at one end, gazing out on the crowd.
“Fighting Men of Friedland!” he yelled, quieting the crowd. “Today our people is faced with a great evil. It is a dark time, and you all are here for a reason. The Dumerians have attacked our homeland, killed our women and children, and right now as I speak to you they are marching on your King, plotting to seat one of theirs on the Ivory Throne!” The crowd booed loudly, cursing them.
“Our army in the north is ailing and has been pushed into the cold, unforgiving mountains, and as we speak they are being driven further and further from hope!” The crowd went silent then, stunned, and out of the corner of his eye he saw Hevrill glance at him nervously; the Marshall hadn’t wanted to reveal this fact to them yet, but Den wanted to be sure they all knew the situation before they departed.
“The attack was broken, and our forces were driven into the mountains.” A few murmurs went through the crowd, unsteady shambling.
“But I say to you now, have heart, all is not lost! All is not lost. But all may be, if we do not rise to meet the task set before us. We can fight, and we can free our men in the North, and break the leadership of Dumeria like the breaking of stone under a sledge!” A cheer went up. “Or we can fight with half our hearts, like men without purpose, an army without a home, and watch as our entire land crumbles under the barbarian fist of Dumeria.” Cries of “NO!” and “NEVER!”
“It is true you are all here for a reason. But whatever your reason for being here today may be, we all fight for our homes, our land, and our people!” With that, a cheer went through the crowd, and a few hoorahs.
“Tomorrow we go to meet our destiny, whatever that destiny may be. It may not be fated that we shall return, but know that the way you fight is the way that you will be remembered forever in the history of this land, and if you should find yourself in the halls of Valmeria, think of how you will want to remember this life when you get there!” Cheers erupted throughout the coliseum, and with that he left the platform, and Hevrill took over to organize the men.
The next day the other five galleons and two frigates arrived, as expected, and they took to loading the men and equipment on to the ships. Only fifty horses would be taken due to space concerns, and the cavalry would be led by Den. The other men were organized into three companies of four-hundred men each. Den had selected three leaders from the men who would be in charge of each company.
Thom Briggs, a towering giant of a man wearing a full black beard, was recommended by Hevrill personally and was the commander of his personal guard. He carried a massive broadsword, and Den noticed a suit of scarred battle armor that he estimated must weigh over one-hundred-fifty pounds in his pack. During a training session that morning he saw him hoist a man over his head and went as though he was going to toss him, which Den was certain he could have easily done. Lucky for the poor fellow he set him back upon the hard-packed ground, laughing heartily at the man’s abashed relief.
The second man Den picked to lead a company was Markus Cullins. Markus was a commander of the regular army outpost in Alain’s port. About Den’s age and nearly of the same build, Den saw much experience in the eyes and manner of this seasoned fighter. He volunteered first thing that day. At first Den had refused, citing the need for a leader to run the post, but Markus had convinced him that his second-in-command would be “just fine” as a leader at the post and that his experience in battle would be indispensable. After Den finished reviewing the records of his deeds, he agreed.
Vernon Mastiff was the last man picked, and personally by Den. Earlier in the day he was walking to the docks when he noticed a group practicing sword technique, unscheduled, but with an organized intensity when many were lounging around or dragging their feet. He went to investigate, and discovered a swarthy looking man with a curled mustache, wearing a uniform of the western war band, an extremely disciplined and effective mercenary group that had been organized, illegally, to respond to the threat of the Bilings uprising when the army could not respond fast enough. They never showed any disloyalty to the King, and were very helpful in the fight, but because exceptions could not be made they were disbanded, at least well enough that they don’t show affiliation, usually. There appeared to be a whole contingent of the mercenaries here. Den admired the man’s gall and pride in his organization, and his natural aspiration to lead. Plus Den got the feeling that he was somebody he wanted on his side.
After many hours of loading and preparation the fleet departed from the port. Den rode in the frigate Mariah, a one-hundred-twenty foot war boat equipped with three masts, and mounted with four heavy armed scorpions on each side. These types of ships were used primarily in the protection of others, such as galleons and merchant traders, and were ideal for spearheading the fleet into enemy territory. All told they had seven galleons and three frigates.
Leaving the protection of the bay, the ships crashed through the rough seas, one mile off the craggy shore, where mountains erupted from the sea and rose thousands of feet into the air. There would be no hope for any refugee on the shore of this ocean, a virtual wall made any escape from the arctic waters impossible.
* * *
Three days later, Den was standing at the stern of the ship, contemplating the battle ahead. It was good that the Dumerians did not venture to sea, he mused. It was a cloudless night, and the winds had receded somewhat, the ships glided effortlessly through the dark waters, bright moonlight illuminating their reflections on the water in front of them. Den could see the bow lamps of each of the nine ships behind him, and for the first time in a long while he felt respite, the beauty of the massive snow-covered mountains to his left and the harmonious creaking of sails and ropes in the night temporarily helping him forget the darkness and pain of the last few days. He began to drift into a half sleep, leaning against the rail, peering out to the calm seas.
Suddenly, like a dream, something glistening milky white and massive slid from the waters behind him, uncoiling slowly in front of the galleon Hollister, like a great yawning stretch. Den’s eye knew what it was before his mind could register it. Two more tentacles arose from the water, groping blindly into the air.
“KRAKEN!” he yelled, snapping awake, and no sooner had the words left his lips than he heard the alarm bells dinging from the Hollister, and the ship spun hard to port, away from the shore and the searching tentacles. Den could see the ship lean dangerously close to the waters as it creaked and groaned against the stress on its timbers from the hard turn, but it made it and nearly escaped danger, if it was not for a single tentacle that hooked over the side of the ship, preventing it from righting itself and pulling it in a wide arc before breaking through, sending shattered timber splashing into the sea. The ship rolled ponderously back to its upright position, dead in the water, broadside to the wind.
Den rang the warning bell on the Mariah as men came pouring out of the hatchway. “Hard to starboard!” the Captain of the Mariah yelled as he burst out of the door of his cabin, putting his hat on. “We must aid them!”
But the Hollister was game, and Den watched in admiration as the seasoned sailors swarmed the deck, firing large pre-loaded bolts from the scorpions into the beast. Cowed, the kraken submerged, and for a moment there was stillness and hope. Then eight tentacles emerged on either side of the Hollister, wrapping around the ship with a slow, engulfing embrace, like the long slimy fingers of some ancient monster, reaching from the bottom of the sea. Sailors scattered frantically to avoid the grip of the monster, and Den could hear their cries from across the water.
“Make ready the scorpions!” the captain of the Mariah yelled from the other end of the ship, as they approached the Hollister, which now was wrapped entirely and being pulled directly down, the sailors remaining on deck struggling to cut through the thick tentacles. “FIRE!” the captain bellowed with a voice of blood and thunder, and four lances lodged viciously into the tentacles of the beast. Its grip loosed for a moment, then tightened again with redoubled effort.
“Bring us near!” Den yelled to the captain, as he unsheathed his sword. Sliding in next to the ship, Den leapt from the railing and landed on top of one of the tentacles encircling the other ship. Immediately he went to work, chopping at a tentacle as if he were chopping wood. It took six full swings to get through the thick, ropy flesh of the first tentacle. Not enough, he thought, feeling the ship strain. He began to work on another one with as much strength as he could muster, as the ship groaned and cracked in the kraken’s crushing squeeze, threatening to break at any moment.
“Aaaah!” Thom bellowed as he came crashing down from the deck of the Landis, which had pulled alongside the ship unnoticed. Landing on deck he swung his huge broadsword downward, nearly severing a tentacle with one fell swoop. Den saw the Kraken shudder at this new attack, and the tentacles slowly slid from the ship. Peering over the side, they watched as the pale milky form of the giant beast slowly sank in the clear, cold northern seas. Thom raised his huge sword in the air and yelled a victory cry, and as the other men emerged from the ship the cry was taken up by all. “As will be in Hardvalley!” one man shouted, and they all cheered.
* * *
Many days later they arrived at Hardvalley, shortly after daybreak. The fleet rounded a sheer glacial wall nearly two-hundred-feet high, and there it was, hunkered at the base of a sparse, steep green hillside, a huge city of rock, wood, and steel. Their prize, a massive square building that served as the king’s palace sat a good three-hundred yards from the shoreline, cresting the hill. The rest of the buildings were set back from the palace and bordered the shoreline. Along the water’s edge he saw a score of catapults, some of them destroyed, some not. A few yards out he saw what looked to be the charred remains of a mizzenmast sticking out of the sea, and immediately noticed more remnants of the burned ships washed to shore.
Den immediately saw why the first wave of attacks failed. Attacking Hardvalley was nearly impossible from any other angle than directly on. The only access to the shore was right in front of the city, as the glacier diminished only at the far edge of town and the other side consisted of craggy rocks that formed the base of a huge mountain framing the left side of the bay. But this was the only way, and they could not turn back now.
They barreled towards the shore at full sail, intent on grounding the ships and assaulting the shore as quickly as possible. BONGGG…BONGGG…BONGGG…, a huge warning bell clanged in the icy morning air. Den saw giants running up the shoreline, and witnessed many emerge from their rough homes, pointing and scrambling for weapons. All of his men were on the decks, ready to leap to battle. Den removed from his belt the ornate war horn that was given to him by the King.
BUUWWWAAAAAAAAHHHHHH! the great horn sounded across the water, echoing through the mountains, striking fear into the heart of the giants struggling to form a defense on shore. Some managed to reach the catapults, and soon boulders were raining down, splashing into the clear water around them. Den saw from the corner of his eye a galleon struck and flounder, but not sink. There was no way the Dumerians would get the catapults loaded again in time, but some had managed to get their sapling bows and were firing arrows at the ships as they approached. Den turned to the men on his ship. “When we get on shore, remember, whatever happens, the lives of our people depend on what we do here today.” With that, he turned to the shore, and set his jaw against the promise of horrors to come.
All across Hardvalley Dumerians were emerging from their abodes, rushing to meet the invasion force. King Breakskull was awoken by the warning bell. Looking out his chamber window he saw the ships bearing down on his city. “GALAAAAAF!” he bellowed, hauling his huge mass off of his sheepskin mattress, searching for his clothing.
“Your majesty, we are under attack!” Galaf said, skittering into the room, a pitiful six-and-a-half-foot Dumerian and Breakskull’s personal assistant.
“I know that, you fool! Send someone after Flathead” the King grunted.
“But he is in the mountains, chasing the green knight,” Galaf said. The murderous look from the black eyes of the King sent him skittering on his way, fearing the rage of the massive giant. Considering for a moment, King Breakskull then went to the back of his castle and entered the secret passageway that led to his stable.
Den Armory leapt from the bow of the warship, his large frame wrapped in shining silver battle armor, shield in hand. Landing first on the shore, he charged into a group of four giants, who were trying to drop their bows and draw their swords. Only two managed to get their swords drawn and Den cut them down first, going low on the first one, nearly cutting him in half and spinning, running the second one through the throat with a fluid thrust. The second two were stumbling away from him on the rocky bank when the soldiers from the first galleon, led by Vernon Mastiff, overran them, charging up the shore line.
“Quickly now, you know what to do!” Den yelled, and the three companies split, one marching up the middle of the city, and the other two going around the outside, driving the surprised forces of Dumeria to retreat. Den stayed back and oversaw the unloading of the horses, gathering his cavalry to him. This is too easy, he thought. Just how big of a force was out there in the mountains if their capital city is this unguarded?
Miles north, in the cold craggy heights of an unnamed mountain range, a scout, cold, tired, and hungry, peered down into an icy valley as a giant riding a light carriage rolled into the Dumerian war camp at the bottom of the mountain.
“The king’s not here,” Markus Cullins reported, wiping blood from the longsword he carried. “Castle’s empty, and we found an empty stable underneath. He must have turned tail when he heard the warning bell,” Markus said. Den dismounted his horse in front of the hulking castle walls. “Looks like we surprised them this time, eh?” Den said, and they both began to climb the stair into the castle.
Later the leaders had a meeting. They chose to set up camp northeast of town, as they were not equipped to defend a city and were better suited to fighting the giants on the open plain where they could use their spears and cavalry to advantage. “We should ride to meet them, our men in the mountains are starving!” Thom said, standing around the fire, the first bit of warmth they’d had all day. “Aye,” many assented. Den considered their prospects. They could make a defense here, draw the Dumerians back from the mountains, freeing the embattled forces and set a trap of some sort, possibly with the catapults, or they could do as was suggested and meet them on the plain. The problem with that was Den had no real idea of the numbers out there or how well-equipped they were. Just then, a scout came galloping into camp, reigning his horse in violently just outside the circle of men.
“They come!” the scout said, leaping from his horse. “Thousands, from the North!”
“How far? Den asked.
“Five, six miles, moving fast!” the scout replied, breathing heavily.
Den considered for a moment. “Ready your forces, we ride to meet them,” Den said to his councils. With an approving grunt Thom rushed to the task, the others following.
Later that day, after picking a battleground, Den sat on his horse at the base of a small rise. On either side of him were his three councils, each holding a long staffed flag, representing the three regions of the realm: Westland, Middlerealm, and Eastshore. Behind them was the entire army, standing stoically, glittering in the unnaturally bright but nearly warmth-less northern sun, surveying the field of green and bleached white rock in front of them. It would not be long now, the army of Dumeria was only a mile or so out, but obstructed from their view as of yet, being over a hill. Den picked this spot as the highest in the region and one their adversaries would surely pass through.
BOOOM… BOOOM… BOOOOOM… a war drum sounded from just out of sight, ominous and carrying the promise of violence.
Slowly the Dumerian army rose into view a few hundred yards out, a black mass on a field of green with white mountains in the background. Den’s army was outnumbered, he could see immediately, by at least six hundred. He would have to count on his cavalry and organization to even the odds. When he was sure they were visible, Den removed his war horn.
BWWAAAaaaahhhhhhhh… BWWAAAaaaahhhhhhh the deep booming voice of the war horn rang across the field, calling their challenge to the force of barbarians facing them. BOOM… BOOM… BOOOOOM the drums replied, voicing their defiance. The sound of the calls in this cold, quiet plain split the air like thunder, and the gentle breeze flapping through their flags died completely, as the whole atmosphere seemed to brace with tension for the coming storm.
“Remember the signals, and remember your honor!” Den yelled to the men standing behind him.
The Dumerians marched across the battlefield, steadily faster, steadily closer. Den could see the folds in their rough hide coats. “Archers!” He yelled, and the bowmen moved to the front. The Dumerians were running now, huge beings bent on destruction, and Den could feel their hatred.
“FIRE!” he yelled, and arrows rained down on the charging horde, dropping some immediately, but many continued on, undaunted or unheeding their injuries. “FIRE!” He yelled again, and the second group of archers loosed, dropping more. “FIRE AT WILL!” he yelled, as the Dumerians closed in. “READY SPEARS!” he bellowed, straining his voice to be heard over the throaty roar of the charging Dumerians.
Like two worlds colliding, the forces came together with a sickening crunch. Many of the fastest or foolishly brave Dumerians were run through by the long spears, which were then immediately dropped for swords after the initial contact.
“ALLESANDRA!!!” Den called to his fallen wife, and spurred his horse into the mass of giants, cutting them down left and right. He immediately dispatched two charging giants but narrowly missed being clubbed by a giant that had turned behind him. Wheeling his horse, he drove his sword point into its eye and, chopping down on the crown of its wide skull, finished him off. Wielding his sword over his head, he charged a thick mass of Dumerians who had begun to organize and, knocking them aside with his huge warhorse, he ended them as they stumbled from his wrath.
Over the battle he saw his cavalry, galloping at full stride, engage a group of extraordinarily large Dumerians. Something stuck him in his back from behind then, and he fell from his horse, red flashing in front of his eyes as his head crashed into the hard-packed ground. He opened his eyes seconds before his head would have been crushed by a war club, and managed to move aside purely by reaction alone. His steel boot came up between the giant’s legs and it curled over, directly into Den’s upturned sword. Struggling to free his sword from the giant’s body, he narrowly dodged being run through by a Dumerian spear, and kicking the rear of the attackers leg unbalanced it enough so that it stumbled, giving Den time to free his sword and bring it down upon its neck.
He spotted his horse a few yards to his left, keeping the giants at bay with kicks. Den ran towards him, catching two giants unaware and killing them cleanly. After mounting and surveying the battlefield, he realized that there were too many, and they were being overrun.
Suddenly, a huge giant swung low and took the leg of his horse from behind, sending him rolling from the saddle. Struggling to his feet and looking down at his horse, Den felt something transform inside of him, and the heat of pure fury grasped his soul, the killing of his horse reminded him of why he was here and what they had taken from him. He advanced on the giant, who was grinning with black teeth, mocking him. Den felt invincible, his thoughts freed, crystalline and pure. Focused energy pulsated throughout his mind and body. The giant swung his axe at Den, a sideways slice that was meant to be hard to duck or jump. Den rolled to the side, gaining one knee, and with a decisive thrust ran his sword between his ribs. Withdrawing the sword even before the giant could fall, Den focused on his next opponent. This giant rushed him with axe held high, Den ducked and drew his sword through a full half of the giant’s side with little effort. It was as if he were possessed with infinite strength and his sword had been forged of the sharpest steel of the Gods. The giant went crashing down, momentum carrying him a full ten feet past Den. Standing, Den spotted what could only be King Breakskull engaging Markus Cullins some yards off.
Den charged into a group of giants between him and the King, trying desperately to aid Markus. It was too late. He got there just in time to witness the King cut Markus cleanly in half with one violent swing of his long hafted axe, severing the sword held up in defiance against the blow.
At least eight feet tall, with legs as big around as a keg of ale and a chest twice that size, it was apparent that the Dumerians still were holding to their tradition of breeding the largest to be their royalty. Breakskull was clad in the skin of a Meersheik bear, the largest variety in all the world, which was snow white, the head of the bear resting on the top of his head, fangs crowning his forehead. He carried an axe of a sort, the head being at least as big as half a cart-wheel and the shaft must have been six feet long. And his face was painted in the tradition of his clan, entirely black with white lightning running from his forehead to his chin. The blood of Markus Cullins dripped from the massive head of his axe.
Breakskull looked directly at Den and sneered, menacingly rolling the great axe easily in one hand, creating a pinwheel of dripping blood. Rage filled Den’s soul, and despite being much smaller than the giant he felt like he could break him in half. He approached him with measured steps, sword in hand. I must not hesitate, he said to himself. Remember your training, trust your instincts, show no mercy, he recited, and a calm intensity gripped him. The king swung his axe in a great sweeping arc, Den leapt back, evading narrowly. He was forced to retreat many times, the pure strength and speed in which the king wielded his axe made it nearly impossible to gain an advantage. He’s getting frustrated, Den thought, he’s not used to being evaded like this, and as soon as the thought had left his mind, Breakskull hesitated, withdrawing his axe halfway through a thrust. Den reacted instinctively and swung his sword high. The blow tore through flesh and cartilage, cutting a clean swath horizontally across Breakskull’s face, leaving him with bloody scraps of flesh hanging where his nose used to be. Furious and desperate, the king unleashed the full fury of his strength, swinging wildly but with great power and speed, a glancing blow to his armor nearly knocking Den from his feet. Breakskull then made a crucial mistake and swung vertically, hoping to catch Den stumbling. Den twisted aside and Breakskull’s massive axe crashed down upon a rock and snapped. A split second of astonishment was all the king had before his head was removed cleanly from his neck.
Turning, Den realized that the battle had moved on without them somehow, and he was nearly alone. His army was being driven from the field. They were reduced to one-third of their original numbers and the cavalry was nowhere to be seen. So this is how it ends… he thought, lifting his sword wearily. A bitter tale of revenge, an old man leading an army of dead men? “SO BE IT!” he yelled, and raising his sword, charged the mass of giants.
Den only made it ten yards before he was overrun. One hundred men on horseback led by a man in a green cloak and helm charged past him from behind, the wind from their charge plastering Den’s cloak to his back as they crashed into the Dumerians, scattering them before the fury of their charge. The first crusaders, Den thought, nearly laughing. It was over soon after that. Den joined in the assault and the giants were chased down and finished off, no quarter was asked and none was given.
As Den was tending to his men, trying to understand what had just happened, the Green Knight rode up to him. Den knelt, bowing his head. “I am eternally indebted to you, sire,” Den said, looking at the ground.
“Bah, I already knew that,” a familiar voice replied, and looking up, Den recognized the now unhelmed man as his old friend Gerold the Good!
“Gerold!” Den yelled, leaping to his feet. “It’s you?!” he said, standing, smiling for the first time in what felt like years.
“Of course it is!” Gerold said, dismounting from his horse. “Who else would be fool enough to lead a crusade in this godforsaken place!” With that they both laughed and embraced warmly.
That night was a great night of celebration. They prepared a great feast in the abandoned castle and sang tales of heroism and glory. They honored their dead, and many good words were spoken of the fallen, Markus Cullins and many others, and they were given a warrior’s funeral. The next day they set sail for Alain’s Port, with full hearts.
* * *
When they arrived back at Alain’s Port, they learned that their efforts in the North and the killing of the Dumerian King had broken the will of the giants, the main army in the East was retreating, and it was the brink of victory. They all had been given an invitation to join the King personally for a great celebration.
Den returned to Castle White with Gerold and a large number of comrades from the campaign, including Thom. Vernon was eager to return to his band of non-existent mercenaries to tell the tale of the great battle at Hardvalley.
It wasn’t until days later, feasting at the King’s table, that Gerold the Good stood and proposed the toast that would seat Den firmly in legend. With great and boisterous eloquence Gerold told the story of the battle of the northern wastes, captivating the whole of his audience in the great hall, including the King and Queen. After the completion of his tale there was stunned silence in the hall, and Gerold indicated that Den should stand. When he obliged, the King began to clap, and like the breaking of a dam the whole of the hall erupted in uproarious applause and hails. The rest of the night was a feast in the honor of Den the Deedworthy, as he came to be called after that night.
At the great insistence of Gerold and the rest of his comrades, Den accepted Knighthood into the King’s service. After some years he took a new wife, who nearly healed his heart, and together they had many children.
Den the Deedworthy would go on to serve faithfully as chief advisor to King Alexander for many years, and eventually would become the Hand of King Gerold the Good. His name lives on forever in Friedland as one of the truest Knights ever to serve the realm. *
About the Author: Adam Hanisch was in the Marines for four years and now studies biology at Iowa State University. This is his first story of significant length and the first he has submitted to a publication. Adam reads whenever he gets a chance, mostly heroic fantasy and classics.
Story (c) 2006 Adam Hanisch firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Artist: D’Wayne “Dino” Murphy is a graphic designer and digital illustrator who creates mostly in the realms and genres of horror, science fiction, and fantasy, a far cry from his daytime job where he does graphic design for a well-known print company. Most of his work consists of pieces that can be used for bookcovers, magazine illo’s, CD covers, DVD covers, and accompanying illustrations for writer’s manuscripts or stories. He also does concept character creation, with a large focus of his work at this point primarily focused on the character’s face and mannerisms, but soon there will be more action shots and settings to come. He is an avid sketcher and loves drawing when he has the available time to do so. D’Wayne is hoping at some point to work with a game design company doing graphics and illustration and at some point character development. Right now he works with a few magazine companies doing illo work.
Illustration (c) 2006 D’Wayne Murphy