Season 2.5: Battle on the Plains

Episode 40: Combat-happy patients

Back at the camp, Isabelle found a stranger sitting next to Silent Thunder. Arthur and the others, however, seemed to have found a friend.

Arthur sat down near the white-cloaked newcomer. "Hey there, Q. On your way to the village?"

"Yeah. I figured, 'People tend to get hurt fighting wars; maybe I should check on my combat-happy patients.'"

"Good thought. We've got some fire and lightning victims and a hurt ankle; mind looking them over?"

"No problem."

Isabelle was the most seriously wounded, so she received the most immediate attention. She spent the time studying the medic: He was above-average height, thin, with short, dark hair and brown eyes. He looked like he was probably from an area to the east of where she was born; she wondered what he was doing this far to the southwest.

Q spread a salve on several bandages and dressed her wounds before moving on to Percy.

Episode 41: Q, contracts, and trust

While Dr. Q tended to the other patients, Isabelle talked to Arthur. "Q?"

"Like the letter. He got nick-named that after a case of mistaken identity."

"I see."

Q finished with Orlaith and moved towards Aurora; Arthur stopped him.

"Just stabilize her; she's a prisoner and I don't want her able to run easily."

Q nodded and continued. When he was done with her, he rummaged around in the long bag that held his supplies and produced a short staff entwined with a carving of an Æsculapian snake. "Here; use this."

Aurora took the staff and examined it. "You do realize that I'm at least as deadly with a staff as with a sword?"

"Yes, but with that ankle you're still no match for this entire squad by day or Thunder with Soulless Shadow by night."

Aurora blinked and looked over at Silent Thunder. "I see."

Thunder stirred. "Hey, guarding prisoners isn't in my contract."

Aurora grinned evilly.

"Look," interjected Arthur, "We're all tired here; I'm trusting you to guard yourself and not run off so that we can get some rest."

Everyone stared at Arthur. Percy questioned, "Is that a good idea?"

Aurora thumped Percy on the head with her staff and glared at him.

Arthur laughed. "Percy, I'd trust her sooner than I'd trust the Emperor, and I'd trust him before I'd trust you."

Percy blinked and sat down.

Episode 42: Cooking rotation

Morning came. Isabelle woke, wincing as she stretched, and looked about. She was the last to wake: Aurora was explaining to Arthur that as long as she was a prisoner, she didn't have to be on the cooking rotation, and Ardon was showing off his cooking skills and not doing too poorly. Q was talking to Silent Thunder, who was actually talking back. Percy was watching Aurora with evident curiosity while Orlaith laughed at Ardon. The others were nowhere to be seen.

Now that there was more light and less distractions, Isabelle could see that Q's hair, which she had thought to be black, was actually a very, very dark brown. He was wearing a white tunic beneath his dust-stained cloak, and had on brown traveler's boots. He seemed to be in high spirits.

Breakfast was had, and Max returned with his boys. He briefed the assembled heroes. "Okay, here's what we know: The majority of Jong's troops are stretched out to the east of us. However, his best people are supposedly in some second task force that this lumber camp was supplying. They've been requisitioning enough supplies that they've got to be building something big, like a fort or siege weapons, but right now your guess is as good as mine. They've evidently been using some sort of gateway magic similar to the merchants at the village, so we can't track the supply trail, but at least that explains the presence of a class-A sorceress in the camp. Unfortunately, she's dead, so we can't ask her anything. Aurora was here to provide protection and oversight for the camp, not to deal with magical issues, so she doesn't know where the supplies were going.

"The only thing that we can do right now is help defend the line to the east and hope that our actions draw out some of the big guns on Black Jong's command staff. Q will go to the village and then do field rounds, One-eye's staying here to keep an eye on the army's west flank, and the triplets are already heading east. We'll be heading a bit north-east; Q says that Jong's army has made a rapid advance in that area since we left the village." He turned to Arthur. "Commander?"

Arthur nodded. "Pack up, everyone; it's time to move out."

Episode 43: A time to talk and a time to act

It had been raining for two days. Isabelle glumly reminded herself that the rains at that time of year were far worse in her hometown, but it didn't help much: she was still getting wet. They had met and killed an enemy scouting party, and Aurora was still arguing with Arthur over various aspects of politics and religion. She seemed skeptical of some of what Arthur was saying but hadn't tried to escape. Of course, her ankle wasn't completely healed yet. Isabelle sighed and tried to ignore Ardon's poor advances towards Orlaith. Silent Thunder slept.

On the morning of the third day, the clouds cleared. This seemed rather inconsequential in light of what followed. On the morning of the third day, Isabelle woke to the sounds of battle. Thunder had shaken her awake, and was already moving to do the same to Percy by the time that she realized what she was happening. They had camped in a grove on the southeast side of a hill to avoid being stumbled across by enemy patrols, and sometime during the night an enemy force had passed to their east and was now engaged in battle. Isabelle grabbed her armour and began to ready herself for the fight.

Orlaith, although woken last, had the least armour to don and thus was the first one ready. She immediately set out on a scouting mission. Percy, with his youthful quickness, tied Isabelle, and scouted in a slightly different direction. Arthur finished at the same time and began conferring with Aurora. Max and his men continued getting ready as Thunder, off-duty again, fell asleep. Soon everyone was ready and the scouts had returned.

Percy spoke first. "The enemy appears to be a combined-arms group led by a Captain, or whatever their equivalent is. They're on foot and have a good mix of front-line troops, archers, a few magi, and a support squad."

Isabelle interrupted him. "Two magi. At least, only two that are doing anything."

Percy looked a bit surprised that she had spotted what he couldn't, but continued. "The defense force looks like one of our Captain-led units rather than a full group, but are front-line infantry and have the high ground. The enemy seems content to attack them from the front rather than encircling them and provoking final defensive measures."

As he was speaking, Orlaith used her knife to sketch the unit positions in the dirt. "There's no cover between us and the defenders, so we might not make it if we try to join up. If we attack the enemy directly, we'll definitely be on our own, but we won't have to deal with as many front-line troops before hitting their auxiliaries."

"And," pointed out Arthur, "it will definitely cause some chaos as they try to shift their—"

A great fanfare filled the air. It was not so much loud as all-encompassing; it seemed as if the very land itself was calling out. It had a reasonably uplifting effect on Isabelle and most of the others, but the change on Arthur's face was incredible. He sprung up, lifted his own horn to his lips, and echoed back the call. In an instant he was at his horse; he mounted and was gone.

Episode 44: Battle on the Plains: the charge

The heroes following Arthur emerged from the trees on the west side of the battle. Isabelle was mounted; the others, on foot. Arthur was mounted and waiting for them.

He pointed to a banner flying in front of the defenders northeast of them. "Johan Lord Summerson, last of his line and member of the Silver Order." Below them, troops shifted to face the heroes' hill. "He has set his banner and will die where he stands rather than retreat, although he could quite probably take out the entire enemy force by himself." Standing up in his stirrups, Arthur shouted down at the enemy, "And I am Arthur Avallonis, loyal subject of His Majesty, and I ride to the Order's aid!"

Isabelle rode close at Arthur's back. Several arrows passed them up, presumably loosed by Orlaith. Isabelle could hear someone running closely behind her—probably Percy, given his speed—but could not sense the others.

Arthur hit the enemy's west line like an avalanche, crushing everyone in his path. He slowed down only gradually as he found himself surrounded. Isabelle could not keep up, although she managed to ride in his wake until she too was well behind the front line. Unfortunately, she was weak when she couldn't remain in motion; she decided to fight her way back and make another pass.

When Isabelle wheeled her horse around, a startling sight was revealed: a small whirlwind of activity centered on Ardon. The monk, while seemingly clueless and inept at everything else, had kept up with her charge despite being on foot and was actually quite proficient at the art of combat. If he's this good, how did he manage to get himself captured? He wasn't leaving many visible injuries, but a fair number of soldiers were clutching at their anatomy and retreating. Isabelle took advantage of the chaos to make good her escape.

The caravan-guard-cum-hero was in the middle of her second pass when Lord Summerson's standard fell.

Episode 45: Summerson's fall

It was not a pretty sight. One moment Johan Lord Summerson had been holding the line against the enemy, surrounded on three sides but undefeated, and the next moment he and his standard erupted in a storm of fire, lightning, and ice as the enemy's magi simultaneously dropped their disguises and attacked. Even after that hideous torture, the ripped and charred but still defiant standard flew for nearly half a minute. Orlaith sent several arrows winging towards the attackers, but the other heroes were too far away; there was nothing that they could do. At last the massed enemy overran Lord Summerson's position, and his emblem wavered and slowly fell.

The attacking crowd cheered. Not so the defenders.

Arthur's reaction could be seen from half the battlefield away: His opponents quickly gave him a wide berth, scared away by the the sheer force of his rage. "No!

"For the glory Avallonis! For Lord Summerson! For the land, the people, and my king!" His equipment seemed transformed. His sword, lifted to the sky, flickered with golden fire; his shield shone with the emblem of the Order. None dared approach; none needed to.

Arthur hardly needed make contact to inflict casualties on the enemy. He charged up the hill towards Johan's fallen standard; attacks were parried or simply bounced off of his armor, while his sword swept through the enemy as if through air. Isabelle and Max and his force cut their way north towards him, supported by arrows from behind. The battle's momentum reversed itself for the second time in as many minutes.

Episode 46: Bad company

Unfortunately for Orlaith, the sudden surge northward left her with only Percy for a bodyguard. A group of the enemy's rag-tag rear line broke off from its formation and headed towards her.

Percy's combat training and skills focused on open, natural spaces where he could run; he was not so good at fighting when surrounded by enemies. Then again, few people were. Orlaith rushed forward, her short-sword stabbing furiously, but was quickly taken down and disarmed by the aggressors. They wouldn't have stopped there, but Percy's shouts had attracted more than just Orlaith. . . .

"WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU'RE DOING?!?" demanded an enraged Aurora.

One of the more twisted men looked up and seemed to recognize her. "Taking our share of the spoils before we kill them, of course."

"This is supposed to be a war of honor, righting the wrongs that have been done to us, not a war of retribution or revenge."

"It's neither," the thug snapped back. "It's a war for power and control; nothing more, nothing less. 'Revenge' is a way of motivating the dumb masses, just as in every war." He shifted in his crouch by Orlaith's right wrist.

"What kind of—"

Orlaith's wrists and ankles were sill being held down by three men. "Damn you!" she spat. "You shall not defile me!"

Arthur felt the ensuing spike of power from across the battlefield.

A soft golden glow seemed to coat Orlaith as she struggled against her captors. She finally wrenched her right arm free and knocked the talkative soldier back a good ten feet. The others, even those restraining Percy, let go and stepped back quickly. Orlaith rose and, with a literal blaze of glory, burst into golden flame.

Percy looked annoyed. "Why didn't you do that earlier?"

Episode 47: Don't make her mad

Orlaith's golden aura was hard to miss from almost any position on the battlefield, and the enemy magi immediately counterattacked this new phenomenon.

Aurora saw the size and angles of the incoming magics and cursed. She threw the strongest magical shield that she could manage around herself and several of the "enemy" soldiers. Fire, ice, and lightning struck simultaneously, bathing the entire area in painful energy and screaming zones of disharmony where the effects overlapped. Aurora and the soldiers were battered painfully but not seriously injured.

Orlaith's aura had flared outwards into a convex shield. She was untouched by the attack, but she was mad. A single arrow shot out over the enemy; at the top of its arc, a great bird cry was heard, louder than the scream of any eagle. The fiery form of a phoenix unfolded itself. It flapped its wings, struggling to gain altitude and sending down a rain of flames. As it gained height, the image slowly faded until nothing remained but the desolation beneath.

The surviving enemy surrendered.

Orlaith's aura disappeared. She sat down, stunned and exhausted. Aurora helped Percy bandage his wounds, while Max supervised the disarming of the prisoners. Arthur knelt by Lord Summerson's body. Isabelle knelt by Arthur.

"Damn it," Arthur cursed. "Why here? This wasn't some important border or tactical line that had to be held at all costs. We've lost too many good heroes to this stupid invasion; why can't idiots like Black Jong let us die in peace?"

Isabelle couldn't answer that question.

Episode 48: Johan Lord Summerson, the last of his line

They buried Johan where he fell: Arthur conducted the funeral and gave the eulogy. "Johan was born nine months after the death of his father in battle and was immediately recognized as the twenty-third Lord Summerson. He followed family tradition by training hard and joining the Royal Guard to serve his King. He loved that job, but he never forgot his duty to produce an heir; unfortunately, none of his loves ever turned to lasting romance and marriage. At the end of his combat postings with the Guard, he requested and was granted membership in the Silver Order. He was the sixth Lord Summerson to do so, a record in the Order. Now he has died at age forty, his endless summer spent; he has fallen and lies dead in an eternal winter that does not lead to spring.

"In accordance with the dictates of the Order, here we have placed him upon his shield and covered him with the land that he died defending. May it protect him in death as he protected it in life." Arthur took up Johan's sword and drove it into the ground in place of a headstone. "His sword shall remain so long as no-one has need of its power. Thus has it been and always will be for those who pledge their lives to service."

He stepped back and blew a single mournful note on his horn, a sound that resounded to the heavens. And Heaven replied: A single beam of golden light lanced down out of the blue sky, bathing the burial mound in its holiness. When the light lifted, it left behind the following words engraved in stone:

          Here sleeps Lord Johan,
          The last son of summer,
          Where his blood spilled
          In defense of the Land.

Episode 49: Four Flags over the Lord-at-Large

A little while after the funeral, Arthur had a brief conversation with Orlaith. Isabelle wasn't close enough to tell what it was about, but she did hear the words "Imperium" and something about meeting the Emperor. Apparently Orlaith's unexpected light show was something more special than usual, even given their traveling companions. After that came the debriefing of the captives.

Arthur made Aurora attend the interrogations, and Isabelle watched as well. They were appalled by what they heard: Rape and pillage all across the land, scorched-earth policies to ensure the remaining population's reliance on the occupying forces for food, and more talk of conquest than of freedom. Food from captured land was apportioned first to the officers, next to the volunteers and their families, and only at the last to the conscripts and the pro-occupation villagers.

Halfway through the prisoners' questioning, Arthur was called away to see something, and the two ladies followed. Approaching the temporary detention area was an armed convoy, its style unfamiliar to Isabelle. Aurora volunteered, "It's a Free State knight. Him, his squires, their retinue and supplies, and outrider guards. Given the number, it must be one of the more famous knights, but I can't make out his arms from here."

The convoy bore an impressive collection of flags and personnel: Rising above everything else was a knight-borne standard pole with four pennants. Somewhat shorter were the ten spears bearing three of the same. Each of these eleven displays was borne by a mounted knight, and in addition to the knights there were thirty-three mounted squires, half-a-dozen camp followers sharing a wagon, around fifty mounted guards, and more horses and pack mules than anyone cared to count. If they hadn't been flying a flag of peace, they would have been a very efficient war-party.

Arthur read off the banners, and Maximilian, having more political experience, interpreted them.

"Lord's banners from top to bottom: peace flag . . .

". . . meaning that they've been ordered by their commanding authority to have peace as their top priority, rather than using their own discretion . . ."

". . . Church flag . . ."

". . . meaning that the Church is the official authority for this mission, which may be the Free States making a concerted move while maintaining their official autonomy or may be the Church deciding to get involved directly . . ."

". . . unless I am mistaken, the flag of the Lord-at-Large of the Free States . . ."

". . . so it's definitely the Free States making a move, if they're sending their only at-large noble to do this . . ."

". . . and the Lord's house flag. The Knights are flying everything but the Church's pennant."

"Then they're his personal retinue. Here's the drill: You're roughly the same rank as he is, unless he's been granted plenipotentiary powers. Either way, you need to be negotiating with him directly. His knights serve as an honor guard, and I'll back you with my boys to make it even. Sound good to you?"

"Yeah; let's go see what they want."

Episode 50: A frank exchange of views

The Lord turned out to be quite personable. As he explained, he was on a fact-finding mission: "Black Jong's actions, while initially having a provisional authorization from the authorities most immediate to the scene, have come under investigation by the Free States and the Church. There have been . . . inconsistencies . . . between his stated motivations and his actions."

Arthur was not impressed. "And? If what he's been doing is not to your liking?"

"Officially? I don't know; I report back and they make the decisions. Unofficially? We were told to come here fully armed and ready for remote operations. I can't act without orders from above or I'd lose my authority—I'm more restricted in that than most, given the nature of my title—but I can get orders pretty fast if I need them." He stopped and waited for Arthur to consider this before switching back to the main topic. "What can you tell me about Black Jong's operations?"

"We just captured a fair sized operational group, and it's not a pretty picture. Care to ask them yourselves, or will you take my word for it?"

A slight smirk. "I am not unaware of Arthur Avallonis; I will take your word for it."

Arthur told him what they knew. Then he told him what they didn't know. "Their supply trail just disappears; their main assault force is traveling by magic, I think. Care to enlighten us?"

There was some hurried discussion between the Lord-at-Large and a pair of clerics before the conversation continued. "I can say that a military . . . person of interest . . . is currently suspected to be with Black Jong's main force, and his whereabouts are a matter of some concern. This is publicly known within the state which most recently employed him." He named a name.

Arthur cursed.

"I take it that we've said enough. We'll communicate your information to the Free States and see what they decide; I suspect that they will be issuing a request for the capture and extradition of Black Jong."

The parley adjourned.

Later, Aurora thought over what she had seen and heard and came to a conclusion: This was not the war of liberation that she had been promised. She wouldn't defect to the Empire, but it was definitely time to stop working for Black Jong. She told Arthur as much.

Episode 51: Hell for leather

Arthur got everyone back to camp in a hurry and explained as they packed. "The missing person who's probably helping Black Jong out is not only an expert on large-scale, long-distance magical travel, but he's also advocated using that capability to launch decapitation strikes against various enemies. Whatever the rest of this war looks like, it's not the real fight. The real fight will be for the capitol. Now we have to somehow outrace a force with magical transportation and a head start; our best guess is that they haven't already launched an attack because they've been building siege platforms with the materials that they gathered at the forest, among other places, but that won't delay them for long."

Isabelle raised a point: "And how do you know that they haven't already attacked?"

Arthur stopped for a moment to look at her; a flickering silver flame glowed in his eyes. "Trust me; I'd know."

They finished packing in relative silence. When they were done, someone unhitched the horse that Silent Thunder was sleeping on, and the desperate ride began.

Isabelle was never quite sure how many days they rode north-northwest. They slept little, yet hardly felt tired. Arthur and Orlaith seemed to barely need any rest, and were clearly agitated any time they stopped. Silent Thunder, his services not needed, slept for days on end.

At some point it began to rain.

Episode 52: The City Avallonis

It was dark and it was raining. The similarities ended there. The city before Isabelle, the capitol of the entire Empire, was as large as the heroes' town had been small. The majority of its residents were, presumably, as mundane as the heroes had been incredible. It was also as closed as the town had been welcoming.

The city was built on an island. The island stood in a lake. Between the city and each shore a causeway ran, but at either end of the causeways there was a gap that, during the daylight hours, was covered by a drawbridge. It was not the daylight hours.

Arthur was arguing with the gate guard on the shore side of the causeway terminus. "Look, if you don't let us in right now, the next Imperial forces to cross this drawbridge will probably be liberating the city."

The tired Captain above the shoreside gate sighed and pointed out that it was due to exactly those security concerns that he didn't want to have his counterpart on the causeway lower the drawbridge.

"The enemy will be likely arriving on the causeway!"

"Be that as it may, I must insist that you stand down for the night. I have asked my signalman to relay your arrival and concerns to the Tactical Operations Center; if they order that you be let in, I will do so."

"At this time of night the T.O.C. will be staffed by a Lieutenant with less field experience than my dog, and you know it. At least send word to the Great Hall at the Imperial War Academy!"

"The Great Hall has not been activated; nobody's there." The Captain turned to go.

Arthur grabbed for his horn. "I am a former Captain of the Silver Order, damn it. Let me pass or I will sound the Defense of the Crown." He looked deadly serious.

The Captain turned back in obvious shock, opened his mouth as if to speak, and shut it again when he saw Arthur's face. He disappeared into one of the mini-turrets that supported his gate. A moment later, the sounds of heavy chains could be heard, and the gates opened to reveal a drawbridge lowering towards the heroes from the causeway.

They crossed over the drawbridge and into a nightmare.

End of Season 2.5