Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Trial of the War Master: The Caravan

I haven't had time work on The Sorcerer's Tale this week, but we at least left at a decent stopping place last week.  If you haven't caught up, we're up to Chapter 2, so maybe this is the week that you get back up to speed.  God willing, The Sorcerer's Tale will be back next week--after I've had a little time off for Christmas.

To fill some time this week, here's a story we ran in the first issue of Proletariat Comics' old Horizon's magazine.  It's called Trial of the War Master.  Hopefully you'll like it.


“In the chaos of the Elder Days, the myriad dark races warred upon each other and upon humanity.  The darkest of the peoples were the Fire Elves, slaves to Hephaestus the Unyielding, their wicked God of the Volcano.  They hunted the peoples of our world as food for the Fire…
“To lead their armies and fight their battles, the houses of the wealth sought the strength of the powerful. These were the War Masters…”
Marcus Sylvanus, from The Life of Po

Moving around a bend in the Low Forest Road, Tand’lion reigned his horse Cobalt to a slow walk.  He sighed.  Two more weeks, he thought to himself, I have two more weeks of this lousy caravan duty
Like all fire elves, Tand’lion preferred to ride fast, careless of the consequences, but careless fire elves rarely lived to old age.  And while his own prowess might have been enough to keep him alive despite a certain degree of carelessness, he knew that the same could not be said for the merchants he was escorting.  He looked back at the long line of traders in their wagons and frowned.  They were many, and his guard but few, and visibility in this part of the Low Forest was poor.  Thus, there was no way around it.  He would have to take it slow.  Fire elves moving outside of their own realm were taking a chance on any occasion, but fire elf merchants bringing goods to market on a well-traveled road would make a tempting target to any number of oft-raiding races and tribes. 
And this caravan was important.  Tand’lion had just passed for Journeyman in the War Master’s Guild, and this escort duty – boring though it was – was his first independent commission from that Guild.  Simply getting accepted into the Guild as a fire elf had been no small feat, even with a sponsor as well respected as Master Po had been.  Now that Tand’lion had actually attained rank amongst his peers, he was not going to provide his critics with even the slightest pretext for professional discourtesy or demotion.  Thus his personal desires were not important.  The caravan’s pace rankled, but it was nothing compared to the possibility of failure.  Tand’lion continued to walk his horse slowly, and since the sun was beginning to dip in the west, he began thinking about finding a campsite.
     “You plod along like an old woman, War Master,” called a harsh voice.  Tand’lion sighed and turned in his saddle.  It was Vedra.  It was always Vedra, his erstwhile benefactor, the Jewel of the House of Il’Danati.  She continued, “At this rate, we won’t reach the City itself until-”
      “We saw Teegan Raiders not two days ago,” Tand’lion interrupted, exasperated.  He caught himself and tried to be deferential, “Mistress, we are in the heart of the Low Forest.  It is a land of thieves and highwaymen, and with all of these trees, we’ll have little chance of spotting a well-placed ambush before it’s too late.  Please trust me in this…  We are best served by exercising caution.”
     “Caution is for the weak, fool!  Why I bet there isn’t a raider or a highwayman for at least a hundred—”
     But a rustling in the trees cut off Vedra’s words.  Instinctively, Tand’lion reached down to grab his saber, but even as his hand touched the hilt, he sensed that it was already too late.  A Teegan War Elephant crashed through the tree line well behind him but just in front of Vedra, scattering both elves and wagons in its path.  Before he could think to organize a defense, Tand’lion heard a shout.  Just ahead, Teegan infantry – mostly lancers and pikemen – came howling down onto the Road to block the convoy’s forward progress.
     “Ambush!” Tand’lion called out as he yanked his saber free at last. 
Spooked by the Teegans, Cobalt reared, leaving Tand’lion struggling for control.  He knew he had to regain control quickly.  His convoy had perhaps half a minute before a Teegan assault force took his column fully in its flank.
 “Ride through!” he cried, and he spurred his horse mercilessly.  At last the beast complied and surged ahead.  Behind him all was chaos, but Tand’lion blocked out the noise and focused totally on the task at hand.  Ahead, the Teegan blocking force was not yet set, and at some visceral level Tand’lion knew the convoy still had hope if he struck quickly and decisively.  After that, he could only pray that the rest of his guards would follow his move, or all was lost. 
He picked a target.  In the center of the Teegan line a youngish man, little more than a boy, stood awkwardly amongst the jostling of his peers.  Tand’lion could see fear in his eyes.  That fear would cost the boy his life.  In the back of his mind, Tand’lion again heard the words of Master Po: “Get past the point, and the rest is easy.”  Tand’lion’s saber flashed, making those words reality.    His blade battered the boy’s spear point aside.  The boy recognized his own doom, and his eyes bulged as Tand’lion rammed his saber home.
The violence of the action left the boy’s comrades gaping and cowering in fear.  Cobalt reared above the soldiers, driving them back still further, and then it was over.  Tand’lion rode free of the trap. 
He felt more than heard his men following him and engaging the remnants of the blocking force.  Traders with their wagons whipped their horses frantically, struggling to follow their guardians even as more Teegans behind tried to regain control of the war elephant.  Tand’lion’s guards hacked and slashed, decimating the ambushers.  But though his men did most of the damage, the War Master knew the truth.  He had broken the ambush with a single strike.  The rest were effects; he was the cause. 
“Do not underestimate the power of shock,” Master Po had said.  “War is about fear as much as it is about death.  If you impart fear upon your enemies, you are victorious before battle is joined.” 
A few feet ahead, Tand’lion slowed his horse and turned to look back down the trail.  It had been a classic “L” shaped ambush, but while it had been well planned, it was poorly executed.  The dismounted spearmen – the blocking force - had intended to engage and fix the caravan in place while the element with the War Elephant moved into position to finish the fight with an enveloping attack.  Properly executed this plan would certainly have worked.  However, fortunately for Tand’lion and the rest of his caravan, the flanking force had struck first and without organization.  The War Master assumed that the war elephant’s handlers had lost control of the beast while trying to move it into position for the attack.  Regardless, Tand’lion had been able to charge straight through what amounted to a disorganized nearside ambush and to thereby create an escape route for his caravan before the enveloping attack had a chance to materialize.  Both the traders and his commission would likely survive the attack.  The caravan might lose a wagon or two to the rampaging War Elephant, but the event was not half the disaster that it could have been.
“Damn you War Master!  I’ll see you burn for this!”
Tand’lion looked back again and saw Vedra.  It was always Vedra.  This time she was surrounded by Teegan foot soldiers and in real danger.  Having lost much of the advantage, the Teegans had focused their efforts on the only real prize remaining – the fire elf noblewoman.  Power crackled from Vedra’s outstretched palms when the Teegan’s approached, but although Vedra was far from helpless, she was also clearly outmatched standing against a dozen burly Raiders.
“Do you hear me War Master?  I’ll see you burn, damn you!” she shouted.
Facing the inevitable, Tand’lion sighed.  He turned his horse and pointed to Gaspar, a lieutenant in House Il’Danati’s House Guard.
“Get the caravan moving and then come back for us,” he said.  The elf nodded. 
Marcadellion, the senior merchant in the caravan, rode up and grabbed Tand’lion’s arm.  “You’d do us all a favor by letting her go,” he said. 
Tand’lion nodded, but it did not matter.  “This isn’t about her,” he replied. 
Wordlessly the elven trader nodded, knowing the reality of the situation.  He released Tand’lion’s arm and followed Gaspar and the rest of his companions up the hill and away from the now ruined ambush. 
Below, several of the Teegan survivors watched Tand’lion reverse his horse and prepare to charge.  Several quickly realized that the fight was not over.  Two grizzled veterans set well-placed spears in the ground to block the elf’s charge.  Tand’lion stood in his saddle and galloped towards them with his saber held high above his head. 
Cobalt fairly flew down the trail, reckless at last, and Tand’lion finally realized the truth.  None of it mattered.  The caravan, the Guild, the plodding pace…  None of it mattered.  Even the pedantic rebukes of his overbearing mistress were as nothing compared to the grim certainty of this moment.  This trail, this instant, these two men, they were all that mattered.  They were his whole reality. 
Charging back towards a hopeless battle against an already beaten enemy, the young War Master felt his frustration simmering hotly in his belly.  It burned outwards, firing his blood and coursing through his veins.  He welcomed death and challenged all who would try to bring it.  At the last possible second, Cobalt bucked, balking at the Teegan spears.  The horse’s action threw Tand’lion high into the air.  He twisting up and over and drew his hatchet.  He screamed defiance, letting his rage explode outwards at last.  His chi flared around him, surrounding his body with the eldritch halo of his soul’s inner power.
   He landed behind the shocked Teegans and struck hard.  His hatchet bit cleanly into one’s shoulder while his saber took the other through the chest.  Tand’lion wrenched his hatchet free with a jerk and spun, releasing his saber and launching a thunderous standing sidekick that threw a third Teegan clear across the now bloody trail. 
The War Master drew his rapier and looked up.  The War Elephant reared, towering over him.  High atop the beast, a tiny armored figure struggled to control the beast.  Tand’lion dove madly to the side as huge paws crushed down.  Another Teegan behind him lashed out, and the elf had to parry fast before leaping backwards to again avoid the rampaging elephant.  Tand’lion landed and swept his leg around, tripping the Teegan backwards.  The rider atop the elephant reigned hard, but the beast was mad with fury and came down hard atop the unbalanced soldier, crushing him.  With the elephant’s handler distracted, Tand’lion focused his chi and leapt atop the beast, striking hard with his rapier.  The blade opened the man’s throat.  Tand’lion kicked his body out of the saddle before cutting the elephant’s reigns.  Unrestrained, the animal charged madly away and disappeared into the forest.
Below, Vedra was using her whip, frantically trying to beat back or intimidate the Raiders surrounding her, but as he watched, Tand’lion saw a new figure, a huge warrior with rippling muscles walk calmly onto the scene. 
“She is mine,” he said. 
The sea of men parted around the elven princess.  The sheer power of the newcomer’s presence brought a calm to Tand’lion’s enemies that the War Master would not have believed possible.  The chaos lessened noticeably from one moment to the next.  The huge warrior strode forward.  He stood well over six feet with rippling muscles and an enormous claymore strapped to his back.  The warrior was both breathtaking and intimidating, and Tand’lion felt his heart race anew as he abruptly realized that he was witnessing Vedra’s doom. 
Tand’lion sprinted forward.  He was twenty yards away when his mistress fired off a burst of sorcery that struck the Teegan warlord fully in the chest, but if it hurt the huge man, Tand’lion could not see how.  At fifteen yards, Vedra drew back her whip to strike, and at ten yards her arm flashed forward.  The whip snapped out, but the Teegan drew his sword and cut the strap in one fast, fluid movement.  At five yards, the champion raised his sword again.  His mighty blade would decapitate the princess without issue.  The blade swooped in.  Tand’lion dove frantically across the last three yards with his hatchet extended, hopelessly off balance and off center. 
The small ax intercepted the warrior’s blade mere inches from Vedra’s throat.  The force of the strike sent all three combatants tumbling.  Tand’lion spun to the ground out of control.  He lost sight of both the Teegan and Vedra, and as he rolled forward, he had to jerk sharply to avoid a chop from another Teegan soldier.  The War Master parried wildly as a rain of lesser attacks fell from a dozen different attackers.  Tand’lion slashed and stabbed and rolled, and men died.  Finally the foot soldiers fell back, and the War Master faced off against his true enemy at last. 
Tand’lion snarled, and his chi flared.  He stepped forward with his right foot, leading with his rapier in an offensive stance, and resolved to end the fight quickly.  He lunged, seeking his enemy’s heart, but the Teegan batted Tand’lion’s rapier aside with ease, letting the claymore flow through the block and then over into a thunderous chop.  Tand’lion leapt madly backwards, inches from death and lucky to be alive.  Even so, he lost his footing and sprawled out onto his tailbone.  Pain shot up his lower back.  The champion attacked with a flurry of swinging strikes that sent Tand’lion rolling desperately.  Chunks of earth flew where the Teegan’s great sword cleaved into the earth, and sweat beaded on the War Master’s brow.  Tand’lion threw his hatchet up to block yet another descending blow and finally intercepted the strike solidly on the head of his tiny axe.  The jarring force of the parry hurt, but the power of the War Master’s chi held his arm straight and unbroken, and in that moment, Tand’lion kicked out his enemy’s knee. 
The champion buckled.  Tand’lion at last recovered his footing and settled into a left-handed, defensive stance, this time leading with his hatchet.  A buzz ran through the crowd of Raiders as their leader struggled to his feet, but the Champion waved them off.  He wanted the glory of this kill for himself alone.
“You won’t be the first War Master I’ve killed,” the Champion snarled.
Tand’lion saluted with his rapier.  “On that we agree,” he said. 
The Champion lunged forward with a quick feint.  Tand’lion stepped back and countered with his hatchet, but the strike was weak, designed more to provoke a response than to actually cause damage, and when the Teegan struck again, Tand’lion was ready.  His body flowed backwards, around and away from his enemy’s blade, and as the claymore flew past him, Tand’lion shifted his weight onto his back foot.  He focused his chi and kicked.  The blow caught the Teegan squarely in the face, changing his body momentum abruptly.  The man staggered.  In the distance, Tand’lion could hear Vedra threatening to have him disemboweled, but he paid her no heed.  His attention was focused solely on the task at hand.  Vedra would have to wait her turn.
Despite the blood trickling from his bent nose, the Teegan leader quickly righted himself.  Tand’lion struck again with his rapier, and as before, the Teegan’s claymore swept across to parry and then over into another chop, but by now Tand’lion had seen that ploy too many times.  He ducked down and to the right, following his rapier as it went wide of its mark.  The claymore missed by inches, but the momentum of that strike carried the Teegan over his opponent and out of balance.  Tand’lion’s knee exploded into the Champion’s torso.  The human staggered back, and as the pair disengaged, Tand’lion riposted with an overhand strike of his own.  His mithril hatchet sank deeply into his enemy’s shoulder.  The Teegan’s eyes widened in shock.  Tand’lion released his hatchet and stepped back briefly before striking with his rapier.  The blade twisted into the man’s chest.
The warlord dropped dead at Tand’lion’s feet.
Then all was chaos again.  Teegan foot soldiers charged wildly, and Tand’lion was awash in a sea of enemies.  He felt his chi diminishing, exhausted after the wild charge across the battlefield and then the extended duel.  He had little left with which to defend himself save bravado. 
“Who else wished to die today?” he half-snarled, mustering what little rage was left in his rapidly fading spirit.
The charging Teegans slowed up a moment at his challenge, and that moment was all that was needed.  Then Tand’lion’s own men charged into the seething mass of the defeated raiding party.  The War Master was vaguely aware of his enemies fleeing in terror.  Then blackness engulfed him,
* * *
     It was dark when Tand’lion awoke.  His head ached and his senses swirled.  Somehow it seemed as though the world spun gently and almost-imperceptibly around him.  In the distance he could see that caravan’s other members had lit a campfire, and as he lay in the grass, the smell of roasting meat wafted over to him.  His stomach growled, and he realized that he was starving.  But when he started to get up, pain rippled across his shoulders and down his back.
     “So this is the famed Solitude of the War Master?”
     With an effort, Tand’lion turned to regard Vedra.  She stood over him, looking down.  She was unarmed save for her ever-mocking attitude.  But then she smiled.  She was wearing a short silk robe and carrying a bottle, a blanket, and a small basket of what Tand’lion desperately hoped was food.
     The War Master bowed his head.  “M’Lady.  I was--”
     Vedra put her fingers to his lips.  “Shhhh…” she said as she leaned forward, “I owe you my life.  It is no small thing.” 
Tand’lion started to protest, but even as he opened his mouth, the noblewoman set the basket of bread and salted meats down in front of him. 
“Here,” she said.  She began to spread her blanket out onto the ground.
     Tand’lion tore into the basket with a fierceness that surprised even him.  He began to shovel food into his mouth, and Vedra’s laughter rang out across the night. 
     “God of Fire, War Master,” she said as she laughed, “I hope all your appetites are this powerful.”
She poured two glasses of wine and handed one to Tand’lion before sitting down next to him, uncomfortably close.  The young War Master took the glass and drank, not knowing what else to do.  A powerful vintage, it burned his throat going down. 
     “This is strong stuff,” Tand’lion commented lamely. 
     Vedra ran her fingers across the back of his neck and twirled a lock of his hair around her fingers. “I do not wish to be in your debt, Tand’lion,” she said.
It was the first time that she had ever used his name.  He felt his heart pounding in his chest, and somewhere in the back of his mind a small voice cried out a warning.  But her fingers, running through his hair and then dancing lightly across his chest, were a far more immediate and electric presence. 
“Mistress,” Tand’lion said, “I am you War Master.  I merely performed my duty.  There is no debt.”
Vedra pushed him to the ground lightly and laughed.  “You talk too much,” she said.  Her fingers found the clasp of her robe.  She worked quietly for a moment, and then her robe fell away, leaving her body glimmering softly in the moonlight.  Tand’lion’s breath caught in his throat. 
“I will decide when the debt is paid,” Vedra said in a tone that left no room for argument.  After that, neither spoke for very a long time.

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