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The Song of Steel

Book One - Chapter 17

By W.R. Logan


Copyright 2004 W.R. Logan

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War Rider Claymen


The time had come for war.  Most of his men, including him, already looked as if they had been at war.  The back of his head throbbed with each painful step he took.  His left eye had been of no use to him since the hailstones battered them.  So many of his men had died in the attack that Gregor had no idea how many were left.


The loss of his eye would make his own sword useless in the upcoming battle.  The attempts at practice had ended in him losing his grip on his sword or catching the flat of his opponent’s blade.  He had put his sword away as a crowd formed around him.  It would do him no good to show the rest of the men how feeble their leader had become.


The druids had been a more formidable foe than the queen had expected.  All she had known of druids was learned from Tucker, the king’s gardener.  It looks like she should have spoken more to the half-haifoot before she had beheaded him.


Gregor had known Tucker for years.  The little man was the worst gardener in all the land.  In fact, the War Rider had no idea how he came about the title of druid.  The man had never studied in Solaced, not for healing or farming.  None of the half-hairfoot’s spells worked.  But he did have a kind heart and was well liked by the king’s younger brother.  He had been loyal to his king to the very end, giving all the information that he knew about the druid city.  Gregor was sure that the information had come from books but was given as accurate as the little one could deliver it.  All the Queen of Whores had given him for his loyalty was a swift death.


Pike walked to the War Rider’s right side.  His mouth was grossly swollen around the jagged remains of his teeth.  Small dents in his once fine armor shone clearly in the sun.  No repairs would be done to armor or weapons with the smith long dead in the last attack and the injured would be on their own as well.  All of the healers had been killed in the lightning strike.


The men marched in loose unorganized formations.  The realization of their imminent death was written across every face.  The sight of festering wounds was a common one in the ranks of the army and a dead man marked every mile of their journey from the river camp.  Even if they were able to defeat the druids, most of the men would not make the passage back through the wood.  The quest for this circle the king wanted so badly was going to cost all of them their lives.


“Think we are getting close,” Pike asked.  The man’s speech was terribly slurred from his injuries.


“I think so,” Gregor lied.


Gregor had no idea where the city was or how to get there.  The only plan that the king had given them was to capture a druid and make him tell them.  They had done the first part.  Before the attack, they had taken a brownie ranger.  The questioning had not gone as planned and the detention had even gone worse.  The brownie had somehow escaped in the confusion.


The men were saying that the tree the ranger had been tied to had reached down and set him free.  And then, the brownie had shot a lightning bolt from his finger to kill all the healers of the camp before he started the hailstorm.  When a mage was found with his neck shredded, it had been whispered that the great white wolf stalking the camp was actually another brownie.  No matter how hard Gregor tried to stop the tales, they just kept growing.  The War Rider had decided that it was best to get the few men he had left moving before either the druids finished them or their fears made them run.


It had been a full night and two days of hard walking with nothing more to show for them than a few blistered feet.  They had seen no druids or roads or even a goat path.  Everywhere they turned in this forsaken wood looked the same as the way they had just come.  Gregor was so unsure of the direction of their travels, he instructed one of the men to chop an X into a tree every few yards.  If they were walking in circles he wanted to know.


Gregor looked down the lanes of men with a strange mixture of pride and sorrow.  The pride was because he had trained most of these men when he was just a Weapons Master.  He had taken the majority of them from foil to knighthood.  And these were the ones that trusted him most.  The War Rider had become their teacher and then their friend.  Every man that had fallen and would fall on this injudicious quest did so not in the king’s name but in his.  That is where the sorrow came.


If this had been a war that deserved the lives of these noble men, Gregor would have sent them to their death with a free mind.  If his company had been chasing some devious enemy into the wild knowing they would not see home again, he would march off with a song in his heart.  The bards may sing of this battle in time, but the Steel Tide would not be the heroes.  It just wasn’t a fitting end for such good men. There was no honor to be found in what they were doing.


Gregor would not turn on his king.  The War Rider had sworn his solemn oath that could not be broken.  The man that the oath was made may have changed but the words held Gregor to his honor just the same.  A War Rider would do his king’s bidding trusting in the wisdom of his lord.


The man that Gregor had bid to mark the trees hacked another X in a large tree.  He examined his work and gave a nod of approval before he sheathed the sword.  This man had trained with Gregor for many years.  In the man’s first month in training, Gregor had gone to King Geiger to request the man’s release.  But the king rejected the idea.


“Does this man have no loyalty,” the king asked.


“He has loyalty, my king,” answered Gregor truthfully.


“Then is it courage he lacks,” furthered the king.


“No, he is a brave soul,” said the Weapons Master.


“Ah,” the king said in revelation, “he has no desire then.”


“No m’lord, he does desire to be a knight,” Gregor explained. “What he lacks is any skill with a sword.”


The king’s face grew serious as he looked down on his Weapons Master. 


“If a warrior with desire, loyalty and courage asks to join your cause, Weapons Master Claymen, you take him.  If he cannot use a sword you teach him.  If he fails to learn the sword, give him a spear.  If he is not suited for a spear, teach him the bow.  A true leader finds those three qualities in men and surrounds himself with them.”


Gregor longed for the wisdom of that king again.  The kingdom needed the man that heard his people over the ramblings of that disgusting church and the questionable morals of his queen.  The question was, did that man still exist?

A volley of arrows left that question to linger.  A score of his depleted force fell to the cruel shafts.  The Steel Tide formed their ranks and soon their own archers were returning wood with the group of rangers.  The rangers had chosen their ambush well and were protected by both a dense coverage of branches and the higher ground.  For every one ranger that fell, two of the Steel Tide followed.


It would be unwise to battle rangers in a war of arrows.  This was common knowledge to even the lowest of knights, but the Steel Tide had no mounts to charge the line.  On foot, his force would be riddled with arrows to the last man before they engaged steel with the enemy.  This was a different type of battle than the War Rider had ever fought.  It was kind of like trying to siege a castle that was as large as a forest.


“Come here,” Gregor called to one of the three mage’s that still lived.  The frail looking man scurried over to him.


“I want you to place a grease slick over the area the rangers hold,” he commanded.


“But the trees will catch all the oil,” the mage objected, “It would be a waste.”


“Do what I said,” Gregor shouted at him angered at being questioned.


The mage began his chant.  The golden sigils on his skin lit up as his power began to grow.  His song rang out into the wood beyond.  Before his chant could produce the desired spell, a green shaft plunged into his chest.  The song turned to gasps and then to silence.


“Two left,” Pike commented checking the neck of the fallen mage for any signs of life.


“Come,” Gregor called to one of the mages that still lived. 


The remaining mages had taken the first’s death as their queue to take better cover.  The one that was summoned crawled slowly from the safety he had found. 


“Oh,” laughed Pike, “Trying to give them a bigger target.”


Gregor ignored the comment even after seeing the size of the mage.  The man out weigh the War Rider by no less than a hundred pounds.  On the sides of his red robes had been sown an extra strip of material to allow them to cover his ample middle.  All of the man’s chins wiggled as he made his way to Gregor’s side.


“I need a grease slick over the area where the rangers are,” he repeated to the new mage.


To his delight, this mage gave no argument.  He began his chant as quickly as he could.  The large man’s voice carried with it a more commanding aura than that of the dead mage.  More of his sigils lit up as he cast the spell.  The hilltop was inundated with the black grease.


This was like a siege, a siege where the Steel Tide could not hold all access to the castle.  In that situation, there was only one option that could lead to victory.  Burn your enemy from their hiding places.


“Light your arrows,” Gregor called.


A fresh volley of flaming arrows hit the saturated limbs of the trees.  A thick black smoke began a dance on the summer breeze accompanying the frantic shouts of the rangers.  The only way out of the inferno was straight into the lines of the Steel Tide.


“Leave one alive,” Gregor yelled to his men.


“Try not to make it a brownie,” add Pike.


Gregor did not believe the tales that the men had been telling.  There was an explanation for how the brownie had escaped the bonds and fled the camp unnoticed.  Still, he had to agree with Pike.


“Anything but a brownie,” he confirmed.


The spell must have been a new experience for the ranger and druids for they made a grave error.  When the blaze had started to spread, a song rose from beneath the branches of the trees.  The men of the Steel Tide braced themselves for the wrath of what was to come and were relived when they saw the spell was not directed at them.  It caused a drizzle of rain to fall on the blaze.  This allowed the burning oil to begin raining down on all that took shelter underneath.


More shouts of pain followed the folly.  The shapes of men running from the trees covered in flame decorated the skyline.  The Steel Tide lines moved to surround the hill fully and prevent any retreat.


There were fewer of the rangers than the War Rider had expected.  Their number was no more than thirty but for every ranger came an animal as well.  The men of the Steel Tide found themselves locked in battle with bears, wolves, badgers and hawks as well as the rangers.  If this had been a game of numbers, the rangers would have come out the victors.  But this was war not a game.


When the final ranger fell dead on the ground, the Steel Tides losses numbered seventy.  Others had new wounds that would receive no tending that would lead to their deaths as well.  The victory had chased all those thoughts far from their minds.  They just wanted to savor the win for what life was left.


Gregor searched franticly through the bodies of the rangers, hoping beyond hope to find one with some life.  Battle lust had taken hold of his men.  They had forgotten his commands and went for the kill on each foe.  Each ranger met his search with a death stare.  It looked like the search for Solaced would go on the hard way.


“Lookin for something,” Pike asked pushing a man to the ground at Gregor’s feet.


The War Rider was too taken by Pike’s appearance to examine his prisoner.  The man had red flowers blooming from his beard and all along his head.  They looked as if they grew right out of the man’s skin.


“I caught this one at the top of the hill castin a spell,” Pike continued ignoring the stare.


Gregor tore his gaze from the flowered man.  The large man on the ground wore the robes of a druid.  They were still smoking from numerous areas that had caught fire.  The War Rider flipped the man to his back and looked down on him.  The druid’s dark green beard showed the same signs of fire as his robes.


“We must have you to thank for the rain,” Gregor said to the druid.


The druid did not answer.  He sat with his eyes fixed on the sky above.


“Well for that I thank you,” Gregor continued, “ And I guess the flowers were yours too.”


The War Rider plucked one of the red flowers from the top of Pike’s head.


“Ouch,” Pike protested rubbing the spot.


Gregor turned and put a foot solidly into the druid’s middle.


“That’s for the bugs,” he told him.


The man doubled over in pain only to meet another foot to his face.  Blood dripped from his lip and nose.  Even after several blows the druid did not give the satisfaction of his cries.


Exhausted and with all his frustrations spent, Gregor stopped the beating short of knocking the druid unconscious.  The man was spitting blood and pieces of his newly broken teeth but did not cry out once during the thrashing.


“I want him bound and ready for interrogation,” the War Rider said.  He paused as he realized that the flower that he had picked from Pike’s head had already grown back and bloomed.  “Pike, use chains and don’t tie him to any trees.”


He would have his answers from this druid and they would take Solaced.  The Steel Tide would hold the Great Circle for the Queen of Whores and her church.  If they must be the villains in the songs to come, then they would be the villains who won.





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