The Night Before…
Ever so slowly evening creeps over the landscape, bringing with it the end of a long day’s work for the returning wranglers. Fortunately, their well-earned weariness leaves little energy for focusing on the peculiar nature of the children in camp. Their only real interest is in having a good hot meal and bedding down for some undisturbed rest. For tomorrow promises more of the same.
Though some might declare the meal a bit short on meat, nobody voices a complaint. The rabbit stew has been well prepared and there are plenty of vegetables, cheese, and bread to go around. Their spirits are high. Overall, the horses faired well during the winter. Light conversation revolves mostly around the considerable number of new foals being added to the herds. And as such, Blaise and his brother-in-laws can only be happy for the coin each addition will eventually bring to their purses. It will be a profitable year.
Unlike the adults, the children are rather silent through the evening’s meal. Amber, Simon, and Vaush have their own thoughts to contend with. Their exploration of the Highland Stones has only led to a general feeling of uncertainty for the immediate future. Vaush can’t help shake the sensation of being watched by something in the growing darkness. Scouting his surroundings for an unseen assailant has almost become an unconscious habit. Simon is fairing only slightly better, having developed the need to massage his mysteriously offended forearm. While Amber keeps worrying about the possible portents to be found in the three dead rabbits that everybody is now enjoying.
In time, the meal is finished, conversations die away, and everyone makes for their tents and bedrolls. Random clouds and mild temperatures bode well for a pleasant night under the stars. It is only one in a long string of such pleasant nights to be had in the summer highlands.
But it is the night, and dreams care not for what the weather has to offer.
Dusk folds the highland hills in its silent embrace. Looking down, the lone eye of Hazrad offers the only source of light from an otherwise empty sky. And what was once the long green grass of day has turned to a sea of metallic-blue blades under the brightness of his glare.
Vaush no longer sleeps soundly in his tent. Nor is he a boy of seven years taking a summer in the highlands. Instead, he is a man in his late teens standing among ancient stones. The Giant’s Crown. The twin blades Robert bestowed upon him in his youth rest in hand, glinting dangerously in the moonlight. He is prepared to carve flesh from bone. But first Vaush must find that which cannot be seen.
Just as imperceptible as before, the hidden danger from a far more younger day’s journey is near. He can feel its presence. Only this time it threatens to devour all that Vaush considers vital to his humanity. It is hungry for flesh. Not just his, but any flesh. He can’t help but be driven into a flurry of flashing steel and spinning death in the hopes of hindering its desire to consume all he has come to care for.
Though Vaush’s ravenous partner is beyond his perception, the dance is joined in earnest. Soon rapid steps are no longer anchored to the ground, but flowing across the crest of the crown’s outer circle. Like a mountain stream in reverse, as the intensity of his struggle increases against the hidden assailant, so too does Vaush work his way up towards the center of the crown. Until finally, his progress finds him leaping back and forth between the highest reaches of the three great monoliths.
Here his efforts elevate to such frenzy that Vaush is a whirlpool of untraceable slashes, thrusts, and parries. In his attempt to vanquish the mystery, Vaush spends nearly as much time swimming across open space as touching solid stone. But if ever an edge falls upon his intended target, there is no evidence to be found on his blades or in the steady flow of his dance. It is as if he fights a rushing river. His efforts washed away like so much wasted silt.
Yet, as futile as the struggle may seem, in time Vaush comes to realize his enemy has departed. Or perhaps it was he himself who left. For no longer does Vaush stand upon the Giant’s Crown, but atop the tower crenellations of Castle Locke. From the battlements he can see the nearby trees. And they are beginning to change. No longer do they stand as the dark and forbidding forest of before. Now they are a massive army of hate and violence, spewing forth the return of the Tusk.
But the Tusk are not the only army to take to the field.
Lord Simon Locke… Baron of Hartwich, Savior of Glenfeld, Leader of Men! And these men will follow their lord and liege into the very jaws of death itself should he command it so. Not because he carries the Shield of Glenfeld and the Sword of Briarfrost at his side, but because he has proven his mettle time and again against the enemies of his countrymen. He is trusted and loved by those who have joined him. He is their sovereign lord, and this hill is his to conquer!
The army he commands is vast. Thousands of seasoned pikemen are aligned at Simon’s back. Every one a tested veteran from the northern wars. And all are supported by an equal number of the finest archers ever assembled in Anglandia; each prepared to rain down an endless barrage of barbed death upon the enemy. While stationed at both flanks rides rank upon rank of hardened steel. Knights encased in polished armor, waiting to capture the rising sun upon their backs and the blood of an adversary on the point of a lance. Their banners, fluttering in the early morning breeze, represent all the established houses of Entia.
Then there is Simon’s pride of the army, a thousand or so Highlanders at the center of it all. They are a fierce and menacing horde of kilted warriors, each carrying his weapon of choice. While some hoist the dreaded claymore made infamous through its many years of bloody and deadly use, others brandish a crushing war hammer or brutal double bladed axe. Still, others favor a spiked shield and short blade for the dangers of close in fighting. Clansmen one and all, they have willingly gathered here to take life. And if necessary, give up their own in the service of king and country.
However, what they face is nothing the eyes of modern men have seen, certainly not since the days of Briarfrost himself. For the Tusk have returned… come to topple the crown of the highlands and force open the lock which keeps it safe.
Though Simon has amassed an army nearly ten thousand strong, the enemy is almost ten times that in number. It seems nigh impossible to gain victory by such odds. Even so, these brave warriors have come to this field to give battle and hopefully strike such a blow as to turn aside the destructive tide that is the Tusk. So with the rising sun comes the horn of challenge and the ensuing battle.
It begins with the release of some four thousand bowstrings, sending a volley of arrow sufficient to darken the morning sky. It is only the first of many such offerings as time and again the archers deliver their deadly intent into the seething mass of corrupted flesh, causing whole sections of the enemy to crumple and die. But these diminished ranks only swell anew with the thousands behind the dead seeking to close the distance and begin their own slaughter of the hated humans.
All too quickly there is a great clash of steel on steel as both armies meet. But not before the Highlanders spearhead their own raging charge down the hill. For awaiting the enemy to close is not in their blood. Better to meet the beast at a dead run, working into its ranks, and thus earn more room to maneuver and swing about their massive weapons. And with more of the monster at hand comes a greater opportunity to rend flesh and kill. This is the highland way!
Not to be outdone in the slaying of the beast, Entia’s mounted might falls upon the flanks of the Tusk. It is a glorious spectacle, the envy of every young boy’s fantasy of war. Eight hundred knights urging their thunderous chargers forward with lances brought to brace, shields held high, and fanning out to create the perfect wedge formation. Like immense arrowheads, each man therein is a champion of men and the sharpened edge meant to inflict pain and suffering upon the enemy. The death they bring is deep and substantial, slicing into the sides of the monster. Wounds to be surely felt and not ignored.
Simon can only watch his beloved knights kill and be killed for the briefest of instances. For soon, he himself is confronted by the violence of the day.
It comes bearing tooth and claw… muscle and steel… the promise of certain death should Simon and his army fail to be equal to the task. But the soldiers of Entia did not march here to just lay down and die. They came to fight. And so, with nearly every cut and slash another part of the beast is carved away. In little time, tens, hundreds, and eventually thousands die all around Simon. Only the endless thrusts, parries, jabs and blocks of the practice field keep arms and legs in motion long after adrenaline and fear have run their course. And still, the battle rages on.
True, Simon and his men have inflicted a tremendous amount of carnage upon the beast, but so too have they suffered. Eventually, Simon cannot but begin to fear for what remains of his army. Without relief or a better defensive position, they will soon be swallowed whole by the seemingly endless crush of the Tusk.
Casting about for any possible means of saving himself and his dwindling forces, he spies the only possible source of refuge. What Simon finds is unexpected: The Giant’s Crown!
Seizing what little opportunity it presents and drawing upon his last reserves, Simon rallies those around him and begins to carve his way to the stones. It is a hard fought struggle, made all the more difficult with every loss of precious life. For what was once a tremendous force of arms, now stands less than two thousand strong. Of those, only a fraction of the knights have managed to return to their lord’s banner. While pockets of Highlanders and pikemen strive to support each other’s efforts in moving towards this new goal. As for the remaining archers, they have long exhausted their empty quivers and abandoned useless bows for whatever weapon is at hand. Now, for the men of Entia, their only hope lies in reaching the Crown.
To that end, with each crushing blow and fallen foe, Simon’s army fights towards their chosen destination. But the fog of war is fickle and what was once promised is now an uncertain aim. Simon can only steal the occasional glance as he continues to fight for his life and of those around him. Not until he is afforded a small moment of respite is he able to give renewed attention his purpose. And what he sees before him is no longer the Giant’s Crown, but something far more defensible. His namesake in stone. Castle Locke!
The realization of his find, the salvation it represents, only spurs Simon’s desire to reach the ancient structure. To bring his war weary and tattered army into the sanctuary of the castle’s impenetrable walls is now his only concern. But it is a close thing for all that are still outside its protection. Certainly not everyone will gain its shelter. For with every step towards the mammoth structure men continue to fall before the Tusk. Good men die. Irreplaceable men die. But they do so at a price. Killing much more than their equal before succumbing to the massive throng of hate and steel that is the Tusk.
Finally, with what men remain to him, Simon has reached the castle’s causeway. Taking command himself, he fashions a rear guard action allowing what is less than a thousand men to scramble into the ancient fortification. He can’t help but notice their diminished numbers. An all too sad testament to what has been left upon the field of battle.
For now, those who have made it to the castle are safe. Simon has done what he can for his men. But he has left no opportunity for his own safety to be gained. To turn and run for the gates is to be cut down from behind. To stay and fight is to invite the same end. Death seems the only option.
If it is to be, then so be it! He and those who struggle at his side are surely doomed. But Simon shall sell his life dearly to those who would purchase his soul this day. Man and monster shall both remember. All shall recall in pride and fear those few and their leader who stood against a sea of Tusk.
But by whatever design of fate, today is not the day to mourn the passing of Lord Simon Locke. Before the final blow can be delivered a band of remounted knights gallop into the fray, crushing and slaying the startled Tusk beneath steel shod hoofs and threshing swords. Like so much grain to be harvested, the Tusk fall to the brave and noble men who have come to rescue their lord in peril. It is all Simon and those few beleaguered warriors require to retreat from the fighting into the waiting fortress.
While running towards the open gates, he casts a glance to the heavens in gratitude for his deliverance from death. And as Simon looks skyward, sending a prayer for those left behind, his eyes fall upon something else unexpected. Upon the battlements stands a lone figure. Someone he cannot be certain of, but for the distance Simon swears is an old and trusted friend. Vaush!
Amber rides. It is what she does. It is what she’s always done.
As a lass born of Highland horse wranglers, a life in the saddle is to be expected. For even before Amber laid blurry eyes upon the world she was already accustomed to a steady gallop in her mother’s womb. Thus, the running gate of the mare now beneath her is the most natural feeling she can imagine. So Amber trusts in it. She rides!
From where she hails is of little concern. Only where she is headed has any worth. And where exactly that is, Amber does not know. Just that she is compelled to continue her quest. Why? Amber cannot say to just anyone. There are those that must be found first. But who? This is also unknown. She’ll know them when she finds them. Until then, she only understands the importance of riding forward. For if Amber were to stop, there would be the direst of consequences for everyone, everywhere.
Recognizing this, Amber risks a look behind. What she sees causes her to urge more effort from her trusted steed. They’re coming! They’ve returned to the highlands! The Tusk are here!
So forward Amber rides, away from the gathering monsters of ancient hatred and wanton destruction. But it is not enough to simply outrun what is behind her. She must do so in time for others to act upon the knowledge she carries. To reach her destination too late will be just as worthless as having not arrived at all. But to who or where? These are the questions that plague her mind just as much as the fear of what follows.
Galloping towards the open horizon and away from the Tusk, Amber spots a lone, hooded figure in the distance. Exactly who it is, she cannot identify. There is only a hopeful expectation that it is one of those she seeks.
Though drawing closer to the figure quickly dashes any feelings of optimism Amber might have. For clothed entirely of black robes, accented by a blood-red sash and carrying an equally dark staff, Amber can’t help but be repulsed by what she sees and feels. This is not who she needs to find! This is what she must warn the others about!
Quickly reining her ride aside, Amber is now forced to run parallel to the ever-encroaching line of dreaded beasts that are the Tusk. And though she pushes her horse to its limits, it seems impossible to gain any distance from the ominous figure blocking her earlier path. For no matter how far or how fast she travels, the creature effortlessly matches her progress. Amber truly feels trapped between what her father termed, “the bloody rock and hard place.”
Not wanting to confront what is now to either side, Amber continues to push forward at parallels. Hoping beyond hope that something will materialize to lift her from this press. That something or someone will save her from this crush of evil. Unfortunately, what materializes is anything but helpful to her cause. For with the arrival of the Tusk comes war!
What was once open, peaceful territory, now is before her a sea of turmoil. The forces of man have come to do battle. And Amber’s heart can only ache at the sight. For in the face of such a massive beast as the Tusk, those that have gathered in defense of her beloved homeland seem pitifully inadequate and desperate. They are so few in numbers, so small in comparison. They stand defiant! Proud! Strong! Just not enough.
And if there is one thing Amber certainly knows, it is that within this gathering of brave souls there are those she loves… family and friends; her father and uncles; cousins one and all. The clans have joined together and they are here to give of their lives. And seeing the monster they must attempt to slay, Amber cannot help but cry at the loss that shall befall them all this day.
If it would matter, she would rush to their aid. But there is little Amber can do to assist her kin. That is, except to keep riding and discover those who must be told of the true danger they all face. Maybe they can stop this from happening. Yet, given what has beset her on all sides, Amber is quickly running out of options to pursue. The darkness of the world is closing in.
Sounds of battle now join her frantic pace. Furious screams and cries of anguish pierce the din of deadly steel upon steel. She can sense the horse barely containing its own panic at the sights and sounds of battle. Its eyes cast wide and fearful. A near match for Amber’s own as she searches for release from all this carnage. No longer certain that some of the screams aren’t her own.
Because it is all she can do, Amber continues to ride forward. For turning around is to falter into the unknown. To veer right or left is to face the monstrous army of the Tusk or the much more terrifying stranger. While at the head is such a struggle as to destroy all hope of victory over the encroaching doom she has come to warn others about. But it is into this fray she must ride. There is no alternative.
Entering the mêlée presents new dangers all around. Slashing swords, crushing hammers, and wicked claws dispense death at every step as Amber tries to navigate the battlefield. Her only hope is to move quickly, evading those who would target her horse and its rider. All along she sees men and animals die. She also sees the Tusk fall, just not enough of the latter to make up for the loss of so many good men. Blood becomes the color of the ground. As it does for those still able to fight, covered in the lives of comrades and foes alike. And with each death, she can’t help but see the human line faltering. For when that happens, then she too will succumb to the hunger of the beast.
Only when all seems lost does a glimmer of hope arise from the surrounding chaos.
At first it takes on the appearance of the Highland Stones, a possible means of defense that the remaining men have chosen to rally around. But heading in that direction, Amber quickly finds herself in error. It is not the stones she finds, rather the outer tower of Castle Locke! And for the first time since beginning her horrific journey, Amber feels certain that this is her true destination. The castle! It is where she must go! It is there she will find those that must hear her story. Now all she needs to do is make it there alive.
It is a race like none other. To win is to live another day, to give the other survivors of this nightmare a fighting chance at defeating the true threat. But to come in any other standing, is to lose everything. As such, Amber cannot afford to offer anything less than her best.
Spurring her horse into a final sprint, Amber barely joins the tattered remains of the Entian army struggling to enter the protection of the ancient castle. But in her passing of the causeway, Amber notices her cousin, Lord Simon Locke, as the one leading the rear guard action allowing many men to gain the safety of its towering walls. And by doing so, it is evident he has left himself no means to join them. Simon is nobly sacrificing himself.
But what good is their survival if the man who must hear her words is no longer alive to listen? He must be rescued! No matter the cost!
Grabbing a shield from a nearly unconscious soldier and demanding a spear be given over as well, Amber begins to force her exhausted horse back through the castle’s gate. Her contrary act quickly draws the attention of several heavily battered and injured knights. They can’t believe this lone girl would willingly return to the field of battle. Not until Amber tells them of their Lord’s imminent peril do they fully understand her reasons and are shamed into action.
Quickly mustering horses and weapons, a dozen brave souls take the opposite tack of the retreating army. Only their unyielding refusal and Amber’s eventual detainment by those too injured to follow keep her from joining the knights in their rescue attempt. As such, she is forced to linger behind in the hopes that they are enough to be successful. It is an agonizing wait.
Her reward finally arrives when Simon and some of his faithful supporters come rushing through. Afterwhich, the gates are quickly closed. Sadly, none of the twelve knights are among the survivors. But at least Simon is alive.
There is still a chance.
The Morning After…
Morning has come to the highlands with the promise of a beautiful day. Already there are the smells of cooked eggs and ham steaks being made ready for the wranglers who will put in another long day’s labor. While several men walk off to relieve heavy bladders, others work out the kinks left over from sleeping on loose rocks too long.
Of those still in their tents, Amber, Simon and Vaush are each recovering from a hard night of dreaming. Simon can’t help but continue to replay the events that occurred in his sleep. He is wide-awake trying to decide what importance, if any, his dream might have on his waking and future self. Meanwhile, Amber and Vaush have both decided to catch just a few more winks of shuteye. Falling back to sleep is a decision one shall give little afterthought to. While the other will be sorely affected for the rest of her days.