The Crystal Shard 23. Besieged

The Crystal Shard 23. Besieged

Caer-Dineval’s fleet trolled the southernmost waters of Lac Dinneshere, taking advantage of the areas left open when the people of Easthaven fled to Bryn Shander.

Caer-Konig’s ships were fishing their familiar grounds by the lake’s northern banks. They were the first to see the coming doom.

Like an angry swarm of bees, Kessell’s foul army swept right around the northern bend of Lac Dinneshere and roared down Icewind Pass.

“Up anchor!” cried Schermont and many other ship’s captains as soon as they had recovered from the initial shock. But they knew even then that they could not get back in time.

The leading arm of the goblin army tore into Caer – Konig.

The men on the boats saw the flames leap up as buildings were put to the torch. They heard the blood-crazed hoots of the vile invaders.

They heard the dying screams of their kin.

The women, children, and old men who were in Caer-Konig had no thoughts of resistance. They ran. For their lives, they ran. And the goblins chased them and cut them down.

Giants and ogres rushed down to the docks, squashing the pitiful humans who beckoned helplessly to the returning fleet, or forcing them into the cold death of the lake’s waters.

The giants carried huge sacks, and as the brave fishermen rushed into port, their vessels were pummeled and crippled by hurled boulders.

Goblins continued to flow into the doomed city, yet the bulk of the vast army’s trailing edge flowed past and continued on toward the second town, Caer-Dineval. By this time, the people in Caer-Dineval had seen the smoke and heard the screams and were already in full flight to Bryn Shander, or out on the docks begging their sailors to come home.

But Caer-Dineval’s fleet, though they caught the strength of the east wind in their rush back across the lake, had miles of water before them. The fishermen saw the pillars of smoke growing over Caer-Konig, and many suspected what was happening and understood that their flight, even with their sails so full of wind, would be in vain. Still, groans of shock and disbelief could be heard on every deck when the black cloud began its ominous climb from the northernmost sections of Caer-Dineval.

Then Schermont made a gallant decision. Accepting that his own town was doomed, he offered his help to his neighbors. “We can not get in!” he cried to a captain of a nearby ship. “Pass the word: away south! Dineval’s docks are yet clear!”

* * *

From a parapet on Bryn Shander’s wall, Regis, Cassius, Agorwal, and Glensather watched in horror as the wicked force flowed down the stretch away from the two sacked cities, gaining on the fleeing people of Caer-Dineval.

“Open the gates, Cassius!” Agorwal cried. “We must go out to them! They have no chance of gaining the city unless we slow the pursuit!”

“Nay,” replied Cassius somberly, painfully aware of his greater responsibilities. “Every man is needed to defend the city. To go out onto the open plain against such overwhelming numbers would be futile. The towns on Lac Dinneshere are doomed!”

“They are helpless!” Agorwal shot back. “Who are we if we can not defend our kinfolk? What right do we have to stand watching from behind this wall while our people are slaughtered?”

Cassius shook his head, resolute in his decision to protect Bryn Shander.

But then other refugees came running down the second pass, Bremen’s Run, fleeing the open town of Termalaine in their hysteria when they saw the cities across the way put to the torch. More than a thousand refugees were now within sight of Bryn Shander. Judging their speed and the distance remaining, Cassius estimated that they would converge on the wide field just below the principle city’s northern gates.

Where the goblins would catch them.

“Go,” he told Agorwal. Bryn Shander couldn’t spare the men, but the field would soon run red with the blood of women and children.

Agorwal led his valiant men down the northeastern road in search of a defensible position where they could dig in. They chose a small ridge, actually more like a crest where the road dipped slightly. Entrenched and ready to fight and die, they waited as the last of the refugees ran past, terrified, screaming because they believed they had no chance of reaching the safety of the city before the goblins descended upon them.

Smelling human blood, the fastest runners of the invading army were right behind the trailing people, mostly mothers clutching their babies. Intent on their easy victims, the lead monsters never even noticed Agorwal’s force until the waiting warriors were upon them.

By then it was too late.

The brave men of Termalaine caught the goblins in a crossfire of bows and then followed Agorwal into a fierce sword rush. They fought fearlessly, as men who had accepted what fate had dealt them. Dozens of monsters lay dead in their tracks and more fell with each passing minute as the enraged warriors pressed into their ranks.

But the line seemed endless. As one goblin fell, two replaced it. The men of Termalaine were soon engulfed in a sea of goblins.

Agorwal gained a high point and looked back toward the city. The fleeing women were a good distance across the field, but moving slowly. If his men broke their ranks and fled, they would overtake the refugees before the slopes of Bryn Shander. And the monsters would be right behind.

“We must go out and support Agorwal!” Glensather yelled at Cassius. But this time the spokesman from Bryn Shander remained resolute.

“Agorwal has accomplished his mission,” Cassius responded. “The refugees will make the wall. I’ll not send more men out to die! Even if the combined strength of all of Ten-Towns were on the field, it would not be able to defeat the foe before us!” Already the wise spokesman understood that they could not fight Kessell on even terms.

The kindly Glensather looked crestfallen. “Take some troops down the hill,” Cassius conceded. “Help the exhausted refugees up the final climb.”

Agorwal’s men were hard-pressed now. The spokesman from Termalaine looked back again and was appeased; the women and children were safe. He scanned up to the high wall, aware that Regis, Cassius, and the others could see him, a solitary figure on the small rise, though he could not pick them out among the throng of spectators that lined Bryn Shander’s parapets.

More goblins poured into the fray, now joined by ogres and verbeeg. Agorwal saluted his friends in the city. His contented smile was sincere as he spun around and charged back down the grade to join his victorious troops in their finest moment.

Then Regis and Cassius watched the black tide roll over every one of the brave men of Termalaine.

Below them, the heavy gates slammed shut. The last of the refugees were in.

* * *

While Agorwal’s men had won a victory of honor, the only force that actually battled Kessell’s army that day and survived were the dwarves. The clan from Mithril Hall had spent days in industrious preparation for this invasion, yet it nearly passed them by altogether. Held by the wizard’s compelling will into discipline unheard of among goblins, especially varied and rival tribes, Kessell’s army had definite and direct plans for what they had to accomplish in the initial surge. As of this point, the dwarves were not included. But Bruenor’s boys had other plans. They weren’t about to bury themselves in their mines without getting to lop off at least a few goblin heads, or without crushing the kneecaps of a giant or two.

Several of the bearded folk climbed to the southern tip of their valley. When the trailing edge of the evil army flowed past, the dwarves began to taunt them, shouting challenges and curses against their mothers. The insults weren’t even necessary. Orcs and goblins despise dwarves more than anything else alive, and Kessell’s straightforward plan flew from their minds at the mere sight of Bruenor and his kin. Ever hungry for dwarven blood, a substantial force broke away from the main army.

The dwarves let them close in, goading them with taunts until the monsters were nearly upon them. Then Bruenor and his kin slipped back over the rocky ledge and down the steep drop.

“Come an’ play, stupid dogs,” Bruenor chuckled wickedly as he disappeared from sight. He pulled a rope off of his back. There was one little trick he had thought up that he was anxious to try out.

The goblins charged into the rocky vale, outnumbering the dwarves four to one. And they were backed by a score of raging ogres.

The monsters didn’t have a chance.

The dwarves continued to coax them on, down the steepest part of the valley, to the narrow, sloping ledges on the cliff face that crossed in front of the numerous entrances to the dwarven caves. An obvious place for an ambush, but the stupid goblins, frenzied at the sight of their most-hated enemies, came on anyway, heedless of the danger.

When the majority of the monsters were on the ledges and the rest were making the initial descent into the vale, the first trap was sprung. Catti-brie, heavily armed but positioned in the back of the inner tunnels, pulled a lever, dropping a post on the vale’s upper crest. Tons of rocks and gravel tumbled down upon the tail of the monster’s line, and those who managed to keep their precarious balance and escape the brunt of the avalanche found the trails behind them buried and closed to any escape.

Crossbows twanged from concealed nooks, and a group of dwarves rushed out to meet the lead goblins.

Bruenor wasn’t with them. He had hidden himself further back on the trail and watched as the goblins, intent on the challenge up ahead, passed him by. He could have struck then, but he was after larger prey, waiting for the ogres to come into range. The rope had already been carefully measured and tied off. He slipped one of its looped ends around his waist and the other securely over a rock, then pulled two throwing axes from his belt. It was a risky ploy, perhaps the most dangerous the dwarf had ever tried, but the sheer thrill of it became obvious in the form of a wide grin across Bruenor’s face when he heard the lumbering ogres approaching. He could hardly contain his laughter when two of them crossed before him in the narrow trail. Leaping from his concealment, Bruenor charged at the surprised ogres and threw the axes at their heads. The ogres twisted and managed to deflect the half-hearted throws, but the hurled weapons were merely a diversion.

Bruenor’s body was the true weapon in this attack. Surprised, and dodging from the axes, the two ogres were put off-balance. The plan was falling into place perfectly; the ogres could hardly find their footing. Twitching the powerful muscles in his stubby legs, Bruenor launched himself into the air, crashing into the closest monster. It fell with him onto the other.

And they tumbled, all three, over the edge.

One of the ogres managed to lock its huge hand onto the dwarf’s face, but Bruenor promptly bit it, and the monster recoiled. For a moment, they were a falling jumble of flailing legs and arms, but then Bruenor’s rope reached its length and sorted them out.

“Have a nice landing, boys,” Bruenor called as he broke free of the fall. “Give the rocks a big kiss for me!”

The backswing on the rope dropped Bruenor into the entrance of a mineshaft on the next lowest ledge as his helpless victims dropped to their deaths. Several goblins in line behind the ogres had watched the spectacle in blank amazement. Now they recognized the opportunity of using the hanging cord as a shortcut to one of the caves, and one by one they climbed onto the rope and started down.

But Bruenor had anticipated this as well. The descending goblins couldn’t understand why the rope felt so slick in their hands.

When Bruenor appeared on the lower ledge, the end o’ the rope in one hand and a lighted torch in the other, they figured it out.

Flames leaped up the oiled twine. The topmost goblin managed to scramble back on the ledge, the rest took the same route as the unfortunate ogres before them. One nearly escaped the fatal fail, landing heavily on the lower ledge. Before he could even regain his feet, though, Bruenor kicked him over.

The dwarf nodded approvingly as he admired the successful results of his handiwork. That was one trick he intended to remember. He slapped his hands together and darted back down the shaft. It sloped upward farther back to join the higher tunnels.

On the upper ledge, the dwarves were fighting a retreating action. Their plan was not to clash in a death fight outsside, but to lure the monsters into the entrances of the tunnels. With the desire to kill blotting out any semblance of reason, the dimwitted invaders readily complied, assuming, that their greater numbers were pushing the dwarves back into a corner.

Several tunnels soon rang out with the clash of sword on sword. The dwarves continued to back away, leading the monsters completely into the final trap. Then, from somewhere deeper in the caves, a horn sounded. On cue, the dwarves broke away from the melee and fled down the tunnels.

The goblins and ogres, thinking that they had routed their enemies, paused only to whoop out victory cries, then surged after the dwarves.

But deeper in the tunnels several levers were pulled. The final trap was sprung, and all of the tunnel entrances simply collapsed. The ground shook violently under the weight of the rock drop, the entire face of the cliff came crashing down.

The only monsters that survived were the ones at the very front of the lines. And disoriented, battered by the force of the drop and dizzied by the blast of dust, they were immediately cut down by the waiting dwarves.

Even the people as far away as Bryn Shander were shaken by the tremendous avalanche. They flocked to the north wall to watch the rising cloud of dust, dismayed for they beieved that the dwarves had been destroyed.

Regis knew better. The halfling envied the dwarves, safely entombed in their long tunnels. He had realized the moment he saw the fires rising from Caer-Konig that his delay in the city, waiting for his friend from Lonelywood, had cost him his chance to escape.

Now he watched helplessly and hopelessly as the black mass advanced toward Bryn Shander.

* * *

The fleets on Maer Dualdon and Redwaters had put back to their home ports as soon as they realized what was happening. They found their families safe for the present time, except for the fishermen of Termalaine who sailed into a deserted town. All that the men of Termalaine could do as they reluctantly put back out to sea was hope that their kin had made it to Bryn Shander or some other sanctuary; for they saw the northern flank of Kessell’s army swarming across the field toward their doomed city.

Targos, the second strongest city and the only one other than Bryn Shander with any hope of holding out for any length of time against the vast army, extended an invitation for Termalaine’s ships to tie up at her docks. And the men of Termalaine, soon to be numbered among the homeless themselves, accepted the hospitality of their bitter enemies to the south. Their disputes with Kemp’s people seemed petty indeed against the weight of the disaster that had befallen the towns.

* * *

Back in the main battle, the goblin generals that led Kessell’s army were confident they could overrun Bryn Shander before nightfall. They obeyed their leader’s plan to the letter: The main body of the army veered away from Bryn Shander and moved down the swath of open ground between the principle city and Targos, thus cutting any possibility of the two powerful cities linking their forces.

Several of the goblin tribes had broken away from the main group and were bearing down on Termalaine intent on sacking their third city of the day. But when they found the place deserted, they abstained from burning the buildings. Part of Kessell’s army now had a ready-made camp where they could wait out the coming siege in comfort.

Like two great arms, thousands of monsters raced south from the main force. So vast was Kessell’s army that it filled the miles of field between Bryn Shander and Termalaine and still had enough numbers to encircle the hill of the principle city with thick ranks of troops.

Everything had happened so quickly that when the goblins finally stalled their frenzied charge, the change seemed overly dramatic. After a few minutes of breath-catching calm, Regis felt the tension growing once again.

“Why don’t they just get it over with?” he asked the two spokesmen standing beside him.

Cassius and Glensather, more knowledgable in the ways of warfare, understood exactly what was happening.

“They are in no hurry, little friend,” Cassius explained. “Time favors them.”

Then Regis understood. During his many years in the more populated southlands, he had heard many vivid tales describing the terrible horrors of a siege.

The image of Agorwal’s final salute out in the distance came back to him then, the contented look on the spokesman’s face and his willingness to die valiantly. Regis had no desire to die in any way, but he could imagine what lay before him and the cornered people of Bryn Shander.

He found himself envying Agorwal.