We parted company with Cane after leaving White Rose Abbey. Inconsolable with the loss of his great cat, he simply disappeared into the wilderness. Let this be a lesson to you, Pino. As much as your mother and I have tried to protect you, life is brutish and short, we must cherish every moment given us with our loved ones and forgive them their shortcomings.
But I've finished with lecturing you. Growing up means taking responsibility for ourselves and our actions and our mistakes. Don't let my mistake with Lily be the cause of one that you make with me. Life is an eroding process and the more a person's regrets, the faster they erode. For your sake, as much as mine, forgive me.
We made it back to Tatzleford without problem. There, Lev inspected the rebuilding effort, kissed his wife Ilse, patted her swelling belly, and gave a speech calling on all good patriots to join our cause against Irovetti's thugs. Then he sent the speech to the far corners of our realm and to Brevoy, just so there would be no misunderstanding between us and our sponsors. Shortly after, the centaurs arrived led by Alexandoss Thundering-Spirer, who introduced herself as “Nomen Centaur priestess of Mother Moon, assistant to Aecora Silverfire, and prominent spokeswoman for the tribe.” Lev greeted her cordially, naming me his liaison to the centaur force.
“And this is my assistant, Aria Stormmane,” she said, introducing us to a fierce centaur warrior whose lip curled with disdain when she saw me.
“Aria,” Alexandoss cajoled. “This is one of the men who freed Xamanthe and annihilated Vordakai.”
“And died in the process,” I added helpfully.
She continued glaring at me. “He might be all right for a two-legger,” she grudgingly allowed. “We'll see.” She then galloped off to lead her waiting sisters to their camp upstream.
“She'll come around eventually—if the campaign lasts long enough,” Alexandoss laughed and I found myself wanting a woman's company for the first time in, well, a very long time.
But, of course, Alexandoss is not a woman.
Soon after, the army that had been gathering in Tuskland arrived and we began training in earnest. The charming little town that had once been the arts and crafts hub for this entire region was reborn as an iron-willed military camp.
Since the centaurs are already well trained in the art of warfare, we concentrated on coordinating with human troops and acquainting Alexandoss and Aria with our tactics while learning about theirs. In the evenings, I would sit with them at their campfire and exchange stories, theirs about life on the open prairie before men arrived, and mine about what it is to be a man and to follow Erastil.
They were most interested in our encounter with Vordakai, a name they had come to dread. Mostly, they were in awe of my dying, asking me over and over, “What is it like on the other side?”
“Well, there's a lot of waiting around,” I shrugged.
“Since you're told us so much about your Erastil, maybe we should tell you about our Desna,” Alexandoss smiled. The others crowded around eagerly, careful not to step on me.
“Desna is the Mother, she gave us the sky,” she began, gesturing upward where the sky glowed softly with a million points of light. “Desna is one of the oldest deities, yet she has changed little since the dawn of civilization. She gifted us freedom—the freedom to roam the great plains; she gifted us knowledge—knowledge to witness and appreciate the wonder and beauty of her world. When you see a butterfly, you see the spirit of Desna flitting through our realm. The nomads of the north worship Desna as a statuesque human woman riding an elk—an elk like the symbol of your Erastil,” she looked down on me challengingly.
“Desna is said to dwell in a palace called Cynosure, visible in the northern night sky as the pole star, around which all others dance. Most importantly, Desna visits us in our dreams, speaking in language that can be plain, symbolic, or extremely arcane.”
I heard sighs as she finished and the centaurs moved around the bonfire, smiling and holding hands. They began chanting, swaying to an ancient rhythm that became dance as they cantered about the flames, high-stepping and proud. I felt someone take my hand and looked up to see Alexandoss smiling down, urging me to join her in the circle. How could I refuse? Soon I was approximating a highland reel as the others laughed, clapped, and danced far into the night.
|Centaur Kingmaker Campaign|
Much later, sitting by the dying embers with Alexandoss, I realized that, for the very first time, we were alone. Although she was seated, she was still a great deal taller than me, so I stood next to her. She looked at me quizzically.
“My lady, I, . . .”
“Wait a moment, friend Marquand,” she said, stopping me. From a small pouch hanging at her side she emptied a handful of tiny red star gems into the sand next to the fire. She continued watching me as she mixed the sand with her gems, her gentle smile so like a mother's smile of love that it filled my heart. Then she flung the sand and stones, to which she'd scooped embers from the fire, into the starry sky, where they sparked, and fell, and, like our lives, quickly died away.
“I thank Desna that we've found one another and have this time together,” she said solemnly, taking my hand. “I pray to Desna that we will spend many such days together.” Here she paused. “I also pray that we can, both of us, accept that the price of our love is knowing that I have my duty to my people—to mate with my own kind.”
I looked into those sad brown eyes and kissed her. Duty, at least, I can understand. Love is another matter. Bowing my head, I said, “I'll see you in the morning then, my lady.”
I saw her smile mischievously. “That doesn't mean we can't go for a ride, friend Marquand,” she said, squeezing my hand while leading me into the dark, far from the campfire. “And you won't need your horse.”
Several days later we reached Fort Drelev, joined by the main body of our army, a rag-tag, if enthusiastic, bunch. One group was calling themselves the “Spooks of Candlemere,” where they'd held their combat practice before joining us. They were dressed in white and carried long thin knives, “in every hand,” as Skot Skevins sings.
I continued to see Alexandoss alone at odd, stolen moments. I even managed to kiss her once, although the risk we were taking had us both shaking afterward—or maybe it was the kiss. I knew I shouldn't love this woman, yet I did.
At the meeting of the general staff I felt distracted and moody.
“What would stop us from going to Pitax and assassinating this dude?” said Trask, meaning their “king,” Castruccio Irovetti.
“Do you want to know Bert Askew's opinion?” asked Baddlin' Billee Weaver (a cousin, I think), our current liaison with Askew.
“I would love to hear Bert Askew's opinion.”
“'If you guys do that, Irovetti's armies are going to burn your kingdom to the ground.'”
On the road, soon after, we ran into Skot Skevins himself, seated on a burro in the middle of the road. He was playing his guitar and singing a song:
“And there was no man around
Who could track or chain him down
He was never known
To make a foolish move *
“Oh, hey fellas, good to see ya,” he greeted. “Been waitin' for ya. Kinda heard you were headed this way. Do you want to talk about this now or kick back with a few?”
Lev eyed him coldly. “I'd like to know immediately.”
Skevins sighed, sliding from the burro. “Well, you're the king!”
With the troops marching past us, we crowded around Skevins while he drew a map in the dust by the side of the road. “There's a large army camped about, oh, two days march southeast from here, under the command of Villamor Koth. You should remember him, Marquand,” he said leering up at me. “Didn't he best you at drunken jousting?” I heard snickers coming from our group.
“What do you expect? I was drunk,” I retorted weakly. “He won't be so lucky next time.”
“And Marquand did get bonked on the head,” Lev added in my defense.
“Irovetti's got a huge army—trolls, mounted hill giants, barbarians, and two flanks of wyverns,” Evans extolled, as if describing his favorite meal.
“We don't have any flying troops do we?” Trask asked, seeming casual.
“Nope,” came Lev's terse reply.
“That's what you and your bows are for.”
We stood around looking at Skevins. “If you guys make a beeline for Pitax, you can't miss them.”
“I say we hit them,” Lev said.
“You got one advantage,” Skevins went on. “The barbarians, hill giants, and trolls don't like each other much, so they're spread out to keep them from fighting among themselves. Now, where can a man get a skin of wine?”
The next day we began seeing outriders from the enemy camp and soon enough we reached a clearing where the forces of Pitax were arrayed against us, like on a chessboard. First and foremost stood the Pitax Hoard led by my old adversary, Villamor Koth. Behind them a gargantuan army seethed in the morning sun. In the distance, hill giants rode atop magnificent mastodons. Nearer by, a gang of trolls made obscene slobbering sounds. “Warm food,” they cried.
“We're quite a bit outnumbered here,” Lev noted drily.
We discussed strategy. “Hit and run,” Trask and Lev agreed, but which opponent? Our only chance was to take advantage of their repugnance for one another. “We should go for either one of the human units or the trolls,” said Trask.
“The trolls would be a very good place to start,” Lev agreed.
We were interrupted by Skevins's men bringing in an enemy scout. “Just let me go,” he whined. “Just let me go and turn around, because you're gonna die!”
Lev nodded and the men dragged him away, smacking him hard in the gob to shut him up. Lev then turned to us. “We'll hit the trolls as hard as we can right away, while our main army holds off theirs.”
“That's a great theory,” Trask sighed, “but I don't think the Hoard is just going to let us hit the trolls.”
“Well, that would come down to who attacks first, wouldn't it?” Lev sniffed as the meeting broke up.
“It's clobberin' time!” someone yelled.
Trask led the commandos into battle, I led the centaurs. “I wish you well,” I told Alexandoss, clasping her hand fraternally, feeling the eyes of all her centaurs upon us.
“Good hunting, warrior,” she raised my hand to their cheers. I bowed my head, feeling humble, praying to Erastil and Desna both to keep her safe. Then I took my place.
(Later, Skot Skevins would tell us that we might have talked some of their units out of battle. “They was mainly skeered of them trolls,” he grinned, “and sick of Koth's bullying. You could a' had them for a song . . . but it's always kill first and ask questions later for you guys, ain't it?”)
As I raised my holy blade and brought it down on the nearest troll's neck, I heard Lev—somewhere far away—crying, “Remember Tatzleford!”
“Remember Tatzleford!” came the cheer in reply as a sudden flight of arrows descended from a hidden sniper unit.
Unimpressed, the trolls, I saw, were laughing. “Buck up,” I cried. “Trolls laugh loudest as they die!” My centaurs once again charged them, hitting hard. I have to say, as little as centaurs like humans, they like trolls even less.
By then, the main armies had engaged. Our soldiers were outnumbered but fought valiantly, perhaps because they are free people and believe in their cause.
The barbarians attacked Lev's army to great and awful slaughter. I saw severed limbs flying and heads in their nut-brown leather helmets rolling across the ground like so many acorns. But I had no time to gawk.
If trolls have any weakness in battle, it's that they rarely fight anything that isn't running away from them in terror. To stand toe-to-toe with them (or hoof-to-toe in the centaurs' case) confuses them. They make mistakes. Even so, their size, power, and sheer ornery dispositions make them dangerous, even to centaurs, and my friends paid a terrible price for their loyalty to us. Just as I feared we were going to have to give way, Lev sent the Knights riding in on their flank and we finished them off.
I quickly searched the battlefield and found Alexandoss there, comforting a dying comrade. “Is there anything I can do?” I asked.
Her eyes searched mine for a sad moment. “Make sure you burn them!”
But the work was well in hand as everyone who wasn't injured was already dragging corpses to a vigorously burning pyre. “Hog fat,” said a farmer seeing me gape at the inferno. “Works better'n goose grease every time!” Soon there was a satisfying dark pall hanging over the battlefield.
Trask's commandos were just reaching the barbarian warriors, who had been harrying us with arrows, when we regrouped the centaurs. With a shock, I realized how many were missing. Quickly gathering the injured, Alexandoss and I led the remaining centaurs off the field. Aria Stormmane, grimly silent at the best of times, glared stonily at the battlefield, seeming ready to bolt back into the middle of combat.
|Aria Stormanne Obsidian Portal|
“Aria.” I said, but she continued staring angrily beyond me. “Aria!” She looked over with a start. I rode up to her and, for once, she didn't shirk me. “I need you to accompany Alexandoss and your tribe back to Fort Drelev.”
“Of course,” she snorted. “That's my duty!” She stared at me defiantly until I'd lowered my gaze. “Make sure she gets back safely.”
Aria stared at me for a moment longer, then turned away. “Idiot.”
Dispirited, I made my way to where Trask and Lev were heatedly discussing our next move. “I think that we want to take . . . them out,” Lev said, pointing to the map.
“There is such a thing as knowing when to fold them,” Trask protested, quoting one of Skot Skevins's most popular tunes. “And knowing when to hold them.”
“I don't think losing a unit . . .”
“All I'm saying is that we are still outnumbered,” Trask pleaded. “We lost the centaurs and they still have armies in reserve. If we do what we did last time, and their armies do what they did last time—which is, they all attack you—they'll probably do some damage.”
“I can take them,” Lev insisted.
“Unless they all attack you at once!”
“They can't get here in time,” Lev scoffed. “I say we pound them in the dust—revenge!”
“I say we hold on the frontier and don't engage,” Trask insisted, despite Lev's stirring words. “We've got everything committed. If we lose, well . . .”
“Running away now means we've effectively completely and utterly lost the battle,” Lev replied evenly.
Trask shrugged. “Sometimes you just lose battles. It sucks but I'd rather lose a battle and have three armies in the field than . . .”
“The next time we come back,” Lev interrupted, “we're not going to be better off than we are now.”
“It'll take awhile but we'll have another army,” Trask pleaded. “This is not about one decisive battle—that's what they want. They want one decisive battle because they outnumber us and are presumably stronger.”
“We're going to hold and let them come to us,” Lev replied resolutely. “That way only two of them can hit us rather than three or four. Then we'll withdraw if needed.”
“So say we all!”
Our armies cheered as we resumed our positions. Lev had given me the Knights (who had lost their captain, Plaxico) to lead.
“Murghlll!” yelled the barbarians as they approached us. “Kill the hofflings! Kill the hofflings!”
The huge army engaged us fiercely, yet Lev's center held as Trask's commandos swept in to attack. Although outnumbered, they prevailed, much to Trask's delighted surprise. As the mastodons strolled bellowing toward us, I led the Knights into the fray, killing many a farmboy holding a wooden pike against me. Dealing Justice to our enemies, I suppose, although it felt more like murder.
Honestly, dear Pino, the fighting was so fierce I thought it was the end of me. Once again my army was broken and I held rear guard with three “Ghosts of Candlemere”—sheets torn and streaked with blood—as we hurried off the field.
Lev and Trask immediately ordered their own retreat, but the enemy continued it's hot pursuit. “Fort Drelev,” Lev called. “Everyone to Fort Drelev!”
Sending word ahead to alert the militia, we quickly followed, stalked by the wyverns all the way. Riding together, Lev calmly listened to our advice before stating his position: “We will beat them.”
After two days, staggering more than walking, our army reached Fort Drelev. We were greeted with feverish activity as every able-bodied citizen was helping to reinforce the wooden palisades and bringing supplies in from the countryside.
“Sharpen your shovels, grave diggers!” cackled an old man as he watched us working. “Get ready to dig a big, big hole!”
I went over to talk with him, but he assured me he'd be standing his place on the wall in the morrow. “I've just seen too much of this shit in my life,” he said, leaving for home.
We quickly evacuated the civilians, giving Alexandoss and her remaining centaurs the task of guiding them to a safe place until the battle was over, and then they could either return, or flee. We said goodbye in a quiet glade outside town. I noticed that Aria was carrying two laughing human children on her back and seemed to enjoy it.
“Death makes life all the sweeter,” Alexandoss replied as I embraced her.
“Is there no way for us?” I asked one last time.
“You, yourself, said that the males of your tribe have been all but wiped out. Maybe it's time for your people to accept new blood, strong blood, human blood.”
“No!” she retorted sharply, pushing me back, voice cracking like a whip. She watched sternly me for a moment, then reached for my hand. “Half-children of centaur blood are trampled—that is the law! Our feelings have nothing to do with it.”
“But that's . . .”
We embraced silently after that. There was nothing left to say.
“Miss Alexandoss,” we heard a small voice call from far away, “We're worried about you.” Sighing, we made our goodbye.
Watching her trot away, I reflected that I, to the contrary, believe Erastil smiles on all consensual unions—even Cane's.
Retuning to Fort Drelev, I began drilling the militia, mostly old men and boys, although more than a few of the women joined. They reminded me of Piea and her strong arm, so I really gave them a workout.
All too soon the Pitaxians arrived, setting up camp just outside the range of our archers, although sometimes when he was bored, Trask would pluck one off, usually on the far side of their camp. In reply, they began pelting us with the rotting heads of our dead. Sadly, I recognized some of them, the ones that didn't splatter. As we buried them, I promised them one thing—Justice!
With the red morning sky came the beating of war drums.
“Why don't we try to parlay?” Trask muttered while we studied them from the wall.
“It's too late for that,” I replied grimly as they serenaded us with their war song: “Wahooahaugh, wahooahaugh, hoohyah, hoohyah, hoohyah!” If only Jaquizz could see what his dream has come to, I thought.
Then the mayhem began, with Trask's commandos letting loose a savage volley that decimated the hill giants riding their tall mastodons. With a bloodthirsty roar, my militia followed them into the field and we finished off the large, nasty brutes, although I saw a junior cobbler I knew by the name of Robinette get his head bitten off like a plum by one of the giants.
Lev concentrated on bringing down the wyverns while Trask sent him notes imploring him to go after Koth's barbarians instead. The center of action was concentrated on Trask's commandos but, I'm afraid, our little corner of the battle proved too much for my simple militia. “We can't hold the walls!” someone shouted just as a courier arrived from Lev to “Pull back!”
I heard later that, after a short argument with Vlad, who had brought him the message and, against his better judgement, Trask attacked the damaged wyverns, as our retreat quickly became a route. “Oh my god!” I heard a young man cry pitifully. “We're just militia!”
“Where, oh where, is that Sweet Sugar Cane?” I lamented, following them back into town.
Behind us, Lev split his army, giving one wing to Vlad, as wyverns dived after Trask's commandos. Beneath the walls that my militia had left empty, the barbarians hooted, flinging shit when they had no stones.
“We must hold the line!” Lev's courier cried, finally catching up with me.
“Yes, but we're going to have to hold it over here for awhile,” I replied, sending him back.
The greater struggle continued as I helped my lieutenants round up the fleeing militia, many of whom were wandering dazed in the streets. We then herded them back to the square, shoving weapons into their hands, imploring them in the name of Erastil to fight for kith, kin, and the P.U.R.K.
We reached the wall just as the barbarians burst over the top. I remember little besides the desperate fight to stay alive, although I became aware of a hesitation in the enemy, as if those in back were no longer pressing forward. Then Lev called for the old switcharoo and my bewildered militia traded places with his soldiers, giving them the stronger foe. But it was too late, my militia turned into a gaggle of frightened townsmen and there was nothing I could do to stop them.
A tyrant would have searched for those men after the battle and punished them severely, but I am not a tyrant. They are citizens, not soldiers, and I know the difference. Far more than their lives are at stake. Besides, in the distance I could see Trask's commandos also preparing to retreat. By tomorrow, I feared, anyone not outrunning Koth would be hanging from a tree. I rushed to join Lev, whose army had encountered Koth's barbarians beneath the inner wall.
Suddenly, Trask's commandos reversed their movement, and with a shout of “Remember Tatzleford!” they charged.
Somehow the barbarians held on, becoming even more battle-deranged and savagely deadly. The army reeled in shock as Trask desperately grabbed their standard from its dying bearer and waved it aloft defiantly. “For the Queen, for the baby, for our freedom!” he cried.
The commandos' line hardened like steel and the barbarians, in a frenzy, like an overexcited pack of dogs, fell on themselves in their rush to die.
Soon, there was only the groans of the injured and the dying.
“Tra-a-a-a-a-sk!” I turned and saw Villamor Koth, surrounded by a small retinue, walking quickly toward the part of the wall Trask had been defending.
“I'm sorry, do I know you?” Trask thinly replied.
“You and me, brother, for the whole ball of wax!” Koth screamed.
“Accepted,” Trask replied, calm as a sophomore accepting a challenge to a slap fight. “Marquand, will you take over the commandos for me?” I saw his men cringe, but I accepted. “Let's do this!” he said.
Facing one another, they circled intently until Trask whipped out his bow and let fly a barrage that nicked Koth but once.
“Is this the end of Trask of the Hundred Arrows?” Cyyrah, the camp gossip, trilled.
“Hit me! Hit me!” Koth bellowed, pounding his chest savagely and swinging his Great Axe. “Hit me!” he yelled again.
Trask stumbled, but held onto the bow, whipping it level and riddling Koth, who sneered like a bully spying the class clown aiming a spitball at him.
Trask laughed in reply as the behemoth thundered toward him. “I have no regrets!” he suddenly called to us. “It will be a good death!”
Koth hit him twice, and I thought the fight was over. Yet Trask stood! He stood!
“Revenge!” called Lev helpfully.
Trask lifted his wavering bow. We heard a shriek, “Bleaargh!” and Koth fell lifeless to the ground.
Standing above him, Trask said, “Valmore Koth, I will remember your name.”
“Vi-Villamor,” the warrior gasped, coughed blood, then died.
And like that, the battle was won.
Love to you and your Mother,
* Bob Dylan John Wesley Harding
Description of Desna taken from several Pathfinder sites, copyright Paizo.