The thud and crunch of heavy boots on cobblestones filled the air as the large wedge of shield bearing mercenaries marched. The enemy soldiers were headed right towards the large gaping hole that their mage had created in the barrier that Herad had ordered built across the road.
“What do we do?” Blacknail asked his master frantically.
The roar of the barricade exploding had sent the hobgoblin’s heart into overdrive and it was beating a hundred times per minute. He twitched nervously as his every instinct urged him to run somewhere safer or to find somewhere dark to hide.
Any place that hostile magic men were blowing up stuff was a bad place to be. The only thing stopping him from fleeing was a desire not to abandon his tribe, in case he couldn’t find them again later, and Saeter’s reassuring presence beside him.
“Keep shooting,” his master barked as he let loose an arrow at the nearest enemy soldier.
The old scout had aimed low, so his arrow hit the man below the shield and sliced through the side of his leg. The mercenary didn’t look critically wounded but he stumbled and cried out as he fell.
Blacknail did as he was told and sent another arrow at Saeter’s target. It hit the collapsed man in the center of his now exposed back, and the mercenary twitched and then slumped loosely onto the ground. He looked dead.
Unfortunately, there were plenty more mercenaries left, and they had now almost reached the shattered wall. Saeter took another shot and Blacknail was just about to do the same, when the sound of a horn rang out from behind the barricade. The hobgoblin froze and turned to see what was going on.
“That’s the retreat signal,” Saeter exclaimed.
“Did we lose?” Blacknail asked. He hoped the answer was yes so that they could all go back to the forest…
“No, this fight’s not over; Herad isn’t out of tricks yet. It’s just time to withdraw and reorganize,” his master answered.
That sounded like it meant they were allowed to run away, so it was good enough for Blacknail.
“Time-ss to go, then,” the hobgoblin replied as he hurriedly started down the stairs.
His master followed him, and when they reached street level the last of Herad’s men were just jumping off the back of the barricade. The long stretch of rigged together pieces of wood stood empty as its builders hurried away and left it behind.
The only people still near the wall were two small squads of bandits who seemed to be keeping watch over the gap in its expanse, and the mercenary company that was quickly closing in on it.
The rest of the bandits were running further down the street but they weren’t panicked or moving aimlessly. Orders were being shouted out by lieutenants and everyone was being organized into squads.
“Where’s Herad?” Saeter yelled at the nearest squad leader.
The man pointed back towards the abandoned barricade, so both the hobgoblin and his master turned to look. Blacknail didn’t see the chieftain, but now that he was looking closer he did recognize three of the larger bandits. They were part of Herad’s personal guard.
“Shit, what now?” Saeter grumbled anxiously as he started running in that direction.
Blacknail sighed in exasperation as he followed his master towards the most dangerous part of the battlefield.
Ahead of them, there was a loud clatter as the pile of rubble beside the hole in the barricade shifted and two more of Herad’s bodyguards straightened up and rose into sight. They were both holding up the end of a large heavy looking panel of wood that had been lying atop the rubble.
A second later two other figures appeared between the guards. One of them was Herad, and as they watched, she pulled Mahedium up from off the ground. Once he was standing, if unsteadily, she wrapped an arm around the limping mage’s shoulder and began dragging him behind her.
“Here let us take him; I’m sure you have better things to do,” Saeter offered as he ran over to help. Blacknail assumed he was also being volunteered.
“Damn right I do! Just don’t fall behind, old man. I need that mage in working condition,” Herad replied as she passed Mahedium off to him.
With her hands now free the bandit chieftain raised her fingers to her lips and whistled sharply. Instantly, all her minions near the barricade began to fall back and join the others down the street. They didn’t seem to want to stick around, and Blacknail didn’t blame them. Bad things were coming.
The hobgoblin moved over to help his master by supporting Mahedium’s other shoulder. The faster they got Mahedium moving the more distance there would be between them and the enemy. The mage shook his head and blinked before turning towards Saeter.
“Thank you. Just give me a few moments and I think I can walk on my own. Nothing appears to be broken. I just had the wind knocked out of me,” Mahedium told them.
“And half a mountain of rubble dropped on you,” Saeter dryly replied.
“We should-ss probably walk faster,” the hobgoblin interjected nervously as he looked back over his shoulder.
Just as Blacknail finished speaking the first group of shield bearing mercenaries marched cautiously through the gap in the barricade behind them. The trio had almost reached the rest of Herad’s men, though. They were only a few dozen feet away from the closest thing to safety around.
“Good thing they aren’t in any rush to attack. You’re heavier than you look,” Saeter remarked.
“Yes, but what happens if the bad-ss mage decides to throw exploding magic at us right now?” Blacknail replied uneasily.
This was apparently something that hadn’t occurred to Saeter yet, because he tensed up and gave the enemy behind them a nervous look.
“I don’t suppose that if that mage there decides to blast us into human paste you could stop him?” Saeter remarked expectantly.
“Maybe,” Mahedium coughed in reply. He didn’t sound very confident.
“Bloody wonderful,” Saeter sighed.
“Hopefully, they don’t recognize me as the mage from before, and all they see is some walking wounded. There’s no way they would waste any mana crystals on us then,” the mage explained.
Blacknail eyed him thoughtfully. That meant that if the enemy did recognize Mahedium then they could be about to blast all three of them into little bits at any second. He didn’t want to die that way, or any other way really…
“We should dump him. We can say he tripped,” Blacknail suggested quietly to his master as he covered the still somewhat stunned mage’s ears with his hands.
“Herad needs him, and besides we’re already here,” Saeter answered dryly.
The hobgoblin stopped staring back at the enemy and looked ahead. His master was right; they had already reached the rest of Herad’s men. He gave his master an unabashed grin and uncovered Mahedium’s ears.
The scout and the green killer then let go of Mahedium and the mage managed to stand by himself. Herad was watching from out of sight of the enemy at the back of a nearby squad and she called the mage over. He seemed unsteady at first but after a few seconds managed to start walking without their help.
“Thanks you two for your help,” he told them.
“No problem-ss, you can pay me back-ss later. Now, I’m just going to go stand over-ss there, and um… guard that very important barrel,” Blacknail replied wryly as he took a few steps away from the mage and cast another nervous glance back at the enemy.
Saeter smacked him across the back of the head.
“What? If we stay near him then the other mage might set us on fire or turn us into little pieces,” Blacknail hissed quietly to his master.
“This is a battlefield; nowhere is safe,” Saeter replied as he led the hobgoblin away.
The old scout didn’t lead the hobgoblin in Mahedium’s direction, however. Instead, they joined a small squad of men off to the side of the road.
During this time the enemy hadn’t been idle. They weren’t attacking, but soldiers had continued to stream in through the gap in the barricade, and now almost half the mercenaries had taken up position on the same side of it as Herad’s men.
The two sides glared at each other. On one side were over a dozen loose squads of bandits in mismatched gear, and on the other was a solid formation of uniformed soldiers that was slowly growing as more of them slipped through the wall. The expectant stillness was broken by Herad’s voice.
“Show these poor bastards what happens to my enemies, mage,” she yelled.
At her command Mahedium stepped forward and once again leveled his staff. Instantly, a purple glow sprung into being amidst the enemy’s front rank. However, Mahedium didn’t do as anyone expected. No shimmering air or invisible force appeared, instead a pillar of roaring flame burst from his staff and raced across the battlefield.
The purple glow intensified as the enemy mage summoned another vortex into being in front of him, but once again Mahedium had done the unexpected. He hadn’t aimed at the enemy but several dozen feet to their left.
The column of raging fire slammed into wooden barricade and hungrily consumed it. Within seconds that section of the wall had been transformed into a roaring bonfire. Its flames reached as high as the nearby roofs and it was still spreading and growing. The crackle and hiss of burning wood filled the air.
Mahedium unleashed another blast of flame at the barricade on the other side of the gap and the mercenaries that filled it. The enemy combat mage was powerless to stop the second blast as well. Apparently, his purple magic wind sucker thing only worked on attacks headed towards him.
Blacknail giggled happily to himself as a soothing wave of relief washed over him. So that was what the plan was! He liked it; it was a nice little trap. More traps should involve fire.
The mercenaries’ position was now less than optimal. They were stuck halfway through the barricade and flames were rushing toward them from both sides. There was no way they could turn around and retreat quickly enough to avoid the flames completely.
So the tall enemy mage did the only thing he could; he went on the offensive. He dropped his amulet, grabbed his staff, pointed it in Mahedium’s direction, and unleashed a blast of force. Immediately, there was a chorus of angry shouts as the mercenaries around him started rushing forward at Herad’s men, and away from the fire. Blacknail was happy to see that their formation wasn’t quite so neat anymore.
As the wave of magic raced towards Mahedium he reached under his shirt and pulled out an amulet of his own. In imitation of his counterpart, he then raised it. The crystal didn’t glow purple and no whirling vortex appeared. Instead, a small circular transparent shield appeared in front of him, and then quickly expanded until it covered not only him but all the men around him.
The force blast smashed into it with a loud crashing sound that Blacknail felt in his teeth, and a wave of dusty wind blew outwards from the impact site. In the middle of the blast zone stood a completely unharmed squad of bandits with Mahedium standing tall at their center.
“Charge, and push them back into the flames!” Herad’s voice suddenly rang out.
At her command every bandit squad attacked. They flowed together as they raced towards the enemy. The mercenaries’ forward march faltered as their moral took a serious hit. Not only were they now cut off from reinforcements, but their mage seemed to have been bested, and their backs were up against the wall. Not to mention, the wall was on fire.
Both mobs of fighters were racing towards each other now, but they hadn’t met yet. Both mages took advantage of this to quickly throw attack spells back and forth. The mercenary mage sent a ball of kinetic energy into a squad of Herad’s men that were too far away from Mahedium for him to protect. It smashed into them and scattered them like leaves in the wind. In a split second a dozen men had been blown off of their feet and several didn’t get back up.
Mahedium took advantage of his opponent’s distraction and blasted the edge of the mercenaries’ formation with a wave of curling flame. Screams filled the air as men discarded burning shields or fell smoking to the ground.
The enemy mage cursed loudly and raised his staff to counterattack, only to take an arrow in the neck and keel over before he could do anything. It was only one of many arrows that began to rain down on Zelena’s hired soldiers as archers hidden on rooftops on both sides of the street opened fire.
Now the mercenaries really started to falter. The death of their mage clearly demoralized them, and their advance ground to a halt. Herad’s men didn’t stop their charge though, and battle was joined as the lead combatants from both sides crashed together.
The still somewhat disciplined enemy shield wall was hit by the first rank of Herad’s men. A wave of bandits wielding swords, clubs, and spears began battering at the mercenaries and quickly started bending around the enemy formation. Herad was now the one with the numbers advantage.
The mercenaries were a tough nut to crack, though. They were better equipped and more disciplined than their foe, and they were too close now for archers or magic to be used. Hand to hand combat would now decide who would be victorious.
The clash of metal on metal, the thud of blades biting into wooden shields, and human cries of rage and pain filled the street. Behind it all was the crackling of wild flames as the wooden barricade burned.
Blacknail and Saeter kept to the back of their squad. Neither of them was too eager to enter the melee. The hobgoblin only went as close as he did so that he could keep Saeter out of trouble. He kept an eye on the old scout as he darted around the edge of the fight and halfheartedly exchanged blows with the occasional opponent. It wasn’t really his job to fight on the front lines, and that was what rookies were for.
Even with so many things set against them the Leather Heels Company stood their ground. They kept their shields high and their blades swinging. Bandit after bandit fell before them and it looked like they would manage to hold, but then Herad herself joined the fray.
The bandit chieftain charged out from among her minions with her bodyguards at her side, and slammed into the center of the enemy’s formation. Her silver blade flashed through the air and cut down two mercenaries as her hulking guards slammed themselves into the soldiers. They were wearing heavier armor than most the other bandits and carrying heavy two handed swords or pikes.
Her men rallied around her and drove into the gap she created. As she whirled into the enemy formation more and more mercenaries fell and their formation began to dissolve. The sound of Herad’s vicious laughter rang out as she batted a blade away and slashed its wielder across the face. She looked like she was having fun.
A mercenary stabbed at her chest but she sidestepped the blow and ended up with only a shallow cut across her ribs. Herad then stabbed low. Her blow cut her attacker’s leg just below his groin. He collapsed as blood poured from the wound.
Suddenly, there was a loud cry of despair and the enemy broke. Their formation came apart and Herad’s men started pushing them back, but there was nowhere for them to go. The roaring flames of the burning barricade blocked their escape.
Step by step they were pressed backwards until one of them stumbled and fell into the blaze. His screams rent the air as he caught fire, and then he lunged forwards in a futile attempt to escape the flames that now covered him. Of course, there was nowhere for him to go so all he managed to do was throw himself on top of his startled comrades and spread the flames, before one of them panicked and cut him down.
This distraction only served to weaken the mercenaries further and soon another man was pushed into the flames, and then another. The smell of roasting human flesh wafted over the battlefield. Blacknail really wished he’d brought more to eat now; the scent was making his stomach gurgle with hunger.
Enemy soldiers began to drop their weapons, either in hopes of surrendering and being spared, or just so they would die a clean death at the end of a blade instead of burning to death.
Herad didn’t take any prisoners. She and her men cut into the mercenaries until they had all been slain and the more stubborn ones pushed into the flames of the barricade. A triumphant cheer went up from her men when the last of them fell.
As a bloodstained Herad strolled over the corpse-littered street her men started looting the bodies. They were safe from any counterattack for awhile and they were eager to get their hands on some valuables. Blacknail took a few minutes to try and find some boots and socks that fit him. He tended to go through them quickly because of his long sharp toenails.
After he’d found a satisfactory pair the hobgoblin glanced around the battlefield. The butchered or burning remains of his tribes’ enemies were scattered everywhere and most of Herad’s men were still busy looting the bodies for weapons or valuables. The flames that wreathed around the barricade itself were finally starting to die down as the last of the wood it was feeding on blackened and crumbled.
“Have we won yet?” Blacknail asked Saeter hopefully.
He was fairly sure they’d won, but then again he’d thought that after the first enemies had run away and it hadn’t been true.
“No, we’re just getting to the hard part,” his master grunted darkly in reply.
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