Marith pulled the cinch tight, allowed Corceneble to exhale and then yanked on the leather strap one last time before tying it to his saddle. His majestic roan bobbed her head low knowing the next step of this daily ritual. Every morning Lord Marith Foxe prepared his horse for the day's journey; the addition of the steed's reigns was now the final step.
"What a glorious morn my lord," the energetic soul named Nevel mentioned.
"Aye, a fine day indeed Nevel," his lord responded.
A third voice chimed in, "Not a fine day my lord, but a grand day. For this is the last day of the journey. I for one cannot wait to be back among my family. I miss my girls so much."
"Alas you forget the couple weeks for the trek home Sir Macimar," Lord Foxe reminded his friend and loyal knight.
"If I had a wife like yours Macimar I could not wait either," Nevel added.
Macimar leered at Nevel, but directed his response to Lord Foxe. "Well yes there is that, but I will be glad to finally have a look at this army Lord Haverdack has supposedly assembled out here."
"Nothing our fellow Brethens cannot defeat, Haverdack has tried to attack us before. I venture to guess this whole matter has been overrated," Nevel said haughtily.
"Our king cannot leave such matters to guessing Nevel. This is why he tasks us with this important duty," the noble voice of Lord Foxe stated. He then added, "Enough of this, let us ride and get our answers. Then we can discuss the voyage home."
"And eat some of that apple pork stew your wife loves to make Macimar. I would kill for a warm meal again."
Sir Macimar shook his head, "Always thinking with your belly Nevel."
"Hmph, when it comes to your wife I generally think with parts below my belly too," Nevel joshed.
Lord Foxe threw himself up into his saddle with ease and gripped the reigns. He then squeezed gently on Corceneble's flanks putting the mighty horse into a slow gait. With a tip of his head and a squint of his eyes Marith let known his next statement was on a more serious note, "Nevel, my friend, take care. Sir Macimar and I will see you in a couple of days. Be careful."
Nevel nodded knowing his role in this part of the mission. He was a ranger; many would say the best in the realm. He would travel into a wide arc around the approaching army; scouting out their trailing lines. Lord Foxe and Sir Macimar would approach Lord Drehas Haverdack's army from the front, investigating the main force. Where they would determine the size and strength of the force, Nevel's job was to determine supply lines that no doubt would exist for an army of any measurable size.
Nevel had known Lord Foxe for many years and knew his lord was a calculating man with a good handle on strategic warfare. His leader would know that it would take a considerable force to breach the Brethen Keep's walls, but to underestimate anyone who attempted a campaign of this magnitude would be foolish. A warrior of his veteran years, Lord Foxe knew war all too well, he would not take this matter lightly. More important to the lord, as a honorable subject of the Brethen realm, he could let himself fail the king.
Nevel recalled one of Lord Foxe's famous quotes, "One of the easiest ways to defeat a military power is to sever their ability to obtain food." This is why Nevel's ranger skills were needed. He would sneak around and get the details associated with the support structure of the army.
The ranger hunched down in his thin saddle and allowed himself to move in rhythm with his horse. Soon the tall grass lapped at Nevel's feet as he outpaced his companions. A final wave towards his friends and he diverted his course off into the thicker brush on the hillside.
The Haverdack army had settled itself in the flat valley of two spruce and deciduous covered hills. To maintain cover Nevel would need to stick to the rocky untamed hillsides. His horse was use to its rider and knew what was demanded of it, its muscles honed to handle the rougher terrain than those of its counterparts. The duo made incredible time given the obstacles in their path.
From time to time Nevel could glimpse out through small breaks in the foliage and see the massive military force gathered below. It was an incredible sight; he had never seen such a display of power. He shook his head in disbelief, "My lord, help us find the strength to defend ourselves."
He continued to move swiftly through the trees and scrub brush, his horse doing most of the decision making on the best course to take. Ahead he heard the distinctive sound of wood chopping. Not a single sound but a clamorous beating of hundreds of ax-heads colliding against the trees. It was a fortunate supply of noise that further dampened his stealthy approach. He slowed, hopped off his horse and placed the reigns over a low hung branch.
Nevel darted off now in his true comfort zone: alone. He had been a woodsmen tracker since childhood, a decision not entirely his own. His father had also been a tracker using his skills to provide food and income. Before Nevel learned to walk his father had placed him in a sling and carried him out into the woods for the daily hunt. Nevel had never known a life outside that of the woods; it was therefore where the boy, and now a man felt most at ease.
As the years past, Nevel soon surpassed his father's abilities. He could look at a single track and tell what breed and size an animal it was. More fascinating was the fact that the young boy could tell what time of day it passed the area, and even what reason. It was the angle of the print's impression along with its depth that helped him in this endeavor. In later years his skills were honed to include the more devious creatures of the woods; those that had mental faculties to hide their tracks from the average woodsman. Nevel had ascended to the ranks of a ranger by this time where neither man nor creature was able to elude him.
Ahead he could hear the mumbles of voices that made no effort to hide their idle chatter. The wood cutters were enthralled by their work and unaware of any persons who would challenge their large numbers. Nevel was such a man however, and tip toed closer trying to discern the nature of the men ahead.
"Nimba gucho esfe welti," came the voice of the nearest to Nevel.
"Awna gucho, Nimba ni qetswa. Dute betres a Ostin," was the reply.
What Nevel had first assumed to be mumbled speech turned out to be a foreign tongue. All he seemed to make out was the proper names of someone named Nimba and posibly Ostin. Neither name was familiar to him nor did it offer any information on the men's origins. Chancing a quick look, the veteran woodsman peered around the trunk of a large spruce. His eyes blinked as he tried to understand the lanky forms he saw.
Lord Marith Foxe and Sir Macimar approached the army with care, although not cautious enough it would seem. A band of small men, their arms thrusting long spears had rushed up on them. Marith cursed himself, "Of course they have scouts, why have I let us ride into such a trap?"
The small formed men shouted out in their foreign tongues, neither of the riders recognized it, however both understood its intent. They were to become prisoners of this grand army, a force measuring twenty thousand by Lord Foxe's estimation. Worse yet, the foreign invaders might just kill them. Macimar slid one of his blades from its ornate scabbard and kicked in his spurred heels.
"Maybe you wished to test their strength my lord."
Marith scoffed at the idea that he had intentionally let this event happen on purpose. The logic of his loyal knight had merit. What better way to understand an opposing army than to face them in such small and contained numbers.
Marith was not as cavalier as his protégé and took a moment to secure his helm and lower his visor. He then put Corceneble into a lope and unseated the long battle axe from its resting spot on his horse’s side. He raised the light weight and perfectly balanced weapon high above his head. "For my Brethens!" he chanted.
"Your Brethen!" Sir Macimar replied, his long tresses whipped in the wind as he rode hard into the tiny men's position. His sword swooped in low and nearly clipped the head of the nearest. The knight's aim was precise and yet he missed the mark somehow; the scrawny adversary skirting the attack with uncanny ease.
Unwavering Macimar continued his assault, his powerful horse parting the ambushers and opening up a second target. Down came his sword once more, a sweeping arc meant to cleave and yet this attempt was thwarted as well, as the cat-like reflexes of his opponent evaded.
"What are they," he exclaimed to his companion. There was no immediate answer as his mentor had not yet joined him in the fight. Unsurprising, his mentor lingered at the edge of the battle assessing the situation. Macimar hoped in this particular situation that the patience of his lord paid out and that he would figure out a method to kill these quick little men.
Lord Marith Foxe watched Macimar fail in his initial approach, and in fact knew the name of these creatures now that he had seen them closer up. They were called Leesermen, originating from a realm far to the east; an unsophisticated bunch of natives. It was odd seeing them group up in such large numbers and to also be warmongering. The Leesermen had always been known for their small, tribal like, religious sects. This really made no sense to Lord Foxe.
Macimar reigned in his horse on the far side of the fray and wheeled it about. He was no slouch when it came to speed and if any human could stand toe to toe to these lythe creatures it would be him. Of all of Marith's students, Macimar had surpassed all with his ability to wield the small blades.
The long haired knight dropped out of his saddle and drew out a second sword, an identical forge of the previous with an eagle emblemed hilt. He twirled each in synchronous circles, a signature movement of this fierce warrior. By now Lord Foxe had his long shafted axe swinging as well, but he too could not seem to strike a successful hit. The Leesermen were just too quick. He tried a midlevel jab, evade, an overhead chop, evade, a twirling crisscross shoulder to gut slice, evade.
Deep into his struggle of finding a method to strike his opponent, Marith lost track of several Leesermen that had slid around to his backside. Their spear tips nudging his polished armor and reminding him of his surroundings once again. It became the pivotal moment for the fight, as Marith Foxe realized what he needed to do to.
He shouted across to Macimar, "I have an idea."
"I figured and hoped you might, my lord."
"You and I must fight as one."
Marith Foxe allowed the spears to continue to strike him, the strength of the little men too weak to puncture the strong Brethen craftsmanship of the sturdy platemail. Sir Macimar caught on quick that those focused on the easy target of his lord had left themselves vulnerable to attack. A flurry of steel quickly fell two of the Leesermen engaged in prodding Lord Foxe.
The two warriors took turns playing the role of distracter and aggressor. The Leesermen wore no armor and stood no chance at winning by the hands of these two heavily plated and seasoned soldiers. Their nimbleness, initially a strong defense did not make much of a difference in the end. Several minutes later, all of them were piled together dead. Some died from the short swords held in opposing hands by Macimar and the others cleaved in half by the mighty axe of Lord Foxe.
Nevel forego the pleasantries of a formal campsite as he lay hidden in the canopy overlooking the Haverdack army. His horse safely tethered a mile back waiting his return. He would have rode in closer but this leg of the scouting mission required a stealthier approach.
The ranger had evaluated the small woodcutting men assessing their potential as adversaries. He concluded that their heightened agility and incredible speed could prove formidable. If the tiny men were formally trained in warfare the Brethens would have their hands full. Even without training, there were so many; Nevel did not want to think of the carnage that lay in the future.
All things being equal though, the creatures stood little chance of breaching the sturdy stone walls of the Brethen Keep. Throughout history, several armies had tried to overtake the Brethen lands. With every attempt, the men of the Brethen Keep stood stoic, building their walls taller and wider. Each success taught them more robust models on how to defend themselves with greater efficiency.
In recent years, a genius architect had helped them design war machines for their battlements. They were intricate mechanisms of counter weights and slings set upon the highest points of the Brethen Keep and capable of hurling salvos of rock down upon an advancing army. Designs Nevel had thought were novel, but now looking down on the army below he realized could change the tide of the Brethens' future. The ranger had been present the day the inventor, Red Eye, had presented his prototype to the king.
"The Brethen Keep has relied too heavily on the mages of the Wisentrop district. They are formidable men, no question of that my liege, but men non the less. We cannot assume to have their magic at our beck and call, loyalties as it is said can always change. Should the time come, it would be nice to have an unwavering alternative to those who reside in the mage towers of Ansirk."
The wily inventor pulled in a deep breath and then continued his presentation. "It is time to roll out a new era of defense. We can always be resort back to the Order of Magi should my creations fail, my lord. I plead however you trust in my abilities, these mongonels will not falter."
Red Eye pointed to his odd contraptions spread across a dozen wagons. "I know it does not look like much now but consider the schematics I showed you last year. When we lock the forward load bearing legs in place on the keep walls and stretch the..."
The king's hand came up in a stopping motion, "Red you need not go into the details of it with me again. I did not understand you the first time you told me of this design. I had not realized how large it would be. Can the walls handle it?"
The odd man shook his head yes, then slightly in a no fashion. "My lord, a small retrofit of slate will need to be added to each of the mongonel locations on the ramparts. My calculations suggest that the given sectional weight distribution, based upon the span and height of our current wall is inadequate. I did however cross reference the known specifications of our current wall's construction versus that of Eshendown stone..."
"Enough Red," The king waved his hand once more and then stood idle. His majesty's face suggested a look of being lost in an internal dialogue. His eyes shifted from side to side, and he nodded an ascent to a question none in the audience heard. Most were accustomed to this anecdotal feature of their king and paid it no attention.
King Blake turned to his constituents. "Do any lords hold reservations of Constable Red Eye's proposed wall installation?"
Lord Wallace Manti spoke up, "My lord I concur with the constable. The rock from my quarries is an excellent choice of material. I would be honored to supply it for our beloved Brethen Keep."
"Lord Foxe?" the king asked, turning to his oldest friend.
As always, accompanying the sage man on either side was Sir Macimar and Nevel. Marith Foxe shook his head. "We have needed war machines of this caliber for a long time, my lord. If Red says he has come up with a working prototype then we should test it. I would be curious if he can achieve the projectile range he has boasted."
Nevel continued to watch the expansive army crawl through the valley. To his dismay as coincidence would have it, rolling into view were similar implements of war to that of Red Eye's creations. The Haverdack army had use of siege equipment. This did not bode well for the keep, it would soon be time to test those new creations under most dire of times.