Mortal Judgement: Episode 5
by Ian Taylor
THE SIEGE OF REDWATER
As recorded by Oddi, Herald of Valka.
When Valka returned from the Trial of Champions (see: The Trial of Champions as recorded by Oddi, Herald of Valka), she announced her intention to wage war on all of Eucos. Our first target was The Academy, home of Pallas, the Champion of Magic.
The drummers started the summoning ritual to signal the gathering of warriors. The drums would normally sound for a day and a night, but as the sky was in permanent darkness we had to take our best guess. We counted the number of times Ulfgaar ate an entire pig and calculated from there.
In the end, we had a fully-armed force of nearly three thousand warriors. More than enough to raze a fancy school to the ground.
Valka rode at the head of the army, as did I. Our march would take us through Ronel, and we would resupply at the towns of Mear and Felleren after easily crushing their token resistance. The Ronellan Free Guard were based in the Free City of Ronella, and our path took us nowhere near it.
We arrived at Redwater, a village at the base of the mountain on which The Academy was located. They had long since evacuated. Valka sent a scouting force to check the nearby merchant village at Dragonclaw, whose inhabitants had similarly left in a hurry. We had supplies to last many days, and the wood stores at Dragonclaw contained enough cut timber to build several siege engines. We got to work immediately.
Only Fort Jaraska stood between us and the school. Predictably, their commander rode out from the fort under a flag of truce to discuss terms with Valka. It did not go well.
Commander Medwin entered the giant tent, his two officers behind him. A long, vertical table covered in scuffs and gouges divided the room. At the far end of the table sat Valka, and she had seated herself in the most insultingly casual way she could think of: one foot on the table, the other draped over the two chairs to her left. She picked at her teeth with a dagger, one not designed for such delicate work.
Medwin bowed, and the others followed his example.
“Sit down,” said Valka. “Bow and scrape on your own time.”
The Commander began. “Lady Valka, we–”
“Just Valka,” corrected Oddi, who sat off to the side, not even bothering to look up as he scribbled away at a stack of parchment.
Medwin coughed and started again. “Pallas has advised us that it’s your intention to–”
Valka cut him off. “I’m going to destroy that school,” she spat. I’m going to knock down all those buildings. I’m going to burn the library. My army will kill anyone that stands in our way, and that includes anyone still on Academy grounds.”
Medwin was rendered speechless. After a few moments, he was able to manage a feeble “Why?”
Valka violently slammed her dagger down, jamming its tip into the soft wood of the table. “Leave this tent,” she said coldly. “Go back to your fort, and tell everyone there to run away. Or tell them to fight.” Valka shrugged. “I don’t care. The result will be the same. If you’re still there when I arrive, I will tear off that front gate and feed it to you myself.”
“You have been given a command,” said Oddi, in a rather bored tone specifically calculated to unnerve people who were being threatened. “The Champion of War rarely repeats her commands.”
Medwin and his men fell over each other in their rush to exit the tent.
“I hate talking,” Valka said after they’d left. She rose and started to look around, trying to remember where she’d put down her drink.
“There are rules to war,” Oddi reminded her.
Valka had found her goblet tucked away behind a tent pole, and took a swig of something blue that burned her throat in an aggressively alcoholic way. “Who’s going to enforce them?” she argued. “Get some sleep. Tomorrow we’ll give you something to write about.”
Day 1 of the Siege
Commander Medwin appeared to have abandoned Fort Jaraska by the time we moved our siege engines into position. The portcullis was down, but two of the three projectiles hit their mark and the large gate fell. We guessed that Eyvald, whose boulder alone missed the gate, had been drinking enough to affect his aim. We guessed correctly. He was relieved of ballista duties.
Aside from a few scouts who ran up the hill to the Academy as we breached the gate (no doubt to report our arrival), the fort was empty.
There were few supplies within the stores of Fort Jaraska, but our loot from Dragonclaw was more than enough to sustain us.
Valka looked up at the spires of the Academy, a confident gleam in her eye. “Set up a siege configuration,” she said.
Commander Oleif made a noise that sounded like a big dog having a bad dream. An absolute barrel of a man, Oleif was somehow an effective commander, despite being one of astonishingly few words. Probably why Valka liked him.
Oleif had many nicknames, but nobody was willing to use them to his face. He departed the battlements of Fort Jaraska, leaving Valka and Oddi alone.
“A siege configuration?” Oddi asked.
“I want to give them a chance to leave,” said Valka. “I’m honestly surprised they haven’t yet.”
“One wonders what they’re protecting.”
“I’ve ordered scouts to report in,” said Valka. “If there’s an army coming, I want to know about it.”
Day 2 of the Siege
Our scouts reported that the buildings all appeared to be occupied. Valka ordered that siege engines were to attack immediately after breakfast. Or rather, after whenever we thought breakfast would be. It was still difficult to determine any given time of day. The idea was to bring down one of the larger spires and perhaps induce panic and surrender.
When we launched our first stones, Siege Commander Asfrid reported a series of blue lights up on the hill. Then a similar boulder came crashing down the hill at high speed. It crushed several war drums before striking the north wall of Fort Jaraska.
There was much confusion in the ranks. The scouts insisted they saw no catapults or anything similar. Valka ordered Asfrid back to the front line to start general bombardment.
We watched from the battlements of the fort. I noted that the building we attacked had suffered no damage. I also noted that the boulder we’d launched appeared to be missing, until I glanced at the cracks forming in the north wall, and the stone that lay in front of them. Realization dawned, and I shouted a warning, but it was too late. Six stones launched into the air. More blue lights. Then six stones came down on us. The same six stones. Somehow they were being sent back to us.
Three of our catapults were damaged, and we lost a few of our slowest recruits.
One of our archers fired an arrow towards one of the robed figures on the hill, but her arrow was returned with similar care. Fortunately it whistled over our heads and landed in the river next to the fort. It seemed that anything we threw at these students would be given back to us with prejudice.
Valka then led a charge with twenty of our best warriors. They burst from the north gate and started running up the hill towards the Academy, axes drawn to provide clean deaths for anyone stupid enough to stand fast. I watched the charge from the battlements. From my vantage point I saw the nearby river draining away to nothing, and I called out to the raiding party. They could not hear me over the rushing water that washed down the hill straight towards them. Their charge ended in a tangle of arms and legs, in a muddy riverbank at the bottom of the hill.
Valka entered her command tent and immediately pointed one of her smaller axes at Oddi. “I dare you to write a song about this.”
Oddi shrugged. “I wasn’t planning to. Few things rhyme with mud. You should eat.”
“I’m not hungry.”
“I had the cook prepare that bird you killed in anger.” Oddi indicated a platter that indeed contained such a bird. It was split cleanly in half, which told the bird’s last and best story.
Valka grabbed the bird and took a huge, ungainly bite. “They’re not fighting fair,” she said with her mouth still full.
“They’re students. Scholars. They can’t defeat the Valknir through military might.”
Valka snorted. “There are rules to war. You said so yourself.”
“I believe this falls under ‘military tactics’. So far, they’ve outmaneuvered you.”
Valka was hit hard by the truth of his statement. Her mind roiled with equal parts anger and acquiescence, and she knew it showed on her face. “We should fight back the same way. How long will our food supplies last?”
Oddi thought for a moment. “Assuming nothing else changes, nine days.”
“Good. Time for a celebratory feast.”
Oddi tilted his head. “A feast? Now??”
“Morale is low,” said Valka. “Which is what the enemy wants. We’ll show them it’s not working. Give them something to talk about in those classrooms they’re so fond of. Lots of singing. Drums. Open up some kegs. Let them hear us all the way in the Void!”
Day 3 of the Siege
Valka ordered a celebratory feast during the night to boost morale, and it worked. In the morning, archers were ordered to surround the Academy in single units. Each unit contained one archer and a shieldbearer. The archers were ordered to fire one arrow, count to ten, then fire another. The shields should absorb any arrows that came back at us.
With much of the Academy defense forces occupied with redirecting arrows, Valka would lead another charge up the middle, while two of her commanders would lead similar charges. With their defenses split, we hoped to make some headway in this siege. Perhaps even achieve our goal in one fell swoop.
The plan was working, until the giants arrived. Each of our strike teams was met by a massive walking abomination, taller than the trees and looking like reanimated corpses. Each giant wore plate armor and had eyes that burned like fire pits.
The Valknir never run from a fight, and we were able to bring down two of the monsters, with much of the third strike team slain in the process. The surviving members of that team retreated, while the other teams pressed on towards the Academy. However, our army’s momentum was soon lost after a fish the size of a meeting hall fell from the sky in front of Valka’s team, blocking their path. The other strike team reported the presence of a giant tentacle, but would not elaborate further. A regroup was ordered. It was then that a small volcano appeared inside the walls of the fort. Those within were able to escape, but we lost a lot of equipment to the ground upheaval and subsequent lava flow. The army retreated to Redwater and set up a base of operation there.
“If you look at the bright side, this was our most successful attack.” Oddi stood behind and to the right of Valka as she wordlessly, noisily devoured one of the two chickens she’d claimed as her evening meal. “The archers report that nine arrows found their mark.”
“And we lost over twenty warriors,” responded Valka.
“True, but consider that students are far fewer in number and will be far more demoralized by their losses. Perhaps a few more skirmishes like this one will force the surrender that we seek?”
Valka rolled her eyes but said nothing. Oddi was right, of course. Her Valknir would follow her into the Void itself, and they would probably win in the end. But how long would that take?
Day 4 of the Siege.
Valka re-deployed the archers with the same instructions as the day before. However, one of our scouts reported a single rider in blue robes carrying a flag of truce. Valka rode out to meet them, accompanied by Oleif and me.
The rider approached and was met just south of the ruins of Fort Jaraska. He looked young. Obviously a student. The trim of his robes suggested he held a rank, but the Valknir knew nothing of the ranks of academia. Nor did they wish to. Valka dismounted her horse. Oddi and Oleif did the same. The figure followed their lead and stood a few feet away..
“Where is Pallas?” demanded Valka. “Cowering under a stack of scrolls?”
“Pallas left before the siege began,” said the figure. “My name is Demetrios.”
Valka sneered. “One of the Academy’s greatest warriors no doubt.”
“Warrior?” Demetrios grinned. “Goodness no, I’m a playwright.”
She eyed him up and down, assessing his physique. “Arms as thick as a bird’s leg,” Valka scoffed. “Have you ever lifted an axe?”
“Once,” Demetrios shrugged. “Didn’t care for it.”
“Why should I not split your pretty head open right now?”
“There are rules to war,” Demetrios said.
“Kryden’s beard, don’t remind me.” Valka shot a sideways glance at Oddi, who was trying his best to not look smug. “You came here expecting a piece of cloth to protect you?”
“No,” said Demetrios. “Your sense of honor will protect me.”
“You wish to end hostilities?” asked Valka. “Tired of fighting?”
“Of course we are,” said Demetrios. “There is no shame in that.”
“There is eternal shame in cowardice.”.
The playwright was silent for a few moments, before asking quietly, “Have you ever been scared, Valka?”
Valka frowned at this. “No.”
Demetrios gestured towards the spires. “We are. All of us. Terrified. And yet we opted to stay and fight you and your army. The Valknir. Led by one of the greatest warriors in all of Eucos, even without the powers that Auros granted you.”
“People often confuse bravery with stupidity,” said Valka.
Demetrios chuckled. “History usually sorts one from the other.”
“What do you want?” asked Valka, finally tiring of too much conversation.
“Cease hostilities,” said Demetrios. “At least until Pallas returns. Let the demigods sort this conflict out for themselves.”
“There is nothing Pallas can say to sway me,” said Valka. “Especially after they ran away before the battle even began.”
“I can’t speak to that,” said Demetrios. “All I ask is that you agree to my terms.”
“No,” said Valka. “I acknowledge the bravery of you and your kin, but we will win this battle in the end.”
Demetrios considered this for a moment. “How about this: Cease hostilities for three days. After the third day, we will leave the Academy grounds to the graces of you and your army.”
Valka looked to Oleif, and then to Oddi. A look passed between the Champion of War and her herald. She turned back to Demetrios. “Agreed.”
Demetrios let out a sigh. Valka extended her right hand towards him, and he copied the gesture. She stepped forward and firmly grasped his forearm. Valka felt like she was shaking hands with a small boy afflicted with hollow bones.
Valka turned and walked towards her horse as Oddi and Oleif mounted theirs, when suddenly a circle of blazing purple light appeared at her feet and she fell into it. A split second later and it was over. Valka was gone. Oleif and Oddi looked towards a stunned Demetrios, who had been rubbing his arm, still sore from his handshake with the Champion of War.
“I had nothing to do with that,” he said. “You have my word.”
But they did not believe him.
Valka has been taken by the enemy. A mysterious portal appeared in the ground and swallowed her. The envoy from the Academy, Demetrios, has been taken prisoner for violating the truce.
We assembled a council of commanders to decide how to proceed. The vote to uphold the deal Valka made with Demetrios was almost unanimous. We dispatched our own envoy to the Academy with the terms, but we will not return the prisoner to them until Valka returns to us.
Valka had no time to react to the portal besides preparing herself for impact. She had two very brief thoughts: farm and Pallas.
Valka landed hard on the tilled soil, but was uninjured. She was, however, furious.
“This probably won’t work,” said Pallas. “But I need you to remain calm. So I can explain.”
Valka stood up, axe in hand. She was not calm. Valka took two steps towards Pallas, but suddenly noticed Selena a few feet away. The Champion of Nature raised her bow and aimed an arrow directly at Valka’s head. Valka stopped her advance, but did not lower her axe.
“Speak quickly and make sense,” demanded Valka. “I give you one chance to earn my trust.”
“Selena’s trying to destroy Eucos,” said Pallas. “I can’t stop her by myself.”
Selena narrowed her gaze and shifted her aim to Pallas. “I’m trying to save the Nine Realms. Eucos is poison. I intend to cut it off, and then unchain the gods so that they can fix everything.”
Valka smiled. “Oh that’s all I needed to hear.”
Pallas looked nervous. Stricken. Valka had seen this look in the eyes of learned people before. They miscalculated. They made a mistake. And they were about to die because of it.
Valka stalked toward Pallas in an arc, keeping the way clear for Selena to fire an arrow, and also making herself harder to hit, in case Selena switched sides. Though this seemed unlikely. Selena had already drawn blood. It was all over Pallas’ robe.
It was Selena who made the first move. Blue fire shot from the ground as Pallas instinctively deflected an arrow. Valka stepped forward, and was met with a bolt of lightning from Pallas’ other hand. Valka was thrown back into the trees, but was able to regain her footing immediately.
She heard the pinging sounds as two more arrows broke themselves on the shield, but Valka noticed the light was far less brilliant than before. Pallas was clearly exhausted. Valka charged from the trees. Pallas looked to be out of options, and it was time to end this battle.
But Pallas was only out of sane options.
The Champion of Magic raised their hand again, this time releasing a storm of lightning towards Valka and another towards Selena. Valka jumped and rolled to avoid the assault but she was still knocked back some way. It looked like Selena had been caught unawares. Valka couldn’t see her any more.
Pallas was trying something different. They looked like they were trying to create a snowball in the air. Hands moved over each other until a small blue light manifested between them. Valka charged again, not wanting this to become another problem.
Valka saw Pallas release the ball into the air, just as an arrow struck the Champion of Magic in their hip. Pallas howled in pain but did not stop. The ball grew in size just above their heads until it was about as big as a pumpkin.
Suddenly blue tendrils whipped out and ensnared Pallas, though they did not seem to restrain. Pallas started to glow, and was no longer acting as tired as before.
“What is this?” yelled Valka. “What have you done?”
“I am drawing power from the Astral Realm, Kurcos.” Pallas looked at Valka with glowing blue eyes. “This will kill me, but it will save Eucos.”
Selena screamed in frustration, and let loose three arrows in quick succession. They did not reach their target. Blue fire rose up from the ground to protect Pallas from outside interference. Valka could see Pallas kneeling with their hands on the ground, much like Selena was earlier.
“Stop them!” yelled Selena. “They’re adding chains!”
Valka could feel them. Chains like the ones at Lethenon. They were growing beneath the ground. Chains to bind the realms. Two. Three. Four. Each binding Eucos to Vercos.
Pallas was beyond reach, protected by a shield of unlimited astral power. Valka took her axe and threw it at the only thing outside the shield.
Valka’s axe embedded itself in the Kurcos portal. There was a sound like a very low single drum beat, and a crack like thunder.
Then everything exploded.
Blue light washed over Valka like an aggressive wave, knocking her down in an uncontrolled tumble. By the time she recovered, the farm was plunged into the usual darkness with only the cabin’s lights at the end of the field.
“Selena!” called Valka.
Selena groaned from the roof of the house. Evidently her instinct had been to jump out of the way, and the blast deposited her on the roof. She stoically leapt down, wincing in pain but clearly trying to hide it.
“What happened?” asked a voice from within.
“I don’t know,” said Valka. “I threw an axe at a glowing pumpkin, and then things got strange.”
“Aeona’s grace!” Dalia exclaimed as she emerged from the house, the door slamming shut behind her. “Is that person alright?”
Selena and Valka looked over to see the body of Pallas, lying where they fell. Dalia pushed past them, herbal kit slung over her shoulder as she raced to tend to the prostrate champion.
Selena caught up with Dalia and they both turned Pallas over. The skin of their hands was badly singed, and their face was twisted in unconscious agony. There was also an arrow sticking out of their side.
“I can hear breathing,” said Selena. “There’s a heartbeat.”
Dalia started digging through the herbal pouch and pulled out a large blue leaf. “These are good for burns,” she said. “Wrap that hand.”
Selena did as ordered as Dalia took care of the arrow.. Valka shrugged and walked inside the house.
A few minutes later, Dalia and Selena entered carrying Pallas. Dalia indicated a padded floor mat and they carefully laid the Champion of Magic on top of it.
Valka was sitting in Dalia’s chair near the fire. “Can you feel them?” she asked.
Selena looked up. “The chains?”
“Three of them,” said Valka. “It’ll take a long time to deal with. Did you have another plan?”
Selena sighed. “No. This wasn’t even a plan. If anything it was instinct.”
“What will you do?”
“I haven’t decided,” replied Selena. “You?”
“I need information,” Valka grunted. “I’m going to Ronella to get Orfeo.”
“What good will it do to kill Orfeo?”
Valka shook her head and smiled a little too wide. “Why does everybody think I’m going to kill Orfeo?”
“Because you said you would,” Selena countered.
Valka shrugged at the truth of this. She looked at Dalia. “I need a horse. Now.”
Dalia tried to blink away Valka’s rudeness. “Why even ask? Don’t you just take?”
Valka shrugged again. “Seemed right to ask. How’s the wizard?”
Dalia shook her head in disgust. “Paddock behind the house at the other end of the field.”
Valka stood up and took her axe from its place near the hearth. From the stars visible in the sky, she figured she was about three days’ hard ride back to Redwater and to Oddi. Might as well get started now.
As she left, Valka could clearly make out the figure of a man in the field near where Pallas fell. He was glowing in the same way as Pallas had, but looked otherwise unremarkable. He turned towards the house and noticed Valka.
“I beg your pardon,” he said. “Do you know Dalia?”
From behind, Valka heard the thumping of uncoordinated footsteps. She stepped out of the way, not wanting Dalia to push past her a second time tonight.
The man beamed as Dalia ran into his waiting arms. The two became one. It was a lover’s embrace. A soulmate’s embrace. The kind most people don’t get within their lifetime. The kind that soothes a shattered heart and defeats the evils of the world.
Valka looked back at Selena, who stood in the doorway.
“Her dead husband,” offered Selena.
“How?” asked Valka.
“Reality is breaking down,” Selena said. “These echoes have been happening for days. Ever since the gods were chained. I can feel the land; it was in pain before.” Selena lowered her head. “Now it’s screaming in rage. What we did today just made everything worse.
Valka said nothing. She gave Selena a nod of respect and strode off to find the paddock. She chose the largest of the three horses and rode off into the night, the sound of Dalia’s joyful sobs diminishing in the distance.
To be continued in Mortal Judgement Episode 6: Five Hundred Eyes.