Chapter 21 - Recon

“Freyja!”  Torfinn called out from the center of the village.  The woman looked up, she had been supervising a few of the warriors as they cleared a house of rubble to set up camp.

“Torfinn?  Need something?”

“Harald’s scout camp isn’t too far, maybe ten miles.  It would only take ten minutes or so to cover that at a full sprint, right?”  Freyja nodded in response.  “Good.  Get out there, grab Harald, bring him back here immediately.”

“Sure thing!”  Freyja gave Torfinn a glowing smile, and then she took off.  The lower ranked warriors watched in awe as the fourth-tier woman really began to exert herself for the first time since the march began.  It showed them that the higher tiered warriors were greatly slowing themselves down for the sake of the rest of the war party.

Asbjorn then walked up to Torfinn with a grim look.

“We’ve got the final count of the dead.  Forty-nine.  All male, as far as we could tell.  No children, either.  This village held about one hundred and fifty, or so, as I recall, maybe a bit more, but everyone else is gone.”

Torfinn sighed.  It was obvious who it was that did this.  There was no one else around except for the smugglers, and with their increasingly infrequent contact, fortifications, and expansions in the vale, it was clear that they were planning on staying a while.

He glanced at the bodies.  They had been arranged around a large metal pyre in the center of the village.  Bodies were burned in the vales, and many villages had even gone to the extraordinary expense of building metal pyres that they would fill with wood when it needed to be used.  As with Valetown, the houses in the village were made of wood, so most of the rubble that the warriors were cleaning up was being used to fill the pyre.  The warriors were getting ready to send the dead villagers to the Sky Mother.

Torfinn turned back to Asbjorn.  “There are a few other small villages in the area, but none that cultivate silkgrass.  I doubt they were hit, as they wouldn’t have anything the bandits would particularly want, but just in case, send a few third-tier warriors to check on them.”

Asbjorn nodded and walked off.

Next, Torfinn went to a neighboring house, where the survivor had been brought.  Artorias came outside just as Torfinn arrived, with Leon close behind.

“He’s dead.”  Artorias wasn’t one to sugarcoat bad news.

Torfinn clenched his fists in rage.  He was barely able to choke out a “How?”

“My healing spells closed his wounds, but there was still too much blood loss, not to mention other internal injuries I’m sure were present.  It was a miracle he lived as long as he did.”

Torfinn was almost shaking with anger.  Years ago, the rivals of the Brown Bear tribe, the Red Crows, had invaded their vale.  They raided villages, burning them to the ground, killing the men, and enslaving everyone else.  They stole everything not nailed down and then moved on to the next village.  The Red Crows weren’t defeated until all the tribes of the vale had united behind the Brown Bears, behind Torfinn Ice-Eyes,

But Torfinn’s own father and brother had been killed in the fighting, many of his people had been slaughtered and their homes destroyed.  And now, he had to see it again.  He would never forgive the ones who had inflicted such pain on his people, not even after he used his ax to split their skulls in half.

Freyja really beat feet, because it took barely more than half an hour for her to return, with a short golden-haired man accompanying her.  This man had a stocky frame and a smooth youthful face.  If anyone were to guess, they’d say he looked barely twenty years old by mortal standards, but he was already in his thirty-fifth year.

Roland and his party had occupied a ruined house not far from Torfinn’s, but he didn’t notice Freyja’s return.  Ever since he saw Artorias’ healing spells, Roland had been lost in contemplation.  He increasingly felt that something was familiar about the man, but he just couldn’t place it.  Those spells were clearly first-aid spells from the Bull Kingdom, not the sort of things that tribesmen could easily get their hands on, and they would never use something so rare on a random farmer they didn’t know.  This ‘Wraith-Killer’ was probably from south of the Frozen Mountains, Roland was sure of it.

“Harald!”  Torfinn called out as soon as he and Artorias saw his thane across the village square.

“Chief!”

Those shouts finally brought Roland back to reality, and he stepped outside to see what was going on.

Torfinn and Artorias met Harald and Freyja in the center of the village, with Harald and Torfinn clasping each other’s wrist in a warrior's handshake.  Torfinn, however, wasn’t looking very happy.  Not surprising, given that not even thirty feet away, a dozen bodies were burning in the pyre.

“Tell me, Harald, was happened here?  Who did this?”

“I think you know who did it, Chief.  Three days ago, those smugglers left their fort and came here to sack the village.  This was the village they had been buying silkgrass from, for the most part, so they knew where to find what they were looking for.  Fortunately, the rest of the villages around are Greenhand villages, growing potatoes and wheat, so they ought to be fine.”

“Why didn’t you stop them?”  Torfinn demanded.

“With just me and my six scouts?  They left their fort with over a hundred!  We would have been massacred, and the raid would still have happened.”

Torfinn’s face grew red in anger, but he shut his mouth for a moment and suppressed it.  “…I know.  It’s good you’re still alive, at least.  Did you get a good count of the enemy?”

“I got one hundred and nineteen, plus about fifty or sixty more that stayed behind their walls.  They’ve gotten quite comfy here, I even saw a guy whose power I couldn’t see through do something to the gate of their fort.  This definitely wasn’t the last raid they had planned, they’re busy fortifying their position even further.”

Torfinn nodded, raising his hand to his chin, and stroked his beard as he thought.

“What about the rest of the villagers?  Do you know where they are?”

“They were rounded up by the southerners and brought back to their fort after they grabbed all the silkgrass,” Harald said.

“Hmmm…  Why would they do that?  They already had the silkgrass, why bother taking the villagers?”  Torfinn thought out loud.

To that, Artorias stepped forward.  “They probably want to bring them back south as slaves.  I’m sure they intend to force the villagers to try and grow more silkgrass in the south.  That would prove to be a very lucrative business, assuming they can even get the stuff to grow.”

For some reason, silkgrass doesn’t grow in the south.  There have always been a few merchants or nobles who give it a try every generation, but no one had ever been successful.

Torfinn clenched his fists, grit his teeth, and had to fight off the urge to smash something in his anger.  But then, a thought occurred to him, and he very quickly calmed down.  He turned to Freyja and smiled.

“You’re in charge for now.  I’m going to the southerner’s fort, I want to see this place for myself.  Harald, you come with me.  Freyja, let Asbjorn know what’s going on when he comes back, I sent him to check on the other villages in the area.”  Out of the corner of his eye, Torfinn noticed Roland nearby, listening to the exchange, and called out to him.  “You’d better come with too, knight.”

Roland nodded, and turned to Sir Roger, letting him know that he’d be in command for now.

“I’ll come too.  I’m somewhat curious about this fort they’ve built.”  Artorias couldn’t resist.  His hand was on the hilt of his sword, and he was feeling restless.  For the past few weeks, he’d been lounging in Valetown, not doing much of anything.  Now that there was finally something to do, there was no way he’d be left behind.

Leon frowned.  He wasn’t too far away and could hear every word, and he was just as restless as Artorias.  Their life involved near constant movement, whether training or hunting, so he wasn’t doing too well from all the relaxing in Torfinn’s longhouse.  But, Artorias shook his head back at him.  This was going to just be a scout mission, and Leon was too weak to accompany them.

The four men set off at a brisk pace.  Harald was the lowest-tiered mage among them, at the fourth-tier, so the others adjusted themselves to match him.  They caught sight of the bandit fort in slightly less than an hour, though.

The square fort had been built into the side of a sheer cliff at the very edge of the vale.  There were three wooden walls and a pair of watchtowers at the outside corners.  A large gate was set into one side, at the end of the only path up the mountain.  From the outside, the fort didn’t look all that big, so the scout group quickly climbed another nearby mountain, and managed to get high enough to see down into the fort itself.

Indeed, the inside of the fort wasn’t big enough for two hundred bandits and over a hundred prisoners, but the four saw a cave on the mountainside of the fort.  None could see too far into it, however.

“This doesn’t look too bad.  We can definitely take them tomorrow.  Have the war party move up the mountain, bust down that flimsy-looking gate before they know what’s what, and then put down all the bandits we see.”  Harald smiled in anticipation, but Roland shook his head and Artorias merely gave a bitter smile.

Artorias was the one who spoke up.  “It won’t be so easy.  That gate has been warded, I doubt even bringing a good strong battering ram would open it.  We’ll have to open it from the inside.”

Harald looked back at Artorias, while his smile vanished.  “… Shit.”

Torfinn looked thoughtful but quickly decided on a course of action.

“Look, their sentries aren’t all that attentive.  I doubt they even send out scouts, so we can probably get the war party to the base of the mountain and hide them in the tree line without them noticing.  Then, we have a few people climb those watchtowers, kill the sentries, and open the gate.  The war party will be able to enter without the alarm going off and kill the bandits in their sleep.”

Artorias approved of that plan.  “That should work, assuming no one makes too much noise.  They haven’t set up alarm wards at the top of the wall, so getting over won’t be a problem.  In fact, they seem to be rather lax in setting up defenses, the only other place above ground that has any is the mouth of the cave.  It only seems to be warded to scatter magic senses, though, so entering the cave ought to be ok.”

“My knights and I can take one of those towers.  The rest of my party can accompany your warriors as they charge after we get the gates open.”  Roland finally spoke up.

Torfinn looked at Harald, the only one who hadn’t said anything about his plan.  The thane simply smiled and nodded, so Torfinn nodded back.

“Good.  Let’s head back to the village, make sure everyone knows the plan.”

And with that, the group left, making their way back to the village, with Harald making a detour to grab his scouts and follow the next morning.  Excitement over the coming battle ran through them, and they picked up the pace on their way back.

Asbjorn had returned before them.  Luckily, Harald was right and none of the other villages nearby had been raided.

When Torfinn, Artorias, and Roland returned, Roland called his knights together while Asbjorn, Freyja, and the third-tier warriors gathered around them, waiting to hear the news.  Leon didn’t join the group but remained where he could hear what was said.  Many of the other warriors also crowded around, listening to their chief.

Torfinn cleared his throat and began to explain the plan.  “Alright, here’s what’s going to happen!  Asbjorn and Harald will lead you all tomorrow.  You will sneak up on the fort tomorrow night, while a select group goes over the walls.  That will be me, Freyja, the knights, and Wraith-Killer,” Torfinn nodded to each one in turn.

“After we take the bandit’s watchtowers, we’ll open the gate, everyone will charge into the fort, and KILL EVERY ONE OF THOSE BASTARDS!

All of the surrounding warriors gave a great cry, raising their weapons into the air.   “YYEEEAAAAHHHH!!!!!”

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Chapter 22 - The Raid I

Chapter 20 - The Village