14

King’s Rout

A curtain of red, pulsing and fiery, filled the view of Grimwar Bane. He could hardly breathe, and it was impossible to move. He strained to clench a fist, even to wiggle his toes within the heavy, whaleskin boot. The king was vaguely aware of being borne on a makeshift litter, hauled down the hill and onto the terraced fields, away from Brackenrock. He tried to object, to order these craven cowards to turn back, to pour through the breach, swarm across those walls, and raze the entire cursed citadel.

Someone cried out something about the catapult, and he wanted to repeat his orders even louder-shoot the orb! Blast Brackenrock into dust! Damn the Axe of Gonnas and every other trivial complication-blow that wretched place off the face of Krynn!

No words came. Instead, there was crushing pain in his chest, and each bubbling breath required a monstrous effort. Wetness spilled down his flanks, sticky within the confines of his leather shirt and punctured breastplate, and he realized that he was leaking blood. Cold fear rose within him-for the first time in his life he confronted the possibility that he was mortal, that he might die. The very notion seemed monstrously unfair, incomprehensible.

“I refuse!” He wanted to bellow the denial but instead merely coughed an inarticulate word, tasting blood in his throat. No! He couldn’t imagine that his life had come to this, to a dirty retreat from a band of ragged human rabble.

That red sheet blocking his vision thinned slightly, cleared enough that he could see the sky above and the ocean below. Frantically he struggled to rise, to strike these disobedient ogres who carried him away from the fight, but he fell back in agony, watching as his quarry, that nightmare citadel, receded in his hazy vision. He smelled salty air, saw his beautiful ships so far below, drawn onto the beach where they had landed. Not there… not yet…

Something sparkled in his line of sight, a golden flicker of brightness, and again he remembered the orb.

Stariz stumbled down the slope toward the second terrace, falling onto her face in the trampled mud of a ruined field. The ogre queen lay still, hoping she was unseen, fearing the thrust of human steel into her back, but there were no footsteps, no obvious signs of pursuit.

She was still lying there when she heard the spring-snap noise of the catapult triggering its heavy load. Numb with disbelief, she understood only that the golden orb was not supposed to be launched until she had the Axe of Gonnas in her hands. Bitter fury blinded her, but she choked back the screams of rage. Instead she hissed to herself, “The humans will suffer for this-they and whoever has aided them will die in pain and misery and subjugation!”

She pushed herself up to her knees, and only then did she recognize the orb arcing over her head, soaring outward and downward, toward the shore. In a moment it had plummeted from her field of vision, falling beyond the rim of the terrace. With a gasp, she rose to her feet and started forward at a lumbering run. Before she reached the edge of the flat, muddy grange, everything turned white, as if she had crashed into the sun. She felt the ground heave under her feet, and the brilliance became a hole in the center of her vision. She staggered on, reaching the lip of the terrace, staring dizzily down the steep hill at the beach. The sea had erupted into a mountainous fountaining wave.

No, it was a series of waves rippling toward the beach. Wood and sticks blew past in the furious wind, and she vaguely understood that one of the galleys had been shattered. Bodies flew by and rolled around on the shore, and she was vaguely aware these were ogre bodies-though they looked insignificant, almost toylike, from her vantage.

The blast of waves took longer to strike the other galley, Goldwing, and in bright, flickering flashes the ogre queen now saw the royal ship heel violently, spin sideways and skid through the shallows parallel to the shoreline-blown as though it was a leaf. She was still watching, mesmerized, when an invisible force hit her in the face. The huge ogress was thrown backward as though she had been slapped by a dragon’s tail. Flattened on her back, gasping for air, she offered a mute prayer to her mighty god, a plea for survival and vengeance.

After a short time she could breathe again, and slowly she sat up, then pushed herself laboriously to her feet, looking at the shore below her. Hornet was gone-utterly gone-and Goldwing had been heaved sideways, tossed down the shore upon sand. None of the two score ogres left to guard the beach were visible.

“O my wrathful god!” she groaned. “How did we fail you?” Though unable to deny the evidence of her eyes, Stariz was unwilling to accept the fantastic scope of the disaster.

She started forward at a jog, her mind whirling, filled with chaotic images and hateful thoughts. Her trunklike legs pumped, carrying her down the hill. She passed the trudging Shield-Breakers who were picking themselves up, plodding dazedly onto the beach. Some distance away, still coming down the hill, Stariz saw a party of ogre warriors bearing a litter and recognized the golden breastplate.

The king! What further disasters could this day bring? Now pure fear choked her throat, apprehension that Grimwar Bane would die and she would become a mere priestess again, would lose the status and power that she had worked so hard to attain. She lumbered along the shore, and she saw the figure on the litter thrashing, rejoiced to think her husband still lived. Perhaps the power of her god might aid her to heal him, as long as he breathed, no matter how grievously injured he might be.

Exhaustion forced her to slow. She looked around, saw a vast gaping hole in the ground and the seawall made by the wasted explosion of the golden orb.

Stariz crossed the beach, meeting the party bearing the fallen king. Already a hundred of the Grenadiers were heaving at the beached hull of the royal galley, dragging it across the sand and into shallow water, from there out to where it could float, while a ramp was lowered for the survivors and the king. Thankfully, the Goldwing, for all that it had experienced, seemed remarkably undamaged.

“My queen!” called Argus Darkand, reliably close by Grimwar’s side. “The king is sorely hurt!”

“Take him onto the deck and into his cabin!” Stariz cried, pointing imperiously. The ogres hastened to obey, and she felt she had recovered some measure of dignity and satisfaction as she stalked up the ramp and onto the galley’s deck.

She had thought of a new plan.

Grimwar Bane sensed walls and a ceiling-a darkened room. He smelled the sea and weathered timbers. It was a cabin. He was in a cabin on his ship, he deduced, and somehow he was still alive-though it still seemed that his chest was all pain and his breathing was torturous. Argus Darkand stood over him, the ogre’s face contorted by worry.

“Take me out of here, onto the deck!” The king’s words were croaked, so great was the fire in his lungs, but he flailed a hand and was able to make himself understood. The helmsman looked reluctant.

“It was the queen’s order, Sire,” Argus Darkand declared, “to place you in the cabin. She will be here in a moment, said she needed to retrieve some unguents and a talisman from her sea-chest….”

“No!” groaned the king. “I want to see the water, the sky.” He felt a stark fear that he might never behold those sights again, and he desperately wanted to feast on their natural glory before he perished.

“I am here, Husband,” Stariz declared, stepping forward to loom over him, her square bulk blocking out the little daylight streaming through the door. “Stand back!” she cried to the gaping helmsman, her voice an almost hysterical screech. “Leave me alone with the king, and I shall bring the power of Gonnas to bear on his wounds!”

Argus fled, joining Broadnose and some of the Grenadiers who had clustered on the deck, nervously peeking through the open door. The ogre monarch was touched when his wife knelt at his feet and bowed her head, wailing great sobs that echoed back and forth in the small cabin. The audience outside the cabin jostled for view, dumbstruck and wide-eyed, as the queen’s grief rose to a crescendo.

Abruptly Stariz lifted her head, her tiny eyes blazing, her mouth twisted by a grimace, more of outrage than mourning. “My Lord King! Who dared to strike you? May Gonnas drag him into an eternity of torment for his impudence!”

Grimwar drew a ragged breath, wincing against the iron grip of pain in his chest. He made no answer, had no voice at the moment and didn’t himself know for certain who had struck him. Still kneeling, his wife reached forward and placed one massive hand across his bandaged chest, gently caressing his wound.

“O Willful One, show us thy mercy!” Grimwar’s wife and queen cried, leaning her head back, squeezing her eyes shut as she aimed her voice upward, a powerful and penetrating bray. It was easy for the king to imagine her plea piercing the sky itself, rising all the way to wherever it was that gods might dwell. “Grant your healing power unto the flesh of your faithful king!”

She looked at him with a penetrating gaze and spoke quietly. “Be strong, Husband, for the flesh-knitting power of the Willful One is not without a cost in pain.”

He was afraid of that-almost as afraid as of death-but never did he have more hope and trust in his priestess wife. Abruptly these thoughts were cut off by a fiery agony that clamped Grimwar’s chest, constricting his ribs, burning through his lungs and throat. He opened his mouth but still no sound emerged, and the effort only doubled, tripled, the level of his pain. Desperation gripped him. Was he dying, slain by his god’s-or his wife’s-displeasure?

Flesh twisted and stretched within his rib cage, organs seethed and churned in his torso, and the vise around his lungs closed even tighter. There seemed no air, none at all to breathe-just a blazing fire which seared through his flesh, slowly drawing a smothering cloak over his awareness. The power of Gonnas had seized him by the entrails, crushing with immortal might, and all the king could do was sit upright, open-mouthed, mute, trembling.

Over what seemed an eternity of time, the agony began to pass. Through his tear-blurred vision Grimwar met his wife’s eyes fixed upon his own. Her mouth was taut, the thin line of her lips marking something between a smile and a grimace. When at last the monarch drew a ragged breath she raised her voice in a joyful shout.

“The Willful One has healed the king!” Stariz cried. “Glory be to Gonnas the Strong!”

Stariz had triumphed. Gonnas had not forsaken him. Grimwar felt the power of the god fuse his torn flesh and restore his fitness. Gradually his strength returned. He was sore and limp with fatigue, wringing wet from the sweat that had soaked his skin, his hair, his garments. Shaking his head, the ogre king reached a trembling hand and wiped the sheen of perspiration from his forehead and jowls.

But when he looked at the triumphant sneer on the queen’s face, he knew there would he a cost for this healing. There was always a cost for her favors-and the good will of Gonnas. Let it be so, he thought grimly.

His brow furrowed, Grimwar thought of the fanatic defenders of Brackenrock. The humans had fought like demons. That slender, golden-haired warrior with the shining sword-that was the elf, Grimwar remembered, the Messenger who had been such a bane to his existence. He was the one who stabbed him, yes. How had that small, almost delicate swordsman, fought with such ferocity? The king remembered his disbelief as the fellow had hurled himself between two monstrous bodyguards, striking out for the king as if that deadly blade had a will of its own.

He pushed himself groggily to his feet. Stariz watched breathlessly. “Is there pain, Sire?” she asked, narrowing her eyes.

“No. Not any more,” he replied, amazed that he felt so whole, so intact. The memory of approaching death, the cold, clammy memory, was still fresh and terrifying.

“Thank you,” he said quietly, surprising himself with the depths of his sincerity. “You saved my life.”

“It was no more than my duty, and the will of Gonnas,” she replied humbly, speaking to his ears alone. She looked at him with a curious expression. “Now, I beg, we must talk.”

“What is it?” he asked, already with an edge of suspiciousness.

“It is the orb!” she hissed, her little eyes suddenly alight. “The humans wasted it, sent it down the hill-but I saw it explode. The power was beyond belief-if it had fallen into the citadel, Brackenrock would have vanished in an instant! The force of the weapon was as the very fist of Gonnas, a might both beautiful and awesome to behold!”

“Uh… oh,” said Grimwar, recognition dawning about all that had happened. “Did we suffer many casualties?”

“Listen, you fool,” the queen said impatiently, “I’m talking about the orb-”

“It was wasted, you said.” The king was suddenly very weary. He longed to escape his wife and return to Winterheim. He pictured the comfort he might find there, when he was back in his royal quarters and could slip away into the arms of Thraid, telling his beloved all about this disaster.

“Yes, this orb was wasted. Indeed, you should know that it destroyed the other galley when it erupted and tore a huge hole in the land itself.”

“Not Hornet?” Grimwar gasped. “The pride of my shipyard-”

“I tell you, it is gone,” Stariz retorted sharply. “You must look toward the future, move forward!”

“I suppose you know how I should do this!” he growled.

“Please, Sire-listen to me! Yes, I believe we should sail from here to Dracoheim, and there require the Alchemist to make us more of his powder, so that we can create a new orb. Sail there, and sail back, while the humans are deluded into thinking they have won. They will not expect another attack this summer. We will surprise them with our return and destroy them once and for all.”

Grimwar was at once dismayed and intrigued by this suggestion. Winterheim-and Thraid-seemed very far away now. Yet the thought of destroying the human citadel began to gleam like a distinct possibility. In truth, until now he had had a hard time imagining the true might of the golden orb, but the Alchemist’s weapon had worked! Why, it had blown up one of his ships, killed who knows how many of his men, and nearly robbed him of his own life!

“We could take the Shield-Breakers,” he mused aloud, “and half the oarsmen, in Goldwing, but there are too many of us, now, to go in one ship.”

“Our numbers are reduced,” Stariz noted, “but those who are left behind-surely they can serve as a diversion to keep the humans busy, ignorant of our real purpose.”

“I begin to share your idea,” the king agreed. He pushed himself to his feet, pleased that his legs seemed wobbly but sturdy. Grimwar strode through the cabin door and stood as tall as he could, allowing the ogres clustered on the deck and on the beach below to cheer lustily.

“These lands on the coast,” the king said, gesturing to the shoreline west of Brackenrock as his wife came up to his side. He grimaced in momentary irritation, wishing he’d studied his maps better. “That is a human realm, is it not?”

“Indeed, sire. The humans call the place Whitemoor,” Stariz replied.

“Very well. I will send a fierce raiding party across that moor to let these humans know that the ogres of Winterheim are not to be trifled with.”

“Yes, Your Majesty!” declared Stariz. “A splendid idea!”

Grimwar selected Broadnose ber Glacierheim to command the raiding party and clapped him on the shoulder. “I want you to take the Grenadiers and the ogres of Hornet’s rowing company. That should give you a few hundred veteran warriors. You are to march inland from here,” the king commanded. “Make war on the humans wherever you can find them-destroy their villages, kill them and their livestock. Strike terror into their craven hearts!”

“It shall be as you command, Majesty!” Broadnose stepped back and clapped a burly arm to his chest in salute.

The king drew a deep breath, relishing the feel of his whole, healthy lungs, fixing his lieutenant with a baleful glare. “This is important,” he grunted. “You must distract the humans, keep them afraid, even let them send their fighters after you. Kill them, if you can. Keep raiding until near summer’s end and return here. Meet us on the shores below Brackenrock.” He looked at his wife. “How long will it take the Alchemist to prepare another orb?”

“We must allow at least a month for the work,” she replied. “Thirty days. It may take less than that, but I cannot say for sure.”

The king nodded and tried to mentally calculate the time he needed. Frustrated, he turned to Argus Dark-and. “How long will it take us to reach Dracoheim?”

“The voyage can be done in seven or eight days, if Gonnas wills it,” the helmsman replied. “Call it ten to get there and ten to come back, allowing for safety.”

“Very well. Meet us here in thirty and ten and ten days from now!”

“Fifty!” Stariz clarified.

“Er, yes, Sire,” the raider captain agreed. “I will return to this place in fifty days.”

The king turned to Argus. “In the meantime, we will set our course to Dracoheim.”

It didn’t take long for Broadnose to pick and assemble his raiders. Grimwar stood at the rail, watching the formation march down the ramp and start across the beach. They would head west along the shore, beyond sight of the humans in the fortress, then turn inland toward the rolling ridge of hills that blocked the view of the moors.

Only when that battle column had disappeared did the rest of the ogres row the galley out to sea, where Argus Darkand barked out the drummer’s pace, and the great warship turned westward, toward the frigid waters of the Dracoheim Sea.

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