The Fertile Lands
The Battle of Greathearth
Bhors, son of Baor, son of Olthar strode the last few steps to stand upon the edge of the world, his boots resting on the point where the mountain pass reached its summit and began the long, winding journey down the valley to his home. The night air was thick with a deep winter snow, and full of a conniving cold that daggered in through the gaps and thin points of his clothes. The hunters called storms such as this Fairy Snows for they were quiet and windless, and they came in big, slow-falling flakes that could enchant a man to ignore the severity of the cold until it was too late to find warmth or shelter. It was not a night fit for travel and certainly not ideal for war, but the kobolds had given insult when they took the city of Greathearth from the Bhearskal clans, and the Bhearskal did not leave that sort of an insult unanswered.
Behind Bhors stood 300 fighting men and women, huddled together in heavy pelt cloaks around meager fires as they honed their swords and axes, strung bows, mended the scales in their armor, or painted their faces and their wooden shields. The druids of five tribes had come as well, and they chanted the sacred rites to Obad-Hai as they made ready their war magic.
There were others too, who stood apart from the main force and watched the night and the city below with the predatory anticipation of a hound watching a rabbit, his wrath ready to spring forth at a wave of his master’s hand. When gleemen told their tales of Bhors’ people in the southern cities, they invoked these warriors. When they regaled the common rooms with stories about the army of reavers pillaging the Mighty North, the whole of their fighting force was as skilled as these elite few, able to transform into bears at will and savage foes with claw and fang.
In truth only a handful among thousands had mastered the art to become the “bear men” that the stories claimed they all were, but if the tales made the Emperor give pause at sending aid to the north, it was only to their benefit. By the time he realized his foe was a tavern tale and sent troops to give relief, he would find the northern cities starved from raiding and siege. He would find himself facing an enemy well-fed and well-rested behind its own walls.
If they could retake the city.
“They’ll have set traps,” Friya said, “Kobolds always do.” Friya was Bhors’ younger sister by two years. She was tall and strong in build, with their father’s piercing green eyes and their mother’s long, golden hair. She possessed a striking, wild beauty that brought many suitors to Baor’s hall. But Friya had given her own terms, and promised her marriage to any man who could best her in hand-to hand combat. None had come close.
Korst, Bhors’ uncle and the greatest general of the Bhearskal, snorted in disgust. He was a giant of a man, a full head taller than Bhors and half again as broad, with a heavy cloak made from the skin of a black bear draped over his thick plate armor. His gray beard was long and finely braided, and the scars upon his face and iron helm told tales of many battles both won, and lost.
“Aye,” he said, “Snaky little bastards – too weak to even hold a sword so they make snares and pitfalls to break a man’s legs or haul him up a tree.”
“I hear their God praises them for that,” Friya said, “They make their traps in his name.”
“They can build all the bloody traps they want,” Korst said, “Any of my fighters worth the name will claw his way out and kill ten of them while he does it.”
“They’re the ones in the city, warm by fires while we’re out here trying to figure out how to get past their traps. I’d say they’ve done a fair job of it,” Friya said, “Or have you forgotten that?”
“The city was undefended,” Korst jeered, “My brother, your lord father, took all of our fighting men out to raid the countryside barren, and left old women and children to guard it, or have you forgotten that?”
“Quiet,” Bhors said, and there was silence. He needed to think, now. He was a great warrior by Bhearskal standards, but he was still young and only just learning to command. He had half a mind to sneak down the pass with only Friya, Korst, and his Bear Warriors, and take the city before the Kobolds knew what hit them. But he knew they would die in the process – he needed a proper force and that was why his father had sent him with one.
“Have the scouts come in?” He asked.
“Archers at both passes – the snow hides all else.” Friya said.
Bhors nodded. They could be walking right into the spears of a kobold army, and if so the narrow pass that had proved a natural defense for the city when they held it would slaughter them like flies, funneling them straight into a killing field.
But, if they waited any longer here in the cold, half of his army might well freeze to death. Bhearskal could freeze just as soon as men. Better to fight now, and keep their blood moving. They had the advantage of darkness and of knowing the mountain. They would feast by Greathearth’s fires soon enough.
“Send Gormund ahead with our best hunters and any fighters he wants at his side,” he said, turning to face his uncle. “Tell him to be silent, and have the gates open when we get there. If the bloody lizards have set traps along the way, disarm them. We will follow.”
Korst thumped a gauntleted fist against his chest and turned to leave.
Alone with his sister, Bhors tried to focus. Below him, hidden by the snow and the dark of the night was their prize, Greathearth – the city that Diok, his grandfather’s father, had been instructed to build by the God Obad-Hai. Mighty Greathearth – with its feast hall of stone and timber, seven hearths to a side, each big enough to warm a lord’s keep. Every night it filled with song and laughter and drink and the tales of great hunts and fierce battles long-past. Diok had built it in the mountains, on a wide plain with only two narrow passes in and out. They had built massive granaries and cellars to store wheat and to freeze crops brought up from the lowlands for the long winter, and there were twenty hot-springs that stayed warm and steaming even in the coldest nights. There were pines aplenty for timber and rich iron veins that yielded fine weapons. Olthar, Bhors’ grandfather, had brought the other clans to that sacred place to unite them against the cities of the North. His father Baor, the Iron Bear, had led the march from its gates, announcing to the North that the Bhearskal existed, with blood and war.
And then, a month past, they received word that the city had fallen without warning. They had only come to know of its fate when two men, weary from travel, came into Baor’s camp claiming that when they had returned home to resupply, half of their force had been killed at the city gates by strange, reptilian creatures with bows and spears. How the kobolds had come to take the city or why was anyone’s guess, and it made Bhors uneasy. Kobolds formed clans but they kept to themselves and dwelled in caves and caverns. And they had never been seen this far north.
Friya seemed to be thinking the same thoughts, and she came to stand next to her brother.
“You should talk to the men,” she said, “I don’t know what we will find below, but this fight could go ill, if they don’t open that gate in time. Better get their minds on fighting – once one man turns to run the others don’t see so much shame in it.”
“I let my sword speak for me,” Bhors said, “Words, I’m not so good with.”
“You are the son of the Iron Bear,” Friya said, “His heir. One day they will call you ‘my king’ and not ‘my prince’ – you need to be ready for that.”
Bhors nodded, then looked off into the distance, trying to see anything in that great black void where Greathearth should be. There were a few fires, but little else to tell that a city even existed below.
“Why are they here?” He asked, “Why kobolds? Why here? I’d have expected those soft pigs in Omsk or Slavgarod to raid us but this…”
“Only one way to find out, brother.” Friya said, drawing her axe, “And soon it won’t matter, one way or another.”
Nodding, Bhors drew his sword, Fury. His father had gifted it to him to retake the city, with his blessing. It was a massive blade, forged by Diok himself nearly a century ago with iron sent down from the Heavens in a meteorite, and blessed by the hands of his wife, Alessia, the greatest enchanter the Bhearskal had ever known. It held an edge that never needed sharpened, and engraved into the hilt was an ornate rendition of the prophetic vision that Diok received of his people’s rise to power. It was a heavy blade, but its destiny felt all the heavier in his hands, now that he had been tasked to wield it.
“Tell em’ – we move now.”
The going down the mountain was slow and ponderous, for the snow had made the already treacherous road nearly impassable. Bhors’ fighters knew how to fight in the snow and had raided many caravans and small patrols from the northern cities doing just that, but that didn’t change the fact that they were advancing on an enemy force in the middle of the night, during a snowstorm. The storm had increased in intensity, as well, turning the path before them into a wall of white. In Bhors’ mind, though, it was as much a boon as a curse, for though it blinded them it would hide their force and deaden the noise of their approach.
They were drawing close to the gate, and had passed by a number of traps cleverly hidden by the kobolds but disarmed by Gormund’s men. There had been snares and pitfalls as he expected, but also other devices of a cleverer design, which might have alerted the kobolds to their presence.
At last, though, he saw what he was looking for, the faint outline of the stone and timber gate – a shade of black against the darker night. But there was a sound as well – a whisper against the whipping of the wind; the sound of shouting and cursing, of steel on steel and of bowstrings being loosed.
Without a moment’s hesitation, he let loose a mighty roar and leapt forward.
“With me, Bhearskal! The gates are open! This is the night we take back the city that Diok built!” And at once the host took up the call, and their cry was like thunder in the mountains as they rushed forward behind their prince.
They had precious seconds, as whatever time Gormund’s surprise attack had bought evaporated and kobold archers appeared on the walls, raining arrows upon them as the massive timber gates began to shut. But they were too few, and the Bhearskal were too fierce, and just as the doors swung to Bhors crashed against them, and with a mighty call he heaved them open once more with his tide of raging warriors at his back, flooding through the gates and knocking down the surprised kobolds waiting on the other side. Fury flashed from its scabbard, cutting the night like a scythe through wheat – the crisp, cold air wailing against its edge as it found steel, then leather, and then soft flesh. He cut down a kobold who came at him with a spear, turning the shaft aside with a wave of his sword, and then sidestepping to drive the mighty blade straight into its chest. Friya appeared next to him in a flash of steel, cutting down a kobold with her axe as Bhors pulled his blade free to block a blow. They fought side by side, brother and sister, cleaving into the beasts as the fighting force advanced around them. Just beyond them, the kobolds that had been fighting Gormund’s men broke free of the attack and formed a hasty line in the great square beyond the gates, choosing the mouth of the widest street to set up their defense. Two of the bear warriors lumbered past, wading through the enemy and breaking the line as soon as it had formed, heedless of the spears and arrows that pricked at them, and smashing kobolds to the ground with savage claws as the rest of the Bhearskal host fell upon them.
As he prepared to charge against another foe, Bhors felt a sharp pain in his left arm, and with a shout he wheeled around to find one of the kobolds’ crude arrows lodged in the thick muscle just above his elbow.
He reeled in pain, gathering his senses just enough to raise his sword against a kobold that bore down viciously upon him. Biting hard, he grabbed the arrow at its head and pulled it through with a yell that rang loud even over the din of battle and whirled about to drive it through the eye of his attacker as it lunged at him for another blow. His men forming around him, Bhors hefted Fury once more and charged into the remainder of the enemy line, laying the blade hard against the nearest kobold with such force that its crude spear burst asunder, maiming its hand and leaving the warrior defenseless against Bhors’ final stroke.
With nothing more to stop them, the Bhearskal poured into Greathearth like a river, overwhelming the lizard-like kobolds and killing them wherever they stood. What small force there was fought fiercely, though, sniping with arrows and javelins from rooftops and windows. But the armor of the Bhearskal was thick, and their round shields turned away the arrows – one by one they slaughtered the kobold force until at last they had surrounded them before the steps of the great feast hall.
Yet even as they cornered the enemy there and his fighters roared and thumped their shields in victory, begging to deliver the final stroke, Bhors felt his uneasiness return. The last of the kobolds had rallied around some kind of altar, made crudely from ice and stone. Their bows and spears they held ready, staring death down with the same zeal he would have expected from his own men – not the cowardice of a broken foe.
He stepped forward, heedless of the arrows pointed at his face.
“If any of you speak the common tongue, speak it now.” He said, “You have defiled the halls of Diok, Othar, and Baor the Iron Bear, Lords of the Bhearskal – the rightful kings of the Mighty North. Before you die, tell me why you have come here and I promise to send you swiftly to the halls of your gods.”
Silence. Bhors’ army howled for blood, beating swords and axes upon shields, their blades a sea of red and silver. Many had lit torches after the initial assault, the better to find the kobolds as they attacked from places of darkness and now they lit up the entirety of the host – the kobolds would be swallowed in seconds.
“I’ll ask once more – why have you come here?” Bhors said again, louder.
There was still no response. The men grew louder than before and Friya came to his side.
“They will not talk, brother.” She said quietly. “I don’t think they would, if they knew our words.”
“I’ll ask one more time, and then there will be blood,” Bhors’ said. “Tell me why you have…”
Bhors never finished that sentence, for there came a sound, just then – a soft noise like the flapping of wings – but much greater than any bird known to men. The host of the Bhearskal heard it too, and for a moment all eyes turned skyward, searching the black for its source. At once, the kobolds dropped their weapons and fell around the altar, crouching with their heads to the earth in what seemed like a prayer. They began chanting in a guttural, vicious tongue, the first time that Bhors had ever heard them make any noise beyond snarls and growls.
The wings came again, louder and closer.
“We should take cover,” Friya said.
Some of the Bhearskal archers sent arrows flying into the small host around the altar, but even as their comrades fell beside them, the remaining kobolds continued to pray, their voices and their chanting growing louder and louder.
A few of the Bhearskal began to advance on them, ready to cut down the enemy and end the battle, when a massive shape plunged out of the darkness and fell upon them, landing in the middle of the army in a spray of snow and teeth and vicious talons – men shouted and ran to escape its wrath, but the beast cut them down as easily as they had slain the kobolds, and when the snow had finally settled enough to see, Bhors found himself facing a legend.
At once, he thought of Aeris and Azkhan, for they were the only dragons he knew of in lore or story. And while neither had been seen in the memories of the living, he knew this must be one of their kind. It was covered in glistening white scales that turned away the few swords and arrows brave enough to attempt to pierce its hide, with a tail as thick as a tree trunk that thrashed and flailed as it cut down Bhors’ army. Its maw opened wide, revealing long rows of cruel fangs that sliced through their thick plate and ringmail as if it were fine silk. It was massive, leviathan – bigger than a house – bigger any creature Bhors had ever seen. Shouts and cries of confusion rang out as the dragon thrashed and struck at the host, some men turning to run while a brave few held fast and fought.
But those who fled found no escape. The beast spread its wings and took flight once again, and for a moment all Bhors saw was white – white the color of cold death. The air groaned under its titanic weight, and with each flap of its mighty wings the night sky cracked and whined. All around them the pines, already brittle from the bitterness of the cold, snapped like twigs against the gale, the snow swirling on violent winds. It rounded on those headed for the gate, and opened its mouth wide. A howling louder than a hurricane filled the air, and a bright flash of white light swallowed the routed fighters. When it faded, they all lay upon the snow, frozen solid in an icy death.
Bhors stood transfixed in horror, then, as the beast wheeled and bore down upon them.
“Gods above,” he heard Korst say, and then he was silent as a second wave of cold hit his uncle. Bhors leapt away just in time, rolling behind a boulder that shielded him from the blast, though over him the dragon’s cruel breath howled and filled his ears. His face went numb, and all the heat of his life seemed to wick away in seconds.
After what seemed like a lifetime he stood, watching as his men were scattered and hunted down, the dragon staining the snow red with gore. And with a groan, Bhors strode out from behind the rock. He saw Korst’s massive body and dozens of others lying dead, half-buried in the ice. Friya was nowhere to be seen in the confusion and panic. Bhors held Fury high in the air, and bellowed at the sky,
“Come at me then!” he said, “Come at me, and any Bhearskal with enough honor left to stand by his prince! You’ve killed my men, you’ve killed my kin, now see if you can kill me, dragon! Come at me!”
The dragon heard, for it turned and rounded on him. It roared defiantly, trumpeting so loud that it shook the earth, knocking men to the ground and throwing tiles from rooftops. But Bhors stood, and as the beast swooped low, meaning to end him with its sharp talons, he stepped to the side and dug Fury into its scaly hide.
The other Bhearskal saw their prince standing down the dragon alone and began to rally, the boldest of them pulling their forces together to rain arrows and kobold spears upon the creature. But still its fine, white armor was unbroken, and it turned again on Bhors, lunging once more with its fangs and claws bared. And once more Bhors braced against his assailant and lunged to the side in the last moment, but this time the beast was careless and when it snapped its jaws at Bhors, he landed a savage blow against the neck that nearly threw the blade from his hands.
The dragon screamed in pain; a high, shrill note. It bled for the first time, its neck steaming where its blood met the cold night air. Its flight faltered ever so slightly, and the men of the Bhearskal cheered, calling him Bhors Dragonsbane and Bhors the Brave. But in seconds the dragon regained its composure, and it folded its wings, dropping down toward him like a javelin. He had scarcely enough time to duck as the beast fell upon him, gnashing teeth and claws that would skewer him, if the dragon’s great bulk did not manage to crush him first. Bhors swung at its face with desperate, savage blows but its jaws, big enough to swallow him whole, clamped onto Fury as if it were a plaything, and shook wildly.
The mighty blade of the Bhearskal shattered like glass, its shards splintering and spraying all across the steps of the feast hall, and with a roar of defiance the beast sunk its jaws around Bhors’ arm.
Bhors yelled in pain and defeat, ready for the blow that would end his life and send him to his gods. But it never came – the dragon let go, reeling with a mighty roar and rounding on another foe. As he sank to the ground, Friya leapt into view, standing over her brother with her shield and axe in hand.
“You will not have my prince without taking me first, beast!” she howled.
Bhors did not hear the gale of the dragon’s answer as he had before, but he felt it. The cold came, a vicious wind that blew around Friya’s shield and forced her to the earth, huddled over her brother as she strove to hold onto her shield and her own life.
The last of the Bhearskal. Bhors thought, as he closed his eyes. We will be the last of our people.