Sword of Kings 3: Tempered by Fate

Tactical Maneuvers

The Tarolian Army had endured a long and grueling day, but they weren’t about to let down their guard merely because they were exhausted.  Throughout the evening, the guards walked their posts along the perimeter, even though no one expected any surprise attacks during the hours of darkness.  However, it was better to be prepared than caught completely by surprise. 

As the evening progressed, the camp remained quite peaceful, except for the scattered coughs, snores and groans from the resting troopers.  Unfortunately, the silence was also broken by the distant pleas for help from Madumda’s discarded wounded.  These appeals were coming from the soldiers whom the allies had been unable to assist, due to a lack of time.  Those hapless souls continued to beg for someone to come to their aid, but the Dark Lord’s minions didn’t appear to be moved by their plight or willing to offer any assistance.  Sadly, by the time daybreak approached, hardly any of those requests could still be heard.

The hours of darkness had passed by quickly and the guards were noticing that the first rays of sunlight were now beginning to penetrate the gloom.  Reacting to this sign, one of the sentries went to awaken Beraut, while the others went off to rouse the senior staff. 

Upon being awakened, the wizard hurried through his morning ministrations before preparing to meet with his subordinates.  As the rest of the camp started to stir to life, the officers showed up for their briefing.

Beraut greeted each of them personally as they arrived, before indicating where he wanted them positioned.  When the last staff member had made his way to his assigned place, the wizard began his remarks. 

“I will not try to deceive you,” he began.  “As the situation stands now, our prospects are fairly bleak.  Without the support of our missing armies, I doubt we shall be able to survive for more than a day, two at the most.” 

There was considerable murmuring amongst the staff at this point, as they discussed this with their neighbors.  Even though most of the senior officers had already come to this assessment on their own, a few of the junior officers seemed totally shocked by his pronouncement.  Therefore, the ensuing discussion was not about how they could improve their chances, but only about how they could prolong the inevitable long enough to give Kieren the time he needed to find the Sword. 

“We are greatly outnumbered without reinforcements,” Beraut continued, “and our numbers will continue to decline during today’s fighting.  Unless our other armies happen to turn up or one of you can think of an idea that I have not considered, we will be forced to resort to more desperate measures.”  The wizard paused briefly to see if anyone had anything to offer.  Since they didn’t, he continued. 

“Before we discuss our options,” Beraut stated, “do we all agree that it would be best to fight to the death?  From what I know of Madumda’s past actions, surrendering will not be a realistic choice.  Madumda will most likely choose to execute anyone who tries to lay down his arms, but I'm afraid he'll also slaughter everyone that survives as well.  It has never been part of his philosophy to take prisoners, nor has he ever shown mercy to those who had the audacity to oppose him.” 

After some more discussion among those present, they all agreed with this suggestion.  Every fiber within their beings told them the Dark Lord wouldn’t be prone to leaving any survivors, so it would be best if they died fighting.  They also felt this would be less painful for them too, because they believed the Dark Lord would take his time torturing the leaders first, before he allowed them to die. 

“When it gets to the point where we are nearly annihilated and have exhausted each of our other options, I will call my evil brother out for a magical duel,” Beraut informed them.  “He will be forced to accept, because he knows I will use my magic to destroy as many of his troops as I can if he doesn’t.  Since the loss of a large number of his troops would leave him vulnerable to attack from neighboring kingdoms if he is victorious, he will feel compelled to respond to my ultimatum.  Although I do not look forward to such an encounter, I will attempt to hold out for as long as I can. 

“I will be very honest with you though,” Beraut stated.  “I have no delusions that I'll be able to overcome Madumda’s combined powers or even survive such an encounter.  I will, however, do what I can to aid our cause and provide Kieren with the time he needs to locate the Sword.  Besides having our final two armies show up, Kieren is our only other hope.  Our fate may depend on his ability to complete his mission and then use the talisman to destroy the Dark Lord, which means Kieren may be all we have standing between us and defeat.  For that reason, it is imperative we do our best to give him all the time we can to successfully carry out that task.”  Once the wizard finished, the dwarfs’ King Brolin decided to speak up next. 

“I have been in other situations that have also seemed hopeless at the time,” Brolin began, “but the one thing those dire times have taught me is that circumstances have a way of changing unexpectedly.  There are an endless number of factors that may yet come into play, so we must not despair until each of those other possibilities has been totally exhausted.”  The dwarf’s comments produced a slight murmur of agreement with his observation, but apparently not everyone was convinced, so the dwarf continued. 

“Either or both of our tardy armies may still arrive at any given moment or the fulfillment of the prophecy may be will come to pass when we least expect it.  Something could also occur during the battle that would dishearten Madumda’s warriors and make them doubt what they are doing or possibly even entice them to give up.  Anything might happen, so we must continue to hold out for as long as we can to give these or other situations time to play out.  This does not, however, mean we are now conducting a suicide mission.  It is just the opposite.  We are still fighting for our own survival, as well as the survival of the kingdom.” 

King Brolin didn’t mention Kieren per se, but that didn’t stop a broad grin from spreading across Beraut’s face as he listened to the dwarf monarch.  After allowing several more seconds for the dwarf’s words to sink in with the other officers, Beraut finally responded. 

“I have long admired your eternal optimism, my dear friend,” the wizard told him, “and I agree we must do all we can to provide an opportunity for any of these scenarios to come to pass.  I must, however, also be pragmatic and acknowledge the odds do not favor us at this time.  Therefore, we most likely will have to do something out of the ordinary to delay the inevitable.”

“What if we were to dig in and merely try to defend our current position for as long as possible?” the senior commander from Cassander suggested.

“It is my estimation that a defensive tactic such as that would only hinder our ability to hold out for very long,” Beraut replied.  “As soon as we were dug in, Madumda’s army would be able to surround us and attack from all directions simultaneously.  If that were to happen, then their superiority in numbers would definitely work to their advantage. 

“No, I believe we must remain mobile and keep on the offensive for as long as we can,” the wizard went on.  “We must be able to strike as quickly as possible, whenever and wherever we see a weakness exposed.  At the same time, we must be able to retreat within seconds if the situation dictates that would be our best course of action.  We must be like a wolf pack on a hunt, which means we must work together and strike when the opportunity arises, while at the same time selecting our targets carefully.”

“I agree completely,” interjected the Wood Elf’s General Daveel.  “Our best chance of prolonging this conflict, or possibly even gaining a slight advantage, would be to do what is not expected.  We’ll need to be like a swarm of mosquitoes and make annoying little bites that will distract the target long enough for help to arrive.  We must also be able to respond to situations as they arise, which we will not be able to do if we commit ourselves to a defensive posture.”

“Most definitely,” retorted the military leader from Leander.  “Beraut is correct in his assessment of the situation.  We must allow our most senior battle commanders to use their instincts and discretion to take control of the various situations as they arise.  It will be our ability to respond rapidly to the changing winds of battle that will determine if we are successful.  The longer we can prolong this conflict; it will increase our chances that one of those other factors will come into play and help us to be victorious.” 

Seeing his senior staff was in agreement with his strategy, the wizard gave them their assignments.  Then, the others got ready to go out to prepare their troops.  However, before they could depart, Beraut spoke again. 

“Before we adjourn,” the weary wizard added, “I have one more request to make.  I need to ask a favor of the dwarf’s Captain of the Guard.”

All heads turned nearly as one toward Captain Baith and all eyes focused on him.  He had been standing off to one side of the tent in an effort to stay out of the limelight.  He was hoping to remain anonymous today, especially after having endured the uncomfortable amount of attention he had garnered because of his exploits the previous day.  To Baith's extreme discomfort, however, this was no longer possible. 

“My young friend has proven himself to be an impassioned orator,” Beraut announced to the others, “so I humbly request that he will do me one more honor.  If he is willing, I would like him to make a brief address to the troops before we engage in battle today.  Perchance his words will provide the inspirational spark we so desperately need.”

Many of the others in attendance, with the exception of the other dwarfs, began to murmur their surprise at this announcement.  The only thing most of them knew about this dwarf officer was that he had been in charge of the group whose tactic was so effective the previous day.  Now, they began to wonder if there was something special, maybe even extraordinary, about this particular officer. 

The Veledan commander, Massil, wasn’t exactly surprised, but he didn’t seem overly impressed when this request was made either.  However, he did not utter any disparaging remarks to those around him.  He would wait and see how effective the young dwarf officer was at fulfilling this obligation first, before he decided if this was a strategically wise decision. 

While the others had been discussing the wizard’s request amongst themselves, King Brolin had immediately turned his attention toward his young Captain of the Guard. 

“Congratulations,” the king told him.  “This is quite an honor Beraut has just bestowed upon you.” 

“It may be, but I think I might have been better off without it and all of the additional attention it will bring,” the reluctant dwarf responded. 

“You can’t seriously be thinking of declining this opportunity,” a shocked Brolin stated.  “You must accept or it will be looked upon quite unfavorably by the others gathered here.  No matter how embarrassed you may feel about having been singled out again, this is an honor which could benefit both you and our kind in the eyes of the other races.”  

Once the King’s words had time to sink in, the dwarf captain nodded his acceptance of the task, while his mind raced to come up with a challenge that would be appropriate.  What could he possibly say that would ignite this eclectic army’s passion and spur their desire to win to an even greater level than it already was? 

After a few more seconds of chatting amongst themselves, the other officers began to quiet down again and then turned back to see what was going to happen next.  Once Captain Baith had accepted this charge, however, Beraut dismissed them to attend to their other duties. 

As the meeting began to break up, each participant concentrated on whatever tasks he'd been assigned and quickly lost interest in what any of the others had been asked to do.  That’s why, as everyone else made their way out of the tent, Beraut used these precious moments to review his options one final time.  He was hoping to discover the single, elusive possibility that would provide the missing cog they would need to defeat Madumda. 

The camp was now abuzz with activity, as the Tarolian army began it's preparations for battle.  Soon, all of the warriors had moved into formation and were standing in silence, as Captain Baith made his way to stand before them.  As the dwarf turned to address this varied conglomeration of warriors, he still had not finalized exactly what he was going to say, so he sought inspiration from the faces of those in the foremost ranks.  After taking a deep breath and swallowing hard several times, he began to speak.  Beraut magically enhanced his words so everyone could hear what the dwarf had to say. 

“The hour has arrived for us to face the Dark Lord’s brigands yet again.  Although yesterday’s battle was exceedingly costly, especially in terms of the lives lost, you may rest assured that those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our cause did so willingly.  I would venture to guess they would not hesitate to do so again, if they were able.  They selflessly gave their last, full measure in an attempt to ensure we could retain control of our beloved kingdom and not allow it to fall under the rule of an evil master. 

“Needless to say, today’s sacrifices will be just as dear and many more from our ranks will pass from this world, but we must stiffen our resolve and persevere.  No matter what we are asked to do, we must resign ourselves to the fact that we shall lose much more than just our lives if we fall short in our efforts.  Not only will our homeland be doomed, but we shall also witness the demise of our freedom and the end of the bright futures we have promised to our loved ones. 

“Yes, we all realize how precious life is, but it is meaningless if we are forced to live as slaves, or even worse to toil under a despot such as Madumda.  You have seen his callous disregard for others when he left his wounded on the battlefield to die and you know his reputation for cruelty and treachery.  Is that what you want for your families?  I yearn for something better than that for mine.  I don’t want them to live in fear or be forced to perform tirelessly for the Dark Lord’s benefit and profit.  That’s why it is imperative we prevail. 

“It is vital we control whatever doubts and fears we now harbor in our souls and plunge wholeheartedly into the task ahead.  We must forever purge the world of Madumda, and others like him, and end his quest for power.  We must pray to the Gods and seek their divine intervention on our behalf or do anything else we can think of that might enable us to be victorious.  If we prevail, our countrymen will forever praise our names, but if we fail they shall forever curse the memory of our existence just as strongly.” 

Captain Baith paused here momentarily to give the meaning of his words time to sink in.  Once this had been accomplished, he passed on his final, calculated remarks. 

“May the Gods bless Tarolia and may she forever be free.  I proudly and enthusiastically salute the brave souls that will be marching out to defend her today.  It shall be victory or death!”

At that moment, Captain Baith slammed the thumb side of his closed right fist into his chest, before extending it outward, chest high, in salute.  This caused a cheer to erupt from within the ranks and that roar continued to increase until every warrior was chanting, “Tarolia, forever free.  Long live Tarolia.” 

The dwarf captain seemed somewhat surprised by the extent of the response now taking place.  He was also confused about how his few words could have been the catalyst for so much enthusiasm.  As he pondered the situation further, he began to realize he was becoming the focal point of even more unwanted attention and praise, so he desperately sought to withdraw into the shadows. 

Hurriedly, he scanned the area and looked for either someplace he could go to be alone or find someone to come to his rescue.  That was when he spied the wizard and his eyes immediately became transfixed by Beraut’s intense gaze.  He also noticed the wizard appeared quite smug, so he wondered if Beraut knew this was going to happen all along. 

After a rather lengthy and uncomfortable time while the pair merely stared at each other, Beraut finally reacted and gave the young dwarf officer a barely perceptible nod.  This was meant to let Captain Baith know the wizard understood his predicament and was going to do something about it.  

At that precise moment, Beraut began his attempt to regain the attention of the troops.  Without uttering a word, Beraut lifted both of his arms skyward and held them slightly in front of his body, with his palms extended outward, and then waited for the desired outcome.  Although it took a few more minutes before everyone noticed and responded to this signal, order was finally restored and everyone fell back into his place in formation.  The stage was now set for the battle to begin. 

After another brief delay, one of the senior officers barked a command that was quickly passed along by the junior cadre.  Almost immediately, the army was sent in motion and marched off at a fairly energetic cadence.  The Tarolian warriors seemed eager to have the battle commence and this possibly had something to do with Captain Baith’s rousing speech. 

Since the army was so energized, it wasn’t long before the senior staff and those in the foremost ranks could see the outline of the enemy army advancing nearly as rapidly in their direction.  Both groups were slightly east of where the previous day’s battle had been fought, since they sought to avoid getting entangled in the mass of corpses that still littered the area where yesterday’s fighting had taken place.  

As both groups continued to move forward and steadily shrunk the gap between them, the warriors on each side thought about the butchery that would soon become commonplace.  Before the bloodshed began, however, both forces came to a halt less than fifty meters apart. 

Once the soldiers saw Beraut lift his right arm above his head and sweep it from side-to-side across the sky, they rapidly began to realign into their battle formation.  They had planned on starting out in the same formation they'd used the previous day, because they were comfortable with how that had worked out for them.  Eagerly, they scurried toward their assigned positions and prepared for combat, but that’s when things stopped going as planned. 

Before the allies had a chance to complete their realignment, the Dark Lord’s army let out a war cry and began charging across the divide.  The black-clad troopers crossed the intervening gap in a very short time and prevented the allies from reaching their designated locations.  Since the Dark Lord's army had managed to engage their opponents before they’d been able to spread out as desired, the Tarolian forces didn’t present as large a front as they would have liked.  It was apparent that Madumda wished to dictate the course of action today, as well as its timing.

As the Dark Lord’s generals took control of the battlefield and directed the initial assault, the Tarolian army hustled to find a way to stop them.  Some of the archers were able to get off a few scattered shots at the onrushing horde, but there was too much confusion along the Tarolian lines to get everyone responding in the same fashion.  Since the allies didn’t have the time they needed to fully deploy to their designated locations, it allowed the charging enemy to partially encircle them and they found themselves being squeezed in on three sides.  This gave the early advantage to the enemy and put pressure on the Tarolian forces just to survive. 

Seeing their bows were no longer effective, the archers slung them across their backs, grabbed their shields and drew their swords.  They were now prepared for hand-to-hand combat.  The two sides were now fully engaged and the battle had begun in earnest. 

The fierceness of the conflict was intense and from the outset the Tarolian army merely attempted to slow their opponent's momentum and stifle the vigorous assault.  They pushed the black-clad forces back wherever possible, but it wasn’t nearly enough.  Before long, each individual foot soldier was forced to concentrate exclusively on his own survival and no longer had time to think about tactical considerations or worry about what the other side was doing. 

From that point on, all any of them could do was to try to keep from being killed, while also attempting to prolong the battle until something unexpected could happen.  Their only chance was that some unforeseen event might take place and shift the momentum again, such as the arrival of one of the other armies. 

After some very heavy fighting and many deaths on both sides, the Tarolian army began to slowly negate their foe’s advantage.  Even though they were still outnumbered and being driven into an ever-tightening horseshoe formation, they had managed to significantly slow the rate at which this was occurring.  They would have to do more than this though, if they hoped to survive the day.

The battle had been going on for over an hour when the cavalry commander spotted an unexpected opening that would allow him time to reorganize his troops.  He felt he could make an impact on the outcome of the skirmish by doing this and didn’t wish to waste a golden opportunity or let the chance slip away.  He started doing whatever he had to in order to attract the attention of his horse soldiers and signaled them to regroup for a counter attack.  Acting solely upon his own initiative, he hastily put into motion a plan that he had recently formulated in his head. 

Using hand signals and barking out commands to those closest to him, the cavalryman directed his troops to do what he wanted.  At the same time, he hoped it would be enough to shift the tide of battle back in their favor.  So, while the foot soldiers and archers were busy holding off their foe’s continued attack, the cavalry extricated themselves from the fray, so they could make a quick and violent charge into the enemy’s western flank. 

At first, this maneuver went almost unnoticed by the leaders of either side, since most of their attention was focused on the main surge.   However, after the horse-soldiers’ pikes began to slam into the rear of the Dark Lord’s ranks, the cavalry’s foray drew considerable attention.  Their actions not only accounted for a great number of enemy dead and wounded, but it also had a severe demoralizing effect on the black-clad troops involved in or near the action. 

Once the group caught in the middle began to realize they wouldn’t last for very long under this dual assault, the Dark Lord’s ranks began to split apart and give ground.  A few of the dark-clad soldiers even made an effort to flee the battlefield altogether and this caused a panic to spread to the adjoining enemy ranks.  The most dramatic effect was that it reduced the overall intensity of the attack against the allied army. 

When the cavalry commander realized the Tarolian infantry had regained the upper hand in this area and was now able to drive the black-clad warriors back without further assistance, he signaled his units to withdraw and follow him one more time.  Eagerly, the horse soldiers wielded about and trailed after their leader as they returned behind their own lines.  They didn't stop there, however, and before long they were mounting a similar assault against the other flank of Madumda’s army. 

Once again, they were able to pin their opponents between the two forces and made an immediate impact on the course of the battle in that area.  As the Dark Lord’s henchmen started to buckle under the intensity of this new assault and the immense carnage it wrought, the enemy’s eastern flank also began to crumble as well.  The Dark Lord’s forces were now in nearly total chaos, as the allied troops took control of both flanks.  However, the center of the Tarolian lines were still slowly retreating under the continued aggressive assault.

By this time, the sun had nearly reached its zenith and the heat it was producing only helped to drain every combatant even more.  The biggest effect of the rising temperature was that it slowed the ferociousness of the fighting slightly, even though those battling at the center of the melee were still giving it their best effort.  The embattled warriors in the middle of the formation were nearly exhausted, yet they knew they had to keep going or they would die.  The problem was that it seemed no matter what they tried or how hard they fought it did nothing to slow the ferociousness of the other side’s attack.  They were still being gradually forced backward and more of them were falling victim to the intensity of this continued assault. 

The lucky ones were killed outright and fairly quickly too, but that was rarely what took place.  In most cases, the warriors were only wounded during the melee and then met their end as the onrushing horde trampled them to death after they were knocked to the ground.  In other cases, the injured soldiers were slowly suffocated under the weight of the bodies falling on top of them after they were on the ground.  Either way, those unfortunate souls suffered a slow and agonizing death. 

The officers in charge of the troops trapped at the center of the beleaguered infantry lines continued their efforts to regain control of their crumbling ranks.  They hurriedly shifted bodies from adjacent areas where they had begun to successfully drive their opponents back to reinforce the effort in the middle of the lines.  However, even with this concerted effort there were still insufficient numbers to relieve their predicament.  Just as it appeared the ranks in the center were about to completely fold, something totally unexpected happened.

At first the change was nearly imperceptible, but it eventually became evident that Madumda’s army was no longer pressing forward and continuing their attack.  When Beraut and his senior officers noticed this change, they looked around and tried to ascertain the reason for this unexpected shift in momentum.  After a few minutes of scrutinizing the area in question, the wizard’s keen vision provided him with the clue he needed to understand what was taking place.  His prayers had been answered.  The western army had arrived, led by Commander Elgin.  Not only had they been busily attacking the western flank, but they were now also engaging nearly half of the rear of the center segment of the Dark Lord’s army. 

Beraut was uncertain as to when they had arrived or how long they had been involved in the fighting, but their timing could not have been more fortuitous.  Gradually, the advantage shifted again, but this time it belonged to the allies.  The newcomers eagerly thrust, parried and hacked at the enemy, while showing the same enthusiasm the others had displayed the previous day.  This seemed to give the rest of the allied forces a newfound burst of energy, so they were now striking at the enemy as forcefully as the newcomers. 

Since large sections of Madumda’s army suddenly found themselves trapped between a rock and a hard place, the embattled Dark Lord weighed his options.  First, he tried to determine how he was going to regain control of the battlefield, since his military leaders’ incompetence had seemed to place them in this bind. 

Beraut, on the other hand, was trying to make the most of this opportunity.  He wanted to do as much damage as he could, while he still enjoyed the upper hand.  Since he wasn’t certain how long this advantage would last, the wizard was going to do everything he could to benefit from it while the advantage was in their favor.  Now the only question was, would the Dark Lord be able to come to the rescue of his beleaguered forces before they were decimated?