The Heart’s Oath – Chapter 36

Dae caught the enemy’s blade less than an inch away from her throat. As parries went, it wasn’t her finest work, but since her head remained attached to her shoulders she didn’t worry about her technique too much.

The Council Soldier who faced her was an elf, half a head taller than Dae was. He wore a strange form fitting armor that looked like it was grown around him from some dense variety of wood. Against an unarmed foe, the soldier would have been invincible. Against someone with an axe, he was decidedly weaker and against someone with a Pact Blade, the armor offered little, if any, protection.

Dae’s sword was still the normal blade she wore as part of her standard garb. It couldn’t penetrate the soldier’s armor except through the tedious process of hacking away at the wood directly. Ogma’s blade, however, was not so encumbered.

She skewered the soldier and when he reached for a frond at his belt to magic the wound away, she spun her blade in a small arc and then stepped over his headless corpse to press the battle onwards.

“Duke Zendli has fallen,” Duchess Harli said as she stepped up to fill the gap that Ogma’s charge left.

“Did you see where?” Dae asked, scanning the battlefield again after the distraction of a Council soldier breaking through their ranks.

All around them dozens of isolated melee’s raged, each with thousands of Council forces contesting against a scant handful of Gallagrin’s nobles.

Dae’s group was the largest of the Gallagrin squads, numbering eight in total. In part that was because they were the vanguard, the squad that had rushed in the furthest and the fastest. They’d flown ahead of the rest of the Gallagrin forces in order to disrupt the Council’s communications and prevent their forces from joining together. Thanks to the unexpected attack the Council was unable to bring their full weight to bear in any specific area of the battle whose front was less a line than an amorphous blob.

The other reason Dae had chosen to surround herself with twice as many nobles as the rest of the groups had was because of Kirios, her Pact Spirit. Her hope that a battle of historic significance would be enough to coax him into transforming with her had proven to be an empty one. While the other nobles strode and leapt and flew into battle arrayed in magic the likes of which the world had rarely ever seen gathered in one place, Dae entered the fray as nothing more than herself.

“Zenli was with the group on the rise,” Duchess Harli said, pointing to the cliffs to the east of them. “He got pushed off and fell into that horde of Marsh Trolls.”

Marsh Trolls were a race unique to the Green Council’s domain. With a legendary capacity to regenerate damage, and claws that were mystically hardened to the point where they could shred steel armor like it was the thinnest paper, even some Gallagrin fairy tales featured them as terrors to be avoided.

“We’re moving east then,” Dae shouted. “Zenli found some Troll Ichor, let’s go folks before he bottles it all up!”

Troll blood retained some of the amazing healing capacities and was a frequently sought after ingredient for healing potions. It wasn’t greed to get their hands on such a valuable substance that convinced the nobles around Dae to pivot from their own battles and rush to render aid to one of their fallen brethren, but the lure certainly put some extra pep in their stride.

“Do we know Zenli even needs to be rescued?” Ogma asked, resuming her place at Dae’s side as they raced across the battlefield.

A small troop of Council forces, no more than a hundred or so, rallied in front of them, a rank of spears ready and archers behind them. The Gallagrin nobles didn’t even slow when they met them. Arrows shattered against Pact Armor chests and the spears were reduced to kindling as the nobles overran and the left the Council troops in the dust behind them.

Dae used her fellow nobles as both sword and shield, trailing a few feet in their wake to allow them to break the enemy’s ranks and create a clear path for her to run though.

Unlike many who bore a Pact Spirit, Dae had never given up on her training regime. Occasionally she’d been too hungover to perform it, but even that was becoming a thing of the past. Her fellow Pact bearers would tease her on occasion but without that commitment, it would have been impossible for Dae to keep up with her squad. As she vaulted over a pile of bodies the nobles had left in their wake and the burning in her lungs reached barely tolerable levels, she had to reflect on whether working to make something impossible merely agonizingly difficult instead was really such a brilliant overall plan.

“This assault succeeds or fails on our being untouchable,” Dae said, fighting for her breath as they ran. If she’d been transformed, the furious speed they were running would have taken nothing from her. As it was, she was slowing them down and was still barely able to speak. “If one of us is slain, the rest are going to become much more tentative. And that will lose us the fight.”

“Even if it’s someone you’d just as soon see dead?” Ogma asked.

“Yes,” Dae said between breaths. “Definitely then. This isn’t a trap to kill off the Queen’s opponents.”

“If Zenli gets a chance it could become a trap to kill you off,” Duchess Harli said. Her armor bore the pattern of stags flying through a forest. If unrestrained, she could have reached Zenli and been back already, but Dae refused to let the members of the vanguard range freely.

The noble’s had grumbled about that, but once they were crushed in the press of battle each become silently grateful to have their companions around them. They might be able to face odds of a thousand to one and win, but then again they might not and the unknown was always easier to face with an ally by your side.

“I’ll have to make sure we keep feeding him Council forces then,” Dae said.

“It seems like there’s plenty to go around,” Ogma said, spitting a goblin on her sword as he angled down towards them on a glider  that was filled with some form of combustible material.

Dae rolled away from the exploding glider, while Ogma let the fiery sap run over her, the heat providing a pleasant warming of her armor’s surface.

The Gallagrin noble’s had descended on the Council’s forces while they were still focused on creating a wide range of defensible positions. Without those, supplying troops within a foreign realm was going to be difficult to impossible, but the cost of setting the positions up had been that the Council’s army was scattered and distracted when Gallagrin’s attack fell on them.

“They probably thought they were bringing enough troops,” Dae said.

The army that marched into Gallagrin was an impressive one. Dae estimated she could see at least ten thousand troops and she knew that their forces held a backline and two flanking wings which were obscured from her vantage point.

Thanks to the Miner’s Guild, Dae was reasonably sure she knew where each of her enemy’s forces were deployed though and thanks to the speed Pact Armor provided, all of them were embroiled in battle.

From the Green Council’s view the strategy had to look like madness. Sending small squads against entire regiments of the Council’s forces. Even worse, engaging every unit of the Council’s forces at once meant that there was no backing out for Gallagrin’s fighters. With three to four Pact fighters in a squad, there was no one who could form a defensive line if the squad was injured and pinned down.

Of course if the noble’s needed to retreat, Pact Armor offered many options for quitting the battlefield faster than the Council’s forces could follow. That was something the Council might have known, but since that level of transformation wasn’t commonly available to Pact Soldiers, it wasn’t the kind of thing any sane tactical planner on the Council’s side would have given serious consideration to.

Dae smiled at the thought. The Council expected her to bring a force to bear against their invasion, but no one in all of the realms could have expected this. Under no other circumstances could she had coerced Gallagrin’s nobility to fight personally in such a small army. It would never be an option again either.

Unleashing the power of the collective nobility would be a tactic which the other realms would watch for in the future. As it was, there was still a chance that someone would react fast enough to cause trouble in the provinces which were bereft of leadership and protection, but with inter-realm conflicts in an uncertain area, Dae was willing to bet that no one would tempt fate by trying such a bold move against Gallagrin, at least until it was clear that Dae hadn’t left behind any traps to cover the absence of the various nobles.

“They have him pinned!” Duchess Harli called.

“Take them apart!” Dae ordered and held back to watch for the Council units that were repositioning to aid the Marsh Trolls. “Ogma, we’ve got another squad of Poison Archers west-southwest from here. They seem to have noticed us.”

“That’s a shame for them,” Ogma said. “Can you hold out for thirty?”

In another battle that might have referred to thirty minutes, or thirty hours, or thirty days. Given the exposure of the Poison Archer’s position and Ogma’s speed though, Dae knew she meant thirty seconds.

“Go,” Dae said. “We’ll be here.”

The Marsh Trolls were a more resilient foe than the archers. Duke Zenli was holding them off but on his own he wasn’t able to exploit the openings he could create. The arrival of Dae’s squad helped change the balance of the fight. Together the Gallagrin nobles were able to slice the Troll ranks apart fast enough to allow Zenli to reposition and join up with them. The balance of force slipped back in the Council’s favor though more Trolls threw themselves from the cliffs to join the battle, pinning the nobles and Dae between a wall of stone on one side and a wall of regenerating flesh on the other.

“I never thought I’d be wishing for a dragon to show up on the battlefield,” Dae said.

“I’ve always hated those stinking lizards,” Duchess Harli said. “But I agree. A nice spot of fire would be welcome.”

Dae parried a blow for Harli, severing the fingers from a Troll’s claws. She was surprised at the force of her own blow, and surprised as the cutting power of a sword that should have long since been blunted into little more than a metal bat. The wounds she inflicted made for a bloody mess, but, unfortunately, they didn’t inconvenience the Troll much since its fingers grew back instantly.

Or almost instantly. Duchess Harli use the opportunity to stab the Troll and drive it back into its nearest companion, the force of her blow blasting a hole through both creature’s chests.

The creatures roared in unison, but refused to die like any reasonable mortal thing would. The one Harli pinned smacked her so hard in response that she flew sideways head over heads, and skidded to a stop several dozen yards to Dae’s left.

Dae stepped forward and, on instinct, threw her off-hand knife into the Troll’s. It reared back and clutched at the hilt but Dae was able to land a palm strike on end of knife, driving it forward to sever the creature’s spine.

Paralyzed it dropped to the ground, taking Dae’s knife with it. She let it stay there. The only method she had for preventing the creature’s return to instant healing was to leave the knife in place so that the spinal cord couldn’t regrow through it.

While that seemed to be a viable tactic against a single enemy however, it proved insufficient for the situation at hand where they were faced with more Trolls than Dae could carry knives to disable. In fact, before she could even unsheath a second knife, another Troll knocked her to the ground, bloodying her lips and bruising her arm and side. Before it could finish her off however, Duchess Harli was back, a spinning swirl of blades and fire that unravelled the Troll standing above Dae.

Dae kicked herself back and away from the blazing remains as they dropped onto her.

“What did you do?” she asked.

“Another goblin tried to dive unto me,” Harli said. “Looks like their glider bombs work just fine on Trolls.”

“I’ll have to get one of those for myself,” Duke Zenli said, joining them as he spun around a troll. Dae couldn’t see his face, since it was hidden under his pact helmet, but the formerly sour and bitter man sounded surprisingly cheerful. Despite the poor turn he’d taken in being pushed off a cliff and surrounded by unbeatable enemies, the rush of battle seemed to agree with the Duke.

“Your family is good with alchemicals isn’t it?” Dae asked, recalling one of the pillars of the Zenli wealth.

“We have a few prodigies in our ranks,” Zenli said.

“Including yourself as I recall,” Dae said. Zenli had lost faith in Alari, but he was still a son of Gallagrin and on the battlefield that was enough to unite them in fine spirits.

“I’ve dabbled a bit,” Zenli said, a hint of pride in his voice.

“If the goblin fire is interesting to you, collect as much as you want,” Dae said. “We can wait before pressing forward again.”

“Really?” Zenli asked. “There’s still a lot of ground to reclaim.”

“Take your time and collect your samples so they won’t spoil,” Dae said. “We’ll watch your back.”

“Why are you doing this?” Zenli asked.

“We’re not just here to defeat them,” Dae said. “We’re going to make them regret ever coming into our realm. If there’s anything we can take from them, take it. If there’s anything we can learn from them, learn it. I intend to fight this battle once, and only once. When it’s done, I want the world to look at what happened here and never desire to come within a hundred miles of our realm bearing any hostile intent.”

Zenli shook his head and sighed.

“If only our queen had your heart,” he said.

“Who do you think gave me those exact orders?” Dae asked. “She’s merciful to our people, but she’s far from weak. Believe in her again, just like she believes in you.”

 

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