Lado Markguth wanted to be anywhere else but where he was. As a boy he’d swung sticks pretending they were mighty swords and envisioning rocks as trolls and hay bales as the heads of fearsome dragons. As a young man, he’d joined the city guard, the dreams of youth diminished but not forgotten. Greenest was a peaceful city but there was still the need for guards with a strong arm and a stout temper to keep the peace now and then. As man, Markguth found he enjoyed the peace far more than any of his boyhood dreams of mayhem.
Peace meant time to relax. Peace meant the absence of the aches and pain that always followed a brawl. Peace meant no one cared how little effort he had to put into doing his job “by the book”.
In another life, Lado Markguth could have been a true scoundrel, given his love of cards, drink, and friendly companionship (though not in that order), but his position as Sergeant in the guard kept him more honest than not.
That honesty was what forced him to admit that despite honor calling for him to stay and defend the people he was sworn to protect, he wished he could be running for the farthest hills his legs could carry him to.
Overhead the immensity of the dragon which besieged them passed once more, shattering resolve and spirit each time it flew by, its mere presence enough to shred every childish imagining Markguth ever held that he could face such a beast in battle.
Atop the ramparts one of the men screamed in terror as the dragon passed silently overhead. He’d met the beast’s eyes. Or the beast had simply picked him out. It seemed to be able to control who felt the weight of the primal terror it carried, and it clearly enjoyed toying with the defenders, as those spared from the creature’s direct attention were no less unnerved by the gut wrenching panic it induced in those it cast its baleful gaze at. Grown men it looked upon collapsed into gibbering balls, clawing at their faces, and rocking back and forth pleading for a salvation no one around them could deliver.
The worst part though was the people who hadn’t even made it to the safety of the keep. The part of Markguth that didn’t want to flee was screaming in desperation to sally out into the town and rescue the remaining townsfolk. There was so many unaccounted for, from the Swift family, to the Gudrens, to the Dakes, and even the half-elf sage Leosin Erlanthar were all missing, along with so many others.
Misery twisted Markguth’s innards until the sound of steel striking steel rose from beyond the walls.
Someone was fighting!
He rose to peer over the walls in time to see the Dakes family and the Winterwithers racing to the keep while his friend Dale fought beside Aiemethia the Blacksmith, Amber the elven wizard, and Perri the halfling priestess to keep them safe.
The quartet emerged victorious from the fight and made it within the gate just as the defenders were forced to slam it closed to keep out an onrushing group of mercenaries and their pet monsters.
The helplessness that had twisted Markguth’s guts began to unknot as he made his way through the crowd and greeted Dale with an enthusiastic whoop. Before Markguth could get the story of what happened from Dale though, Governor Nighthill and Castellan Escobert appeared in the tumult and drew the combatants off to one side as the other newcomers were checked over and their tales recounted.
“I need a strike team,” Nighthill said. “The boys I have here have never been tested in battle, and this keep is going to give them the best fighting chance they can get.”
Markguth couldn’t deny that. He remembered the lax attention they’d all shown to their drills. Most of the guards could hit a target at ten feet but any farther than that and their aim was questionable even without a screaming enemy trying to rush up and eat their face off.
Aiemethia, Amber, and Dale agreed readily to Nighthill’s request, with the priestess Perri adding in, “don’t worry, our graves aren’t dug yet”.
With the agreement, Nighthill outlined her first objective. The defenders needed a method of exiting the keep that wouldn’t be observed by the raiders, or the dragon. Fortunately the keep had been built with that need in mind and there was an old tunnel that run from the cellar out to the nearby river.
“Can you go with them?” Castellan Escobert asked. Markguth wasn’t officially his second in command but under the circumstances it was the role he was effectively fulfilling.
Markguth imagined what the chaos might be like out in the city. He didn’t want to go, but there was no chance in the Nine Hells he was letting a friend confront that kind of peril while he stayed sheltered behind stone walls.
“Certainly, sir,” he said. Markguth never called Escobert “sir”, despite the difference in their ranks. Escorbert didn’t question the formality though. They both knew this was the time to put aside ease and comfort. They had a job to do.
The old tunnel had been so infrequently used that the key Markguth carried for it almost broke off in the lock, but with some careful finesse he wiggled it open. Beyond it lay darkness and pain, neither of which Markguth was looking forward to. Despite his misgivings though, down the long crumbling tunnel they went, until the screeches of countless rats assailed them.
Markguth could barely track the battle that followed. He swung and stabbed and dodged and ultimately just watched as the party he was with somehow vanquished what had seemed like an avalanche of writhing, biting, furry bodies.
In the aftermath of the fight, without any wounds to speak of, they’d dusted themselves off and gotten right back to work.
The gate on the far end proved to be clear, and the area beyond it held no forces waiting in ambush according to Amber, so they returned to the keep, their mission a success, only to find a new problem rising.
“They’re going to burn the mill!” Escorbert said as soon as he saw them. “If we lose that we’ll be without food for months!”
“We can handle it.”
Markguth wasn’t sure if it was Aimethia, Amber, or Dale who said it, but the whole strike team agreed with the sentiment.
“We’ll need a garrison force for it too,” Escobert said.
“I can assemble one” Markguth said. He knew some of the guards might be up to the task and there were townsfolk he could ask as well.
“Let’s get on it then!” Escobert said, and the strike team departed, leaving Markguth to assemble their relief.
He made immediately for where he saw Jena Grimes standing. She was as solid a dwarf as Markguth had ever known, and one of the few who still sneered when the dragon flew overhead. When he reached her side, he saw she was in conversation with Palir Stormshorn, one of the town’s apothecaries.
“We’re all dead already, we just haven’t stopped moving yet,” Palir said, slumping onto the barrel behind him
“There’s still fight left in these bones,” Jena said, flexing her fist around the thick hilt of her axe.
“Have you fought them yet then?” Palir asked. “Has anyone fought something like this? Or something like that?” He gestured upwards, though everyone knew what he referred to.
It wasn’t a private conversation, but Markguth was still concerned at the number of people who were gathering around them. Palir’s words held a contagious quality not because they were persuasive but because everyone was already hearing their own hearts saying something similar.
“We’re not warriors from legend,” Palir said. “We’re not great heroes. If we go out there, it’s not going to be like in the stories. One arrow finds its mark and you die choking in blood. One brigand with murder in his heart swings his sword and you will not know how to block it, not a second time, not a third time, not every time you need to before he runs it through your chest. We aren’t made for this. All we are made for is to die. Nothing we can do can change that. No one here can protect us.”
“That’s not true,” Markguth said, and felt the weight of terrible expectation as the desperate crowd turned to him.
“There are people here who can help,” Markguth said. “People right from this very town.”
There was a murmur of disbelief but for one more moment they were listening to him.
“I just went with Aimethia, you know him, our blacksmith? I watched from atop the wall as he fought three kobols at once, and then again down in the sewers as he slew a half dozen rats with a single swing. I watched Amber use those mystic arts she always has her nose in a book over? I saw her fell so many rats with a single word that it took us almost ten minutes to clear a path through them? And Dale? My friend Dale? I swear to you, he arched an arrow around me, bouncing it off the walls and my armor killing a half dozen rats with a single shot!”
The crowd mumbled in disbelief, but Markguth saw a flame kindle in their eyes.
“They’ve gone off to save our mill,” Markguth said. “But I still see the people who can save us. They are standing right here, all around me. The people going to the mill are the heroes we need, now who here is willing to step up and be the heroes they need?”