Holding the Line After the Fall
Gunther rode along with barely a thought to the surroundings. The caravan heading east lazily made its way without need for his direction. Something nagged at the back of his mind though. He was the soldier, the protector and so he should be paying attention. The merchants and refugees around him relied on his protection and that was more than his sword. It demanded his mind and heart. Pilus Justinian had taught him far better than that. The thought of him only added to his distraction. Gunther had not come to grip with Pilus’ death less than six weeks ago. How could it be any easier to handle the news of Domaldi, son of Pilus, now dead in an unmarked grave near Sunfalls.
Gunther shamed himself and shook his head. He spurred his horse off the road and alongside the nearby headman. “I am heading up to the ridgeline to scout ahead.”
Back to duty, and earn your keep. You know better than to wool-gather in these lands, he told himself. Wake up or you will meet up with Domaldi sooner than you should. And Pilus would be with him and he would be pissed. With a wry smile at that thought, up the ridge he went.
Just before sundown, they reached Fort Tcyz. The caravan moved quickly inside and everyone went about their business. Gunther unsaddled his horse, brushed it down and paid the stable boy appropriately. He then made his way to the fort’s command post and found the commandant. “Ah Gunther, welcome back. It has been two weeks hasn’t it This caravan looks a bit ragged. How are things in Riots Gate?”
“Master Grummond, it is still a mess. The Temple of Heironeous is a ruin, years from repair. Smoke still rises from the city in places. This caravan is so ragged because half of them are refugees. The city is starving. It will be a hard winter. I have messages from High Inquisitor Lokiyar here in response to your requests.” Gunther put the red cylinder on the desk and took a smaller white token on a string from around his neck. Captain Grummond took a similar black token from around his. They each pressed their stones against the cylinder and spoke a word. The cylinder unrolled and Grummond picked up the pages.”
“Well yes. It is good that you risked your life to bring me these important messages. It would have been more polite for the Commissioner to have used the signal towers to flash ‘no, no, no’ than to use a thalon for this drivel. ‘Troops and supplies needed elsewhere’, ‘not a priority at this time’, ‘you will be re-supplied in due time’. Even the reports from the north are useless. How can a paladin lie like this? It is worrying since he must actually believe this stuff. Our reports from refugees coming from the north are rumour and yet are more accurate and reliable. It is going poorly to the north. More than snow is coming this winter. Ah but, here is something worthwhile: a letter from Master Kulakk. I knew he was too stubborn to die. He was probably handing out blankets and buckets to the fire brigades before the towers had crashed to the ground. Hmmm! What is this, Domaldi Justinian is dead! A mistake, surely. Pilus is dead. I saw his body a month ago when Domaldi came through before the eclispe. By the Pillars! Treason! What the blazes is going on in Riots Gate? That boy was less treasonous than a piece of stone. Gunther, you have a tale to tell. Come let us have supper. A good dwarven ale will ease the burdens of losing your friend and your mentor in the same month."
It was another five days to get within sight of Forward Advance. The caravan slowly dwindled the farther east they went. The nights were very quiet as the pilgrims quickly went to sleep. Gunther toured the outer perimeter to talk to the piquet. They certainly were not sentries. Their true value was to stay awake and raise the alarm in case of danger. After his rounds, he settled into his tent. There was enough light to read Domaldi’s diary. He still could not shake the event from his mind when it was given to him. Kulakk and the High Inquisitor had been arguing just moments before. Lokiyar did not skimp on his criticism of Gunther simply for being in the room. Even before speaking to Master Kulakk, Gunther knew there were plots within plots. Now after having read this diary three times. It was an obvious as a slap in the face.
The sight of Forward Advance as it appears when you reach Massoud’s Drift never failed to hearten Gunther. He and the remainder of the caravan entered the front gates without difficulty. They were closed quickly behind them however.
In with the Commanding Legate Boslin, the messages from Riots Gate were not well received. An old soldier like Boslin could construct profanity that more than once brought a centurion to tears. An old friend of Pilus, he took Domaldi’s death poorly. “What is the real story Gunther? Even Kulakk is hiding something. There is more hiding under some dirty rock in the Gate. Tell me.”
“Sir, Domaldi fell at Sunfalls following orders given by the Council. Following those orders lead to Sunfall’s demise. Hieroneous forgive me but he was my friend and I will tell you imagination was not Domaldi’s strength. Loyal, courageous and strong; he had those in abundance. Eloquent like a bard, yes but not a dram of guile. That was why people listened to him: he did not even understand what a lie was much less utter one. A perfect tool for a conspiracy. Now he lies dishonored in an unmarked tome of ogres and brutes. His name is already a taunt and a curse. Fortunately, Kulakk has given me more than this thalon. Domaldi kept a detailed diary which I have read with a critical eye. I also carry the broken sword of Pilus. I did learn enough of guile at your knee, sir, to know this dary should too sit in a thalon for now.”
He placed the battered book on the desk. “No, a thalon would not be secure enough for the honest words and thoughts of the son of the first Keeper sacrificed in a conspiracy. Sentar is spinning into oblivion and they are playing games. No, games imply no one gets hurt. I do not know at what they are playing but the cost is greater than one boy’s life. I will secure this. Come with me.”
They went down the stairs and entered a tidy office. The dressed stone of the office contrasted with the rough grey stone of the back wall. A thin officer sat behind the desk painstakingly recording tables of numbers. “Ah Gunther, welcome back,” said the officer. “Fine band you brought into today. Minstrels and merchants of fine spices, I see. I say that since they do make me chuckle and there is now a new odour in camp.” He took Gunther’s hand warmly.
“Yes, you are right. Poor humour is my flaw. Hence my focus on the numbers. anyways, sorry sir, sorry old friend. I know you understand. did you need the monthly summaries. They are ready?”
“No, Vinix, I will take them afterwards but I wanted to deposit this in the vault.”
“Yes, sir, I will do it now.”
“No, I mean the dwarven bolthole.”
“For a book, sir? I am sure that…uh… yes, sir. The bolthole. I have the keys here.”
The withering look on Boslin’s face fell away as Vinix picked up his keys and turned around. He opened the vault door and went down the stairs as Gunther and Boslin followed. Boslin closed the vault door behind them with an audiable click as the lock engaged. Vinix went to a steel cabinet and unlocked it. He opened a drawer and pulled out a glass rod covered in carvings. Gunther could see into the cabinet that contained the forts records, codes and gold. This vault was well known in the fort because this is where everyone received their pay and placed their savings. The stone was solid, granite. The magic subtle, dwarven. That of course lead to the legend. Ever child that ever grew up in Forward Advance was told there was a secret door in the pay vault that led to a dwarven city or a dragon’s castle. Every child also got a very sore bottom when they inevitably snuck in looking for it and was caught by the paymaster.
Vinix walked to the wall and traced a glyph with the rod.
“Valinvolx,” he said. Nothing happened. Vinix turned and walked past Gunther to the stairs. On the second step he traced another figure and said, “Rigora”. A hole appeared on the step and he put the rod into it. “Tardif”. The second step disappeared and revealed a hole in the stairs. The opening was the size of the step: barely as wide as a man’s chest and only a hand-width high. Inside were a few packages and scrolls. Boslin placed the diary inside and spoke, “Clamus” and the stone reappeared.
“Gunther, the stories are true that you heard as a child. We all know that the paymaster’s vault is magical but that is strength, protection. This is more subtle. When the dwarves built this fort, they added this magical vault we call the bolthole. Only the paymaster and the commandant know the command words and they are changed often. I remember when I whipped your bottom when I caught you here. Have you ever noticed that paymasters become commandants. This is one reason. However, though I suspect it, I have never found proof the dwarves built more than this into this room. Perhaps another rod like is lost or hidden elsewhere. Anyways, the diary is secure now. We should eat and rest. There are bigger and closer evils than you might think.”
In his home, stewards brought us food in quantity. “You know of the Brutes invading from the North. Even with the Federation shattered at the center after the eclipse, the Legions are doing better than expected. This “democracy” has something to it. Leaders at all levels are functioning according to the Law but without firm leadership at the top. That and the steel spine of a Legion is unbreakable. Just that legend itself has spurred units to stand when enemy fire and steel should have broken flesh. However, the Brutes seem limitless and so they are as relentless as a rising tide. The routes to Riots Gate have been more difficult for the Brutes than imaginable. Like rising water however, there is always another way.”
After supper, he unrolled a map of the Wasted Sea and the eastern reaches of the Federation. “Here the hordes have been fought,” Boslin said as he pointed at the map. “Here are where the Legions and forces of the Federation muster. Things are so bad though, we are press ganging any of any kind of fitness into service. Troops are formed up in Cauldron and ten days later are marching north from Riots Gate. Many are not even citizens. Speed and enthusiasm are not the same as leadership and discipline. Losses in these units are high as they are used first with trained Legions moving in later in the battle to assure victory. Good tactics without a doubt. Not sure what it means for the day after tomorrow.”
He unrolled a few more papers and spoke, “I need you to take command of Alexi Company and move north to the Morin Pass tomorrow. Our advanced patrols spotted a Brute scouting party two days march from Morin this morning. They had Lucinda, a spellcaster who could communicate at distance, that discovery. We need the pass held to allow the 91st Sunfall Legion to escape the Brutish horde behind them. They have been fighting a rear-guard action since the Fall and have been collecting collapsed units and stragglers ever since. We think they can be re-constituted to take the offensive if we can bring them here, give them rest and re-arm them. You were a troop le