Chapter 37: Melée

Long shadows were cast on the ground as the great flock of kurach made their way southwest to aid their Fernwick brethern against the rebellious Imperials that the barbaric Ferals had no doubt misguided and lead down such a primitive path. Of course, sending such a great flock out hardly went unnoticed. Between those of the plains ever-watching the skies and the newly made alliance within the forest between the kurach and gryphons, there wasn't a chance for the Imperials to sneak over. The little messenger gryphons out on the prairie easily out-paced the lumbering wings above and word soon spread of how many Imperials were on the way and where they had made it to. The Sylvans, rebels, and Plains began to set out their counter measures.

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Richelle felt it would be faster to cut across the prairie rather than traverse through mountains and forests to the point where the Eor and Nyre were separated by the Rova river. They were perhaps halfway across the grassland portion of their journey. The multitude of kurach were making good progress and were in high spirits as they set up their evening camp. Warriors boasted to each other about their speed and cunning, and how retaking the Fernwick territory would be fast and simple.

The first counterstrike took them quite by surprise. That night, they were not met by the vicious Red Wings or barbaric Ferals, but by a few flocks of enraged gryphons!

"What is that horrid shrieking?" Walentyna demanded as she was abruptly roused by both primal and fearful screams.

"Nightwings are attacking!" her maid said fearfully as she tried to help the chieftess into her armour quickly.

"Owl-kits, this far from the forest?" Walentyna exclaimed in surprise as she hurried to get dressed. "They never come this far south! Hide yourself, young dam."

Walentyna could barely see with just a sliver of a moon to aid her as she tried to guide her troops. Not only were the gryphons diving at the kurach, they were also extinguishing dying campfires to make it even more difficult for the Imperials to defend themselves during the long night. At last, the nightwing gryphons suddenly retreated as false dawn came. Unknown to the Imperials, the Ferals had prepared a few meals so that their new allies would be well fed.

"Damage report," Udom called out to the captains tiredly as the first faint sunbeams broke over the horizon.

"We've lost a few, more than we took down of the gryphons, but it's not too severe," an exhausted captain replied.

"Bury the dead, burn the birds," Richelle said coldly. "I want to know why this happened. Send scouts to see if this is some nesting or hunting ground. Question the guards to see if they heard anything prior to the attack. I will have the heads of the those who allowed such negligence."

"The owl-kin have wings just as silent as their smaller cousins. Unless they were hooting and crying, none would have heard them coming," Walentyna said solemnly. "We subdued them in Sushaw lands. I can't imagine why they would suddenly become so bold."

The captains returned later with no satisfactory explanations. Undeterred, the rulers called for increased night patrols and more thorough surveyance before making camp. Their efforts were in vain. The nightwing gryphons attacked every three nights for two weeks before stopping. Five kurach had fell for every one gryphon they managed to kill. While death in battle was lauded among the Imperials, taking a very long time to reach their destination was not.

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"Fah! Every time we started moving again, those blasted birds fell on us," growled Richelle. "We've lost many, and we haven't even reached the trees yet!"

"This is highly unusual," Walentyna observed. "Predatory gryphons are solitary creatures when they're not nesting, and it's the wrong territory for those owls. Out here in the grasses there are only the little chicken kinds who are as faint of heart as rabbits."

"Perhaps the nightwings have chosen to prey on the gryph-chickens like real owls do with game fowl?" Udom suggested. "No matter. They seem to have lost interest. The kurach of the grasses do not inhabit this place and there are no other serious threats. We should be able to make it to the Nyre fine now! There is a fortuitous clear sky today!"

"Then why do I hear thunder?" Richelle asked. "You there, take wing and see if there are storms far on the horizon."

The scout did as he was bade and flew off into the direction of the rumbling and distant clouds of dust. He returned in a hurry.

"Grave news. It's a stampede, and coming our way," he began.

"We can easily fly out of the way of frightened cattle," Udom said confidently. "Give the orders to prepare for a quick leap, if necessary."

"It's not just a stampede," the scout continued uneasily. "It's the bison minocentaur being rode by Prairie warriors, coming toward us."

"We'll never make it to the river before they're on us," Richelle said. "Those thunderous beasts move like lightning and I refuse to flee from those hawks!"

"To arms! To arms!" bellowed Udom and the captains echoed his calls among their battalions. Those who were carrying supplies were sent further ahead out of harm's way. Fernwicken, Waebren, Sushawn, and Falnorn took flight and charged valiantly at the Ganche, Thistle, and Xyun riders. The minocentaur had been equipped with spears and the Prairie kurach had many bags of bullets and quivers of arrows for their slings and bows. With deadly accuracy, the Prairie kurach dropped many Sylvans from the sky with deadly accurate aim. Those who survived being shot were quickly trampled underfoot, gored, or skewered on a spear by the minocentaur.

The more agile flyers began to use themselves as decoys to draw enemy fire and deplete ammunition faster. Catching on to what they were doing, many Prairie kurach took flight for aerial dogfights. It was a veritable storm of feathers as the combatants dove, locked, and clashed. The Prairie warriors were built for longer flights than the Sylvans and soon were driving them back to the ground where the minocentaur lay in wait.

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As the sun began leaving the sky, so did the fervent grassland warriors. Like shadows before the rain, the minocentaur and their riders had vanished and left the Sylvans alone to count their losses.

Richelle kicked the corpse of a Thistle warrior in frustration when she head the death tally. "When did those barbarians become so coordinated? Since when do minocentaur allow themselves to be tamed?" she fumed.

"We have lost a great deal of good warriors," Walentyna said grimly. "Our supplies are in tact, but morale is not."

"We must make haste for the trees. Only stop for rest when it's absolutely necessary. We'll recoup and perform last rites for our fallen under the safety of the trees before we take the Fernwick territory back," Udom said in deep, serious tones. "I want scouts in the air at all times."

The war parties began to march on as instructed, moving often and resting little, on high alert for any more unusual attacks. Scouts were kept flying all day and many kept awake in shifts at night. Without further incident, they managed to cross the river and make it to the Nyre. However, a scout informed them of a long line of bison minocentaur and Prairie kurach far behind them, simply standing guard and not advancing. It was quite clear they were not welcome back in the open grasses any time soon, and when they crossed back to the Eor they would have to do so at the point where the Nyre and Eor touch the Rova.

The tired Imperials rested on the banks of the Rova near the safety of the branches to honour their dead and restock their rations through fishing.

"The forest is eerily devoid of game," Heyne commented. There weren't even many songbirds singing in the area. The Fernwick captain turned to the chief and chieftesses. "Unless your warriors can survive on pesky gnats and other parasitic insects, we will have to move swiftly, lest they may starve."

"We'll try to make do with what's available here. If necessary, I will send for supply lines to be established from Waebre," Richelle said.

Hunters managed to scrounge up a few deer and hogs, and others gathered a few plants and roots, but not nearly enough to ease how often they had to dip into their supply of smoked meats, fish, and other rations. After a day of foraging, they prepared to start moving again.

"Be on alert," Heyne whispered to his captain. "I hear hissing."

"There!" cried the captain when he caught the glimmer of a glowing eye.

The night before they were to resume their conquest, they were visited by the deep cave hounds whom dwarves sometimes kept as pets. The raiders had kept their campfires well maintained in preparation for a gryphon attack, but were not prepared for the blue-black scales of the yamaer that blended into the night, or their venom. More snake than dog, they slithered through the camp with the unnatural speed of all reptiles in a frenzied rush. Even though the raiders successfully drove off the yamaer with great flaming torches, those who had been bitten or scratched fell severely ill within a few hours, and many died.

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"I am starting to think the Fernwick were not overcome due to slovenly rule, but from environmental hazards!" Walentyna said the next morning after losses had been counted.

"A third of all our forces have fallen and we haven't even arrived at the capital yet," Richelle said coldly.

"We can't even conscript fresh bodies from the villages we have passed because they have all been abandoned. They even took all their belongings and supplies with them!" Heyne scowled. "Some drunkards have talked nonsense at the pubs about uniting with the surrounding peoples, but I didn't think any of them would actually do it. The Nyre isn't usually this dangerous. This is a concerted effort by the rebels!"

"We've come this far, and even if we hadn't, we couldn't abandon our Imperial kin. We must press on. To die with honor in glorious battle is any warrior's wish, and we shan't falter," Udom said solemnly. "But we may have to consider making a new home for the Fernwick in the Eor until we're strong enough to conquer all of these obstacles."

"Let's hope it doesn't come to that," Heyne said grimly. "I will not be run out of my home, even if those lowly cowards are using yamaer to do it."

At last, the Imperials managed to reach the tall trees that grew in the capital's grove. They found it as devoid of commonfolk as the outlying villages, and in their place stood the Fernwick rebels along with their Blade, Weolcen, and Scissortail allies. A total of seven thousand were waiting to meet the six thousand Imperials who had survived the journey. The Imperials fanned out to match the broad columns of warriors standing before them. The rulers and lead captains strode forward to meet in the middle.

"Where are the Fernwick elders?" Udom demanded roughly.

"Safe. Unharmed, beyond bruised egos," replied Ryan.

"What do you hope to accomplish by all this?" Udom asked and swept his arm in a grand gesture toward the Ferals behind the blue knight. "You have earned yourself among the dishonoured dead. Even if you survive, you would never be able to live among your people again. Do you love these filthy Ferals so much?"

"I did it to survive. For the Fernwick to survive," Ryan stated firmly. "The gryphons and hounds have left our people unharmed now for months. There are already talks amongst the Ferals, Prairie, and even dwarves of trade for items we never would have been able to acquire by stealing."

"You would betray your own people to passively swap trinkets?" demanded Udom. His eyes were fierce and his features stern. "You expect this fleeting freedom to be permanent? You expect your newfound allies to remain your allies, and not take advantage of your weakness to make you their slaves?"

"Yes," Ryan said firmly. "And this could be for all of us, if you join us, brother," Ryan implored. "This could be ended quickly. We are the dawn of a new era for the Imperials, nay, the whole of the Sylvans, where we can flourish more than ever before."

"Unlike you," Udom said with a burning glare, "we do not cower before our enemies and so eagerly jump into bed with them."

"Then you choose to fall before them," Ryan said with resignation. "We will not back down."

"You will be the one to fall at dawn, tomorrow," Udom said coldly. "At least you have enough of your pride left to stand and fight. I expect you to die like the warrior you were trained to be."

Ryan did not respond, and each turned away to return to their fellows. Both sides recessed into the forest to prepare for the next day's battle.

"Tomorrow then," Ryan said with a resigned sigh. "May the spirits bless us and protect us on the morrow and through the night, until this is over."

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War drums beat steadily through the night. Surrounding inhabitants who had not already fled began to leave the area for fear of beign caught up in the Sylvan struggle for dominance over the Fernwick capital. The restless Sylvans began to stir before dawn broke and were waiting for each other at the Fernwick capital when the first strains of light began to filter through the leaves. While modestly outnumbered and morale low from their losses, the raiders were not ones to be intimidated or cowed into submission. They launched the first strike in their full-furred feral forms, and began the long, bloody day that lay ahead of all the clans gathered together.

⁂

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"Ma? Are you alright?" Shanku asked worriedly as they sat together around many bowls of summer beans.

"Your father is out there," Nari replied sadly, absent-mindled shelling another pod of beans.

"Up in Fernwick in the skirmishes?"

"Yes. The last messenger said it was about time for the Imperials to arrive," Nari sighed.

"Maybe he'll be alright. Our family tends to survive some pretty rough stuff," Shanku smiled weakly.

"And you wanted to be in the thick of it?" Nari shook her head in disbelief. "I don't see why."

"I don't like being blamed for something I didn't do," Shanku growled. "I'd love to personally snap at the raiders."

"Try not to take it personally. The Arctic were probably just lashing out in frustration," Nari suggested.

"That doesn't make it right to direct it at me," Shanku said flatly.

"It doesn't, but stress clouds judgment."

"How come they get to be stressed and I have to be understanding?" Shanku grumbled.

"Because an understanding person understands the best way to right a wrong," Nari replied with a mischievous twinkle in her eye. "Sometimes an indirect approach is best."

"The most 'indirect' I'm capable of is not directly knocking sense into somebody."

"It'll come with age," Nari nodded. "And a little guidance. I have a lot of time to make up with you."

"Is that why I've been shelling beans almost nonstop for a week now?" Shanku asked grumpily.

"That would need to be done regardless," Nari chuckled. "What's a soup without beans?"

"Stew," Shanku said flatly.

"I must have Mama fix her venison bean stew for you sometime then," Nari stated.

"As long as it smells better than those poultices she always slathered us with," Shanku shuddered. "That was one thing I didn't miss while I was gone!"

"It got the job done, didn't it?" Nari asked with a wry grin.

Shanku shook her head and went back to shelling the neverending supply of beans, and thinking of Templeton and his potatoes. Her thoughts strayed to her time in the arctic with Huata and Yakone, and the unsettling tales they had of the aggressiveness and magnitude of the Imperial raids. Except this time they wouldn't be battling for sport or supplies. Overtaking the Fernwick territory when the warriors were away would be seen as a cowardly move rather than a strategic one, and no doubt they would be severe in avenging their wounded pride.

When they had finished stripping the beans of their hulls, they brought their bowls to the many drying racks to let the beans shrivel and harden so they would have plenty to eat on during the winter.

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The days passed painfully slow as the Scissortails waited for news from the battlefront. Even the incorrigible Muso had sobered when he knew it would be time for his father to be fighting. Sire Bibot could only assure his son's family that the rebels were holding their own against the invaders, but could not provide specific news on how Zanzen fared.

"Why didn't they let me teach them how to shift feral?" Shanku growled through clenched teeth and punched a tree with the side of her fist even harder a second time.

"The tree didn't wrong you, be nicer to it," Hilael said with a frown.

"I'm sorry, Hilael. I'm just... so frustrated!" Shanku exclaimed. "The Imperials live for and thrive in battle, and aren't shy of turning into those dangerous hairballs. The Ferals just play stupid war games with each other and don't really focus on real combat. I don't see how we're gonna repel the Imperials, much less for Da to..." She stopped, inhaled deeply, and exhaled slowly. "I didn't come home just to lose everybody all over again."

"Have some faith," Hilael said gently. "Da is a strong warrior, as are the Scissortails and other Ferals. They wrested control away, didn't they? Surely they can keep it."

"They'll have to be crafty and out-think our enemies," Shanku said slowly. "Like they did to thin their ranks before they arrived."

"We're many miles away, and it's not our fight," Hilael said. "Don't waste time agonizing about it."

"But shouldn't we prepare for when it is our fight?" Shanku asked.

"Faith, zuznre," Hilael said again with a soft smile. "It will not come to us."

⁂

Ryan propped against the broad trunk of an old tree, breathing heavily and clutching his left arm. He had been badly bitten earlier and was exhausted from days of fighting. One of the Blade medics approached him and bade him to return to the common form so she could begin to dress his injury. He consented and lifted the sleeve of what was left of his tunic out of the way.

"You should just remove it altogether," the medic frowned. "There's not much remaining."

"Much like our clan," he said bitterly.

"Or just like your limbs available for fighting," the medic scolded. "You'll have to keep it in a sling until it heals."

"At least it's not my main hand, I guess," Ryan sighed. After the medic had finished cleaning and binding his injury, she left to go tend to some of the many wounded who were waiting for care. Ryan hauled himself to his feet and went to find the other leaders of the Nyre forces.

"Ah, our blue devil survived another day!" Thitala said cheerily.

"Glad to see you're still alive too, you Weol scoundrel," Ryan said with a stiff, mirthless smile.

"Surely you aren't losing your resolve?" Thitala asked.

"No, not really," Ryan replied. "But they cut through us too easily. We Fernwick are doing what we can to make up for the Feral's lack of ability to, well, go feral, but... we're losing. We are no match for the Eor warriors." His attention was drawn by the clacking of a beak and he whipped his head in the direction of the noise. "Zyzy?"

"Work smarter, not harder," Zyzy reprimanded. "Can't fight if can't eat."

"We have to cut their supply lines," Ryan said slowly as it dawned on him what she was saying.

"We have cut their supply lines," Zyzy said smugly and preened a few feathers on her chest. "We like the new Sylvans here. Eor Sylvans are old ones, and we don't want the old ones back."

"When? How?" Ryan asked.

"Kirshani helped!" Zyzy said proudly. "We shared Sylvan gifts. The craftsy little scaly monkeys cast their magics to hide game, and we have let none pass over the river. If they go around to the south, the mino-bison wait. If they go around to the north, it's dragon nesting grounds."

"I never realized gryphons could be such powerful and cunning allies," Thitala mused. "We are in your debt, great lady."

"So now we just have to be resilient," Ryan said with a slow smile. "We don't have to push them back, we just have to last longer than they can."

"The Eor Sylvans have great pride. They would sooner die fighting than to surrender, even if faced with starvation," Thitala warned. "A cornered beast is always fiercest."

On the other side of the Fernwick capital, news soon reached the waiting Eor Sylvans of the state of their food trains.

"Damned dirty, cowardly, traitorous dogs!" Richelle fumed as she paced feverishly. "Using gryphons again! If they cannot meet us fairly on their own, they should not fight at all! I will have all their heads for this. Strung on pikes, for all to see, for generations!"

"We must find a way to break through the gryphons' barrier to let our supply lines through," Walentyna said as she stared at the fire. "Our warriors cannot fight with willpower alone. The rebels have not initiated any attacks. We can use that to our advantage to have a few days' rest, and try to get some food to our people."

"Let's disassemble some of these abandoned huts," Udom suggested. "If we surround our people with shields, we can stop any diving gryphons, and spear any that try to assault us from the ground."

"How will that get rations across the river?" Walentyna asked.

"Waebren boats," Richelle said. "Sometimes we sail the river for pleasure. Now, we will sail to survive. Get just one messenger across the river, and we can shield those powering the boats."

"At once, then!" Walentyna said. Udom immediately gave orders for shields to be constructed to protect a messenger to be sent across the Rova.

The defending Sylvans welcomed the break when the invading ones stayed in their camps the following days, and spirits were high as they assumed the raiders were losing interest. Zyzy soon returned with sobering news. "They are crossing the river again."

"I thought you had them cut off from the river?" Ryan asked.

"We did, but they hide under slabs of wood like bugs under a rock," Zyzy shrieked. "We cannot get to them. They crawl under their shelters on the other side where the owl-kin cannot get to them either, and shoot at us with fowl slings. Rivercats are too stupid to coax to overturn their boats and will not help."

"It didn't take them long to find a way to secure their meals again," Thitala said grimly. "We can expect a renewed fervor when they've had a chance to fill their bellies again."

"The Eor is colder than the Nyre and have to rely on game," Ryan said. "We may have the advantage of crops in the long run, but we'll still have to weather through their superior strength first."

"Us 'weaker' Ferals are not without our strengths," Thitala said. "I will see to it we are better equipped."

In the lull created by the hungry raiders needing to fuel their bodies, Thitala and the other Sylvan commanders had a chance to present their warriors with new weapons and armour fresh from the dwarven forges.

"We advance from wolves to wolverines!" said one warrior proudly as he slipped on a gauntlet with sharp spikes extending over the fingers. "We could have used these from the start!"

"More like veritable porcupines with all these spines. How do we fly in so much leather and metal?" asked another with concern.

"You don't," the other one said. "We stand our ground, and when we see the whites of their eyes," he paused and made a fierce punching gesture into the air. "Look, they even sent extra oil! They knew we'd make the sky rain blood."

Ryan pulled one of the guantlets onto his good hand. "We should begin to focus on driving them out of the Nyre now. We've played nice long enough. I really wish we didn't have to resort to such tactics."

"Indeed," said his old friend, Jorgen. "Our own provisions are becoming strained. This cannot be sustained forever."

"I'm not sure how many more of my old comrades I can handle killing either," Ryan said with disgust. "How can so many of us be fighting for what we believe is right and still end up doing something so wrong?"

"We are knights, not philosophers. It is our job to battle and protect, not agonize over emotional mathematics," Jorgen said.

"Then you'll enjoy this yamaer venom sent to coat your new weaponry," Ryan said and handled him a vial of a greenish liquid. "Courtesy of our subterranean allies."

"We are fortunate they never wanted to take the above-ground for their own," Jorgen shuddered and took the vial. "How did they even harvest such a thing?"

Two days later the Eor Sylvans initiated the fighting once again with renewed vigor despite the glint of new armour upon their enemies.

"Look, how they cower in fear at our might under dwarven clothes!" Walentyna said triumphantly. "We will soon be victorious!" Her initial confidence quickly faded when she saw the necrotic hemotoxins taking effect on her warriors, causing them to collapse and bleed out quickly.

"What fresh cowardice is this?" Walentyna roared.

"Yamaer venom," Richelle spat vehemently. "They must be desperate to stoop so low. Only a few are using it. If we can identify who, and kill them quickly, we can handle their shiny new toys."

With each new method either side came up with to outwit or overpower the other, countermeasures were developed, and it seemed there would be no end to the bloody battle for the Fernwick territory any time soon.

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