The cacophony of camp being struck had died down. It wasn’t precisely still, with the shifting of armored bodies, and the quiet murmur of fellows speaking softly to one another. Lord Sven had done his inspections of the ranks and the site to ensure that muster had been handled in the most appropriate manner. The servants would follow the fighting men in their train, and the quartermaster would draft their reports.
The various plans were still gently tumbling about in his mind. It would be months until the next forum, which meant that he was able to be where he was most comfortable, among the fighting men and women under his command. He and Sir Ingvar had worked out the bulk of the particulars for this season. That fucking witch had raised the Karls under Longstrider that he had already massacred once, and their odd brand of shambling order had put the monstrosities between his forces and the settlement of Runeheim. The Lord Marshal was chomping at the bit to get back to the town.
Sir Ingvar was to take his force and move through the hills to the forests to the South. Word that the bastard Overturner had put them into a political bind… not un-artistically, at least, had reached them via a courier in the forum. Supplies, they had said, were coming from Overturner to secure a landbridge somewhere to their East in the yet uncharted areas of the local theater. How Vidar, the detestable cunt, had knowledge of this bridge was beyond him, but he’d found a way to force his actions almost immediately with Sven’s return to the North. The highborn snorts and spat noisily in disgust.
Sven, for his part, was to assist in the destruction of the undead horde encroaching on the settlement and allow the Lord Marshal to fall back and secure the town. Then he was to move further East to explore along the river to find this bridge he was to secure. It was a reasonable plan, if boring. With the inspection of the lines done, he shouted to Eda to bring around his horse. Already clad in his armor, it took two men to help settle him into his saddle, but already he was feeling better about the day. He gestured to the two figures tasked with the day-to-day of managing his troops, and calls were immediately given for the army to advance towards the shambling undead. They would wait at the tree line for the Lord Marshal and that Hothands fellow to strike their camp and join him. Perhaps he would alleviate his boredom with a playful attack to their flank. A… training exercise. Just to get the blood pumping. The idea amused him.
Sven wheeled his horse around and began riding up and down the length of his line, shouting to his men and joking as he passed. The troops liked him; but it was hard for soldiers not to like him. He was proper and noble when he needed to be, but he could drink most in the camp under a table, and knew more bawdy lyrics and course jokes than half the legion combined. The rank and file liked a little spit and dirt on their officers. He was just preparing to give the order to playfully encircle the firemages camp and begin sparing with the unprepared soldiers when a scout rode up, his horse in a lather with blood on his temple. The scout jerked his horse to a skidding stop and issued a distressed salute.
“My Lord, the town is under siege!” he panted, once his salute was acknowledged. Sven furrowed his brow. That seemed… unlikely. The only force they had been aware of within striking distance of Runeheim was the six hundred or so risen Karls, the stench of which wafted up after the scout like some horrid perfume.
“At ease, soldier. Take a breath,” he said, raising a calming hand to the scout whose name was escaping him. Lief? Erik? He couldn’t remember. “Start at the beginning, how does the town find itself under attack?”
The scout took a deep breath, which helped him find his center, before he began again.
“I was scouting out along the river to find the line of the dead things as ordered,” he began. Sven nodded patiently; he remembered issuing the order. “When on the horizon I noted the sails and pennants of ships crossing the river. Longboats, my lord. Dozens of them.”
Sven frowned again. That seemed… unlikely, though not impossible. The other side of the river had been difficult to scout or find a foothold in. Still… to cross through those unforgiving mountains, onto boats, across the river, land and lay an assault… whoever this Warlord was, they were talented.
“Do you know more?” he asked, rolling the situation around in his mind. The scout nodded, but didn’t seem pleased.
“When I saw the troops leaving the longboats, I rode closer. They moved to attack Runeheim, milord! The town itself!” he seemed in a near panic again. Sven raised a calming hand.
“What of the defenders?” he asked in that same placid tone. “What banners did you see? Think man, take your time and remember.”
“I saw the pennants of the Shadow Wall,” that was what the locals called Shadows of Nemesis organized under Sir Niven. “Sir Ingvar, Dame Solace, and someone I didn’t recognize. All of them were pushed out of the town and fell back to the hills, milord. The town is undefended!”
Sven raised a gauntleted hand to his chin and pondered for a moment.
“Carry this message on to the Lord Marshal’s forces,” he said after a few moments. “Tell whomever you find there that I will punch through this undead horde and carry on to the town. They can catch up when they finish striking their camps.”
The scout saluted and rode off, his horse thundering into the distance.
“Pushing through the dead without support will be hazardous, my lord,” a voice called from the horse next to him. Sven looked over to see one of his Commanders, Troels Hadvarson. A good man; he’d been with him for years. The grave features of the Bear Hide weren’t afraid, just aware of the peril. “Those dead aren’t simple. They hold their weapons with confidence and are unsettling to look upon. If there were just living Karls, that would be a tough battle. But as they are…?”
Sven shrugged, “We’ve little choice in the matter, Commander. Issue the orders, I want a brisk march to the enemy. I can smell them from here, and I’d like this done with.”
The Commander snapped a salute without further comment and began issuing the orders. Sven drew his sword and looked back to his line. Vengeance, the massive black stallion under him did a small excited side prance for a few steps. It could smell the unnatural terrors that they were about to engage, and it had no love for the idea. But it was also one that had been drilled from birth to obey. All it took was the gentle heel to the ribs, and the horse leapt towards the enemy. The roar of his men behind him rolled through the forest.
Ahead of them, the dead turned their vacant gaze towards the sound and formed up in surprisingly orderly ranks. They issued no commands that he could hear. They bellowed no challenges. The only sound from that side of the battlefield were the bloated flies and the click of armor. Of all the terrors of the undead, their echoing silence was the most unnerving.
The battle was thick and intense. The dead did not retreat, but rather fought until the very last of them were downed and dismembered. They had been tough and terrifying and not at all the bumbling ghouls he had cut his teeth on to the South. These had been touched by Sveas, may the good Lord smite her wretched essence back to whatever darkness had birthed her. Still, they had been rudderless. Their lines had held, but not responded well. Whatever witch had empowered them had abandoned them to their own devices. The angle responses of the bellowing Sven and his Commanders had easily outmaneuvered, overrun, and massacred the forces of Longstrider a second time. Covered in rotted blood and viscera, reeking of month old decay made fresh and sprayed across the bodies of his triumphant soldiers, they had been afforded no rest. Rather, they had marched directly on to the city without pause.
The intention had been to attack the Warlord from across the river before he could deal much damage to the innocent people of Runeheim. But, at the sight of the enraged Fenris forces cutting through the dead and barreling his direction, they had issued orders to fall back to their longboats and retreat across the river. Sven had reigned up his horse impotently, staring at the sails of the retreating ships just out of reach. He had no archers, and even if he had, he wasn’t sure they could have landed a shot against the wind coming off the sea. Sven grit his teeth and spat again. First from the frustration. Then a second time from the rotted stench coming off his armor.
“Secure the beach,” he snapped, irritated, to Troels. “And send a runner to Ingvar and Solace to return to town.”
The Commander snapped another salute and began issuing orders.
“And tell the men to wash their armor, this stench is unbearable,” he shouted to his retreating subordinate’s back. Long years of experience told him that this missed engagement would haunt him the rest of the season. He ground his teeth in rage, casting a final look to the retreating sails of the longboats before wheeling his stallion around and trotting back to town. If he and his men were going to be spending the next few months this close to town, he was going to find a proper drink and maybe a fuck to vent his rage. “And tell the Epoch to start burying these fucking bodies!”