Elyria at War Part 4: The Neran

Right, this one took a while to complete. I do still plan on continuing the series, but my real life did interfere. Never fear though. I'm still working on them. So for your reading pleasure:

Elyria at War: The Neran

Catriona scratched at the scar on her cheek. It had healed well, better than she’d expected but it was still an ugly thing. The blade had been coated in swamp stink from one of the Rotbringers, so it hadn’t been an easy healing.

In fact, the song priests had all but given up as her face had swelled and the pus had run. The thought of those days spent in fevered delirium sent a shudder through her, the image of her face twisted beyond recognition by putrescence. Not that she’d ever been a great beauty with her stub nose and wide peasant face, which was no surprise given her heritage.

The chapel was quiet except for the sound of her finger nails on her skin and the slow drizzle of rain against stain glass windows. Ostensibly she was here to pray for victory, for success on the field of battle, but she knew that was just a puppet show for the morale of the menn and womenn of her company. She’d spent too much time among her social betters, where virtue was turned to vice, to ever believe in true virtue again.

A small sigh passed her lips. Every damn time. Every time she had to spend time here among the symbols of the Faith, just to keep the people believing in her. And her knees were beginning to hurt from all the kneeling.

“Pray tell me child, why do you sigh so much?” The song priest said from the side entrance. His face was hooded but she recognized the voice.

“My, my, if it isn’t Brother Liam come to save my soul. Again. ” Catriona chuckled in response. The song priest lowered his hood to reveal a young bearded face, pale skinned from too much candlelight but with bright eyes.

“Sister.” Liam responded calmly. “I shall never stop praying for you to find the virtuous path.”

Catriona couldn’t help herself, her chuckle turned into a laugh.

“How come on the eve of battle, when I have bigger concerns than my soul, do you think I need spiritual guidance? What I need are tactics, strategy, supplies and equipment. That is what you can give me, you and your vaunted church.”

“Have we not already given enough?” His tone was calm and placid, yet there was music in his speech. “We gave you shelter and learning, strengthened your body and soul, yet you scorn the gifts of the Virtues.”

“Gifts of the Virtues?” Catriona almost spat, though she still had that much respect for the Faith that she didn’t. She gestured to her garb and the sword at her side.

“These are the gifts of menn. Not of gods. What you saw in me was talent, talent you nurtured for your own ends. A puppeteer’s farce for the common folk to cheer for!”

She’d always had a gift for bladework, an instinct on when to hit where. It was something the Duke had seen in her as a child, a gift he’d nurtured and nowadays paraded in front of the common folk to show his affinity for the ‘common people’.

“You know that isn’t true. The Duke is a pious mann who saw in you greatness to be nurtured if raised in the proper setting. You should be grateful to him.” Liam’s voice remained calm.

“Oh I am grateful.” Catriona replied, whip-quick. “Grateful for the chance to rise in the world. Grateful to be able to protect my friends and family. Grateful for good steel and good company.”

Despite his piousness and the stick shoved up his backside, Liam was a good mann, who genuinely cared about the people he shepherded. He was the company song-priest and had been with her from her first campaign.

“I see.” Liam responded, his voice hesitant.

Catriona got up off her knees, joints cracking painfully as she straightened.

“If you’ll excuse me, Brother. There’s an army needs seeing to and a battle to fight.” Catriona said as she headed out.

“May the Virtues guide you.” Liam called after her, his voice barely audible as she slammed open the chapel’s double doors.

Yeah, right.

As if she needed some figments as an excuse to fight.

Mud squelched underfoot and rain flattened her short shorn hair. The camp was quiet as she walked through, keenly aware of her soldier’s eyes following her. She could see it in their eyes, they worshiped her with a near religious fervor. It was something she could not understand, would never understand. How could you entrust someone with your life? How could you be so loyal to someone that you’d die for them?

She hoped she was worthy of that trust.

The command tent stood atop a small hillock and rivers of rain water ran rivulets down the meager slope she ascended.

Catriona opened the flap of her tent and warm air embraced her from the opening. Her subordinates were already waiting for her. In fact, they were debating.

“No!” Master Sergeant Dannan said, raising his voice. The grizzled veteran pointed to the map on the central table. “That entire hillside is broken ground. All a charge would get is dead horses.”

“Precisely what the enemy would think!” Gearalt, the cavalry commander replied. “Which is why we should do it. Lead the horses behind the enemy and then mount up and take ‘em in the rear!”

“Only you would dream of taking the enemy in the rear.” Kelan laughed, in his high lilting voice. The Kypiq was a scarred monster by anyone’s standards, more scar than skin, but on his tiny body it looked like he’d been used as a wolf’s chew toy. For years.
Gearalt reddened. “Are you impugning my honor, sir? That I can only claim victory through cowardly tactics?”

“No, I’m talking about your love of beautiful menn.” Kelan clarified. “I hear the Count’s quite the beauty. Bet you’d like to take his rear.”

Gearlat’s face reddened even further and his hand went to his blade. Gearalt was old blood from aristocratic stock and he took everything too seriously in Catriona’s opinion. Couple that with Dannan’s own peasant heritage and Kelan’s unorthodox approach to being Kypiq, the three became a volatile mixture likely to boil at any given moment.

It was also what made them so brilliant. Each one of her subordinates knew their business like few others. Combined they were almost monstrous. The only thing they needed was to be… harnessed. Which is where Catriona came in.

“Now now,” Catriona said, finally speaking up from the tent opening, before it got bloody. “We’re all on the same side.”

All three turned to her. Dannan with a big grin, Gearalt with a still red frown and Kelan with an enigmatic smile on his face.

“Fair lady, this mann impugned my honor and I wish to take satisfaction.” Gearalt said in crisp militant tones. His hand hadn’t left his blade yet.

“I ain’t no lady.” Catriona replied in her thickest peasant drawl. “Common as guttershite I am.”

Kelan sniggered and Dannan snorted.

“Listen up, gents. The business we’re in is corpses, that’s true. But I’ll be damned if they’re ours. So Gearalt, grow thicker skin. Kelan’s been baiting you for five years now and each time you threaten him with violence.” The baron’s son nodded meekly.

“Kelan! Stop baiting him, you know what he’s like.” Catriona continued, she saw Dannan’s grin and her dark brown eyes focused on the old veteran. He gulped. “And you! You’re the oldest of them, you’re supposed to know better. Instead of standing there enjoying the show, next time knock their heads together!”

Sometimes, just sometimes she felt more like a nursemaid or a child minder than a general.

Actually, most times.

“So what’s the plan?” Catriona said, changing the topic.

“My scouts report that the enemy has engaged the service of a troop of Janoan mercenaries in addition to his own forces.” Kelan replied easily. “Even with the additional forces we still outnumber him by half.”

Catriona nodded. It wasn’t an unexpected move. The Stripes were drawn to battle like flies to shit. Always looking to prove themselves. It wasn’t good news though. Janoan mercenaries were fierce and unlikely to flee. Pride would keep them from running.

Dannan cleared his throat. “As you are aware the count’s heavy cavalry is three times our size but his infantry contingent is meager at best.”

“We figure his most likely approach is to mire our main force with his own infantry and the mercenaries and then try and hammer our flanks with his cavalry.” Gearalt added.

Catriona nodded. It made sense. It was a straightforward approach, but a difficult one to counter.

“So what have you come up with?” Catriona asked.

“Luckily we have the option of choosing the ground.” Dannan replied in his gravelly tones. He pointed to the map. The spot was a few miles from the village and looked utterly unremarkable on the map. “This is where we fight. A flat plain with broken slopes on our right, woodland to our left. The perfect ground for a head on confrontation.”

Catriona looked at the map again and smiled. She was looking forward to a head-on confrontation.

The grey hazy dawn was indistinguishable from dusk, except for a purplish light that spread across the heavens like a bruise.

Catriona found herself overlooking the battlefield atop her mount, Rain, a fitting name for the day’s weather. The old destrier had seen better days, but he’d been aged before she’d even learned to ride. It wasn’t likely that she’d see battle though. Given her status as general, if the fighting came to her, then she’d done something wrong. It was a far cry from before when she had been on the frontline but none of her subordinates would allow her to fight anymore. Not since… Her hand rose to the scar.

Two hours the armies had been engaged. Her company of five hundred against the count’s three hundred and fifty.

So far it was all going according to plan. Her archers lined the leftward slope of broken ground, safe from cavalry with an open line of retreat. In the opening moments those hundred men had proven crucial, whittling down the enemy slowly as each few heartbeats a hundred shafts ascended.

Then the vanguards had met. The Count’s Janoan mercenaries against her own two hundred, armed and armored in the finest she could afford. The remaining hundred and fifty of hers had soon followed and all semblance of formation had been lost as both sides clashed.

It felt odd to look at it from afar. In the thick of it, it never seemed as chaotic and haphazard. It was simple. You killed those not wearing your colors. If there were less of yours around, you fought harder until there were more.

But looking at it now, it just seemed so indistinguishable. She couldn’t tell who was winning and who wasn’t. There was just a mass of menn, some taller than others, grappling in the mud. Screaming, crying, dying.

“Enemy cavalry’s moving.” Kelan said from above her. The Kypiq was standing atop a boulder, looking glass over his right eye. “They’re skirting the forest.”

Catriona nodded. “Blow the horn.”

Kelan nodded and took up a horn that was almost his own size and blew. The sound rumbled slowly, half heartedly at first but then grew, rising to a steady roar.

Catriona heard the response even from this far as her soldiers roared. Emerging from the treeline her riders charged into the flanks of the heavy cavalry. Horses crashed into each other and menn’s legs were crushed underneath dead horses. She’d hoped the count’s cavalry would crumble; caught flat footed and outmaneuvered it had been a possibility. Sadly they didn’t. Fighting on fiercely.

“Do something!” Liam said after a while. “Order the retreat! Those menn are dying.”

“Yes.” Catriona replied, her voice hard and cold. “They are.” It had been the only way. The only way to ensure victory. Her fifty riders for victory on the field. A sacrifice.

“What have you done?” Liam asked, horror and disgust twisting his normally beautiful voice.

“I won.” Catriona said watching as the archers charged from broken ground into the main enemy body. Like a poorly constructed wall, the enemy’s line fell.

The plan had worked perfectly. It had been obvious from the start that victory depended on the enemy cavalry. Yet with no way of combating them, the only strategy was to tie them down. To stop them in their tracks. So she’d ordered her own riders to hide in the woods and to stop the count’s riders, by any means necessary. All fifty of them had charged in, knowing they would die.

Catriona looked at the cavalry massacre again. Didn’t look away as her menn died for her. She owed them that much.

When a part of her main force detached from the melee and charged into the enemy horses, she knew it was all over. Without the initiative a horseman was just a large target. Nothing more.

The day was won.

Funny. Funny how it had taken fifty dead menn to shut up the priest. Funny how now that he looked at her with disgust, as if she were filth, did she find she missed talking to him.

Normally after a battle he’d be crooning about how the Virtues had given them strength, how victory had been achievable only because of the Virtues. Not now.

The song-priest’s absence was not remarked upon however. Soon after the battle had ended, he’d rode off on his pony without a backward glance.

The camp was in a celebratory mood, among the few prisoners there were a handful of aristocrats and noble sons. People the Duke would pay handsomely for. Yet even in the midst of celebrations she saw the muted joy. They were all soldiers who had lost comrades and yet, the sacrifice of her cavalry was a hard blow.

Everywhere she looked, around campfires and through open tent flaps she saw how they raised their glasses to fallen comrades, how their eyes followed her. Was there a hint of fear in their eyes perhaps? A sense of dread?

She thought she saw that and more, but also knew it was her conscience eating away at her.

The command tent’s flap was open and soldiers stood at the opening laughing and singing.

All gave a respectful nod as she walked through their armored bodies and into the tent.

“… and then he looked at me with fear in his eyes and I could smell it. He done shat himself right in front of us.” Dannan’s voice was laughing. The old soldier was always at his brightest after a victory. Telling tales, laughing drinking. The others laughed with him. Not that it was particularly funny, but the post battle calm always had a fey air to it, left you unsettled and restless.

So menn and womenn drank and fucked, laughed and cried; all to keep from thinking of the people they killed. Trying to keep from thinking of them as menn.

Kelan meanwhile was walking over the central table on his hands while others tried to mimic him on the floor, to no success. “A strange lot indeed.” Gearalt said, as he stepped up to her. “You owe me a horse. In fact, you owe me a contingent of cavalry at least fifty strong.”

There was no reproach in his voice, not even a hint of disapproval. A military mann to the last.

“Do you blame me?” Catriona asked. Not sure if she feared the answer or not.

“It was the right decision tactically. It was a good decision.” Gearalt’s voice remained neutral, with not a hint of any emotion.

“Yes, but do you blame me?”

Gearalt took a deep breath. He looked old and worn even though he was a year or two younger than Catriona.

“I had that stallion since he was a foal. Coalsmoke I called him, because he looked coal black when he was born but faded to a blackish grey within a few weeks. I weaned him, trained him, loved him even. And now he’s dead. Gone in a single charge.” Gearalt sounded mournful, he turned his head towards the village.

“And yet, this is what we do. A soldier follows orders and makes sacrifices so they don’t have to. We fight and we die, both mann and beast. He was a soldier. He followed my orders. He died under my watch. Simple as that. So did all the others.” He turned to her, eyes moist in the light of the braziers. “No, I don’t blame you. None of us do. We won. You made us win.”

Catriona didn’t breathe a sigh of relief or anything else she expected to feel. There was no weight lifted from her. It surprised her at how light she felt. At how little those deaths affected her. As if they were only numbers, not people.

Dannan had disengaged himself from the others and approached her.

“Lass, you should take yourself to your tent. No offense meant, but you look like death and you ain’t even fought.” Dannan always called her ‘lass’ when he drank; a remainder from the old days when she couldn’t even hold a sword or ride a horse.

“Just tell me our losses and I’ll go to my tent.” Catriona replied evenly.

“Right y’are. Altogether our losses amount to one hundred and seventy two menn-at-arms. Twelve of those are alive but won’t fight again. Fifty of those… well you know why. The rest are from the melee. Those Stripes sure don’t pull any punches.” He rolled his neck. “I’m getting too old for this. Time was I could fight all day and fuck all night. Now I’m burned after half a day and wanting me own bed.”

Catriona digested the news. A third of her troops were dead. It was a lot, almost too much.

“What happened to the Janoa?” She finally asked. She hadn’t seen what exactly had happened but one moment they were there, the next they’d disappeared.

Dannan shrugged. “Not much, once the Count got his, they buggered off right sharpish. No money to be gotten from a dead mann.”

Catriona gave another nod. That was the problem with mercenaries. Those who fought only for gold and pride were always fickle. Still, she was glad they had fled, their continued presence might have resulted in even more deaths.

“Right then,” Catriona said. “I’ll leave you to it.”

Dannan nodded and grabbed a wineskin from another soldier, raising it in salute.

“Right y’are lass, have a good rest.”

Sleep remained elusive, an enemy rather than an ally. Catriona tossed and turned in her bunk, blanket wrapping around her legs, face hot and mind afire. It wouldn’t stop spinning. Her nightshirt felt itchy and hot yet her bare arms cold, her feet like ice.

Outside the sounds of revelry had died down and the sounds of snoring soldiers was all that remained of the day’s activities. Then she heard it, a polite cough right outside her tent.

At first she thought she was mistaken but then it came again.

“Come in.” Catriona called, sitting up.

To her surprise the familiar figure of Liam entered the tent.

“My lady,” he said with a bow. “Pardon the intrusion.” Then he saw her sitting in her night shirt and cleared his throat. “If you’d like me to come back at a more appropriate time…”

“Never mind all that.” Catriona waved him off. “What brings you here? Come to have another go at me?”

Liam gave a nervous chuckle. “I found myself praying all evening, asking for guidance.”

“So have you come to reveal your divine revelation?” Her reply was acid. Great, just what she needed. Pious claptrap atop of not sleeping.

“I have in a manner of speaking. I realized something. No matter if you are virtuous or not, you serve the Virtues. Your mere presence is a symbol for the faithful, therefore you are of the Faith. Your own beliefs matter little in the affairs of the gods.”

“Ah… so you’ve decided to use me. Just like all the others.” Catriona said. She sighed. Of course. What had she expected? His attempts at conversion had always seemed more focused on her welfare, but this? This was what they all did. Twisted fact to suit their purpose.

“You know, do what you want. Tell yourself whatever lies you want. I’m not going to continue this farce any more. I am not a tool for you to use. I am my own person, with my own thoughts, my own feelings. You don’t like it? Well then I can shove a sword up your arse and see if the Virtues still protect you.” She felt her fury rise.

“My faith is my shield…” Liam began. His words died in his throat, reduced to a gurgle as she saw a sword jut from his chest.

Catriona just reacted. She didn’t think she just jumped towards her sword, drawing it, ready to swing.

“I thought he would never stop talking. Worthless mongrel. Preaching right and wrong like sheep.” A voice said from behind Liam, his words thickly accented. “You however seem strong. Not swayed by the words of false gods. Only your own Spirit matters. I shall enjoy taking yours into mine.”

The sword withdrew and Liam slumped to the floor. His outline was replaced by a taller mann covered in thick black stripes.

“Janoa.” Catriona spat.

“You plainsfolk are weak. Yet your victory proved you are worthy. Worthy of being prey. That is what we seek. What we always seek.” The Janoa smiled, teeth shining in the darkened tent.

Catriona charged. Steel met steel in a furious exchange. Again and again, lightning fast. Each thrust and parry inches from claiming a life. Hers or his. They danced. A dance so deadly that any onlooker would be hard put to look away, but there was no one there to admire.

No one to see Catriona’s grin as she licked the blood from the corner of her mouth, where the Janoa’s fist had clipped her. No one to see the corresponding smile as she cut his arm.

It was strange but walking the veil between life and death made her feel alive. Her blade a part of herself, her body moving in complete harmony. No time for thoughts or hesitation, there was only the moment.

Deeper she drew him into the tent when she hooked her campaign stool with her foot and sent it into his path. The Janoa stumbled. She took his head. One swift and powerful blow. Her sword snagging on the spine.

The Janoa died with a grin on his face.

What a strange people. Smiling at death. Seeking only worthy prey.

Catriona stumbled to Liam’s corpse. The song-priest’s eyes were empty, his last word, his last song having died in his throat.

Then she heard a commotion outside the tent as someone raised the alarm. The camp was under attack.

She tightened the grip on her sword and gave Liam’s corpse one last look. Later; later she would sing him a dirge. He would’ve liked that. But for now her soldiers were under attack.

She considered praying for him for a second then shook her head.

Faith had been his shield.

Steel was hers.

Part 1: The Kypiq

Part 2: The Bruvir

Part 3: The Janoa

Part 5: The Waerd

Part 6: The To'Resk

Part7: The Hrothi

8/8/2017 10:58:59 PM #1

I find myself with the same thought I have after imbibing each bit of your art that you share ... "Why isn't this guy writing the story for our game?"

8/8/2017 11:28:16 PM #2

Amazing, your stories get better and better, I sincerely hope that you continue writing them even after you are done with all the tribes!

8/9/2017 3:24:15 AM #3

Scy thats an awesome story mate, once again well done!! Extremely entertaining.

Gunnr County

8/9/2017 6:15:20 AM #4

Bloody Janoans.

8/9/2017 9:43:25 AM #5

The previous write-ups were good reads in their own right, but I really loved this one. Looking forward to the next part. ;)

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8/9/2017 7:44:19 PM #6

I said it before, and I'll say it again. I can't wait for your first published work.

Untill then I will read anything you let me! 😘

8/11/2017 10:12:44 AM #7

A nice story once again! Catriona is an interesting character, any plans on having her appear again in some other story?

8/11/2017 11:07:14 AM #8

write a book :) would love to read that

8/17/2017 3:30:06 PM #9

Posted By Rofus at 12:12 PM - Fri Aug 11 2017

A nice story once again! Catriona is an interesting character, any plans on having her appear again in some other story?

Maybe, I haven't really decided on whether or not these are just one-offs :D

If I have a good idea, I'll keep writing her.

8/18/2017 3:04:23 PM #10

Found these stories late, glad I read them all in one sitting. The Neran were portrayed greatly, though you made me favor the Kypig. I can't wait to read your view of the Yoru or the Dras. Keep up the good work and be well.