Macil walked back into the depths of Helcar, his long blue cloak swaying from his mighty shoulders, his squire trotting at his heels. A warrior in garments of blue and silver suddenly appeared at his elbow.
”Tera-Macil, Angbor sends word.” the soldier said. Macil turned to face him, an query on his face. Angbor was the commander whom the King had left in charge of the army encamped several dozen miles away.
”Speak, Ohtatyaro. What word does IronFist send?”
”The Wolf has won home. There is a hosting beneath the mountains of his lair. Verel is mustering all his strength, and not just of his own clan. Four others have already joined him.” the warrior recited.
The King froze for half a moment. ”Find a messenger, and send word to Angbor that I will join him with all the strength I may.”
The soldier saluted, and dashed off. Macil looked at Malvor. ”It appears we must postpone our game.” he said, an ironic smile on his face.
”No matter, Tera-Macil. You are playing the real game of chess here.” replied the lad. ”Will you require anything?”
”Yes. Prepare my armor for battle, and pack what is needed for a lengthy campaign. I will return to my quarters in some hours. Make sure food is prepared.”
The two parted ways, the tall elven lord moving off towards the council chambers, and the short squire running back towards the armory. Macil quickly made his way to the warroom, where several dozen elves were gathered, sub-chieftains, warriors, and older advisors.
Macil took a seat in a large stone chair at the far end of the room, at the head of the long table. His councilors followed suit, chairs and benches scraping on the cold, hard floor. Pounding on the table with a closed fist, he called for silence.
”Verel is coming out.” he said bluntly. ”Angbor sends word. The Narmani have joined themselves with lesser clans as we feared. I reckon their numbers to be about ten thousand, and growing. If we wish to survive, let alone win this war, we must strike hard and fast.”
The councilors muttered, the older elves disagreeing while the warriors nodded approval. ”Tera-Macil, our warriors are tired, hungry, and bloodied. They’ve fought four battles in twice as many days. Risking a major fight is asking for trouble.” said one of the more wizened soldiers in the room.
”We have no choice.” said Macil. ”If we wait, and rest, soon we will be besieged, and for that we have not the provisions, or numbers. We can neither wait to fight him in the field, or hide behind our walls and hope to hold them. Helcar is strong, but only as strong as those defending her, and I cannot hold the outer defences for more than three days if it comes to a siege. Then we would be embattled in the mines, for which we are well suited. Our people are not, the women and children would be massacred. I will not bring the war into our home.”
”What of the Angoni then? They are fresh, battle hardened, and love a fight above all else. It might serve us well to call upon them once again, for the love Belar bore your father and brother.” said a councilor. It was Yaran. ”Send to Mighty-Fist, Tera-Macil.”
The King bowed his head to the ancient elf. ”You are wise to say so, Yaran. And I would normally consent, but for the distance to him. Ere our messengers could reach Belar, let alone begin to persuade him to join us as he has a foretime refused to do, Verel would be upon us, and we would be caught unprepared.”
With a sigh, the old loremaster sat down again. The elves along the table were silent. Nothing moved, stretching the silence into something quite uncomfortable for those present. Macil finally rose, and began to pace back and forth at the head of the table, his cloak dragging on the floor with a quiet rustling sound.
”There is a place…not far from here. You know the forest that splits the boundary between Helcar and the Narmani ports?” The council nodded. ”There is a portion of the forest, where a great clearing opens up the size of a field. Large enough for two hosts to stand with room to spare.” The elves stroked their beards and continued listening, while Macil began to talk faster and faster.
”Once in the clearing, it is difficult to see what lies in the trees. And if we keep Verel so focused on the bait within the clearing, then it might be possible to turn one or both of his flanks. Hold the cavalry in reserve, hidden by the treeline, engage Verel’s warriors fully on the field, and move our horsemen between Verel and his home. If he is forced to turn to try and win free, it may be possible to catch him between two fires.”
Again, a grizzled warrior spoke up, his voice gruff. ”And if he does not engage us? What then? Our cavalry may be caught and destroyed themselves, while we stand idly in a field.”
”And what if I give him sufficient bait that will force him to engage us?” asked the King with a smile.
A raised eyebrow was his his response. ”What bait would lure the Hungry Wolf to the slaughterhouse?”
”Myself. If I am clearly visible at the head of our infantry, and even more so if I can anger him during a pre-battle parlay, then even Verel Narmanion, who has never been caught in a trap in his entire life, might be persuaded to stick his head into the noose.” Macil smote his left hand with his fist. ”Then, the cavalry will close the trap, and we will end the war.”
”Even if we could draw him into a full charge attack, we would have to lure him to this place. It is close to Helcar. That is no small endeavor.”
”We might perhaps…feign defeat prior to this. Engage him in a more formal confrontation near his homelands, and then retreat as if in disorder to this place. If we feign weakness, and do so in a manner that does not betray our intentions, even Verel must follow through on his supposed advantage. His warriors are as tired as ours.” returned the King, sitting back down again.
”We had best be careful that our retreat does not become a rout.” said the warrior with a laugh. **”Else our tactics and strategy will not avail us in the slightest.”**Macil quite agreed with his commander’s assessment, and the remainder of the day was spent deciding how to best to lose a battle to win a war. When the weary King finally pulled himself up the long steps to his bedchamber where Malvor waited with a large bowl of broth and a jug of ale, he was almost too tired to think of Rhae. Almost. His last thought before falling into the sleep of those with many responsibilities was of her, and of the memory of their parting.
Two days later, the Sorni army returned, bloodied and battered, worn to the bone. Macil met them at the gate, personally commending every soldier who entered, raising several cheers from tired throats. It took them the entire day to pass back into the mountain city, so great was the number of wounded. Watching the ranks of warriors march past, dirty, bloody, listlessly keeping time, Macil bit his lip, and wondered if they would follow him one last time out for the campaign that would decide whether the Sorni or the Narmani would control Helcar in a year.
It was almost two months before the soldiers were prepared to march and fight again, despite Macil’s urge for speed. And when Macil viewed his troops, assembled in ranks of stoic infantry and cavalry, standing in front of the gates of Helcar, their numbers were greater than before. During the interim, the Sorni had called on all the nearby lesser clans to aid them, if they wished to survive the conquest of the Hungry Wolf. In order to combat the great hosting that Verel was holding, Macil had decided to follow in his rival’s footsteps, sending word to every clan who was within easy marching distance. Roughly half of those who received the message came, in bands of a dozen, thirty, fifty, and the full strength of the Cartani Clan, who hated the Narmani with a fierce and terrible rivalry, their chieftain Varian Strong-Axe striding up the road to the city, with a dour expression. But while Macil had finally succumbed, and sent messengers to the Angoni, no response had come back from the bitter mountains at the edge of the North.
All together assembled, the force numbered some eight thousand. Angbor reported that the Narmani host had swelled to almost one fourth larger than Macil’s, but if all went according to plan that the numbers would matter little. The young elven king considered the matter, walking down the rows of silent warriors with Malvor striding proudly behind him with his back as straight as a spear. If they failed, then Helcar would be sacked, the Sorni annihilated utterly, and Rhae and Magor would be butchered out of hand on their return, if not worse. Macil’s jaw tightened. That would not happen while he still drew breath.
After finishing his inspection, assuring himself that every warrior was armed from the vast holds of weaponry within the mountain city, Macil reached behind him and took the warhammer that Malvor offered him with sure and ready fingers. He marched to the front of the army, standing on a small rise so that all could see. He set the hammer on the ground, head first, and leaned on it with both hands.
”I see your days in bed did not turn you fat.” he called out. In the quiet stillness, his voice echoed down the mountainside. The troops laughed. The rest had done them good, healing wounds and giving them time to prepare. ”Unfortunately, there is a hunt planned. No more snoozing till midday.” Some of the smiles faded, as Macil’s voice grew grim. ”We march northwest. And this will be the last march where we move against fellow elves. I promise you. For if we triumph, none will oppose us, and if we fail, then what follows after will not greatly trouble us in Olosse’s cold embrace.” he continued, bleakly. ”But let me remind you: If we fail, it is our lands that will burn. OUR wives Verel will enslave. OUR city he will sack. And I will not have it said that we let him have his desire willingly!” A cheer began. ”So if we fail, let us make such an end as to strip the Hungry Wolf of his teeth!”
As Macil led his army down the well worn road from Helcar, heading towards the plains that divided the Narmani and Sorni lands, he felt a deep sadness. Even in victory, all he could look back on his first thirty years of kingship would be wanton slaughter, never mind the causes. He felt sickened, but could not turn away, turn back, or flee. He gripped the lance in his hand tighter, and thought of Rhae.