Chapter 3 – Minister’s Defense
The sun was hanging low in the sky when the scouts reached us with news of the oncoming enemy. It was a little earlier than we’d reckoned for, but to be honest, I was glad. We’d finished our preparation close to an hour ago, and the calm before a battle always put me on edge. Hibiscus seemed fine, though, cuddling with the injured soldiers and winning the hearts of the Ebon Vanguard. I was impatiently busying myself with small tasks like delivering supplies and helping to store away the surprising amount of paperwork that was laying around. I saw Jeyne approaching the tent, where Forgal was laughing with Steelcrusher like they were old friends. I quietly handed my parcel to one of the soldiers and followed her.
“Warmaster, Ambassador: Ajax and his crew are advancing on the Summit,” she announced, turning the heads of the nearby assembly. “They’re bringing both ground support and what looks like artillery.”
“Noted,” Forgal grunted, and then laid eyes on me. “Oh there you are, kid. Hope you weren’t sleeping on the job.”
“Hardly,” I answered, smiling, “Although I was so bored I could have.”
“Heh, ready for the battle, I take it. Good girl,” he chuckled, and turned back to the Sergeant. “How goes the rest of the ambush?”
“We’re doing what we can, thanks in part to your recruit here. But my scouts are reporting that Ajax has twice the troops we expected,” she answered, her face grave.
“Well then,” I said confidently, hoping to bolster her morale, “We’ll just have to fight twice as hard.”
Forgal blew a gust of air out of his nose mirthfully. “Well said! If it’s too much for you Vanguard ninnies, me and the kid can take on the whole posse of Renegades by ourselves.”
Jeyne rolled her eyes, but I saw a hint of a smile on her face. “You’re a mean old grunt, Forgal. But fine, you two hold the line, and we’ll act as backup. Good luck.” She smiled sweetly at us. Surely she didn’t really mean that we’d be on our own…? I didn’t have a chance to clarify.
“Warmaster,” a slight, pale young human approached us. “Defenses are in place, per your orders. Cannons to the east, traps to the south, and extra troops to the northwest.”
“My order? But I didn’t – ”
“Thank you, Lothon,” I nodded to the scout. Forgal glanced down at me, eyes wide, and I couldn’t stop a smile from spreading across my face. “You were so busy socializing, I thought I’d take some initiative.”
He was silent for only a moment before he burst out into a huge belly laugh, and clapped me so hard on the back that I saw stars. “You know, kid, you’re all right. Okay then, defenses are in order. Sergeant, how long do we have to wait?”
But before she could answer, we heard the rallying cry of a horde of charr at the base of the peak. They were beginning to surround us, but I wasn’t terribly worried. The Summit was a fortified position, with roughly three quarters of the hillsides having been made into cliffs and then reinforced with heavy wooden bracing. There were only three chokepoints which were still slopes, and I’d arranged for those to be covered via siege or extra manpower. Still, the north was vulnerable, as the widest entrance. And surely enough, it was the north that the bulk of the troops seemed to gravitate towards.
Several waves of charr rushed up to the chokepoints, only to be mowed down by traps or cannon fire. Forgal muttered, “Testing our defenses.”
After the first blood, Forgal lifted his arm and pointed down the path, indicating to the rest of the unoccupied soldiers to attack. Hibiscus was with them, and charged in as eagerly as the soldiers on Forgal’s command. Forgal himself, however, didn’t move. I found this peculiar, given his penchant for running headfirst into battle, but he seemed to be looking for something. My suspicions were confirmed, when he grunted, “Hah, there he is, the bastard.”
I followed my mentor’s gaze across the roiling field of charr to one in particular. He did look like Almorra, although his coat was black with white spots rather than pure white, like his mother. He had her same commanding air and piercing gaze. He focused it on us, as if he’d felt our eyes on him. As he approached the skirmish, he broke into a run and roared. Forgal hit me on the shoulder with the back of his hand, and took off to meet him.
“Front and center, recruit, let’s show Ajax why you don’t mess with the Vigil,” he shouted over the din.
Even from this distance, I could see that Anvilburn was a skilled fighter. As soon as he reached the fray, I saw him weave between his allies’ backs, dodging enemy blows with extreme agility. He was coming straight for us. He took little time to take down foes, but those he struck did not stand back up. Forgal, on the other hand, thundered down the hill with the inevitability of an avalanche, tossing aside enemy charr like they were toys. I hung back, clinging to my bow. I took aim several times but I was unable to get a clear shot. I didn’t want to risk any friendly fire, so with a frustrated grunt, I slung my bow and drew my new sword. It was unfamiliar in my hand, but I would get used to it. I followed Forgal.
If you have never been in the heart of the battlefield, it is difficult to describe what it is like. There are pockets of peace among the chaos. Between every set of engaged foes is a negative space. These were what Ajax had been traveling through, and what I now attempted to make use of. I, and the humans, were ill matched against the charr we faced, but the Vigil and the Vanguard were holding their own. I found my way to Forgal’s side and placed my back to him.
“Good of you to join us, kid,” he said, using the flat of his blade to deflect an incoming strike. “Did you see where that damned fur-face went?”
“No, I thought you were fighting him,” I answered, and as his enemy’s arm swung harmlessly past me, I pounced on the opening and lunged forward, sinking my sword into the Renegade’s shoulder. Forgal’s foot pressed itself on the beast’s chest and pushed it backwards with a kick that sent him, and several of his comrades, tumbling down the hill. Forgal laughed in unadulterated glee.
He was cut short by the sudden reappearance of Ajax, who had come in from the side and moved to cut Forgal down with his greatsword. He apparently hadn’t seen me, however, and as such didn’t account for the opportunity he was providing me. Before he could bring his arms down, I dashed in and raked my blade across his chest. He was half-armored, so my sword bit into both leather and flesh, and sparked off the chainmail at the end of the swing.
“What in the – ?” he roared, and only just now seemed to see me. “What is this thing? My mother is sending cabbages to fight me? You’re not worth my time,” he snarled, and used his weighty arm to shove me ruthlessly to the side. My feet found uneven ground, and I stumbled uphill, landing hard on my side. I still had my sword in my hand, and I felt a familiar plush foliage brush against my back, bolstering me back up.
“Thanks, buddy,” I said, reaching automatically with my free hand to rub Hibiscus’ head. Once he was sure I was all right, he took off towards a nearby wounded soldier, grabbing the woman’s armor with his teeth and pulling her from the uncaring feet of the masses. What a good dog, I thought with pride.
I didn’t have much time to dwell on it, though. As I whipped my head back around to re-engage myself in the fight, I saw only a large, dark object blocking my vision, before the Renegade’s shield collided with my face, and I blacked out.
“She’ll be fine.” A voice that I was relatively sure was Forgal’s cut through the fog. “She’s tougher than she looks.”
I wanted to open my eyes, but they were glued shut. I tried to lift my right hand, but it felt like some great weight was pressing it down. I went instead to lift my left hand to touch my face, but the moment I turned my head, I experienced a keen and stabbing pain through my skull. I let out a muffled cry in response, and felt that both my lips were split.
“See? She’s already awake,” Forgal said, and even through the agony I could hear his voice thick with pride.
“I brought more hot water,” I heard another voice say. A third voice thanked him, and I felt a warm washcloth gently pressed on my head. I cried out again. Gently or not, that stung. I felt a snuffle near my face and realised that the reason my right side couldn’t move was because it was covered by a particularly whiny fern hound.
“Sorry,” the voice to my left said quietly, “You’re covered in blood and…uh, sap, I guess.”
“Voth?” I asked, not quite able to form the right sounds through my injuries.
“Don’t you remember?” she prompted me.
“I rememver getting hit with a shield.”
“Oh, wow,” the second voice said, “You don’t remember taking out all of those charr? There must have been six of them!”
“Well, let’s not exaggerate,” Forgal’s voice interrupted. “Not yet, anyway. There were three. Three and a half if you count the one I finished off for you.”
“Is this a joke?” I asked, groggily. I was finally able to open one of my swollen eyes, but the torchlight was too painful, so I shut it again.
“Not hardly!” Forgal laughed, and patted me surprisingly softly on the shoulder. “I’ve never seen a sylvari fight like that. You were like me in my young, berserker days.”
I felt a buoyant, satisfied feeling pass through my body. I still had no memory of what had happened, but hearing Forgal’s enthusiasm infused me with a kind of giddy pride. I smiled, though it hurt to do so.
“You should rest some more,” the human tending me said. “The siege is broken, but it’ll be a few hours yet before we can shuttle you back to Ebonhawke.”
“Don’t have to tell me twice,” I mumbled, already feeling myself spiral dizzily into unconsciousness.
I spent the trip from Ebonhawke to the Vigil Keep on the back of a particularly tolerant dolyak. It couldn’t have been accustomed to the heat, but it was docile and as gentle a ride as a wounded soldier could ask for. Having ridden before on the teetering back of a bull, I was grateful for the hairy creature’s comparative stability. Hibiscus seemed occasionally disappointed that he couldn’t ride, too, but seemed keen enough to run off and rustle up trouble on his own, as well.
It would take the better part of two days to arrive at our destination, which gave my mentor and I plenty of time to talk. Not that we did talk the whole time. My face was still sore and bruised, and Forgal was hardly what you’d call a voluble person. Still, conversation did happen.
It was just after lunch, and the afternoon was pleasantly warm, with a refreshing breeze. Kryta had much better weather, in my opinion, than Ascalon. It definitely had better foliage. The trees here were green and glistering, boughs heavy with fresh red apples. Bushes ran along the ground, with large ones bearing purple and blue berries littering the landscape here and there. Hibiscus was glutting himself of their bounty.
Forgal was thoughtfully pushing a toothpick around in his mouth, when he seemed to decide it was time to have a talk. He pulled the pick from his mouth and spoke. “You did well, recruit,” he said, and gave me a sideways glance to see if I was going to gloat. I remained politely silent, and he continued. “You learn quickly, you adapt, and you know when to put hammer to steel. To be honest… I wasn’t sure I’d like you when we started this operation. Almorra kinda twisted my arm to take you on. Said you were special, hero of your people and so on. I don’t much care for ‘special,’ but damned if you didn’t live up to every word she said. You’re not like the rest of the young-uns hanging around the order.”
My face felt warm, and my heart huge. I was unused to such effusive praise, especially from a lithic personality like Forgal. I had no idea how to react, so I laughed. “Why, Forgal. Careful there, someone may mistake us for friends.”
“There it is,” he said, scoffing playfully. “I doubt you remember this or you’d be bragging about it already… I dread to mention it to you, but you ought to know why Almorra’s calling you Crusader.”
“Crusader?” I asked, confused.
“Yeah, Crusader. I field-promoted you after you took out all those charr.”
I opened my mouth to speak, but he raised a hand to interrupt me.
“Don’t thank me again. You thanked me twice at the time, and that was bad enough. Then you went off to talk to the diplomats – bask in their praise, more like – and while you were gabbing with them, you suddenly fell down, unconscious.”
“Wait,” I said, thoughtfully, touching my healing wounds. “I was talking to the Minister with my face…like this?”
Forgal shrugged. “I don’t know what you sylvari are capable of. For all I knew, you didn’t even feel it. You certainly didn’t act like you felt it.”
I shook my head a little in surprise. “Well, I certainly felt it when I woke up. Still do.”
“You heal up fast, though,” Forgal said. “If all you plants fight like hell and heal overnight, you could be an unstoppable army.”
“I suppose we would,” I said, nodding a bit. “Except most of us hate the thought of violence. It’d have to be something really big to unite us to fight.”
“Like a dragon,” Forgal said. “Like Zhaitan.”
“Hopefully,” I said. “Hopefully.”
That seemed to be all there was to say, and so that was all that we said. By the time we’d returned to headquarters, I was right as rain.
“Good work, you two,” Almorra said in her usual husky voice. “Your work out there was commendable. Saving both the treaty and the Iron Legion is something to be proud of. Crusader, I believe you earned that promotion.”
“Thank you, General,” I said, bowing gratefully. “If I may ask, though… Ajax was your son?”
Forgal shook his head. “Stand down, Crusader. That’s none of your – ”
“It’s all right,” Almorra interrupted him. “I’ll answer the question. Yes, he was my son. As is our custom, I did not raise him. He grew up in the fahrar, and only sought me out after my warband fell to the crystal dragon. He had no interest in the Vigil then, and I could never make him understand the need to see beyond his own race’s problems. I will grieve for him, but I will not look back.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. I considered saying more, but everything I thought of just rang hollow, so I left it at that.
“General Soulkeeper,” Forgal said, breaking the momentary tension. “I’d like to request that the Crusader be permanently assigned as my partner.”
Almorra looked as shocked as I felt. She gave a little piping laugh, and then smirked. “That’s a surprise, Forgal. You going soft on me?”
He shook his head and narrowed his eyes. “I don’t have time to break in anyone else.”
His tone was gruff, but all three of us could sense that he was making excuses. Almorra shrugged, and sent me a pointed look. “Consider yourself so assigned. Does that mean you two are ready to head back out? I have another mission for you.”