A sunny day in Redridge

It was a hot day in the Redridge Mountains. Bees were buzzing in the air, birds were singing, the trees were gently whispering in the breeze. A column of horse riders were slowly making their way East, along the road. The leader of the group was a stern looking woman named Nægling, wearing dark plate mail. She had taken off her helm, revealing a long reddish ponytail that flowed behind her in the breeze and a face that once might have been striking, but was now disfigured with a dark scar running from her ear to the corner of her mouth. It have her face a permanent sneer. Next to her rode a white-haired woman, Ariciel, with blue markings in the shape of crescents on her face. Her long ears and pale, almost purple skin marked her as a night-elf. Where Nægling gave every impression of intense energy, Ariciel was sitting in the saddle cross-legged, leaning back, enjoying the sunshine on her face. She had her eyes closed, trusting her horse to know where it was going.

A little way in front of them rode a young woman dressed in green. Selena had thrown back her hood and the sun was shining on her yellow blonde hair and a pretty face covered in freckles. To her left and right, and ahead of her, rode armoured soldiers. Most of them with swords, one with a long pike in a stand on her horse. A black flag with the device of their castle was lazily flapping in the wind. Ariciel opened her eyes, revealing a pale grey glow, quite visible despite the bright sun. She turned to Nægling.

“So. Which of the soldiers do you think is cutest?”

Nægling looked at Ariciel with a strange frown on her face.

Cutest?”

“Yeah.”

“I don’t understand why you would ask that.”

“Oh come on. They’re all nice to look at, but you must have a favourite.”

“Lady Ariciel, I judge the men under my command by their ability with weapons. Their courage. Their obedience. I do not require them to be… Cute.” Nægling pronounced the last word with disgust.

“True, true,” said Ariciel. “You want them to be good soldiers. Cuteness is more of a side benefit. Look at that one, for example.” She pointed at no-one in particular. “A fine example of strength, competence and cute.”

None of the soldiers looked round, though some of them developed a certain redness round the ears. Selena’s shoulders were hunched as she tried to keep herself from laughing.

“I am not required to comment on my soldiers’ cuteness,” said Nægling, through clenched teeth.

“So you think they are all cute? That’s very diplomatic of you.”

“Lady…” Nægling took a breath. “I would thank you to drop this subject.”

Ariciel laughed. “Oh Sister, loosen up will you?” She slapped Nægling on the haunch.

Nægling glared at Ariciel. “If you touch me once more, I will…”

Ariciel smiled sweetly at her. “You’ll what?”

“Nothing,” said Nægling. “Pardon my impertinence.”

“You’re not scared,” said Ariciel. It was a statement, not a question. Nægling was possibly the fiercest fighter in the whole castle. The idea of her being afraid of anything simply did not make sense.

“Ma’am, it would not be appropriate for me to challenge one of your station. Please forgive me for suggesting otherwise.”

In the blink of an eye, the smile was wiped off Ariciel’s face.

“Sister, if you think I’d fight you and then pull rank on you, you’ve got another thing coming. If you ever want a piece of me, come and tell me, and we’ll find a nice romantic spot in the woods. And I give you my word that there’ll be nobody there fighting except you, and me.” Ariciel laughed. “I’ll even heal you afterwards.”

Selena looked round. “Children, behave! Does Mummy have to get angry?”

“No Lady!” Ariciel’s ears flapped as she shook her head.

“Apologies, lady Selena,” said Nægling.

“Good,” said Selena. “Now shake hands.”

Ariciel’s hand shot out to Nægling, who heaved a deep sigh, and took it.

While Ariciel was still holding Nægling’s hand, she sharply turned her head to the left.

“Stop. Be quiet.”

All the horses stood still, and Ariciel tilted her head.

“Selena? About a hundred yards ahead, to our left. Can you see something?”

Selena closed her eyes and concentrated. Ariciel could see her turn pale.

“Orcs. Twelve. Ten soldiers, two mages. Lying in ambush beside the road.”

“I thought we’d taught them better,” said Ariciel.

“Obviously not,” said Nægling. “Lady Selena, you and Lady Ariciel stay back. We will take care of them.”

“Stuff that,” said Ariciel. “Sister, you wait five minutes, then advance another fifty yards and stop. Selena badly needs a rest. I’ll sneak round them and get their attention. When the noise starts, you attack them from behind.”

Nægling’s eyes narrowed. “I would rather you not endanger yourself. I am responsible for your safety.”

“I’m not a wilting flower, you know? Five minutes. Smoke ’em if you got ’em.”

Ariciel jumped off her horse. There was a cloud of green magic about her, and she turned into a grey-white cat. The cat disappeared into the background, leaving Nægling and the soldiers behind.

“She’ll be fine,” said Selena. “Smoke what exactly?”

Cat-Ariciel slowly moved forward. By the side of the road were a group of Blackrock orcs, peering over the edge of the berm. Most of them were sitting down, two were watching the road. Waiting for something fat and profitable to happen by on the way to Lakeshire. Well, my green friends, you will be sorry. Ariciel almost missed the days of the Accord, where in some cases you could talk to the orcs. No more. The people she might have felt some sympathy for were dead. Any remaining orcs would kill a Human, Dwarf or Elf on sight. Unless they killed them first.

Ariciel sensed the others moving in behind her, and stalked forward, round the group of orcs. As Selena has said, there were two mages. Best take those first. The rest was just a matter of staying away from their blades. Her eyes narrowed. These orcs were simple thugs. They were about the same caliber as those who had laid siege to Caer Bannog last year. Ariciel had little to fear from a few of them, though taking on this many all by herself would be a bit ambitious. Nothing to do now but wait.

Ariciel’s whiskers twitched. A little way away on the road, Nægling and her soldiers halted. Selena got off her horse and walked over to a nice spot on the other side of the road. Her large bird named Hugin dived down and perched on a rock. Selena threw it a few lumps of meat. At this rather idyllic scene, the orcs below Ariciel stirred and moved to the lip of the small hill. Swords were drawn. The mages’ hands started to glow. Time to play. Ariciel thought of the great Bear spirit, and her body rearranged itself into the shape of a bear. With a massive roar, she charged at the orc mages. The orcs all turned round to face her.

It was immediately clear that if she’d taken them all on by herself, she would have been in trouble. The orcs were more organised than she’d given them credit for. Big meaty sword fighters in front, slightly lighter spear fighters behind them. Some of the sword fighters were even still looking towards Selena’s group. The mages started to cast spells at her, and soon, Ariciel was quite, quite busy dodging their attacks. Despite this, there was a grim ursine grin on her face. This was the job she was trained for. She swiped at several of the orcs at once, and ducked under the blows.

There was a loud screech, and Selena’s large bird Hugin came hurtling from the sky, attacking one of the mages with beak and talon. Arrows hissed and struck home with frightening accuracy. Selena had been practicing. She’d always been a good shot, but months of attrition from the Blackrock clan, seeing the farmsteads attacked, the savage cruelty of the orcs, had robbed her of any compunction she might once have had in killing them.

The other soldiers now pushed forward, five of them with their swords and shields, pushing, shoving orcs back. Each on their own, they could never have won a shoving match with a bulky orc, but working together, they could. Behind them, pikeman Pike stabbed out with her long weapon, or pulled orcs off their feet with the hook on the back of her pike.

But the greatest threat came from Nægling. She had once been wounded so badly that she wasn’t expected to survive. On that occasion, for many reasons, she had not received the healing she had needed. It was only after a journey to faraway Darnassus that she had allowed one of the druids to heal her wounds. Now, she bore down on the orcs, weapon and armour shining with the Holy Light, and none would stand before her.

Just as it seemed their victory was secure, with the mages dead and the defence of the orcs wavering, about to break, there were dog-like howls behind them, and several of the hyena-like gnolls of Redridge came running towards them. Gnolls were hideous creatures, who walked on their hind legs, with dog-like heads. They were just intelligent enough to use weapons, build camps, make fire, but not much more. They were savage beyond description when roused.

Ariciel turned round, ignoring the orcs, and charged towards the largest of them. The gnolls attacked her with teeth, claws, and the weapons given to them by the orcs, or scavenged from slain warriors. There were too many of them for Ariciel to dodge all of their attacks, and she was hit several times. There was only one thing for her to do. She tapped into her reserves of ursine rage and went berserk. Bear-Ariciel raised herself on her hind legs and roared. Green magic crackled on her fur, and her eyes glowed a deep crimson. She leapt on her enemies like a mad thing, clawing and biting. As she fought, there was a blinding flash of Holy Light, and Nægling’s sword came round in a shining circle of pure white. These, these were the creatures who had been the cause of her failure, so long ago. These were the creatures who had wanted to devour her. A paladin of the Light does not fight out of hatred, but out of the conviction that here are enemies of all things living. Nægling’s anger was a cold and bitter one.

Side by side, Nægling and Ariciel fought, tooth, claw, heart, sword. Then arrows began to fall between the gnolls, and the soldiers, having defeated the last of the orcs, now ran round and pushed in to destroy the last of their enemies. The last of the creatures fell. Bear-Ariciel raised herself on her hind legs once more, and roared. The pitch of her voice changed from a deep roar to a high-pitched yell as her bear form fell away from her, and she stood there, red blood in her white hair, and dripping from her right arm. She dropped to her knees, and a green glow surrounded her as she used her elf-magic to heal herself. She closed her eyes and took deep breaths. There was a hand on her shoulder, and Ariciel looked up into the eyes of Nægling.

“Lady Ariciel?”

Ariciel raised an eyebrow. She was only slowly and grudgingly getting used to being called ‘Lady’. Sleeping in the same bed as the younger brother of the castle lord was not a good enough reason, as far as she was concerned. Nægling held out her hand. Ariciel took it, and was pulled to her feet. Nægling’s grey eyes gleamed at her.

“I think I have decided I do not, after all, want a piece of you.”

Ariciel laughed, leftover adrenalin slowly fading. She looked round.

“Anyone need healing? Paladin or druid?”

One of the soldiers wiped the blood off his sword and sheathed it. “When I press here, it hurts there,” he said, following the tradition started in the first siege of Caer Bannog.

“Don’t do that then,” said Ariciel, the traditional reply. “Nobody? Good.”

They searched the bodies of the orcs and gnolls, divided the loot between the soldiers, and went their way. Ariciel looked at Nægling.

“Hey.”

“Lady?”

“The answer is Pikeman Pike.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“The cutest soldier. It’s Sandra. Just look at her. Lovely hair, nice trim muscles, just enough chest under that armour…”

“Excellent hearing,” said Sandra Pike, without looking round.

“Excellent hearing,” repeated Ariciel, “what’s not to like?”

Nægling looked at Ariciel for a long, long moment, then shook her head, laughing quietly.

“I’ll make a note of it,” she said.

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