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Commander Gabriel Estancian and the Estancian Army are in grave danger of being annihilated by the advancing Toury horde.
The cacophonous din of battle roared across the countryside once more on that hot and humid day. So much blood had soaked the drought parched land of Verdus Valley, that it was later renamed Valley of the Crimson Tide, because the color of the ground forever remained a coppery brown. The Army of the People under the command of Gabriel Escorcian had fought ceaselessly against the Toury invasion since sun up, but now, as the sun was beginning to dip below the horizon, Gabriel could see their tenuous hold on the land would not last. Sitting astride his blue roan stallion his battered and bloodied plate mail gleamed weakly in the dying sun. Sweat, made worse by air so thick with humidity it was almost palpable, combined with the gore and grime of the battlefield caused his straw blonde locks to cling to his equally filthy face. His helmet had long ago vanished in the sweltering fray.
The war had been going on for so long that much of the strength of the professional army had been depleted, and it was now composed primarily of citizen-soldiers who had little or no training in battle tactics, and no experience in full scale combat. They were exhausted. The enemy surged before them, innumerable and infinitely better prepared. The initial assault had been a surprise, but he was not the only one to suspect that someone in the upper echelons of the government had known about it beforehand. Not that an attack from the Toury was entirely unprescedented; the two nations has been at odds since time out of memory. Their country may have been small, but the Toury were a fierce and battle hungry people. This time was different though. Gabriel couldn’t put it finger on it, but it was as if there were some sort of force bolstering their onslaught. Their blades were keener, their soldiers tireless, and their blows could knock a fully armored warrior so the ground like a small child.
It was this unexpected endowment that had served to wreak utter havoc on the armies of Escorcya. Gabriel knew it was only a matter of time before his stalwart line was broken and the defenders slaughtered. Still he pressed on. He urged his horse forward trotting along the battle line rallying his troops with unwavering courage that his men fed ravenously from. He knew that as long as he encouraged them, they would fight to the last man. And fight they did, with all their might, but nonetheless Gabriel watched helplessly as one after another they were cut down by an overwhelming opposition.
Just after the sun had dipped its blazing head below the mountains in the west, the line broke. Toury warriors with their unearthly strength poured through the opening so quickly the People’s army did not have time to reform. All chaos ensued. Within moments Gabriel found himself surrounded on all sides by opponents. He swung his powerful bastard sword with the tenacity only found in a warrior during battle. The enemy was too much even for the People’s commander and he was abruptly torn from his horse by a powerful blow, severely denting his breastplate. He scrambled to his feet before they could overwhelm him and brandished his bastard sword before him. Like a cornered animal he battled for his life; the many who fell before his prowess piled one after the other at his feet, but he was no match for them all. A searing pain erupted in his sword arm as he was caught by a Toury blade. He cried out, barely managing to down the opponent who had so gravely injured him.
“Retreat! Retreat!”, came the frenzied cry from everywhere and nowhere. Without their commander to hold them together, the few remaining haggard soldiers who were able to escape quickly turned and made for the large, tree shrouded hill that dominated the western end of the valley. Many lost their lives trying. Barely able to grip his sword, Gabriel took advantage of the hole left by his last kill and raced off after his men, cutting a wide swath before him with his blade. As he bounded up the hillside, he thought of nothing but reaching the secondary defenses he’d had his men construct on the hill, knowing there was a good chance they would be needed. When he arrived at the ramparts of the small wooden fortress concealed among the dense trees, a small force had already been emplaced by a grisly sergeant major with only one eye and more than enough coarse red hair on his chin to make up for the lack of it on his head. He was aided by a frightened looking young man who had recently been promoted to sergeant as a result of his platoon leader’s death. Both men saluted Gabriel as he approached and relinquished their command of the escarpment.
It had been difficult to convince his captains to construct this fortification so near to the forest. It was a place all soldiers regarded with more suspicion than Gabriel felt was warranted. The kind of place one went into and never came out; it had been a view expressed by every one of them. But Gabriel had persisted; he was not an adherent to fairy tales, and in the end he won out. Now he thanked the stars it had been so.
Gabriel mounted the low wall by a small ladder and looked out over the slope. The forest crawled with soldiers from both camps locked in frenzied battle. More men from the People’s army continued to stream through the gate of the makeshift fort, but for every one who stumbled across the threshold, winded and bloodied, Gabriel watch helplessly as two more were cut down before they could reach the fortification. Their screams of agony and the fleshy thuds of their bodies as they were tossed about like ragdolls by the attackers filled his ears until he thought he would go mad from it. And still the enemy came.
Suddenly Gabriel was wrenched from his encroaching numbness by shouts from the men nearest the gate. The enemy had reached the fortification. He sprang into action, leaping down the ladder and joining the men protecting the door.
“Sir,” the one-eyed sergeant major implored, “We must shut the door.”
Gabriel’s heart nearly wrenched from his chest as he looked out upon the men who were still struggling to reach the defenses. He had signed enough death sentences this day; he could not bring himself to resign more men to destruction.
“Sir!”, the sergeant major cried, but he could see the look in Gabriel’s eye and knew his pleas would go unheeded.
“We have to give them more time”, the commander stated firmly.
“Yes, sir.” The sergeant major pitied the brave leader’s quandary, and knew he would have done the same. Even if they had shut the door and left the others to their fate, they did not have enough provisions in the small fortress to last for long, and the enemy was strong and numerous. It would only be a matter of time before they over took the structure. The sergeant major had never believed in giving up without a fight, and he respected his commander for the honor of fighting to the last man. He steeled himself and resolutely set about bolstering the men.
Gabriel joined the ranks of his men in what they all realized was a futile resistance, though none hinted at it. Each man’s face was a mask of determination and Gabriel felt pride well up within him at the fortitude of these men whom he had only led such a short time. [need more] Abruptly a hammer wielding Toury, larger and stronger than any he had yet encountered, blasted a hole in the defenders sending dozen men hurtling in all directions. Gabriel was hurled a dozen feet until his back connected with a large oak tree. The wind exploded from his lungs and he felt a resounding crack as his skull met the unforgiving wood. He felt warmth begin to trickle down the back of his neck and he faintly registered that he must be bleeding. Time seemed to slow as his hazy eyes watched the enemy forces pour through the gate, slaughtering the few remaining defenders near it. He tried to focus his vision as he saw the stalwart one-eyed sergeant major bull rush the entire infiltrating line single handed. He took down at least half a dozen of their number before falling to another stroke of that cursed hammer.
Gabriel slumped to the ground, aware that this was the end. As he felt his consciousness fading he became dimly aware of a soft light before him. He immediately assumed he was approaching death and was overcome by a strange sense of peace, until the light spoke and recalled him to reality. His eyes focused once more and and the light coalesced into the figure of a slight, ethereal woman with delicate features framed by raven black hair, and captivating stormy grey eyes. Her hand was on his face, touch soft and pale skin cool, but there was fierce warmth emanating from where their flesh met that coursed through him body as though his very blood were on fire. His eyes opened wider as the heat filled him with strength and the woman repeated her question.
“What is your name brave warrior?”
“Gabriel,” he croaked. “Commander Gabriel Escorcian.”
“Gabriel,” she whispered and it seemed as though the sound of her voice alone filled his name with power. The cacophonous din of battle seemed strangely distant in that moment as the woman released her hold on his face. He was distinctly aware of a sense of loss resulting from the broken contact, and unconsciously reached out to reestablish it.
“And you?”, he implored. “What is your name?”
“Irestina,” she said simply, lowering her gaze to where his hand rested on her arm. Reluctantly he tore his gaze from her face to look at where his blood covered fingers brushed against her delicate skin. The crimson liquid had smeared on the inside of her forearm from the wrist to the elbow. He was oddly embarrassed that he had soiled her in such a fashion, but the discomfiture was quickly replaced by confusion as he watched the stain merge into recognizable shapes. Moments later, his name became apparent in the crimson liquid quickly drying on her arm. Eyes wide, he looked up at her face and opened his mouth to ask the question, then quickly shut it once more. Her eyes were half closed and he felt the air around her shift somehow.
It was then that Gabriel perceived the battle cries getting closer and he looked past the strange woman before him. Terror filled him as he realized that the exquisite woman that had just surely saved his life was right in the path of a pair of sword bearing Toury soldiers. He tried desperately to scramble to his feet as Irestina’s eyes fluttered open. He was struck by the dramatic change in their color, the irises now pitch black. In one graceful motion she swept to her feet and swung around to face the oncoming assault. As she advanced toward them, Gabriel saw a flicker of movement out of the corner of his eye. He turned his head to find the hammer wielding Toury approaching from her behind. He had to warn Irestina, he had to save her; there was no time. He continued to struggle to gain his footing to help her, but he felt sick to his stomach as he leaned heavily on his sword, hauling himself up with all his might, all the while knowing it was too late. It was all he could do to bring himself to watch the Toury raise his hammer over his head and let it fall.
The weapon reached her a split second later and Gabriel braced himself to see her body broken and thrown aside. He was stunned to find that when the blow landed it bounced off, the only indication of anything unusual was the metallic sheen that flashed around her form at the moment of impact. Apparently the enemy was just as taken aback; his deflected momentum caused him to stumble backward, struggling to regain control of his top heavy weapon. The other Toury faltered in their advance for a moment to gawk in amazement at the woman who had just resisted a previously invincible assault. The shock was replaced moments later with horror as they watched their intended prey turn lightly on her heel to face her attacker. A burst of light burning so hot it was blue, erupted from her outstretch arm to crash into his chest, obliterating his form completely. He never even had time to scream.
The destruction of their most powerful ally halted the advance of the other two combatants. The two were overcome with panic and turned to retreat; however both met similar fates; one burst into white hot flame, the other dragged into the ground by what appeared to be vines or roots erupting from below. Gabriel wondered at this until he realized that they had not come from Irestina. He turned his head to see a number of other female forms advancing from the tree line to support the few remaining members of his forces. Filled with awe and grateful for his life and those of his men, Gabriel returned his gaze to Irestina. As he opened his mouth to thank her, she crouched before him once more.
“M’lord,” she said softly, once more placing her hand on his face, filling him with an even more intense blaze. Her eyes had returned to their original steel grey. Out of the corner of his eye he could see his name on her left forearm, now a rust colored brand. “We are here to aid you. I am with you always, bound to you until the end of time.”