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CHAPTER 31 - Standing Watch Against the Night

Alec reacted as if he had been shot through the heart with an arrow.
He struggled to find his voice, and when he did, his words came out in a
wheezing croak. “Tonath is dead? How… how did this happen?”
Ulric shrugged. “I know few details. The means of communication I have
with the young cleric aren’t all that good at times, and events out on the
plains have been… difficult for the young man.” The mage snorted softly.
“They would be difficult for anyone, let alone a boy with his few winters of
experience.”
Alec looked first at the Baron, then at the mage. His thoughts were
jumbled, confused. Tonath, he realized, had been a stabilizing influence
in his life. Whatever happened, he knew he could count on the dour little
knight. First Old Baldy, murdered by orcs… then Sir Kinnith, and now
Tonath… Who would he rely on to help keep order? At a time like this?
It seemed as if the Baron was lost to the pits of indecision, and now his
supporting knights and men were dropping like flies around him. Would
he be forced to rely on a gutless traitor like Tarn Nohmahl for support? He
shuddered silently to himself. What is this world coming to?
He felt again that itch on the back of his neck – the itch he now knew
was always an indication of trouble about to occur. The longer he sat and
thought about it, the more the waves of despair began to crash over him,
threatening to overwhelm him like the waves of the sea he had never seen.
And then it hit him.
He had to rely on himself. He had no more support. Tonath was dead.
Old Baldy, Kinnith, his best troops and boon companions from twenty
years of campaigns – they were all dead. Aahron was lost in his new role
as general and war leader, barely able to continue functioning, it appeared.
The mage, while a competent war wizard, was half-elven and not a leader
of men. And the priests, as it always seemed, were more concerned with the
afterlife than this current one. There was no one else for him to rely on. He,
and he alone, would have to stand against the orcs.
He sat up straight in his chair with new-found conviction, his back
held straight with a military demeanor he had not felt in weeks. His senses
suddenly seemed sharper, and his mind clearer than it had been in quite
some time. “Tell me, Master Mage, exactly what you heard from the cleric
who reported Tonath’s death and how you came by this information.”
The mage seemed to squirm a bit under Alec’s glare. “I have my means,
Alec. But they are my means, and I would not reveal them to you or
anyone.”
Alec raised an eyebrow. “Really? And how, then, am I supposed to know
that you’re not lying to me?”
Aahron sputtered something unintelligible. “Alec, come now. We don’t
need to question the mage’s motives. Surely he has proven himself to be an
enemy of the orcs, even if he is not a subject of the Empire.”
“Milord, if my recent experiences have taught me one thing, it is that
the greenbacks are far more treacherous than even I thought possible. I
would not put it past them to subvert a man such as the wizard here, to

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have him send us false information for the purpose of sowing discord in out
midst.”
Ulric’s nostrils flared. “You can’t believe that! How dare you suggest
that I would forfeit my life’s work to help an orc!”
Alec slammed one fist down onto the table. “Then reveal to me your
source, Mage! Or, better yet, let me speak to the ‘young cleric’ and your
apprentice myself! Your story seems rather convenient to me!”
“You question my story? You, who were gone for more than two weeks
on a joyride into the horde lands and conveniently return as the only
survivor of your expedition, have the gall to question me and my methods!”
Overcome with grief, the mage realized he had almost lost control. He stood
up, pulled his robe tighter about him, and started toward the door. He was
only stopped by the hand of the Baron clutching at his robe.
The Baron turned toward Alec without releasing Ulric. “Gentlemen,
remember yourselves! Remember your places and the position we find
ourselves in! I assure you, there is nothing that those orcs would like better
than to see us fighting amongst ourselves like this!”
Temporarily chastised, both men sat back down. The Baron continued
his lecture, though. “You two ought to be ashamed of yourselves. The fact
that I place my trust in you both should be more than enough proof for
either of you.” He paused. “Alec does have a point, though, Master Mage.
How did you come by this information? Answer me truly, now.”
Ulric’s face showed his embarrassment. “Milord, the message comes to
me by ways… of the craft. Matters of… elf magic that I am not allowed to
divulge.” Aahron nodded almost imperceptibly at the answer, indicating his
acceptance.
How convenient, Alec thought. And Aahron is going to let him get away
with it! There is something going on here, and I don’t trust him. He tried to
remove any indication of his feelings from his face, and hoped he succeeded.
Be strong! Rely only on yourself!
Ulric continued, “At any rate, I would be willing to share with you the
few unhappy facts that I have from Shieldbrother Logan. It seems that they
were able to track the beast back to the encampment of a clan opposed to
Ten-Kill and the beast. The demon lured them there to kill them. It would
have done so had not fate, or the gods, intervened.
“The taint which inflicted Tonath, and still afflicts my apprentice, has
grown worse. So much so, in fact, that the beast was able to control them.
Tonath killed an orc shaman they were working with, and Nyla killed
Tonath – as Tonath was about to kill Tarn. The demon, I am told, left right
after the fight, leaving our people to their wounds and worries.”
They’re working with orcs? WORKING with ORCS? What’s next? Oaths
of allegiance to Grummish? How am I to believe anything this man and that
traitor Nohmahl tell me? Alec started to reply, but the Baron spoke before
Alec could say anything. “How are they now?”
“I am told that Tarn lives. Nyla, the girl… isn’t right. That was all the
cleric could or would say. But they press on. They will endure, as must
we.”

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Alec found himself agreeing with the mage in that fact, at least. “How,
Master Mage, is our friend the demon related to what’s going on here?
Somehow they are connected – that much you have told me. But what I
don’t understand is why someone would summon a death demon that all
the shamen of their order oppose?”
“I know that not, Sir Alec. All we can surmise is that Chief Ten-Kill
summoned it to bring about more chaos before his attack here.”
The more Alec heard, the less he believed the mage’s story. “It has
indeed done that,” he quipped. “I’ve now lost my right-hand man to that
thing. But one question remains: Why, if he could summon such a demon,
did he not drop it in our courtyard here, and let it wipe out the garrison?”
Ulric looked across the table at him. “Good question. Perhaps the demon
is no longer following his commands. I wish I had some more answers for
you, but I’m afraid I don’t. Let us be glad that Ten-Kill did not do as you
suggest, and count our blessings.”
Aahron nodded his agreement, but Alec wasn’t so sure. The thought
occurred to him again: The one thing I do know is that the only person I
can trust around here is me. He stood up, bowed to the Baron, and nodded
toward the mage. “Well, I must be about my duties, gentlemen. If anything
comes up, I will be on the wall with my men.”

***

Alec stormed out of the main audience chamber, leaving a small cloud
of dust swirling behind him as he rapidly left the room. One more person
to add to my list of people not to trust. His list of untrustworthy people kept
growing, while his list of allies seemed to keep shrinking – but he didn’t
know what to do about it.
Well, I can’t worry about that right now. I’ve got a castle to save. His
hand dropped to his side, clutching the hilt of his sword as he fled the
inner keep and walked into the courtyard. They were still several hours
away from dawn, so he decided he could risk a short visit to the outer walls
of the besieged fortress.
Soldiers and militiamen saluted him as he walked past. He acknowl-
edged most with an offhand salute or a wave. His mind was on other
matters now – like how to save the castle from another day’s assaults.
Rounding up onto the stairs, Alec climbed up toward the wall with
an energy he was surprised to have, taking the steps two at a time. Soon
enough, he reached the top, and returned the salute of the guardsmen who
were standing there. “Hail, Isthan. How goes the night watch?”
“Quiet, Sir. At least so far. It seems the orcs have no taste for action
tonight. I guess our mages took the fight out of ‘em.”
Alec shook his head. “I doubt that, lad. I hope you’re right, but I doubt it.
They’re probably just waiting to recover their strength before having a fresh
go at it in the morning.” Alec saw the boy’s expression change, and realized
optimism was more important than realism. “Don’t worry. We can hold ‘em
here until Grummish himself comes to take his whelps back to where they

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came from.” He saw the boy’s face brighten a bit, so he murmured, “Carry
on, Isthan. Carry on,” and patted the boy on the shoulder as he walked off.
As he walked, he looked out over the ruins of the city below him. Most
of the buildings and shops had been burned to the ground in a hail of
burning, looting and pillaging that had lasted through the morning three
days ago. The orcs were absolutely crazy with desire to own finished
human goods of any type, from brass belt buckles and cheap candelabras
to the finest golden jewelry. Human craftsmanship – even second or third
rate goods – was better and more esthetically pleasing than the average
orc-designed tack and harness, or pair of boots, or whatever. Couple that
fact with the “normal” practices of an army on campaign, along with your
typical orc savagery, and frankly… this was the result.
As far as Alec could tell, there were only a few intact buildings left in
the city. He knew that a couple of inns still stood, serving as barracks for
orc shamen and leaders, as did the stables and all three forges in town, but
beyond that… He turned away, making sure to hide the tear forming in his
eye.
How are we going to survive this? He scratched the back of his neck
with one finger as he walked along the ramparts. There are so many green-
backs down there. I didn’t think there were this many orcs across the whole
of the plains! Swallowing the lump in his throat, he wondered yet again
what had become of his home.
Most of the men on the walls were conscripted militia, but tried to take
comfort in that fact that their numbers were still strong. This fortress will
not fall so long as men stand ready to defend it. That was a part of the oath
he had taken when he accepted command of the royal garrison at the Keep
all those years ago. “To stand watch as long as I am able against the night,
and to defend the empire against all who wish her ill.” He sighed inwardly.
Those words seemed so noble then. But now?
He reached a corner in the outer wall and paused, taking the risk of
resting his arms on a crenellation in the stonework. He was facing away
from the ruined city now; he didn’t think he could bear to look out over the
ruins any longer. A voice called out behind him. “You should come down
from there, Sir Alec. Yah never know when some orc might be lookin’ to
take a pot shot atcha.”
Alec looked over his shoulder and saw one of the militiamen standing
behind him. The man looked familiar, but Alec couldn’t put a name to the
face. He cleared his throat. “I suppose you’re right, Master….?”
“Ferrek, sir. Ben Ferrek. I own the Happy Orc Inn down below. Well,
used to, at least. I served with you in the army many moons past, back
before Deadman’s Well.”
Alec raised an eyebrow, his opinion of the man rising. Then he remem-
bered him. “Ferrek! By the gods, now I remember! You were a good man
back then. I was sorry to see you go.” Alec hesitated, not sure of what to
say. “I suppose your inn is gone now, like the rest of the city below.”
Ben paused, leaning on the butt of the polearm he held. “Oh, the loss is
bad, sir. I can’t argue with that. But buildings can be rebuilt. It’s my family
that I worry about. My sister, well, she an’ her worthless husband moved

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down the river to set up a homestead, and I fear the worst. Horde this big,
an’ they’re more than likely dead, right?” Alec couldn’t argue with that. “An’
my niece? She’s gone on some damn fool crusade to stop a demon, or so she
says.”
Alec stared blankly for a moment at the former innkeeper, knowing
there was a connection he just couldn’t think of. It came to him suddenly.
“Well,” Ben continued, “I haven’t heard from her since then. I suppose
she’s all right, or you would have told me, but then again, you folks simply
may not know anything. By the gods, you certainly have enough else on
your mind.”
“Ben,” Alec cut in. “She’s alright. We just got word from her today –
from the cleric, at least. They’ve fought the beast, and my old friend Tonath
is dead, but your niece is still alive.”
Ben looked at him with surprise on his face. “How do you know?”
“The mage, Ulric, has gotten word from them. It isn’t good, but it could
have been worse. Tell me, how much do you know of this quest they are
on?”
Ben filled him in on what he knew, and Alec listened raptly, filling in
some of the gaps in what he knew had happened in his absence. The tale
seemed too much to accept, but after all this... He no longer knew what to
believe.
It was good, he thought, to have someone who trusted him again. Ben
didn’t seem to be lying to him, as crazy as his story was. When he finished,
Alec was sitting on a small seat built into the outer wall, hoping that in the
former innkeeper he had found one man he could trust.
“Tell me, Ben. One old soldier to another, what do you make of all this?”
He swept his hand expansively toward the castle and the still smoldering
city below.
“Of what, the siege?”
“Yes. No. Not just the siege, but the tale you just told me – this soul
stealer thing, and of our Lord Baron’s leadership.”
Ben looked at him, puzzled. “What do you mean?”
“I’ve lost a lot of friends of late, Ben. I was hoping you could give me
some advice. What to do. A sounding board, so to speak. Ever since I’ve
come back... Well, his Excellency the Baron seems not to trust me anymore.
That worries me. This siege worries me. This demon your niece is after with
Tarn Nohmahl… That worries me, too. All of those things worry me, and
I’m not sure which worries me the most.”
Ben stood up a little straighter, switching the haft of his spear from one
hand to the other. “I’m sure it’ll be all right, Sir Alec. The Baron has led us
well since I came to this town. Like I said before, buildings and goods can
be replaced. The news you gave me, that my Nyla is still alive, well, with
you and the Baron leading us, by Urnomax, all will be right in the end.”
Alec shook his head as he looked at the tired old innkeeper-cum-soldier.
“I hope you’re right,” he muttered. He clasped the other man’s shoulder in
a show of support, even though he felt deep down in his heart that nothing
would be right ever again.

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