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Out of Nowhere by Patrick LeClerc.
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Assisted

by
Harris Tobias
Time Wars & other SciFi Tales

by
Gordon Rowlinson
The Wizard's House

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Jeromy Henry

The North War

by

Benjamin Wandio



            This war was a mistake, the Knight Grand Commander thought to himself as he leaped from the back of his black warhorse outside of the Grand Chambers in the center of Camulus. Commoners crowded around the steps as the Knight, clad in his knee length and bloodstained chain hauberk, strode up the steps towards the sweeping Gothic building. His hammer clanged angrily against his leg, and his shield with the white bird crest banged against his back as he swung his hand in an arcing motion across his front while focusing on the two-story arched doorway. The doors shuddered violently and flew open with the gesture as a bolt of magical force threw them open. Inside, he saw the red carpet leading to the Arcane Auditorium where the High Council of Warlocks was meeting. Several Arcane Guardsmen, wearing similar hauberks to the Knight Grand Commander Araman, albeit plated in gold, tried to bar his passage through the doorway at the end of the hall.

            “Sir Ptarmigan! Think about what you’re doing!” One of them stated, leaning towards the Knight Grand Commander, whose liquid brown eyes pierced into the Guardsman with the ferocity of a feral beast.

            “I have thought, you whelp!” The Commander retorted, grabbing the guardsman by his red tabard, tossing him aside with a shove, before making another arcing gesture, throwing the door open and knocking the remaining guardsman aside where he was unable to keep Araman from crossing the thresh hold.

            Thirteen sets of eyes looked down at the Commander in the round chamber, each of them wearing the red and gold robes of the Warlocks. The commander was panting in frustration, his short disheveled brown hair darkened with the same sweat that was dripping down his cleanly shaven face. The chamber was round, the floor a giant mosaic of some arcane symbol, and a large half-circle collection of high dark stone podiums made up the bench on which the Warlock Council sat. The central podium, the most decorated of them, sat several feet higher than the rest. Atop the podium was the High Warlock, Gregor, with an unshaven grey-haired face and piercing blue eyes, and wearing the Iron Laurels symbolic of his station.

            “Well now, Sir Araman Ptarmigan, this is quite a rude introduction, even for you.”

            “We have no place in the Ogre lands! We must end this war!” Araman hollered out.

            One of the other Warlocks, a wizened old man with a long white beard, observed Araman. “You forget yourself, Commander. You must address the High Warlock with the respect due to one of his station.”

            Gregor gave a wicked grin and nodded. “The Councilman is right, of course. Now, what were you saying, Knight Grand Commander Araman Ptarmigan?”

            Araman fumed. He went down on one knee stiffly and growled. “Your Greatness, I request that we leave the Ogre lands. They have not been hostile for nearly two generations; there is no need for hostile actions.”

            “Araman, you simply do not understand, do you? The Ogres have no right to that land. They are simple savages, and they would do well under our rule. We can bring them to civilization. The way they are living now, it is simply… well, Barbaric of course. But we can bring the light of civilization and understanding to them.”

            “And you are willing to sacrifice the lives of hundreds, maybe thousands of men just to conquer a few peaceful, nomadic tribes?”

            “A necessary sacrifice! Those barbarians are a threat to themselves, and us! Even their appearance shows us that! Nine-foot-tall savage brutes!” One of the other councilors, an ancient woman with shrewd eyes, hollered.

            Gregor hushed the councilwoman. “Now now, Warlock Jesseria, there is no need for such anger. Listen, Sir Ptarmigan, you have served the military since you were only thirteen, which is nearly twenty years of hard, loyal service. Surely you know by now that there are risks to war that we must accept. We must liberate those Ogres from the ignorance of their world, do you not agree? And let us not forget the threat that they have posed for generations to our northern borders. You were ready enough to fight the eastern Empires in our service for nearly ten years when you were but a boy; surely you can face some barbarians from the north?”

            Araman knew better than to answer the rhetorical question from Gregor and simply gritted his teeth angrily.

            “Now, Knight Grand Commander, I would strongly recommend that you leave this council and return north to your men. A simple hedge-wizard and soldier such as yourself can’t be expected to fully understand the politics and necessity of educating barbarian tribes.” Gregor stated in a cold, almost snide voice. Araman stood up, bowed while trying to contain his violent rage, and stormed from the council chambers.

 

            Araman’s horse tore into the small camp he had set up outside of town with a few of his men. The night was cool and chilled the air brisk and fresh, a welcome change from the stuffiness of the council chambers. Both knight and horse skidded to a halt and Araman, still fuming with pent up rage, leaped off of the black war-beast and began towards his tent even as his retainer tried to keep up with him. “Didn’t go well, I take it?” The young man ventured.

            “Not really, no.” Araman answered through clenched teeth. The younger soldier backed off a bit and went to tend to the horse with the other two men that Araman had traveled with.

            Already, dusk was beginning to creep across the sky with the deep purples and reds, the night coming swiftly over the other horizon. Araman sat in his command tent, looking over maps by the dim candlelight as his meeting replayed over and over again, contemplating brutal fantasies about just what he wanted to do to Gregor. Just as he was getting to the climax of one such fantasy, his retainer crept into the command tent. “Sir… Messenger here to see you.”

            “Who sent them?” Araman grunted.

            “She’s wearing a Warlock’s crest, Commander.”

            “Gregor’s?” He asked venomously.

            “No, sir. I believe it is house Gemguard’s, sir.”

            “Gemguard?” Araman puzzled over this new revelation for a moment. “Very well… Send the messenger in.” His retainer nodded and dashed away.

            A few moments later, the blonde head of a young teenage girl wearing a red messenger’s shirt and a brown cloak bearing the coat of arms of House Gemguard, a large eye hanging over a dragon, slipped in and fell to one knee. “Message for Knight Grand Commander Araman Ptarmigan, my lord.” The commander nodded to the girl, and she prattled on. “Warlock Lorea Gemguard wishes to meet you tonight in her estate. She has explained that it is an urgent matter. She wishes to speak before you must leave.”

            “Lorea? Councilwoman Lorea? Why would she wish to meet me?”

            “I do not know, my lord. I am just a servant, my lord.” The teenage girl nervously answered.

            “Very well, send word to your mistress that I am coming presently.”

            “Very good, my lord, I shall do so at once.” The girl dashed out of the tent with expedience. She had left the Knight Grand Commander with a great deal to think about and puzzle over. He fetched his cloak, leaving his shield and hammer behind but taking a dagger just in case. He strode off towards his horse, and sped into the night towards Camulus.


***

Back at the council’s tower, Gregor was retiring to his offices. Sitting down at his desk, he looked over a map detailing his nation and that of the Ogres. It was true that the Ogres were only nomads now, their nation shattered by years of internal war and strife. But what Ptarmigan didn’t know was that the Ogres were beginning to regroup. They were forming cities, expanding into the woods north of their land, and making small raids against the Easter Kingdoms now that the Council had weakened them with the prolonged war that ultimately left Camulus and its neighboring city-states stronger. Rolling up the map and tucking it away, he pulled out a silver bowl of clear water and stared down into it. His eyes focused and blurred, until his own reflection swirled away and left him watching. It was a camp, far to the north. Nine foot tall men stood in it, sharpening arms and pounding out new armors from red-hot steel.


***

 

            Lorea was waiting for Ptarmigan in her sitting room, impatiently swirling a cup of clear golden liquid in her right hand. She was out of her formal red robes, and wearing a simple brown robe cinched at the waist. Her long brown hair was let down and pooling over her left shoulder as she stared vacantly into space, debating the meeting she was about to have. The servants showed the Knight Grand Commander in and he appeared in the doorway like a blackened shade.

            “Sit.” The Warlock murmured. Without a word, the Knight took a seat across from her. “Do you know why I called you here?”

            “You missed me.” The knight grunted with a dark sarcasm.

            Lorea gave a small snort. “Ah yes. You do remember that brief dalliance we had all those years ago.”

            “Yes, and I still have nightmares.”

            Shaking her head, Lorea looked over at the Knight Grand Commander. His face was cold and stern, staring straight at her with those liquid brown eyes which seemed to bore into her soul. “You are such a cheerless man, Araman. I really called you here because I think you’re right. I think this war with the Ogres is a waste.”

            “I’m not some pawn in one of your games, Lorea. I came to this city to save my men and the Ogres. Not to be a tool for you to grasp more power in the Council.” He stated as he stood up.

            “I am aware of that, Araman. Please, sit!” Lorea set her glass down and gave a heavy sigh. “Listen, I want the same thing you do: Peace with the Ogres in the north. The only difference is that I actually have a means to it. But I’ll need your help.”

            Araman eyed her suspiciously for a long while. Sitting down, he murmured “Very well, go on.”

 

            “A rebellion?” Araman exclaimed after Lorea had explained her plan. “You want me to start a rebellion? I am not some rebel war-leader; I’m a loyal Knight Grand Commander! I am not going to risk everything on the whim of some Warlock councilwoman!”

            “Araman, listen to me—“

            “No, I’m finished listening Lorea. This has been a waste of both our time. I am not going to send my army against their families and countrymen!”

            “Fine, don’t then! But at least consider initiating to peace talks with the Ogres.”

            “What, against Gregor’s will? Yes, that will end wonderfully. With both of us hung as turn-coats.”

            “If Gregor takes issue with it, then he’ll have an entire army to arrest. Araman, your men are more loyal to you than they are to the Council. Think about that for a moment before you toss this idea away completely!”

            Araman snarled and stood up, pacing like a caged animal. “Damn it, Lorea. Why me?”

            “Because, Araman. You’re the only one I have left who I can trust.”

 

            Araman stopped and thought about the history he and Lorea shared, about their brief romance when he was just starting as a Squire, and she was an apprentice Warlock at the University. She was the reason he was able to become an Arcane Guardsmen, and eventually be commissioned with a knighthood. She had pulled strings for him. He’d still be with her, if she hadn’t run off with one of the other Councilmen—all simply to get a building project she wanted approved.

            “How do I know you’re not simply using me, like you did that Councilor four years ago?”

            She flushed and looked away. “I was doing what I had too. That building project was necessary for—“

            “Oh, stuff your excuses, Lorea.” Araman snarled. “I trusted you; hell I even loved you back then! But you betrayed the trust I had in you. Now I ask you again, how do I know you aren’t simply using me?”

            “You don’t.” She answered plainly. “You don’t know, but please Araman, I beg you to do this. If we work on this together, we both will get what we want: Peace with the Ogres. All you have to do is meet with the Chieftain of the border tribes, and then with the High Chief. I’ll even come with you on those meetings. Don’t feel like you’re the only one who has something to lose in this. I have everything I’ve worked so hard to gain on the line with this one. But Gregor must be stopped from wasting men and resources on this war, and this might be the only way.”

            Araman looked at the desperate Councilor, and grunted. “Fine. But the first moment I suspect you of working against me, I will end you.”

 

            Lorea and Araman traveled with Araman’s retainers to the war camp along the northern border of the realm. The land up in the north was rolling hills and bluffs of pine forests, but the camp was built on a more level area. The men were ragged and tired, and the sky was filled with a swirling grey mist of clouds. Rain pelted down on the camp, turning the dirt into mud and the mud into a swamp. Araman dismounted his warhorse outside the command tent, and then helped Lorea down.

            “We’ll need to send a messenger to the Ogre Chief before he’ll even consider meeting us.” He stated to her as they went into the command tent, warm only by virtue of the small stone stove with the fire burning in it. “I can’t make any promises that he’ll agree to a meeting. The Axefury clan is notorious for their love of warfare.”

            “You’ll have to make him agree then, Araman.” Lorea stated calmly as she removed her hood and shook the dampness from her long hair. “We need to meet with the High Chief. Our people and his people need to be saved from Gregor’s ambition.”

            “I know that, Lorea. But I can’t just change the mind of an Ogre. They’re quite a stubborn people.”

            “And so are you, Sir Araman.” She stated as she slyly looked over her shoulder at Araman as he sat down. She took a seat across from him. “Seems familiar, doesn’t it Araman?”

            “How so?”

            “Don’t you remember where we met? How long ago was it…?”

            “Ten years. And it was at a barracks, not a war camp.”

            She sighed. “Ah yes. I remember.” She leaned back. “I really did love you, back then. You know that, right?”

            “What changed your mind?” He stated flatly, and with a cool detachment.

            “I don’t know. Life, I guess. Ambition. The same things that make Gregor want to take over these Ogres, I suppose.”

            “Land, power, and gold. Seems fitting for a Warlock.”

            Lorea wrinkled her nose at Araman, but said nothing.


***

Gregor sat in his study, staring into the fire. He had hidden the secret maps he kept, tucked away his divination equipment. He alone knew what the Ogres had been doing, because without sending valuable operatives to spy on the Ogres his evidence was inadmissible to the Council. So far, his plans to preemptively strike the Ogres were only being supported by his vast wealth, the council’s deep set prejudices, and his political spin-doctoring playing on the imperialist tendencies of Warlocks. There was only one very dangerous wrinkle in his plan. “So he and Lorea just left towards the north?”

Francis Paladine, a wiry little hedge wizard with ill-fitted spectacles and Gregor’s personal hedge-wizard, blinked and nodded in response. “Yes, milord. What do you suppose she is trying to do? I mean, I know she has been fighting for peace with the Ogres for some time now—“

“Peace!” Gregor sneered. “Ogres are incapable of understanding the concept of peace!”

Francis blinked. “But how could you say that, they haven’t made any hostilities against us for years!”

Gregor brooded in his own mind. “Be gone, Francis. I’ll summon you if I need you.”

Afraid that he had angered the High Warlock, Francis swallowed and bowed profusely as he backed out.

Gregor stared deeper into the flames as he retreated into his own memories.


***

 

            The next morning came too swiftly for Araman, and he rose tiredly from his bed. The night prior, he and Lorea sent out messengers to the Ogre encampment requesting a meeting. Those messengers returned, and much to Araman’s surprise they were healthy and bearing a message from the Ogre chieftain, agreeing to the meeting. He and Lorea rode out just as the sun rose higher over the horizon, bathing the mud-slicked fields between the two camps in a golden light. As he approached the ogre camp, he saw the nine foot humanoids milling about, with savage faces, rough and tanned skin covered in wiry hair and bumps, with jutting lower jaws and heavily pronounced lower canines. Yet when he looked past the savagery, he saw soldiers much like his own. Certainly, their armaments were different. In place of hammers and swords, they carried clubs and axes, and instead of leather or chain mail they wore hides and brigantine. Even on horse back, these men were up to Araman’s height. They had no horses or other mounts, they were simple foot soldiers. A few were sharpening spears or axes, and others ensuring that their massive clubs were sturdy enough. One of the gate guards lead Araman and Lorea to a large central tent, likely the command tent, and beckoned him in.

            Inside the tent it was quite warm, and the thick scent of musty body odour permeated the tanned hide walls. Araman saw two beings inside the tent sitting cross-legged on a heap of furs, one a particularly heavily built ogre with a patch over one eye, wearing the skin of a great brown bear as a cloak, a large scepter-like mace in his hand. He wore no shirt and only a loin cloth to cover his lower body, his chest marred with scars and battle wounds. One of his canines was cracked, and his deep black hair was long and braided. Next to him was a smaller creature. He was relatively short compared to the larger Ogre, only about seven feet tall. His build was slimmer and his skin was much fairer than other ogres. While his jaw was still quite pronounced, his canines were barely visible on his upper lip. Most of the ogres had dark savage eyes, but this one’s eyes were a light blue and glimmered with the same intelligence and ambitions as Lorea’s. He was clad much like the larger ogre, but in place of a bear skin he simply wore a wolf-skin.

            The large ogre grinned toothily at Araman as he entered, and motioned to a heap of furs across from his own. “Ah, Great Warrior Araman and his Witch. You two sit. I am Ogre-Chief Otian Axefury. This is my Witch, Half-Ogre Gorun.”

            “Half-Ogre?” Lorea hissed incredulously. “But that’s… that’s impossible! Such things can’t exist, we are two different species!”

            Araman cut her off. “Clearly they can, we have the evidence right before our eyes.”

            The Chieftain Otian laughed mirthfully. “Yes yes! Great Warrior understands. Gorun is here, right before our eyes. He is quite real!” The ogre chief gave another mighty laugh, but Gorun simply smiled as he eyed the Warlock Lorea. “So, little ones, why you send message to Ogre-Chief, hm? Otian is not going to surrender and let you take Ogre lands. Otian is Great Warrior, like little iron-skinned human here!”

            Araman looked over to Lorea, and the Warlock returned his glance for a moment before returning her attention to the Ogre-Chief. “We wish to talk of peace, Great Chief. We think it would be benefi—“

            Otian cut her off with an ear-splitting laugh. “Peace! The little ones wish to talk of peace! Otian will not humor such foolish talk. Otian finds your talks amusing, little ones, but we have much more important war to fight. I am going to eat. You know way out.” The Ogre-Chief rose and let out another laugh as he lumbered away. Araman stood up, and then assisted Lorea in standing. The two turned to leave but a deep baritone voice stopped them.

            “Wait.” Araman and Lorea heard the half-ogre rise. “You truly wish to talk of peace?”

            Araman turned around and faced Gorun, followed reluctantly by Lorea. “Yes. Why? What can you do about it?”

            The half-ogre approached them with a grace that did not seem to fit his size. “I can change Otian’s mind if I simply tell him the earth-spirits command it. He trusts my word above all, simply because I can do magic. Tell me, why would Gregor want peace?”

            Lorea shook her head. “Gregor does not want peace, we, that is Sir Araman and I, want peace. We have Araman’s men on our side, and with the help of the Ogres, I believe we can turn the council against Gregor with military pressure. Araman’s force is one of the biggest in the Realm’s. Even Camulus’ great defenses couldn’t stand up against a combined force of Araman’s men and the Ogres. We need to speak with the high chief.”

            “The High-Chief? Very well. I shall convince Otian to send for the High-Chief. I will send you a message when such has been done.”

            Lorea grinned and turned to rush off but Araman grabbed her arm while staring at Gorun suspiciously. “Wait. Why are you helping us? What do you hope to gain from this?”

            Gorun grinned, his blue eyes sparkling in the fire light. “You read me well.”

            “I’ve dealt with wizards. They all have that same look in their eyes when they push pawns around the chess table that you have in your eyes right now.” Lorea retorted.

          Gorun chuckled. “In helping you, if all goes well I can claim that it was my powers that aided us. I increase in position if your plans work. If your plans fail, I can pin the blame on you. I still increase in position for uncovering your treachery.”

            Araman wrinkled his nose. “Trust a wizard to twist a plan like that.”

            Gorun bowed. “I do my best. Now, you would do well to hurry along before Otian returns.”

 

            As Araman and Lorea returned to the camp, a messenger ran up to Lorea and whispered something to the mounted Warlock. She turned to Araman. “I must go for the day. I shall return on sunrise tomorrow morning.”

            “Where are you going?”

            “I’m sorry, I have to leave now.” She tugged on the reigns of her brown mare and darted off across the muddy field. Araman kicked his black warhorse and darted to one of the guardsmen at the entrance. “You! Go after Warlock Lorea. Do not let yourself be seen. Follow her closely, but do not approach her. And you, messenger, go with him. If anything peculiar happens report back to me immediately.”

            Both soldier and messenger saluted and hustled off after Lorea.


            Araman waited for several hours before the messenger returned. Panting, the young man uttered the news to Araman.

            “She’s meeting with Francis Paladine, Gregor’s personal hedge-wizard. It was hard to track her, she set up several magical barriers, but we were able to find a weakness in one and sneak past.”

Araman quickly grabbed his war hammer and mounted his black warhorse, following the messenger back.

           

            When they arrived, the soldier was waiting for them. “She and the hedge-wizard just left, milord!” The soldier called out. “They were headed east. Should we follow?”

            “Yes, soldier. I’ll be accompanying you. I won’t have her giving information of our actions out here to Gregor.”

            “Very well, milord.” The soldier spurred his horse on, and Araman followed with the messenger taking up the rear. They rode hard for only twenty minutes when they saw the glow of a camp, the sun long since having set beyond the horizon leaving a blanket of stars overhead. The fields had given way to a sparse collection of tree bluffs that barely qualified as a forested area. The trio hammered into the camp, much to the surprise of Lorea and the wiry little hedge-wizard. Araman’s horse trotted forward towards the pair, and Araman lowered his hammer towards Lorea. “I warned you, Warlock. I told you that if you betrayed me I would end you!”

            “Betray you! What’s going on! I didn’t betray—“

            “Silence, Warlock! You have no right to talk! I know this hedge-wizard; he is Gregor’s most trusted assistant! Even my soldier recognized him!”

            “You sent a spy after me?” She didn’t sound so much disappointed as impressed. “Let me explain, Araman! Please!”

            “What is there to explain? You’re here with Francis Paladin, Gregor’s personal hedge-wizard! You know what this looks like to me? It looks like you’ve set me up! You’ve forced me into dealing with the Ogres so that Gregor finally has an excuse to do away with me and my men! You will look like a hero, likely get promoted in the Council, and have his support on another one of your schemes! But I won’t go down so easy!”

            “Wait!” Francis called in a frightened voice. “You think I was sent here by Gregor? That isn’t true! I was summoned by Lorea! I’m here to warn you!”

            “It’s true!” Lorea called out shakily. “I’ve been using Francis to spy on Gregor for years!”

            Araman narrowed his eyes and lowered his hammer. “Very well. What are you here to warn me of, then?”

            “Gregor has been acting strangely lately, ever since this battle with the Ogres was decided on. He’s been quite, spending most of his time locked in his study. I’m afraid he’s finally lost his faculties. He has sent a team of infiltrators ahead of him to find Lorea. Her absence in council has started drawing their attention, and while it’s not all together unusual for her to be gone, Gregor wants this war to go on and her sentiments against it were recorded. He fears she might be working to assist you in stopping the war, and he wants his infiltrators to prove so. Warlock Lorea and I were going to set up hallucination wards tonight to try and draw the infiltrators off course.” Francis babbled nervously.
            “Is this true, Lorea?” Araman growled.
            “Yes, Araman. It is.”

            “Fine. I’ll leave my soldier here to supervise you two while you do so.” The soldier saluted, and Araman nodded. “Sunrise, no later.”


***

The cart trundled on. His runners had reported that the infiltrators were only eight hours away from the camp now. Gregor looked out at the familiar countryside, in the northlands where he had grown up. He remembered the violent raids that had been held against the farms up here on a weekly basis, and he remembered the celebrations that had been held when the raids had finally stopped. He remembered when his father died in a war against the ogres, and he remembered when his mother took an Ogre as her new husband. Most of all, he remembered the day his half-brother Gorun and himself were taken up by an Ogre shaman and taught the ways of magic for the first time. Gregor was bitter towards the Ogres even then, and he had left to go study in a proper academy in Camulus. His astute mind and basic training aided him in flying through the ranks until he was on the council. And now he is High Warlock of the Realms.

He was finally in a position to help protect these northlands. He looked out at the passing woods as the thinned out near the rolling highlands. If only Araman and Lorea knew what the Ogres had been doing all this time, perhaps then they could see why it was this war had to be fought. The Ogres could not be allowed to have a kingdom; the suffering it would bring to their nation would be too great. The few must die for the many.


***

 

            Araman returned to camp, and rested for the night. Sure enough, a very exhausted Lorea returned at sunrise the following morning, having sent the hedge-wizard Francis back to Gregor after they finished setting up the wards. Lorea had no chance to rest before Araman insisted they return to the Ogre camp to visit. Sure enough, the Ogre-Chief had sent word to the High Chieftain of the Ogres, and he would be arriving later that afternoon. As they returned to the camp, about a mile out Araman could tell that something had gone badly wrong. The sun had just reached its zenith, and he could see small trails of smoke that were not from campfires or forges rising into the blue sky.

            “Wait here.” He commanded Lorea, who looked at him with a measure of concern.

            “I’m not staying behind, Araman. I’m going back with you.”

            Araman said nothing to contradict her, simply riding towards the edge of the camp. When they arrived, the guards were busy running around putting out fires. Several were dead. Araman stopped one of them.

            “What’s going on here, soldier?”

            “Arcane Guardsmen, milord. They arrived not ten minutes ago and tore the place apart looking for you and your Warlock. They’re still waiting at the command tent with High Warlock Gregor. You’d best run, sire. I don’t know what the men would do without you. He somehow knows where you’ve been.”

            “I’m not running, soldier. Lorea, come. We have a meeting with Gregor.”

 

            Gregor sat in the command tent, looking into the fire as he bit into an apple, chewing it thoughtfully. One of his gold-clad Guardsmen was standing next to him, and Gregor plopped the apple into his hand. “Our guests should be arriving shortly.” He stated.

            Araman and Lorea entered into the tent, standing at the entrance. Gregor turned to face them, letting a cold grin spread across his weathered face. With him were four more of his arcane guardsmen, the rest doing patrols outside. “I see you have managed to make it back from the barbarian’s encampment. I’m quite glad they didn’t harm you.”

            “I actually found them to be a good deal more civil than our own council.” Araman stated coldly.

            Gregor’s face remained cold, no longer the political mask he wore in council. “You would do well to address your superiors with more respect.” He turned to Lorea. “You disappoint me. I was even considering naming you my advisor, but I see my trust was gravely misplaced. Tell me, precisely what were you two doing over at the Ogre camp?”

            Araman was about to speak, but Lorea started spewing forth words before he could even process any. “It was all part of our plan to take them over from the inside! We were going over, pretending we were about to surrender, so that we could see the camp—“

            “Silence, Lorea. Let us tell him the truth.” Araman commanded. Lorea fell quiet, and Gregor’s smile returned.

            “I’m glad to see that one of you has garnered some form of enlightenment from your education. Tell me, hedge-wizard, why were you really at the camp?”

            “We were planning to have peace talks with their High Chieftain. You will find that certain of the ogres in power are actually quite well educated. They are a very reasonable people.”

            Gregor's eyes bored into Araman. The Knight Commander felt his stomach crawl into his throat under the warlocks glare. “Peace? You think these Ogres want peace? You have no idea what you've done, Araman Ptarmigan. Guardsmen, arrest these two. Hopefully some time in the dungeons will bring some sense into them.”

            Araman made no attempt to escape his bonds as the Arcane Guardsmen bound his wrists, and he shook his head at Lorea when she tried to wriggle free, causing her to stop as well. They were thrown into the back of a cart which started off slowly southward to Camulus.


***


            A few hours later, Gorun approached the camp. The soldiers were taking down their tents under the supervision of the golden-clad Arcane Guardsmen. Seeing these new soldiers, the Half-Ogre hid behind a mound, and beckoned to one of the Knight Grand Commander’s iron clad soldiers, an older man with graying hair and a scar across his face. “What are these new men here? Where is the Great Warrior?”

            “Great Warrior? You mean the Commander, Araman? Arrested, he was. These bloody Arcane Guardsmen seem to think makin’ peace is treason, these days. Dragged him right off, accompanied by the High Warlock himself.”

            “Truly? Would you men want him returned?”

            The soldier nodded. “I think it’s safe to say we’re more loyal to Araman than we are to the High Council. Araman’s done more for us than any Warlock’s ever done, save maybe his new lady-friend.”

            “Very well. Tell the men to slow down packing. Do not let them leave before tomorrow.”

            “Sure thing… I take it we should be expectin’ some help?”

            Gorun simply grinned.

 

            During the night, the soldier Gorun had run into watched the ogre camp carefully.

            “Jerran, what are you doing?” One of the other soldiers asked after leaving his tent to take a piss.

            The older soldier looked over at him, and grunted. “Don’t know. Ran into some sorta tiny ogre earlier today. Tryin’ to figure out what he was plannin’.”

            “Well, learn anything from watching the camp?”

            “Yeah. I see a lot of torches. My guess is they’re headin’ out soon. Let’s just hope they help us, not fight us with the Commander gone.”

            “Help us? Why would they do that?”

            “Commander was trying to make peace with them. Gregor doesn’t want peace. Means they’re on Commander’s side, I think.”

            “Let’s hope so. I don’t think the men could fend off an attack, the condition they’re in now, even if those Arcane Guardsmen helped us.”

 

***


            Araman was sitting up in the caged prison cart as they rattled along the rough, muddy roads. Lorea had fallen asleep and had been jostled against his shoulder. His arms and wrists were growing sore from being tied up behind him. He looked up to the stars, and dearly hoped that the messenger had brought word of his arrest back to the Ogres. He also hoped that the Ogres would make the decision to help his men, rather than take advantage of their disorganization to attack before a new commander could be sent.

 

***


            Gorun and the rest of his strike force slunk across the muddy No-Man’s-Land. He gripped an axe in one hand, and directed the much larger ogres forward as the camp was less than one hundred meters away. He focused and felt energy start leaping between his finger tips as they approached. He saw two Arcane Guardsmen watching the entrance to the camp, and unleashed a bolt of invisible force by making an arched motion with his hand in the air across his chest, as Araman had done to the doors at the council chambers earlier. The two Arcane Guardsmen were knocked aside, and the other ogres charged forwards, crushing them under clubs and axes before they could raise an alarm.

            One of the other soldiers watched as this happened, and swallowed hard, raising his hands in hopes they would not do the same to them. Gorun strode towards him. “Where are the other gold-skins?” He asked.

            “Y-you mean the Arcane Guardsmen?”

            “Yes.”

            “Why them, are you taking me prisoner?”

            “No. I am here to lead you to save your Commander. The Ogres want peace.”

            “O-oh. This way.”

 

            The prison carriage was stuck in the mud, and several arcane guardsmen were shoving on the back of the cart while Lorea and Araman simply lounged back tiredly. “Useless men!” Gregor hollered. “Stand back! It seems a waste to use magic on a situation like this.”

            The men cleared away and Gregor made several motions with his hands. The cart rattled as magic took hold of it. The horses reared at the feeling of the cart rattling, and the magical force succeeded only in shattering one of the wheels.

            “Shouldn't have done that.” Araman muttered. “Now we won't be going any where until you can get a second cart down here.”

            Blood flowed into Gregor's face and he vibrated in frustrated anger. “Useless!” He pointed at one of the Arcane Guardsmen. “You! Fetch another cart from his camp, immediately!”

            The guardsman saluted and turned to go back to the camp. However, he was stopped as several ogres emerged from the bushes, brandishing axes.

            Gregor turned the other way only to be confronted by a contingent of Araman's soldiers lead by Jerran and Gorun.

            “So, this is High Warlock Gregor, hm? Doesn't look so frightening to me.” Gorun stated.

            Gregor howled. “What is the meaning of this!? You have no idea what you are doing with those beasts! You're betraying your countrymen!” He stopped and looked to Gorun, his eyes widening. “You!”

Gorun let a sick smile spread across his lips. “You've been watching me, brother. I can still feel your eye through the water on the plate mother gave to you.”

“Your people are monsters! You've been attack the East since we ceased hostilities with them! The Ogres cannot, must not have a new empire!”

            Gorun was about to respond, but Jerran cut him off. “Perhaps we're traitors 'gainst you, Gregor. But we ain't out o' line. You're the one whose been failin' us.” He stated. “Araman's right. This war has no real purpose but t' line yer pockets.”

            “You have no idea what you've done.” Gregor snarled. He made several more gestures, throwing a spell at the men, but the spell collided with one of Gorun's and was eradicated in a brilliant flash of light.

            Araman called out to Jerran as the Arcane Guardsmen and the Ogres clashed in a flurry of arms. “The doors are warded! We can't break out with magic! Hurry!”

            Jerran rushed over to the gates. Gregor began to wave his arms about, but Jerran hacked at him with his blade before the Warlock could get the spell off. Gregor drew a dagger from within his cloak and swung at Gregor, stabbing Jerran in the shoulder, but not before Jerran managed to drive his blade through Gregor's stomach, kicking him off the blade and heading for the Cage as Gregor howled and fell to the ground. Jerran saw the chain and hammered at it several times with his sword, but the iron binds stayed strong. “I can't get it off, Araman!”

            “Smudge out the wards along the sides of the cart, and I'll cast a spell to get us out!” Lorea called.

           Jerran nodded, and using the tip of his sword, he struck through each of the magical wards along the sides of the cart. The back of the cage then flew open with a loud smash.

            In the end, one of the Ogres died, and they managed to capture several of the Arcane Guardsmen. One of the other Guardsmen managed to seal Gregor's wound just before they were routed and made their escape back to Camulus. The Ogres, Jerran, Lorea, and Araman headed back with the remaining of Araman's soldiers to the Ogre Encampment.


On the way, Araman stepped off into the dark where he had seen Gorun kneeling.

“You knew him.” Araman stated.

“Yes. I did.”

“How?”

“It is irrelevant.”

“You want peace?”

Gorun looked over his shoulder at Araman. “Of course.”

“Then it's relevant.”

Gorun stared back out into the night. “He's my brother.”

 

            As they arrived, it was late at night. The moon was high and full in the sky, and the land was covered in a strange twilight. As Otian, Gorun, Araman and Lorea entered the Ogre's command tent, they were greeted by a mighty looking Ogre. His body was covered in scars like Otian, but he was closer to ten feet in height rather than nine. His hair was long and braided with coloured beads in it. He turned and faced them. “You come to make an alliance, Great Warrior Araman?”

            “It would seem I have no choice now. Gregor and his council can no longer rule. The people need a new order, one that will not endanger their lives in a war with no meaning.”

            “So, you are the rebel then?” The High Chief asked.

            “No, Great Chief. I am a man who will fight for a good cause.” Araman answered.

            “Yet you lead your men well.” The High Chief studied Araman closely.

            “I did not choose to lead them.”

            The High Chief nodded his head. “Then you will lead your nation if we defeat this council.”

            Araman looked at him stunned. “I told you I am not a leader—“

            “The best leaders do not choose to lead.” The High Chief stated. “They are forced into their positions. You will lead; at least until you can find someone better to take your place. And you must make certain that those who you pronounce to be your successors will be good leaders too. This Warlock Council seems to have not done well for your people.”

            “They did well until Gregor decided to wage war on a peaceful nation.” Lorea stated defensively.

            “Yet your council supported a man who was a bad leader, yes? Then they have not done well.”

            Lorea frowned. Araman sighed. “If it is what it will take to get your assistance, I will lead my nation, Great Chief.”

            “Good. You will make a good leader. Now come, we have a war to win.”

            The Ogres left, and Araman stared out the tent flaps. Lorea came up behind him and rested her hands on his shoulders. “I'm sorry it ended like this.” She murmured. “I know you did not want a rebellion.”

            “No.” He muttered. “No, I'm not sorry. For years I've fought simply at the whims of the Council. But now... now is different. Now, I am choosing why I fight. I am the leader of my own destiny. Today, I fight to free our people from the Council. Tomorrow, who knows why I will fight. To liberate another country. To defend our country. Perhaps, tomorrow, I will not need to fight and so I will not. But now, I choose my destiny. Only those who lead can choose. No, I'm not sorry that it ended like this. I chose for it to end like this. I may not choose to be a leader, but at least I can choose what I will use that power for.”

            Lorea smiled a bit. The moon shone brightly, and glistened off the silvery armour of men and ogres, like marble pieces beneath a dim light.


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