By Jason Gibbs
Riel signalled right and two of his rangers peeled off. They padded silently into the forest. A signal left, and two more went, giving them the start of a skirmish line. He looked at his Chief, standing silently in the centre of their line, right on the path. He didn’t know why the Chief had ordered them to close together when they formed up after clearing away the tents, but it made him nervous. He took it on his own initiative to spread the line more. This would give them much greater flexibility.
Suddenly the Chief stirred. He indicated forward, and called back the skirmishers. They were to progress forward as a tight group.
“Oh no, another amateur. No idea how to use us.”
“Shush Perel. He might hear you.”
“He can’t hear me, and he’s not even real, you know that.”
Riel did have his concerns about the Chief, but he was clearly real.
Perel went on, “We’re skirmishing troops, I mean look at us.”
He pointed down to his green tunic and brown trews. He was indicating the lack of armour. This made them light, and fast. But it also meant they’d be cut down if they were forced into a straight fight.
“I know, I know, but maybe this is just his way of travelling quickly, and when we get close to the danger area…”
“How will we know? We have no scouts out!”
“He is guided by a higher power, I’m sure it will tell him what to do.”
“Right, like that time it told us to turn around just as those orcs were charging us?”
“Yeah, but we got out of that, didn’t we?”
“Did we? I don’t actually remember.”
In truth Riel couldn’t remember much more than a tremendous pain in his side, and then waking up again, ready for war. He just assumed the healers had got to him in time.
They walked on for a little while before the Chief indicated they should jog.
“Right, let’s tire ourselves out.”
“Perel, hold your tongue.”
Riel was itching to get the company to spread out, and figuring that as the sub-Chief he had some control he signalled again to the left and right, and several of their troops peeled off. They jogged like this for a while. The bulk of the company was on a path, but the troops had such affinity with the woodlands that even those on either side who were dodging trees could easily keep up.
Riel had assumed that his Chief’s failure to countermand his order meant he approved.
“Bet he hasn’t noticed.”
“I’m sure he has. I just wish we could prepare our bows. Not having a decent weapon in my hands is making me nervous.”
While it would take moments to string and prepare them, those seconds might be critical, and they were now entering unknown territory.
The Chief waved, angrily it appeared to Riel, to the left and right, and the scouts reluctantly fell back in. It was obvious from the way they dragged their feet that they were unhappy with the order, they’d relished the chance to dance among the trees.
“Told ya. Bloody amateur.”
“Perhaps he has some intelligence of the way ahead?”
“He has no intelligence.”
Riel looked sharply at Perel, who was chuckling to himself.
He whispered harshly, “You may think that, but don’t say it so loudly, we don’t want the rest of the troop to notice.”
“They have no intelligence either Riel. Just look at them.”
Riel inhaled sharply, he tolerated too much of Perel’s ways, and now he’d insulted their companions. Yet there was nothing from them, no retort. He looked around and realised he barely knew any of them. They all had long handsome faces, pointy ears and almond shaped eyes. He couldn’t actually think of their names. They had received a lot of replacements after the last fight; perhaps that was why?
“Oh Riel, don’t worry, they don’t care that you don’t know their names. They haven’t been around long enough to earn them.”
“That’s too much Perel. You are cruel.”
“When will you realise…”
There was a roar ahead of them. The Chief indicated they should stop, and the whole troop gracefully came to a halt. Some seven hundred yards along the path, up a hill, they could see a band of orcs.
“Now let me see, notwithstanding that if we’d been running through the woods they wouldn’t have spotted us, what would be the correct thing to do here?”
“Fade into the woods and regroup.”
“Or try and get around them, then shoot them from behind and fade again. Constant hit and run. I’m prepared to guess that instead we’ll approach them slowly. Set up with our bows and shoot at them while they charge us. Then we’ll pull our hunting knives and fight bravely until we’re all dead.”
“That would be stupid, our Chief would never…”
The Chief signalled forward. Riel tried to avoid Perel’s knowing eye, and jogged, hoping this was some kind of feint. He couldn’t think of any way this was going to work out well for them.
The next signal was to charge.
“Dear gods, we’re six hundred yards away, lightly armoured and they are heavy shock troops. What does he think is going to happen?”
“I don’t… understand how… you can still… speak… Perel.”
They were now pelting towards their enemy. Without armour, and with natural elvish athleticism they were fast, but it was still quite a distance for them to run at full pace, especially uphill. The orcs seemed initially surprised by the move, but then prepared to receive the charge. Riel thought that if the orcs were to charge down towards the elves at the last moment they’d scythe through them in seconds.
Suddenly the Chief signalled a stop. They were perhaps a hundred yards from the orcs. They stopped for a while, and the party started to shuffle a bit. The orcs watched. Their harsh shouts dwindled to confused mutterings. Why was the troop just standing here? Why weren’t they doing anything? Riel thought that at least it gave them a chance to catch their breaths.
Finally the order to string bows came.
“Genius,” muttered Perel.
A ferocious roar came from the orcs, and they started down towards the troop. The slope gave them added pace, and it was like facing a juggernaut.
“If we could just step out of their way, I suspect they’d run straight past and we could pepper their backs.”
“Now you’re thinking Riel, we’ll make a war captain of you yet.”
Instead they were ordered to fire.
“Hmm, three arrows maybe?”
All around Riel the company drew and fired, a smooth motion. The arrows flew true, as only elvish arrows can, and embedded themselves in orcs. Several fell, but their heavy armour, and stubborn constitutions allowed them to shrug off most of the attack. Twice more the elves managed to fire, the last time at almost point blank range. Perhaps some forty orcs had fallen, without the loss of a single elf.
Unfortunately there were still dozens of orcs left, and the fighting was now to their advantage. A beast of an orc charged at Riel, his axe aimed for the elf’s head. Riel managed to twist sideways and catch the orc across the head with his bow’s shaft. It knocked him off balance and the elf behind Riel, another whose name he didn’t know, managed to cut the orc’s throat with a swipe of his hunting knife. There was no time for thanks as Riel ducked the next attack, managing to draw his own knife out in time to deflect a saw tooth blade heading for his side.
They fought. Many died on both sides, but more elves than orcs. The elves could dance, and weave, but if a flailing orc weapon caught one of them, it would do serious damage. The same could not be said for the elven knives. Most of the time the knife attacks bounced off the orcs’ armour, or their thick hides. Soon there were only a few elves left, gathered around the Chief.
He signalled they should run.
Perel nearly collapsed laughing.
“Run? Now? Where too!”
He was right, they were surrounded. Yet the Chief and the others started to run back the way they’d come, and they were cut down quickly, leaving only Perel and Riel standing back to back. The orcs just stared at them.
“I see you’ve been careless and caught a wound in the side.”
“Perel, I don’t need the feedback. Also, I recall your hair being long and blond, not matted and red.”
“New barber, not sure I’ll be going back.”
Riel staggered. The blood loss would kill him if the damned orcs didn’t do so first.
His world went black.
“Aww, you cheated! There’s no way your orcs should have won.”
“Little brother, I even gave you a points advantage, why would I cheat.”
“Then it wasn’t possible.”
“It was, look do you want to try again, and I’ll give you ten extra elves?”
“OK. But you need to remember elves are better at skirmishing…”
“Don’t you try and confuse me; I know what I’m doing.”
Riel awoke. The memory of the blood and pain was so fresh that he reached for his side, expecting his hand to come away slick. Instead there was nothing. The healers must have got to him, but he couldn’t imagine how. Orcs never left anyone alive unless they were chased off.
He might be alive, but he was exhausted. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d slept. Maybe he could grab a little more rest.
“Morning Riel. Ready for another pointless march, foolishly managed battle and near death?”
He looked up grumpily at Perel.
“How come you’re so cheery?”
“In this hell is there any choice? Oh, here comes our new Chief.”
They were ordered into close formation, and started marching along the path. Then jogging.
Perel shook his head, “I just wish they’d learn. It’d be nice to win this one. At least it’s a larger troop.”
Looking around, Riel realised that their troop was all different from the last one. Yet with the same variants. There was one with an eye patch, one with an extra-large knife, and even one who was probably female. He didn’t know their names, and he suspected Perel was right. They wouldn’t survive long enough to earn ones.
“Maybe this is a feint.”
“Riel, why do you have to be so naive? This is the same joker as last time.”
Up ahead there was a roar and a formation of orcs straddled the path. The elven troop was brought to a halt, then jogged forward. As they were once more ordered into a charge, Riel was knocked to the side and hit a tree. He slumped down.
“Sorry Riel, I had to do that.”
“What? Wait… Perel, we need to get back to the troop. They’ll be slaughtered without us.”
“They’ll be slaughtered anyway. This way we have a chance.”
“For a life without continuous stupidity and death. Over that ridge. I get the feeling that once we’re out of the sight of the higher powers, we might have a chance.”
In the distance he could hear the sound of the orcs readying a charge, and he knew in his heart they’d make no difference. Perel offered him a hand up, and he took it. The two friends jogged towards the ridge, and the hope of a different life. Behind them nameless troops hacked at each other, and died. Before the battle had ended, Perel and Riel were over the ridge, and in a different world.