"William!" came a voice, shouting in a panic. "Lord William! We have an urgent missive! One of the mages received a message!"
William looked up from his cramped writing desk where he had been studying a map of the surrounding area. His tent was lit by the light of the sun, low in its morning rise, and by a lantern sitting in the corner of the small desk. He bent, almost reflexively, to pick up his gauntlets and bracers from the floor, careful to bend at the waist thanks to the heavy breastplate he wore every waking moment since marching south. Next to him, Leaf stirred, his eyes looking first to William and then to the young lad still sleeping on a hastily constructed pallet in one corner of the tent. "Milord?" he asked hesitantly.
"No, I don't think there's anything coming at us, Leaf," William said quietly. "Otherwise the horns would have sounded." The sentries had their orders to sound off if the reports had enemies approaching, so as to have the men roused and ready, regardless of the message reaching him or not. "I think we've been sitting here long enough. For Guide's sake, Leaf, you'd think that heavy assault infantry would be on the move and not holed up on a mountainside."
"I understand. Though, I do apologize again for not learning the magics. I could relay messages to you immediately if I had." Leaf's eyes didn't shift nervously, he didn't wring his hands, his green-tinted skin didn't even change it's pallor, he just stood there, cool and calm. This was not the first alert they'd had, and it wasn't even Leaf's first full campaign. He was older than William by twenty or more years, and had served with William's father.
"Please, Leaf, not this again. If I could learn it, I would've done it, but we have good men that do this."
A man burst into the tent, breathing hard, with a missve in-hand and a heavily armored man behind him. Adovan loomed over the messenger, his blue eyes intent and sunken into a face just beginning to recover from gauntness. "A magic message came from the general's camp, sir! There are goblins preparing to assault!"
William heard Leaf suck in a breath through his teeth, and the cot creaked as the youth sat up. "Orders?"
"Yes, sir, we're ordered to hit the goblins as soon as possible. The general's camp is fortifying and all nearby units are being called in. We're the closest." The man's breathlessness hadn't lessened, and his eyes were wide.
"We march," William said, beginning to buckle the bracers onto his arms. Leaf stepped in and deftly swatted his hands away to do up the buckles himself. "Have Bannerman Torval and Sergeant Detrius form the men. Camphands and retainers stay. If we're successful, we'll be back by nightfall, and if we're not, they are to scatter and head back to the nearest group in the army."
"Milord," Leaf began, before William cut him off.
"No, Leaf. You and Adovan are to go with them. Get back to the family estate and tell Mother what happened. Anton will go with you. He has my approval to stay at the estate. And she will want to know what happened to me if I can't tell her myself."
"Yes, milord. But I was going to ask if you were certain you wanted Detrius to go with you."
"Leaf, I don't think any of us could stop him, do you?"
The messenger had already run back through the tentflaps, but Adovan remained behind. His face was carefully blank, but his eyes almost burned in their deep sockets. "Adovan," William said, "I know you want to strike back at the greenskins, but listen to me. You have to protect Leaf and Anton if things go badly, keep them from those prison camps. I need a man I can trust here. Are you that man?" Adovan's face fell slightly, but he nodded all the same. "Good man."
With the last buckle done up on his armor, William slipped the chainmail coif over his head, picked up his shield and slid his heavy-bladed longsword into its sheath. He ducked as he exited the tent, as he did anything in that tent but sit or lie down. As he stepped out into the cool morning air, he saw the men moving to form up and the great, hulking form of Detrius marching up and down the lines, waving his mace and bellowing.
"Get in line! Get in line! You, 'dere, you a terrible soldier! Be ready! We gettin' ready to move!" His leather armor strained over broad shoulders and tough, craggy gray skin, but men paid heed. Detrius had a talent for many things, but patience wasn't one of them. Clobbering people with his fists or smashing things with his mace, that was a different story. But even he quieted as William stepped to the head of the formation.
"Men," he called out, "we have little time. Goblins are attacking General Korgan's camp. They are fortified, but we are the nearest force. Our orders are to do what we do best, hit the enemy from the side and try to break their resolve. This is what we are for, and we will succeed!" Short as it was, the men shouted their agreement and began to march. William strode at the head of their lines with Bannerman Torval.
"Milord," Torval greeted him formally.
"Torval. There isn't much time. Do you think we can manage a forced march?"
"With the rest we've had since the last assaut, sir, I believe we could almost run the whole way."
William gave him a half-smile. "Force march will be fine. I want their strength at the fight, not getting to it."
Torval returned the smile and called out for the men to begin the forced march of long strides to cover the land. They marched down the hillside along a recently-made roadway, cut in their ascent to the camp's current position. Korgan had stated that the purpose of the heavy assault unit William led was to have men that were between heavy infantry and light that could bring enough force to strike at openings in enemy formations and move quickly enough to do so. While this wasn't a standard practice, Korgan's unorthodox approach had liberated Compa, Glaris and Eumoyn and pushed the goblins further and further back as the allied forces of human and faykin advanced. And so, William's men moved as quickly as he allowed, ranging through the untamed wilds deep in the goblin lands towards the general's camp.
The camp had been backed to a pair of high, steep mountains so as to limit approaches, and as William's men crested the ridge, he could see that it was working. Barely. The forces of the general's guard were in a tight arc, just at the edge of the camp, and being pressed upon by a writhing green mass of goblins that outnumbered them at least two to one. William's own force numbered just shy of eighty thanks to recent losses, but they were trained for this. He raised his sword high and the men behind him drew their weaponry and as he lowered the blade, the group of them broke into a charge. They didn't cheer, yell or shout as they ran. The creak of leather and clatter of armor was their cadence, blending into the noisy cacophony of the battle before them.
William ran with the frontline of his men. He couldn't fathom sending these men he was charged with into a fight without being in it himself. The men snarled as they crashed into the enemy line, their weapons falling together and a wave of goblins died. They had smashed through almost a quarter of the mass before the goblins realized that were being assaulted. Finely wrought steel blades, heavy-bitted axes and sturdily-made maces and hammers tore the goblins apart before them.
William turned aside a thrust from a shoddy goblin spear and slashed at the horrid little creature's throat. It collapsed, unable to scream, as he stepped over it and thrust into the back of another and upward, into it's ribcage. He withdrew the blade with a grunt and a kick to the creature's back and stopped a brief moment to assess his position. The battle raged in earnest around him. Detrius stayed right at William's side, his own shield not so much turning aside strikes from poorly made goblin weapons, but smashing them with incredible force, almost as impressively as the blows from his mace. Bannerman Torval had strapped the flag of the unit, a fight clutching a blade of lightning, to his back and had set about, his two axes catching blows and cleaving at arms in the way he favored in turn.
William snapped his eyes back forward as two of the disgusting creatures barreled towards him. One raised a knobby, two handed club overhead and William swung his shield in an arc to bat it aside and twisted his arm to trap it against the ground. As he did, the other goblin struck at his chest with a rusty looking sword. William let the blade hit his breastplate, exhaled on the impact through clenched teeth and swung low, catching the blade bearing goblin in the knee. He then pivoted, stabbed at the other's face and it fell away, screaming and clutching at a ruined face. With a side step, he stepped on the first goblin's neck with all the force he could muster. He felt a crack under his heavy boot and then, suddenly, they had broken through.
General Korgan's camp was an impressive array of order, even in the chaos of the fight. Men stood with spears pointed outward over the shoulders of men with large shields and heavy bladed short swords. The men before him smiled grim smiles as his vanguard punched through the goblin mass and it seemed to recede from around them. The high-pitched screeching of the goblins seemed to fade a bit, their stench lessen and the fervor of the fight began to ebb from William's blood. That's when the first explosion hit.
Men to William's right flew back, their faces bloody. Some had their armor punctured by heavy pieces of metal, others bore wounds only on exposed skin, inconsistent and varied as the men that were wounded. William saw some had sharpened bits of metal gouged into their bodies while others pulled forks and table knives from their armor, deformed by the blast. William turned to look at Detrius, who grimly returned the look.
"Shrapnel bomb, boss," he said simply.
William looked back to the line. The bomb had done it's job and opened a hole in the lines. The goblins had displayed uncommon cunning and drawn back to focus on where the bomb would land and pressed the forces immediately around the hole in the lines, fighting to keep it open. Some of the goblins pushed their way past the lines and into the camp. William turned back to Torval and grabbed him by the tunic.
"Turn the men to push those goblins off the line. I'm going in the camp. Too many people that aren't soldiers are trapped in there. Detrius, with me!"
"But sir!" Torval began.
"Now!" William shouted. He turned towards the lines of men, Detrius at his heels. "Hold, men! Hold!" he shouted as he made his way through the formation. He emerged from the other side to see something that made his Andoly heart proud. The wheelwrights, the blacksmiths, the seamstresses, the cooks, all fought at the oncoming goblins with whatever came to hand. He saw a cook hamstring a goblin with a butcher knife before a wheelwright swung a wagon tongue overhead and smashed its skull into the mud. But what caught his eye was General Korgan himself, wearing leather armor and an embroidered surcoat. He swung his signature spear, with a thick, heavy blade at one end and a weighted steel globe at the other end. The blade took one goblin across the stomach, the heavy pommel took it across the head and he stepped, thrusting the blade forward into the chest of another.
William threw himself at the hole in the line and , putting his shoulder behind his shield and crashing into the nearest green-skinned enemies. Detrius' thundering steps followed him, and the first downward swing of his mace found a goblin skull and flipped its limp body over the point of impact. William thrust low, catching a goblin in the gut and drew it back, flinging his arm outward across the eyes of another goblin. The general had masterminded this whole campaign. He must not fall. He pressed forward, trying to force the goblins away from the general.
That's when he saw it. One small goblin squirmed it's way through the legs of others and bolted forward, its eyes glued on the general and clutching a wooden box to its chest. As it ran past others, they started to chant in their screeching voices.
"Bomb! Bomb! Bomb! Kill the general!"
William felt his blood run cold and forced his way forward. He felt like his legs were churning through deep mud and time was running more slowly. Next to him, he saw Detrius lift his hand and throw a minor magical spell from his hand. It landed and the box clattered to the ground, bouncing forward towards Korgan. The goblin had stopped, confused and died to the crushing blow of a blacksmith's hammer. William's eyes flicked from the box to the general, whose eyes widened.
There was one choice.
William dove, dropping his sword and shield and throwing himself onto the bomb. He pressed the box to his breastplate and curled in to try and cover as much as possible.
"Boss!" Detrius' voice bellowed out.
Then, there was thunder and everything went black.