An icy breeze rippled past the or and azure cloth bearing the Sabe family crest. The smoke cleared a little, and Vityaz Dobrynya Sabe, dressed in steel plate armor covered by an azure surcoat, surveyed the horde outside the walls as he propped his large, kite-shaped shield, emblazoned with a seven-pointed star, against the parapet.
Beyond the monastery, row upon row of orc soldiers and other slavering beasts, all armed with clubs, rusted swords, or long spears, waited. Intermingled with the group were large, muscular men who stood thrice as tall as those around them did. Savage, unintelligent brutes, they were only good for causing massive amounts of damage. Bregu Kraagor and his entourage were conspicuous in their absence.
What remained of Sabe’s men guarded the wall, staring out at the sea of orcs. They had lost so many, but he still counted them fortunate.
The orcs were superstitious of the monastery and its curse, and over the past year, Sabe and his men had done everything they could to reinforce that superstition. All that effort was over now. Bregu Kraagor had allowed Sabe and his band of Rhodinan resistance fighters to play their little games, but Sir Marko Madasgorski would not. Of that, there was no doubt.
Standing behind the southwestern wall, Vityaz Sabe recalled the last couple of weeks.
Dobrynya entered the Haunted Wood with eight squads of nine woodsmen each. Using an underground bunker as their base of operations and storage, each squad was tasked with scavenging the old, abandoned Trakyan towns. It was a thankless duty, and most of the time these scavenger hunts turned up little. But, here, lately, they had had a run of luck.
Of course, they had run across patrols of humanoids, but most could be avoided without a fight. Others they wiped out, making sure word of their presence didn’t reach Bregu Kraagor. This wasn’t their first time in the Haunted Wood, and it had become somewhat of a routine run for them. Maybe that’s where they had gone wrong.
Sabe’s squad made camp in the ruins of Elhova and set about searching for anything useful. Dobrynya remembered the excited look on his lieutenant’s face when he reported the discovery of an old vault hidden in the basement of the town hall. Inside lay a treasure trove of arms and armor, paintings, religious icons, and other valuable items, all too large to be carried during the Great Retreat. He quickly sent a runner to the bunker, requesting assistance.
When his runner didn’t return by the end of the next day a premonition swept over him. He immediately gave orders to seal the vault and retreat to the bunker despite the protest of his men.
On the way, they surprised a knot of twenty orcs approaching the town. With no chance for withdrawal, he ordered his men to attack. Rushing the line, he had led the charge, cutting down the first orc himself. The fight had been brutal but short. He recalled watching the remaining sons of Cayn flee through the Haunted Wood with no sense of victory.
The forest teemed with orcs. Vityaz Sabe and his men fought their way through, collecting stragglers as they went. When they arrived at the bunker, a plume of hot smoke and flame greeted them, forcing them to retreat south and east.
Day and night blended together, as the khumanoidi hounded their every move. By the time they reached the western verge of the forest, they had lost nearly half their original complement; in return, he felt sure they had accounted for themselves twice over. The orcs drove Sabe and his men onward, out into the fetid field of mudpots. Then, the orcs vanished overnight. All signs of their retreat pointed northward.
With just over forty men, Dobrynya struck out parallel to the southern edge of the mudpots, hoping to catch the orcs unawares. They traversed the treacherous paths and wound their way through, losing only two men to the pits. However, the strategy only led them into a trap. At the opposite edge of the field, the sons of Cayn from Chernigov stood waiting for them.
Caught in the open, he formed ranks as best he could and let his archers have at them. With the wind behind them, clouds of arrows flew through the air, striking down orc after orc. But there were too many of them.
The khumanoidi charged the Rhodinan warriors as a mob, trampling their own comrades who fell. Feeling the ground shake from their approach, Sabe’s men turned pale with fear. “Stand your ground!” he ordered, and stand they did. Their bravery made Vityaz Sabe proud.
Waves of the evil creatures crashed against his men, and the mudpots turned black and red under rivers of blood. Outnumbered at least three to one, there was little hope. In the end, Vityaz Sabe’s men fought out of sheer desperation. He remembered praying to God for a miracle, and he received one.
Cold wind gusted across the battlefield, and lightning struck not twenty yards from where he fought toe-to-toe with an ogre. Charred orcs squealed as they ran, breaking formation. More blinding flashes struck the ground, and the smell of ozone washed over them, overpowering the acrid, sulfur smell of the mudpots and burnt orc flesh.
Then the sky opened up with torrential rainfall.
Already a superstitious lot, the remaining orcs took it as a bad omen, and their ranks broke. Orc officers whipped the fleeing soldiers to no avail, and the sons of Cayn retreated.
With a cheer, his men surged forward. Although he wanted to run after the beasts like everyone else, Sabe called back his men, shouting, “Hold the line! Do not chase them!” Using the rain for cover, they ran south of the retreating horde and found a place to rest in a small, defensible hollow. It was a much needed but short reprieve.
They moved out the next morning through a forest of young pine trees and headed toward their typical exit route, their scouts sent ahead to check on the khumanoidi’s position. When several returned with news that another, larger, band of orcs lay ahead, he stopped. After a brief, but heated, discussion with his squad leaders, Vityaz Sabe had made the decision to turn north. His men openly argued against the course of action, but he remained steadfast. He knew in his gut that there was only one place they could run. A place Bregu Kraagor would not anticipate.
Looking at the orcs across the wall, it was easy to second-guess that command. His men didn’t blame him for what had happened next, but he couldn’t stop blaming himself. He should have seen it coming.
What he did not know at the time was that the orc band had split into three groups: a smaller group to the south and larger groups along the eastern and western fronts, all with the intent of drawing them farther south and flanking them.
He literally gave his men the order to run.
When they turned north, the orcs had to close their trap prematurely, and the chase was on. Fortunately, they had tall trees for cover against the orc archers and good ground to run on, but they were running toward Chernigov. They fought a running battle for twelve miles and anyone, human or orc, who couldn’t keep up was left behind.
The orc captains eventually figured out where Vityaz Sabe and his men were headed. Changing tactics, they simply drove them.
He remembered it clearly. They had broken through the southern woods two nights ago, followed by the horde of orc warriors close on their heels. They ran for all they were worth into the valley toward the monastery. The dark ruins, silhouetted by the fires of Chernigov, loomed eerily through the billowing plumes of smoke.
A light flared next to the main entrance, and the doors were thrown wide. Vityaz Sabe found twenty Rhodinan warriors already on the walls, providing cover fire into the black mass of orcs while his men rushed into the courtyard.
Ilya Egorov, his second-in-command and friend, stood waiting for him and said excitedly, “Vityaz, we saw your approach. What happened?”
He didn’t have an answer. Instead, he gave his officer a simple shrug while he caught his breath. As soon as he felt able, he climbed the walls and joined in the defense of the monastery with a heavy heart.
Of the seventy-two men he had started with, only thirty remained. Near exhaustion, they quickly manned the walls to reinforce their brethren while the doors closed. The orcs didn’t rush the walls as he had anticipated. Instead, they stayed out of range of their bows and spent the night building X-shaped crucifixes known as crux decussata.
When morning came, they found twenty-five of their men nailed to those crosses, staring at them – crying out. It was with sadistic glee that the orcs used the crosses as shields and placed Sabe’s men within a few yards of the walls.
For the past two days and three nights, they defended the monastery with no hope of escaping, watching the sons of Cayn crucify and torture friends who’d been captured during the flight.
Eventually, he had talked with Ilya, but the tale he told was not a happy one. After that, he spent his time alternating between walking the walls and praying in what remained of the chapel, where Vityaz Sabe could only reflect and hope for another miracle.
And now, he was forced to make another decision — one that would cost the lives of more of his men. Staring out at the valley, he was riddled with doubts.