“He’s very handsome.”
“He is reckless,” Cayleigh frowned. “And he is foolish.”
Danyelle faked a pout as the sisters looked out at the gathering of Free Peoples. Glân Vraig bustled with activity. Something big was about to happen.
The other five members of Danyelle’s fellowship mingled among the other soldiers, haggling with equipment vendors and trading war stories with anyone who would listen. Cayleigh’s companions were also around somewhere.
At the center of a large crowd was a tall, handsome man. He spoke in the authoritative tone of one accustomed to command. His polished armour glimmered in the sun. Those around him seemed to hang on his every word. His crooked smile was charming. And seductive.
His eyes settled on Danyelle’s for just a second.
Her pulse raced when he winked. At her.
“You say Calebril is reckless and foolish, too.”
“Calebril is over three thousand years old,” Cayleigh snorted softly, and Danyelle giggled. Though both were dressed in heavy plate armour, they were still young women, desirable for their house name as well as their skill and looks. “If that one lives to be thirty, it will be a miracle.”
“Does he have a name?”
“Aeron Rea,” her sister said. “He fought with Garald and the elves when goblins lay siege to Ost Forod.”
“So he’s a good fighter?”
“Yes,” Cayleigh replied absently. “Too good.”
“I think he likes you.”
Cayleigh snorted again, but Danyelle saw her sister blush a little.
The girls made their way through the camp. Messengers came and went. The many who recognised the Osgood sigil gave them a respectful greeting.
Danyelle said nothing, knowing very little of the battles that raged across the Ettenmoors. She followed her sister’s lead and tried to remember the names of those who introduced themselves.
A short time later, they were milling about when a hush washed over the camp. It started near the stables, but soon, everyone had stopped what they were doing and fell silent. People stood and gathered to see what was going on.
Angelos rode into the camp at the head of a column of Free People. His gray hair was cropped short. His heavy plate shone in the sun. He said nothing, his eye fixed forward on the elf who awaited him expectantly.
“Out for a stroll, Commander?” Calebril’s eyes danced with delight as Angelos dismounted his great horse.
“Reporting for duty, Captain-General.” The pair clasped their forearms in the old soldiers’ greeting.
Another man, whom Danyelle did not recognise clapped Angelos on the shoulder. “I hope you have a plan, my friend. We’ve been getting our rear ends handed to us for the past week.”
“I always have a plan,” Angelos replied, and even from afar, Danyelle could see his wicked smile.
Whispers made their way around the crowd, and in that instant, she realised just how lucky she was to be a part of Angelos’s family. He was a legend, not just another fighter. Those who did not know him, knew his name and his deeds. His renown was only cut short by the wound that took his eye and half his sword hand.
Garald was to carry on his name, but his time passed too quickly.
Those who had never met him seemed scared to talk to Angelos, or even speak near him. The crowd parted as he made his way over to his “daughters.”
Both girls bowed formally. Danyelle smiled to herself, knowing how much Angelos hated the trappings of ceremony and rank. But she also knew that even if he was only a shadow of his former self, the legend must live on. It gave the others hope, and in many ways, that was more important than the truth.
“We have a war to plan,” he said simply, and they followed him into a great tent with the army’s other commanders.
“We have spent too much time trying to control the fortresses,” Angelos’s booming voice carried to those gathered around the great sand table.
A scaled model of the Ettenmoors was the centerpiece for those gathered. Markers adorned the table, showing the forces in play. Blue pieces represented the Free Peoples. Red markers were for the armies of Sauron.
And there was far too much red on the map for anyone’s liking.
“So are we to abandon the Moors?” someone asked.
“Never,” Angelos replied. “But instead of taking Tol Ascarnen, only to hold it for a fortnight, we should root out the orcs and destroy them. Once we have smashed their forces, then we can take the strongholds.”
“Were do we start?” Calebril asked. He had been fighting the longest, and his renown exceeded anyone else’s by a factor of ten.
“We will need several small raiding parties,” Angelos said. Evidently he had been planning something for a long time. “We will strike the outposts, the bridges, the orc camp: everywhere they expects us to strike. But our goal is not to take them. We will rile them up, and bring them to ground of our choosing. And there we will crush them.”
“And where is that?”
Angelos pointed to a spot on the map.
“Here’s what we’re going to do . . .”
The field was littered with the dead and the dying.
Those who could be saved were taken back to Glân Vraig or some place of relative safety. Those who could not were made comfortable in their final moments.
The orcs and wargs and spiders were dispatched without mercy.
Daneylle’s armour was splattered with blood, some of it her own. She stood next to Angelos, holding his battle standard high.
Military men will say, “No battle plan ever survives first contact.”
And that is always true.
“They have taken West Tol Ascarnen Bridge,” the elf standing on Angelos’s other side said. “South TA Bridge will fall soon.”
“How can you tell?”Danyelle asked, her voice filled with worry. Cayleigh was out there somewhere. Along with scores of other Free People.
The elf smiled gently. “There are elves and hobbits and men spread throughout the Ettenmoors. Only the most skilled at hiding and remaining unseen are sent out to the relay posts. Each has a small mirror, like this one, and when they have something to report, they flash it in the sun. If you know the pattern, you can know the message.”
“Can you really see that far?”
“My elven eyes are keen to the distance,” he replied.
“Better than yours or mine.” There was a measure of envy in Angelos’s voice.
The elf pointed out across the valley. “See those trees, look at the base. Two . . . then four . . . A group of defilers and reavers are headed towards the Grimwood.”
Danyelle could see the faint flickering described by the elf, but she did not know the code. Yet.
He raised his own mirror and flashed a pattern out to anyone who could see.
“Does it work at night?”
“It doesn’t, and not in the rain, either. We have to guess where the creeps are,” the elf admitted. “What I wouldn’t give to be able to talk to others in real time across great distances with some sort of voice chat.”
The sound of a horn rang throughout the Moors.
“They have abandoned the Coldfells Outpost,” Angelos frowned.
“You did not mean for them to hold it,” the elf pointed out.
“I did not expect them to be overwhelmed so quickly.” Angelos chewed on his lip for a moment. Danyelle knew he was trying to envision the big picture in his mind. “Mount up.”
Those in his party took the reigns of their horses and ponies. The senior commanders and sergeants gathered around him.
“Change of plans,” Angelos announced. Wheeling his mount around, he began barking orders. “Kennowyn: Get to south TA bridge; don’t hold it, just delay them. Goshon, take ten of your fastest riders and make a run at Lug, make a big show and try and draw them out. Everyone else: we ride on Tirith Rhaw. I want to see our flag flying there by mid-day.”
Those around him scurried to carry out their new orders. Danyelle saw that Angelos was born to lead. Those around them—even the officers who technically out ranked him—never questioned his instructions. She made mental notes to herself about the way he carried himself and spoke, wanting one day to be worthy of the name he had given her.
“Runner!” Angelos called. A slender boy rode up on a horse that seemed built for racing. “Find Captain-General Isarawyn. Send him my compliments, and tell him the word is ‘honneycut’.”
“Honeycut.” He repeated. The boy looked puzzled, but he didn’t dare question Commander Osgood.
“Aye, Stevan,” Angelos smiled at him, approvingly. “Get to it.”
With a salute, the runner galloped off.
As those around them bustled, Angelos patted Danyelle on the shoulder, and in that instant, she learned his secret of leadership. He looked her in the eyes, an in that moment, she was the most important person in his life; more than his wife, more than his other adopted daughter, more than his army. He would call her by name and he would listen intently to anything she had to say. And she would follow him to hell and back.
“Stay close to me, Danyelle,” he said. “Do not show panic or fear. They look to us for leadership.”
“They look to you,” she whispered.
“No,” Angelos shook his head with resignation. “They follow the flag you are holding. The flag of the Free Peoples. When you advance, they will advance. When you retreat, they will retreat. My days of leading men and the armies are coming to a close. I am too old for this war. They will follow others: Aeron, Brindelle, Gurn . . . and you.”
A lump formed in Danyelle’s throat. She could not find the words to reply.
“Now come, let’s go capture a fortress!”
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