(v) The War of Darkness (Part 2)
The Onslaught of Aélûr
The commanders of Urkûl ordered an immediate attack, hoping to drive back the armies of Thaeìn and allow the time needed to move the entirety of their army across the Bridge. They were certain that, with the full might of their army at their disposal, the Men of Thaeìn would be powerless to resist.
In the mists of the morning, a wave of Men, monsters and skøltär moved silently to the line of Men surrounding them for a mile or more, intending to break upon them as they yet rested. To their dismay, the armies of Men stood ready, hundreds of mounted soldiers wielding sword and axe and spear. Urkûl had also not reckoned on the aid of the Illuèn, who had great experience with the tactics of darkness. The battle was swift: hardly advancing, the Men of Thaeìn cut down their enemies as they advanced, and in the cover of the mist swept back around them and cut them off from the rest of their army. Few Men of Thaeìn fell, with great casualty among the soldiers of darkness.
As the day grew (though not in light, as the sun was now permanently blocked by thick, black cloud), the mists cleared, and the army of Urkûl saw their dead lying before them and were enraged. The advance soldiers of Thaeìn, having circled back once more to the line they held against Urkûl, now faced their enemy directly for the first time. The mass of dark soldiers had yet grown through the night, and by now clearly outnumbered the soldiers of Thaeìn.
Seeing a chance to force back the Men of darkness, and with the hope of shaking their enemy’s confidence, the advance army of Thaeìn began now to advance upon the soldiers of Urkûl. They in turn advanced upon Thaeìn, and as a dismal and cold rain began to fall, it soon mixed with the blood of both man and beast. The soldiers of Thaeìn fought bravely and with skill, hewing down their own race without hesitation. Less confident were they, however, in facing the creatures of darkness. Monsters, towering over the battlefield, swept great maces and clubs, crushing helms and smashing through armor with ease. The Illuèn, long skilled with the bow, held back from the rage of the battle, and rained arrows down upon the field with such accuracy that not a man of Thaeìn was hit. Scores of arrows penetrated the thick hides of the monsters, bringing them down only if one chanced to pass through its skull and into its diminutive brain.
By far the greatest horror to Men, though, were the skøltär. Weaving deftly between the whirling blades of Men, these terrible creatures would descend upon the soldiers of Thaeìn, ambushing them from behind and opening their throats. While the wounds they inflicted were no worse than those dealt by the jagged blades of Men, the true horror was as the skøltär gorged themselves on the flowing blood of their victims, and rose yet more powerful, strengthened by their feasting. The soldiers of Thaeìn would descend upon any skøltar they could find, not heeding the danger of Men around them, and hewing them by threes and fours were able to keep them at bay.
For eleven hours this first, great and terrible battle between Thaeìn and Aélûr raged on. As outnumbered as the armies of Thaeìn were, as the dark of night descended upon the battlefield, the fallen soldiers of Urkûl numbered more than those of Thaeìn, and, dismayed, their commandeered ordered a retreat, falling back to the mouth of the Bridge. The armies of Thaeìn chose not to pursue their enemy; not only were their own soldiers exhausted with toil and horror, but the mouth of the Bridge was teeming with yet more soldiers of Urkûl, who had yet to fight. Returning to their camps surrounding the army of Urkûl, the Men and Illuèn spent an uneasy night, fearful of what the morrow would bring.
In the end, the line at the Bridge of Aélûr held against the armies of Urkûl for three nights, with only sporadic strikes from the army of darkness. It seemed the commanders of Urkûl’s armies, seeing that they had been unable to break past Thaeìn’s first defenses for now, were content to bide their time, until more of their soldiers had crossed into Thaeìn. For their part, the Men of Erârün and Kiriün did not move again upon Urkûl; enough blood had been shed in their first battle, and they could not afford to strike again until the weight of their full army arrived.
By now, some four thousand creatures and Men of Urkûl teemed around the mouth of the Bridge, against eight hundred Men of light. The armies of Erârün and Kiriün were still three days’ march away at least, with the mountains of Reinkrag between them. These very mountains provided hope to Daevàr and Starüd, knowing they would prove difficult to navigate even for the rampant armies of darkness, should they move from the North before their arrival at the Bridge of Aélûr.
The advance soldiers of Thaeìn were becoming increasingly nervous as the armies of darkness gathered before them; they knew that they stood little hope of holding them at bay when they attacked. On the fourth morning since the first battle, Urkûl moved against them. Under cover of darkness, the Men and creatures of the West marched with unexpected swiftness upon the southern flank of Thaeìn’s line. The soldiers of Thaeìn rallied to the assault, but it proved futile: hewing Men and Illuèn before them, the army of Urkûl broke through the first defense of Thaeìn, who scattered and retreated before their terrible advance. The first battle in the War of Darkness was over, and it was given to Urkûl, and Aélûr.
Word reached Daevàr and Starüd of the falling of their defense, and they called halt to their advance. Knowing the perils of the mountains before them, their decision was to hold, and wait for the armies of Darkness to move through them; much of their work might be done for them, should the Men and creatures of Urkûl struggle through the Reinkrag as they hoped. Instead, forming an entrenchment at the foot of the mountains, below the pass of Arrakul, they designed to wait for Urkûl to break upon them. They would have them trapped between the hostile lands of the mountains, and the spears and swords of their own.
The advance riders, under the leadership of a man named Béthul, retreated rapidly south. Mounted on horseback, they were swifter than the armies of darkness who, except for the wolves who dashed forward and back from the advancing line, were moving slowly and steadily on foot. Within a few days, they had arrived at the foot of the Reinkrag mountains, and began their ascent. But the powers of darkness – whether the Duithèn or fate itself – stood in their way. The pass, which had been clear and passable on horseback only a week earlier, raged now with sudden storms, and snow drifted furiously across the mountains. Béthul and his men, now numbering less then three hundred, were left with no choice but to dismount, and leave their steeds to the mercy of the wilds, and the armies of Urkûl. They moved forward into the mountains, shivering and frost-bitten. When they turned to cast their gaze behind them, distant lights revealed the flaming torches of the advancing force of darkness.
As Béthul and his men passed ever deeper into the mountains, their progress slowed, as more and more of their number fell to the elements, frozen dead in the snow. The gap between them and the marching army behind them was closing, and though they would surely encounter the same resistance the Men of Thaeìn had, the winds, which had seemed intended only for them, were now beginning to die down. The pass of Arrakul, which had for days now blocked their way, began to open once more, and the soldiers of Urkûl marched fearlessly on and ascended into the mountains.
Béthul knew the remaining soldiers of Thaeìn must have halted somewhere to the South, and saw that his men, in their weakened state, would not last the distance, and would perish either by the cold of the mountains, or the blades of Urkûl. So it was he put into motion one last defense, an ambush that might buy them the time they needed to retreat. Calling his men, he pushed them forward to the height of the pass of Arrakul, and sent them into hiding in the high snows and rocks flanking the pass. They took what shelter they could, and waited for the armies of Urkûl to arrive.
By this point, the men of Thaeìn had less than half a day’s lead on the armies of darkness, and within a matter of hours, the first of their soldiers appeared on the northern slopes, frost-ridden, exhausted, and driven onwards by the relentless whips of their commanders. Soon, some hundreds of their number were passing over the pass, and it was at this point Béthul made his move. At a signal, each of the remaining men, nearly three hundred strong, began beating against the snows and rocks, urging them to cascade down upon their enemy. The soldiers of Urkûl were not oblivious, and looked up at the sound, and saw the Men of Thaeìn surrounding them on either side. He ordered scouts to ascend the slopes and wipe out these few remaining soldiers. The snow was not falling, and it was in this moment that Béthul, man of Erârün, called upon the powers of Stone that governed the kingdom of Erârün, and sent the rocks and snow and the mountain itself down upon the soldiers of Urkûl. A thousand tons of rock and snow crashed upon them, and when the sliding of land was finished, hundreds of soldiers of darkness were dead, and the pass of Arrakul was blocked.
Such an impasse would not stop Urkûl, of course; it was a matter of ten days’ march to circumvent the mountains and approach Kiriün from the West. Yet Béthul had nonetheless bought Thaeìn, as well as his own men, the time they so desperately needed. Descending from the mountains, they regrouped with the main army of Thaeìn in the northern plains of Kiriün, and prepared for the first true defense of their lands, and their lives.
As the army of Thaeìn was preparing against the onslaught of Aélûr, word reached Daevàr and Starüd that great black ships had been sighted off the eastern shores of Thaeìn. Within days, these rumors grew to tales of great pirate ships raiding the coastal towns of Erârün, killing entire villages in a single blow with a terrifying new weapon; casks, slung from a distance at the towns, containing tainted liquids or air that could bring Men to death within minutes. The kings of Thaeìn were shaken to their very core; with such imminent destruction approaching them from the West, they had been completely unprepared for an attack from the East.
The Men of Thaeìn had little choice; Daevàr and Starüd split off a little less than half of their army and sent them East to the defense of their lands against the Men of Cathaï. Starüd lead this splinter army; as a lord of things that grew, it was hoped he might have some power against the poisons of the Men of Cathaï. Daevàr turned his focus once again the coming assault from Aélûr, reorganizing his army to the best of his ability, given their greatly reduced number.
It was not long before the army of Urkûl had rounded the foothills of the Reinkrag, and began to march again towards Kiriün across the plains. They were halted in their progress by the sight of six thousand spears, standing tall side by side in a line that spanned half a league. By now, the front line of Urkûl’s army numbered some five thousand, but hundreds more were joining them daily from the North. It would be here, on the plains of Kiriün, that the defense of Thaeìn would begin in earnest.
Daevàr led his soldiers into battle, and the clash of the two armies was terrible. The first, great onslaught lasted through the night, and on into the following day. The fields ran red with the blood of Men, and became littered with the bodies of hundreds of Men and beasts. The Men of Thaeìn slew tirelessly the creatures of darkness, who in turn hacked and tore their enemies, the monsters flinging the bodies of Men far across the battlefield in their furor.
At the end of this first, great battle, both sides withdrew finally, with no ground gained or lost. Some fifteen hundred Men of Thaeìn lay dead on the plains of Kiriün, or wounded and maimed in the pitifully inadequate healing tents behind their lines. There was little consolation in knowing that twice that number of Urkûl’s soldiers lay beside them, because their own army was already being reinforced by soldiers from the North, who still streamed in small groups over the Bridge of Aélûr, now some thirty leagues to the North.
It became clear to Daevàr that they could not hope to hold the army of Urkûl at bay through force of arms alone; two more such battles and not a Man of Thaeìn would remain to stand in their way. Working through the night, soldiers of Thaeìn crept stealthily through the grass and fields, and in the morning, the armies of Aélûr looked out to a line of fire, a league from end to end, twenty feet high and burning bright, separating them from the Men of Thaeìn. The Men of Aélûr, the creatures, even the skøltär themselves found they could not pass through this fire that seemed to burn from the very earth and stone itself. To send their army passing around the edges of this line of flame would take half a day of march, only to find themselves ambushed by the armies of Men.
The army of Urkûl thus sent forth their Fire Lords, who passed through the fire, and parted it for the passing of their own soldiers. What they discovered was unexpected, and terrible. The armies of Thaeìn had, in the cover of the flames, retreated some miles back, across plain and valley. Seeing a chance to advance, the soldiers of Urkûl moved steadily onwards, passing over the plains and into the shallow valley that now separated the two armies.
This was exactly what Daevàr had hoped. He had, in secret, despatched a small contingent of his army East to his own kingdom, where they climbed into the low-lying mountains and brought crashing down the great aqueducts that carried water over hundreds of leagues to their cities. The rivers, cascading down now into their natural paths, swept westward, through the foothills and across the plains of Kiriün. As the army of Urkûl moved into the lowest part of the valley, the rivers of Erârün fell upon them, drowning their soldiers and beasts alike, and separating Urkûl from Kiriün and Erârün beyond. The Men of Thaeìn had – for now – brought a halt to the advance of Aélûr and darkness.
The Battle Fleets of Cathaï
While the battle against the armies of Aélûr raged in the West, the fleets of Cathaï were descending relentlessly upon the kingdom of Erârün in the East. Pulväen’s galleons were terrifying, manned by the skilled Piren and crewed by the poison-masters of Pulväen. They travelled up and down the coasts of Erârün, raining death upon the seaside villages. Blackened, contorted bodies lined the streets in dozens of towns by the time Starüd led his army to the East.
Many of the remaining people of Erârün had fled inland, seeking refuge in Vira Weitor and the other great cities of Erârün. Entire cliff cities lay abandoned, and were plundered and desecrated by the soldiers of Pulväen. Starüd rode to the very edge of the sea, and, looking down from the high cliffs, beheld the fleets of Cathaï for the first time.
A hundred ships, laden with easily fifty soldiers each, lay in anchor below, stretched out over the sea to the horizon. They lay too distant for the arrows of the Illuèn to reach, and little damage would they have done even if they had. The fact that they remained at sea for the moment, however, gave Starüd time to rally his men to a defense. He halted his army, and sought counsel with the wisest soldiers of Erârün. Much of eastern Erârün bordered the sea by great, towering cliffs, forbidding and unscalable. The fleets of Cathaï must therefore be seeking a landing, a place to discharge their armies into the lands of Thaeìn and march then across the country. Starüd had no doubt that, should the armies of Cathaï conquer the East, they would march towards the armies of Aélûr in the West, and the armies of Thaeìn would be caught between, and crushed.
Poring over maps of the country, Starüd decided upon the small harbor town of Poralèm: it hosted a sheltered bay, had beach enough to land a dozen ships side by side, and was only six leagues distant from Vira Weitor. Placing faith that the soldiers of Cathaï would come to the same conclusion, he drove his army forth, in an attempt to anticipate the strategy of Pulväen’s warlords. He was not wrong; even as Starüd’s army arrived within sight of Poralèm, the great vessels of Cathaï were bearing down upon the village, already long abandoned in fear by its inhabitants.
Starüd led his men down to the town, and as the first soldiers of Pulväen made landfall, they were cut down by the Men of Thaeìn where they stood. Moving stealthily between the walls of the town, the soldiers of Pulväen stood little chance against the soldiers of Erârün, who knew the construction of their own towns. Pulväen sent legion after legion of soldiers to land on the beaches and rush upon the town, but they were unable to advance. The Illuèn, from higher upon the hills, sent their arrows raining down upon the landing vessels on the beach, and many of Cathaï began to fall even before they set foot upon Thaeìn.
Starüd began to see hope that they might even hold the armies of Cathaï at bay before they should set foot on their land. But the hopes of Men, so easily encouraged by swift victory, can equally fail when defeat is brought suddenly and surely. The warlords of Pulväen ordered the Piren to navigate the greatest of their galleons ever closer to the shore, and visited the most terrible of their destruction upon the soldiers of Thaeìn. Enormous projectiles were hurled through the air at the town of Poralèm, crashing down upon roofs and streets, bursting upon and spewing forth poison and death. The Men of Thaeìn dropped where they stood, and fell writhing in the streets, dead within minutes. Starüd watched in horror as a third of his army was wiped out in a matter of minutes.
The soldiers of Thaeìn retreated swiftly from the town of Poralèm, and it was thus taken by the pirates and soldiers of Pulväen. This was the first conquest of a major town of Thaeìn in the War of Darkness, and the town’s loss weighed heavily on the hearts of the men as the fled. They marched across the plains of Erârün, warning villages as they passed of the onslaught of Cathaï. Behind them, the fleets of Cathaï emptied half their number onto the lands of Erârün. These corsairs descended upon the coastal villages of Erârün in droves, pillaging and burning as they went. Not a soul did they leave alive.
Starüd’s army turned now to Vira Weitor, the greatest city of Erârün. Built into the very foundations of the mountains, the city towered high above the surrounding plains, and a great wall, some fifty feet high and thirty feet broad, surrounded the lower houses of stone, guarding the higher towers against attack. It was behind these walls that Starüd’s army sought refuge, as had many of the surrounding villages and towns. The people of Erârün welcomed the king of Kiriün coldly; they knew of his objections to Daevàr’s plans of defense, and some held him accountable for the onslaught of darkness now pitted against them. It made matters little better to learn that Starüd had now failed to defend their own lands from the fleets to the East, and would have turned him out entirely had he not brought with him soldiers of Erârün, and a party of Illuèn.
Behind the high walls of Vira Weitor, Starüd’s army, now reinforced with men from the surrounding lands, prepared their defense against the armies of Pulväen. Their attack was not long in coming. Within three days, the fields surrounding Vira Weitor were teeming with Men of the East, shouting and calling in such dark tongues and piercing shrieks that the soldiers of Thaeìn shivered to hear them. Their attack was not orderly; uncoordinated assaults on what they perceived as weak points in the defenses were easily repelled, Men and Illuèn sending hails of arrows upon their attackers, who scattered, leaving their dead behind. Soon, the attacks grew less frequent, and the hasty rage of the soldiers of Cathaï was replaced by a simmering hate, and a patience to bide their time. It was in this that Starüd first saw their eventual defeat; repel attacks as they might, they were now cut off from the surrounding lands, and with the cold approaching rapidly, Vira Weitor would not last out the winter.
Two days into the siege, an odd calm had taken hold of the city; the attacks from the armies of Cathaï had ceased, and their soldiers withdrew out of range of even the greatest archers of the Illuèn. Starüd understood their strategy, and saw its success in the faces of his Men; the unease of waiting for a certain onslaught was a greater terror than being flung into the middle of one, and rumor began to spread that Pulväen was readying a weapon of unseen terror.
As it turns out, they were not wrong. At dusk on the third day, Starüd saw the host of Cathaï part in the distance. Passing through the throngs, pulled by two hundred men at least, was a towering catapult, some hundred feet high, on spiked wheels of iron. Its weight was enormous, and even with such a legion straining and pulling, it was full dark before they stopped, and the monstrous tower of destruction could be discerned only by the torches that surrounded it. The men of Thaeìn waited, uncertain of what Cathaï would launch at them, and their fear grew to terror. Many men deserted their posts, though Starüd encouraged them as best he could. What weapon could they possibly beset upon us that could fell the walls of Vira Weitor, he told them. The men of Thaeìn are not so easily defeated.
But what the warlords of Pulväen had devised was of horror beyond Starüd’s reckoning. The launching arm of the catapult was a basin, and into this the soldiers of Cathaï poured hundreds of gallons of a potion that combined all Pulväen knew of dealing death. This they then set a torch to, and it burst into flame, a huge ball of fire against the black of night. Near the stroke of midnight, the catapult was released, and poison fire rained down upon the city of Vira Weitor.
The damage was catastrophic. The flame set alight the roofs of housetops in moments, and soon thick, black some rose high into the night air, clouding the vision of men. This smoke was a poison to breathe, and in a matter of breaths, men would crumple to their knees, gasping and choking, never to rise again. Where the fatal rain fell on men, it sank, smoking, into their flesh, melting skin and muscle from bone. Corpses littered the lower streets of Vira Weitor, many of them little more than ragged skeletons. As the dismal dawn broke on the fourth day, the lower streets and houses of Vira Weitor lay in ruin, barren of all life, and filled with the bodies of men.
Starüd was wounded in this attack; even as his soldiers sought to find him refuge, the poison rain splashed against his left arm. Though his armor shielded him in part, the burning liquid seeped into the joints and burned away the flesh of his elbow and forearm. Laying in the houses of healing, high in the towers of Vira Weitor, the healers worked desperately to stop the burning, but the poison of Pulväen was beyond their skill. Starüd weakened, and two days later, he died. The people of Erârün, who had been so hostile towards the king of Kiriün, thought better of him seeing him fight and fall for a kingdom not his own. Sadly, it was this same event that led to the bitter fallout between these two kingdoms of Men in the age to come. Starüd’s son, Kirüd, grieved at his father’s death in another kingdom, blamed Erârün for the loss of their king, and took up his father’s vow to break the alliance of Kiriün and Erârün, should the War of Darkness ever be won.
For six days, the armies of Cathaï assaulted Vira Weitor with their poison rain. But they were unable to break the wall of defenses, and the men of Thaeìn had long since retreated to the highest levels of the city, far beyond the reach of their terrible catapults. Such cities of stone were beyond the reckoning of the Men of Cathaï, who had possessed no great skill of construction between them. They had not conceived of a siege engine to break the iron gates of Vira Weitor, and the lands of Thaeìn were unfamiliar to them and they could not find the elements for creating potions that could burn through them. The warlords of Pulväen conceded, and drew back, resolving to wait through the winter and allow the men of Thaeìn to die slowly without aid or food.
It was at this point that the Duithèn descended wholly upon the lands of Thaeìn. The halting of the armies of Aélûr in the West had been unexpected, and they began to worry that they had misjudged the courage of the Men of Thaeìn. Even the death of a king, seemed not to have driven the men stranded in Vira Weitor to despair. The Duithèn, hungry for victory, felt the chance to darken the whole of Erâth was on the verge of slipping from their grasp. They could not wait the winter out.
The Duithèn, who rarely took physical form, now chose to appear to the warlords of Pulväen, disguised as great knights in black armor. They were unnerving to look upon, and filled even the men of Cathaï, who had for centuries now been under their power, with terror. There was no face to behold behind their helm, and the blackness of their armor was complete; they looked almost as though they were a hole in the world, a blackness that reflected no light. Their presence was felt also in Vira Weitor, and for all the death and destruction that had been brought upon them so far, it was only now that despair truly settled on their hearts.
The Duithèn, approaching the gates of Vira Weitor, brought the full might of darkness upon the walls of the city. Black clouds descended from the skies to the very ground itself, and for hours the world was black. The Men of Thaeìn trembled, unable to see what terror the Duithèn were wreaking upon them, and the soldiers of Cathaï drew back, fearful of their masters. The ground trembled, and great sounds of cracking rose from the clouds of darkness. And when the Duithèn drew back, and the black clouds faded, the wall that had so long surrounded and defended the greatest city of Erârün was no more. The Duithèn had rent a gap in the wall five hundred feet long, the rubble little more than stones and dust. Then, advancing, the powers of Darkness moved towards the city, and the armies of Cathaï swarmed in their wake.