Attack at Dawn

As I stared into the depths of the enemy stronghold at Dol Dinen, the warning given by the way-watcher, Hithlim, returned to me…

“Kaleigh, the foes you go to meet are not the sort that fill legions upon the battlefield. They are of the highest Tier one can imagine dwelling in this realm. And with most of us scattered in distant places, you will not likely find any to aid you, nor to run to should things go badly. If you should fall, there is no retreat.”

[While running the ‘gauntlet’, a permanent death rule applies. Any that are forced to ‘retreat’ have instead died and are forever lost from these lands.]

…the gauntlet had begun…

[Attack at Dawn. Size: Small Fellowship. Tier: 3]

We three stared into the heart of the maelstrom that we knew would descend upon us the moment we breached the gate leading into the fortress.

“You two will go in first,” said Siniath.  “Strike hard and fast, and gain as much ground as you are able as quickly as you can.  I will follow behind and ward off any foes that return to the stronghold.  With luck, and the aid of my brothers, that number will be few.”

I glanced at Deverell as she peered into the fortress, steeling herself for the battle to come.

“And you are sure you do not wish to make the assault with us, or have one of us remain with you?” I asked Sinath.

“Nay,” he replied softly.  “You will need to press forward with all speed if you are to keep word of our settlement from passing beyond these walls.  You will not be able to do so while having to watch your back as well.”

“We will do so, as swiftly as we are able,” promised Deverell.

“If word of your deeds together is true, only a fool would think to split you apart,” Siniath said.  “Some may call what we do here today foolish, but I am no fool.”

We regarded Siniath as he moved to the place from where he would keep his watch over us, until I felt Deverell pull away.

I came up behind and embraced her as she stared out over Dol Dinen and the path that had led us to this moment.

“We best start our attack if you are ready,” I whispered to her.

“There is so much at stake, Kaleigh,” she replied.  “Too much for someone like me to fathom or bear.”

“It is because of you that we have made it as far as we have,” I told her.  “And whatever we do here today will be the same.”

We held each other close for a moment.

“Will you stand with me, one more time?” I asked her.

She nodded and urged me on with a plaintive smile.

“Go, Kaleigh.  Go!”

I turned and charged toward the gate leading into the enemy’s stronghold…

…and into the madness that awaited us just within…

We battled with the awareness that these were only our first few steps upward, onto the mountain that we had to climb that day…

We cut down the enemy gate-warden and all other foes that might rally more forces to the gate…

…before turning to the wargs that circled about, lunging and nipping at us…

With sticker and staff we caught them, and they fell before us…

“Are you hurt badly, Kaleigh?” Deverell asked, as I hobbled over to finish off the last of the wargs.

“One of them nipped me on the ankle is all,” I grimaced.  “I will be fine.”

We quickly glanced over the courtyard and the two paths that led from it toward either side of the rise before us…

“Which way?” asked Deverell, as she looked from side to side.

“We haven’t the time to scout them,” I replied.  “And we dare not signal to Siniath for fear we might give his presence away.  Let us take the left path.”

We caught our breath for a moment longer and then sprinted onto the eastern path…

…charging upward toward the foes that stood between us and the gate leading to the inner courtyard of the fortress…

We battled down those who might escape to bring allies to the fight before turning to the wargs…

…dodging and weaving about us at a frenetic pace, waiting for the smallest slip,  the slightest stumble upon which to pounce…

As I finished one of the last, I heard Deverell’s cry…

“Kaleigh!

“No, you don’t!” I cried, catching the last warg in the underbelly with my sticker before it could leap onto Deverell….

Deverell backed away as I steered it to the side, driving it to the ground before finishing him...

We took a moment to collect ourselves before resuming our charge up the hill.  But, in our haste, we failed to see the greater threat that lay in wait for us…

A wood troll emerged from the copse of trees on the northern side of the hill as we approached, forcing us to retreat to level ground…

As we battled the troll on the foot of the hill, I heard a dark whisper upon the air.  It clung to me like a mantle from which I could not get free…

“Kaleigh!  Kaleigh, watch out!” exclaimed Deverell.

I came to in time to see the troll ready to stomp me into the earth…

…but was able to save myself by shouting a word of binding in the moment before what was nearly my last…

Free of the power that held me, Deverell and I then battled the troll until it began to topple…

…and fall, crashing to the earth…

Deverell and I looked at each other, realizing that we both had felt the same darkness cling to us…

“There is a great power here,” I said, my mind returning to our battle upon the Bruinen.

…but unlike then, this power was not friend but foe…

We both gazed over the stronghold’s fortifying walls toward what appeared to be a large command tent set against the face of the cliffs overlooking the hill…

“Not only is our presence here known, but we will be thwarted at every turn,” I warned Deverell.  “Be ready.”

Together we charged up the hill and through the gate leading to the inner courtyard… 

…into a cacophony of shattering rock and stone being hurled at us from above…

“The catapults upon the hill, Kaleigh!” cried Deverell, as we ducked under the splintering fragments and debris.

I spied a third gate leading to yet another level of the stronghold before us and pointed toward it…

“Make for the edge of the courtyard and circle toward the gate!” I shouted above the din.  “I will draw them toward the center!”

From over the wall, a great craban arose.  It flew toward me, to keep me in harm’s way of the catapults above…

…but I caught it with my sticker, sending it to the earth like the stones that fell toward us still…

A group of orcs charged through the gate at us, halting our advance…

Deverell abandoned the edge of the courtyard to aid me in fighting our way toward the gate, as hurtling stones flew and crashed around us…

Once we reached the gate, we turned on our attackers, forcing them to battle up the ramp toward us while in range of the catapults…

The orcs and goblins made one last charge, breaking through the gate and toward Deverell…

…but I caught them from behind as they passed, striking them down…

…until the two of us were free of them and standing on the third level of the stronghold with a moment to breathe…

Before us lay a path leading upward, to what appeared to be another gate and the final level of the stronghold.  The path from the gate led southward, toward the command tent…

We retreated to the gate we had just won, taking refuge from the stones that were still being cast at us.  I gazed up the path that would require yet another charge, weariness from the sleepless march of the night before setting in…

“Just a bit more yet,” I said breathlessly.  “Are you ready?”

Deverell nodded her assent, and I began my charge up the hill.  From the gate above emerged an enemy lieutenant and his soldiers to battle us from higher ground…

I cried out as a goblin archer caught me with an arrow before I could close the ground.  I bit my lip and cut a notch into the shaft with my sticker, breaking it off as I continued my charge…

I waded into the enemy throng sent to halt our advance, parrying away their attacks to find openings for my own.  One by one, they fell before us…

But my eyes were growing heavy with fatigue…

“Kaleigh!  Behind you!” Deverell exclaimed.

Just as I reached the archer that had pierced me with his arrow, Deverell’s warning roused me, saving me from the enemy lieutenant who had skulked his way in behind us…

I caught the goblin with my sticker…

…and then whirled upon the lieutenant, catching him with my other before he could come too near…

I cut a swath of crimson from him, and he fell before us.  The gate to the final level of the stronghold was won…

We took a moment to catch our breath and recover from the battle, wordlessly peering through the gate to see what might lie before us…

“The catapults will not be able to reach us here,” I said finally.  “We should be safe from…”

…but the blast of war-horns from below silenced me…

“Siniath will be overrun,” said Deverell.  “Kaleigh, we must go to his aid!”

I drew my stickers and we charged back down the hill together…

We were met by a band of orcs and wargs, led by a Dourhand lieutenant at the gate below…

We struck down his forces before turning to the leader.  Beyond him, in the courtyard below, I saw many foes streaming toward us…

…through the southern gate which Siniath was fighting desperately to hold…

I shouted a word of binding at a troll nearing the gate to hold him still, until we could finish the Dourhand and press on…

A pack of wargs reached the gate as we advanced on the troll…

I circled around our foes, luring them away from Deverell, as we battled to reach Siniath…

Slowly, we worked a backward retreat of inches, knowing that to give either too much or too little ground would be the end of us all…

Then we heard Siniath’s cry above the din of battle…

“The leader!  He’s broken free!”

Into the fray stormed an Angmarim general with a dark-furred warg at his side, straight toward Deverell.  I readied my stickers to pierce them where their charge had left them exposed…

…but then a malevolent whisper passed over me, dimming my vision and halting my attack…

“Kaleigh!  Kaleigh, I cannot hold them!” I heard Deverell cry.

I shook my head to clear my sight, as if to free myself from a shroud that had been draped over me…

The Angmarim shouted a word of command to his warg as my vision returned.  The warg turned to hold me at bay while its master fought to bring Deverell down…

When it reared up to bite at me, I caught it in its maw with my sticker before ending it with my other…

Deverell had parried away the Angarim’s attack long enough for me to come to her aid…

Together, we closed in on him… 

I readied my stickers, piercing his gut the moment he whirled upon me.  He fell to the ground between us, lying at our feet…

The counterattack having been quelled, we gathered at the southern gate for a moment to rest…

“Our plan is working as well as I could have hoped,” Siniath offered, recovering his breath as he looked over the courtyard.  His gaze then went upward, to the rise leading to the crest of the hill where the command tent stood.

“How far were you two able to reach before the sounding of the enemy’s horn?” he asked.

“To the final level, on that path just before the gate leading to the tent,” I said.  “Though it is a wonder that we were not overrun.”

“My brothers keep the greater force lured to the north and the west for now,” nodded Siniath.  “How long they will be able to hold them, I cannot say.  It would be best to be through and done with this place, and with any foe able to give word of the encampment, as quick as we are able.”

Deverell and I looked at each other and nodded.  Our brief respite was over…

“Be wary on your ascent to where you once stood,” Siniath warned.  “The enemy will not give back the ground it has reclaimed freely.  I will watch for any foe that returns and keep them from you.”

“Please, be safe, Siniath,” Deverell said.

Siniath nodded once more, his gaze returning to us.  “There are many wonders being worked, both out there and here in this stronghold.  Perhaps with enough of them, we might all make it through this day.”

I blinked away tears as I watched the noble man return to the gate, to keep his watch over us…

“Deverell, we best away,” I said.

The two of us crept up to the gate once more and passed through…

As we came through the gate before the path leading upward, to where we stood when we heard the war-horns sound, I caught sight of a figure skulking to the south and stopped.  It was an orcish shaman, touched by the blight of darkfire…

I nodded to Deverell and we charged toward our foe…

The shaman raised his staff, meeting my stickers before they could reach him…


…before then bringing it down, alighting my body with the darkfire he summoned, its blaze scorching me…

He moved like a wisp of flickering flame, dodging to and fro…

…narrowly eluding attack after counterattack…

…then striking at the moments in which I left myself most vulnerable…

We battled on, circling one another, each looking for an opportunity, a weakness to be revealed.  I watched as the shaman drew his staff back and forth before himself, ready to block any strike I made…

I gathered myself for a moment and then feigned a high attack, forcing the shaman to bring his staff upward to meet it.  I then turned my blades downward once more, plunging them into the shaman’s leg…  

When he stumbled, I brought them back over his staff and swung in a wide arc…

…catching him across his exposed chest and causing him to fall…

I stood silently and still for a moment, as Deverell’s words quelled the darkfire that had coursed over my body and spirit during our battle with the shaman…

“I pray that was the creature uttering darknesses upon the air,” Deverell said as we looked upon the orc while watching the darkfire burning within it extinguish.

I shook my head with a sigh.  “An acolyte, or a follower, perhaps.  But I fear its master lies in wait for us yet above.”

“Siniath battles below to let us go forward, Kaleigh.  We best be on our way,” Deverell suggested.

I drew the sleeve of my tunic across my eyes to wipe away the soot and ash and then nodded, drawing my stickers once more…

Dodging the fire from the catapults above, we raced up the path leading to the upper level of the stronghold and through the gate…

…into the enemy that lay in wait for us…

I screamed as an arrow pierced my shoulder, knocking me backward to the ground just beyond a wood troll’s grasp…

By the time I had broken off the arrow shaft and regained my feet, the enemy had passed me by, making straight for Deverell…

Whether to help or to hinder, all looked upon her as she called upon her powers to protect herself and bind my wound…

With her aid, I was able to cut down two of the wargs that threatened her before turning toward the troll…

It loomed above, shouting down its malevolence upon me…

It kicked and swung its limbs, trying to dash me into the stone face of the hill we battled upon…

Favoring my wounded shoulder, I spun away, catching its leg with my other sticker.  I felled it with a few more swings, while eluding the other foes until I could face them… 

Deverell backed away as I advanced upon the rest of our foes while hunched over in pain.  One by one, they fell before us…

…until I had finally pierced the last and sank to my knees, both from relief and the pain about to claim me…

I felt darkness closing in upon me, drawing me downward…

“Help me,” I pleaded, my voice barely a whisper…

“Rest easy, Kaleigh.  Rest a moment.” I heard Deverell say.

From behind where I knelt, I heard her whisper words of light.  The darkness lifted from me, and I felt strength returning to my limbs.  The crippling pain in my shoulder eased enough for me to press on…

I slowly rose to the my feet and gazed upon what lay before us…

We had reached the catapults that had rained stone after stone upon us, and the command tent lay just beyond…

The forces of the enemy defending the catapults turned upon us and began to advance...

A great craban rose over the enemy, stirring up a crimson dust-storm to hinder our vision of the battle below.  We backed away until I was able to catch it with a sticker, causing it to fall to the earth…

With the death of the craban, the dust in the air began to settle, revealing the enemy horde…

I threw myself into their midst, twirling amongst them to keep Deverell safe from their ire and to strike at any opening I could spy…

I felled a troll lingering by the light of a burning pyre, before then eluding the shadow cast by its fall…

…and then whirled upon an orc charging at me with axe in hand…

As I turned my blades toward the pack of wargs circling about me, a threat revealed itself…

“Kaleigh, an archer!  Hidden by the pyre!” cried Deverell.

But I was unable to break free from the melee in which I was engaged, for fear that my attackers would cut me down from behind…

I cried out as the archer pierced my side with an arrow, but I fought on…

…even as another arrow came after the first…

My leathers prevented the arrows from piercing me deeply, and I broke off the shafts once free of other foes before advancing upon the goblin archer…

He threw down his bow and took up a spear as I charged him.  We battled by the light of the pyre, weaving in and out of the shadows it cast about us, until I finally caught him with my sticker…

He fell before us, the last defender of the enemy’s siege weapons that now lay within our reach …

I walked over to the catapults that had nearly ended us time and again, with Deverell trailing behind…

“Would you bring me a firebrand from the pyre?” I asked her.

Deverell looked over at the tent.  “Let me treat your wounds first, Kaleigh.  Then, I will bring one for each of us.”

I kept watch over the tent while Deverell treated me as best she could, where the arrows had pierced my leathers…

“I owe you for this,” I whispered to her, fighting back tears of pain and regret as she bound my side.  “I owe so much…”

“Kaleigh, it was my choice to come with you, and what is done is done.” Deverell chided me as she worked.  She turned to look over at the tent briefly before tending to my wounds once more.  “Keep your thoughts to the present, and we may yet prevail this day.”

I bit my lip and nodded, trying to brace myself for what was to come…

“We are going to stir up a hornet’s nest once we put these catapults to the torch,” I warned her.

Deverell answered by going over to the pyre and fetching two firebrands, one of which she offered to me…

We each touched the fire to one of the catapults, in many places, until they both roared with flame…

And then we waited…

…watching as a great horde of the enemy emerged from the tent, to save their weaponry and bring us down…

“Stay back,” I told Deverell.  “I will try to hold them.”

I lit out to meet the foe, to halt their charge where the barricade lining the path offered protection for the burning catapults…

…but there were too many to hold, and most slipped past my reach, to where Deverell guarded the opening in the barricade beyond which the catapults lay…

I whirled upon the pack of wargs assailing Deverell, drawing them away one by one as she tried to fend them off…

The enemy I had turned my back on began to close in.  I spun between both sides, battling to keep each at bay until I could finish the wargs…

Between the two of us, we finally slew the last warg, and I went to turn on the remaining foes…

…but an orc caught my boot with his foot as I spun, and I could not keep myself from stumbling to my knees before the enemy.  They closed in quickly as Deverell screamed, pleading with me to rise…

From my knees, I saw an orc shaman come running from the tent with an undead spirit at its side.  It snarled commands in a dark tongue before advancing upon me…

I regained my feet as the enemy began to charge past…

“Fall back!” I cried.  “Back to the catapults!”

I backed away as the shaman and its spirit advanced, to the barricade from where I heard the orcs chase Deverell to the catapults.  I fought desperately, battling to strike down the shaman and spirit before she was overrun…

Her cries sped me on, and I pierced the shaman through before driving the ghost back to its fitful rest…

As I turned and began to race to Deverell’s aid, a Dourhand lieutenant emerged from the tent…

He chased me up the path, to where I turned toward the orcs attacking Deverell…

…and cut them down from behind, before they could harm her further…

Together, we turned on the Dourhand and his minion.  No other enemy emerged from the tent to engage us… 

…and when I cut down the Dourhand, we stood alone at last…

After a moment to recover, Deverell and I crept up near the entrance to the command tent and peered inside, but much was yet hidden from our sight…

“Siniath should be here with us,” I said softly, peering out over the stronghold before returning my gaze to the tent.

“Perhaps he’s made contact with the other way-watchers,” offered Deverell.  “Should we wait for him a bit?”

I closed my eyes for a moment, trying to shake the weariness that still clung to me…

“We cannot stop now, Deverell.  Not when we are so near to seeing things through.  There is no other way to know what lies inside the tent, nor what transpires there even this moment, lest we make our strike now,” I surmised.

Deverell nodded her assent, and I readied myself for one final charge.  I felt Deverell slip her hands into mine, and I squeezed them with my own…

“I will be right behind you, Kaleigh,” she whispered, lending me her strength.

I drew in a deep breath and then began my charge toward the command tent…

…where I spied a ring of raised platforms upon which goblins danced and chanted, paying tribute to a giant orc-lord who stood below them, basking in their praises…

The orc-lord was touched by dark-fire, and he raised up an axe nearly twice my height as I approached him…

I drew my stickers and made to close ground with him, to work my way inside the longer reach of his weapon…

…but he instead lowered his axe and breathed darkfire upon me…

…before catching me with the haft of his axe while I was blinded and scorched, sending me crashing into the raised platforms behind where I once stood…

I fell to the ground in a heap as the orc-lord advanced upon Deverell…

I sprang to my feet and threw myself in front of the orc-lord, stopping his advance.  We traded parries as the darkfire raged over my body, burning away my strength and desire…

It was then, from the path to the tent beyond the orc-lord, that I heard a cry…

“Kaleigh!  Deverell!”

It was Siniath, come to aid us.  We called out to him, and he began sprinting toward the tent…

The orc-lord whirled about and gestured with his hand, sending dark words upon the air…

…and there arose a wall of fire across the opening of the tent as Siniath approached, causing him to stop short.  Tendrils of blistering flame shot upward across the height of the entryway.  Scorching heat radiated through the whole of the tent and beyond…

“Siniath!” cried Deverell.

Through the wisps of flame, we saw him back away…

“Keep battling him!  I will find another way,” Siniath shouted over the roaring of the fire.

I went to renew my attack upon the orc-lord when I felt a searing pain in my hands…

I cast aside my stickers, which the orc-lord had set to flame, and backed away as he charged toward me…

“Kaleigh!” Deverell screamed…

The orc-lord had woven rings of darkfire that were strewn about the tent, inside of which rose plumes of flame…

He pressed in upon me, backing me into the fire.  I cried out in pain and leapt to the side, narrowing avoiding the swing of his axe…

As the orc-lord chased me about the tent, he began shouting in a dark tongue.  The goblins atop the platforms began jumping down from them, to the ground…

I ran to fetch my stickers and swept them up while running by…

“Deverell, be ready!” I called out.

But rather than attack us, the goblins streamed toward the southern wall of the tent…

…where a hidden cave opened into the face of the hill, leading to a likely path of escape…

“The goblins!” I cried out.  “Slay the goblins before they can away!”

Deverell ran to guard the opening of the cave as I caught one of the goblins attempting to flee.  I drew my sticker across his body, dropping him to the ground, and then lit out for the others with the orc-lord chasing after me…

It was not long before I felt his fiery grasp upon my shoulder…

The darkfire raged over me as we grappled.  My shoulder, pierced by the arrow from before, began to tear apart from the strain…

I screamed as the orc-lord drew me in…

I was held fast in the orc-lord’s vile embrace.  Into my ear, he whispered dark and terrible things, curses and blasphemies in the blackest of tongues…

As his dark words tumbled over me, I felt something snap inside my mind, like a length of wood brought over a man’s knee…

The orc-lord released me, howling with triumph as I began to stagger, wandering aimlessly around the tent…

Darkfire was cast upon me once more, but I had not the strength to fight it.  It raged over me, burning away not flesh and bone, but my will and desire…

The roaring flame and Deverell’s screams both faded as my world went silent…

I came to stand before the orc-lord.  Unbidden, my arms fell to my sides…

The orc-lord roared, bringing his axe around with a vicious swing…

…and my vision turned to grey as death came for me…

But the blade struck an unseen force before me and was turned away.  There was a flash of light, then the sound of splintering wood and Deverell’s piercing scream…

The orc-lord was knocked backward and dazed, but my mind had been made clear…

“Now, Kaleigh!” I heard Deverell cry.  “Strike him down!”

I brought my stickers to bear upon the orc-lord with all that I had left within me, battling through the darkfire and the pain…

My very being was melting away as my hope for atonement was nigh…

I threw myself into the fiend and caught him with my stickers one final time…

…quenching the darkfire within him and sending him to his final rest…

“Deverell!” I screamed, spying her lying amidst fragments of the broken staff that the elves of Rivendell had gifted to her.

She rose from the ground, wearily climbing to her feet.  I rushed over to help her, embracing her as the wall of darkfire guarding the opening of the tent burnt itself out.

Siniath burst into the tent and ran over to us.

He looked upon the dead orc-lord and then to the cave set into the hill.

“Did any foe escape?” he asked.

I looked to Deverell, who shook her head.

“Not one,” she said.  “What is hidden shall remain so.”

“The Rangers of Esteldín will remember your service. Without your aid, Esteldín would surely have fallen,” Siniath said softly.

“But now, we must fly…”

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