Sir Jory stomped up to her, and smacked her on the back with the loud "clang" of bloodsteel on mithril. He was covered in blood, and she could tell from the way he was favouring one leg that at least some of it was his own.
"That's the last of them," he said grimly.
"What about the ones that made a break for the tree-line?" asked Jessica. finally getting her sword free. She checked he blade carefully, then kicked the orc corpse in the head. "Notched the blade, dammit."
"They didn't get far." Sir Jory inclined his head to a Navarri archer picking among the dead for unbroken arrows.
Jessica looked sceptical, but held her peace. Like many Dawnish she considered the bow-and-arrow a poor choice for a warrior's weapon.
"None of them made it into the trees, then?"
Sir Jory shook his head. "It was strange, mind. Three of them made it to the edge... and then... they came back."
Jessica began to wipe her sword clean. Sir Jory put his hands on his hips, breathing heavily, and leant forward slightly. He looked pale under the blood.
"Are you alright?"
Sir Jory waved her concern away. "Right as rain once I've had a sit down. One of the brutes dinted my helmet for me. That'll teach me to turn my back on a desperate Druj, even if it's cause two of his friends are trying to disembowel me."
The two Dawnish looked towards the forest. A wall of green, stretching as far as the eye could see. Not just a metaphorical wall, not really.
"How far does it go do you think?" asked Sir Jory.
"All the way to the Barrens, obviously." Replied Jessica. She sheathed her blade, now clean, and looked speculatively at the dead orcs around her. Sir Jory made a sound halfway between a grunt and a snort.
"They've attacked Drycastle, I hear." he said to nobody in particular. "And set one of the Towers aflame to boot. Bloody vermin."
Jessica, a questing knight, had more experience fighting the orcs of the Barrens. She chose her words carefully.
"You know they brought Lord Agravaine back? I remember telling you - the questing knight?"
Sir Jory nodded. "I remember you saying that all the talk was that the Barrens was ripe for the conquering."
"I know that with a fourth army, with the Druj out, with Spiral Castle admitting they're part of Dawn again, there won't be a better time to strike in the next decade, if ever. Once we get bogged down in Urizen, or on the west side, we'll not get loose again easily."
Sir Jory shrugged. "I don't know if I agree with you ... but I do know that right now there are orcs shooting arrows into Dawnish yeofolk and the only thing between us and them are some trees."
They looked at the Forest of Peytaht again. Jessica forced a grin - and the Paragons knew there had been few enough of them in the last few months.
"Spooooky trees," she joked. Sir Jory met her gaze.
"Well, you know what a Dawnishman such as myself says when told that a forest is full of things even the Druj are frightened of?"
They stared at each other in silence for a moment. Jessica's grin become stronger, more natural.
"I assume it's the same as this Dawnishwoman says - let's go and see what the Druj are so afraid of ...."She slapped Sir Jory on the back with a clang of mithril on bloodsteel, and the pair of them went off to report the destruction of another orc encampment.
In Semmerholm, the mustering of the fourth Dawnish army is almost complete. Almost every noble house in Dawn has provided stout yeofolk, noble knights, and war witches to take up arms under the banners of Dawn. Valentin of House Orzel is the Senator for Weirwater who proposed the motion - assuming that he is able to provide the final wains of mithril required to complete equipment and deployment, the army will enter service during the Spring Equinox.
This season the senator for Weirwater is expected to confirm both the name of the army and the composition of its forces. Senator Valentin is under pressure from some noble houses to have the new army take up the banner of the Gryphon's Pride - the army lost in the Barrens in 276YE. Troubadours encouraged by House Lionsguard (among others) have spread the tale of the Gryphon's Pride's glory, and made much of the idea that the Barrens are Dawn's destiny. With the current situation in the Barrens it is clear that many Dawnish nobles will be watching to see what the Senator announces with interest.
The final mustering of the new army could not come at a more propitious time.
A well-publicised agreement with the Jotun orcs says that Dawn will keep its armies away from the conflict on the western border and instead fight the orcs hero-to-hero in glorious battle beyond the Sentinel Gate. At the same time, the indigenous orcs of the Barrens have launched a sneak attack against the Towers of the Dawn and the houses of Dawnguard. Dawnish blood has been spilled by these so-called "foreigners" and it will not stand!
This attack, along with the memories stirred by the talk of the Gryphon's Pride, has reignited ambitions to finally conquer the Barrens. The Druj have been driven back, and all that stands between Dawn and control of this large, exceptionally rich territory are a trio of aggressive barbarian armies. Within a year, they could be scattered and the Barrens conquered - and who could then deny the glory of Dawn?
When promises were lost, a Gryphon’s Pride would bear the cost
A lion leads, whilst cowards stayed behind
Into the jaws they ran, her golden armour in the van
And before the Golden Sun the Druj were blind
Though glorious was her art, merely mortal was her heart
And in the heat of day it gave its last
Whilst bravely they had fought, the Gryphon's Pride was all for nought
There is a strong undercurrent in the nation at the moment that it is time to take the Barrens. The Hounds of Glory, the Eastern Sky, and the Golden Sun will be more than a match for three armies of savage orcs, and when the new army joins the fray as well the orcs will finally be driven out of the Barrens once an for all. The mithril at the Fangs and the weirwood of the Eaves of Peytaht are valuable prizes, quite apart from the fact that the Barrens as a whole is rich - almost certainly rich enough that control of it would allow Dawn to raise and support a fifth army.
If the Dawn national assembly calls for the conquest of the Barrens, the people will listen. A suitably worded statement of principle could name a Dawnish priest to support the armies. The priest would need to collect 50 doses of liao, to enable creation of auras of Courage, Pride, and Ambition, and this would mean that every military unit controlled by a Dawnish captain would gain a significant bonus to their fighting strength when engaged in fighting in the Barrens for the next season while supporting a Dawnish army or fortification. By contrast, any Dawnish military unit that chose to fight elsewhere would suffer a significant penalty to their effective fighting strength.
It is likely that if the assembly makes this statement, the opportunity would exist to keep supporting the Dawnish conquest of the Barrens.
The Barrens orcs are still foreigners - so this statement would do nothing to make an attack against the orcs legal. However, the troubadours argue, it is not a crime for the knights and war-witches of Dawn to defend the Towers of Dawn ... and kill any and all orcs who attempt to take the fortification, and the manors of Dawnguard, away from them. In self-defence, of course.
The Shadow of Peytaht
At the moment the Hounds of Glory and the Eastern Sky are in Reikos. While they could easily reach Dawnguard this season, this would entail passing through either the vallorn infested depths of Brocéliande ... or through the Great Forest of Peytaht.
Stories claim that some dark force lives at the heart of Peytaht, where even the Druj feared to tread. Yet it is clearly possible to pass through - as the eastern barbarians proved when they brought their armies down into Reikos in the first place. Indeed, in the last months of the war in Holberg the Druj moved their armies through the forest again.
There is no doubt that passage through the forest is dangerous ... but it is the quickest way to reach the Barrens in the event that the Dawnish wish to launch their crusade ... or simply wish to defend their people in Dawnguard. While it is glorious and courageous to face the unknown, running in unprepared is unwise. There are certainly precautions that can be taken.
If the Dawn national assembly, or the virtue assembly of Courage or Wisdom, upholds a statement of principle that glorious warriors guided by courage and wisdom should not fear to face the dangers of the Forest of Peytaht, this would surely help mitigate the risks involved in moving through the forest. The statement would need to name a priest, and the priest would be responsible for collecting liao to support Imperial troops passing through the forest this season.
If 50 liao are collected, one army would receive significant protection from any dark forces in the forest of Peytaht, or two armies could be partially protected. Alternatively, if 100 liao are collected it would provide significant protection to both armies if they went north from Reikos into the Barrens.
Regardless, it is the obfuscated nature of the threat that makes Imperial forces so reticent to pass through the forest. A courageous army risking the wrath of Peytaht is one sure-fire way to find out whether there is actually any substance to that threat, or whether it is simply orcish superstition.
Thorny Questions of Legality
Currently, the Imperial Senate has declared the Barrens orcs to be foreigners. Yet that same senate refused to accept a peace treaty negotiated with the orcs. Now they are aggressively attacking the Dawnish people of Dawnguard.
It is entirely legal for the Dawnish people to defend themselves against the attack by the Barrens orcs; any number of captains can support the Towers of the Dawn without facing criminal charges. There is some grey area as regards the legality of moving Imperial troops into the Barrens to protect the people of Dawnguard - but again a case could surely be made for self-defence and duty to Imperial citizens.
However, if the Barrens orcs remain legally foreigners, attacking or conquering the Barrens would be a serious crime, not only for those generals who ordered their armies into battle, but for the captain of any military unit that assisted them. The constitution, however, supports the rights of the generals to give such orders to the troops under their control, however, in the expectation that those orders be carried out, regardless of the motions passed by the Senate.
In the words of the notoriously uncompromising General Artur deCoyne, "It's usually a lot easier to get permission for something once you've proved it can be done."
The national assembly of Dawn raised and passed the following judgement: "The Dawnish National Assembly supports actions taken by Nobles and Military Units in Glorious Battle and Crusade in The Barrens. The National Assembly appoints Frederik Novarion to lead this and support the military units using liao." Frederick Novarion has provided 50 doses of liao to support the Crusade.
Military units supporting the Barrens crusade receive a bonus, while those not involved in fighting in the Barrens receive a penalty.
- Any Dawnish unit that supports the Golden Sun or defends Towers of the Dawn will receive the "Glorious Crusade" effect, which adds a bonus to their fighting strength.
- Any Dawnish unit that does not support the Golden Sun or defend Towers of the Dawn will receive the "Scorn of the Troubadours" effect, a penalty reflecting the scorn for those who disavow the conquest of the Barrens.
There is a heavily muted response to the siege of the Towers of the Dawn from the people of Dawn. At first, there is significant pride in the fact that so many Dawnish nobles marched into the Barrens with their retinues. With the Towers so close to defeat and the Barrens Orcs determined to take them at any cost it is clear that only the commitment of so many Dawnish to the Barrens has been sufficient to carry the day.
But the pride turns to dismay when folk realize that only one Dawnish army has been inspired to join the crusade. With the Hounds of Glory and the Eastern Sky boldly attacking in Spiral it seems clear that the Dawnish generals have accepted that this is the real priority. The presence of the Towerjacks in their stead - an army that should by right have been Dawnish in the minds of a few - does little to quell their concerns. By the time the fighting is underway, Dawnish men and women are already beginning to question the purpose of the crusade.
The hope that a glorious battle in the campaign might reaffirm the Dawnish support for the conquest of the Barrens vanishes once it becomes clear that the strategy has been to avoid direct engagement with the Barrens Orcs at all costs. The decisions to give ground while attempting to waylay them in ambush is strategically brilliant - that much is undeniable - but it does nothing to fire the blood.
By the time the campaigning season has drawn to an end, the troubadours who inspired the crusade have slowly abandoned it, in favour of seeking glory elsewhere.