The Invasion

(The Invasion and The Invasion Alt View were previously published in The Story Forge. Copyright © July With thanks to Tedwar, Ren, LSP, Nim, and SilverCloud, the creator of Two Kingdoms. Special thanks also to Writing Bug for his key ursine inspiration, Largehobbit for his editorial assistance, and Winteroak and others for their very kind words of praise.)

--Near the Verdish Plains, beyond the Skeldergate Forest and adjacent to the Dalen Alps, Evening, 6 DSTR--

Bathed in the light of an orange dusk, the Timber Crag invaders looked like big, shaggy demons as they swept out of the Skeldergate Forest and charged enmasse towards the Dalen Army, which was positioned on the grassy, lightly-wooded plains near the border with Verden. Most of the werebears were in their bear form that ranged from six hundred to over fifteen hundred pounds, but some retained their human shape and brandished heavy swords and axes. Volley after volley of arrows fell upon them like a fierce hail storm, turning bodies into pin cushions and knocking many from their feet. But most the arrowheads were cheap iron, not silver, and the supernatural beasts would rapidly heal from the wounds caused by them.

Mounted on her faithful black Achaean destrier, Enyo, Kalena's hand drew yet another arrow from her quiver and notched it to her exquisitely crafted recurve bow. Composed of gold teak wood and ornate leather trimming, the weapon was as beautiful as it was powerful. The retired assassin and now high lady of the Queen's court took aim at one of the werebeasts and let fly in a fluid, practised motion, and the arrow crunched through its massive snout. Giving a strangled grunt of agony, the creature staggered backwards into its brethren, momentarily tripping a few of them up as they surged past into the thick of the Dale arrow shower that was hardly slowing them down.

Kalena winced as the first soldier to meet one of the Timber Crag warriors face-to-face was smashed into the air with a backhanded blow. Just as swiftly the werebear lashed out with its huge claws, tearing the man apart as he fell. Blood and intestines splattered over the ground and the several others standing close-by on the front line. Another of the Queen's men shrieked out in utter terror as his head was seized in the great jaws of a second werebear before being bitten off at the neck.

Whilst no stranger to violent death, Kalena had rarely seen such gruesome ferocity. More than a little unnerved, she put another arrow to her bowstring and wheeled her horse to better protect the tall, steadfast form of Baron Kline Lowson, who had assumed command of the local army company. She watched on grimly as he ordered the archers to fall back and for the pikemen to form up around him. Most of the soldiers instantly obeyed his authoritative orders and levelled their sharpened steel-tipped weapons at the oncoming horde; a few losing their nerve, however, dropped the pikes and ran for their lives.

Ordinarily Kalena might have ridden after the deserters and slain them for their cowardice, but at the moment she could hardly blame anyone for fleeing the huge, dark-furred monstrosities that were pouring without end from the trees. She had come for the adventure of hunting down a small band of werebears that had reportedly slipped into Dalen and she, nor anyone else, had anticipated encountering anywhere near this many of the ferocious beasts. She would have certainly scarpered too, if it did not mean abandoning Kline and Lafayette. Neither her pride, nor her fond affection for the two men would permit her to do that—at least not yet.

She spared a look around for Lafayette and spotted a glimpse of a shock of red hair amidst the beleaguered defenders just before the bon vivant Frenchman hurled one of his makeshift grenades; the firebomb ignited against a werebear's fur-covered chest, setting the whole creature ablaze. Smiling through her apprehension, she turned back to Kline, who alongside his number two, Froggy, was battling another of the great beasts, desperately hacking at it with their long swords. She pulled back on her bow and fired a shaft into its neck when she had a clear enough shot, then drew her trusty Makhairan duelling sabre and spurred her horse into a canter around the fighting lines.

As she rode, a cold dread filled her heart as she saw more werebears, faces contorted in bloodlust, spilling out of the opposite treeline, and emerging from along the distant riverbank, coming in from all sides. There had to be hundreds upon hundreds! Was this the beginnings of a full-out invasion of the Two Kingdoms? Gods above, she thought. If we don't get the hell out of here soon we'll be completely encircled!

She reckoned that Kline must have came to the same conclusion as she soon heard a trumpet blare out, signalling them to retreat whilst they still had the opportunity. At that point what ensued was nothing less than sheer chaos; the Dale troops immediately took to a disorderly flight even as they were swarmed over by the werebears that proceeded to drag the soldiers down like small chew toys and maul them to death without mercy.

One giant Timber Crag warrior in human form suddenly rushed at Kalena from the side; he swung his double-headed axe, barely missing hitting her purple-clad knee astride Enyo. Without having to be told, the highly-trained war mare whirled them out of the way and kicked out powerfully with both hind-legs. The man was catapulted ten feet through the air before tumbling to the ground in a crumpled heap.

Another attacking enemy came at her, his axe raised high. Kalena leaned from her saddle and expertly flicked her sabre, slashing open the man's throat. He gurgled blood, but what should have been a fatal wound began instantly knitting itself together before her eyes. It was an eerie and startling sight, and though she personally disliked magic, she envied the idea of having such amazing recuperative powers. Enyo's front hooves rose and hammered down, breaking the man's sternum to pieces and putting him out of action for a few minutes longer.

"Good girl," Kalena said in automatic praise.

She reined the loyal mare around, and as she swiftly rode alongside a few of the retreating soldiers, she surveyed the carnage left behind them. The Dale troops had been decimated in but a handful of minutes, and bloody, mutilated bodies dotted the plain, staining it red. The survivors were scattering in all directions; some amidst their unthinking panic were racing into Verden where they would be fortunate not to be imprisoned or executed by neighbouring King Asgurt. In the dim twilight, she squinted her keen grey-green eyes and tried to pick out Kline and Lafayette from among the routed troops. But the two were nowhere to be found. The Timber Crag, on the other hand, were everywhere.

Abruptly a pair of werebears fixed their baleful gazes on her and broke into a loping charge.

"I'm thinking discretion might be the better part of valour here!" Kalena remarked to Enyo, not entertaining for a second the notion of standing and fighting the savage beasts. She thought very highly of her skills but not that highly, and there was no sense getting herself killed in a lost battle.

Spurring the steed into a full-out gallop, she endeavoured to quickly outdistance the creatures. To her dismay, they were incredibly fast on all fours, and rapidly gained upon her. At times like these she was sadly reminded that Enyo was now seventeen years old, and though still possessed of enormous levels of strength and endurance, was no longer quite so fleet-footed as in the old days when the beautiful midnight black wonder horse could outrun just about anyone or anything. Aware of what they were now being pursued by, Enyo was trying hard though, and whinnied nervously at her.

"Not to worry," Kalena said evenly. "I'll deal with them."

Reaching over her shoulder, she snatched out a special silver bodkin-headed arrow and fitted it into her bow. She had been shooting one all her life and had won tournaments even before she became a highly trained assassin. Raising the bow, she drew the string to her cheek, applying all the supple muscles of her torso in the precise way she had been taught by masters in the art of archery. Holding her breath, she carefully aimed for her chosen target, and then gently let the shaft go; it whistled through the air in a blur and sank dead centre in a werebear's eye, where the silver head punched through into the brain, killing the beast instantly.

"One down, one to go," she murmured, feeling a sense of renewed confidence as she plucked another silver arrow from her quiver.

Her remaining pursuer roared in rage and grief at the death of its comrade and put on an extra burst of speed to catch up with her. Quickly, she loosed in rapid succession one, two, then three more of her small supply of silver arrows, aiming again for the head. But with preternatural speed and agility the shapeshifting ursinethrope twisted and dodged the first shaft, and then easily swatted the last two aside with swipes of its sharp, slashing talons. Unlike its deceased companion that underestimated her as a threat, this one would not be despatched so easily.

With it continuing to gain on them, Kalena and her horse crested a rise where the terrain slanted down toward the shallow river that often served as a disputed boundary between the Two Kingdoms, emptying into the sea after running past the Verdish city of Hartford. Despite a short distance from where men were dying horribly, the water looked incongruously tranquil and cool reflecting the last of the evening's faint rays. As Enyo began to gallop across, powering through the waist-deep current, the werebear roared with savage hate and made a giant leap to seize its prey.

Glimpsing the oncoming shadow on the water, Kalena managed to swerve her mount in the nick of time and the creature missed by a few feet, landing with a terrific splash and a loud, frustrated snarl. But now it was dangerously close - nearly close enough to feel its hot, fetid breath - and Enyo could only manoeuvre so fast in the middle of the river! Quelling the fear rising within her, she reslung her bow and unsheathed her Makhairan sabre.

"No mangy, flea-bitten, foul-smelling mongrel from hell slays Kalena Valade!" she shouted out with bravado as she turned to face it. "If you persist in attacking me, I shall make a rug out of you for my fireplace - and mount your head above it!" She slashed her sabre through the air in a showy display of her great and skillful prowess with the weapon.

The ferocious creature looked singularly unimpressed, and without hesitation it sprang at Kalena. She sliced forward in a blur, the slender, mithril-edged blade catching it across the brow and checking its leap so that it halted, poised in front of her. Her swordarm was numb from the impact, but its dark-furred flesh blossomed crimson and blood poured down into its evil yellow eyes, momentarily blinding them. Unseeingly, one of its large paws raked out at her and scratched a line of talon marks across her breastplate, nearly unhorsing her in the process.

Off-balance, Kalena fought to master her terror as long ribbons of saliva dripped from the beasts's fanged jaws that opened and snapped shut only inches away from her face. Trembling with adrenaline, she drove her sabre forward with both hands; the sharp point dug under its massive furred chin, seeking out its jugular vein, but she lacked the strength to pierce the unnaturally thick flesh and cartilage any further. As it scrabbled and clawed for a moment at Enyo's armoured flank, she pulled her sabre clear and with a well-practised duelling thrust, impaled the blade into the werebear's soft, vulnerable left eye just as its vision was returning. The creature gave a roar of fresh pain and thrashed its head wildly back and forth, dislodging her sword before she could ram the blade home into its skull.

At that moment Enyo managed to extricate from beneath its heavy weight, then reared and thumped it hard in the chest. The tremendous blow knocked the werebear backwards into the river.

"Go, go, go!" Kalena urged in a fear-charged voice, holding her saddle bow with one hand to keep her seat.

Needing no encouragement, the powerfully-muscled mare bolted away through the water and quickly gained the other side of the river, then scrambled up the bank and into a stand of cattails, stirring a thick cloud of fuzzy seeds into the air in their wake. Kalena ducked beneath the low-hanging boughs as they hurtled into the untamed woods, weaving and dodging trees at bewildering speed and sureness. Branches tore at her rich cloak and caught in her long brunette hair, and she bent her head down farther to protect it. She couldn't see at all where they were going, but considering just what was after them any direction would be just fine as long as they could get as far as they could away from their frightening pursuer.

Not bothering to restrain the mare's perilous pace, she rode through a glade of pines and spruce, jumped a narrow brook, and followed a deer trail that headed into the mountainous Dalen Alps. Enyo's hooves pounded along the well-worn path, but when it petered out they found themselves skirting a high ridge full of loose shale, moss-covered boulders, fallen trees and other debris, at which point it became very slow going. Enyo gradually grew exhausted and lathered with sweat so that Kalena needed to pause here and there for the horse to rest.

Thankfully there was no longer any sign of the werebeast behind them, and she fervently hoped it had gone off to find some easier prey. Not concentrated on her own survival, her thoughts inevitably turned back to her friends. There was a good chance Kline and Lafayette had perished in the battle, but until she saw their mangled corpses she decided to remain optimistic about their fates; they had, after all, proven on multiple occasions to be very hard men to kill. Perhaps she would see the pair alive and well back in the capital? She needed to return there as soon as she could to inform Queen Thalia about the Timber Crag incursion, if Her Majesty was not aware of it already.

Leading Enyo along by the bridle, Kalena peered up at the treetops above. The sun was long gone and night had fallen. The sky was mostly clear and a half-moon offered just enough illumination to slowly press on. She knew it was imperative they get out of the forest and onto a proper road. Besides the risk of the mare breaking a leg in the dark, there was all sorts of nocturnal predators to worry about: wolves and mountain-cats, to the various supernatural creatures that could make even a werebear less terrifying in comparison. The Queen once delighted in describing to her some of the most nightmarish of abominations she would not care to meet in a dark wood, and the mere sight of which could break a person's mind.

Kalena did not know just how much stock to put in such uncanny tales. The last time she had spent a night in the woods whilst trying to locate a bandit's camp, she encountered a group of pint-sized fey that turned out to be a lot more mischievous than malevolent. Right about now she actually would have been relieved to meet their leader, Glumly, who could have provided her with some useful intelligence on the Timber Crag - or for a small price, anyway. The little brownie however lived in the Longford forest on the other side of Dalen. Here, just beyond the Skeldergate, she was far more likely to meet up with some of his distant kin that might not have been so nice and chummy.

"Steady on, girl," Kalena whispered, stroking the horse's neck soothingly. "There has to be a back road or mountain trail around here somewhere."

The mare nickered wearily in reply, and the two continued their trek through the treacherous, night-shrouded wilderness in search of a way back to civilization.

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