Horns blare as the procession of proud knights emerged from the keep, hooves trampling piles of fresh flowers thrown by the village's residents and the families of the horsemen. The first rays of the dawn sun making their freshly polished armor gleam. The bright personal banners of each knight fluttered in the breeze from his lance tip.
A day of gathering had been declared in Talsu, from the capitol, which shared the name of the small kingdom, to even the smallest of the outlying villages. In every one of them, the nobles of the king gathered with their peasant retainers, as the serfs, with their spring planting long over, came to see the spectacle.
Many of the elders in the crowd remembered the last time they had watched the warriors of the kingdom leave for war. A few of those watching still bore the wounds from what the Talsians came to call the War of the Hammer. Near the head of the line of the knights, a young Elf was relearning his history…
“The War of the Hammer was the largest war in these parts since the end of the Elf-Dwarf War millennia ago, young master,” Arcturus lectured, riding beside the boy. “The War of the Hammer, like the present little squabble, began with the Duchy of Bari. A land which, I hope you remember at least this much from your lessons, Melkior, is now just on the other side of the greatest power on this side of the Great River, the Kingdom of Grelz. Of course, at the time of the war, that narrow strip of Grelz land between our two realms was owned by the Bari. They lost that in the blood settlement at the end of the war."
"There was a minor trade dispute over tariffs on Bari riverboats that traveled past Grelz out to the Middle Sea. When the King sent a messenger demanding an increase of the tariffs, the Duke of Bari himself took up a warhammer, and brought it down right on the head of the messenger. Unbeknownst to the Duke, the messenger happened to be the second cousin of the King’s third son. Are you following all this, or staring at the pretty peasant girls in the crowd?”
When Melkior did not respond, as he was indeed eyeing the comely and festively dressed elven girls in the crowd, their hair done up in wreaths of flowers for the gathering, Arcturus’ gauntleted hand rapped the back of his helmet, making the boys ears ring. “Young master, pay attention!”
“Yes, Arcturus,” Melkior turned his head, looking at the Swordmaster, a distracted look fading from his face only slowly as he straitened his helm. The occasional darting of his eyes back towards the gathered throng ruined his look of contriteness. “Please, enlighten me more.”
The elder elf only half raised his hand before dropping it back to the reins of his horse, sighing. “The spilling of royal blood, or rather the smashing of a royal skull in this case, not to mention the breaking of an oath and the killing of a messenger, led to war… I suppose that is a better cause for war than most. Killing a messenger, and breaking the sacrosanct pact to safeguard them, is quite an offense against both men and gods. Soon, the surrounding kingdoms, including Talsu, joined in the war on the side of Grelz. Badly outnumbered, the army of Bari managed to hold out in their keeps for month after month, repelling every assault. That is, until the winter solstice. That is when the atrocity started.”
“You’ve already told me about that, Arcturus. And before you hit me, I both remember and understand the significance of what you told me. The wizards of Bari made a pact with demons. Demons that tore the armies of the other kingdoms apart and ravaged the land. It took five years for the last of them to be hunted down and killed, or at least banished back to their own realm. Unfortunately for the Bari, the demons were as dishonorable as the Duke of Bari himself, and at the first opportunity, devastated his army as well.”
“And what did that lead to, young master?” Arcturus prompted.
“The Treaty of the Hammer, in which the names of all the kingdoms involved in the war were inscribed, along with the consecrated oath never to call upon the denizens of the infernal realms, on the same warhammer which started the conflict. The hammer is on display in the hall of the King of Grelz, and is brought forth every solstice to reaffirm the pact. But I don’t see how that will be relevant now, as the Bari were at the last oath swearing. Casperian was there, and told me so. They wouldn’t dare break that oath. To do so would bring down the wrath not only of armies of mortals, but the gods as well.”
“Mortals have been known to do stupid things, young master. We need only look at what both we and the Dwarfs did in our wars to see evidence of what atrocities men can do,” Arcturus intoned, sending a chill up the spine of the boy. “This will be your first war, hopefully it will be over quickly. I do not see how the Bari can stand up to Grelz, with or without the added levies of troops we will add, along with the bowmen of Tricarico. That is what worries me. Even men blinded by glory and thoughts of revenge should be able to see that they cannot win this fight.”
“If they are so likely to fail, why do you look so worried?” The young warrior asked of his teacher, seeing his brow furrow.
“Because, boy,” Arcturus looked past the riders in front of them, towards the horizon, “I don't see how they can win, and yet they try anyway. Does that mean they see a way that all of us have missed?”
The gaiety and excitement of his first ride to war was lost to Melkior as he pondered this. He glanced up to the head of the line of knights, towards his cousin Casperian and the main advisers of the clan. Question after question flooded his mind. What had they missed? What did the Bari know? Would it make a difference, as outnumbered as they would be?
"Dont look so down, young Master. We will find out what will happen in the fullness of time. Your cousin won't steer us wrong. He is a good man." Arcturas said, patting Melkior on the shoulder. The procession of knights and their retainers passed through the village and towards the far off encampments of the main Talsian Army.