The Rayward war camp was still charged with the thrill of post victory celebration. Men and women continued to recount the fateful battle that had seen the demise of Stef’han of Black. The death of the great dragon was not so long ago but the event was still crisp on everyone’s mind and tongue from the most veteran of knights to the lowest squires and conscripts. Securing a triumph over the dragoon like the one that had just been claimed was enough to boot the morale of the army to heavenly proportions for a lengthy measure. Thousands of humans were moved to feel immortal by the slaying of the mighty winged wyrm. The corpse of Stef’han of Black, though picked clean of teeth and scales still served as a potent trophy for all the Rayward soldiers to take pride in.
The energy of the war camp was instantly changed as soon as the first set of eyes were laid upon the approaching riders. Initially it was the sense of urgency that the handful of approaching fighting men carried which put the camp into a state of unease. When the riders had come close enough that all could see their bloodied skin and soot stained cloaks, the tenor of the Rayward army changed from glorious revelry into warry foreboding. The arrival of beaten men had reminded the rest of the army what the price of failure looked like. The knights that gathered to witness the return of the riders were all given a sobering dose of reality. With the death of the eldest dragon patriarch, it had been easy to feel like the crusades against their kind and their progeny had been won, until now. The battle wounds sported by the fearful riders were testament that the enemy still had deep volumes of fight left in them.
The riders said nothing as they returned to the war camp. The hollowed look that was seared onto their collective faces spoke well enough to the events that had spurred their hasty return to the rest of the Rayward army. The war camp greeted the riders with scores trembling hands and a hushed chorus of ignited rumors and wild postulation.
A woman with a Lance Commanders plume trailing from her helm pushed her way to the front of the murmuring congregation of knights. “Well met. What has gone on?” she asked with a cautious and discerning eye drinking in the sight of each of the bloodied riders.
The sparse collection of refugees regraded each other for an unsteady moment. It was clear to all that the riders had been so preoccupied with their own survival that they had forgotten proper military protocol and chain of command. The scared men and women took a few beats to look each other over and sort out who had the most chevrons, stripes and medals pinned on their cloaks. All eyes turned to one man with a captain’s sigil on the pauldrons of his platemail. He looked over the rest of the disheveled riders, and once he had taken a moment to ensure there were no superior officer lucking under a thick layer of soot and blood, he spoke with a raspy and parched voice. “Sia of Red,” said the Captain before coughing and choking on his the rest of his words.
The war camp was awash with tense gasps and anxious whispers at the name of the red scaled matriarch. The Lance Commander had to bite back her own trepidations before she could continue speaking. “Sia of Red,” she repeated.
The Captain only nodded his head in affirmation. He grimaced and grunted as he battled to clear the soot and smoke form his lungs.
The Lance Commander motioned to one of the nearby squires. They boy intuitively grasped a water skin like he was possessed of some kind of supernatural augury. He handed the water skin to the Lance Commander with a deferential downward gaze and lowered head. The veteran woman politely nodded to the boy as he vanished back into the ranks of Rayward knights. The Lance Commander removed the stopper form the water skin and offered it to the weary Captain.
“Thank you,” said the Captain before taking a deep swallow of cool water and cleansing some of the fiery aftermath that still clung to his insides.
“Of course. Captain, if you would, please come with me. General Braveway will want to hear your report immediately,” said the Lance Commander.
“Yes, Lance Commander,” responded the Capitan with refreshed vigor in his voice. He took another long sip form the water skin and continued to rejuvenate himself.
“See to the others. Fresh water, food and medicine,” the Lance Commander said to the closest members of the war camp. Her soft order was instantly obeyed as squires and knights alike helped the haggard survivors to dismount from their tired steeds. “Captain,” said the Lance Commander with a tilt of her head and sweep of her arm, motioning towards the deeper reaches of the war camp.
The Captain dismounted from the back of his stallion and handed the reins to an eagerly awaiting squire. He quickly drained the rest of the water skin before promptly falling in step behind the Lance Commander’s brisk pace. The two officers navigated to the heart of the war camp with considerable speed. Though it was clear the Captain was in desperate need of rest, duty demanded that a proper account was delivered to the General before the man could stand relieved of his obligations to the army for a time. The Captain and Lance Commander reached General Braveway’s tent before the news of Sia of Red’s attack had reached the furthest parts of the encampment.
The Lance Commander did not speak but her cutting eyes and a thrust of her chin were enough for the sentries outside of the tent to comprehend her demand for an audience with the General. One of the two guards disappeared into the General’s tent for a few heartbeats. He returned and pulled aside the left most flap of the tents entrance. The other guard followed suit with the right flap.
“Lance Commander, at your pleasure mam,” said the guard on the left as he motioned for her to enter the General’s tent.
The Lance Commander entered the tent with the Captain limping in behind her. The two officers stood side by side at attention. The presented themselves as finely as they were able and waited for General Braveway to address them.
General Braveway glanced up at the two officers silently standing as if they were frozen in a solid block of ice. “Lance Commander Allsky, what is this?” he asked with an even and unreadable tone. It was largely understood that he was only addressing her first as a matter of propriety and etiquette.
“Some of our people have returned form Lance Commander Luckworth’s regiment,” said the Lance Commander.
“I can see that. Captain what happed out there?” asked the General.
“We tracked the dragoon army as ordered. Lance Commander Luckworth saw an opportunity to strike at the enemy before they reached the Red Sanctuary. The regiment was able to score a victory against a much larger force. We had rallied and were ready to renew our assault on the enemy caravan… then Sia of Red came and…” said the Captain, starting as a polished military man and slowly turning into a vacant husk of a traumatized person as he spoke and memories of recent horrors stole his words from his mouth.
The General raised a comforting hand to mercifully stop the Captain from further recounting the nightmarish dragon attack. “I see. The rest of the regiment? Lance Commander Luckworth?” asked the General.
“I believe all lost to the enemy, General sir,” said the Captain.
“And the enemy?” queried the General.
“I can not say for certain but I believe they were able to fall back to the Red Sanctuary,” confessed the Captain with an ashamed sigh in his voice punctuating his speech.
“So it seems we are in for a siege. Lance Commander, fetch me five dispatch riders. Captain, see to your wounds and get some proper rest. You are both dismissed,” said the General with a nonchalant authority wafting from his voice.
“Yes, General sir,” responded the two officers before rapping a firm salute on their chests and clicking their heels together. They turned and left the tent with a perfect unison in their footfalls.
General Braveway slumped back into the chair behind his work desk. He sat silently for the span of several long heavy breaths. “Aaron Luckworth, poor lad. You had so much potential. At least you died the right way,” he sighed as a bittersweet grin tugged at the corners of his mouth.