Last Breath of Winter:Characters:Mask:History

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Before the Dawn of Night

Anikous Redsnow was never one to sleep in, most especially not when a battle loomed with the coming dawn. Many of his men swore that he could smell the acrid scent of war on the morning breeze, and that was what always woke him even before the first campfires were lit. This morning was no different, although he did not yet know it. He and his men had marched many miles across unforgiving territory and their destination was but another two-day push. What was this nagging sensation, almost like an itch between his shoulder blades, that woke him? He listened briefly in the darkness, but there was no sound save that of the first stirrings of the men. “Maybe it was nothing,” he thought, but something else was telling him different. He pushed aside the sex-soaked leg of one of the women who shared his sleeping furs with him and stood in the bracing air of the tent.

And suddenly he remembered why he hated the morning after drinking mead. He had to stop momentarily to refocus his eyes and keep his brain from trying to jump out of his head all at the same time. “One good solution for this,” he thought. He drew on his pants and buckled his sword belt around his waist and stepped out into the morning air. If the air in the tent had been cold, then this was a slap in the face with a very, very large stick. Anikous drew in the frozen morning air and exhaled a deep foggy breath. He was a Northman, and the cold sparked life into his veins. Most of his men had seen him come back from wounds that would have killed any of them three times over. Every one of them swore that the freezing cold in the north was what kept Anikous alive through so many cold winters and hot battles. The stiffness of his mind and body from the previous nights’ war revelry was pushed away as the great northern wind that always brings the most terrible storms pushes a cloud aside. The old spear wound in his left shoulder told him that one of those storms was well on its way. He stretched and breathed deep again, allowing the cold to seep into him. After getting dressed, he headed out into the camp.

The camp was beginning to wake as he strode through the lines of tents and growing campfires. The rest of the camp was not far behind him in waking this morning. There was work to be done today, and the sooner they got moving the better. Those he passed threw loyal salutes to him that he returned with the same loyalty. The jests from his soldiers he returned with even more gusto.

Anikous was without question the leader of these men. His tactics were simple and straightforward. He was not what more “learned” men might call a master tactician, but his strategies and misdirects worked. Nor was he a man to simply direct men to their glorious deaths. Anikous’ troops were loyal to him not from an overwhelming sense of duty to some lord, but because he poured out the same sweat, blood and pain as those that followed him into battle. He was a general in the truest sense. He was on the front lines of the charge and carved the way for his soldiers to follow.

It was a short distance to the tent in the center of the camp that served as map room. “Report!” be bellowed as he entered.

“We believe the situation is much the same, Anikous,” reported Artos, one of his most trusted lieutenants and his friend since childhood. “The armies of the Realm are at least a day’s hard ride to the south. We should meet up with the Bull’s army as expected.” “’We believe’?” Anikous asked. There was that itch again.

“Aye, two of our outriders have not reported back. They should have been back before dawn.” The man who spoke was Hargan Shieldbreaker, Anikous’ younger brother. He stood almost as tall as Anikous, but made up for the height difference with the breadth of his shoulders. When they weren’t crushing the front of an enemy’s line, the two often fought back to back, tearing a massive hole in the middle of the formation as it crumbled around them. His massive spiked war maul leaned up against one of the main poles in the tent, threatening to topple the whole thing.

“It’s nothing Hargan, this is new territory and they may have gotten turned around,” said Dana Spiteblade. She earned that name from the wicked flamberge bastard sword she wielded with the deftness of a Solar.

“Who are the missing riders?” Anikous asked.

“Stumpy and Tanna,” Artos replied, giving a look that Anikous did not like. That itch was really starting to irritate him.

“What direction did they go?” he asked Artos.

“East. They were just to scout out a path through the low mountain range here.” He drew a line with his finger from their current position through a mountain pass out to the other side of the range. “A days worth of travel for us, maybe not even that.”

“I dislike it when two of my best scouts get ‘lost’. Tanna has eyes like an eagle and Stumpy couldn’t get lost if you gouged out his eyes and made him walk in circles for three days. Find them.” Anikous glared at the map. “And break camp. We move within the hour. Something is wrong, and I want to know what.”

It always pleased Anikous watching the camp break. The soldiers went from warming themselves easily by the fire to making ready in an instant. The pleasure he drew from the spectacle was short-lived however.

One of the lookouts in the trees to the east let out two short blasts from his horn. A single rider approached. Anikous and his commanders ran to the eastern side of the camp to see the horse coming up the side of the hill they were camped on. There it was. One rider, leaning bad to the right. He rode up to the camp and nearly ran over the first three that tried to stop the horse. “It’s Stumpy!!” someone yelled. “Medic!” yelled another. Stumpy dismounted with a grunt and saluted Anikous as he approached. The metal stub of his right hand clanked against his bloodied mail. “Fuckers made me lose my mace,” he snarled as he glared at the steel that covered the stump where his ball-and-chain morning star had previously been attached. He had lost his hand two years ago to a Realm swordsman and had been fitted with his current replacement by a young surgeon at a mountain fortress west of Whitewall.

“What happened?” demanded Anikous. The spot between his shoulder blades was on fire.

“We got us a problem sir. The Realm is about a hundred miles ahead of where they should be. The countryside to the southeast is crawling with Realm soldiers. Somehow they almost got between us and where we need to be. They seem to be making for the pass.”

“Show me.”

They moved to the map that was still laid out on the table in the main tent. “They are here,” said Stumpy, pointing on the map with his good hand where he had first found the main force. “Tanna noticed the campfires long off and we moved in to get a closer look. We were able to avoid their outriders and got to a ridge overlooking the camp. They have at least four dragons, with appropriate support personnel. Sir,” Stumpy looked up from the map with a hard look in his eye, “they got at least two circles of Dragonblooded. Tanna could see them talking with someone who could only be the commander of the army.”

“Where is Tanna?” Anikous asked, more for the ones who didn’t already figure it out than for himself.

Stumpy’s jaw clenched. “We were on our way out when a group of riders spotted us. They tried to run us down and catch us, but she stayed behind to make sure I got back to warn the rest. I imagine a few of them weren’t too happy with her aim,” he said with a grin.

Anikous nodded. “Then let us make sure that I did not lose one of my best archers for nothing. Seems we won’t be meeting up with the Bull after all,” he announced. An excited twinkle shone is his eyes as Anikous laid out the plan. “We meet this army here, at the narrowest part of the path. Stumpy, what of the terrain?”

“Good spot fer an ambush, about the best I’d say. There is a rocky ridgeline right in there that’ll make fer a mean archers nest.”

The ambush fell together quickly. Orders had already been sent for all combat troops to muster. The cooks and other rear echelon attendants were to be left behind. If this army got through, it would pose more than just a threat to the Bull’s growing forces.

“Hargan, Artos, to me,” Anikous said, motioning them over. “There is one more thing I must demand of you, for it will be the last demand I make. Take ten of our fastest riders and make for the pass. Ride the fucking horses right out from under you if you have to, but get to the Bull of the North. I am willing to bet that he does not know he has an army closing in on his flank.”

“But brother!!” Hargan blustered, but Anikous stopped him.

“I would have loved nothing more than for us to sing our song at each others side in battle, but there are larger things right now than an honorable death. I need your hammer to defend this message. Get to the Bull. Take Stumpy and tell him everything. Once you do that, guard the western flank, for the ones coming from that direction will have killed a someone that stood beside me.” Had not every Northman been born with his tears frozen inside him, they might have been shed at that moment. But the North makes men hard, and these are the hardest among them. They clapped each other on the shoulders and gave a warriors embrace. Within moments they were riding out of sight. None of the men and women looked back, for the killing was ahead.

Shortly after midday, the barbarian army had come within sight of the mouth of the pass. They veered slightly northeast, for Stumpy said Tanna had been able, with her keen eyesight, to find another way through the mountains. It was not a path a mounted army could have taken, but the Northmen weren’t going to use the horses anyway. They nimbly climbed the treacherous slope, and once the reached the top of the steep ridge, dust could be seen on the horizon.

“They come,” said Dana Spiteblade, her sword at the ready, gleaming like a cold flame made of steel.

Anikous cinched his shield to his arm and drew the broadsword that had brought him through many battles. This was to be his greatest song, and his greatest day.

“Good. Then let us send a few back.”

…And thus ends the story of Anikous Redsnow, and begins the story of Render of Bone and Sinew

Life 2- Judge Paktrichter

"Time to choose, son."

Life 3- Reckoner Boundless Aphelion, Chosen of Endings

Life 4- Mask Rent Asunder, Moonshadow Abyssal, Avenger of the Betrayed