Grey clouds had been promising rain for hours. Leonor city needed the rain to wash away the blood of the siege. Its people were exhausted. The army had been slaughtered. Most men who had not fought in the battle at Worldworm’s Bridge had died defending the wall in the first attack of the empire.
Queen Malin had turned the tables with a curse, not a miracle. Danielle saw, as all the defenders on the wall saw, that the northern wall was now surrounded by a line of deadly trees. When those trees weren’t feeding it was only the long black thorns that gave them away as something sinister.
Though they were only hours old the well-fed trees looked older than the granite walls of the city itself. In the clear summer’s day, the imperial camp could still be seen on the Crosston Hills.
Cursed trees had brought the city a reprieve, not a victory.
“The enemy remains beyond the walls,” called Queen Malin throough a cone which somehow amplified her voice to the crowd. “They are licking their wounds and planning their next attack. We must be ready. Our dead will be buried in due course but for now we will make use of theirs.”
Queen Malin was not Crannan born. She hailed from the Kingdom of Eira Mynydd to the north across the Worldworm River. Her family and her nation were gone.
She looked as tired as any of the defenders. Bags beneath her eyes suggested that she had slept less than even Danielle. Her dark brown hair had new streaks of grey. Her eyes had always been a point of interest for people. The left was blue. The right eye was brown. Both were veined with red. Her pale hands were muddy.
“We have more shards of the Hungry Trees to use now than we did before. There is already one tree along the eastern wall. We have enough enemy corpses to plant a new tree every ten paces along that wall. Use gloves when handling the thorns. Wear your armour as you work and remember, have the body over the wall before you prick it with the thorn. Then drop it.” She looked around, weary eyes making contact with all the trusted warriors around her.
“That is our defensive strategy. We must also go on the offense.”
Murmurs passed through the gathering. Danielle heard her friend Fabian gasp. He was a knight, the son of a knight and had studied strategy.
“My Queen, with all due respect, the walls are our greatest defence. More so now with those monstrous trees outside,” said Fabian. His left ear, facing Danielle had swollen and was hideous shades of purple and black. Though his helmet had saved his life the night before, he had taken an awful blow from a war hammer.
“Those trees can be burnt, can be cut down or worked around,” said the queen. “I want to scare off what’s left of the enemy before they realise that. Our children have been industrious while you fought to defend them. They have been making arrows and bolts. More trusted women have been fitting those arrows and bolts with the cursed wood before adding arrowheads designed to punch through armour.
An attendant handed the queen a quiver of arrows. Checking she had her exquisite leather riding gloves on she pulled one of the arrows from the quiver and raised it cautiously for the crowd to see.
“We only need a drop of blood to touch the cursed wood. Just a drop to begin the transformation,” it was Lupita Smith who spoke. Daughter of a woman burnt at the stake for witchcraft. She had become Danielle’s closest friend.
Lupita’s dark brown skin glowed as she spoke for the queen, who seemed to be asleep on her feet. Danielle caught a flicker of a smile from Miss Smith and returned a wink.
“From you to you.” The queen pointed around the circle. “Organise those needed to plant new trees along the eastern wall. Guinevere here will see that you have the thorns you require. Go.”
Most of the collective left to be about their work.
“Miss Smith, if you wouldn’t mind explaining the plan for the counterattack. I need to lie down; else I will collapse.” Queen Malin’s eyes were drooping, and she seemed drunk, such was her exhaustion.
“Of course, my queen.” Lupita bowed low as did the gathering. The queen was taken away, leaning heavily on her bodyguards.
“The plan for the counterattack is this,” Lupita began. She stopped when someone whispered to ask what had become of the king. “He’s recovering is all I’ve heard, now listen.” She had the voice of a commander. “You here have been chosen because you have the most experience with ranged weapons. Bows and arrows. We are going to sneak towards the enemy camp and attack them when the rain falls.”
There was silence.
“That’s suicide,” said a haggard survivor of the city guard. His green Crann colours over his chainmail were as much brown from blood as they were green.
“Not when the spell takes hold, and the rain falls on the enemy.”
“Spell?” Fabian asked. She might as well have told him their great hope was a pig in armour.
“The queen has sworn to do anything in her power to protect the city. That includes using magic.” Lupita’s eyes were steely. She could see that there was growing resistance among men and women who had cheered on the fires as her mother burnt at the stake.
“There is no honour in this,” Fabian said. “We have been dragged down to the level of foul sorcery.”
“YES, WE HAVE,” roared Lupita. “We face utter annihilation. We are outnumbered ten, perhaps twenty to one by the army that camps on Crosston Hills. We are women and children, trained in one week. They have years of experience wiping out civilisations that have survived for thousands of years. They kill the men. They rape the women. Gods know what they do to the children. They burn the cities and salt the fields. That is our fate if we fail. Not even weeds will grow in memory of Leonor.”
Someone coughed. Most of them stared at the ground, imagining their whole world crushed beneath the empire.
“The queen is exhausted because she has not slept since the first attack. She is exhausted because she helped me curse the clouds that loom over Crann. When the rain falls it will addle the minds of the enemy. Their fears will turn to living nightmares. When their minds are gripped by terror we will attack with the cursed arrows.” She looked around. Her eyes were sharp. No one questioned her.
“They will be disorientated by the hallucinations; they may very well attack their own comrades, but they will still have full use of their bodies as far as we know. Fear will be our shield. We have costumes for you.”
“Costumes, like were acting in a damned play?” asked someone Danielle couldn’t see.
“Exactly,” Lupita nodded. “You will play the part of demons, monsters, gods of death. As you advance make them bleed with your arrows. We want to turn the camp on the hill into a grove of cursed trees that will forever remind the empire the strength of Crann.”
A woman brought their costumes. They were wild. Helmets made from animal skulls with deer antlers attached. Fur hides dyed as red as blood, almost the colour of the imperial uniforms. Necklaces hung with bones.
Thunder rumbled overhead. The sky darkened. Lightning arced across the sky on the horizon.
“Put them on,” Lupita said with the authority of the queen. “It’s almost time.”
Danielle was given different chainmail. Short sleeved to give her the flexibility she needed for her bow. Arrows rattled in her quiver as she walked. The fake monsters learned to walk at arm’s length from each other to keep their antlers from smacking together.
“What the fuck are you lot wearing?” asked a guard at the northern gate.
“Nightmares,” Lupita answered. She had come to the gate to see them off. She had not made the cut for the mission because she was a poor shot with a bow.
They numbered three and fifty. All antlered. All in red furs. All waiting for the rain.
Danielle held out her hand. A single drop hit her palm.
“Open the gates!” Lupita yelled. “It’s time to unleash the beasts!”
“Whatever you say miss,” said the gate guard, who might as well have told her she was mad. Danielle half agreed.
Men and women in bloody uniforms removed first one, then two giant beams from across the main gate. The doors creaked; wood protested. Giant iron hinges groaned. Bodies full of arrows or broken from the fall had to be shoved aside as the gates swung out.
The burnt remains of a battering ram blocked the way. A crowd of volunteers hurried to shift it. All of them gave the mock monsters a sideward glance as they passed and muttered mutinously.
When the path was clear the monster’s brigade marched on. Despite knowing he was one of them Danielle couldn’t pick out Fabian at all.
The road was a muddy mess torn up by thousands of feet. The dark oak trees of the Oldwood shadowed the right-hand side of the road. It was torn up grass and mud all the way to the castle on their left, south of the road. Off in the distance to the west they saw Crosston Hills.
When they were halfway there, they began to hear the racket. The clash of sword on sword. The screams and cries of battle drifted down from the enemy camp. The antlered monsters gave each other looks to see if anyone knew what was happening. Some shrugged.
“The rain,” Fabian hissed. “The rain’s turned them all mad.”
“Let’s help them along,” said an antlered nightmare with chicken bones hanging over a wolf’s hide.
“We should spread out,” said Fabian. “We don’t want to stab each other with the arrows getting them out of our quivers. Others agreed. The monsters spread out in a long line from the Oldwood to the new trees along the northern wall. None of them wanted to be closer than an arrow’s shot to the cursed branches which had swallowed imperials the night before.
The clash was fierce when they neared the camp. None of the imperials in their red uniforms seemed to notice the monsters drawing their bows. They were screaming about the enemy. They were screaming about nothing at all. Danielle had never seen anything like it. Panic. Chaos. Men turned this way and that from shadow to thin air with wide eyes.
“Take aim,” called a monster. They all pulled their bowstrings back. “Fire!”
Having closed around the enemy in a horseshoe the arrows and bolts struck their targets on the outer edges of the camp, some of whom fought on oblivious for several moments.
Then the screams grew louder.
Danielle had seen the process in the dark the night before. It was nothing to seeing it in the daylight. Branches tore their way through the mouths of men who tried to run this way and that. Soon they fell. The branches grew, bursting out of the soldiers in every direction. Armour was carried up into the air as the thorny weeds became bushes.
In their terror of each other many of the imperial soldiers ran straight into the ravenous plants and were snared around the ankles where they wore no armour.
Danielle aimed at soldiers further into the mess and found one already dead on a spear. The plan of the counterattack didn’t require the Crannan monsters to hit the living. Her arrow hit the target, which started moving instantly as if coming back to life.
The thicket of the monstrous trees was growing above head hight.
“We need to split up and move forwards!” Danielle had no idea who was yelling the orders.
The antlered warriors took a moment to decide who should go which way then moved on. Whoever had been giving orders had clearly taken the northern path for the attack. After a while Fabian filled in the leadership role.
“Keep moving as you reload. Strike those at the outside and keep your distance from them and each other. Ready?”
“Ready,” Danielle replied with two dozen other voices.
“Aim.” She found a target, a man without armour curled up in a ball. “FIRE!”
Three people had chosen the same target. He gasped more than screamed and began the evil convulsions as the branches tore their way out of him.
“Reload,” Fabian yelled in a voice that was hoarse. Danielle guessed he had been coordinating soldiers on the walls the last two nights.
A man stumbled out past the sprouting nightmares towards the monsters.
“Demons,” the man gasped. “I shall slay you in the name of the gods and justice. For the empire!” Danielle guessed the man wasn’t the sharpest blade in the armoury. He thought he was going to take on demons, alone?
“Don’t shoot him!” yelled Fabian, drawing his sword.
The man made a feeble lunge at the knight with his short sword held straight out as if he was fencing. Fabian sidestepped the move and swung his sword horizontally at the man’s neck.
Off tumbled the head. The expression on the face as it rolled through the mud was that off confusion. He had been quite certain he would prevail despite the odds.
“Aim and fire!” Fabian ducked down to be sure none of the monsters would hit him with their arrows. A volley sailed over him into the camp.
“Keep moving,” said the knight as he stood and readied another arrow.
They began to slip in the muck around the camp torn up by the army and made slick by the rain. Danielle was conscious that if she ended up with the wood of the cursed tree in a cut, she would suffer the same fate as the imperials.
“Aim.” Fabian waited a moment. Danielle saw a man with a sword and helmet but no armour swinging it around in circles as he faced off his demons, having killed all his friends. Knowing most of the archers would shoot that man she aimed instead for one of the furthest bodies.
“Fire.” The whistle of the arrow leaving the bow and the twang of the string hit her ear. Her aim was true. The lone warrior hit the ground before the change began. Five arrows had penetrated his torso.
On they went around the perimeter. Danielle looked back. What had been thorny bushes behind them had become small trees.
Each of them had ten arrows. They used them all, then drew their swords. Standing closer than before they moved to the edge of the camp and roared at the madmen within.
Danielle’s sword was slick with blood in no time at all. Though the warriors of the empire had all their strength, their coordination had been hampered by the hallucinations. They struck too high, too low, too far out or fell over themselves fighting other foes that weren’t there.
“Demons,” yelled one man in the imperial uniform, slick with the blood of his comrades. “They are demons.”
“Leave Crann,” Fabian roared in a voice hoarse and entirely unlike his own. “Leave Crann and never return.” He repeated his chant in the same growl. Danielle joined him.
“Leave Crann and never return.”
The army of the empire began to run. Falling over themselves to get away from the monsters. Goodness knows what they saw as they looked upon the blood-soaked warriors of Crann. Many dropped their weapons and pushed at their friends to get away.
“LEAVE CRANN AND NEVER RETURN.”
The southern party of monsters met those from the north in the middle of the camp. Queen Malin and Lupita had chosen their warriors well. They swept through the tents and the campfires putting the slowest of the enemy to the blade.
Though she hated them with a vengeance Danielle would never take pride in that slaughter. Fear had turned the hardened killers of Righteous Cane’s army into frightened children. She helped slaughter them. Perhaps it needed done. Perhaps it was for the greater good. Leonor City certainly would have been laid to waste. The imperials would have done the same to them. It still made her sick to watch them cowering in fear.
The enemy tripped on the bodies of their own or slipped in the mud. They were held back by others trying to get away. Some just turned and whimpered.
Danielle slowed and let her sword hang limp at her side. As she looked around, she noticed Fabian behind her.
“This is foul,” said the knight. “This is hideous. I cannot go on like this.”
“Neither can I,” said his friend. “They’re like children with this curse upon them. Feeble minded children.”
Antlers bobbed up and down as he nodded. “I feel the blood stains on my soul. This day will haunt me forever.”
They looked back together. Mighty trees had grown from the meat of murder to the east. Bodies piled on bodies were being swallowed by the roots and branches of the Hungry Trees. The ground beneath them was wet as much with blood as rain. Tents which had been the colour of potato sacks were splashed with red, or crushed, or burnt. Armour lay scattered and useless in the mire.
“We should keep up,” Danielle said, nodding to the relentless march of the antlered monsters.
“I suppose,” the knight whispered. If not for the dead silence that had taken the camp behind them, she would not have heard him. “Onward march. To our bloody victory.”
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This was a really interesting strategy and neat to imagine while reading. Nice take on the prompt too.
Thank you. You’ve read this series in a very weird order, from the middle to the end back to the start towards the middle again. Like watching Star Wars in the order the films were released.
It is an interesting process haha. I might have to go back and read them in order at some point.
You’ll know the characters better than I do.
Thanks for reading. If you liked this story and you want to know what happens to Danielle next you can use the link below. https://blog.reedsy.com/short-story/99fzjl/
I like the magic they used and the thing withe the cursed wood. Where did that cone from?
I can’t remember now really. I wanted something a bit different.