The Araken Warband
With the goblin scouts hot on the tails of the six and the children terrified to see the killers of their entire village, Cullen transforms into his gigantic wolf shape before turning and attacking the nearest of the scouts. Having overextended himself, the scout is in no man’s land and is pounced upon by the wolf, which lands on the much smaller goblin, quickly crushing the skull of the stunned scout. The wolf then takes off toward the exposed hills, most of the Araken breaking of to pursue.
Meanwhile, Uther and Manzio make for the sanctuary of a nearby forest and are thankful for the thick foliage, which covers the trace of their passing. The sound of Cullen’s wolf call is heard in the distance and the response of a pack. This provides extra energy for the exhausted children although their strength is quickly spent and the group is forced to walk before taking the risk of plunging further into the forestland hoping that night will swallow them from view.
Hours pass slowly under the thick, tangled canopy of the forest, the five listening intently for any sign that they have been followed. Finally, Uther risks a quick meal although without the benefit of a campfire. The children are happy to make do with stale bread and cheese with a few berries foraged by Manzio close at hand.
That night, Uther and Manzio take a watch apiece, the three children sleeping fitfully close at hand. There is no sign of Cullen but thankfully, they appear to have evaded the Araken raiding party, at least for the moment.
The following morning, Uther attempts to cautiously double back, hoping to reach Hadrian’s Wall further to the west. Eventually they are forced to break from the cover of the forestlands and trek across open countryside with only the occasional copse to provide minimal camouflage. It is approaching late afternoon, the children once again beginning to flag when Manzio spots a dark silhouette in the distance. Tired and unwilling to once again change direction en route to the Wall, Uther and Manzio quickly decide that a reconnaissance of the site is necessary. They find a sheltered dell in which the children have a well protected view of the surrounding terrain and wait for the light to fade before setting out.
Before long, the two make out an abandoned Norman castle looming ahead as part of the conventional motte-and-bailey structure. The main keep and one of the out buildings remain at least partially intact although dilapidated in places. Manzio motions that he will go ahead and that Uther should wait for his return.
Hugging the deepening shadows, Manzio begins by approaching the out house, crawling on his stomach slowly along the hillside until he reaches the outer wall. Peering through a crack, he immediately freezes in fear, as he sees beyond, a number of villagers staring lifelessly ahead with all manner of grizzly injuries, some barely standing on broken limbs, others still caked in blood from the same wounds, which killed them.
Moving further up the slope and with the zombies immobile behind, Manzio slowly and carefully transcends one of the crumbling outer walls. Using the many footholds available to him and his remarkable flexibility, he is able to scale the heights and once again peers inside.
Within, he sees the remnants of the Araken warband, gathered together in the courtyard eating a meal, which immediately turns Manzio’s stomach. A human carcass has been spun on a wheel like a giant kebab, the fat sizzling and dripping into the bonfire lit below.
A huge Araken warrior, covered in tattoos, his tough, pitted face looking searchingly up at the walls as though the sensing the presence of the Vesuvian, seems to be the leader. He has a giant two-handed bronze broadsword strapped to his naked back, which partly conceals what appears to be an enormous scar which runs the full length of the Araken’s back.
Behind the Araken warrior stands a female Kurgen. Dwarfing even the Araken, she stares into space with the same lifeless eyes evident in the faces of the zombies. She has unnaturally pale skin and in her left hand, carries a staff made from the thick femur of some giant animal. All told, Manzio counts six in total, four more Araken warriors sat aside from their leader, enjoying smaller portions of the cannibalistic dinner shared amongst the group. There is no sign of the wargs.
His reconnaissance finished, Manzio carefully descends from the wall, testing each foothold carefully, aware of the dilapidated state of the stones. He has just set foot on the ground and is once again low in the grasses to avoid detection when he hears a familiar voice issuing a challenge from the other side of the out house.
‘This abomination will not go unpunished by God’s mighty hand. Your cowardly act will have vengeance.’
Abandoning stealth, Manzio sprints to the back of the crumbling space in which he’d found the zombies earlier in his mission and to his horror, he sees the creatures pouring toward Uther, attacking him with a terrifying fervour. Throwing himself into the fray, Manzio pirouettes like a dancer immobilising two of his foes with surgically accurate strikes with his daggers. Meanwhile, limbs and even a head is severed by the huge swings of Uther’s longsword. Together, they make quick work of the remaining zombies, Uther finishing off the last whilst Manzio urges his Templar colleague to flee.
‘Uther, run…there are six more Araken in the castle.’
Uther turns, his face initially flushed with bloodlust but seeing the terrain and the massive Araken figure, which burst from the smashed gates and stands not more than 200 yards above Uther, the Templar thinks better of his attack and follows Manzio.
Manzio sprints back to the children outdistancing both Uther and the Araken. He can see the Templar not too far behind and beyond, the six figures beginning to fan out in pursuit although thankfully on foot only.
The children have clearly seen the pursuit as they have already gathered their gear, fearful faces looking toward Manzio for guidance. Sequaine is in tears while Randar clings onto his elder brother, Ulf.
‘Quickly,’ urges Manzio. ‘Follow me and stay as close as you can.’
Manzio and the children are forced to flee cross country, the Vesuvian scanning the far horizon for the tell-tale signs of the Wall. Dusk has begun to darken into the shades of evening, Manzio using the landscape as cover with dips and hidden troughs occasionally obscuring the group from view. Twisting his head to see behind, he is thankful to spot Uther continuing to maintain a slim advantage over the Araken, despite his heavy chain mail links.
Just then, the sound of wolves break from the east and not long after, the giant shape of Cullen surges into view followed by four grizzled members of his pack. The five wolves dart between Uther and the pursuing Araken, cutting off the hunt. Quickly they close on one another, the great double handed bronze blade of the scarred leader cleaving one of the wolves in two with a mighty blow. Meanwhile, the massive shape of Cullen smashes into the nearest Araken warrior, biting through the exposed neck before leaping to safety, leaving the prone figure of his adversary writhing in agony in the mud.
Manzio and the children slow their pace, waiting for Uther. The Templar is exhausted and despite Manzio’s protestations to the contrary, insists that they rest long enough for Uther to catch his breath. A battle of attrition is taking place behind with the wolves and Araken facing of respectfully, at a distance. The tall Kurgen extends a hand and black energy shoots from her fingertips, catching one of the remaining four wolves in the chest. The creature howls in pain before slumping as though devoid of energy, front paws twitching spasmodically.
‘Uther, we need to keep going,’ shouts Manzio. ‘Cullen and the wolves will not hold them for long. We must reach the Wall…’
Uther nods, his face once more a picture of resolve. The five set out, following Uther across the exposed hillside and are quickly swallowed from view, unable to see the battle behind them. Manzio can tell that the children are reaching exhaustion with the two youngest beginning to lag behind. Once again, Uther and Manzio grab one apiece, positioning them on their shoulders before continuing.
The entire group is stumbling with weariness as they finally approach Hadrian’s Wall. Young Ulf, determined not to fall behind the two adults pushes himself to exhaustion and slumps down, his back to the wall. Uther is disappointed to see that there are no Danagrim scouts on the wall and fishes in his pack for a tightly bound rope, which he unclips.
‘Should be just about enough,’ guesses Manzio, taking the rope from his Templar companion.
Manzio searches for a suitable handhold but finds there are surprisingly few to be found. Finally, he is forced to chisel some toeholds, using one of his daggers, before laboriously scaling the wall. Once on top, the others are able to use the rope with the three children going first, followed by Uther. Manzio then holds the rope long enough for everybody to descend onto the other side. He then throws the rope down to Uther, vaulting to the soft, flat earth below, tumbling to one side before quickly getting to his feet.
‘Come, we must find shelter,’ urges Uther. ‘If those Araken crossed the wall to go south, they can easily do the same to go north on our scent.’
It does not take long for the group to find an abandoned shelter for cattle. The ramshackle shelter is a little stuffy given the humidity of the evening but the group are relieved to be safe. Uther shares what remains of their frugal rations, each munching silently on food well past its best. They have barely finished when the sound of a war-horn being sounded close at hand, startles the group. Peering through a gap in the wall, Manzio makes out the tell-tale sounds of the coarse Araken language not far from their current position.
‘Manzio, you must get the children to safety, get them as far away from here as possible.’
Manzio, unsure what to do and fearing that he will be abandoning his friend to almost certain death hesitates. Seeing his friend’s plight, Uther nods. ‘May the lord be with you.’
Slipping out a crack in the back wall, Sequaine followed by Randar and then Ulf worm their way through the opening. Manzio is last, quickly scanning the area for cover. It is dark and subsequently he hopes that they can find shelter in some woodland. Thankfully, it does not take them long to find forestland and they plunge deep inside before Manzio calls a stop, nervously chewing his lip and feeling an intense sense of solitude and responsibility.