Trumps of Winter

48 - Ruin

Four against a warband.

The bogatyrs’ decision is simple enough: scout out the ruins of Raintowers, and survey the camp of Vilich Valyask Vozmei’s warband. They set out immediately. Anfisa and, surprisingly, Kazimeer are able to get the group quietly into a hiding position, on a rise with a good view of the broken stones.

The broken keep of Raintowers sits on a small island, where the wide stream flowing to the river divides around a tall, pointed stone and then rejoins, forming a natural moat around the tumbled manse. A damaged yet still functional bridge is the only obvious crossing point, leading to the smashed gatehouse. The entire keep has been opened to the elements; the back walls still stand, but the main entry is just rubble. And among the broken stones: the Ruin band. The bogatyrs count over a dozen, sifting through piles of rubble. A few scouts stand atop portions of the second floor that have not been entirely smashed, keeping a wary eye out for enemies.

The bogatyrs decide to settle in and watch the camp. In particular, there might be the chance of catching one of the elven scouts on patrol. A long hour passes before Anfisa catches a glimpse of a form moving quietly through the forest — yet clearly not one of the Tilvash elves. She sends a warning shot at a tree near the woman, and the woman starts and moves quickly away. Anfisa creeps after her, unseen and unheard, until she is able to spot the woman again.

Anfisa lets out a short Volyar whistle, often used among scouts who follow the Comet — but no response. As the woman looks around, one hand on the hilt of an oversized sword across her back, Anfisa gets a better look at her. From the mismatched armor and weapons, she guesses that the woman matches Gennadiy’s description of Belka the Looter — one of Tsar Gorinstal’s infiltrating band of Forgiven. Belka catches sight of Anfisa, and chooses to quietly retreat.

The ranger returns to her companions and tells them what she’s seen. Mika, increasingly impatient, argues that the group should start isolating their enemies and cutting them down. The bogatyrs decide to set an ambush. Anfisa leaves a false trail for any enemy scouts to discover, then rejoins her comrades and lies in wait.

Three hours pass. Then at last they hear boots in the leaves and snow — far more than expected. As the enemy comes into view, it becomes clear that the Ruin’s entire warband has mobilized. A cruelly handsome man in black armor leads the band. The war-leader’s elite forces seem to include two elven archers wearing the blue fire and black flower of House Tilvash and drakeskull leather helms; a scarred man in a fur hood and drakeskull mask, carrying the twisted serpentine staff of a dragon-sorcerer; a hulking orc in plate armor with draconic motifs; and the young witch last seen desperately escaping the bogatyrs down the slopes of Corpse-Chewer Mountain. A baker’s dozen of lesser, but by no means harmless, Ruin warriors bulk out the band. The bogatyrs exchange quick hand-signals to determine their plan — and they choose to fight.

The fight is a bloody, brutal brawl. The Ruin enemies are at least as dangerous as any the bogatyrs have faced before, and have a strong numerical advantage. Anfisa desperately tries to keep her bear-brother alive in the face of the waves. Gena endures more punishment than he has in any other battle. Kazimeer and Mika exhaust their magic, Mika even sounding the ghost-calling horn wrested from the Ghosts of Stolyich Field. And Gullet flanks from behind, keeping the witch from contributing anything other than an effort to save her own hide. But the fight goes ever against them.

The orc juggernaut falls, and only four of the Ruin’s rank-and-file are left standing when Gennadiy sorely wounds the dragon-child leader. The padlock on the dragon-spawned warrior’s neck snaps open, and he swells into a huge dragonlike form, the size of a small house. The newly drake-form warrior tears wildly at his foes — and at the same time, Kazimeer and Mika finally fall to arrow fire.

With three of the Ruin’s elites still standing, to say nothing of the wounded, furious drake, Gena and Anfisa abandon the fight. They take advantage of the dragon-spawn’s pained frenzy to scoop up the fallen forms of Mika and Kazimeer, and they flee deep into the woods.

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