“Shields at the ready men! Hold the line!”
The standard bearer galloped down the row of Paladins, their white armor reflecting the full moon as it bathed them in its pale glow. His spear held aloft and the flag of their noble company flying proudly, he rallied the villagers behind them, the heavy hooves of his steed sinking into the wet mud. They were a disorganized rabble, impoverished farmers and woodsmen, their clothing ragged, and their weapons merely repurposed farm tools. Axes, hoes, and scythes, coated in rust and too blunt to pierce anything but a sack of grain. They were here to defend these people, and their remote village, from a band of roving Orcs who had been sighted nearby. Orcs did not congregate near human settlements without good reason, and as they had suspected, the warband had moved into position and was preparing to launch an assault.
Orcs were savage, evil creatures, hulking masses of brawn and violence who preyed on the helpless and raided defenseless towns on the outskirts of the kingdom for plunder and slaves. Paladins were sworn to protect the weak, and counter the forces of evil wherever they might be found, and so the two dozen knights steeled themselves for battle.
The rain began to pour, fat, heavy droplets clattering on their winged helmets and steel shoulder plates. Bevan peered through the slot in his visor, his eyes straining to make out shapes through the darkness and the storm. He clutched at his spear, keeping it level over his heavy shield, interlocking with those of his brothers to his left and right. Together they formed an impenetrable wall, ready to skewer anything that dared to attack them from the front. Behind him he could hear the horse snorting and its heavy footfalls as it stamped impatiently, along with the apprehensive murmuring of the villagers. They were reluctant, some far too old to fight, others too young, but those that fell on the battlefield in defense of their loved ones would be looked upon favorably by the Divines, Bevan was certain of it.
A flash of lightning illuminated the field before them, and for a moment Bevan could see the silhouetted shapes of the Orcs, lining up on the hill to meet their challenge. They were taller and wider than a man, great, hulking beasts, their features obscured beneath a layer of crudely hammered iron and animal pelts. There were dozens of them, a hundred maybe, too many. Bevan felt a twinge of fear rise in his belly, but he quickly banished it, murmuring a prayer of purity under his breath as the standard bearer marshaled the troops.
“Stand your ground, give them no quarter! Auxiliaries, hold back unless the line is broken!”
“T-this is folly! We’re done for!” One of the villagers dropped his rusted scythe in the mud, turning to run back towards the wooden shacks.
“There is no place in heaven for cowards!” The standard bearer called to his back as he fled.
The other villagers muttered, a low chorus of frightened voices. Bevan worried that more of them might flee, not that they would have been of much use in battle anyway.
The piercing call of a horn carried over the field, loud and clear against the rain and the thunder. The Orcs were declaring a charge. The Paladins braced, driving their metal boots into the mud for leverage and calling their readiness down the line. Lightning flashed again, and the horde of Orcs rolled down the hill like a tide, a mass of tainted metal and cruel, hooked weapons. Their roar conveyed a lust for battle that shook Bevan to his bones, but he stood ready to meet them, confident in his blessed armor and his righteous purpose.
“We will hold this village,” the standard bearer called, his voice rising over the storm, “or we will meet on the shores of Paradise!”
The knights yelled their approval, their voices echoing through Bevan’s hollow helmet and filling his heart with the warmth of courage.
The Orcs covered the ground quickly, growing in size as they approached the waiting Paladins. They had looked large in the distance, but as they drew closer Bevan could truly appreciate their sheer mass. If they were to impact the line at full speed, throwing all of their weight into the charge, would the knights hold? Of course they would hold, for their purpose was a righteous one, remember the scriptures Bevan, have faith.
The beasts came into range, raising their brutish weapons above their heads, swords like giant fish hooks, machetes, cleavers, war axes and maces, tools designed to butcher, not to dispatch their enemies with any dignity or grace. Their armor was made up of heavy, thick plates of iron, stitched together with leather straps and decorated with fur and bones. Crude, but the sheer weight that the Orcs were capable of carrying without being overburdened made it effective.
Religious fervor overcoming his fear of mortality, Bevan angled his spear down, ready to intercept the charging monsters. The Orcs impacted the line of shields like a wave crashing against the rocks. The Paladins were pushed back, their boots failing to find purchase in the slippery mud, but they held steady, their spears seeking out spaces in the Orc’s thick armor and thrusting deep into their flesh. Some were felled, others merely angered, and as more Orcs piled into the fray from behind, the line began to bend under their weight. Powerful blows from hammers and machetes reverberated through Bevan’s shield, and he gritted his teeth against the vibrations as they pummeled his arm. He jabbed with his spear, but it glanced off their thick armor, and as he pulled it back in for another attempt, it was yanked out of his hand. He fumbled for the scabbard on his belt, drawing his short sword and readying it.
They broke through down the line to his right, the piles of enraged Orcs overcoming the knights. One Paladin fell back, knocked down by a blow to his shield from a massive war hammer wielded by an especially large specimen, who finished him off in the mud with a bone crushing crunch as its fellows swarmed through the breach.
“Draw swords!” The standard bearer called out, skewering an Orc from horseback with his long spear. They were not routed yet, and the knights drew back, regrouping and unsheathing their swords. Combat was joined, and their bright blades flashed in the night, as if they wielded the very moonbeams themselves as a weapon, biting into orc flesh. Bevan was high on adrenaline, seeing the world as if in slow motion as he parried a blow from a cleaver with his shield and drove his blade into the unprotected throat of his assailant. It slumped to the ground, gushing black blood.
The standard bearer charged at the massive Orc who had broken the line, his spear level, aimed at its head. The Orc let out a terrible roar, and swung its enormous hammer into the horse’s chest. Both horse and rider were knocked to the ground, the standard bearer thrown through the air as his steed belched blood and convulsed in the dirt. Before he could rise to his feet, the honorless horde swarmed him like jackals, hacking him to pieces with their blades and picks. Seeing this, many of the villagers fled rather than face the Orcs in battle, not realizing that it was pointless. They either fought and died here, or would be hunted like wild game, ending their lives as sport for these animals.
The knights were losing ground, for every Orc they brought down, there were three more to take its place, and they made a fighting retreat back towards the village square, hoping that the narrow streets might make the horde more manageable. Half of their company had been killed by the Orcs, and Bevan had to control his panic, muttering curses and hymns as he fought. It didn’t matter if he died tonight, his corporeal form was merely a temporary vessel, playing host to his incorruptible soul. To die in service to the Gods was the fate and ultimate aspiration of all those who walked the path of Paladin. Bevan was young, and had not seen much of the world, but his immortal soul would outlive it.
One of the beasts broke ranks and charged at him, swinging a mace decorated with pointed spikes. Bevan raised his shield in order to parry the blow, but it was too powerful, the massive impact knocking the shield from his arm. It splashed in the mud, its painted white surface, decorated with the eagle symbolic of his order, stained with filth. The Orc brought the mace back around for a second strike, but it was too heavy, too slow. Bevan stepped in, driving his sword into its belly below the armor that protected its chest, and the monster shuddered, dropping its weapon and falling forward. He stepped out of its path as it landed in the mud, face first. Bevan moved to retrieve his shield, but two more Orcs rushed at him and he had to draw back, closing ranks with the remaining knights.
One of the braver villagers made a futile attempt to engage an Orc, swinging his hoe wildly. Bevan whispered a blessing as he was cut down, barely slowing the creature as it advanced. The Paladins reached the outskirts of the small village, and bunched up, using the dirt paths between the houses to funnel the Orcs. The creatures were filled with bloodlust, or maybe just stupid, and charged the knights regardless, their progress slowed by this new strategy. Even without a leader to rally them, the Paladins were of a singular mind, their training and experience dictating the best course of action.
.... There is more of this story ...