Small Packages: Stones and Bones
Jared’s left knee thudded with a dull ache that usually indicated an approaching storm. The throbbing pain of that knee would act as a baseline, a lifetime of battles had made his body a symphony of aches and pains when the weather was about to turn. Each note was a reminder of a battle won, some by a minute detail and a little luck. The pains served as reminders of the best and worst moments in his heroic life.
Jared’s star-stone rapier was now sheathed in a cane, serving double duty, weapon and support. His boot still housed to his returning dagger won off a gnoll assassin, he could summon it to hand as an act of will. Defiance, his signature mace, was slung across the belt of his squire, along with his pack and most of his wands and potions.
The boy was a mixed blood, human and halfling, and the lad and had all of his father’s strength, but little to no cunning. What Jared found troubling was that he had trouble remembering the boy’s name. No the lad was half human and a genius next to his true father, Jared admonished himself for getting forgetful.
Briar Hills had spared no expense in keeping their most famous hero propped up. Jared wore a belt that enhanced all of his physical attributes and a circlet for his mind. He had a magical hat that could make him look however he pleased, and several magical protective items. What they couldn’t do for Jared was restore the arrogant confidence of his youth or bring back the brave men he once led.
The Starstone mercenary company lived on and had grown to two hundred irregulars and fifty auxiliaries. Jared had seen to each recruitment and subsequent training. Each was trained in precision striking and had a weapon made from the meteor. They were an elite force but their true mettle had never been tested these past thirty years.
Jared would trade the lot of them for the heroic bakers dozen spearmen he once led. Those men were the kind of warriors that would challenge hell with a smile and come out better for it. But they were gone, just like their sergeant, Sergan Daine.
Orcs began training at age seven and one in three of them never lived to adulthood and military service which was mandatory for five years on reaching their majority. They then policed a population that largely despised and occasionally tried to murder them. They had conquered all but three far flung corners of the northern continent, and they held those three nations to the stalemate of a long siege.
If the orcs training was all there was to them, Jared Swift was confident he’d have ended their empire thirty years ago. For the second time in twenty years the orc empire sent a true invasion force to conquer Briar Hills, using Red Keel across the bay as a staging point. Jared beat them in the air by using a rusting grasp spell channeled through bird familiars to rust open their bomb bays early and bolts of magical lightning to ignite the sky ships’ alchemical payloads. They then tried landing forces onto the famous black sand beaches. Jared had spent the previous evening mixing tar into those sands, the screams of the landing parties still haunted his dreams at times.
The battles while costly to the orcs were not the true campaign though. Jared had sown the seeds of a hundred revolutions with spies, instigating bards, hidden weapon and supply caches, and a variety of safe havens all networked with a secret mail service. Every attempt to keep their invasion forces supplied was either robbed or destroyed. The wild fire plan predicted the orcs would remain stubborn and start rationing their empire’s citizenry to keep their invasion on. Such an action would have set in motion a series of revolts, riots, protests, and assassination attempts. The orcs would have had to scramble troops everywhere and their entire house of cards would have crashed. In the end they backed out the invasion force and actually started increasing social aid programs.
An entire human generation has grown up as a permanent merchant class, well fed, educated, and with steady work. Jared suspected the orcs could invade now without risking anything, the embers of revolution had all but died out to cold ash. Only the humans had the population numbers to challenge orc rule, and they were a complacent bunch at best.
The boy’s name came back to Jared in that moment, along with a terrifying realization. The boy was named Valen after Jared’s older brother who died a slave. He was a bastard boy from one of the men he dismissed from the mercenary company on the grounds that he was too stupid to follow orders. Jared adopted the boy and he was the third he had adopted. The boy wasn’t exactly a genius but wise beyond his years and a fair monk.
Forgetting his adoptive son was troubling indeed, if he were to lose his mind then Briar Hills was about to be without it’s general. If Jared was right about the reports he was reading, Briar Hills was going to need a general again and soon. More importantly Briar Hills was in desperate need of more allies that only the southern continent could provide.
Jared began his stretching routine. He’d put Valen through his paces today, pain or no. The very thought made Jared smile a smile his enemies had grown to fear, it was a smile he only wore when he was properly motivated to fight.