Nathaniel's breath steamed into the crisp winter air in front of him, as did that of the other men around him. Behind, the lights of Cerulean could vaguely be seen in the distance, a days trek away. Ahead lay their mission, entrusted to them by Saffronion high command.
His grip tightened on the short-bow in his grasp, more for comfort rather than the fact they were deep in hostile territory. The glint of steel surrounded him, men he would die for, and men who would die for him. They were rangers, pride of Celadon, fiercest warriors in Kanto, masters of stealth, sabotage and ambush. With spear or bow, knife or sword, they could kill any human, any pokémon.
But when the time had come, it had not been enough. Not enough when the Legions of Saffron came forth, intent on conquering their smaller neighbour, intent on bringing them into the Empire. For 6 months, the war raged, until the Celadonion royal family lay dead or captured, its armies destroyed or scattered, the remnants pressed into service of their new Imperial masters, their families held hostage to ensure their loyalty.
Nathaniel shook his head, clearing himself of these thoughts. It did no good to reflect on the past, and if he didn't keep his head in the present he was likely to lose it. The band pushed forward, through the wooded areas that separated the fortress from the city. Their was no real formation to them, they scattered around the countryside, shadows between tree-trunks, invisible to anyone but their brothers.
Ahead a call was whispered down the line, a call to hold position and take camp until nightfall. Wearily, Nathaniel sat himself down, and pulled a small lump bread out of his small pack, keeping his hunger at bay. Around him, other rangers did the same thing.
“Tulon, get up here.”
Getting off his backside, Nathaniel moved to the head of the group, passing past the sights of men of war, soldiers sharpening an array of weapons in preparation for the bloody work that was to come when the moon bathed the world in her ethereal light.
As he reached the spot where the captain had halted the ranger's, he heard angry voices, one was the captain's whilst the other was young, a voice who Nathaniel didn't recognise, which was strange as he knew every man who he fought with.
“I don't care what you say Tarnag, I'm in command here, no matter what the Elders at your precious temple told you.”
The Captain was a large man of strong build and solid heart. He made the best of their situation and cared little for the needs of Saffron and more about keeping his own men alive. His forearms were bare, showing strong muscles criss-crossed with scars that could only have come from battle. The rest of his body was covered with hardened leather armour, designed to protect its wearer whilst giving maximum mobility. His face was deep set, the lower half covered with a thick brown beard, whereas the top was completely bald, giving him and odd look. As he saw Nathaniel approaching, his expression softened slightly.
“Good Tulon, your here,” spoke the Captain in his gravely tones, “tonight it will be you and Garen going over the walls to open the postern gate for us.”
Nathaniel nodded. Whilst it was a great sign of trust to be going over first, the chances of him getting out unscathed had just significantly dropped. It wasn't that he was afraid, it was that he didn't want to let his brothers down by getting injured behind enemy lines.
Beside them, a new player entered the conversation.
Nathaniel blinked in surprise, turning to see who would question the Captain's orders. When he saw who stood behind him, half cloaked in the shade of a nearby tree Nathaniel took an involuntary step back. The Tamer.
The Tamer was younger than him, if Nathaniel had to guess he'd put his age at about sixteen, four years his younger, though he spoke with a wisdom beyond his years. He was not clothed in the battle ready fatigues like the rangers were, but instead in robes covered his body, robes of a bright blue which fell to knee height. His feet were clad in high leather boots, the brown clashing horribly with the rest of his attire. But it was not his clothing that scared Nathaniel, it was his eyes. They were blue, but they were too blue, too bright, standing out in the fading sunlight like torches, burning into his very soul, a gateway into realm of beast's and demons.
“My Pidgeot and I could get into that fortress in a flash, obtain,” he paused, looking at Nathaniel, “the package, and be out in the space of five minutes. Why you were sent along is a matter of protocol.”
The Captain crossed his arms, staring intently at the Tamer. “We were sent along boy, because we are the finest troops in the fucking Empire, pride of Celadon. Whereas you, you are little more than a child playing at war with a big bird.”
Nathaniel gulped, unsure of whether he should be here. His palms were sweaty, he knew he should leave, but he wanted to see how this would unfold.
Tarnag bristled at being addressed in such a manner. “You can't speak to me like that, I am...” he started before the Captain cut him off.
“You are a boy,” he growled, “if it wasn't for your gift, or should I say your curse, you wouldn't even be worth your weight in Tauros shit. Now, I am in command here. My men will scale the walls. My men will obtain the package, and they will do so without. Your. Help. You will not interfere, because if that Pidgeot turns up, you will have signed a death sentence for all of us, as lets face it, their not exactly native to the area, are they?”
Tarnag bowed his head, “As you say Bran.” and left the area, back to his own belongings.
“It's Captain to scum like you” Bran growled menacingly as the Tamer skulked away.
“Erm, Captain?” Nathaniel asked.
“Yes Tulon?” The Captain asked whilst rubbing his eyes with his hand. It had been a long march on them all.
“Why is there a Tamer with us? Couldn't we have done this without one?”
“Because he was commanded to be with us. High Command's orders” The Captain said simply, “Now be ready for nightfall, make your last preparations and inform Garen that he's going with you.”
Bowing, Nathaniel backed off, looking round the camp for his comrade who would be facing death with him. Through the camp he looked, but it appeared that Garen was in his normal haunt toward the left flank. Around the camp, the atmosphere was tense, as the men knew in the next few hours they would be in combat, and no matter how long they had been fighting, the wait before the battle was always a harrowing experience.
Within a minute, Nathaniel has reached the left flank of the camp where he found Garen, keening the edge of his greatsword with a whetstone. It didn't matter how many times he saw him, Nathaniel was always taken aback by Garen's size. He towered over most men, and was able to wield his greatsword as a normal man would a longsword. His whole body was covered in a thick black hair, adding even more ferocity to his appearance.
Sitting next to him, Nathaniel watched entranced, listening to the smooth sound of whetstone over steel. It took a while before Garen noticed him, as focused that he was on his task.
“Sorry Nathaniel,” he said, “I didn't see you pop up.” His voice was slow and thick. Many of the men thought he had taken a blow to the head in his youth as, to be honest, he wasn't the sharpest sword in the armoury. Still, he fought as well as any man here, and had proved his worth countless times in combat.
“We're going first.” Nathaniel told him.
“Huh? What do you mean by that?” replied Garen, who resumed sharpening his sword.
“The wall Garen.” Nathaniel spoke slowly, “We're going over first. The Captain's entrusted us to get over and open up the side gate.”
Garen scratched his head, and Nathaniel could see his bushy eyebrows contract in what he interpreted as a frown. “If you say so Nathaniel, just give me a shout when it's time to go.”
Nathaniel nodded and strolled back to where he had left his own gear, but before sorting out he veered slightly out of the camp to a nearby stream, intent on filling up his supplies whilst he still had a chance.
As he reached the stream Nathaniel filled up his waterskin and noted his reflection shimmering on the surface of the water. It was strange how little he had changed over the last five years, his face remained its same youthful appearance. No matter how hard he tried, he could not grow a beard it seemed. His hair had grown shaggy and wild, a shoulder length mess of brown. His eye's peered back curiously at him, deep blue. Picking up his waterskin, now full, he took the small walk back to camp to survey his equipment.
Wall scaling was a delicate task, and many a man had died doing it. Whilst Nathaniel had done it before, the idea of climbing a slick stone wall, with foes at the precipice, was not an idea that any man looked forward to. The task was made even more arduous by the fact that the castle was by the sea, which would most likely leave the wall wet and slippery.
Laying out his kit, Nathaniel took only what would be necessary. A leafbladed short spear, about five and a half foot in length would be his primary weapon, being able to keep swordsmen at a comfortable range. His bow came without a thought, as did a pair of daggers stored on his lower back, in case things got really close. His armour was leather, tinged with green, all insignia's removed, no trace of the purple circle of the Empire.
The Empire which had enslaved his people and pressed him into a war that wasn't his own...
Night fall came quickly, bringing with it the embracing darkness that the rangers were waiting for. The whole platoon crept through the forest, the lights of the distant fortress blazing out across Cerulean Cape, their goal residing behind its walls.
The gap between the edge of the trees and the high stone walls was little over a hundred metres Nathaniel guessed, and he gripped his weapons tightly, waiting for the signal. Around him, the ranger's slipped between the trees, their eyes flashing intently as they surveyed the area.
Next to him stood Garen, clad in his own leather armour, a black cloak thrown over his shoulders, his greatsword stretching down his back. Seeing Nathaniel, he smiled a toothy grin and gave him a thumbs up. At least someone was looking forward to this.
Inside Nathaniel's stomach was churning. This was by far the biggest fortress they had attempted to infiltrate, and if things went wrong there would be no help for the isolated rangers, no legion to back them up. They were nothing but expendable.
A low whistle was heard and Nathaniel gulped. The signal. Wrapping his cloak around himself, he began to move forward, following the contours of the land, sticking close to shrubs and bushes as much as possible. Behind him, he knew Garen would be doing the same thing. From the top of the walls, they would be little more but shadows in the darkness.
It took little over a minute before the pair reached the walls. Nathaniel felt the stone, it was cold and slick to the touch, remnants of the sea spray clinging to it, making their job that much more difficult. Checking all his weapons were secure, he nodded to Garen and began to climb.
If the wall was damp at the bottom, it was nothing compared to the higher sections. Every step, every handhold made Nathaniel feel he was going to slip. Don't look down he told himself, don't look down and you'll be fine, just another mission. The lip of the battlements was but ten metres away now, and both of the rangers froze. Voices.
Two men Nathaniel guessed, on patrol. As quietly as he could, he slid a hand around his back, the other firmly gripped on the wall, and pulled out one of his daggers, placing the blade in his mouth. The cold steel bit into his lips, uncomfortable to the touch. Looking across, he saw Garen had done the same thing. He no longer looked relaxed now, he looked deadly serious. Seeing Nathaniel looking over, he nodded and both men climbed the last section of the wall.
Poking his head over, Nathaniel saw the two guardsmen. Their armour was iron mail, with a tunic pulled over the top, emblazoned with the sapphire wave of Cerulean. One had his back to him, the other to Garen. They were in luck, they had come up in an impromptu pincer movement, the men never stood a chance.
With a smooth movement, both rangers jumped the wall, their feet landing as quiet as a ghost. His blade already in hand, Nathaniel grabbed the man's forehead, yanking it back exposing his unarmoured throat. His steel dagger came up, dragging across, and Nathaniel felt it scraping along bone as it sliced through flesh, muscle and sinew. A fountain of blood erupted from the pressure, showering the man's comrade, whose eyes opened in fear as he saw his partner drop. Before he could even utter a sound, Garen had already dealt with him, mirroring Nathaniel's movement.
The two men dropped with a metallic clank as their armour hit the stone work, but by the time this was done, the rest of the garrison wouldn't even notice they were missing. The wall stretched far in either direction, towers jutting out at regular intervals. If a large scale attack was brought here, the besieging forces would undoubtedly take huge losses. Unfortunately, the fortress was designed to keep out an attacking army, not a dedicated small stealth force like the rangers. Leaving the two men where they lay as their own life puddled around them in a crimson mess, the two rangers stalked along the wall intent on finishing their task.
The wall was long and thick, the two rangers crouched low as the moved along, checking each tower as they entered it, wary for any sound of the enemy. In the darkness, they relied just as much on their other senses as they did their sight. The sound of metal boots on stone. The smell of men's sweat and breath all standing out to the attuned rangers. The courtyard stretched out below them, a large diamond shaped opening on the inside of the walls, it's floor cobbled with stone, small out buildings hugging the walls.
The postern gate lay directly below them, little more than a reinforced metal cage on the wall, only open-able from the inside. As the approached the courtyard, they saw it was guarded by four men, armoured from head to toe in chainmail, cruel looking longswords sheathed at their hips. One of the men carried a warhorn on his hip.
Nathaniel gave Garen a nudge and gestured toward the man with the horn, then brought his finger across his throat. The large man nodded, and began creeping along the shadow of the wall, drawing his greatsword, the sound muffled by the oiled sheath, the glint of the steel hidden by soot from a camp fire.
As Garen moved across toward the group of men, Nathaniel drew his bow and notched an arrow, aiming directly for the horn carrier. If the man managed to blow the horn, then it would be over, and they would have nothing to look forward to but a painful death.
Garen struck fast decapitating the first man in a shower of blood. For a large man, he moved with a practised grace, and artist with his weapon. As the other guards turned, Nathaniel loosed his arrow, impaling the horn bearers neck, removing any chance of a call to the rest of the garrison. Garen twisted under a heavy blow from one of the other guards, but his greatsword flashed in the torchlight, blood running down its width as he cut the man from shoulder to waist. The final guard tried to run, but Nathaniel had already re-notched, so his arrow brought him down with ease, the twang of the bow string music to the ranger's ears.
Moving forward, Garen had already looted the key off one of the corpses and was making about opening the gate. Again, Nathaniel notched another arrow, this time wrapping the tip in cloth before setting it alight on a nearby torch. Aiming almost vertically, he loosed the arrow, summoning the rest of the rangers to the keep.
Turning around, Nathaniel looked at his feet, at the fallen guardsmen that lay clustered around the gate. One of them stirred, an arrow protruding from his throat. The man was clearly in pain, his eyes wide as he looked up at the two rangers standing above him. He tried to scramble back, blood now pouring from his throat and mouth now, his hand reaching for the horn at his hip. He slipped in the blood on the floor, and Nathaniel stepped forward, dagger in hand.
“Rest now.” he told the man as he slipped his dagger into his chest. The man looked up at him, confusion on his face, “Go and rest with your fallen brothers, be embraced by your ancestors. Be at peace.”
The man died quickly. Garen looked down at Nathaniel and patted him on the soldier, comforting the younger soldier. They both knew it was the right thing to do, but it didn't make them feel easier about it. These men hadn't done anything wrong, they were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Standing up, Nathaniel looked back into the courtyard and his heart froze in his chest. A soldier was looking straight at the pair of them, his hand scrambling for a horn. Nathaniel raised his bow, but was too slow.
The horn echoed around the castle, Nathaniel's arrow cut the sound off mid blast, felling the soldier, but the damage was done. Voices echoed around around the keep.
“INTRUDERS IN THE COURTYARD! TO ARMS MEN OF CERULEAN! TO ARMS!”
So much for a stealth mission.