The stench of festering flesh was palpable. It was enough to alert Justino of the mounds of slaughtered orcs on the road well before his armor-clad warhorse plodded around the sparse cluster of trees obscuring his view.
Their rancid green skin was still slick with putrid blood, even the vultures seeming to have passed over the filthy beasts.
This was likely the unit that held up Ellen, however briefly. It certainly seemed like the grisly mark of her handiwork; most of the corpses were clustered together in one spot, which meant that the battle had been short enough such that they didn't have time to flee when the tide turned against them.
And that didn't even begin to account for the numerous arrows that laid embedded in their swollen bodies. Some of their hides sported blackened bronze scorch marks, and the disdainful banner of the Dark Legion normally affixed to the heathenous totem that their fallen standard bearer still clutched in in decaying hands, had been incinerated.
The reeking scent grew even more overpowering as he marched his horse over that patch of blighted gravel. The afternoon heat seared through the narrow slits in his helm, almost seeming to trap the stench inside with a smoldering burn that branded itself into his nostrils.
Savage things. Even in the presence of their dead, it felt as though the air was… polluted, tainted beyond repair.
A sudden squelch and crunch resounded over the desolate path, as one of his mounted soldiers' steeds no doubt trampled over one of their fallen. Justino cast only a brief sideways glance to confirm his observation, noting that a splotch of gore now adorned one of his officers, Sir Garbrand's, silver regalia.
In Justino's own momentary bout of inattentiveness, he guided his horse into a similar situation. He paid the spray of foul viscera against his plating no heed, instead shifting his attention to the rapidly thickening forests to either side of the road.
It was a petty inevitability. The road just happened to be this narrow.
And more importantly, if there were orcs here already, then it wasn't an unlikelihood that there were others about, even this close to Arein's gates.
Nevertheless, the moment he heard the rhythmic, marching clank of Ellen's approaching infantry unit, it wasn't long before he was graced with the muted groans of their discontent. Granted, only two of them had the audacity to verbally express it.
"Damn! That stench! And I was just beginning to like it here… Leave it to Ebbard to ruin a perfectly good stroll in the woods with a hog roast."
"They were all around us. What was I supposed to do, wait for them to stop laughing in the face of your arrows and actually start killing us?"
Their poorly hushed and husky voices were ones that Justino had rather unfortunately grown used to hearing already. He paid them no heed as usual; they were Ellen's officers, and as such it was her responsibility to determine whether their banter was worthy of discipline or not.
His steed lurched ever so slightly as it, this time, took a moment to step over the festering, chainmail-covered carcass of one of the orcs' beastly boar mounts. The beady black eyes of its former rider stared emptily back at his impassive visor from bloated yellow sockets.
"Oh come now, I was just teasing. It's not like they'd smell any better if you didn't char their hides anyway."
"Quiet," snapped Ellen, making no effort to keep her voice her down and to hide the conspicuous murmuring of her officers. It rang out over the clamor of her soldiers, like the sharp scrape of metal on leather that reverberated through the air whenever she drew her needle-thin blade.
Justino, now himself clear of the mire of dead bodies, craned his neck around to fix her and her two officers with a silent glare. He didn't need to say anything, also as always; the imposing blankness of his helmet visor generally expressed his own disapproval well enough. The younger blonde mage, Ebbard, merely averted his blue-eyed gaze, while the notably more rugged and lightly moustached Paltor responded with his usual grin, acting as though nothing was going on.
Well, given the circumstances, they really were doing little more than being a mild nuisance. With Justino's unit moving about in full plate armor on horseback and Ellen's troops sporting heavy metal breastplates and boots, there was little they could do to advance covertly anyways.
And as chafing as he found their lack of professional military conduct, he imagined that stern reprimands from him would do little to change their habits.
With that in mind, Justino returned his gaze to his front, the air around him already seeming to be cleaner the moment the haphazardly strewn about orc bodies on the road behind him disappeared from view.
It wasn't terribly unpleasant, really. He might've even detected the comforting, familiar scent of Northern Pine in the blistering afternoon heat.
Hours passed in their trek through the forests west of Arein, the rays of the sun that pierced the canopy of the trees over them already beginning to dim as it now hung on the distant horizon. Further south, the echoing thumps of scattered war drums formed a broken and disorganized rhythm that thudded in the still evening air.
Justino kept his eyes swiveling across the darkening soil, blinking beneath his helm as he momentarily adjusted to the sudden plummet in lighting.
The jagged lines of aging bark in the tree trunk that had encapsulated his view so as he had watched intently to see if there was indeed a stout orc scout lying in wait behind it, was washed away in a blanket of shadow, the shallow slope of dirt just beyond it flattening out along the banks of darkness.
They couldn't be much farther from the advance base now, he reasoned. They'd already passed by the first natural clearing they discovered when initially searching for a suitable position to set camp at least two hours ago, and even with their movement impeded by the thick density of the trees there couldn't be more than an hour of trekking left.
Still, it would not hurt to have a second say in the matter.
"Sir Garbrand," he called for his officer.
A moment passed as the steady rhythm of clanking armor was broken by the divergent gallops of Garbrand's steed as it carried him over into an amiable conversation range with Justino. The man's grizzly voice echoed throughout the forest with a metallic twang as he spoke from behind a fluted visor.
"How far do you reckon we are from the advance base?"
Sir Garbrand slowed the pace of his horse to that a lumbering plod as he suddenly broke his gaze with Justino, turning his head along the trees and likely searching for any form of landmark he may have committed to memory.
At least, that was what Justino thought the man was doing until his arm shot up, armored hand closed in a firm fist.
Justino immediately reined in his steed and mirrored the gesture to the man closest to him, now watching the treeline intently for whatever it was that had startled Garbrand.
The clank of shuffling soldiers died down in seconds as the column of infantry and mounted knights ground to a halt.
Nary a single word passed between them as they all individually scanned the shadowy forest, each simultaneously waiting for a nearby whisper to point out their unseen foe.
As fate would have it, it was Garbrand's hoarse murmur that drew Justino's attention to what had seemed an innocuous rocky outcrop.
Rocks did not take the form of lumpy green muscle squatting against dirt. Seeming to realize that the armored finger pointing towards it meant that it had been spotted, the orc kneeling amongst the earth leapt up from its perch.
Its stout foot didn't move a single pace before two simultaneous cracks of snapping bowstring split the air like thunder and a pair of arrows pierced the stocky mound of flesh at the back of its neck.
"Damn," he heard Paltor mutter. "Hate it when that happens. Ebbard, who's kill do you say that was?"
"Hold fast," ordered Justino with a booming voice.
That orc had clearly been watching them for some time now. The question of course was, was it merely a scout, or was it part of a larger unit, lying in wait?
That question was answered easily enough as another arrow zipped through the air, and was met with a hoarse, basso roar of pain.
"What? Come on El, we both know you would've taken that last one as your own-"
All at once, it seemed as though the very earth around them had arisen. They leapt up from the shadowy murk of the darkened soil, tongues bellowing with cries of beastly rage.
For a moment, the veritable horde of orcs was content to stand in their encirclement of the Ecclesian forces, wallowing in their fury-fuelled stupor.
That moment was all Justino needed to make his decision. His sword was already raised, his horse already rearing on its legs under his reins when he bellowed out but a simple order.
"Charge! For the glory of Ecclesia!"
"For the glory of Ecclesia! Death to the pagans!"
"Death to the pagans!"
"Death to the pagans!"
The cry sounded across their lines as they swiftly formed ranks and charged.
The thunderous crashing of galloping hooves filled Justino's enclosed helm as he and his knights surged up forth, their spotless long blades angled forwards and scything through the clouds of dust and dirt churned up by their mounts.
The orcs had shaken themselves loose of their pre-battle frenzy, but in their headstrong folly had opted to meet the Ecclesian charge with one of their own. Their murky silhouettes approached rapidly, and within seconds Justino saw the dark melt away to reveal their snarling, porcine maws.
"Don't look back!" Shouted Ellen at the forefront of her own troops, the voice struggling to be heard in the rattling of Justino's helm. "Fear not, and fight well!"
Justino didn't need to waste such words on his men; he didn't have the time to.
Within seconds of seeing their foe fully exposed, he felt the tip of his blade crash into a thick wall of corded muscle. The entire length of his armored arm reverberated with the splitting force of the impact, his bicep straining as he immediately ripped the sword back out in a spray of viscera.
He was rewarded with a pained squeal that was quickly silenced as his mount trampled over the sundered orc, carrying his repositioned blade careening into the slobbering jowls of the one behind it.
Their blasphemous cries for blood morphed into roars of pain all along the narrow front to the crashing melody of the Ecclesian cavalry charge.
The thundering cacophony of blades shearing through tainted flesh and hooves crushing the bones left behind carried him through the horde, his sword dipping down and slicing back up in a sea of dark red blood.
In mere seconds, he broke through the orc lines with a final squelch echoing out beneath his horse, all around him, his own knights emerging from the swirling cloud of clotting blood in a similarly violent flourish.
Justino wasted no time in in jerking his mount around to the side, projecting his orders out to his knights over the growing din of the whirlwind melee behind them.
"Cavalry! Form up on my flanks, closed position!"
The thick trees would make it difficult to maneuver around to the enemy flank in a standard formation. That, and considering the relative density of their now-organized opponents they would need the additional weight of multiple horsemen along one charging vector.
They spent no time questioning or even verbally acknowledging his order, immediately surging to take positions behind and beside him as their horses rumbled off into the woods.
The clashing of steel on crude iron did not fade out at all as they galloped away from the embroiling battle that their footsoldier comrades were caught in, if anything, it only seemed to intensify as the orcs brought the weight of their numbers to bear.
They did not need to be told to swivel around again, as they wordlessly followed Justino's lead like a tide of bloodied silver armor. They flowed through the forest, slipping between the craggy gaps between the trees, leaping effortlessly over the uneven earth as they now ran parallel to the swelling, abhorrent masses of orcs.
Behind them, a hellish orange beacon flared in the darkness, as a searing wave of The Lord's wrath descended upon the godless beasts in a torrent of damning fire. He could hear their wailing shrieks of agony, even as his horse lurched about again and brought him and his men facing directly into the churning flank of the enemy force.
They surged over the fertile soil as a single entity, a mass of impenetrable steel, a hammer, a weapon of holy war wielded by God itself. They lowered swords as one, braced themselves in their bloodied armor, and brought that hammer smashing down upon the heathens.
The bloated blight of pagan orcs crumpled as surely as the skulls of those they trampled beneath their horses, their bones cracking, rounded stomachs and thick limbs splitting under the wrath of the righteous.
Another flare of fire graced them, and out of the swirling inferno came great tendrils of flame that lashed out at the stragglers left in the wake of their ever thundering charge.
Justino caught a glimpse of his current foe's snarl in the orange limelight, as he dragged a jagged gash across its scarred chest.
The flames flared into the midst of the orcs again, like a great forge heating the metal before the hammer struck.
They were the hammer- Ellen and her men was the anvil.
And the orcs, for all their initial numerical advantage, had been trampled and scorched and speared down to one final slab of iron that lay molten and flat against the anvil.
For all it was worth though, by the time that the hammer finally struck, most of the orcs had already melted away in the searing flame.
"You think they were looking for us?"
Justino didn't immediately answer Garbrand's prompt, pondering over that himself as he watched Ellen hoist the bloody corpse of one of her soldiers over her pauldron, her own face streaked with dirt and blood and straining with exhaustion.
And in this instance, unfortunately inevitable ones considering the odds they had been faced with.
"It's not unlikely. The elves already know we're here, after all."
A grim silence fell over the patch of seared land after that, as Ellen and her troops milled about in a battered conglomeration of chafing metal and armor as they set about to burying their dead someplace away from the foulness of the fallen orcs.
He allowed them to do so without interruption, even as the sun set and left them in darkness.
One of the base patrols had found them already; that unit of soldiers, still clothed in relatively fresh chainmail stood in both silent awe and horror behind Justino's knights as they gazed upon the carnage wrought by just one simple skirmish.
All things considered, that patrol was fortunate that they had come after the battle. They would've likely panicked and been destroyed in seconds had they been caught in the brunt of the offensive.
Justino could only pray that they would be ready when they were needed, because the battle for Arein would be far worse than this.