It had fallen during the early hours of the morning before the first fingers of light touched the sky. Some of the tents were surrounded by the stuff, at least a foot high, and deeper in places. The trees shivered under the weight of the white, heavy dusting, and as the men made their way through the woods, sizeable dumps of snow would fall from the trees, crashing into them. Any traps that had been set beforehand were ruined, even the iron bear traps had been set off under the weight of winter’s blanket.
Travel had slowed down, made difficult, especially amongst the trees where the undergrowth had been flattened, burying obstacles and pitfalls. One of the squires had tripped over a buried log and broken his arm. The medic team had been able to set the limb and bind it, but suffering anymore accidents like that was going to shatter the group's morale.
“Your orders, Warden?”
Malcolm snapped out of his daydream and looked across at the captain that had questioned him. Murphy Webb stood with his arms folded, still unconvinced that Malcolm was the man to lead them no doubt. “We send the skyriders up with the oil Captain Coat’s men collected last eve. They make the drop, our archers come in, and once their camp is burning we pick them off from a distance.
“You said minimal casualties,” Murphy reminded him.
“And I stand by that,” Malcolm assured the man, “you forget too quickly that these men were once wearing the same cloaks as us. They know the Iron Hand’s terms of surrender. Any man or woman face down in the snow with their hands behind they head is not to be harmed.”
Murphy snorted. “You think they will honour a code? You're dreaming if you think these men have any honour.”
“It matters not what they have, we have to live with ourselves after this,” Nathan Coats spoke up.
Then you'll be the first to die,” Murphy scoffed.
Malcolm scolded the captain with a look. “Webb you and your men will take the east side along with Stone and Oswald’s units. Henderson, I want you, Whitelock, and Coats to take the north. Remain hidden but make sure your archers are ready, they are bound to come towards you, away from the mountains at their backs to the south. Burhan, once you've made the airdrop, land at the foot of the mountains and sweep north. You will be closest to their encampment, and the brothers Morgan and Ashley Radon will be waiting for you there. Steele, Beaujeu, you and your men are with me, and we attack from the west. They know the woods this way, so it's likely some of them will foldback. I don't want any heroes, you stick to the plan, and if you're forced to retreat, use the smoke salt, it works in water and snow and will put up a wall they won't be able to follow you through. All front men should have tower shields, that goes for everyone!”
The warden was met with a collective ‘yes, Ser!’ and a less than enthusiastic, “you're the boss,” from Murphy.
The men went their separate ways, their departures staggered throughout the morning to give all of the individual units time to get into position. Their scouts remained scattered about the trees in the makeshift lookouts they had built and disguised amongst the tall branches, and enough men, women, and squires remained in camp to make sure they weren't leaving the place empty. Malcolm didn't want to return after a hard day's battle, or fingers crossed, an easy arrest, only to find that the camp and their belongings had been destroyed. The stockades would keep them safe as long as enough of them still remember how to shoot.
“Atashi,” it was now the eighth break, and Malcolm’s team was ready to move out. Benjamin Beaujeu was helping the last of his men gear up, and Gregory Steele was briefing his ranged fighters. “I need you to lead the way through the snow in those woods,” Malcolm cornered the half-man, “you're the heaviest, and I suspect you’ll be able to clear a path for the rest of us, I'll be right behind you,” the warden promised, lifting Atashi’s shield towards him.
He looked around for Kylar then and his new chemical expert, Padraig. He hoped the pair had more sense than to drag their women along with them. There was only room for trusted and trained fighters on this expedition. “Kylar, time to put that crossbow of yours to good use,” Malcolm smiled, “you're with me, in fact,” he paused, “you're with him,” Malcolm gestured to Padraig, who as he understood had very little formal training when it came to combat. “This man and his things are important, I want you to keep him safe at all times. Come, it's time to get going.”
Malcolm gave the signal for their group to move out, but before following, wandered over to Elyna and her team of skyriders; she would be the last to leave with the shortest distance to travel. Malcolm stood next to the woman and waited until those near them were out of earshot. “Have a safe flight today, captain. Don't let any of your crew get too low, and as soon as the drop has been made, I want you up in the clouds and heading for those mountains to offer support to the Radon brothers. There are none quite as good as them with a shield.”
The warden knelt down to inspect the swollen goat stomachs they had tied off and filled with a highly flammable, black oil. Most of them were bound to explode on impact, and the archers with their fiery arrows would take care of the rest. He glanced either side of him and stood up in front of Elyna. “Return to me,” he smiled warmly, and raised his voice, “in one piece! That's an order, captain!” Malcolm turned towards the woods and followed after his troops then without a backwards glance.