I hate this place. This life. The last four years I have spent my time devoting myself to killing those who seek to steal my life, my honour and my country. I have killed more than I wish to remember, and their blood stains my hands, my conscience, my spirit for all eternity, and that is something I shall never forgive my enemies for, ever. I have stared those who aid death willingly in the eye over and over, and I have rarely witnessed remorse or regret in those eyes, and with their dying breaths they have all pledged their hearts to their leader, he who I despise with all my heart, he who has brought such strife upon my country, and my people. Yesterday I killed a boy, who could have been no older than fourteen. I killed him with one blow of my sword, and I hate myself for it, even though he died cursing my country. One so young should never know such hatred, but that is the nature of war I suppose.
Darkness had fallen hours before. The icy cold breeze nipped bitterly at our exposed skin. My men huddled together in the trench, faces tight with hunger, ankle-deep in muddy rain.
My expression, however, was a mask of calm. Or at least I hoped it was. Though I shivered in the chill like the rest, my large, dark hand was clasped firmly around the hilt of my sword. I was ready.
My eyes darted over the edge of the trench, and I tilted my chin in a signal to my trusted deputy. Despite the wind overhead that hissed like a wounded cat, despite the rain that seemed to sting their eyes, the troops were going into battle tonight.
There were ten soldiers following me that eve. Ten young, handsome men. Four of them had wives. Three of them had children. One was barely old enough to hold his sword properly, but the army had passed that over, in dire need of assistance.
Ten of them, with eyes now hardened from the horrors of battle, waited in the dark for Captain Darien’s words.
‘Men…’ I made my best efforts to make even my whispered words commanding and clear, ‘we must move. Hands on your weaponry, and only upon my signal.’
As I raised the bamboo whistle to my cold, chapped lips, I breathed a silent prayer for their ambush.
Dimanti, my lord, please save us, and the souls of these young men.
And forgive me, too.
The whistle sliced through the chilled night air. The ten young men gave their cries and surged forward. Their cries were answered with yells, and I felt my blood run cold. The enemy had expected us.
This hardened leader’s heart seemed to turn into paste.
I took a breath, determined not to wince or falter. I had to lead, lead by example, even if my heart felt like dust. There we were, 10 men and their foolish leader, on what must have been surely a suicidal mission. There was no time to go back, no time to retreat. We must fight or die. I did not want to die that night, as I am sure nor did any of my men.
I broke forward, and that rush, that rush that always took a hold of me just as battle broke out, gripped me without restraint. An intense feeling of something else, a sordid combination of excitement, exhilaration, and, most of all, fear. Sword in hand, I ran until we met those bastards, and then I broke away, lashing out at the first man I saw, cutting through his flimsy armour, and into his flesh. The screams of the conflict were already echoing around the confined camp that intelligence had discovered only hours before hand, and I turned to my left, my sword cutting through air before it crunched sickeningly against the skull of a stranger, grey brain matter spraying everywhere as his skull caved in like a burst pig’s bladder.
It had been my decision to strike, however. I had been so certain that we could take them by surprise. Cut them down while they had slept. At least, that had been the plan.
I turned away, wiping the gore from my face with the back of my wrist, and clashed swords with another enemy. Cries all around me vibrated in my ears, and as metal met metal for a second time, my hands shook from the impact his blow made. I adjusted the angle of my sword and quickly slid it across his chest, more blood erupting from his wound as he fell backwards onto the ground, crashing in a scatter of blood and earth. I span just as another of the enemy attempted to creep upon me, and nicked his face with my blade. He glared at me enraged, his eyes blazing as he launched himself towards me, his sword raised, straight upon my own outstretched blade. I lifted one boot and pushed his body from my sword, which was soaked now in the mess of combat, and turned to see if there were any of my fellow comrades I could aid. There were so many of them, and so few of us…I could barely make out anyone in the melee…
I inwardly cursed myself bitterly, we had no chance. What had I been thinking? Buoyed by victory after victory, I had begun to think myself and my men invincible. Only now did I realise how wrong I had been. But I had realised my error to late, and now we were paying. They were paying. Those ten brave volunteers, men I had fought and drank beside, men whom I trusted implicitly. They had trusted me, their captain, and they had been the ten who had raised their hands without hesitation when I had voiced my plan of action.
I suddenly spotted the shining silver armour, the blue and white tabard of a comrade, and rushed towards him, or rather at another of the enemy who was charging towards him. I knew I’d never reach him in time. Making a snap decision, I loosened my grip on my sword and pitched my arm back, before hurling my sword with surprising accuracy into the back of the unaware attacker. He stood straight as the sword impaled into his back, wavered for a second, then crashed earthwards. I didn’t wait a second longer, realising I was now twice as vulnerable as I had been, and I whipped my dagger from my belt, before plunging it into the stomach of another who had crunched unstealthily up behind me. Before he fell, I grabbed his sword, and plunged back into the brutality of the battle. There I was confronted with yet another of the enemy, one who looked me in the eye as our swords met, a permanent smirk upon his lip, and he lunged at me, missing by the smallest of fractions, while I cut the sword from his hand. His immediate arrogance dissolved, but I never saw fear in his eyes, not even as I drew my sword across his belly. He stood quivering for a moment, before someone’s sword connected with his skull, sending him to the ground quicker than a boulder would fall to earth. The blood that burst from his skull showered me in the face, and I quickly wiped it away, spitting any of the left over residue away in disgust. My back suddenly met with the back of another, and I whirled on both feet, my sword raised, only for me to cease short of the mark as I met one of my own men. "Reece!" I greeted, still managing to crack a grin despite the surroundings. His youthful, dark face was streaked with blood, as was his armour, but he returned the greeting. He quickly disposed of yet another enemy, and spoke to me as I fought another.
"You’ve managed to keep yourself alive I see!" I shouted. He nodded in reply.
"Yes!" he called back, as I sliced my sword across the neck of another man.
"Make sure you keep it that way!" I reminded as he stepped away and back into the thick of the fighting.
"And you the same!" he called, turning to deflect another aimed blow towards him. I was not to know then, but that was the last time I would see Reece, or any other of my comrades that night for that matter, alive.
As I ran to face another foe, I stumbled awkwardly, slipping in the mud, falling to the floor. I looked up, fear gripping my heart as a shadow loomed over me and I quickly put up my sword, grasping it with my free hand across my body. My whole body shook as my enemy’s weapon hit it. I skidded back on all fours, trying to stand, when I felt a pain as sharp as fire slide across my left knee. My eyes met his, and he sneered as I fell back to the floor, my forehead creased in agony as the hot licking fingers of pain stretched throughout my entire left thigh and up into my left side. I let out a gasp of pain, and pure, cold fear seized me as my foe stood over me, preparing to deal what would surely be a fatal blow. Summoning every ounce of strength and will I had left, I managed to roll away, just as his sword plunged into the mud, sending a spray of water and dirt up into the air. My attacker let out a snarl as I managed to pull myself up onto my knees, one hand clasping my wounded leg, the other my sword.
"Time to die!" raged my attacker, swinging his sword clumsily towards me. I shook my head, and swang my own sword, crashing it against his, the pain that shot through my leg was like nothing I’d ever even imagined experiencing. But my strike was as true as its intention, and as my would be killer looked at me, I saw the whites of his eyes as he realised the tables had been turned.
"We all die sometime," I agreed, before lunging forward and killing him by plunging my weapon deep into his chest. He staggered backwards, and I turned before he fell, searching for the thinnest route of bodies from which I could escape. I looked down at my leg, and the blood that had soaked the hand that held it. Perspiration streamed down my brow and neck freely now, so much so that I actually noticed it. I somehow managed to drag myself away from the thick of the main combat, where I fell and let out another gasp, my breaths now ragged. I winced as bile slid up my throat, and I spat it out in disgust, laying down my sword. I ran one hand over my face, and risked another look at my leg, and shuddered as I saw my own blood dripping from the wound. I let out a sigh, and ripped a broad length of fabric from my cloak, and began to wrap it as best I could around the wound. I pulled it tight, and bound it together, before taking a deep breath and grabbing my sword. It was when I tried to stand again, that I realised something was seriously wrong. I collapsed back to the ground, pain overcoming me. I thought I was dying, and as the edges of my vision began to blur, and the sounds of battle became muted and dimmed in my ringing ears, I tried to utter one last prayer to the Gods…
As fate would have it, I did not die that night. Why the Gods spared me to live with this guilt is something beyond my own mortal comprehension. But those ten, young, strong men; those husbands and fathers and lovers and brothers and sons, those men whose lives before that cursed eve, before this damn war, had held so much promise, those ten men never saw the sun rise again.
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