As the last remnants of sunlight drained from the world and night crept upon the camp, the cold seeped into each man, undeterred by the fledgling fire burning between the tents. Since leaving the shack with Baymark, two men had died over the fifty miles they’d covered. Ash, one of the officers from Lorrand’s party, had gone down in an ambush by three rebels who’d obviously not learnt that the war was over. The tradition was to give good men good burials, but Ash had never been a particularly good man, nor did they have the time to delay if they hoped to reach the Northern Host by the new moon.
Later that day, one of Baymark’s guards had fallen from his horse. Upon inspection, he’d been dead for hours, held onto his horse by a sleeve tangled around some ropes. When they came loose so did he, rendering another of their party dead. No swords or blood, just endless cold had killed him. As they had began to say some words for him, in the tradition of the Southerners, they’d realised no one knew his name. In the end they took his coat and furs along with supplies, restocked Lorrand with a new sword to replace one he’d lost in the ambush and threw him off the ridge. He could at least feed the wolves that way.
Eventually night settled, leaving the flames as naught but a scar in the black canvas. The men fell asleep one by one, leaving only Vaygrand and Lorrand sat there still. Both were silent, with Lorrand staring into the flickering light and Vaygrand sharpening his sword. Seemed he was never without a whetstone. For a good hour they sat that way, time measured by the scraping of the blade. At some point between dusk and dawn, when the metal was as sharp as it would ever be, Vaygrand cursed wearily and sheathed the weapon.
Seemed him and Lorrand had lost their damned grudge since they’d been rescued. Funny thing, how a little bit of respect can turn an enemy into a friend. Problem was, it worked the other way as well. Baymark was wrapped in blankets and snoring loudly, his guard sprawled on the naked ground with an empty pipe in his hand. Lorrand supposed he’d best learn his name when he woke. After all, who knew which of them would be the next to be buried and he was damned if he was losing another nameless soldier.
‘Warm night at least,’ he said. It was a rare thing to talk to Vaygrand without arguing about some petty thing or another, but even that was preferable to the crushing boredom of his mind. ‘I bet those Southerners think this is cold.’
‘I guess they would,’ he replied, shaking the snow out of his short, black hair, ‘they’ve probably never seen snow before. Hardly their fault where they were born.’
‘Why Vaygrand, you almost sound liberal there. Is your heart softening and letting love out to the world? I always knew there was a poet in you somewhere.’ It’d have to be somewhere very deep, but letting him know wouldn’t have done much good.
‘And you, Lorrand, almost sound like a condescending idiot. Oh wait, you are.’
‘Ah well,’ he sighed, grinning at the soldier, ‘seems you’ve not changed that much. Better the devil you know, anyway.’
‘You calling me Satan, you mad old bastard? Careful, the church will have your head off for that blasphemy!’ he guffawed, the laughter spreading to Lorrand like a virus, cracking his frown right open.
‘You know what? he said after the tirade of laughter stopped, ‘It’s been so long since we’ve had anything to laugh about, I almost forgot how.’ At that, his smile slipped and his thoughts turned to the past. Turned to lonely nights beyond the mountains after his friends were dead. Turned to the bloodbath during the War of Ice, when the valleys echoed with the screaming of dying men. But most of all, he thought of his house burning, his childhood and dreams lost on a pyre made from the flesh of his family and walls of his ancestors.
‘You’re a general. You can’t afford to laugh. God knows you need to bully your men to keep them in line, even if it breaks your heart.’ As quickly as it had come, the happiness was gone again from the two of them, sucked out by the horrors of the past. Everyone had horrific pasts. Men had to do horrific things to survive nowadays, anyway.
‘I never really had you pinned as having a heart, Vaygrand. You had me fooled.’
‘I have everyone fooled. You still annoy the hell out of me, Lorrand, but you’re one of the few bastards I trust.’ Coming from him, that was a compliment.
‘Nice to have someone trust me. I suppose I trust you as well.’ But only as far as your sword stretches, he thought. Complete trust was a luxury he couldn’t afford. Sad fact, but that was the way of it. Still, it seemed he wasn’t going to be stabbed in the back by him any time soon. ‘What do you think of the latest addition to our stroll through the deadly Wilderness?’
‘Who, this boy from the South? He’s an apathetic idiot with grand delusions of the splendour of warfare and noble warriors, but he knows his stuff. I reckon once he sees a few hundred corpses and forgets his ego, he might make a passable officer. But General? Never.’ As if to mark the moment, Baymark let out a loud burp and rolled to his side, on top of his guard. Lorrand arched an eyebrow at Vaygrand, smirking slightly in the dark. ‘Or maybe he’s hopeless,’ he conceded, draining the last liquid from his bottle.
Morning came, and with it clear skies. The snows passed, leaving the camp nestled between white slopes basking in the winter sun. Over the Eastern mountains, birds wheeled between peaks, while to the West the land dropped away to the great river far below. Winding between pine forests and frozen bluffs, the water made its slow way from the far North to flow to the very heart of civilisation like an artery, earning it the name Lifewater.
Suspended between the earth and the sky, the ridge upon which they sat eating was crushed by silence from every direction. The river’s crashing was lost to the winds and the birds were singing too far away to hear. As it was, the dawn brought an icy paradise for the group. Even after seeing it so many times, even Lorrand was captivated by the beauty of the world from its roof. He’d seen too much red snow and not enough white over the last few years.
‘The Frostpass is… frosty,’ Rarsh said cheerily, ducking out from under the tent and squinting at the vista.
‘That’s why they call it the fucking Frostpass, actually,’ Crow shouted back, winking good-naturedly at his friend. For all the teasing, the two were inseparable.
‘Tea, anyone?’ Baymark ventured, pouring the steaming liquid into ornate cups, fashioned with pale flowers. Vaygrand was staring at them, aghast.
‘You brought cups?’ he asked, with an amazed expression. ‘You brought bloody cups to the Wilderness?’
‘Yes, I did. Do you want any or not?’ he snapped, frowning at Vaygrand as if he was an uncivilised oaf.
‘Sure. But if you’re hoping those things are going back with you in one piece, you have another thing coming.’ Downing the tea in one long, scalding gulp, he threw it on the rocks at his feet, cracking them into pieces.
Leaping up, Baymark pulled his sword out and thrust it in Vaygrands face, waving it around viciously a metre or so away. ‘What the hell do you think you’re doing?’ he screamed, jumping from one leg to the other. If it wasn’t for the fact he had a foot of sharpened steel in his hand pointing at his friend, Lorrand would have found it a comical sight.
‘Put your sword down, kid. You look a right royal cock with it. Perhaps a fork would suit you better, or have you brought any spoons?’ Wincing, Lorrand tried and failed to catch Vaygrand’s eye. It hardly took a hardened fighter to tell there was trouble brewing brewing between the two men.
‘You can’t tell me what to do! I’m your leader, you have to do what I say and I say apologise!’ For a few seconds, Vaygrand said nothing, staring Baymark in the eye.
‘No,’ he said, hardly moving.
‘Fuck you then!’ Baymark shouted, leaping forward. Swinging the sword, it would have chopped into his neck if Vaygrand hadn’t ducked. Pivoting on his heel, he swung a backhand in Vaygrand’s general direction. It collided with the kettle, sending boiling water everywhere, including on his opponent’s exposed back.
‘Shit!’ he screamed, eyes bulging out the front of his head. Like a trigger, the rest of the men burst into action. Baymark’s guard came to his aid, drawing a longsword of shining steel. Crow and Rarsh cursed at the scalds on their arms from the water and joined the fight, Crow pulling two knives from his belt and Rarsh picking up a battleaxe from the floor. Realising someone needed to stop the madness and none of the others seemed bothered on doing it, Lorrand unsheathed his rapier and strode between Baymark and his new-found enemy.
‘You two,’ he snarled, glaring at the both of them, ‘stop fucking about over a teacup. Baymark, never pull a sword when you’re outnumbered and Vaygrand, you don’t have to like this little shit, but don’t piss him off for fun. After all, he is the reason you’re alive right now. Everyone, put down your blades.’ Reluctantly, they all did so. All except Baymark.
‘No’ he whispered, in a twisted mockery of Vaygrand and lunged forward with a demented laugh, aiming straight for Vaygrand’s unguarded heart. He trusts me, Lorrand thought in the slow moment, watching the blade dart forward with murderous intent. Without thinking, he ran towards Baymark and cut an arc through the air with the rapier, a deadly slice of honed metal. With a sickening crunch, it cut into his commander’s head and threw him backwards with sheer force, blood spraying from the open gash just under his hairline. Like a hot iron, he dropped the sword, staring in horror at the man on the floor, screaming in pain and writhing in the snow. Staining the snow red again.
‘I rescued you,’ he croaked, breathing raggedly in between crying and screaming, ‘I saved you and this is what I get?’ Every word he spoke was like a vice on Lorrand’s heart, squeezing guilt from the pit of his stomach.
‘I’m sorry. But you attacked one of my men.’ But sorry was hardly going to fix his broken skull. ‘You might live. I’ll stitch that up.’
‘Not a chance, fuckers,’ he said, a grotesque, bloody grin stretching across his broken face, ‘you did this to me. All I wanted was to be a soldier. I wanted, cough, to do something…good.’ With that, he grabbed his own knife and held it to his pulsating throat. ‘I hate you,’ he managed to whisper pathetically, before slitting his throat. Three spurts of crimson and a gargle of breath that would never come and he was dead.
For a few minutes they sat in silence, no-one daring to speak. Finally, he felt he had to say something. ‘I’m sorry.’ At once, his companions turned to look at him, a grim set to their faces. He waited for someone to reply, hoping for forgiveness but fearing their rage.
‘What the hell do we do now?’ Crow asked, on the verge of tears. For the first time, Lorrand realised how young he was. No more than twenty-five, nor Rarsh. Only just past being boys.
‘Why would I have the answers?’ he asked, far more aggressively than he meant to. Then again, having his commander’s blood on his hands was hardly calming him.
‘Well… with him dead, you’re our leader, aren’t you?’ he said with a hopeful tinge.
‘No, I… I couldn’t-‘
‘Oh, fucking accept it,’ Vaygrand said, grinning, ‘You saved my ass back there and you know it. Someone needed to kill that bastard, seems it fell to you. Unfortunate, but that’s the way of it. Don’t feel so damned guilty.’
Looking around at the three eager faces, he realised he didn’t really have an option. He’d led before and they always say, it never really leaves you. ‘Fine. But what do you think?’ he asked Baymark’s guard, who’d been silent throughout the conversation.
‘Fine by me. What, you expect me to hate you for killing him? I would have myself if he wasn’t paying me.’
‘Well then,’ Vaygrand said, ‘that clears it. Lorrand, you’re our leader again. Just don’t ask me to fucking bow. All you have to do now is explain to however many men he led how he had an accident and you bravely stepped up to the role. That’s if you plan to rejoin the Cavalry, that is. What city are we going to sack, again?’
Suddenly, the peaks felt that bit colder. ‘Sinfall, apparently.’ Seems his plans of abandoning fighting were down the drain. Now he was in control of a hundred or so men he didn’t know in the largest army he had ever seen, marching the length of the country to the strongest city in the world for reasons he didn’t quite understand. If this was luck, he decided he had too much of it for his own good. ‘Now, we’d probably better bury him at least. Anyone got a shovel?’
‘Here ya go chief,’ Vaygrand shouted, ‘but it could take a while!’ In his hand, a silver teaspoon from an ornate cutlery set.