The acrid taste of smoke hung in the air, a slightly unpleasant but necessary evil. The fire was roaring by now, bringing a warm, crackling light to the small room, making it feel a little less like a cold shack in the middle of nowhere. The low ceiling of logs was lost behind a balck veil, which lined the walls and clung to the five people in there, holding them in its close grip. The sun had been down behind the mountains so long now that it would soon be rising over the great lake to the East, however the windows would have shown no light yet, even had they not been caked in soot. Lorrand was comfy enough, hunched in the soft chair by the flames. As comfy as you can be with a half your arm cut open and bandaged up, at least. By his feet, leaning into the warmth of the flames, were Crow, Ash and Rarsh, three of his officers. They had been, at least, up until each of them had lost his men in an ambush by the very Wildermen they’d been stalking for three weeks. Now, he led the lot of them, since they’d all seemingly lost the will to do much besides stare into the glow, grunting every now and again.
‘Well then,’ growled Vaygrand, slouched in a corner in an oversized blanket so stained it was almost as black as their moods. ‘We’re well and truly buggered, seems to me.’ One gaunt hand was firmly clasped about a bottle of ale, the other around a silver dagger with a point sharp as a needle, his prized possession. Drink and death, Lorrand thought, summed the man up perfectly.
‘Well thank-you for your insight, my good friend, but if your wits were half as sharp as your dagger, you’d realise we are alive and warm, while our enemies are cold and most likely freezing to death half way up a mountain. Try to see the bigger picture, ideally one extending beyond the next bloody inn.’ Lorrand was in no mood for the man’s whining, since they were, as he had so eloquently put it, well and truly buggered. Rather than taking the opportunity to gracefully shut up, the soldier slowly stood up, in what was supposedly meant to be an intimidating move. Once, his face might have incited terror into a man, but wrinkles had crept their way across it, slightly robbing him of the effect.
‘And if they’re not? What the hell do we do then, sitting in this damned cosy deathtrap?’ he said, staring darkly at Lorrand as if he would like nothing better than to see his head on a spike. As it happened, the feeling was mutual at that particular moment.
‘We are in a situation known as a stalemate, if your vocabulary stretches that far. While we hold the pass they can’t attack, but while they remain encamped we cannot retreat. The advantage is that we have shelter and and an army of ten thousand men a few days’ march away. If you really think about it, it wouldn’t look too good if our rescuers arrived only to find we’d killed each other.’ To tell the truth, Lorrand had no idea whatsoever if anyone was coming for them, or even when. They could be knocking any minute, or still marching the same way they had been when he’d taken his followers to scout the area. They may have been war veterans, but politics was a fickle business and the fools leading the host were under the strong impression that men were better use putting on a show by making as much noise as possible and doing as little as possible, rather than actually fighting. Lorrand didn’t want to be so harsh to his men, but nine times out of ten, angry soldiers were more use than terrified soldiers.
‘Alright, I’m sorry chief. It’s just messing with my head, sitting here, powerless. I mean, what’s the point of this? I’m getting too old for war. I don’t even believe in this God they’re banging on about, just saying I do so they’d pay me to fight. I had to send my own family away to Summerhall, just so that Archangel didn’t hang ’em for not believing. I guess… I guess I’m just fed up of this. If I get out of this little siege, I’m taking my money and heading down to Summerhall as well. It’s been too long since I saw Mary and the kids, maybe we could start a farm.’
‘It’d be strange for you, to be in a situation you can’t solve by cracking an axe over some bloke’s head. Don’t think about it too much, you might hurt yourself.’ A meagre wave of laughter echoed from the men, all of who seemed to have a half-hearted attitude at best to making it through the pickle they found themselves in. He’d read somewhere that war makes the strongest man tired and he was starting to see that whoever said it had the truth. When they’d set out with sixty brothers, jokes and drink had flowed every night, hearts warmed by tales of bravery and adventure. Now they had five men, with desperate attempts at humour to lift the mood, and potent alcohol to get rid of any feeling in the heart at all.
Gradually, as the conversation began to fade and the heat of the fire warmed their frozen bones, sleep lured the men into its warm embrace. Fleeting dreams of home, of his wife and friends flickered though his head, dreams of better times with better people. He never should have left Marshwood, he’d decided long ago. In a village of no more than forty houses, the glittering spires of Newgarden had haunted his thoughts, enticing him to glory. He’d dreamed of fighting for his King, protecting his way of life. Now he fought for a pompous idiot riding around in silks and calling himself an angel, killing honest men for a foreign religion. But it was what it was, so he carried on. Fat lot of good it had done him, he contemplated. Abandoned in the wild, leagues away from anyone he loved, with only men as wretched and hateful as himself for company.
After his restless sleep, he slipped back to conscious thought. The main one was that he really needed to piss. ‘Most useful thing you’ve thought of for a while,’ he muttered to himself, ‘shame it involves getting up.’ Feeling his way around the half-lit room, he eventually located his boots. He dimly noted that the fire had burnt out, letting the cold crawl back into the room. After a couple of minutes of trying to shove a numb foot into his icy boot in vain, he gave up and padded out into the brisk winter morning. The stony path probably should have hurt him, but the frozen jokes on the end of his legs appeared to disagree. It was one advantage to being cold, even if it was a pretty bad one, in his opinion. The sound of a rider emanated from the mist beyond. He concluded it was a messenger, bringing someone a package.
‘Well, let’s get this over with then,’ he said, rustling through the coarse material around his crotch. Finally he found his target and proceeded to let a long stream of warm liquid arc its golden way into the icy grass. He let out a small sigh, feeling much better for his emptying himself. Turning back to the path, he came face to face with three horses, ridden by three tanned men in pointed helmets and the armour of the Crusaders, the army of the faith. It clicked with him just as the front rider, also clad in a crimson and white cape dismounted, that he was miles away from civilisation, making it rather unlikely that a messenger would be taking a morning errand into wilderness and danger. That revelation was shortly followed by the recognition that the man was no other than General Baymark, commander of the Faith’s Northern division of its armed forces.
‘Good tidings, Officer; we have broken though the enemy lines and you’re being pulled back South. The war in the North is over. We crushed the opposition and won complete control in this… lovely place.’ He held out his hand, either for a handshake or to be kissed. The former was probably more likely. Lost for words, Lorrand opened his mouth, but not a lot came out.
A less than intelligent ‘Oh,’ was all he managed, before becoming painfully aware of his cold manhood hanging out his trousers. He quickly glanced down, although unfortunately so did Baymark. That was how he came to be standing in a remote valley North of the bloody world, with his cock out in front of his commanding general. It vaguely reminded him of a raunchy joke he’d heard, which monumentally failed to make the situation any better. ‘Sir… welcome to our humble abode. Please, er… come in.’
He was dreaming of home. Of his family safe in Summerhall, safe from the violence and bloodshed his employers loved. Atheists had no place around the Church’s army. Around people like him. He woke up to the sound of the door opening, along with the other men under Lorrand’s command. All hard, strong men, all good allies. All of them looking pretty bloody tired. Instinctively, he reached for his dagger, unsheathed it with a flurry and sat up on his haunches, poised to attack whoever came in. A face appeared in the open doorway, a well kept one in the armour of his employers. ‘You two,’ he said, ‘wait outside.’ Vaygrand Larson may have been a man of dubious loyalties, but he wasn’t one to stab the man paying his wages. Judging by the cape, he was the latest man with the title of Duke who apparently controlled him. Behind him came Lorrand, sheepishly smiling like a child caught doing something he shouldn’t be. Grunting, he reluctantly put the steel into its leather sheath, although kept a hand grasped on the handle. There may have been no immediate danger around, but the feel of the cold metal comforted him. Men changed and were complicated, but metal was solid, uncompromising and loyal to the man who owned it.
‘Ahem,’ Baymark coughed quietly, attempting to catch the attention of the other three. He somehow failed spectacularly, a feat made all the more impressive considering they were alone in a hut together and he was the reason they were awake.
‘Oy, fuckers, listen up!’ he shouted, smirking as three heads snapped around in unison. ‘You’d better listen to this man, he pays you an’ all.’
‘Erm… thank you, good sir.’ Now Baymark looked just as sheepish as Lorrand, awkwardly smiling as though he’d found some entirely unwelcome guests at his door.
‘The hell with ser, why are you up here freezing your balls off instead of sitting in your cosy room? Feeling left out on the fun your trops were having?’ The sight of the man standing there in his resplendent uniform had put Vaygrand in a thoroughly sour mood, one that was only growing worse as he grew colder and colder.
‘I am hear to bring you and your army home and my presence will give them heart, according to our gracious leader,’ he said, chest puffed out and beginning to smirk, although there had been a hint of sarcasm about the word gracious. ‘I have rescued you all. Where are your boys, anyway?’
‘Rescued?’ he snarled, rage coursing through his body. ‘You never should have sent us up here in the first place! For your information, it is my pleasure to tell you my boys are frozen corpses in a river. Some fucking rescue.’ Hand quivering on the blade, it was all he could do not to thrust it through the man’s pompous face. As it was, he settled for watching the smirk turn into a look of horror.
‘Dead? I hardly believe it… well, you lot certainly made a hash of this job, eh? Can’t get the soldiers these days! Looks like I came up here for nothing.’ The arrogant, easy smile pushed him over the edge. Roaring, he pulled the knife out of its case and rushed at the idiot, screaming like a madman. With a swift thrash of his hand, he drove the steel forward, to cut at… nothing. In the last minute, it seemed that Lorrand had pulled the Duke aside, leaving Vaygrand to slash at empty air.
‘You came up for nothin’? Well what the hell did they come for? At least you’re alive, if not from any help by me.’
‘I… I should have you hanged for that, traitor. General Lorris, arrest that-‘
‘It’s Lorrand, actually,’ the Chief interrupted, ‘then again, I’ve only served you for a couple of years since you killed your predecessor. I don’t really blame my friend here for trying to cut your pretty face, to tell the truth. Now, take us back to sunny Newgarden. I’ve a mind to have some drink that doesn’t taste worse than what comes out the other end.’ For once, he admired Lorrand. He may have been a harsh leader, but the brat who employed the both of them reminded him there were worse people to have deal with.
‘Newgarden? By the Lord, my man, have you been living under a rock for two years? We’re going back to Summerhall.’
‘No, in a valley. What-‘ Lorrand began to say, before Vaygrand cut him off.
‘What do you mean?’ he asked, stomach tightening in a sick knot and bile rising in his throat. ‘Why Summerhall?’
‘We left Newgarden. For the glory of the Faith we’ve been campaigning across the Northern Continent for a year now, bringing the whole damn place under Church control. The Crusaders are now happily stationed at Summerhall, ready to declare glorious war on Sinfall!
‘What about the people there? Summerhall is full of people… not of the Faith.’ People like his wife, his children and his friends. ‘ Not of our faith, that is. What did you do to them?’
‘We killed them, obviously. Can’t have any of that scum tainting our new empire!’
The eight of them made a strange sight, it had to be said. Leading the pack was one of the guards assigned to Baymark, proudly riding a dark stallion. Behind, Vaygrand was silently pacing after him, wearing a permanent scowl. Besides him, Ash, Crow and Rarsh had similar expressions, though none quite as murderous. That left Lorrand alone at the back of the sorry group, sans the company of General Baymark and another lone guard a few steps further back.
‘…absolutely must try the rice dishes, they’re simply fantastic!’ The man had been babbling about the latest food trends in the Southern States for some time now, leaving Lorrand rather frustrated by the man’s apparent complete alienation from the fact that there was, in fact, technically still a war taking place in the North, even if the Church had decided to go home.
‘With all due respect, Sir, I’ve been up here for two years. When I left Newgarden, the Church was content with ruling the West and keeping the Wildermen beyond these mountains. Now, it appears to control the majority of the country. So I hope I don’t come across as rude, by saying that food is bottom on my list of things I need to find out about.’ He was starting to regret ever saving the man from Vaygrand. ‘Now, what land do we control, or would it be easier to ask what we don’t?’
‘Well, it’s all rather simple. For years we’ve been building up an army, as you know, but split into small factions throughout our happy nation. Just over a year ago, in the November before last, we called around half of our forces back to Castle Gratvia in the mountains. From there, we spread out, taking control of the major cities. We now have almost everywhere under our, er, grip. The only place making a stand is Sinfall and its provinces, however there is a good deal of unrest in the cities. Contrary to public belief, we honestly don’t have a tight hold on places like Oldgarden or Summerhall. That’s why we’re taking people back from the North. Even so, we don’t have enough men to attack Sinfall. Take too many out of the cities and we could face an uprising or full scale rebellion.’
The news was sounding worse and worse to Lorrand as Baymark went on, detailing the cities each side had holds on. The church may have ruled in name, but it seemed the Archangel had bitten off more than he could chew. It didn’t really matter to him which side ruled, but as it was the nation was on the edge of civil war. One thing he didn’t need was a long, bloody fight to rob him of the handsome retirement package he’d been meaning to redeem.
‘So the world’s about to fold in on itself if we don’t take Sinfall soon, alright. So what do I have to do?’
‘You, my man? Why, you’re Northern, aren’t you?’
‘Yes,’ he replied nervously, not at all liking where this was going.
‘And your kind follow your own?’
‘And you have a strong history as a general, a leader of men?’
‘Yes,’ he sighed, accepting defeat. It was perfectly obvious what was coming.
‘Then you have the enviable task of attacking Sinfall with the Northern host and earning your retirement!” The General’s face broke into a wide grin.
‘Why do I not feel this is not because of my astounding excellence on the field?’ he asked, hardly daring to hear a happy answer.
‘Because, my big, bold friend, you are entirely expendable and really don’t have a choice!’ He gave a warm hearted laugh, which baffled Lorrand even more than it annoyed him. It actually seemed the fool found himself funny. He wasn’t particularly angry with the statement; it was true and he could hardly argue the fact. With a resigned sigh, he gathered his pace, moving ahead of the general’s slow, if beautiful mount.
‘Fighting in the mountains for nothing to storming the hardest city known to man, and at my age? I’m getting too old for this,’ he said to no one in particular. ‘One last fight, then I’m done.’
He’d lost count of the amount of times he’d said that.