The air was thick with the bittersweet tang of blood, crows and wolves already gathering for the feast. A sound could be heard every now and again amongst the dead and the dying; sometimes a cry for help, mostly an injunction for blessed release. Soldiers moved around the dead bodies, helping those that could be saved out of the battlefield and helping those that could not out of their misery. Other figures moved too, helping themselves to whatever valuables could be found on men who needed them no more. Washing his hands of the blood and the grime, Balaen Stramar watched the proceedings dispassionately, having watched this macabre scene more times than he wanted to. His weary eyes spotted riders, silhouetted against the setting sun, heading towards him and raising a small cloud of dust in their wake. The black snake on gold banner was just about visible. Baelen smiled to himself; Caen Parwayn was asking for help.
“What news do you bring rider?” Baelen queried as the group drew to a halt near him.
The lead rider shook off his helmet and smoothed down his long, dark hair. “We have the rebels under Lord Grendt pinned in a small fortification in the west, my lord. The commander sent me, requesting reinforcements.”
“But surely your forces outnumber those of the rebels,” Balaen said calmly.
“No so much. We lost a lot of men at Havenbrook,” the man reported. “And they’re dug in quite well with weapons and provisions.”
“Hmm. And who are you, young man?”
“Eugene Harkady, captain to Lord Parwayn,” the haughtiness was apparent in his demeanour. Balaen nodded and walked into his tent, causing the entourage to dismount. He smiled to himself; if he was going to debate, it would be on his terms.
Only Eugene entered the tent behind him, stooping a little on account of his tall frame. Balaen sat on a chair and offered one to him, who refused.
“So, captain,” he stared at the younger man long enough to make him uncomfortable, “you’re here to request extra men so that you can storm the keep?”
“Yes, my lord. The battle may have been won, but the war hasn’t.”
Balaen nodded. “Yes, it is as you say. Can you recognise what this is, captain?”
Eugene noted the dark brown stains on Balaen’s arm and surrounding tunic. “Blood, my lord,” he replied.
“Yes, captain. It is blood. Do you know whose blood it is?”
“The enemy’s?” A faint note of hesitation was creeping in Eugene’s haughty demeanour.
“Yes, it is the blood of my enemy and that of my own men. Can you tell it apart, captain?” A silence greeted his question. “It is blood of men, men who fought for their liege and for what they thought was their realm. I have been trying to wash it off all evening, captain, and it still doesn’t go away.”
“But Lord Parwyn...”
“But me no buts, captain.” Balaen interrupted. “I do not wish to have any more on my hands. You’ll get the men you need, captain, but I am coming with you. Ask my guard to mount up. We leave within the hour.”
A flash of irritation passed through Eugene’s grim, pitted face. His stiff bow told him that the captain disagreed with his perspective, but Balaen had other concerns on his mind. As the Lord Protector of the Realm, his charge was to bring the rebellion against the throne to heel; one which he wished to fulfil without any undue shedding of blood.
* * * * * * * * *
As the riders mounted and rode away from the encampment, a hooded figure nodded to itself in the shadows. It retrieved a small hourglass from its robes and tapped it a little, watching little flakes of sand drifting down. Yes, it thought, it is beginning.
* * * * * * * * *
“The keep is surrounded by sheer cliffs on three sides,” Eugene informed him as they disembarked their mounts, “there is only one way to enter the fort, and they sit right on top of it.”
The keep loomed ominously against the sheer cliff that surrounded it on three sides, enveloping it in its embrace. Balaen stared down from the ridge overlooking the fortification that was proving to be such a difficult obstacle to overcome.
“What about sending a few men down the cliff to open the gates?” Balaen tried to envisage the map in his mind, trying to find a way into the seemingly impenetrable keep.
“We have already lost four men trying to climb down the cliff,” Eugene informed him bitterly. “One lost his footing; they shot down the other three.”
“And they have sheltered parapets protecting them from a return volley. That rules out using projectiles,” Balaen noted. “They must need fresh water.”
“Oh, they do. Only they have this freshwater stream running out of the mountain that nestles them.” The look on Eugene’s face was full of loathing. “Fickle bastards have been poisoning the water coming out of their fort so that we can’t use it.”
“Seems like you’ve found yourself in quite a dilemma here captain,” Balaen replied, looking over at the formidable fortification again. His mind was still racing when approaching hoofbeats interrupted his reverie.
“Ah, what do we have here? Lord Balaen Stramar in the flesh!” The tall man in the lead crowed as a small company approached the two men upon the ridge. “How long has it been, nine years? And after all those promises to visit each other, too.”
“Caen Parwayn, a man after my own heart.” Balaen found himself smiling at the sight of his old friend. “Who knew all it would take was a war to bring us together again.”
Caen Parwayn smiled in return, but Balaen noted it did not touch his cool green eyes. “You look tired, Caen.”
“There is no rest for the wicked, remember?” Caen replied with a shrug. His friend’s ash-blond hair was left long and untied as opposed to his younger days; his magnificently chiselled features now looked haggard and careworn. As the Lord Commander of the King’s Army, Caen was entrusted with the task of stamping out the rebellion. The strain of all those years scouring the realm of dissidents and rebels had to tell.
“The king keeping you occupied?”
This seemed to amuse Caen for some reason. “Yes and no,” he replied with a wry smile. “Come, you must be weary from the travel. That bastard Grendt can wait till morn-rise.”
The two friends drank and supped in silence, each lost in his own thoughts. Caen seemed quieter and preoccupied, unlike the boisterous young man Balaen had known in the court during their training. Much had changed since those days, he reflected, his friend not the least amongst them. He thought about all that had happened following the dissolution of the Eldar Council by the 44th King-Elect Elofin the First upon his coronation. The entire realm had split into two factions, and the Dynastics had clashed with the Loyalists in a bloody war that had raged for fifteen years, fifteen long years that witnessed bloodshed unprecedented in the entire history of the land of Erascan. Balaen shuddered at the horror. The war was almost finished, the rebellion having been quashed slowly and steadily; The Eldar Council was no more, and King Elofin’s vision of a dynasty was accepted throughout the realm. Lord Syman Grendt, the last of the rebel leaders, was all that remained between him and the peace he so craved.
“I shall soon be with my wife and my newborn son,” he said wistfully as they bedded down for the night. “The end is finally at hand, my friend.”
There was no sound for a while, except the neighing of a horse or a distant sound of men shouting and talking
“Yes,” Caen said finally, his voice was barely a whisper, “the end is at hand.”
Candle flames flickered, casting odd shadows at his face.
* * * * * * * * *
The hooded figure stood near the encampment, almost invisible in the shadow. The hourglass in his hand had barely any sand left in the upper bulb. Anytime now, it nodded to itself.
* * * * * * * * *
“Lord Balaen,” the solitary man standing greeted Balaen as he dismounted, “you are a sight for sore eyes, sire. I wish I could say the same about your companion.”
“My companion is the Lord Commander and has fought for the king, which is more than could be said for you. Do be mindful of how you address him,” he replied, noting that Caen chose to remain silent. “Where is your guard?”
“They are where they need to be, my lord,” the old man chuckled, “away from danger.”
“You have nothing to fear from us,” Balaen said evenly. “We’re here for peace, not war.”
“It is a strange peace, with armies at our doorstep and men in steel ready to subjugate us.” Lord Syman’s crinkled face broke into a knowing smile. “I am sure the irony is not lost on you.”
His grey eyes seemed to bore into Balaen’s. “Do you agree with all that has passed because of the king’s madness?”
“I don’t, Lord Grendt,” he replied after a moment’s silence. “But these are hard times, and we all do what we think is best for the realm.”
“More evil is done by people with good intentions than is ever intended.”
“You disapprove, Lord Grendt, after what the Choosing had become? A game of politics and sycophancy to power, turmoil every time a king died and contenders to the crown clashed for the right to be elected,” Balaen queried. “In a stable regime, we may finally have something that could last forever.”
“Nothing lasts forever, my lord. Nothing,” the old man replied, “the Choosing has become draconian and obsolete, yes, but still it will be better than any dynastic vision your uncle is dreaming of. Remember the lessons of the First Empire, and why the Eldar Council was established in the first place.”
“I do, Lord Syman, I do every day. And I believe we are no longer the people we were during the Cursed Reign. We will no longer make the same mistake.”
“We can only hope.” Lord Syman’s gaze held a knowing look. “Let us tarry no longer, my lord, and put an end to this folly.”
“Very well. Lord Syman Grendt, do you accept the King’s peace, submit to his authority and accept his justice as shall be delivered in accordance to your actions?”
There was silence as Lord Syman seemed to weigh the prospect of surrender. Balaen tensed despite himself; Caen, on the other hand, seemed preoccupied.
“I don’t, Lord Stramar,” the old man replied finally. “The King lost his legitimacy when he dissolved the Eldar Council, and I do not wish to submit myself to the justice of a tyrant. I do hope you are able to achieve... my lord!”
Balaen found himself pushed to the ground as swords hissed out their sheaths and clashed above his head. Syman Grendt, tall and gaunt with age stood above him parrying Eugene Harkady’s sword strikes. Dazed and confused, he got to his feet just in time to watch Harkady decapitate Lord Syman, the last of Loyalists. Harkady grinned disconcertingly as he saw Balaen’s hand move.
“It won’t work, you see,” he replied casually, wiping the gore off on Syman Grendt’s tunic. “You’ll be dead before you ever withdraw your sword.
“How...” Balaen stopped, feeling a sharp pain in his chest. He looked at the sword point sticking out his chest, thick drops of blood dripping from the point. The blade retracted, leaving behind a gaping wound in its stead. As his legs gave way and he fell on the ground, Balaen saw Caen Parwayn with the bloody weapon in his hand.
“The question you should be asking, Bane, is why,” Caen said calmly, “and what next. Your uncle, King Elofin the last, has the right idea; a dynasty is the only way this realm would remain at peace. Only, he won’t be the one who sees his dream to fruition. Goodbye, old friend.”
Dying in a growing puddle of his own blood, Balaen could make out two figures making their way towards the army. The trap had been executed well, he realised; Lord Grendt would be held responsible of treacherously murdering Balaen, giving Caen a chance to exact righteous retribution. No one would suspect him of murdering his best friend. Then darkness took over and everything turned black.
* * * * * * * * *
The hooded figure approached the two bodies. The old one was dead beyond doubt, but the other one was breathing raggedly; close to death, but still living. Yes, the figure thought, just as it should be.