On this question of principle, while actual suffering was yet afar, the repressed raised their swords against a power, to which, for purposes of foreign conquest and subjugation, in the height of glory that was not to be compared, a sovereignty which dotted the surface of the known world with her possessions and military posts, whose only goal was the conquest of civilization, which meant taking away land from those who at any other time we would have been proud to call brother.
“Videre Virile” (unfinished)
Lord Bistra Scire Deriman,
College Guild of Khronica
With breakneck speed, four horses emerged from the forest, their riders urging them to speed up as they neared their ultimate destination.
“Clear the way!” the lead man yelled, forcing his horse to jump over a burning campfire. The horse, a trained army mount, carelessly smashed the spit featuring rabbit or rat — whatever was the catch of the day — and continued its charge into the camp. Soldiers quickly cleared the way for the returning patrol and somewhere in the distance a trumpet sounded their arrival. The lead rider, a lieutenant by rank, reined his horse at a large pavilion, waiting for his men to gather around him.
“Josef, proceed to Gateway and alert them. Report to no one less than a senior captain. General Vasquez or Colonel Conti should be your goal.”
“Yes, sir!” one of the riders answered and spurred his horse into motion.
The lead rider wearily dismounted his horse, twisting his back to let the sore muscles stretch. As he did, the flap on the pavilion opened and two men quickly made their way towards him.
“You made quite a ruckus returning, lieutenant,” the first man said. “I hope you’re quieter on your patrols.”
“Yes, sir, I am,” the scout saluted his captain. “And I have a report to make.”
The other soldier, also a lieutenant, impatiently folded his arms. “Dalton, we’re working our way east, following ten regiments of heavy infantry. The only thing of interest downriver are ruins of once-great cities.”
“Stand down, Tobias,” the captain ordered. “There is always time to look over our shoulder.”
Dalton impatiently pushed on his horse’s side, making the animal shift out of the way, then knelt in the midst of the gathering crowd and began drawing with his finger in the dirt.
“Being promoted to lieutenant does not disbar you from using parchment, Dalton,” Tobias moved closer to the slowly emerging image, stepping dangerously close to the map forming on the ground.
Dalton did not answer, knowing full well Tobias was attempting to provoke a reaction and while on any other day, with any other opponent, he would be willing to take the challenge, he was painfully aware that this man was the one major obstacle in his career and that his status assured swift and uncompromising discipline given half a reason to exercise such power. The edge of the map was abbreviated coming to a sharp halt at the edge of Tobias’ boot.
“Gateway,” Dalton made a mark at the fork in the river. “Us, at two days’ march, Captain Hansard’s three regiments another two days’ back, and Port Sevlyn all the way here,” he pointed at Tobias’ boot. “Our patrol took us far enough downriver that we decided to join Captain Hansard’s troops for the night, rather than making camp in the forest. They were happy to have us and the news from Gateway. Captain Hansard wished me to report that they were delayed with the last of the cleanup at Port Sevlyn, but managed to put together four shiploads of supplies to be sent to Gateway.”
Dalton paused, organizing his thoughts. The next part was the bad news and he had to deliver it right. “We left yesterday morning, just before sunrise, because I did not want to be forced to spend the night in the woods. Going along the shore on horseback would have gotten us back here by nightfall, but as we left, when we were two leagues out, at the crest of a hill, we looked back and saw Baranurian troops crossing the Laraka, heading for Captain Hansard’s camp. And worst of all, they were cutting us off from Captain Hansard. For us to warn them would have meant having to fight through the Baranurian army and at five hundred to one odds, all we could do was watch.”
The scout marked a circle around where the Beinison troops made camp. “The attack came from here, here and here,” he said, marking arrows in a rough triangular shape. “Most of the force crossed the river, but there was a regiment that hit the camp from the south. I can’t even begin to understand how a troop that large was missed by their scouts.
“Needless to say, they were taken by total surprise before the sun broke the horizon and although they fought a good fight and had even odds, they were simply overwhelmed by the intensity of the attack. Had we stayed just half a bell longer, we would have suffered the same fate.”
“You stayed to watch the engagement?” the captain asked.
“Yes, sir. We were hoping there would be something we could do, but as it is, all I have to bring back is sad news. After the battle, they sent out scouting parties, several heading east. They’re looking for other enemy to fight and we’re the next closest force.”
Tobias spoke. “Captain Benjes, I volunteer to lead an immediate counter-attack on the enemy.”
“Not yet,” Benjes knelt down across from Dalton. “Here and here,” he pointed to the two arrows that crossed the Laraka, “are northern troops. Possibly Narragan or Arvalia. Those troops were uncommitted, but I’m surprised they made it this far so quickly. This,” he pointed to the attack that came from the south, “has to be a northern regiment as well. There’s practically nothing left south of the Laraka to offer resistance. I’m surprised Hansard let such a large unit circle around him without disclosing themselves. He is generally much more cautious.”
“I’ve dispatched a man to Gateway,” Dalton said, “but a message from you would carry more weight, sir.”
“We won’t need reinforcements, lieutenant,” the captain answered. “At best it’s one day there, two days back. The enemy will find us before then, unless we do to them what they intend to do to us. How big a force are they, lieutenant?”
“Four thousand or so,” Dalton said. He had been working on that number for over a day. “Mostly light infantry.”
“And that makes us even with them,” Benjes declared. “Tobias, take two regiments across the Laraka, out to here.” The captain’s index finger landed squarely on the halfway point between the two armies. You will cross the river and attack at dawn. Dalton, you will take the two other regular regiments along the south shore and stand by until Tobias’ attack begins. Take care not to advance too far, both of you. Their scouts are no doubt looking for us. I will take all of the Knights of the Star and we will close the loop right here.” The three points of attack made a perfect triangle, an inverted image of the attack that had taken place the day before.
“How can you let him treat you like that?” a deep voice sounded behind Dalton as he stirred the dwindling contents of the fire remaining from the midday meal. “If I were you, Tobias would be food for the wolves.”
Dalton motioned for the man to approach and continued poking at the dying fire, sending small embers of flame into the air. “I called you to help me plan, not give me political advice.”
“If I don’t, who will?”
“No one and that’s just as well. I’ve grown tired of this job, these tasks, the daily toil of the Empire. Why are we here, Francis? What has Beinison lost so far north?”
The newcomer settled down next to Dalton, letting his bulk spread comfortably against the downed tree trunk his companion sat on. “We’ve turned north because we’ve struck desert heading south.”
“You’re not answering my question,” Dalton responded. “Why does Cherisk need to be one under Beinison?”
“By no means are we one,” Francis protested. “We have treaties with Comarr, Shakin and Tholer’Ram. Defined borders where troops won’t cross.”
“We had one with Lashkir, too. And some would argue that we had the same gentleman’s agreement with Baranur as we do with Galicia. What happened to those?”
“They’ve become inconvenient to the throne,” Francis said. “Untar saw the greatness and might of the Fretheod and wants to be like them. He’s no different from his father. Or his grandfather.”
“Yes, but what does that land get them? Why are we killing in their name?”
“You still can’t forget that farmer, can you?”
Dalton paused. There had been a farmer on a homestead they had crossed a fortnight before. An older man with a gray head of hair and wise old eyes. Skinny and weathered, he had tried to defend his farm and a wife and two daughters. As the regiment advanced he stood before his home, a heavy old sword in hand and the knights, on horseback, leveled their lances and took charge, much as they would when hunting a boar. The first one missed. The second knight ran the old man clean through. The shaft of the lance went through his stomach, sticking out half way on the other side, forcing the knight to drop it. And the old man had still been alive.
After the troops were done looting his house, the lance had been retrieved. The old farmer gasped in agony as it was pulled out, cursing the soldiers and swearing that his two sons, now in the Baranurian army, would take their revenge. Then he had died, his lifeblood soaking deep into the soft dirt before his house.
Dalton kicked at the dying embers of the fire. When would Beinison kill the old man’s sons? Was it a month ago or would it be in a month? Would they know what had happened to their father? That their mother had died crying over her dead husband’s body? And the daughters … he didn’t even know which regiment had walked off with them.
“I was just a squire then …”
“Deep in your soul, you still are.” Francis stood up and put his hand on Dalton’s head. “Your old master’s footsteps may no longer seem clear, but in them you must walk as he takes his final rest. Sanar’s wisdom will guide you.”
“You are Sanar’s wisdom, Francis. You’ve always given me all the answers I looked for … except for why we must kill.”
“In some ways the paths on which we walk are predetermined. We’re ruled by giants who control our fate. Untar and Benjes are such giants. Tobias, he’s a bully.”
“He thinks I’m too young, too inexperienced.”
“You are, but someone had to take your master’s place, to fill a gap and to lead. You will grow into your title of knight and serve the Empire well.”
“But I won’t be required to like it,” Dalton answered. “Help me plan the raid. I have little time to banter over philosophy.”
It was still some time before sunrise, but Dalton’s troops stood ready to move against the Baranurian soldiers who camped in the forest along the Laraka. They had found a fairly inconvenient location to use, the top of a low hill, which stretched out as a lengthy plateau. That was to force the Beinison soldiers to fight uphill. Tricky, but not impossible, especially under the cover of darkness. Advancing overnight, Dalton’s men managed to ferret out and eliminate two scouting parties. The scouts were good soldiers, but fell easily to the overwhelming odds they encountered.
Now it was time to do the same with the rest of the enemy force before the missing scouting parties would be discovered. Dalton’s standing orders were to attack at the first sign of light in the eastern sky. It was tricky timing in this dense forest.
The sergeants had already taken their smaller groups into position, creating a wide arc against the eastern edge of the camp. The concept of war itself was fairly simple. It was all a matter of putting more men into position, obtaining the greater surprise and having the provisions available to sustain your own side. Beyond all this, the soldiers were evenly matched when fighting one on one. Some battles Dalton had read about had been won without a single sword being drawn; simply eliminating the food supply was often all that was needed to force an army to retreat. That had been a favorite tactic of the rebels in the war with Lashkir. More often, though, it was a question of who could deploy the most troops more rapidly. In the case of this war, the clear winner was Beinison. The imperial troops had quite effectively crushed all of Baranur’s borders and simply marched in, much as water wou ld flow from an overturned vessel.
Dalton turned his back to the Baranurian camp and faced east, hoping to see the first light of daybreak through the forest’s canopy. He knew he would not be the first one to see this happen, even though he would be the one to give the order for his troops to attack. But he also wanted Tobias to have a head start across the river, crossing which would be a tremendous challenge for armored men. Having his own, smaller, force be the diversion for the larger Baranurian force did not strike Dalton as a terribly good idea. He could tell that his men were glancing his way impatiently, wanting to be done with the anxiety of the wait and cast aside their fears in the heat of the battle. Dalton felt it, too, that ache in his gut that made him wonder if he would still be alive at midday.
Even though the sky remained dark, there was just a hint of brightness in the forest, as if some unseen light was just starting to burn, casting its glow to this distant, forgotten place. Dalton turned and looked his sergeant in the eyes, pausing before giving the order. He wished that Josef was here instead of on his way to Gateway. They worked well together, having known each other for many years and having squired to the same knight. Dalton had been elevated to replace his old master and Josef was an inheritance that came with the job.
There was commotion from the Baranurian camp and Dalton knew that he hadn’t a heartbeat to waste. Either the attack was on the way or his people had been spotted. It was the latter option that Dalton feared most. While they were ready for battle and would not be surprised themselves, his side without a doubt would lose the advantage of their planned surprise attack. That would put them on even par with the enemy, which was something he did not want to see happen.
“Now, sergeant,” Dalton nodded. “Have the men advance.”
A rumble of voices flowed in either direction and a wave of soldiers flowed up the hill, a sharp wedge in the center and two wings following it in. Dalton followed the first wave up before the second one had started their charge, but behind him he heard the sounds of rushing feet and clanking metal and realized that his advance was the signal for the second wave to begin.
The slope was moderately steep and the plateau perhaps forty or so feet high. Wearing full armor and weapon in hand made the charge rather challenging and as he hit the slope, he realized that the morning dew made the advance far less stable than initially anticipated. Only now did he notice, in the semi-murky darkness, that some of the men in the first wave hadn’t done so well in their advance. Several had slipped and fallen and a number had to resort to using their hands to aid in their ascent. He managed to reach the top of the hill mixed in with the bulk of the first wave, the second closely behind them, and entered what was already a raging battle. It was hard to tell how it had started or when, but the sight of soggy wet soldiers was a clear indication that Tobias brought his men in earlier than he was supposed to and they were the ones to take the Baranurian soldiers by surprise. It was not for some time that the horses and colors of the Knights of the Star also graced the field of battle, having waited for the proper cues and been delayed by the climb over wet ground.
Dalton was pleased that, when his men came onto the field of battle, it was almost directly behind the Baranurian soldiers. With the battle already in full swing between the Baranurian troops and Tobias’ men, the noise of the fighting covered his force’s advance until their only threat were the blades of the men they engaged. The wedge that started at the bottom of the hill swelled and cut directly into the enemy’s rear. For a few moments there was genuine disarray in the field as Baranurian soldiers tried to figure out who was on their side and the directions from which the true threats originated. The formation of the Baranurian line quickly changed as they were now fighting a multi-front battle and while the Baranurian soldiers were clearly well trained, many remained unprepared and unequipped for battle.
The sun, still not having broken the canopy of the forest, had already provided sufficient light for the battle. With two forces, both numbering into the thousands of soldiers, the battlefield had quickly expanded beyond the original Baranurian camp. Those that spilled over from the main battle and tried to fight on the hill’s wet slope quickly ended up at its base, fighting in the denser forest, scattering further and further away from the Baranurian camp. It was not long before Dalton found himself back where he started, beyond the base of the hill, fighting a pair of men, wildly swinging his sword, trying to put distance between their attacks and his own body. There must have been an easy two score soldiers down there, fairly evenly split between the two armies, and neither group gaining any ground.
The call to halt came as a surprise and when Dalton paused, he realized that he and his two opponents were the only ones still swinging their swords. A tall dark-haired man approached him as the other soldiers watched.
“You’re their leader,” he said in an accented voice, clearly not Baranurian. He did not wait for an answer. “I wish to challenge you, knight to knight.”
Dalton backed away from his opponents. He could see the soldiers of the two sides reconsolidating, recasting themselves into two groups. By the knightly code, the stranger, if truly a knight, had the right to issue this challenge. But the stranger wore no armor and merely carried a sword. He could have been anybody. “Who are you?”
“Hakan Magnus, House of Arvalia, Knight of the Stone.” He reached in his tunic and pulled out a chain with a small stone tear hanging off it. Dalton had heard of Arvalia and of the Knights of the Stone and was willing to accept this man’s claim merely on his word. He introduced himself, knight to knight, a gentleman to a gentleman.
“We have a large group here,” Magnus said. “If we let them fight it out, one of us will lose half his unit and the other all of his. Let the two of us fight to first blood instead. The loser and his men yield to the winner.”
This was the old chivalric code that Dalton was familiar with. The men-at-arms did not matter, the size of the army didn’t matter. Just the two leaders, man to man, victor takes all. Magnus proposed that the lives of these men be wagered using the old knightly code and was clearly confident in his ability to win, but Dalton was no coward. He was a knight, a good soldier, and confident in his ability to handle a sword. He, too, would prefer that should victory be unreachable, the men he commanded be allowed to walk away having lost the fight, rather than be carried away dead. There had been little doubt in his mind that the deal was fair to the lives involved, if not to the spirit of the battle.
“Agreed,” Dalton nodded.
Magnus drew his sword.
He shook his head. “A solid hit on yours would count for first blood.”
That seemed fair. Their swords clashed and Dalton realized that Magnus was a far stronger man than it had first appeared. The force of the impact rattled his sword and Dalton had to take a moment to adjust his grip. He shuffled out of the way, changed his grip and parried a blow just in time to avoid having his arm hit. Magnus corrected his angle, taking a deep, wide swing, forcing Dalton to again risk losing his grip as he blocked.
Dalton braced his legs and swung back, trying a different approach. His sword came about on his left side and angled upwards, forcing Magnus to compromise his attack in favor of parrying the blade, but at the last moment, Dalton adjusted his swing, leaving Magnus protecting the left and open for an attack on the right. He’d have made the blow with any other opponent, but Magnus spun about and parried the feint with a backswing, leaving little doubt that he was an expert swordsman.
Another swing and parry. The two men were successfully learning one another’s style, but not making any real progress in the fight.
“My compliments on your swordsmanship.”
“I’ll pass them to my teachers.”
Dalton jumped over a low swing, blocked the high return and struck back. Magnus caught it midair and redirected the blow, letting Dalton’s sword glance off his own and pass over his head.
“First blood may be long in coming.”
“Your armor will tire you out first.”
“No doubt the plan you started with.”
The two swords again clashed between the two fighters, drowning out the cheers of the soldiers.
“I’ve got two dozen men who think I’m the better swordsman.”
“Funny. Not what my men think.”
They exchanged several more blows.
“You can yield now, you must realize.”
“Not yield to the man destined to lose this fight!”
Dalton’s world turned upside down as he collided with Magnus. For a moment he could only see the now blue sky above him and his only bearings were the yells of the men watching the fight. He landed hard and rolled out of the way, not sure how he was hit or by what. He came to a rest, realizing that he was covered with a splatter of blood, but in his mind felt no pain. He was only knocked off his feet. The yells he was hearing had changed. There was once again swordplay and the sound of hooves. Dalton forced himself to get to his feet. He had no idea where his own sword was, but with the sight he took in, his sword no longer mattered.
Dalton kicked in anger at the tray of food that was placed before him. He was furious with his captivity, his allies and his countrymen. It had been a sennight since he had been confined. People were talking treason, but there was no source to the tale. Rumors merely merged, plots evolved and ultimately he was on his way from the front lines, an example of a man who betrayed his country.
He relived that moment hundreds of times, that battle where he ultimately fell. He had wondered about Hakan Magnus from the moment that he met him. The man was clearly not Baranurian, judging by his accent, but he was there standing up for the soldiers of Baranur. Could he have been Beinison? Or a country further away?
Dalton closed his eyes. He saw that last fight, felt the bond of respect he had established with Magnus. He had not been a knight for a very long time, but in that one moment, he grasped the full meaning of the symbolism his title embodied; not that the title would ever be used again.
Francis had visited him before he had been taken away.
“Is there no justice?”
“In the eyes of Sanar all things are even. He is not ‘Sanar the Just’; he’s ‘Sanar the Wise’. Wisdom hardly ever lent itself to justice.
“It must have been a century since a Shakin philosopher wrote that ‘conscience is a coward and those faults it has not the strength to prevent, it seldom has justice enough to accuse. Consider what you think justice requires and decide accordingly, but never give your reasons; for your judgement will probably be right, but your reasons will certainly be wrong. ‘”
“I wish I had him with me that day,” Dalton sighed.
There was little doubt that he was meant for failure and Dalton could not help but wonder what it was that made Tobias hate him so much. He had ascended to his title justly and fairly. His master’s death could not have been helped. His men liked him and followed him, but something somewhere did not sit right. Tobias was bitter and spiteful. He hated people, the only exception being Captain Benjes, who no doubt was the most critical factor in his advancing in ranks.
Even with his eyes open, Dalton vividly recalled the beginning of the end, that last moment of the fight when he had parried Magnus’ strike and struck back. There was a constant shadow in the back of his mind, something that came from nowhere and ended the fight. It took a nightmare to remember the details, the image of Tobias on his horse flying out of the woods, sword rattling high overhead, heading for the center of the circle of men watching the fight …
Magnus never really knew what hit him. He must have died thinking that he had lost in a fair fight. Tobias, as his horse charged through the line of men, swung his sword, aided by momentum, nearly slashing Magnus in half, throwing him forward to be impaled on Dalton’s blade. The sight of Magnus’ eyes in that last moment would haunt him forever.
The men that Dalton and Magnus had tried to save died anyway, killed almost to the last. The Baranurian troops had taken no extra prompting to attack Tobias. He lived, though badly beaten. His horse had died under him. The Beinison troops likewise entered the combat, returning the conflict exactly to the moment where it had left off. As Dalton had walked the grounds after the battle, he had recalled seeing the standing pools of blood which the ground was too saturated to allow to soak in. The stench of death and the cries of pain had continued to echo in his mind night after night.
“History is written by the victor,” Francis had told him once. “The atrocities you will commit in war are rivaled only by your opponent’s and in the end, whoever wins earns the right to write them down as imagined by their own eyes.”
One night Baranur had slaughtered the sleeping soldiers of the invading Beinison, having given them no fair chance to defend themselves in battle. And two nights later Beinison had cut down the evil force that caused this harm, razing them to a man, returning justice and honor to their fallen brethren. It wasn’t until the next day, when Tobias had regained consciousness, that Dalton had been accused of treason. And there was really no one around alive to counter the story. Justice in Beinison could be swift.
“No good deed ever goes unpunished,” Francis had reminded Dalton before he was taken away, indicating that it would have been better to let all the men perish rather than try to save them. They had died either way. So much advice from a wise old friend, things that rang so true. Perhaps the hardest truth of all was realizing when your closest friends and supporters turn their backs to you, for with all their comforting words, one thing forever remains true; they will support the sacrifice of your soul to the crown, a show of force to remind those you leave behind what will happen to them when they too fall out of favor.
Note to the Reader: In their fortnight on the Laraka, the Lost Regiments of Arvalia hampered the Beinison ability to move supplies and rendered appreciable damage to the troops Beinison had committed to Gateway. Even though over three thousand Baranurian soldiers died at the battle for Gateway (“Campaign on the Laraka III”, DargonZine v7n1 and v7n2), the delay impacting the Beinison reinforcements allowed Gateway to withstand the most critical assault of the war. Dalton’s fate can be further followed in “A Rogue’s Gambit” (DargonZine v8n3).