"So you think you can scout, eh? Kill a bear with your bare hands? That's what the last ten fools thought as well. And now here we are, piss drunk and merry as can be, picking our teeth with their lily-white bones. This ain't no hike in the woods, kid. This ain't no stroll through the moonlight. This is darkness blacker than black. And it's coming for us."
The fiery orb
slowly rose, first as only a slight glow, then bursting forth to bask the
horizon in strings of molten sunlight. A cushioning of clouds lazed above,
their shadows dancing upon the ice-encrusted earth. It was a new Spring, a new
beginning, and the beams of warmth were herald to its arrival.
Ashavar sat rigid in his saddle and waited. Pensive blue eyes peered out from beneath a cowl and slowly scanned the valley below. It was a mesmerizing sight. Most would even call it terrifying. Thick plumes of smoke rose up like pillars, utterly grey against the sky, a byproduct of tens of thousands of soldiers breaking camp.
“How many…?” Ashavar whispered almost inaudibly. Hoary mist poured from his mouth and nostrils, a reminder that winter’s grip was yet to be bested. He ignored the cold as well as he could, but he couldn't ignore the unease gnawing at him.
By his side his companion fidgeted, shivering and chewing the ends of a grizzled mustache. The hallmark bearskin cloak of their company, a symbol of brutality and rank, had been replaced by the drab stock of common soldiers; something neither of them particularly enjoyed. But, alas, this was their trade, their expertise, and not a soul in the kingdom could wear a better guise.
“There could be fifty thousand bastards down there…and who knows how many women, slaves and scum they dragged with em'." Boris shifted in his saddle and spat, and then returned to gazing at the horde. The sprawl of man and animal in the field below was a dizzying sight. Thousands of campfires and tents dotted the earth, immeasurable to both scouts watching the fray.
"Ahhh, Boris, but I bet you'd like to know more than a few of those women yerrself, you old bastard." His tone was reproachful but Ashavar's sly grin gave him away.
"And I'll bet yer bony ass I'll be knowin' more of 'em than you by the morrow!"
"Have your damned fun, you scoundrel. But don't forget that we have work to do. Important work." Ashavar was ever the weary one. Weary of his responsibilities. Weary of the repercussions should they fail. In their line of work a simple slip of the tongue could end up getting your head on a pike, or worse. Reconnaissance wasn't quite the right word for it. Their task was to penetrate enemy lines, to blend, disguise, trick and fool their way into the bowels of the adversary. They played a dangerous game of charades and double-dealing, cons and deceit, one that more often than not ended in an unpleasant death. Ashavar knew this. And he prepared himself for the task ahead. If the army below was indeed headed for Aethel, then this signified something much more ominous than the beginning of Spring. It meant the beginning of a war; a massacre of man and beast unlike anything seen in this lifetime. And it was up to them to find out why.
“Well, let’s get to it then. I ain’t gettin’ any younger. And my balls ain't gettin' any warmer!” Boris spat again and put heels to horse-flesh.
The booming crash of a battering ram came echoing down the halls. In the lulls between blasts, the shriek of horses and the cries of men could be heard melding together into a symphony of death and suffering. The sense of expectancy hanging in the air was unbearable. Waiting. Men were always waiting. Waiting to live. Waiting to die. There was little difference, it seemed, for the wait was what killed men's appetite for the very life they once craved.
The man perched on the throne was awaiting neither of these things. His dark eyes shone with a fervor that belied his air of calmness. Thick strands of golden hair flared out from beneath a crown of silver, matched in splendor only by the pommel of his bastard sword, its blade hanging all the way to the floor. His sheer size was menacing. But this paled in comparison to the sense of grace he commanded. Beautiful was the only way to describe him. Graceful, yet strong as the ancient root. And that is why they called him King.
"Your grace...do we flee? There is no stopping this. Awaiting our deaths is utter foolishness! We must flee! Your grace!" The high pitched, pleading voice of a balding man broke the stillness. The sound of his dread was infectious to some, but this had no effect on the King's bearing.
"...maybe he's right..."
"I have no intentions of dying today!"
"But you said we would be safe!"
"You said they would come!"
A cacophony of voices followed, spilling into the chamber and filling the walls with the sounds of desperation. The man on the throne let it continue for a moment longer and then suddenly, in a flash, he was moving. One moment he was poised on the dais, serene and calm, the next he was a ball of flashing fury. The metallic ring of steel on air cut into the room like lightning, the blade-tip pressed tightly up against the balding man's throat.
"Flee to where, Lord Galt?"
"...well...but..." Sputtering and surprised, Lord Galt moved to back away from the sword, only to find himself held in place by the crowd of lords and ladies, dukes and barons, knights and all those others who had sought safety under the watch of their beloved King. "We should have left these wretched walls a fortnight ago! You said help would arrive, and now we are all dead! You did this! This is your failing! It was your foolhardy pride that..."
In a single ferocious swipe bastard sword met flesh, blood met air, and Lord Galt's head met marble. Silence once again reigned over the crowd of people.
"So you would have us flee then? Run from our fate? Abandon the very lands that gave us life?" The depths of the King's contempt were endless, oozing with disdain. "You would surrender your homes and your pride so easily, and for what? A few more feeble breaths of air, pretending that courage was at the heart of your decision and not cowardice. Is this what you desire?"
"If it means life, then yes!"
"I say life! Live to fight another day!"
The rumblings of discontent were quieter this time, tongues stilled by the stark reminder of a lord's blank-faced stare peering up at them. "Then I shall ask again, run to where? The help promised to us by our neighbors has been sealed with treachery. Our fates were decided the moment we agreed to fight this bloody war. And now we stand surrounded and trapped. We stand alone. And you cry "flee"? The time for running has long passed. Now we must look death in the face and run no longer." The King's deep baritone rose as he addressed his people. He stretched to his full towering height and gazed into the eyes of each man and woman before him. The fever in his voice became fire. And as he made his way back to the throne, his commanding presence seemed to grow before him, brilliant as a flame.
"We are not alone, my people. We will not be disgraced by surrender. Together, as one, we are more powerful than any army of our foes. As one, we become greater than any warrior, lord, or king. Our bravery in the face of death will bind us like mortar to the stone. Our sacrifice will echo into legend, into fable, into song. So let us meet our deaths as one. Fight with me, brothers and sisters! Today we are as equals! Let us make one last stand against the heartless. One last dance of death against the darkness. Let us fight!"
"Ye heared they killed him? Cap'n split his big shiny head right in two, right up there on his very own throne! Serves the bastard right!" Bellowing laughter and raucous merrymaking filled the walls of the inn, the sounds of soldiers and drunkards alike in the throes of celebration. Smoke from a dozen sources made the room a darkened haze, providing deep shadows for some to nurse their heads and others with yet more nefarious opportunity. Two men sat in one such corner observing the chaos, their drinks untouched.
"So it's finally over. The mighty king has been slain, and now all the scum can crawl back up their own arses and get drunk as piss...ahh, but 'tis a good feeling, my friend, to know everyone around you is stupid as a stump."
"What makes you so sure it's over?" The more serious of the two peered into the gloom, unamused by the revelry. In his left hand he spun a dagger seemingly in boredom. But his eyes spoke differently. Deep pools of hatred gleamed from beneath his black and torn overcloak, and peeking from beneath it were leathers of the finest cut embroidered with silver. His long features were made all the more striking by a gruesome scar running down the length of his face and splitting his lips into a fierce scowl.
"Ahh, now that is the sound of someone holding out on me! Spill your tongue or I'll spill it for you!" The first man grinned wickedly. His face was the opposite of his companion, clean-cut, square-jawed, striking in all the ways his counterpart wasn’t. He too wore a ragged cloak, hiding the same ornate embroidery. And yet the pretense was hardly necessary. These men were known. And feared.
“If you really believe that damned King was the Captain’s true aim maybe you’re just as stupid as these stumps around you.”
“Oh, just tell me you fucking arse.” There was no longer any tone of amusement in the man’s voice. It dripped pure loathing.
The man with the scar turned ever so slowly to look his counterpart in the eye. His lips peeled back in his first smile of the night, contorting his face into a haphazard nightmare of flesh and bone. “When the world hears of this ‘terrible tragedy’, what do you think will happen? The fools on their thrones will gather in their councils, they will call upon their fat warlords, and every stinkin’ one of em’ will send their forces to attempt to avenge the King’s death. And while every army for a hundred leagues marches upon the burning ruins, where do you think we’ll be? You fuckin’ stump...”
The other man roared in laughter, cruel and hungry for the promise of death. The plan was simple yet brilliant, relying on the irrational motives of unreasonable men. But the man with the scar only smiled. It was going to be a long Spring...
"The exhilarating, rib-cracking tale of a motley crew of scouts who play more than work, wine and dine more than is wise, and whore at every given opportunity. Yet in times of darkness, it falls upon their bedraggled shoulders to save a kingdom - by any means necessary. The fate of their survival, their debauched existence, rests on the choices of a few ragtag friends. But can they sober up enough to make it out alive?"
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