The Hero of Balkan Ridge
He gripped the halberd haft a little tighter. The men charging were close enough that the command went out to fire the bows. The arrows rained down and a few dropped. The rest kept coming. He looked closer at the weapon he gripped; old, worn, simple, he felt kind of like that.
They had come two days ago, the Lord’s men. They said an army was on the march, would be here soon. They said their lord was calling on them to defend their homes. Some men grumbled. He didn't. He knew he had to defend his wife and his little son, just three summers old. So when the wagons with weapons and armor rolled in he joined the line.
He was a bad shot with a bow, so he passed on that. He had no skill with a sword so the Master of Arms told him to grab a halberd. His arms were strong from farming from sun up to sundown, and the reach of the weapon would help keep faster enemies from getting in close. At least that’s what they told him. They spent a day drilling together getting a feel for how to work as a unit. It wasn't much but it was something.
He had wanted to spend the last night with his wife and son, but she told him to bond with the other men. She said he would need them to trust him to help keep him alive. She was right of course but the first few beers were bitter. He wanted to be home holding her in his arms. By the third and fourth round he was starting to enjoy the camaraderie. By the sixth he was singing bawdy songs with the rest. After that he lost count but he remembered telling them all how he would be the Hero of Balkan Ridge. They laughed and forgot their troubles.
Now with the second volley of arrows in flight he was terrified. He knew he would be no hero today. He would not fight through the waves of enemies and take the head of their leader. All he wanted was to keep his family safe and make it home to see them, in that order.
He had held his son’s hand this morning while they walked around the farm. He tried to think of important stuff to tell him, but he was only three and even if his son had been older he wasn't a man known for his deep thought. Instead he enjoyed the silence while his son occasionally laughed at a goat or chased a hen.
Before he left his son had handed him a necklace made of an old leather cord on which had hung a small crudely carved wooden dog. It had been the boy’s favorite toy, his only toy. The boy had wanted to give his father something to keep him safe so his mother had helped him make it. While he drank with the men, the mother and son had made him a talisman, a ward to see him home safe. The man put it around his neck. He stifled his tears. He was a man it would not do to cry.
The enemy was almost upon them now. They carried clubs and maces and old swords. Their lord didn't outfit them as well as his had. Their lord must not care as much as his.
When the horn blew that morning to gather, he held his son tight. He looked into his bright blue eyes and told him he loved him. He grabbed his wife and kissed her hard. She held back the tears. She was strong. She would carry on without him if need be. He needed to make sure no one got through to hurt them, regardless of the cost.
The rabble reached them, for that is what they were. Undisciplined and untrained they ran at his line helter-skelter. Even the little bit of training he had prepared him better than these poor sods. The lines met and he hit the first man to approach with the head of his halberd. He was slow bringing it down so instead of hitting the man in the chest as many of his fellow halberdiers had done he caught the man in the throat. It ripped a ghastly hole and the man went down with a gurgle. He almost threw up it looked so bad, but he remembered that he fought to protect his family and found the strength to reset his position and prepare for the next man.
He fought for ten more minutes and it felt like it had been an hour. He had been cold. Winter was approaching. He was hot now, sweating even. He was tired and his muscles hurt more than he would have thought possible. They had taken the brunt of the charge and were now repulsing it. He was feeling good despite the pain. Somewhere in front of him a horn blew and the peasants they had been fighting fell back, well the few that were left. A new line of men came flooding through the retreating men.
These men carried shields, all with the same insignia. They carried swords, not worn but well kept. They moved as one, not as an undisciplined mass. The man knew he was not their equal, that they had been drained fighting those that were expendable and now would face the real enemy. Surely his lord must see this and send his men forward. He had seen them marching in from the camps this morning, he knew they were here.
The men with the shields were within striking distance. Again he brought the halberd down on the first one and again he was too slow. The man put his shield up and deflected the blow. He moved in to stab him. Suddenly a halberd from the left caught the attacker unaware and cut deep into the man’s side. He fell with a pitiful wail. The man looked to see who his savior was but only saw a blur as a sword thrust lodged itself in his neighbors face.
He realized he needed to focus on himself. He turned to face the enemy, but he was again too slow. He felt the sword pierce his side before he saw it. He stared wide eyed at the man who was killing him. In a moment he saw every detail of his face. The well-kept, neatly trimmed mustache. The jaunty angle of the beret on his head. The yellow of his teeth, the upper ones cracked and broken. The slightly red and pockmarked nose of a man who loved his drink. The crinkle of his brow as he concentrated on his craft. And he was good at his craft. He brought the sword up tearing through things the man was sure he needed. The sword excited his body with a spray of blood.
As he fell he saw his killer had moved on. Another man stepped up and drove a sword through his back as he hit the ground. He heard himself gasp, but in truth he barely felt it. As the light faded he heard another horn, followed by a drum beat. His Lord’s men had finally gotten the signal. As the darkness enveloped him his last thoughts were of his blue eyed son. A small cloud of frosty air passed his lips. In it his last breath and a prayer to any Gods that would listen to help his Lord prevail and protect his son.
Before the battle even ended, the snow began covering the ground. It was quite a storm, the worst many in those parts had seen in a long year. It prevented the victors from recovering their fallen friends and looting the fallen enemies.
The snow stacked high pushing the bodies into a ground that was not yet frozen solid. In the weeks ahead the snows would melt, softening the ground only to be covered by more snow again. Pushing the dead even further into the soil. The pattern would repeat a number of times this brutal winter, this “Devils Winter” as the locals called it. Worst in many a year.
When spring finally came most folks were too busy trying to survive to head out and find their lost loved ones on the battlefield. Those that did generally left disappointed, bodies too far gone to recognize. The needs of the living too much a priority. And so with the rains and the sun the bodies sank deeper.
The man knew none of this; he had left his body behind. He found himself on a beautiful plain, prettier than any he could imagine. At first all he wanted was to return to his wife and son. But this place had a way of making you forget. In the beginning he was surrounded by those that had fallen with him. He saw the man that killed him. He must have met his end there as well. He felt no animosity towards the man, simply nodded in his direction. The man for his part did the same.
He met old friends and lost relatives, they shared stories and tales of old. He found his father and mother; he met famous people and exotic foreigners. They spoke a thousand languages and he understood them all. And they understood him. He learned more than possible and shared in the combined knowledge of those around him.
As the years went by he noticed sometimes people just disappeared. Ascended the others told him. They had learned all they could and shared all they knew. A rebirth awaited them. At first this scared him, but as the years passed he thought of the release such a thing might bring.
So when he saw the golden man he was not surprised. He stood far off on the plain and not everyone seemed to see him. This must be the way to ascension he thought to himself. As he approached he needed to avert his eyes, the glow from the golden man was just too painful. The feeling of pain was so foreign to him after years of tranquil bliss he was scared. He thought of turning back. But the golden man beckoned again and pointed towards a beautiful doorway. A few others were walking through now; he did not want to be left behind. He saw the man with the well-kept, neatly trimmed mustache walk through. How odd that they would ascend together he thought.
He hurried to the portal. He stopped to glance at the golden man once before stepping through. He thought he saw a glimpse of a twisted and shriveled old face behind the golden light, but then he needed to avert his eyes again.
The golden man spoke in his mind, such a pleasing voice. Hurry the door will close soon. He only wanted to help. The man hustled through the doorway.
He stepped into a pitch black world of excruciating pain. He couldn't think straight the pain was so bad. He burned like his entire body was on fire for a moment only to have the sensation change to one of a million insects eating his flesh. A moment later he would feel as if he fell into a pool of acid. The types and waves of pain continued to cycle so his mind could never come to grips with what he was feeling. He would have screamed but he seemed to have no throat.
Through the pain he heard the golden man call to him. Once again in his head. Up, dig up. To me. He said. The pain was less when the golden man spoke.
He did as he was told. He felt the pull of the golden man, he knew where he was and so he dug upwards. He ignored the searing pains and dug through fifteen years of dirt to burst through the surface. As he pulled himself up he looked around. The world was void of color, only shades of gray surrounded him. All across the field others were bursting out of the ground. But they were horrid forms, skeletons come to life.
He held out his hands to keep them away. He stretched his jaw to scream, but no sound came out. He looked at his hands and saw only bones. He struggled to understand, but the waves of pain would not let him think.
The golden man spoke again, I am sorry my friends. Your path is blocked. You are being prevented from ascending by Demons! Filthy corrupt Demons! Come with me. I will show you where they are so we may slay them and set you free! He looked at the golden man for a second. He was the only bit of color he could see. He had to quickly turn away.
This sounded so wrong, but the man just wanted the pain to stop. He would do anything to stop the pain. He reached to his back and pulled out the sword that had finished him. The man who had driven it in did not live long enough to take it out. Another spasm of pained wracked his body, He opened his jaw to yell again, this time a hideous shirk emerged. It gave him some relief. He fell into line with the others and began to march.
A grey dawn was breaking over a grey drab town when the man saw the first of the demons. In the distance they were blotches of an angry red arrayed in a defensive line along the edge of the town. The man began to think how odd for Demons to defend a town when another jolt of pain tore through him. The Golden man spoke, Faster my friends, we must take them soon! He sounded tired.
The host of skeletons moved faster towards the demon army. The man moved himself to the forefront. He wanted them to pay for this pain. As they closed on the front line of their enemies he saw their bodies were gray and human looking, the red was below the skin pulsating. They must have demon blood or be trying to hide who they were, he assumed. He wanted to think on this more, but his mind couldn't find purchase in thought. He let out another shriek and charged the closest one. The golden man egged them on.
He swung his rusted sword and the first demon didn't even raise its weapon to defend itself. It seemed to stand there in terror. He killed it anyway. Up and down the line the man’s fellow skeletons were slaughtering the demons. This struck him as unlikely. Weren't demons vicious brutal creatures? The pain hit particularly hard. The man let loose with his loudest shriek yet.
Good my friends said the golden man. The pain subsided a little. The man turned to look at him again. The golden man had been moving up with them. He was closer and the glare of his glow was unbearable. The man quickly turned back to front. Move faster. Destroy the town, the golden man insisted.
He shambled forward to comply. The order bothered him but the pain really left no time for thought. A second line of red glowing demons awaited. Surely their ascension must be close at hand. The end of this pain must be soon. The man charged the second line of defenders.
The demon he faced this time was slim, maybe young. His red pulsating light was beating fast. As the man closed the gap the demon dropped his pike and collapsed backwards away from him. This one was definitely afraid; it buried its face in its hands. The man had learned much while he awaited ascension. He had never heard of demons that showed fear. The man marched forward and prepared to drive his sword into the scared and frightened foe.
At the last moment the shaking and crying demon had decided to face its fate and uncovered its eyes. The man looked into the demons face and saw another color, one different from the red and grey that surrounded him. The color was blue. The boy’s eyes were blue, bright blue. It was a boy, a young man. Not a demon.
The man was confused. He stayed his hand and looked closer at those eyes. He felt he knew those eyes. The golden man had noticed. He demanded Kill him!
A name formed in the man’s thoughts…Kyle. This was his son Kyle. He stepped back from the boy. He looked around. This was his town. He grew up here. He knew the lay of the land, most of the buildings. It had been a while but not much had changed. He looked back to the boy and saw him as he really was, his son grown to be a young man.
The golden man was moving closer now. He was screaming in his mind KILL HIM! The man ignored him. He ignored the pain. He put his hand to his chest and felt the wooden dog on the cord. Kyle saw it too and spoke one questioning word.
The man let out a shriek that frightened even the undead. The battle stopped and all, living and dead turned to see what had caused such an unearthly scream. The man had remembered who he was.
Jacob turned to see who it was that had wronged him so. Who had used him like this? Who had pulled him from the blessed fields and forced him to endure such pain. Who had almost forced him to kill his son? Jacob turned to face the golden man.
The golden man was a mere five feet away and was panicking; he had no control over this one. This had never happened before. He saw the skeleton turn towards him. He pulled his little dagger out of his robes with no idea what good it would do for him. He was exhausted from summoning this army and driving them to the battle. He had nothing left for a fight. He ordered the other skeletons to attack but they didn't move.
The man who used to have a well-kept, neatly trimmed mustache knew why. He knew this man, not his name but he remembered killing him all those years ago. He had no need to do it again, he knew him to be no demon. This man was not the cause of his pain. The others knew as well.
Jacob saw the golden man as he was now. Haggard and filthy in dirty robes, he was gaunt with a sickly pale complexion. He was not the one to lead them to ascension. He was the foulest of all humans, he was a necromancer.
Jacob dropped his sword and stepped forward quickly. The necromancer tried to pull back but he was too slow. Jacob was upon him in a heartbeat. Jacob reached out and grasped him by the throat. The dagger clinked at his ribs ineffectively. The necromancer tried to speak but Jacob buried his bony fingers in his throat. Blood was flowing freely now. Without a sound Jacob tore his throat out. As the necromancer dropped to the ground his undead army crumbled.
Jacob turned to his son as he fell. The boy was up on his feet, so handsome. Jacob was so proud. As he faded into the darkness he promised himself he would wait to see his son on the plains someday. He would talk with him then. He swore to himself he would not ascend until he had that talk.