The Dark Wizards

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Revelations and Retribution in an Artanian Ale-house

The Artanian would often sit in the shadows where the dark could hide the extra cyclans that anxiety and alcohol had so unkindly engraved into his face. Mostly he preferred to be left alone, but on the odd occasion he felt the urge, an overpowering need to tell his story. Tonight was just such an occasion. The memories were becoming too painful again and the only effective means to lighten the burden would be to confess his crime. It made no difference whether he spoke to friend or stranger. Tonight, even the fellowship of a Kithian would suffice.

“Do you believe that a single action is capable of changing the entire course of history?”

“Teetus!” chided the ale-house keeper. “I have warned you countless times to leave my customers be! They are not interested in your pathetic drunken tale!”

The Kithian merchant, tankard in hand, paused in his tracks.

Maybe it had been the trepidation in the voice? Maybe the sincerity in the eyes? Perhaps a combination of both? He felt a strange sense of pity towards this wretched creature.

“Were you addressing me?”

“Sit down Kithian,” said Teetus gesturing towards the empty chair. “It would seem we could both use some company tonight.”

The merchant slid the chair backwards.

“You are making a big mistake, Kithian!” growled the ale-house keeper.

A group of Artanians, a few tables away, started to laugh, shouting snide remarks.

The Kithian ignored them and sat down. “I am Kazak, a merchant from Matmar, but my occupation has me traversing the entire Empire. This is my first time across the border. I am hoping to do a lot of profitable business as I move northwards into the Artanian interior.”

“Teetus, pivotal shaper of history and drunkard,” said Teetus introducing himself. “What sort of merchandizing do you deal in?”

“Just the usual buying and selling of practical or aesthetic items.” The merchant held out his hands. Palms raised. “I realized at a very young age that these hands had not the skill of any craftsman, but I certainly possessed the eye for spotting a bargain.” He tapped a pointed finger beneath his right eye.

“Ah yes, the hands and the eye. Better that they should operate separately for together they may create such chaos.”

“Chaos?”

“Let me start at the beginning. My father, just as his father before him, was a hunter of game. A huntsman of some notable repute. It was therefore only natural that he taught me his occupation. How to set traps and snares. How to camouflage not only one’s physical self, but your scent as well. The correct ways to skin, eviscerate and cure the meat of your kill. There are many skills that a good hunter should master.

“Although I found great pleasure in all of these lessons and tasks, what I enjoyed and excelled in the most was my use of the crossbow. Even at a young age I found that there was not another being capable of surpassing my accuracy with that particular weapon. My father called it a gift from the gods. I would later realize that it was in fact the most despicable of curses.

“Time passed. I was content with my life, doing what my forefathers had done. That was until the summer of my twenty-fifth cyclan. That was also to be the start of the Ten Cyclan War. Even before the end of the harvest season had come, I had found myself stationed at H’monah Fortress.

“Now, instead of experiencing the pleasure of killing for food and profit, I was commissioned to slaughter for king and country.

“As you may know, H’monah was an important fortification because it was the last bastion along our upper eastern border. This meant that it was also the first line of defense against the Kithian invasion.”

“Kithian invasion?” queried the merchant. “If memory serves me well, it was you that first encroached upon our borders. It was only due to the fact that H’monah Fortress was situated in such a strategic place that the Kithian forces were compelled to cross the border and secure its destruction. The fortress was a perfect haven, not only for the safe gathering of the Artanian forces, but also for the construction of its war machines. It was also there that the synchronizing of final battle plans took place before crossing into our territory with your invasion forces.”

“I, like most of the citizenry of Artania, was not well informed about events leading up to the Ten Cyclan War. Oh, I was bright enough to know that the Artanian demagogues of the day were keeping us commoners in the dark with their carefully constructed propaganda and half-truths. To tell the truth, to this day, most of us are still unsure if it was you or us that started the whole damned thing. I am sure of one thing though. Of this I am very certain. It was my singular action that brought it to an end.”

Kazak smiled. “You! You stopped the Ten Cyclan War?”

The group of Artanians, overhearing Kazak’s outburst, sent another barrage of taunts and jeers towards Teetus.

“You think me insane, do you not, Kithian? But listen to the rest whilst you conceal your smirk behind that tankard.

“During an attack, my duty as marksman was to scan the battlefield from the relative safety of the fortress’ battlements. Identify the enemy’s main strategists and remove them.”

“Remove them?”

“Yes! Remove them. Cut them down. Kill them.

“Although this course of action was extremely effective, my aptitude in battle was never truly appreciated. Neither Artanian nor Kithian held much respect for the skills we, the marksmen, possessed. True valour could only be found in hand to hand combat with the sword, battle-axe or mace. The crossbow was considered to be the weapon of cowards. Killing the enemy from a distance, without being able to smell or see his fear was not considered worthy of any heroic recognition.

“It was under these thankless conditions that I found myself. Not only did I have to suffer the constant attacks of the Kithian forces but also the barrage of insults from my very own compatriots. Especially from those who had lost either limb or friend. More often than I would like to remember, the abuses had been more physical than verbal.

“My salvation, or so I thought, came during the final cyclan of the war. I received word from the capital’s rear-guard encampment in the west. My presence was required. It had come to the attention of the Artanian Warlords that the morale in general was low. They had decided that there be some sort of festivities to lift the waning spirits of the troops. “One of the events was to be an archery competition. There would be exceptionally rich rewards for the victor. My achievements had, after all, not gone unnoticed or unreported. Only the very best archers had been invited. My commander, although reluctant, had no choice but to allow me leave to attend the festivities and competition.

“I considered myself to be the best marksman, not in Artania alone, but on the entire face of Baltrath. And I was going to prove it. Little did I know that it was to be my own arrogance and pride that would create the main obstacle to the retribution I so longingly craved.

“The pomp and ceremony of the occasion was grander than I had ever expected it to be, or perhaps it was just that the carnival atmosphere contrasted so with the miserable conditions at H’monah? Even the king’s eldest son, Sarx, was in attendance to see my performance. And what a performance it was.

“The temporary archery arena was created by a semicircle of tents, stalls and three large raised podiums. The royal podium situated directly in the centre of the semicircle’s arc was specifically for the prince, a few of his close friends and a large group of female attendants.

“This heir to the throne was the most corpulent figure that I have ever laid eyes upon. Too large to be seated, a bed of soft cushions and linen had been provided so that he could recline whilst viewing the day’s events. His perpetually red face perspired profusely. Whilst one of the attendants wiped the moisture from his fleshy visage, two more sat on the floor, each massaging a bulbous foot. He did nothing for himself except chew and swallow. And he must have found even the process of masticating food an effort, for only the softest confectioneries were stuffed into his continually gaping orifice. He reminded me of a small bird that had only recently hatched and was now impatient for its parent to provide it with sustenance.

“I began to think of how I had only recently come from a situation that was void of any true comforts. No decent food, no soft beds and most definitely, no female companionship. An intense sense of disgust permeated my whole being. At first I thought my feeling of revulsion towards this heir apparent was merely envy, a desire to have the comforts and attention that were so lavishly granted to our future king. I was later to realize that my first impression had been correct.

“Sixteen targets of compressed straw were placed at the open end of the arena. Sixteen marksmen had been chosen. The finest archers in all of Artania. The elite. But by the end of the day only two contestants remained.

“Feenus, a youth from the northern territories, and I stood patiently before the royal podium awaiting the requirements of the final part of the contest. The chief competition marshal bent low beside Sarx’s makeshift bed and listened carefully as the rules for the final part of the competition were dictated to him. Some time passed, as there seemed to be some sort of discrepancy. Finally the prince removed the golden diadem from his head and handed it to the marshal, who walked to the edge of the podium and announced, ‘Rich rewards have been promised to the victor and if you should prove your worth here today, then rich rewards there shall be.’ He held the bejeweled crown aloft. ‘Now, as it is our honoured prince who has been so gracious to donate this coveted prize, he has also set the rules for the final part of the contest. The royal son decrees that the finalist who is able to place twelve successive shafts within the circle of this golden band at double normal competition distance shall not only be allowed to keep the crown as his own, but he will also be declared Artania’s greatest archer.’ There was a series of ohs, ahs and a general hubbub from the crowd. They all knew that the task was impossible…for any ordinary marksman. ‘Furthermore,’ continued the marshal, ‘This task must be accomplished before the setting of the sun, or both contestants shall forfeit the prize.’ The youth just stood there shaking his head. The action was more from disgust than dismay. It was most apparent that the heir apparent had no desire to part with his precious jewel-encrusted crown, but then again, I was no ordinary marksman.

“A single target was moved back to double normal competition distance. The marshal borrowed one of my crossbow shafts. This he stuck into the top half of the target and then hung the diadem upon it.

“Lots were drawn. Feenus won the honour of going first. He did well, managing to place the first three shafts squarely inside the precious ring. The fourth scratched the crown, but unfortunately the mark sat on the wrong side of the band. The arrow had struck just to the outside of the golden circle.

“Now it was my turn. Whilst Feenus had shot his arrows, I had carefully observed Sarx’s facial expressions. He had not shared in the crowd’s pleasure as each of the youth’s three shafts had struck the target.

“When my twelfth shaft entered the centre of the golden band I instinctively knew it had simultaneously entered the core of the prince’s heart.”

“You placed twelve consecutive shafts into a circle the size of someone’s head?” exclaimed the merchant.

The Artanians hearing the Kithian’s outburst took the opportunity to send another volley of ridicule across the ale-house.

Teetus ignored the offensive remarks and stared intently at Kazak. “You will find the next part even harder to believe. The marshal ordered four of his burly helpers to carry the target before the cheering throng so that all present may have the opportunity to witness my incredible achievement at close range. Finally, the target was placed before me. The youth could do little more than stare at the twelve perfectly grouped shafts and mutter, ‘It is not possible. It is not possible.’

“The marshal raised his arms in order to still the ecstatic multitude. I felt like a god. I had to control an urge to pluck the crown from the target and place it upon my own head. At last my life had meaning. At last my skill with the crossbow was appreciated. Nobody would be able to take my moment of glory away from me.

“Unfortunately I was wrong. Oh, how very wrong I was.

“‘It would seem we have been wasting your talent in some trivial competition when it is sorely missed in our struggles against the invading Kithian hordes.’

“The prince said these words without even having the decency to look at me. He had been more interested in licking some sweet cream from the slender fingers of one of the young maidens in attendance.

“Could this obese pompous boor not even take a short moment of his time to give me the honour I had so deservedly earned. I had spent more than nine cyclans of my precious life in the miserable service of his father. Surely he could take but a few moments of his unproductive time to grant me the proper honour that I had so deservedly earned. I desperately needed that recognition, not only for the day’s accomplishments, but it would also justify the services provided by all marksmen that rendered thankless support upon Artanian battlements.

“He showed not a single quality of one deserving to be a future king. Yet, still without a single glance in my direction, almost as if he refused to acknowledge my presence, or worse yet, my accomplishments, he spoke the words that made the bile rise in my throat.

“‘I must confess,’ he had said condescendingly, ‘I never thought it possible that I would lose my crown to a commoner.’

“The people had laughed loudly at his feeble attempt at humour. ‘It is just as well a good thing that I have many more. My only regret is that I was very fond of that particular one.’ He gave a deep sigh and then waved nonchalantly, ‘Well, go on, take it before I change my mind.’

“I could not believe my ears. I felt extremely disdained. Was there not to be some sort of ceremonial handing over of the prize? Would there not be any words of praise? I gazed dejectedly at the chief marshal. He seemed to sense my anguish and quickly moved to the target and removed the crown. With a loud voice he declared, ‘My fellow countrymen, Artania’s finest marksman!’ Then with both arms extended he held out my trophy. As I was about to take the reward, the crowd ready to applaud my victory once more, the prince spoke again. ‘Well, most honoured marksman in all of Artania, do you have any words of gratefulness for your future king?’

“Instead of the appropriate applause, the crowd fell silent. Now they waited for my groveling words of gratitude.

“They did not come. They would not come. I was gripping the diadem so tightly that its edge actually cut into my hand. Tears ran down my face. But these were not tears of pain. These were the tears of rage.

“The more the maidens fawned over him; the more fodder they prodded into that oversized bresk’s frame, the more the bile ascended in my throat.

“I was obviously in a terrible state of mind, for before I had realized what I had said, the words had spouted from my mouth, ‘I have only this to say, my lord. My only regret is that this golden garland was not upon your head when my shafts entered its centre.’”

The Kithian merchant sprayed ale from his mouth. “Never!”

“By all the Artanian gods, Kithian, I swear it to be the unblemished truth. And strangely enough, I felt no fear or regret at having said it. I somehow felt I had voiced the silent wishes of the majority of the crowd.”

Whether the Kithian believed the events of Teetus’ narrative to be true or not, he was certainly finding it fascinating and exciting. “What happened next?” he asked, urging the Artanian to continue.

Teetus smiled as he slowly sucked in two full lungs of air as well as the attention of a wide-eyed Kithian merchant. It was always at this point that his audience became the most attentive.

The pause for dramatic effect over, the narrative continued. “The deed done, I felt an inner calm flooding my senses. If I was to die, well then so be it.

“A ghastly silence came over the crowd. Unfortunately, Feenus had found my remark to be exceptionally amusing. His attempts to conceal his mirth were not successful.

“Sarx, a mixture of rage and disbelief on his face, actually managed to raise his large frame upon its feet. I had at last managed to gain his undivided attention. The red face had turned a hideous purple. Two of the royal guards started to approach me; their lances at the ready. My arms hung limply at my sides. In my left hand I still held my crossbow, and in my right, the golden crown. I closed my eyes and prayed that my death would be swift.

“Instead, there was a painful blow to my midriff that caused me to drop to my knees. One of the guards had turned his lance and thrust the blunt end into my belly. I did not even realize that the crown had fallen from my hand. The other guard was not about to be as forbearing. He stood over me, gripping his javelin with both hands above his head, the point aimed directly at my heart.

“There was a shout from the podium, ‘Hold!’ It was the prince. ‘I have a better idea!’

“‘Of course you do,’ I thought to myself. ‘You would rather first see this arrogant commoner suffer some more before you put him out of his misery.’ He pointed a finger at me. ‘You are guilty of treason, marksman. As you should well know, the penalty for this is death. Do you have anything to say for yourself before I make a decision of what your fate is to be?’

“I rose to my feet slowly, but my mind was racing. Mental anguish had made me view my existence as worthless, but now the pain in my gut had suddenly awakened the realization of just how precious life is.

“It was obvious that Sarx was someone who enjoyed a good wager, especially if the odds were stacked in his favour. Maybe I could use this to my advantage.

“‘My lord!’ I had said loudly yet a little less arrogantly. ‘You seem to be someone that is fair and honest when it comes to a competition. Set for my bow and me one more task. If I should pass it, then you must grant me full pardon for my crime. If not, you may do with me as you please.’

“My plan worked perfectly. The prince, realizing that he had lost face with the commoners by his unreasonable request in the final part of the contest, now decided to redeem himself by trying to appear, not only just, but also merciful.

“‘I accept your challenge, marksman,’ he had said with a sneer upon his face, ‘But know this! We are going to increase the odds. The task I set you will be twice as difficult as the one you have just passed. Seeing as it would be unfair to add to either the distance or the number of shafts, let us rather decrease the size of your target.’ With some slight difficulty he removed a golden ring from one of his pudgy fingers. ‘Should you manage to find the centre of this precious ring, I will grant you three things. Firstly, I will reward you a full pardon for your treasonous outburst. Secondly, you may keep the ring as your own. And thirdly, I will grant you any reasonable wish that you may desire. But, marksman, should you fail, then at first light tomorrow you will be sent to the Artanian front as a common foot soldier. Being a marksman, you surely lack the necessary hand to hand skills necessary for survival upon the battlefield. Your deserved death should be swift in its coming. Oh, and there is one more thing.’ The sneer turned into a terrible grimace. ‘I require the youth to hold the ring against the target whilst you send forth your shaft.’

“The ring was handed to the chief marshal who then proceeded to remove my thirteen shafts from the target before ordering his helpers to return it to its previous position at twice competition distance. He threw twelve shafts at my feet, the thirteenth he handed to me along with some whispered words of comfort and advice. He and a very reluctant Feenus then walked off together toward the distant target. I could see that the marshal was talking intently to the youth, obviously attempting to calm him down. I watched as he placed Feenus as far to the left of the target as possible, his arm stretching out towards its centre. The marshal then retreated to a position that was a short but safe distance to the right of the target. A point from where he would be able to view and verify my subsequent success or failure.

“The prince had inadvertently done me a favour. At such a long distance, the ring was indiscernible, but now I had an idea of where it was. At the end of that outstretched arm, between those trembling fingers.

“Strange as it may sound, but the next shaft that I was to launch from my crossbow was only to be the second most important shot of my career as a marksman.” Kazak was about to say something, but Teetus held up his hand. “All will be explained shortly.”

Kazak spoke anyway. “It is not necessary to explain. It is obvious. After missing the ring, you hastily strung another shaft and killed the prince?”

Teetus laughed. “Although that very thought was foremost in my mind, the fact that I am alive today to tell my story must surely prove otherwise.”

“You actually hit the target?” asked Kazak sounding more cynical than surprised.

“Oh yes, I hit the target. And without removing the shaft the target was once again paraded around the arena. This time it was placed in front of Sarx so that he could see the result of my skill. The marshal pulled the shaft from the target and held it aloft, the ring still upon its middle section. It was now the prince’s turn to start muttering, ‘It is not possible. It is not possible.’”

“It is not possible!” exclaimed Kazak. “I may still believe it possible to launch twelve consecutive arrows into a ring the size of someone’s head, but you will never convince me that you managed to place a single shaft into the circle of a finger ring at twice competition distance. It is just too impossible!”

“But of course it is, my Kithian friend. I told you that I hit the target, and that is all that was required of me.”

“I do not understand.”

“It is quite simple really. You see, when the marshal handed me the thirteenth shaft, his words of advice were simply, ‘Just make sure you hit the target.’ I did not understand what he meant until I slid that shaft into my crossbow. It was only then that I noticed the prince’s golden band resting against the fletching feathers near the butt of my arrow. The marshal had cunningly slid it over the point of my shaft before handing it to me. Feenus simply had to pretend to hold a ring against the target. As I said before, all I had to do was hit the target. A miss could probably have meant the death of all three of us, but it was a simple task for a marksman of my abilities to adjust my aim slightly in order to compensate for the extra weight of the ring.

“The youth told me later that the shaft had actually struck slightly to the right of his empty parted fingers. At that distance no one had been the wiser. He had quickly pulled his hand away and had started shouting ecstatically just as the marshal had instructed him to do.”

Kazak roared with laughter as he slapped the table. “Dakur’s eyes, Artanian, you certainly know how to weave a fine tale!”

“Ah, but my story has not yet reached its closing, my Kithian friend. Order us another round of ale before I continue. All this talk has parched my mouth.”

A round of fresh ales was ordered and duly delivered. If this Artanian was spinning a far-fetched yarn in order to procure a few free ales, Kazak minded not the least. Teetus was certainly the best entertainment that he had experienced in the past moon or so.

“If the crowd had cheered noisily before, their exultation was now a deafening roar,” said Teetus after an extremely long draft of ale. “It was Sarx who rose his arms this time. When the crowd had settled itself, the future king spoke to me. This time he had the decency to look me in the eyes. ‘I believe the wager was that I grant you any reasonable request that you may desire. Well, marksman, what is your wish?’

“The prince could not fool me with his sweet sounding words. Even at a distance I could see the fierce hatred that burned in his small dark eyes. This was the type of hatred that would not dissipate for a very long time. I, a commoner had made him look foolish, not only in front of other commoners, but also in front of his friends. This heir apparent would not rest until I had been wiped off the face of Baltrath. There was only one way to appease his rage.

“‘My lord!’ I said loudly so that the entire crowd could hear me. ‘You were right. My talent has been sorely wasted here in this trivial contest, especially since even now the Kithian hordes encroach upon our precious borders. But I also believe that my talent will be further wasted on the battlements of H’monah. My request, I believe, is quite reasonable. I wish to be sent to the Artanian front, not as a foot soldier, but as your greatest marksman. It is surely there that my services will be the most useful. The youth may take my place at H’monah. He is, after all, Artania’s second finest marksman.’

“Sarx had stood dumbfounded for a few moments, then said, ‘It would seem I have misjudged you marksman. You do respect and honour the crown, after all. Your wish is granted. At first light, you will leave for the front, and the youth for H’monah.’”

“Why…?”

“Why did I have the youth sent to H’monah?” Kazak nodded. “It is obvious, is it not? It was for his own protection. In his present frame of mind, Sarx would have done anything to appease his anger. The youth had been indirectly responsible for the prince’s humiliation. He had also laughed at my treasonous remark. If I had not asked for him to take my place at H’monah, he would surely have joined me at the front.

“Later that evening the chief marshal, who I then found out was called Leano, Feenus and I got well inebriated in the glow of our little secret. It was also during this private celebration that Feenus thanked me for what I had done. I in turn thanked Leano. I just wish I could have seen his face when he found the golden crown that I had placed in his saddlebag.

“In the morning, Feenus and I left with a convoy to the eastern territories. A few days later, the youth and I separated company. His convoy headed northeast to H’monah, whilst mine took a direct easterly direction towards Grimwald forest and the border. I was still feeling responsible for the whole damn mess and so, to appease my conscience, I gave him the golden ring as a parting gift.”

“You gave both your trophies away?”

“It was the least I could do. I owed my life to both Feenus and Leano. In truth, although I had been victorious, I still longed fervidly to forget the memories of that fateful archery competition. I think that I somehow believed subconsciously, that by ridding myself of all the physical evidence, I could somehow speed up the amnesic process. Besides, I truly believed that I was heading towards certain destruction. Even though I was not to be employed as a common foot soldier, I would no longer have the protection of the battlements. Sarx was right. My skills in hand to hand combat were somewhat inadequate and I was certain that my time upon Baltrath had become rather limited. A dead Artanian has little use for gold or jewels.

“Two days later I came to the rearguard camp of the Artanian front. This was situated a short distance to the north of Grimwald forest. It was only then that I began to experience the undistorted horror of war. My service on the battlements of H’monah had truly been leisurely compared to the unfortunate creatures that defended our borders. The encampment was littered with the dead and the dying. Even the living seemed to be waiting for death. No… begging for death. Their dark, deep-set eyes were already void of life.

“The camp commander was no different. Inside his tent he stared at me with those lifeless orbs. ‘What could possess someone to volunteer for duty at the front?’ he asked shaking his head. His tone, although low and calm, disturbed me. ‘Only a fool or someone with a death wish would do something like that. Which one are you marksman? Fool or death wish? If it is a death wish you have, then it is better that I kill you myself right now. I can not afford to have some idiot jeopardizing the lives of my other warriors on the battlefield. What is it that ails you marksman? Has some beautiful female spurned your love? Well?’

“‘I am here because I believe that my skill with the crossbow can make a difference on the battlefield,’ I said to him, telling only half of the truth. And for a moment I even wished that the other half of the reason had been a rejected love.

“I still do not know why, but the commander started to laugh. The laugh started as a soft yet high pitched tittering sound that built to a disturbing hysterical crescendo that filled the tent. When he finally recomposed himself and had wiped the tears from his face he calmly said, ‘Get out of here marksman. Go to the battlefield and make your difference.’

“Three days later found me in the middle ranks of the Artanian army. Our legions faced east towards a flat, open piece of grassland. This was to become the so-called battlefield, for in the distance stood the assembled red-eye horde.

Red-eyes had become the common term on the border used for Kithians. It was probably a psychological means of reminding ourselves that the ferocious appearance that Kithians displayed during battle was merely a physiological trait that they needed to enhance their many weaknesses.” Kazak glared fiercely at Teetus over the brim of the large tankard but remained silent. “The sun was high in the sky and the heat shimmered across the open plain. Although there was a warm breeze caressing the long yellow grass, my body felt as ice. I was unnaturally calm. I remember thinking to myself, ‘How beautiful it looks. How could anything so beautiful be a battlefield?’

“I scanned the scene and was surprised and puzzled to notice that all the combatants were on foot. Neither side was about to utilize the assistance of their warhorses. I was punctually informed by one of my fellow marksmen that due to the unnaturally prolonged circumstances of the war on the Artanian border, both camps had suffered great losses to their cavalry divisions. This had resulted in an unspoken agreement to continue the battle on foot. Not even the commanders dared to sit upon mounts as it made them priority choices for the marksmen. I would have to find some other means to identify the important targets.

“I was still pondering on this dilemma when the signal to attack was given. I found myself no longer amongst a well-coordinated army. My fellow countrymen were now on a par with the red-eyes. They had transformed into a frantic, screaming, charging horde of bloodthirsty killers.

“The front ranks met, colliding like two immense metal cymbals.

“My fellow marksmen and I had been placed in the middle ranks for a specific reason. The front ranks were to take the initial brunt of the charging Kithians, whilst the rear ranks prevented the possibility of any attack from behind. This gave us the opportunity to use our weapons more effectively. I retreated slightly, allowing myself the necessary space and time to compose my first shot. The first target I picked out was a short, yet broad shouldered barbarian. His skill with the sword was extraordinary. I watched as he cut a path into our front ranks. I waited for just the right opportunity, the moment when he would raise his sword just high enough to expose the gaps in his battle-armour. The moment came and my shaft flew straight and true. A moment before my shaft was to strike, another shaft from one of my fellow marksmen pounded into his body armour, piercing it just above his left breast. The arrow did not penetrate deep enough to be fatal, but it did cause him to flinch. My shaft ricocheted harmlessly off his rounded metal shoulder cover. My colleague’s inferior skills had cost Artania an important kill. I hoped it would not happen again.

“It did not.

“I quickly slid another shaft into my crossbow. By the time my sight returned to the fray at the front ranks, I was unable to distinguish the short barbarian. Perhaps he had been cut down, but I expect his diminutive stature had luckily kept him hidden from my view. I scanned the battlefield for other warriors that were displaying similar qualities that were detrimental to our attacking forces.

“The enormous red-bearded warrior may have lacked swordsmanship, but he more than complemented this with his pure savagery and brute strength. What I saw chilled my blood. This behemoth was enjoying himself. He laughed loudly whilst he hacked through metal, leather, flesh and bone. He roared triumphantly with each slaughter, inciting his fellow countrymen to increase their own acts of carnage.

“As I squeezed the release, even before the shaft had left the crossbow, I knew the shot would be good. Ah, yes, and good it was, but the repercussions of that single action would bring terrible consequences. Throw a small pebble into a pond. No matter how small, when it breaks the surface it will create a wave that moves out in an ever-widening circle until it has touched everything in its path. Those ripples would change my life forever. Not only my life, but also the lives of all that dwelt and will still dwell upon the face of Baltrath.

“The shaft entered his enormous frame just below the left armpit. I must have damaged more than one of his vital organs, for only a small section of the arrow’s butt was left protruding. He released a piercing scream that seemed to influence Kithians and Artanians alike.

“It was my turn to smile now. I spoke softly, willing the Kithian to drop. ‘Fall, damn you, fall.’

“The Artanians seemed to move back, allowing a space into which the giant could collapse.” Teetus lowered his head into his cupped hands. He took a deep breath whilst running his fingers through his shabby hair. When he looked up again there were tears in his eyes. “If only he had fallen. If he had fallen, my life would have been so much different today. But instead, he rushed forward, roaring like some wounded wild beast, and once more began to cleave his way into the stunned Artanian ranks.

“The effect was devastating, causing a wave of anxiety to ripple through our once mettle-wrought lines.

“One man had caused this amazing effect, and as one man the entire Artanian force was routed. In a fit of terror and confusion my fellow countrymen turned on their heels and fled.

I had definitely made that difference.

“I just stood their dumbstruck as the Artanian army retreated past me shouting that the Kithians were demons that could not be killed. I was still unnaturally calm as I strung yet another shaft into my crossbow. I knew that the giant was merely living on borrowed time. A second well-placed shaft would hopefully end this nonsense of immortal Kithians. I brought my crossbow up to my eye just in time to see the sword’s blade descending upon my head. Instinctively I placed my crossbow in the path of the deadly arc. The sword smashed into the crossbow, which in turn slammed into my forehead. I staggered backwards. I could taste blood in my mouth. The frightful sounds of the battle mysteriously faded. Then the battlefield itself started to disintegrate.

“I awoke to the sound of chanting. When I first tried to open my eyes I was unable. They were caked shut with my own blood. When I had rubbed away the dried blood from my lids and lashes, I was to see a sight that still haunts me to this day. The Kithians had surrounded the red-bearded giant, who had miraculously managed to remain standing, his sword piercing an Artanian’s breastplate that lay dead at his feet. They were chanting his name over and over again.‘Zemth! Zemth! Zemth!’ And so, in causing his death, I had also inadvertently given birth to his legend. The legend of Zemth, the indestructible!”

Kazak had sat there numbed, not knowing how to accept this information, refusing to believe Teetus’ words. But now, with this name in his ear, he rose angrily to his feet. The chair fell, clattering noisily to the floor. The group of Artanians spun around to see the Kithian drawing his sword.

“Dakur’s eyes fool!” exclaimed Kazak. “Do you know what it is you are telling me? You were the slayer of Zemth of Bryntha. Zemth, who was the first Kithian in untold cyclans to attain the coveted right to the Golden Sleep. Do you not realize that I might slay you where you sit for disclosing this information to me?”

“Teetus!” shouted the ale-house keeper. “I have warned you countless times to keep your stupid old fabrications to yourself. Especially in the company of Kithians.”

Kazak looked around at the many smiling faces. The Artanians were laughing and shaking their heads. He felt foolish. This old man had actually managed to rile him up with a stupid tale of fancy. He smiled sheepishly, sheathed his sword and sat down.

“You may not realize it yet, Kithian,” said Teetus calmly, “You would only be doing me a service if you were to take my life. For only the sweet embrace of death can remove my incessant pain and guilt. But first perhaps you had better hear the rest of my story, for there is an important lesson to be learned from it.” Teetus waited for Kazak to fully recompose himself before continuing with the narrative. “For a moment, I too almost believed that this enormous red-bearded warrior was immortal. But when the circle finally dispersed, leaving him isolated, I realized the truth.

“The situation was so ironic that it brought tears to my eyes. The two creatures that had forever changed the course of history were left to face each other one last time. One alive, yet feigning death. The other dead, yet feigning life.

“We stared at each other for the longest time. The early evening sky, reflecting from those lifeless orbs, made them seem like two crimson gemstones.

“Only when the moon had risen large and purple in the eastern sky did I work up enough courage to crawl away from the battlefield. But this was not before I had procured myself a new weapon.

“I had a number of reasons for taking the sword. I had carried my own sword into the battle. This was obviously in the event of hand to hand combat being forced upon me. The Kithians had removed it as they cleared the battlefield of all its precious spoils.

Although they had regarded my crossbow and quiver as being of little worth, I too decided to leave them behind. I knew that these barbarians had even far less patience for a marksman than what my own fellow countrymen had. Should they come upon me carrying a blade, my death would be swift and merciful. A bow would only guarantee that my death would be long and extremely painful. But the most important reason was, if I could retrieve the giant’s weapon as a form of proof of his death, perhaps my fellow countrymen would put aside their ridiculous notion of immortal Kithians.

“I had crept closer and closer towards that sword. Then suddenly my heart stopped. The giant was still alive. I almost screamed as he moved towards me. But no, the dead figure was simply and finally collapsing to the ground. An action that was far too late in its performance.

“After some difficulty I managed to pry the sword from the Artanian’s breastplate as well as from the giant’s death grip. For a moment I even contemplated removing his head, but realized that this would be much too risky.

“The long grass and half-darkness assisted in making my exit from the battlefield reasonably easy and uneventful.

“I spent that night inside the relative safety of Grimwald forest. In the morning I headed northwards. A day later I exited Grimwald forest, but still on the Kithian side of the border. From there I continued north hoping to regroup with the rearguard.

“By nightfall of the next day I reached the encampment, but to my dismay found that it was totally deserted. Presuming that our forces had retreated towards H’monah, I set off north. I had no time to waste, as I knew that the Kithian forces would be swift in pressing their advantage.

“My greatest concern was to avoid making contact with the many Kithian raiding parties that traversed the upper border. These savage horsemen had perfected an almost brilliant attack strategy. At a given time they would cross the border, swiftly grouping together to form a rather substantial fighting force that would then proceed to attack the fortress. Their enormous warhorses could each carry the disassembled parts of a siege device. By the time we had rallied our forces for the counter attack, sufficient injury would have been inflicted by the Kithians, who would then simply divide into smaller groups and retreat once more across the border.

“By the next morning I had met up with a few other Artanian stragglers that were also struggling to reach the fortress. By midday we reached the edge of a small bushy glade that was situated upon a small hillock that overlooked H’monah.

“H’monah’s front and only entrance faced towards the east. It had been purposely built upon the banks of the H’yohr River in order to utilize it as a natural moat. The river, which flowed from north to south, had a jetty extending outwards from its eastern bank towards the fortress’ entrance. The jetty stopped short of the entrance and was only complete once the drawbridge was lowered.

“During a number of attacks, the Kithians had managed to bridge the space across the jetty using their siege devices. The enormous wooden drawbridge served a second function as a massive door. When raised, it would block the entrance to H’monah. Numerous attempts by the raiders to burn it down had failed.

“As we looked across from the slightly elevated position towards H’monah, we could see that the drawbridge had been lowered to allow our retreating forces access to the impregnable compound. The road running parallel along the eastern bank of the H’yohr was swarming with evacuees from the Artanian front.

“Should one of the Kithian raiding parties arrive now, the fortress would be forced to raise the drawbridge, leaving the stragglers to the mercy of the Kithian horde.

“As I scanned the distant countryside, my blood turned to ice. To the northeast of the fortress, half-hidden by a grove, was a Kithian raiding party of exceptional strength. They sat calmly and patiently in their saddles watching the routed Artanian forces. I reasoned that they were waiting for the right moment to attack. The tired, discouraged and demoralized Artanians would be easy prey.

“I knew from experience that one could not see beyond the grove from H’monah’s battlements. It was due to this reason that we always had several small scouting parties patrolling the eastern countryside.

“‘Look!’ I exclaimed pointing towards the distant grove. ‘We have to alert our forces to the danger!’

“‘Do not be a fool!’ rebuked one of the men I had met along the way. ‘It will gain us nothing except our own deaths as well!’

“If it meant leaving the relative safety of my present position, I had to warn the Artanian stragglers. It was imperative that they move along faster.

“I think that it was probably more due to the sense of an overwhelming guilt at having recently caused the massacre of my fellow countrymen, and not because of principle that I acted the way I did. I convinced myself that if I was able to diminish the carnage that was surely about to take place here, perhaps I could somehow redeem myself. Every soldier that I could hasten along to the safety of H’monah would hopefully wash from my hands the blood of one slain Artanian.

“I drew the giant’s sword from its sheath and charged down the slope.

“At first the throng had halted, bewildered at the sight of a charging, shouting, frantic madman. But when my words were clearly audible, and the gravity of their meaning had struck home, the weary masses somehow called together their remaining energies and rushed across the jetty towards H’monah.

“I kept looking towards the grove, expecting the Kithians’ surge of death and destruction to break through into the clearing at any moment.

“It felt as though I had taken forever, but I too finally reached the jetty. Without looking back, I sprinted towards that large welcoming opening. My lungs felt as though I had inhaled searing, scorching flames. I had a sensation of being toyed with. I had this awful notion that just before I would reach H’monah, the drawbridge would start to rise, indicating the horror that was fast approaching from behind.

“Only once I had reached the entrance did I turn to look back down the jetty.

“I was more surprised than relieved to see that the Kithians had still not begun to sally forth.

“The retreating Artanians that were still upon the jetty, probably thinking by now that I truly was a madman, started to slow their pace again.

“Sheathing the sword, I once more started to coax them on.

“I was shouting and pulling at the discouraged body of men when a strong hand gripped my arm and roughly turned me about.

“It was H’monah’s commander. ‘Relax, Teetus! They have been there for two days!’ he exclaimed whilst pushing my back up against the wall.

“‘What?’ I asked shaking my head. ‘What are you talking about?’

“I was going to shout again but he beat me to it.

“‘We are not imbeciles, Teetus! The Kithians have been waiting behind the grove for two days already! We have no idea what they are up to or why they refrain from attacking, but if you do not calm down I shall be forced to knock you down!’

“It was not necessary for the commander to lift a hand. Exhaustion and anxiety had taken their toll. The sound coming from the commander’s mouth mysteriously faded. Then the commander himself began to disintegrate. For the second time in a few days I felt myself losing consciousness.

“When I opened my eyes again, I was looking into the boyish features of Feenus.

“I must have been unconscious for some time because the sun was almost setting. My body was cold and my head throbbed. I was lying on some straw that had been placed on the battlements.

“‘Here,’ he said handing me a skin sack filled with water, ‘Drink this. You will feel better.’

“I drank and felt worse. I just managed to make it to the edge of the battlements before retching most of the contents of my stomach into the H’yohr. I collapsed into a sitting position, my back against the cold stone wall. The youth looked down at me anxiously. “‘What happened at the front, Teetus?’ Feenus was not the only inhabitant of H’monah that was confused and distraught. I looked around at the faces of the other warriors. Their fear was almost palpable. ‘They say the Kithians are utilizing some form of sorcery that makes them indestructible. There is talk of Kithian warriors failing to fall even though their heads were severed from their necks.’

“‘What?’ I said looking up sharply.

“‘It is true! They say they simply lifted their heads from where they fell and continued to do battle. Neither sword nor shaft could halt them!’

“‘That is all nonsense!’ I said getting to my feet. Angrily I grabbed the hilt of the giant’s weapon. ‘I happen to have the very … !’ I stopped in mid-sentence. I would only make a fool of myself if I were to disclose who the previous owner of the sword had been. In only a matter of days, the rumour of a single immortal Kithian had been nurtured by coincidence, fear and superstition into untold legions of indestructible Kithian warriors. The evidence of a solitary sword had become redundant.

“I calmly turned to watch the sinking sun. I leaned against the battlements with both arms outstretched and sighed long and deep. “‘Do you know anything about Kithian culture, customs and law?’ I asked Feenus, but spoke loud enough so all gathered on the battlements would hear.

“‘A little,’ he replied.

“‘What is their policy regarding the utilization of any form of the dark arts?’

“‘It is strictly forbidden. I believe in certain circumstances even carrying a penalty of death.’

“‘Exactly! And what is a Kithian warrior’s greatest desire or quest?’

“‘To die a hero’s death in battle.’

“‘Exactly! I may not have spent much time at the front, but I have seen the faces of Kithian warriors in battle. It is both frightening and awe inspiring at the same time. Not because of their rage and savagery, but because of the sheer ecstasy they experience from the satisfaction of partaking in what they would term glorious battle.’ I gazed towards the grove. ‘This is also why their reluctance to attack makes no sense to me.’

“Shortly after dusk, the road running parallel to the H’yohr and the jetty were finally deserted. Even the small group that I had left upon the hillock had managed to pull enough courage together to rush for the safety of the fortress. As the last pink rays faded in the cloudy sky, the drawbridge was at last raised. Like a large blanket, a sense of calm and security now permeated the Artanian masses within H’monah. The crushed spirits of many of the despondent were immediately replenished and I even heard laughter coming from some of the scattered groups.

“I gazed down from my elevated position. Never before had I seen the fortress this crowded. I only now realized that the pile of straw I had been placed on was simply one of many. The entire interior of the fortress was inundated with the ragged and weary frontline forces. They lay scattered like hundreds of fledglings upon their nests of dried grass. H’monah’s physicians were being taxed to the full trying to mend and comfort the wounded and dying.

“I looked up at the sky and was glad to see that the cloud-mass was dissipating. Rain would only aggravate this near intolerable situation. In a couple of days the men would be rested. Hopefully the rumours of indestructible Kithians would also fade as they regained their strength and confidence. The safety of H’monah would grant our commanders the time necessary to reorganize and rally the troops.

“The Kithians had made a mistake allowing us undisturbed passage. It made no sense. They had had every opportunity. They could have slaughtered us at will. I looked out towards the grove. The sky was darkening and the first stars were appearing above the treetops. It just did not make any sense at all.

“It made no sense until the following morning.

“It had been a dark moonless night. A short time before sunrise there were the sounds of much activity across the H’yohr. As the sky started to lighten we could see that a substantial Kithian horde had gathered at the far end of the jetty. Surely they would not be foolish enough to attack only now?

“A cry of jubilation resounded from the Artanian soldiers on the rear battlements. We all rushed to see what could be the cause of such excitement.

“To the rear of H’monah lay a thicket. Even in the semi-darkness one could see that a large armed force was approaching towards us from beyond the copse.

“‘Reinforcements!’ shouted Feenus. ‘Now we can drive those barbarian scum back across the border.’

“Perhaps my career as a marksman had made my eyes keener than most, for it was I who first realized the terrible truth. My blood turned to ice in my veins as I said, ‘Those are not Artanians. Look at the horses and the armour.’

“‘Kithians!’ exclaimed Feenus choking on the word. ‘But how? It is not possible!’

“‘I believe I know how,’ I said rushing back to the eastern-facing battlements. ‘Look!’ I shouted pointing down at the H’yohr. By now there was sufficient light to perceive our predicament.

“The Kithians had utilized their total control of the eastern bank to temporarily dam up and divert the river’s course at some point upstream. The main Kithian force, which had by then grown into an enormous army, had easily managed to ford across the shallow flowing water. They had then approached us from the rear, blocking any attempt at retreat.

“With such an enormous body of Kithian’s on the western side of the H’yohr we were now completely at their mercy.

“Although the Kithians were not prone to what can best be described as a passive assault, their strategists had realized that it would be the best course of action to follow. They proceeded to set up a vast fortified encampment. Within days they had created an impregnable perimeter around H’monah. Nobody in the fortress was getting out and nobody outside would be getting in. With this done, the Kithians simply bided their time.

“Although the horde that surrounded us consisted mostly of uncivilized and uneducated rabble, I could not help but realize that their tactics were sheer brilliance and genius. We had made the fatal mistake of underestimating our foe.

“There are many things that a soldier learns to live with, or without. I had learned to cope without the luxuries of decent sleep, female companionship or adequate protection from the elements. I had learned to live with fear, pain, the constant threat of death and the incessant badgering by my fellow warriors and superiors. But through all that I had never experienced true hunger.

“The forests in the vicinity of H’monah had an abundance of game. It had been my duty, as well as my absolute pleasure, to supply the fortress kitchen with an adequate quantity of venison and poultry. The soldiers at H’monah had always eaten well.

“But now, with an excess of mouths to feed and no means to replenish our food supply, we were facing a major crisis. Even with strict rationing, the food provisions within the fortress were being hastily consumed. When the normal supplies were depleted we started to slaughter anything that was edible. It is amazing how delicious horse-flesh can taste when you are starving. But even that particular inventory had a limited supply.

“To add to our frustration, the only form of attack that the Kithians made upon the fortress was a nightly aromatic bombardment originating from their many cooking fires. And because we were completely surrounded, it made no difference as to which way the wind blew. The pleasing smells would always reach the fortress. It is like having an itch that can not be scratched. It was enough to drive even the strongest of us insane. It might sound amusing now, but we would wear rags over our noses that had been stained with our own urine. Yes, it was preferable to smell our own bodily discharges than the torture of succulent roasted venison.

“I was soon to understand that nothing is able to disintegrate discipline and morale swifter than an unyielding craving for food. One night a number of our soldiers deserted. They made a futile attempt to slip through the Kithian ranks. The next morning their heads were paraded on long lances for all in the fortress to see.

“Almost two moons had passed when our commander rallied a mass meeting. I think most of us already knew what the gist of his speech was going to be.

“‘My fellow Artanians!’ he shouted down from the battlements. ‘We can no longer wait for help from the capital. The longer we wait, the weaker we get. And our enemy increases in strength and number with every passing day. We are confronted with a choice. We can wait for death to take us through starvation or we can muster our last bit of courage together and attack. The maneuver may just be daring enough to catch the Kithians off-guard. So, unless you have any alternative proposals, I suggest that you prepare yourselves for the assault. A short time after the sun sets tonight we shall attack. The darkness will hopefully add a much needed advantage to our offensive.’

“A terrible silence came over the soldiers gathered in the courtyard of H’monah. It was as if the commander had passed a death sentence upon us all. I felt my stomach cramping, this time it was more from dread than hunger.

“I must have been delirious, for before I knew it, I had spoken the forbidden words. Although I had spoken in a normal tone, in the abnormal stillness my voice reverberated unnaturally loud. ‘Why do we not just simply surrender?’ Every muscle in my body seemed to spasm in expectation of some fierce, painful physical blow. I immediately followed my statement with a defensive explanation. ‘Surely the true mettle of an intelligent soldier is to know when the battle has been lost?’

“The unnatural silence prevailed. I looked around at the faces of my fellow warriors. Instead of the expected anger and aggression, their faces reflected only the same despair as my own. Once again I had spoken too quickly, yet once more it seemed as though I was voicing the wishes of the masses.

“‘So, you think it would be best for us to surrender?’ said the commander coming halfway down the steep flight of stone stairs. He looked around at the despondent crowd. To my amazement a great many heads were slowly nodding in approval to my proposition. ‘Do you have any idea of what the Kithian’s would do to us? They are a nation who understands only one law. And this law is kill or be killed. Any enemy that surrenders to them would only be considered worthy of a disgraceful execution. If not death, we will surely be subjected to some form of mass humiliation. We all know of the rumours telling of how they remove the right hands of their captives.’

“‘And perhaps that is simply what they are!’ I said loudly. ‘Just rumours! Just like the foolish rumours of immortal and indestructible Kithian warriors. Besides, I would rather spend the rest of my life lacking a hand than a head.’

“For a short space of time the commander remained silent. Then in a tone of voice that hinted of ulterior motives he spoke to me. ‘Very well, Teetus! I shall allow you your opportunity to yield.’ He then looked back at the ragged crowd. ‘As soon as the sun sets, our finest marksman will leave the confines of H’monah to discuss the terms of our surrender with the commander of the enemy. I would like to suggest that none of you get your hopes up. So make sure that your weapons are well honed and oiled for battle. We must not forget that a Kithian’s word is about as reliable as a lame horse.’

“As the drawbridge lowered, the commander who was standing behind me spoke. “‘Farewell, Teetus. I doubt that we shall meet again. I fear the next time I see your face, it will be on display at the end of a Kithian lance.’

“A young worried face appeared in front of me. ‘Farewell, Teetus,’ said Feenus finding it difficult to look me in the eyes.

“‘You too, Feenus?’ I asked sadly. ‘Do you also believe that I go to a certain death?’

“‘I am weary Teetus. Too weary to know what I really believe anymore, but I truly do think that it takes far more courage to negotiate surrender than to simply rush headlong to destruction.’

“‘I have to try, Feenus. I could never forgive myself if I did not make the attempt.’

“‘I understand, Teetus. I really do. You…we have both been most fortunate in the past.’ He held out his hand displaying the prince’s golden ring on his middle finger. ‘I am quite sure that good fortune will continue as your companion tonight.’

“‘I truly hope so, Feenus. I truly hope so.’ I placed my hand on his shoulder, not only as a symbol of our camaraderie, but also as a means to gently move him aside. ‘I will see you soon, Feenus.’ Then I walked out of H’monah.

“I have no idea why, but I immediately turned right, traversed the narrow ledge leading to the solid ground and headed towards the Kithian encampment to the south of the fortress. I continued to walk next to the river along its bank. I smiled to myself thinking about the conversation that had just taken place between Feenus and myself. It is strange how frequent we tend to use each other’s names in similar emotional situations. Perhaps because we somehow subconsciously fear that we shall never use them again.

“A warm breeze suddenly drifted across the short grass plain that spanned the distance between the barricade and myself. It was a cruel wind, for it once more carried the aromas of the Kithian cooking fires.

“I gazed down at the H’yohr. The water was flowing swift and deep again. I loosened the sheath from around my waist and thigh. Pulling the sword free of the leather cover, I held it aloft. It was a magnificent piece of work. The distant campfires reflected off its bright surface. The rubies encrusted on either side were enormous. ‘This must be worth a small fortune.’ I said to myself before spinning around and hurling it far over the H’yohr. I waited for the splash, but was denied the sound. Before the blade struck the water, a tremendous roar of jubilation resounded from the southern encampment. Then slowly and methodically, like a brush fire moved along and fed by an unrelenting wind, the cacophony spread towards the western encampment. Without hesitation it then spread north. The sound became muted as it faded into the distance behind the large dark shape of the fortress.

“A feeling of great dread filled my whole being. Were the Kithians actually about to attack at last. Whether they or we attacked first, I realized that the end result would be the same. Either way the soldiers inside H’monah would be massacred.

“I had to complete my task as quickly as possible. Trying desperately not to run, for I knew this would be seen as an act of aggression, I walked as swiftly as possible towards the barricade. Only once did I look back. The entrance to H’monah remained open.

“Halfway across the open area between the fortress and the Kithian barricade I passed one of the many scattered enormous piles of wood that had been placed there by the Kithians. There was a strong smell of pitch permeating from the pyre. The wood had obviously been saturated with this highly inflammable viscous substance.

“As I neared the southern encampment I spread my arms wide. I hoped these barbarians would recognize the fact that I was symbolizing an act of non-aggression.

“Expecting to confront a line of bloodthirsty warriors preparing for a major offensive, my entire body was tingling in expectation of the Kithian shaft that would first slice the air before doing likewise to my flesh.

“Even today, when I think of the words that I used to announce myself, I can not help but smile. I took a deep breath and shouted, ‘Fear not! I mean no harm! I bring an important message from the fortress! I mean no harm! I wish to speak with your commander. I mean you no harm! Fear not!’

“For awhile nothing happened. In front of the barricade ran a long trench of indeterminate depth. From the darkness of this trench I heard the sounds of arguing and cursing. Eventually a voice shouted back at me. ‘What is your message?’

“There was no way that I would simply blurt out the purpose of my mission to a line of simple uneducated barbarians.

“‘I must deliver it personally to your commander. It is of the utmost importance.’

“There were more sounds of arguing and cursing. Finally, an enormous Kithian wearing a black grohara pelt climbed out of the trench. Using his drawn sword, he beckoned me to approach.

“Only once I reached the trench did I notice that there was no substantial Kithian force preparing for any nocturnal offensive. The numbers were simply those that you might find on any normal nightwatch.

“I was ordered over the spiked wooden barricade in front of the trench. No sooner had I clambered over when I found myself gripped on both arms by two powerful warriors.

“The Kithian in the grohara pelt vaulted over the barrier. I was amazed at the way he was able to move his large frame about with such ease and agility. He gazed down intently at me. ‘Your eyes wander too much for my liking. I think you have come to spy on us.’ I was about to defend myself but he quickly added, ‘Blind this little insect, then take him to Suris to deliver his message.’

“My heart started racing. For a short moment I was convinced that their act of blinding me would be one of great pain and permanence. I was relieved as the broad strip of leather was bound across my eyes. I felt the hot breath of the Kithian on my neck as he leaned closer to my ear. ‘I shall be very surprised if Suris does not eat you alive, little one.’ Then to the two warriors he loudly said, ‘Go! And be sure you hold him tightly. These Artanians are more slippery than slarks.’

“When the blindfold was removed, I found that I was in the centre of a great tent. There was a large chair in front of me. Although it was wooden and crudely constructed, it had been placed on an elevated platform that gave it a semblance of dignity. The large wooden poles that supported the canopy all accommodated burning torches. Towards the sides of the tent, a vast amount of animal skins had been placed in heaps to form a number of couches. Most of these were occupied with reclining warriors. All eyes in the room were fixed on me. The two warriors still held tightly to my arms. To the right of the chair and beyond the tent flap was a commotion. I soon realized that one of the many cooking fires lay just outside the tent. The Kithians were in unnaturally high spirits, feasting and drinking. The smell of the cooking meat was almost more than I could bear.

There was a roar of laughter from beyond the chair. The tent flap was pulled back and a large elderly Kithian with a red face entered. He must have been elderly for his face was creased with many wrinkles. His long hair and beard were a dirty mixture of grey and yellow. He held a whole roasted leg of wild bresk in his hand. Moving forward with a slight limp in his left leg, he continued to laugh long and hard at whatever amusement he had recently experienced outside the tent.

“This was, without a doubt, the camp commander. I hoped that his amicable disposition could be used to my advantage when discussing the terms of the surrender.

“As our eyes met, I smiled gingerly. The Kithian’s laughter immediately ceased and his smile was replaced by a ferocious scowl.

“My smile instantaneously vanished, to be replaced by a most sincere and serious facial cast.

“The effect this had on the Kithian commander was uncontrollable. He burst out laughing even louder than before. He limped over to the crude throne and seated himself. After regaining his composure, he ripped off a large piece of the bresk meat with teeth that were too white and perfect to belong to someone so seasoned. I suddenly had a terrible vision of those very same immaculate canines eating me...alive.

“‘I am Suris,’ he said whilst chewing loudly. ‘I understand you come with a message from the fortress?’

“‘That is correct.’ These first words spoken to the Kithian commander struggled to escape from my dry throat. I coughed then repeated myself. ‘That is correct. I am Teetus, official messenger of the commander of H’monah.’ I was doing my best to sound as diplomatic as possible. ‘My commander wishes to avoid any unnecessary bloodshed. He is willing to yield the fortress to you. He has sent me to discuss the terms of our surrender.’

“For a few short moments there was a stunted silence inside the tent. Then Suris put his head back and laughed again.

“This time his laughter made me feel uneasy. The laugh started as a soft yet high pitched tittering sound that built to a disturbing hysterical crescendo filling the entire tent. The rest of the Kithians started to laugh as well.

“My commander had been correct in his assumption of the Kithians. They were nothing but a race of bloodthirsty barbarians. They were not going to allow us the decency or lenience of any cowardly surrender. Our total destruction was inevitable.

“It was some time before the laughter subsided.

“‘You wish to surrender?’ said Suris wiping away crimson streaks from his rosy cheeks.

“‘I am sorry, but I fail to comprehend the humour in my statement.’

“‘Release him,’ said Suris waving a hand at the warriors at my side. I felt the grips of iron upon my arms relax. I took a step forward and immediately found myself wishing that the Kithians had not let go of me. It was much more difficult trying to support my weakened frame on shaking legs. ‘You must be famished, Artanian?’ Suris pointed at a young warrior to his left. ‘Bring our guest some roasted meat and a sack of aluram. Also tell our other two guests that I once more require their company in my conference tent.’

“I drained half of the aluram before setting to devouring the roasted cutlet like some wild animal. The sudden excess of alcohol quickly overwhelmed my mind and body, which had been deprived of proper sustenance for a prolonged period of time. I had never in my entire life become inebriated in such a short space of time. The thought did cross my mind that the food or drink might be poisoned, but if this was to be the last meal of someone condemned to death then I intended to make the most of it. I had never had any ambitions to die some sort of heroic death in battle. I had even less of a desire to suffer some sort of prolonged torturous demise at the hands of these savages. And so I drank and ate until my shrunken belly was round and bloated and aching.

“Most of the Kithians found my display of gastronomy amusing. Suris sat casually staring, his elbow supported on the armrest, his bearded chin cupped in his large hand.

“It was only then that another dubious thought crossed my ever wary and suspicious mind. Perhaps they were simply fattening me up for the kill. Maybe these barbarians did harbour cannibalistic tendencies. I know that certain tribes of the Tsaltian Islands believe that by eating the heart of your enemy you will gain his strength and wisdom.

“I was still contemplating on these horrors when the other two guests that Suris had mentioned entered the tent.

“One was a young Kithian warrior, the other an Artanian.

Even in my state of intoxication I recognized them both at once.

Although the Kithian had a very short stature he still stood higher than the Artanian.

“This was the very same Kithian that had escaped death from my crossbow shaft on the battlefield east of Grimwald Forest.

“‘Ah!’ exclaimed Suris on seeing the two guests. ‘Come closer. I want to introduce you to a messenger from H’monah.’ He waved a beckoning hand at the undersized Kithian. “‘This is the Son of Zemth, one of Kith’s finest warriors. He only recently had the privilege and honour of seeing his father placed in the Tomb of the Golden Sleepers.’

“Zemth? Was this a common Kithian name or was it possible that this undersized Kithian warrior could be the son of the giant that I had slain and robbed of his ruby encrusted sword?

“Suris’ eyes beamed as he grabbed the young warriors arm. ‘As soon as he has fed and rested I want him to tell me about the whole Golden Sleep ceremony in detail. Ah, such honour. So much glory. Dakur be praised!’

“‘Dakur be praised!’ repeated all the Kithians present.

“It was strange, but I received the impression that the commander was more elated about the celebrated death of the young warrior’s father than what the young warrior was himself. I suppose he was still in a state of grieving. He must have loved his father very much. I felt terrible. I repressed an urge to tell him how sorry I was about his loss.

“Suris now waved a hand at the Artanian. ‘This is Leano, emissary to the Artanian Crown. He and the Son of Zemth have only just arrived from almost two days hard riding from the Artanian capital. They have brought some very good news. Better for some than others, but ultimately good for everyone. You probably heard my troops rejoicing at the report earlier on?’

“‘Teetus?’ frowned Leano stepping forward. ‘Teetus! It is you! How are you? You look…terrible!’

“‘Ah, so you are already familiar with each other!’ exclaimed the commander.

“‘What is going on, Leano?’ I asked almost weeping. ‘This is all very confusing.’

“‘It is over, Teetus! It is all over at last!’

“‘What is?’

“‘The war, of course,’ said the Son of Zemth walking towards me. He removed a document from his leather satchel and unrolled it. He held it to my face where I could see the royal seals of both the Artanian king as well as the Kithian emperor. ‘This is one of many similar official documents that are, even as we talk, being carried far and wide across the frontiers of both Kith and Artania. It is a peace treaty. Our nations are no longer at war.’

“Dumbstruck, I looked questioningly at Leano. He smiled and nodded reassuringly. ‘It is true, Teetus. It is all absolutely true.’

“‘So, as you heard, Artanian,’ said Suris rising to his feet, ‘Strange as it may seem to you, but even Kithian’s rejoice at the prospect of peace. After all, we are not barbarians, you know. This war has gone on much too long. Ten cyclans is a very long time. Even an old warrior such as myself tires of these endless battles. There is a proper time for everything. And the time is long overdue for us all to return to our homes and our wives. The time for making war is over. The time has come for healing the body as well as the mind and spirit. For awhile Dakur will have to be patient. It is once more a time for life. A time for producing gruntlings.’

“‘Gruntlings?’ I was suddenly strangely brave and angry. ‘Ah yes, the fodder of future battles glorious!’

“‘Do not be so fatalistic, Artanian. The circle of life and the circle of death are one and the same. There has always been and always will be conflict and strife; it is what shapes and molds us into what we are. We are simply clay. You have a choice. You can either be pliable or you can be brittle. When life takes you in its powerful grip, you will either bend or you will break. Either way it is all a learning experience. We may not approve of each other’s ways. We can obviously never fully understand or agree with each other’s cultures, customs or religions, but perhaps we can learn to tolerate one another.’

“Still angry, I stepped forward. ‘Even if the whole of Baltrath was one nation, one race, one religion, one language - we would still find something to disagree about,’ I sneered. ‘It is in everyone’s nature to be competitive. Aggressively competitive.’

“Suris calmly shook his head and said, ‘It is simply that we fear the unknown. We tend to have a natural resistance to any sort of change. We all want to preserve the common and familiar to us. Without our past, without the legacies of our ancestors we are nothing until we prove ourselves to be otherwise. At birth we are the sum of our heritage, and should anyone try to pluck that away from us, we must fight. And yes, aggressively if need be, but fight we must.’

“It was difficult for me to comprehend that a Kithian was capable of voicing such wisdom, although I did not agree entirely with all that he had said.

“‘But change could be good!’ I loudly slurred. ‘Change could be beneficial!’

“‘That is correct,’ nodded the Kithian commander. ‘A true sign of ignorance is when we fail to learn from our past errors. Mistakes are more often than not painful experiences, but necessary. It is all part of the learning process. A gruntling learns at a very early age that a flickering flame is beautiful and fascinating to behold, but painful to touch.’

“The tent flap to my right parted. The large Kithian wearing the black grohara pelt entered. He had a look of urgency on his face. ‘Suris! It is just as you expected! The bog hounds attempt to approach us using the cover of darkness.’ Then he growled in my direction. ‘Your futile schemes have gained you nothing but the wholesale slaughter of your soldiers!’

“I frowned and was about to say something when the Kithian commander shouted, ‘Still your tongue, Zendak!’ He rose from the chair and limped towards me. ‘I seriously doubt that our guest here had any idea of the treacherous nature of his commander. He is merely an ignorant and expendable pawn in this game of combat. Tell the archers to prepare themselves.’

“‘It is already done. They await only your signal.’

“‘Good! Go then and prepare for glorious battle! Dakur be praised!’

“‘Dakur be praised!’ repeated all the Kithians present.

“Zendak turned swiftly and exited the tent.

“‘Follow me,’ said Suris looking down at me. ‘You two as well,’ he beckoned towards the heralds of peace. ‘It would seem that this war requires one last battle; one final blow to end its death throes.’ Then he too exited the tent.

“Outside the tent was a large mound of earth that allowed a clear view over the surrounding tents towards the fortress. The four of us stood there looking out across the blackness towards H’monah.

“The commander spoke in a low calm tone. ‘We Kithian’s have a saying - An Artanian’s word is about as reliable as a lame horse. And as I said before – We shall remain ignorant for as long as we fail to learn from our past errors. No sooner had I received word that a messenger had arrived from the fortress, that I deemed it necessary to alert my entire force to prepare themselves for an assault. It would seem my suspicions have proved correct. It was your commander’s ploy to lull us into a false sense of victory. Fortunately, for us, he has done just the opposite. Thanks to you, he will find my forces quite ready for this futile attack.’

“The commander raised his right arm high before clenching his fingers into a tight fist.

At the base of the mound an archer ignited the tip of his arrow in a torch before letting the shaft fly skyward. The shaft struck the ground about halfway between the Kithian barricade and the fortress. As it did, a volley of flaming projectiles was loosed from around the entire Kithian rampart. The enormous scattered piles of pitch-saturated wood immediately burst into flame as the burning shafts struck them. The entire area between the fortress and the barricade was lit up.

“The darkness receded. In the incandescent orange and yellow glow I saw a sight that immediately shocked my system back into a state of sobriety. The entire Artanian force that had been stationed at H’monah had been stealthily crawling towards the Kithian barriers. With the cover of the night pulled rudely away, they now got to their feet and, yelling Artanian battle cries, charged towards the barricade. A second volley of arrows dropped the front ranks of the attack. The Artanians fell like wheat before the scythe.

“Before the next mass of Artanians could reach the barrier, a line of Kithian warriors that had been crouching in the trenches rushed out to meet them. Taken totally by surprise and in their weakened state, the Artanians never stood a chance.

“The Son of Zemth removed his sword from a sheath that was fastened across his back.

He stepped in front of the commander. ‘Suris, I beg you! Allow me to join the fray!’

“‘Do not be foolish, young warrior!’ exclaimed the commander looking over the short Kithian’s head. ‘You have a much more important task to which you must attend! At first light tomorrow you and Leano shall continue your journey of enlightenment. And by my sight it would seem that your company will not be needed upon the battlefield this night.’

“‘But, Suris?” pleaded the short Kithian.

“‘Enough, Son of Zemth! I have spoken!’

“By the time the sun had risen high enough for me to survey the carnage they were gone. As quickly as they had come, they had left. All that remained was their barricade and their smoldering fires.

“Even though the war was over, it had not prevented the Kithians from stripping the dead of their valuables. The golden ring on Feenus’ finger was missing. I sat on the cool moist grass next to his cold body. I placed my head between my knees and wept and wept and wept.

“I have no idea how long I had been sitting there before I heard the sound of the approaching horseman. I looked up. It was Leano. He halted the horse in front of me.

“‘Feenus?’ he inquired. I nodded slowly. He looked truly dismayed. ‘I am terribly sorry, Teetus.’

“I nodded. ‘I thought that you and the Son of Zemth would have been far from this place by now?’

“Leano pointed into the distance. The short Kithian warrior was leading his horse between the aftermath of the slaughter. ‘I am afraid he was most insistent on returning here.’

“‘Why?’

“‘I am not quite sure, but I thought it best not to press the matter.’

“‘Has he come to gloat at our destruction?’

“‘I do not believe so. I have come to know him rather well on our long journey together. Although, like most Kithian’s, he is fanatical about the necessity of victory or glorious death, I have found him to be most honourable.’

“‘Honourable? I always thought that we were honourable. No matter what, I always believed that we fought with dignity and honour. What happened last night has caused me to lose my faith.

“Leano shook his head. ‘You can not allow the actions of one man to discredit an entire nation.’

“‘No? I may not be very learned, but I am afraid you are wrong. The Artanian commander has taken the good name of Artania with him to the grave. We can not deny it.’

“‘You know very little about politics, Teetus. That is exactly what will happen. Not only will the Artanian Crown deny it, but they will also claim that the forces at H’monah died heroically brave deaths. And who is there to disclaim it? You? Me? I think not. We are the only Artanians alive who know the truth. And if we want to remain alive, it is best that we keep that truth to ourselves.’

“Nodding, I said, ‘So now we possess two truths that must forever remain secret should we wish to keep our heads.’

“‘Ah, yes!’ exclaimed Leano reaching into his saddlebag. ‘Our return here has at least given me the opportunity to return this to you.’ A golden diadem landed gently on the grass between my feet. ‘Do not consider me ungrateful my friend. I know that you meant well. But should word ever reach Prince Sarx’s ear that Leano, the king’s emissary, was seen bartering for goods with a crown of gold…’

“‘I understand,’ I said interrupting. ‘Please forgive me! Perhaps there is some other way that I may return your kindness.’

“‘There is. I require three things of you. Your friendship and your silence.’

“‘That is only two?’

“‘And find a decent piece of land and bury the youngster good and deep.’

“I looked down at the youthful features. Feenus seemed peaceful, almost as though he was merely sleeping.

“‘He was a good friend of yours?’ asked the Son of Zemth approaching us.

“‘Yes.’ I said coldly as I watched him come closer. He stopped and gazed almost enviously at my fallen comrade.

“‘I am sorry for your loss, but you should be joyful and proud for he has died in glorious battle. Dakur will accept him willingly.’

“This remark was not patronizing in the least. I looked at Leano. We both knew that this had been no glorious battle, yet this Kithian warrior truly believed it to have been so.

“‘What would your Kithian god want with an Artanian warrior?’ I asked squinting at the young warrior silhouetted against the sun.

“‘We are all equal in Dakur’s eyes!’

“I was pondering upon some form of sarcastic reply when I realized that he had spoken one of the most common truths. Death in all his forms, whether dark or glorious, is totally unbiased. All living organisms must sooner or later be welcomed into those infinitely enfolding arms so that he may crush you gently against his bosom of oblivion.

The Son of Zemth waved a hand over the battlefield. ‘In time to come, the battle of H’monah will become known as the final battle of this long war between our two nations. And as truths sometimes get bent, they may even say that this was the decisive battle, the one that changed the course of history. Fate has once more denied me the right to prove my worth.’

“‘You need not have any fear of that,’ said Leano poignantly. ‘Your father’s death and his subsequent glory shall not be diminished by one single iota. The proof of the decisive battle will lie forever in the Tomb of the Golden Sleepers.’

“I guess the truth of Leano’s statement must have convinced the young warrior for he became pensive yet strangely sombre.

“Once more I felt the enormous sensation of guilt at having removed a loved one from this Kithian’s life. This time I managed to articulate a few words of sympathy. ‘I too am sorry for your loss, Son of Zemth.’

“‘You would not understand, Artanian, but I have lost something that is much more important than a father or a friend,’ he said climbing onto the large war-horse. ‘I have lost my name!’

“‘Your name? Nonsense! I am certain that the Son of Zemth will be remembered far and wide for many cyclans to come. Now ride swiftly with your document of peace before anymore lives are forfeited for naught.’

“‘Exactly! I am merely to be the bearer of the message, but not its cause. And by the way,’ shouted the young short Kithian warrior as he galloped away, ‘My name is Groad!’”

Teetus stared across the table at Kazak. “And that is almost the whole of my story. The little that remains is not of much importance. I was left alone upon the battlefield, a dead man to bury the dead. The trenches that the Kithians had dug around the fortress served one more useful purpose. When I was eventually finished, the mass grave formed an almost complete circle about the fortress. H’monah’s legacy to itself was fitting. It would forever be enclosed within a ring of death. I buried Feenus in the grove on the hillock overlooking H’monah. Since the golden ring had been rudely plucked from his finger, I had felt it appropriate to place the golden crown upon his head. This was my final salute to the second greatest marksman in Artania.

“Although my debt to Leano was paid, my soul refused to remain untroubled. I attempted to console myself by trying to convince myself that my singular action upon the Kithian battlefield to the east of Grimwald forest had brought peace to two ravished nations. Perhaps not immediately, but my actions that day were certainly pivotal in compelling the war to spiral rapidly towards its end. Ten cyclans is a long time, but ten cyclans of war is a lifetime. I had become old before my time. This life had taken its toll and so much more as well.

“I suppose I should have been pleased with the result. I was free from my military duties. Free to do the one thing that I truly loved; hunting for game in the forests of Artania. The only problem was that I was unable to do it. I feared the one thing in life that I was best at. I was no longer able to utilize my crossbow. Whether I aimed at either a living creature or an inanimate object, my whole body would start to shake. Uncontrollable paroxysms would rack my whole being. On numerous occasions I attempted to conquer this strange malady that had befallen me by forcing myself to overcome the convulsions. Each time I only managed to succeed in regurgitating my last meal.

“Somehow the series of misfortunes that had come to pass as a result of my unparalleled skill with the crossbow had cut an irreparable wound into my mental well-being.

“Fortunately I still knew the other arts of my trade, but catching game solely by the utilization of traps and snares leaves a somewhat bitter taste in the mouth. Especially for someone who had proven to be the greatest marksman on the face of Baltrath.

“And so in retrospect, my Kithian friend, I sincerely hope that you have learned a valuable lesson from the narrative of my miserable failure of a life. And that lesson should be - Doing good will not always produce good results.”

“I am not sure I understand,” said Kazak frowning.

“Then I fear that I may have been wasting my time on you. Do you not realize that I had tried to do good by winning the archery contest? I had tried to do good by securing Feenus a station at H’monah. I had tried to do good by giving the golden crown to Leano. I had tried to do good by killing the Kithian giant, Zemth. I had tried to do good by hastening the retreating Artanian army into what I had hoped would be the safe confines of the fortress. And I had tried to do good by attempting to negotiate surrender with the Kithian commander. But these acts, although not all totally unselfish, were still primarily carried out because I truly believed that I was doing the right thing. But in the end they were all, every last one of them, deleterious. I have tried to console myself by trying to believe that my actions brought a long and bloody war to its conclusion, but still it brings little comfort to my ragged soul. So, there is a lesson to be learned from all of this, Kithian - Every good deed has its price. Unfortunately that price is sometimes more than we can afford.”

“You are too hard on yourself, Artanian. Who knows, perhaps your actions have had phenomenal repercussions? Results of which you are not even aware, but that have had world-saving or perhaps even universe-saving potential.”

“Ah, you patronize me, Kithian. But I understand. I am old and I am weary. At least you feel pity for me and not contempt. “Unfortunately your former anger for me seems to have been replaced by sympathy.”

“You are a wondrous storyteller, Teetus. Your tale rings true on a historical level, but this still does not cancel out the fact that you may have fabricated a lot of the events. And there would be no glory in slaying an old defenseless Artanian.”

“Then why not demonstrate your pity in a more practical way. Besides, the saviour of the universe will forgive you more readily for not taking his miserable life if you should buy him one last ale before departing his glorious company.”

Long after Kazak had departed from the ale-house, the Artanians continued to laugh and utter unkind remarks towards the dark corner where Teetus sat. This had happened so often in the past that he was now mostly deaf to the incessant gibes. He stared at the bottom of the empty tankard and believed himself to be gazing at a metaphor of his life. This thought was still fresh in his mind when the ale-house door splintered, its hinges all but ripping out of the doorframe. All the occupants spun round to see the cause of the cacophony. A second crashing sound sent the door flying almost halfway across the room. It smashed noisily into one of the tables before falling clumsily to the floor.

What happened next chilled the blood of each and every spectator.

A Kithian warrior wearing tarnished gold armour entered through the dark opening. Even though the top of the doorframe was set reasonably high, he had to stoop low to avoid knocking his helmet against the lintel. He paused for a moment, scrutinizing the interior of the ale-house. Nonexistent eyes gazed at mortified onlookers through scarlet gemstones that had been tightly fixed into hollow eye-sockets. The rosy gleam in the enormous figure’s eyes created the impression, that no matter where one stood, the ruby eyes would look right at them; accusing them of crimes both remembered and forgotten. Especially those crimes, no matter how trivial, that had been committed against this warrior himself. One lacking in mettle-substance could easily disintegrate beneath that ever-accusing stare.

The figure raised an arm and pointed at the cringing audience.

Death to the enemies of Kith!

May their blood further temper the metal of our swords!

Death to the enemies of the Empire!

May Dakur grant us victory or suffer us to die with honour!

There were no lungs expelling air; no vocal chords to vibrate the air into sound; no tongue or mouth cavity to shape the resonance into coherent speech, yet the intonation that was heard uttered from the flapping golden jaw was unmistakably, undoubtedly the voice of Zemth, the indestructible Kithian.

Only a single patron was laughing now.

It was Teetus.

The laugh started as a soft yet high pitched tittering sound that built to a disturbing hysterical crescendo filling the entire ale-house.

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