From the war journals of Talican Stell, the infamous captain of the Crimson Reavers, comes a tale of conscience and consequence...
Dress warm in Larric.
Especially in winter. Especially when your job is to climb a mountain peak and block off the pass underneath. See, General Tarsmus was about to come through that pass, and if he did, he'd lift the siege on Cel-Cabiri. Couldn't let that happen, not if we wanted to win.
So they sent up me and the Reavers. On our own, the thirty or so what were left after Balmere and that ball-up at Landis. They trusted us. We'd earned it.
We lost two more just getting up there. Should've left them both back at Landis. I even told them so, told them they should rest, but damned if they were having any of that. Digging their graves was the hardest part; ground that cold breaks for no man, 'less he's carrying an axe the size of mine. But break it did at last, and there we laid them, Balfour the Younger and Balfour the Eldest, side by side to the end. And still their youngest brother stuck with us. John.
I'm near sure he wanted to join them; it was him what begged for every scouting run after, no matter how steep the rocks or unknown the enemy. Not that there was any enemy to speak of, not for six days at a stretch; just our cold, hungry men and the snow piling up round our belts.
We found the place on the seventh sunrise: Korbellos Canyon, stretched out like a long, ugly gash. There was one spot — across the leagues, we could just barely see it — one spot where the walls almost kissed. No better spot to toss down snow and rocks and keep Tarsmus digging till Springrise. Just a quick march, down a slope and past a few boulders, and the war was good as ours. Perfect.
Much too perfect. The enemy knew their own territory; they wouldn't leave a place like that unguarded. Even I knew that.
So I sent John.
We all rested on the slope and watched him go. Well, most of us did. My second wasn't quite so patient. Never had been; Ralas the Rash, we called him. People tell me I charge into things. People never knew this man, the man who charged headfirst into Landis, got the five men behind him caught in a trap — the kind of trap you expect wild game to fall for, not grown men, not men responsible for other men's lives…
So Ralas was on his feet, kicking up snow, waving out at the canyon, ranting out in the open about wasted time and hungry men and on and on... I'd demoted him after Landis, and I could've done it again right then and there. But that would've killed the mood. We were there. Mission all but accomplished.
Or so we thought, until John came back.
John had a way of bouncing on his feet. Used to, anyway. Now, he wavered in the breeze, staring past me, past the leagues to those two graves. And when he spoke, the mountains got a little colder.
"Captain," he said. "They've dug in behind the rocks. It's an ambush."
I looked out at the canyon. We could go around, but the canyon's walls only pinched at that one small spot, the spot they were guarding for sure. We could find some other spot, but it'd take days.
Did we have days? Drums on the wind gave the answer to that. We had hours.
"How many?" asked Ralas, before I'd said a word.
"Thirty, perhaps." An even fight, leastways for any company but ours. "Captain…" John's trembling shook the snow off his moustache. "They're children. All of them."
When I say the enemy was stretched, I mean every boy old enough to lift a sword was being forced to. We'd started doing it too, but ours were fourteen, thirteen at the youngest. These were ten, if that.
"A short fight, then," said Ralas. "Talican, we'll attack head-on. They won't stand a chance."
"They wouldn't, would they?" I said. "Thanks, John. Take some rest."
John stumbled toward the nearest campfire. I started toward the rocks for a closer look. Ralas being Ralas, he followed me.
"Talican, what are you doing?"
To tell the truth, I didn't know. Not what to do or what to think. Here was a chance to end the Endless War, at the price of thirty children. Children who'd have to die on my order, my axe.
The drums were getting louder.
The chatter of the men got quieter, farther away as I kept on walking toward the rocks. Ralas was still there, right over my shoulder, reminding me, in case I'd forgotten, that this was war. That war was killing. That innocents died, and who was to say who was innocent? We sure as hell weren't; he made a point of that. Would a few more deaths send us over the edge when nothing else had?
"Ralas," I said as I stopped in my tracks. "Bring the men."
"Yes, sir," he said. He turned back around, but I put up my hand and stopped him.
"No one strikes without my word," I told him. "My word."
"Sir, what are you…" He scowled. "Do you mean to take them prisoner? We've not enough food for ourselves!"
"They've brought their own, I'm sure," I said, not at all sure of anything. "Go. And bring 'em."
He jogged back toward camp. He wouldn't be long.
"Larricans!" I shouted at the rocks. "Down with your weapons! Come out, and we'll do you no harm!" No answer.
"I'd have words with your officer, then!" I said. "Unless the man's a coward who hides behind children!"
"There are no children here, sir."
The voice was deep — for a fourteen-year-old boy. He stepped out from behind the nearest, biggest boulder. He was gray. Everything about him; gray eyes, gray mail, gray boots, gray officer's cloak. His stance and his gaze were both sure as the steel in his hands.
Today, you probably know him as Sir Daernic.
"No children," he repeated. "We're blooded soldiers to a man."
I saw his "men" poke their heads out. Aside from Daernic, there was no one there old enough to shave, let alone die. Their eyes were wide, their weapons heavy in shivering hands. I knew then that their leader was all they were there for; without him, they'd have broken and run, or better yet, stayed home.
Ralas brought the men, and they formed up some twenty strides behind me. I raised a hand and held them back.
"You must be the one they call Talican," said Daernic. "My uncle thought they'd send you." Uncle Tarsmus, I'd learn later. "That's why he sent me."
The men behind me laughed, none harder than Ralas. I almost joined them — but then the boy caught me with that same steel gaze. He wasn't joking.
Nothing puts the enemy off like laughter, so I let the men finish. Then I asked, "So what happens now, boy? You going to stand, fight, die for your land, land you haven't lived long enough to see? Look at you! All of you!" The boys, all but Daernic, jumped as I shouted. "This is the land you'd die for? A land that cares so little for your lives that it sent you up against the Crimson Reavers?"
That's when Daernic cracked a smile.
"You don't understand," he said. "None of us are here to die. We were sent…" he shifted his stance, cutting the snow, "to win."
Fewer men laughed this time. I look a quick look around. For the trap. Even though I knew he was bluffing. There were no reinforcements, no one else for leagues; we'd made sure of that. Only the men coming up the canyon, and they'd be no help to the children.
Still, he wore that same steel gaze. No, I saw, he wasn't bluffing. He was just brave. For a moment, I had the ridiculous thought that he was too brave to die.
And then I saw the way to settle it. A duel. So simple.
"Ten strides back, men," I shouted, and took a tight grip on my axe. Daernic's boys backed away too, out to the sides of the rocks where the view was better. The gray boy held his stance, blade on his left, pommel pointed out toward me.
"I'll spare your men," he said. At that, I had to laugh.
"That's kind of you," I answered. "But I'll be sparing yours."
I waited for the boy to make a move. He didn't. He stood frozen to the spot, like the rocks around him, motionless except for his cape in the wind. I took a step to the left. Only his eyes followed. Then two to the right. Still the same.
A minute passed. Then two. Then five. No sound but the wind. And the drums. And the drums were getting louder.
"God's Empty Throne, Talican," Ralas finally screamed, "just kill him!"
For once, I thought, Ralas was right. This wasn't a duel; it was a stalling tactic. The boy was bluffing, and he'd played us all for fools, cost us time, time none of us had.
I charged. I roared, I drew back the axe in mid-stride — and then he whistled. Four clear notes.
I thought it was a signal. I took my eyes off of him for just a heartbeat — and that's when he struck. His blade reaped snow as it slammed the side of my breastplate, twisted me sideways. The next two blows, I don't even remember; I only remember the boy standing over me, boot on my chest, the sun blinding me from over his shoulder as he held that gray sword to my throat.
His boys cheered. My men did not.
Ralas was the loudest, but even the rest, even John — all of them either turned aside in shame or shouted for the gray boy's head. And Ralas looked ready to give it to them.
"Quiet!" I shouted, loud as I could with my breath so far gone. Most of them obeyed, and those that did convinced the rest, at least for the moment.
"Yield," said Daernic.
I saw my axe in the snow. Within reach, probably.
"Don't," he said, his voice deeper now. "I'll spare your men, and you as well. But don't."
I took a breath and looked him in the eye. "You win," I said.
Daernic signaled to one of his boys, who came rushing up, lifted my axe — barely — and hauled it away.
"This is ridiculous!" cried Ralas. "Look ahead, men." He drew his sword and pointed toward the canyon. "The end of the war! Victory! And we yield it to one boy and his nursery friends? This isn't play! We're soldiers!"
"Soldiers with honor," I said. Daernic let me brush his sword aside and rise, tall as I could with the hammering blows still fresh on my back. "We have fought, and we have lost."
"You lost!" said Ralas.
I needed Ralas off that mountain, and I needed someone to follow him off. John hadn't slept in days, and wouldn't for days more; he'd do. "Ralas," I said, "and John too: Back to Landis. Tell the Prince…" I couldn't think of anything else but, "Tell him I've failed. Tarsmus is coming. Tell him!"
Ralas shook his head. "You would trade the war — the entire war — for your honor?"
"Our honor!" I said. "As men, as warriors! I will not buy this victory with the blood of children, I will not write our kingdom's history, my history, my family's history, with the blood of children, and if you would, Ralas," I stepped away from Daernic, "then start with this boy here."
"So Talican the Reaver's grown tired of staining his hands!" said Ralas. "And just before the end of it, so all of it's for nothing. Fine!" He gave a battle cry and charged. I saw Daernic give that same whistle just before he struck. The boy wasn't quite so merciful this time, unless you call beheadings merciful.
For a moment, I feared the men would charge in after him. But no. No one liked Ralas anyway, not since Landis.
I stepped around his body, and I raised my empty hands. "I'm Larric's prisoner now," I told them. "And my final order's for all of you to leave this mountain and tell the Prince… Tell him everything that's happened here. Let him be the judge." I couldn't guess at his judgment; I'd met the Prince only once, when this mission began, and he'd been a hard man to read. "John Balfour, you're Captain now." I looked him in the eye. "Go."
John was never the best warrior; he'd only joined to follow his brothers in the first place. But when he gave his signal and wheeled about, the others parted for him, then followed him back up the slope.
I'd damned him in a way. If I hadn't made him Captain, he'd have never led that charge on the siege's last day, and he might have come back with both arms. But that's war, and another story besides.
Once the last of my men turned away, I let myself bleed, and bleed I did. It was Daernic who offered a hand.
"You saved our lives," he said, too low for the boys to hear.
"I'm a warrior, not a killer," I told him.
"If more men were like you, we wouldn't need warriors. Here."
He offered me his sword as a cane.
The pounding in my head eased enough that the pounding of the drums took its place. I limped toward the canyon, and I saw them, reinforcements by the thousands, headed for the siege, for my countrymen.
And now I held the gray boy's sword, had one last chance to kill every boy in my way and then call up the last of my strength to block the passage. I could have. It would've been the last thing I'd done, but I could have.
Instead, I let them take me down the mountain, and spent the next five months as the General's prisoner. Learned a few things from Daernic in that time; he even gave me back my axe when they let me go. When the war ended, and nobody won.
Pardon me. I'm thirsty.