It was the same dream he had every night.
He was a child again, lost in the woods. It was dark – too dark for small boys, in fact – yet somehow he could still see. Gnarled branches reached for him as he ran, their wooden tendrils dragging at his clothing. He was looking for something, for someone… but no matter how far or how fast he ran, he never seemed to get any closer to the edge of the forest. The trees grew thicker, pressing in on him until he struggled to breathe. He cried out, afraid…
… and woke to the sound of steel.
Armon had been told that the Kellan forces were quiet; whispers on the wind, silencing their enemies from the shadows. Truth, it seemed, told otherwise. Cries of fear and surprise came from every direction, punctuated by the frenzied whinnies of the horseline. Armon’s throat grew tight with fear. You are no longer the boy in the woods, he told himself sternly. You are a man now, near eighteen turns, and the head of clan Attomar. This is your time for glory.
He was splashing water on his face when the watchmen came to rouse him. “Sound the horns,” Armon told them. “Rouse the men. And fetch my bearer to help me into my armour.” As the watchmen left, Armon’s eyes came to rest on the smooth marble bust of his father, carefully polished by his own hand. All that we do bears upon the memory of our ancestors, he heard Callus whisper, his voice pitched with fever. By our actions, we honour their name, or we stain it for our lifetime. Armon sighed. “Let me make it through tonight, father, and we shall see if you were right.”
“Commandus?” His bearer, as quiet in speech as he was of foot, probed Armon.
Armon looked down at the boy. “Cassius?”
Cassius hesitated before speaking, as if he were ashamed of his own words. “The Kellan forces, they are… what are they doing?”
Armon tightened one grieve, as Cassius tightened the other. “Scare tactics,” he replied. He needs you to be strong. They all do. “Nothing to be afraid of. Stay by me, and keep a firm hold of the banner.”
Cassius, still gripping Armon’s forearm, trembled. “The banner,” he said softly. “Yes. The banner.”
Armon stopped what he was doing, and gripped Cassius firmly by the shoulders. “Cassius. The men will look to the banner for courage. Hold it high.” And let it not fall, Armon thought, cold with fear and anticipation. Not tonight. Sedephon, not tonight. Let my sword slay a dozen foes, and forever etch my name in blood into the sagas. If the deity of luck had heard him, he gave no sign. Shaking the thought away, Armon scruffed the boy’s hair, and smiled.
The world outside his tent was the black of midnight, but the camp was alive with sound. Steel, clashing against steel; the thrum and hiss of arrows; the dull thunk of felled flesh, hewn like trees before the axe; all this and more greeted Armon as he rushed forth. He froze, uncertain, afraid. Where do I go? What do I do? It was all so confusing, a battle of shadows, of wraiths wreathed in flame and smoke. Armon felt small, useless, his noble birth availing him nothing. Where do I go? What do I do?
A man reined up in front of them. He led two horses, and sat his own steed as if he were born to it. “Commandus!” Armon turned at his voice, trying to drive away the fog that had clouded his mind. “Commandus, your horse!” Shaking his head, the man leapt from his saddle, removed a single leather glove, and slapped his bare hand across Armon’s face. The blow drove white shards of pain through his cheek. Armon turned furiously to face him, the taste of blood in his mouth. “How dare you…”
The man grinned; he was old, hard, and unsympathetic. “Save that fire-blood for the battle, Commandus. Now mount up, and ride with me to the front. The men need to see you, at least.”
Armon opened his mouth to retort, but his words were forestalled by a flash of recognition. I have seen his face before…
“Know me, don’t you?” the man growled. “Not surprised you’ve forgotten. But that’s for later.” He handed Armon one set of reins, and Cassius the other. “The horse’s name is Bucephalon. See he doesn’t throw you. He may have been yours for the past weeks’ ride, but I’ve known him for much longer than that.” He gave Armon an intense stare. “Say it. Say Bucephalon.”
“Buchephalon,” Armon muttered indignantly.
“Never forget a horse’s name. They’re much less forgiving than people.” Then, with a roar, the man was off. Bucephalon, caught in the chase, followed eagerly, and Armon could do naught but hold on. Cassius rode beside him, pale-faced and wide-eyed, the red-and-white banner of the Attomars flapping over his shoulder. His world was reduced to the white cloud of his ragged breath, the dull thud of Bucephalon’s hooves on the wet canopy, and the pounding of his heart. Gods, what am I doing?
The wraiths seemed everywhere at once; storming the wooden palisades here, loosing flights of flaming arrows in long, bright arcs there. The camp was springing into action all around him. Cavalrymen vaulted into their saddles, their longswords dangling from their hips, whilst the infantry shuffled in lockstep towards the fighting with spears brandished, reflected fire shimmering off their conical helms. Armon saw a tent go up in flames, and then another. They’re burning the whole forest down, he thought fearfully.
The old man reined up hard beside a press of men at the palisades. “Mercenaries,” he hawked, spitting distastefully. “From the Seran colonies, most like. Kellus may be Dictatus, but his resources are still limited. If he’d have sent just one of his Centarates against us, we’d have been done. Praise Sedephon for that one, son.”
“I’m not your son,” Armon hissed.
The old man’s face wrinkled, albeit briefly. “No,” he grunted, clearing his throat, “that you’re not.”
It was the raw timber in the man’s voice that brought it all back. “You’re… you’re Araton, yes?” he asked. “Father’s old master of horse.”
Araton grunted. “An odd title, that. Never made sense to me-”
A crash of splintered wood heralded the arrival of the enemy. Suddenly, there was a gaping hole in the palisade, and men in mismatched armor and assorted weaponry came pouring through. He opened his mouth to rally his soldiers… and felt something whizz past his head like an angry wasp. He pressed a hand to his forehead, the words frozen in his mouth. It came away damp and red. So close, he thought, the sound of battle dimming in his ears. So close.
“Commandus?!” Araton shouted, demanding his attention.
Armon was silent, bereft of words and sense alike. When he failed to give the order, Araton shook his head in disgust. “Infantry, to me! To me! Hold the breach, hold it!”
“Armon.” It was Cassius, his voice small and scared. He glanced at him, and saw his reflection in the whites of the boy’s pale eyes. He needs you to be strong, he reminded himself. “Armon, what do I… should I stay here, or…”
“Stay,” Armon replied, his voice wavering and uncertain. Still your shaking tongue – no glory can come from cowardice. “The men must rally to the banner. Keep to the rear, though, and don’t do anything stupid.”
“Yes, Commandus. I’ll try.”
“Cassius.” As he spoke, each word sounded firmer than the last. “No harm will come to you, I promise. On my honour as a son of Attomar, I swear it. Do you believe me?”
“Do you believe me?!”
“Y-yes,” Cassius stammered.
“Good.” He raised himself up in the saddle, appraising the camp as best he could. The rest of the palisade seemed to be holding, although his infantry were heavily engaged in several places. The cavalry, though… An idea dawned on him, bold and glorious… but risky. Do it, he urged himself. No doubts, no questions. That’s what father would have done, surely. He gave Cassius one last look, and smiled. “Wish me luck.”
As he galloped across the camp, the flames from one tent began to lick at the edges of several others. “You there!” Armon called to a group of camp followers huddled around the baggage train. “Douse those flames! And get those arrows to the front.” The longsword of Attomar, twice-incised and leather-gripped, was in his hand; Armon had no memory of drawing it. Truth’s Edge, it was called, as razor-sharp as its namesake. With this sword, I shall defend the Republic against all tyranny.
News from Cora, the beating heart of Corindar, was always slow in reaching Arriagor province, and even slower in reaching Standfast, ancestral home of clan Attomar. But the sails were never empty in the Windswept Sea, as the sailors were wont to say, and so the merchants out of Badyar and Ledfern had brought the news north with their wares. Kellus Haronus, hero of the great Seran Wars, had refused to step down when his third term as Primus had expired. Instead, he had imprisoned his two fellow Primii, dissolved the Pato Councillus, and named himself Dictatus for life. As a seasoned soldier, Kellus had the support of his soldiers, several rich and important Councillors, and the backing of the three southern provinces.
But he does not have Furius Cassadar.
Armon reined up at the horselines, where the cavalry were most concentrated. There were a dozen-odd Attomar guards, cool and relaxed, alongside twice as many farmers and shepherds slumped awkwardly in their freshly-hammered armour. We are too small to wage a war; his mother’s words, tolling peals of doubt in his ears. “Where are the rest of you?”
“At the palisades, Commandus,” a grizzled serjeant told him. “We weren’t sure what to do, so we started dispersing to help the infantry.”
Armon grimaced. Next time, I must be quicker to action. “Draw your swords,” he ordered, brandishing his own like a fiery torch. The flashes of steel that greeted his words were encouraging, but the fear in the eyes of his conscripts was not. The men need to see you, Araton had told him – but perhaps they needed to hear him, as well. He turned to a freckle-faced man in a half-helm. “You there. What’s your name?”
The man squinted, confused. “D-Davar, Commandus.”
“A good name,” Armon replied, nodding, “and easy to remember. There is nothing more frustrating than a hero with a complicated name.” That brought a few laughs from the group, which emboldened him. “You are a shepherd, yes?”
“Yes, Commandus. My family tends to the flocks on the peninsula north of Standfast.”
Armon grinned. “The men from that country are bold riders. As are the rest of you, I’ve no doubt.” He turned to them then, stilling his fear with a deep breath. “It’s shepherds I need tonight, friends. Shepherds with nerves of steel, ready to round up the sheep with their sharp claws. Are you with me?”
The men raised their swords and cried out his name, but he barely heard them. The fire was in his blood, burning away his fears. Fire-blood, Araton called it. He was not wrong. “Form wedge!” Armon called; he did not wait to check if they obeyed. Spurring his horse to a trot, he rode to a spot on the palisades where a dozen mercenaries were hammering at the wooden stakes. “Clear the way!” He ordered the small group of infantry trying to hold them off. “Let them come!”
The wood gave way with a crash, and the mercenaries came boiling through like ants. He saw their faces… angry, wild, afraid, a mixture of humanity not unlike his own. Armon did not hesitate. Roaring a wild, wordless cry of exultation, he charged at them, hacking left and right with his sword. He took the first man’s arm off at the shoulder; the second he caught with a wild downward swing, cleaving him from shoulder to stomach. The third grabbed his reins with one hand, reaching for him with the other. He thrust his blade into the man’s face; when he fell away, he almost took Truth’s Edge with him.
And then they were through the palisades, and the mercenaries were scattering. “At them!” He cried as his cavalry massed around him. He rode one down, and saw the grizzled serjeant slash another man’s throat. A few vanished into the woods, but they were not his main concern. Let them run back to their traitorous master, he thought, wheeling around to face his men. “Shepherds! Let’s round them up!”
After that it was slaughter.
Men on foot will flee from a horse charge nine times out of ten, father had told him, once upon a time. Whether that was true or not, Armon could not say – but the mercenaries battering at the palisades were certainly obliging. They rode around the outer edge of the wooden barricade, rounding up the enemy as they went. Those who stood and fought, died, and were joined by those of their fleeing brothers who were not quick enough to escape. By the time they had almost rounded the camp, the enemy was in full retreat.
Except for the breach.
He could see the fighting on the other side of the ragged hole in the palisades, could hear the frenzied clash of steel on steel. “One last push!” He cried as he rode through the breach. “Let’s show them what happens to those who-”
Blinding pain flashed through his shoulder, and suddenly he was reeling, falling. The ground dealt him a heavy blow, driving the wind from his lungs. He had barely enough time to suck in a single breath before the cavalry, an unstoppable wall of steel and horseflesh, rode right over him. Something heavy clanged off the side of his helm, ringing his skull like a bell. A second hoof knocked him over onto his back, and a third kicked his thigh. For a moment, he thought it was over… until the heaviest weight of all slammed down hard on his shin with an audible snap. He screamed as the world vanished into a dark tunnel of pain and blood…
… and woke to the feel of rain pelting his face. His helm was gone, and the rain was washing the curls from his dark hair. A familiar face loomed over him, creased with a smile full of yellowed teeth. “Bastard threw you after all, did he?”
Araton. Master of horse. No, that was before my father died, before mother dismissed him… He tried to sit up, and groaned at the pain. “Please… my shoulder… my leg…”
“Good wounds, both,” Araton grunted, nodding. “Although you would have avoided them, had you stayed a shivering mess.” He put an arm around Armon’s waist and pulled him to his feet.
“I can walk,” Armon protested feebly.
“Like buggery you can!” Araton laughed. “An arrow through the shoulder, and that leg’ll need splinting. Damned crazy fool you are, boy. Didn’t anyone ever tell you? This world is not a kind place to would-be heros.”
The battle! “Did we win! Did we… did we drive off the mercenaries?”
“Aye,” Araton replied, nodding. “Scattered at the first sign of your cavalry. The field is yours, Commandus.”
Armon hobbled meekly beside him, reluctantly grateful for his help. Araton guided him through the dead and the dying with what might almost have been tenderness. “How many?” He asked.
Araton knew exactly what he meant. “Twenty of ours, maybe thrice as many of theirs. Some wounded, too, on both sides. Those of ours’ll want for healing.”
“And theirs,” Armon added quietly.
Araton shook his head. “Better the gift of mercy for theirs, Commandus. A swift thrust of the dagger behind the ear, and they’ll be walking through the sunlit fields of Ildurad soon enough.”
“No,” Armon said, shaking his head. “No. We’ll heal them, ours and theirs both. I command it.”
Araton gave him a hard stare. “Mercenaries are a treacherous breed. They’ll thank you for the healing today and slit your throat tomorrow, if the coin is good enough. Don’t play the fool, boy.”
Armon stopped in his tracks, forcing Araton to do so as well. “You… you can’t talk to me like that! I am a son of Attomar, the ancient clansmen of Standfast. You should show me some respect…” A flap of torn red-and-white fabric in the grass caught his eye. Oh, no. Oh, no, no, no. Wrenching free of Araton’s grasp, he hopped over to where Cassius lay. An arrow had passed through the boy’s eye and out the back of his skull. No, Gods-be-damned, I swore an oath! Sedephon, why…
Araton knelt beside him. “Who was he?”
“The son of a distant cousin,” Armon replied softly. “‘Small in wealth, high in service’, their words are. I swore to keep him safe. On my honour as a son of Attomar, I swore.”
“A hard oath to keep, when you placed that banner in his hand. You might as well have trussed him up as an archery butt.” Araton placed a gentle hand on his shoulder. “Having a name doesn’t give you magical powers, lad.”
“It was meant to be an honour,” Armon replied feebly. “But with the banner fallen… men will say I have lost my honour.”
“Banners?” Araton threw back his head and roared with laugher. “Good for nothing but wiping your arse. It’s men that soldiers follow, lad, not some pretty strip of coloured cloth. Don’t believe me? Look.”
And so Armon looked. His men were there in front of him, all of them, watching his every move. Watching. Waiting. Ready to follow. He struggled to his feet, his heartbeat pounding in his ears. “You all fought well,” he began uncertainly. “I pray that you all live to fight a thousand more battles such as this.” What do I say? He wondered as he scanned their faces… and then, as his eyes settled on a familiar freckle-faced shepherd, he knew.
“Home,” he said simply, letting the word hang in the air with all its fondest connotations. “Do you miss your homes?”
The men mumbled their agreement.
“As do I,” Armon continued, realising it to be true. “The sky hall, filled with the restless faces of my ancestors. The gardens, which will be freshly blooming as we speak. The tall towers of stone and mortar, the lush estates beneath Standfast… aye, I’m a spoilt rich boy, with more coin than sense.” Then all laughed at that, thankfully. “But you and I share something which is much more profound than any differences between us. Do you know what that is?
“Corindar. Corindar, with her shiny heart of gold and her soul as pure as a maiden’s breath. A Republic, built by the clans of old, who decided that they would only be ruled by those who had been fairly elected from amongst them. A Republic whose very existence is now threatened by the tyrannical forces of Kellus Dictatus! So, brothers of Corindar, ride with me to Corryar to join our forces to clan Tarodar, and from thence on to Durran’s Hold.
“There, my brothers, awaits Furius Cassadar, the hero of the Republic, who has raised his banners in defiance of the Kellan forces. A great man, who will save our fair Republic and secure our homes for all eternity. Are you with me?!”
The roar that followed was everything he could ever have hoped for.
Afterwards, Araton helped him back to his tent. “A fine speech,” he muttered, his voice dripping with sarcasm. “So tell me… if Corindar is truly as pure and prettified as you say it is, why does it bend its knee so willingly to the supposed tyranny of men like the Dictatus?”
For that, Armon had no answer.