In snowy Monticulus swords were drawn,
Valerius met evil in pitched fray,
Yet noble resolve prevailed not by dawn
An army and their honor was betrayed...
“Fortune is not made by crossing Ixiel,” his father warned. “A wizard’s power is not blunted, but avoided. The land will be remade by those who remain. To fight the inevitable is a fool’s errand.”
Gavell Norrin did not heed his father. When the Betrayer reared his head and revealed his true face, Valerius shook with fury. The Kingdom thirsted for justice. A young knight answered the call. In the middle of the bleakest winter in living memory, young Lord Norrin put his sword under the banner of the Knight Aveline.
Four thousand swords were gathered, one of the largest armies under one banner since the wars of succession that cemented King Aurleon’s reign. Their mood was buoyant, almost jubilant. After sixteen years of shadow rule by a wizard, the sword arms of Valerius were united. There would be a return to tradition, a return to honor. Gavell would be a part of it, one small note in the epics that would be sung of their triumph.
Young Norrin was not the only scion to join the march towards the wizard’s stronghold in the east. Nearly all the noble families of Valerius set aside their rivalries and contributed their issue to the cause. Old Norrin himself gave a son and daughter to the kingdom’s service.
“Fools for children,” he bellowed, “I have naught but fools for legacy and early graves to dig.”
His prophesy fell on the deaf ears of his kin. Their hearts would not be bowed by dismal prognostication. Their honor would not yield to his doom saying. So it was that Gavell and his sister followed the blue cloaked warrior into battle.
* * *
Their first test came at an abandoned village on the edge of the eastern valleys. Seeking some respite from their march and shelter from a sudden hail, Aveline brought a small detachment to the village square to see if they might procure supplies and shelter. It was an ambush.
Col Ebbert was the first to draw notice to the beast. The soldiers of Aveline’s guard were so consumed with curiosity at the empty village that they almost missed its approach before it was upon them. Gavell had never seen the like of it before. A large black hulking thing, it gleamed in the light though it was of pure darkness. Arrows clattered off its crystalline hide as it charged forward. A howl, unlike any sound he had ever heard, rent the air as it tore through the Ebbert boy.
Shouts and clanging steel filled the air for brief moments that lingered eternally in the pit of Gavell Norrin’s stomach. He charged forward because there was no retreat, because his fellows were in the thick of battle, because he had put his name and honor and thus his life in the service of Valerius. In the end it was the sure blade of Durendal that felled the beast.
With staggering disbelief they watched as the blackened corruption molted away to reveal a young buck whose throat had been split by the legendary sword. It was then when they understood the nature of the enemy they faced. All that was good and natural was vulnerable to corruption. Death was the only release from the fate promised by Ixiel.
They buried Col Ebbert and two other men whom Gavell did not know. No trace was found of the villagers. With a grim face, Knight Aveline ordered her soldiers to move on from the tainted place.
At night the soldiers of Aveline’s guard were celebrated as heroes. They caroused some and embellished details of their deeds. They were joyous, for on that day when the mortality of their calling emerged they stared it down with drawn steel and full throated cries. Only Gavell’s sister was cautious, reminding her brother:
“Three men. Barely more than a fawn and it killed three men. Where shall we be when we meet an army of such things?”
In the front, he thought, charging forward under the bugle call of king and country. Where all heroes end up: victorious and revered.
* * *
The march east was drudgery.
Epics have a way of abridging reality. Heroes battle, find love, are shown favor by the gods above. They do not have twenty mile marches with Old Lark flailing his baton at them, insisting on tight formation at quick step to meet their foe before his power became too great. They did not eat stale biscuits and drink bitter water, go days without meat as the winter game grew perilously thin through harsh season and mystical attrition. They did not carve ruts in the mud to move supply wagons or slit the throats of lamed mules. These things were reserved for soldiers, a hidden Mystery of the martial life that did not spill forth from proud mouths, no matter how deep in their cups or wistful their reverie.
There were other, meaner things about the winter. The terrifying boredom of pickets, the uncertainty of whether the night would bring another beast fouled by Ixiel’s corruption or merely the spotted cowl of indifferent stars. Wind that screamed down from the mountains like a spirit unhinged, undaunted by blanket and cloak, and the lingering chill it left behind. The sound of cold rain on armor. The way bread was never warm. Days of gray sky like a faded canvas, the plodding effacement of marked time, the eroding border between one day and the next.
Fellowship and camaraderie were there, of course, but the dimensions of their bonds were not so neat as to be encompassed by the mere words of the thing. How do you describe the shared scowl when an officer dresses men down over the condition of their equipment? What words encompass the fraternity of secret drinks and petty defiance of war’s strict discipline? Or the tall tales and shared fictions of lovers had, opponents bested, or moments of unlikely wit that were traded to deflect the tedium and fear of a campaign that will never end or one that might end all too quickly.
Comrades indeed, as they laid down together with the soft moans of sundered mortality, in ruins and villages, fields and dales, felled by an enemy that preferred to take them in pairs and triplets, hounding the scouts and foragers and laggards as the army wound its way towards Monticulus. Deep was their bond, which grew every time they walked through a village robbed of its people, ruins too soon replacing the highways and hamlets of a once vibrant land.
Deeper still when they had to force the words.
"No, it doesn’t look so bad."
"No it isn’t so cold or dark as that."
"Yes, we will tell them."
"No, Hann, son of Hannick, we won’t forget."
"Fare thee well in the halls of the departed. With the blood you have spilled here today we will forge our victory tomorrow. The realm is safe guarded by your bravery and honored in your sacrifice."
Empty eyes were closed, drinks spilled, and in dreams the spirits of the fallen returned to give heart or lob accusations.
Gavell endured fellowship and loss in spades. Grim was the family that buried its dead and returned violence in kind to their foe. Valiant were their feats, noble was their cause, and though terrible price was exacted for their heroics, Aveline’s splendid company stood fast under her lead. Victory after victory was claimed as they plunged into the heart of Ixiel’s perverse country.
Gavell could never pin the moment when he became hardened to the cause and consequence of their war. Was it incremental, inching vacancy into his eyes and implacable grimace into his drawn lips? Or did it come crashing about his spirits all at once, crystalized in the thrust of an onyx armored boar’s tusk as it pierced the plate of Eda Norrin’s armor and sent his sister into the arms of Dusk?
A hard thing can bear much, tearless, steeped in hate, singular in desire. Hardness breeds a terrible foe, so long as one does not become brittle, and break.
* * *
In view of the cliff face that bore Monticulus, Gavell felt the surety of their purpose. The objective loomed. Fate promised to be determined by the strength of their arms and the dint of their dedication. For every Gavell that remained an Eda, a Col, and a Hann had been interred under solemn cairns assembled by those who carried on. The thousand that remained under the Blue Knight’s banner itched in anticipation of sated vengeance.
Black flags hung from the parapets of the fortress city, bearing the crest of a crow, swallowing the sun. They snapped with menace in the high mountain winds. Aveline ordered her army upwards.
Blustery winds mounted as they marched up the silent path. No befouled enemies greeted them, no fire rained down from the skies, no shadows stalked their steps. Unobstructed they marched on the wizard’s stronghold, a city gone silent, a seaside mountain and an impregnable fortress that had withstood the ambition of armies and the predations of nature. When they found the gates unguarded and flung open they could hardly believe themselves. Where the wizard should defend, he instead dared. A detachment of scouts entered and did not return.
Atop her steed the Knight Aveline drew herself in front of her troops. Surrounded by stone faced captains and the stern devotion of the indomitable Lark, she addressed the army.
“So long as I draw breath, I will fight for you, for your families. I ask you, brave champions of Valerius: who will fight with me?”
How many dead? How many freed? How many still yet fought the darkness trying to cast its shroud over the land? Surely here, in the face of this evil, they would triumph, and do so decisively. Gavell dwelled upon his fallen sister and thought: I might give three of myself to any beast to bring the best of you back, and I would give myself thrice more to see this over. He pitched a sharpened sword overhead and cried out for victory.
Thick snow fell, blanketing the day with pregnant silence. Behind a phalanx of great shields they marched cautiously through streets bereft of life. The armored plate of their steady resolve clanked and echoed ominously through the city. Worse yet was the suddenness with which it came to a halt.
Pillars of pure darkness towered over the column. The streets were suddenly filled with monolith after monolith, strange monuments to the evil powers wielded by the Betrayer. They were unsettling in the silence, spurned by even the snow and the light. Amidst the ominous statuary, the Knight Captain urged her men forward still.
What did they find in those streets? A strange black fortress, warm where it should be cold, dark where it should be light. When the wizard finally met their advance it was with a terrible giant, obsidian and faceted with the same corruption that spired out of Monticulus’s cobblestones and the wild beasts that had bore down on them during the long march to the ocean. Larger than anything they had faced before, the beast swept men and women to their deaths with broad swipes of its great arms.
Knight Aveline plunged forward with her famous weapon drawn, a hail of arrows and bellowing warriors following in her wake. Amidst the cries of the fallen and the enjoinders, good friends! for stout hearts and brave feats, his legs drove him forward. When hurled spears brought the beast down and arrested its assault, Gavell was among the first to rush forward and bury his blade in between its crystal armor.
As it was with the first, so it was with the last. The wizard’s final champion was bested by Aveline and her enchanted blade. As Durendal finished the behemoth, all that remained was their bowed and broken king.
“Stand guard!” Lark cried. Gavell Norrin found himself bent on one knee, barely supported by the trembling sword in his hand. Before he could steady himself the knight was upon her king and the very ground beneath them rose up in violence against Valerius’ defenders.
He did not see the wizard appear. He barely perceived the spikes that impaled the master strategist Lark. Had the king just risen? Did the Knight Aveline just run him through? Laughter and chanting reverberated off the impossible dimensions of the hellish void in a haunting mixture of nauseating defeat.
Feet carried their master without his sure consent. Gavell did not know he was walking backwards, or that he had grabbed a great shield from a fallen comrade. Something rose from the floor about him and he smashed it away. Something reached out in the darkness and he cut at it with his sword. While his fellows stood unsteadily or rushed forward towards their captain, Gavell Norrin found himself ever compelled outward towards the light. As he fled, the darkness consumed everything, even the screams of his dying brethren.
* * *
A wrathful blizzard had taken hold by the time Gavell emerged from the void. Driving whiteness, punctuated only by great black obelisks, blotted out the sky. The shield was too heavy to carry, leaving only an outstretched arm vainly guarding his face from the storm. Unsure legs carried him as he staggered throughout the maze of a city, Monticulus, the great necropolis of Valerian freedom.
Gavell Norrin was surely not the only one to escape the fate of his fellows, but he walked alone that night. Delirious with fear, he wasn’t even truly sure he had escaped anything. Who could say they were free of that great darkness and the desolation of the massacre? Who could be free of the specter of the fallen, their blood spilt in vain? In the forest of corrupted beasts and uncertain direction, who could say that he did not wish for death, having discovered too late that survival is a worse fate, for a slave must live with his defeat long after his fellows have purchased release?
And was it relief that soothed his features when the archwizard fell upon him in the snow filled gloom of the mountainside? No one can truly know, not even the man himself, what lay in his heart.
“Norrin’s boy? Yes, yes... I see it in your features, the look of dumb surrender. How terrible it wasn’t so nearly as profitable for you as it was for your father.”
Gavell braced himself against a tree, his brain numbed by cold, his tongue quieted by sorrow.
“You father wasn’t much one for banter either. He was little more than a thief, you know, stealing lands with false titles and trumped up claims, but he was quiet. Subtlety suited him, but does little favor to a proud warrior.”
Norrin stared blankly at the wizard. What a curious figure he cut, tattered and emaciated, so sunken of features he appeared ghoulish in the night. And yet how terribly awesome as well, free from the cold and the snow, walking hither and thine among the dark places as if they were no more dangerous than a summer’s meadow.
The wind picked up and branches swayed under its duress. For Gavell it might be said that something of his senses returned; if not quite the courage that had drove him into the cursed city, then at least the understanding that this would be his last chance to acquit himself with any valor. It was a beautiful thing, at least, to die young and in the name of something bigger than oneself. And if no one was there to witness it, how much more precious it would be.
“I think not,” Ixiel retorted as the blade came up, shattering it into dozens of pieces that cut deeply into the wounded man. With a pitiful yelp, Gavell cried out and slumped into the snow.
“Do your worst,” his voice cracked with defiance.
“Indeed,” the wizard answered, walking close. “Indeed, my worst shall be visited upon you, Gavell Norrin. For what is the worth of victory if it goes unreported? What value has fear if it does not spread fast from the lips of those who know it intimately?”
Ixiel placed a hand on Norrin’s cheek. The smell of burnt flesh and clamor of curdling howl were brief counterpoints to the storm that swallowed the young man’s pain almost as quickly as it emerged.
“They say a man with scars can be quite charming, Gavell. I’m not sure they suit you, but with time anything becomes respectable, I suppose. At least everyone will know under whom you served and by whom you were defeated. That kind of pedigree makes you remarkable, if nothing else.”
“What..?” Norrin managed, barely able to open his tear filled eyes.
“Neither hunger nor cold shall you know, yet no fullness or comfort shall be yours. Forever may you walk, but shelter be you denied. In fear you have gained life and in fear you will keep it. For I now hold claim over your soul, Gavell Norrin, and command you to breathe, to live, to suffer, and to cower from here to all the ends of this earth for the rest of your days. That is my gift and my curse to you. Bear it well, for this boon is all that you will ever own in this world.”
Ixiel did not linger to listen to his anguish, did not revel in his despair. For men of ambition have ever larger aims and grander pleasures than the petty destruction of tragedy’s bit players. But the life of a pawn is a harrowing one indeed, especially if their life is discarded and sacrifice refused.