Editor's note: I've had the privilege of beta reading and editing several parts of this story so far, and it is amazing. The White Knight is a very talented author, who's strength in story telling (especially world building) is incredible, and I love reading everything he writes. That being said, this story deals primarily with such themes as darkness and depravity, and if you haven't yet read any stories from the world of Ildathore, or are looking for a lighter read, I would suggest Icestorm or Beginnings.
Click here to read Part One and here to read Part Two.
The sky was blood above me, and the clouds were as smoke. The air was so thick a man could drown in it, or cut it with a knife. I trembled in the drizzle of the rain and clutched my sharpened spear, it’s tip blackened from the flames. We stood on the south side of the Valley of Tranquility Gap, thirty thousand in all.
Against us stood the enemy. Fifty thousands of the men of the Seven Stars arrayed in their myriads of darkness, perched on the northern side of that valley of death. Their banners flapped in the winds. Long serpentine dragons slithered in the air, their colours reversed to the Divine Emperor of Se Sing Be. Under these marched the Singing men, rebels all. Hundreds of banners of lesser lords flew, some from burned down Wotantown. There were token banners from the lords of Dresden away to the north, displaying a broken heart aflame, and many and more flew under the Ermine and Serpents of Lord Alcquakellie, who had sold his eldest son to the altars under the Great Oak to save his city and his lordship from destruction. The banners of his fourth son, with two headed Ermine, flew over the command pavilion of the enemy, a boy of 10 years of age. Still others yet flew the Silver Drums of the company of the Long Marches. Much dismay had been caused in our camp when it was learned that the Old Axe had taken his contract with the foe.
Above them all flew the Seven Stars. Silver, Gold, Scarlet, Azure, Green, Purple and Sable they fluttered and rolled. Raised in praise of the seven fingered god they served. The scourge of the world was Roger of the Seven Fingers, god on earth. That he had power, none could deny. How else could he have dissuaded so many men and women to his side? There were rumors, but rumors of the powers of the heathens were not good things to listen to the priests said. I hung my head sadly that my world should come to such a war, and I looked back at the banners of my lords, and my gods.
The banners of five cities, joined together in the Grand Alliance of the Gods flapped on top of a mound raised on the very top of our hill. There above us, waving proudly was the long sinuous Dragon of Se Sing Ba, the Four Hooded Brothers crossing their swords upon the Vault of Giza, the Pale Sickle and Sun of Otamay, the Thousand Eyes and One of Ravenna, and the banners of my gods, the Lions of Night of Londkongkai. All these cities had joined together in holy league against the pretender Roger of the Seven Fingers, to protect their lands, their gods, and their sons.
For Roger of the Seven Fingers had declared his fell purpose at the burning of Wotantown, proclaiming his plan to make the world anew. Under the Great Oak at the Lake of Divinity, he would sacrifice seven of the purest and whitest bulls of the lands, seven of the sons of his own body, and seven of the finest princes of this earth. This he claimed, would summon the Seven Stars of Heaven, and they would fall into the Lake of Divinity, making the world a perfect place for his followers, and all who believed in the power of his name. He called then for these seven princes of the World to be brought before him, that in their deaths they might honor their families, find peace eternal, to bring about a new world.
Those with sanity had refused, and we were marched forth to war. Some 2,000 men and boys had marched out from Lord Cairwell’s fief to Londkongkai to declare their allegiance and support to old King Willem, and to prostrate ourselves at the grand temple of the Lions of Night. We had joined with many Lords from many other fiefs, and eventually marched besides men who spoke another language, and who’s city fought under different banners and different gods, and our duty had brought us here.
If only to guard the wagons, I thought bitterly, as I turned away back to the far side of our hill. It was true. The boys were not allowed to fight. Forty boys from our fief guarded the baggage train of Lord Cairwell, and the tents of our fathers and uncles. The air was so thick, a man could drown.
As I returned to my charge, Bran called to me. “Do you think we can stop them Paul?” he asked, tears welling in his eyes. His three brothers were all deemed old enough to be on the front lines. We worried if we would ever see them again.
“Fear not little one.” The daughter of our village priest slid between us, her robed form the picture of beauty, poise, and grace. “The gods will show us favor this day.” Thunder rolled to the west. The rain would soon be upon us.
“Please priestess,” Bran fell to his knees and touched the hem of her garment. She recoiled with disgust and raised her hand to slap him. I saw the danger and quickly prostrated myself face down to the ground as well, drawing her attention. My nose pressed into the mud.
“My cousin means you no harm priestess,” I said trembling. “His brothers fight on the front lines for the gods against the heathens, under our Lord Cairwell’s banners. We would have you pray for them.” I looked up into her eyes, and they seemed to soften.
“Please, my lady,” Bran said, his voice wavering. “Please, remember them in your prayers. Travin, Weaver, and Daerrin are their names. Please my lady.”
The priestess’ eyes looked up from our prostrate forms and stared coldly across the valley at the enemy. “Fear not, brave soldiers of our gods, they will see your suffering. I will remember both you and yours in my prayers, that the gods may look down upon your sacrifices, and show mercy.” She extended her hands toward us in blessing, and intoned to us the ancient rites for those about to die. Her ruby lips chanted the phrases, on and on it went, as we pressed our faces further into the muddying ground. When she finished, she drew her robes closer about herself and raised a crimson hood over her venereal face. She looked to the weeping heavens.
“Rise children. Noon is almost upon us. The Ravens are here, with a thousand eyes and one, searching for the souls of those about to die. Pray that you are not to be found among them, for soon, many men will die.” She slid away from us, silent as the breeze that blows the chaff. She was right I knew. As I arose, I looked up at the sky. The ravens were here. And they needed to be fed. For the gods.
The trumpets were calling for assembly. Battle lines were to be formed. Bran and I rushed away from the wagons and crested the hill. For all our fear, this moment of nervous excitement filled all of us. The battle’s first clash was about to begin. As I ran, the thunder rolled, and the rain seemed to dissipate. It’s a good thing, I thought. Our arrows can fly swifter, and truer.
The boys assembled around the standard mound and, with the banners above us, we looked down the hill into the valley that was to be washed with red. I knew that the dale would be so red, a man could drown in it. The army was going into it’s formations, and across the gap the colors of the foe fluttered, as the enemy repositioned like so many ants. We could hear the famous silver drums of the Old Axe’s company, responding in defiance to our trumpets.
Rat Tat Tat! Titterat Tat Tat!
Priests wandered up and down our front line, consisting of so many peasant levies from so many fiefs and lands. There were priests of Londkongkai were calling out to the Lions of Night, yet there were Holy Men of Ravenna and Otamay that were calling out to the slayer of the lions, the Man of the Mirror Shield. Even after all these there were priests of so many different gods, and languages, and customs, that it was impossible to know to whom all they prayed. Some stood still and intoned long sonorous notes over the men. Others walked back and forth, chanting and swinging their hanging burners of incense, filling the heavy air with perfume. One man was calling out to the dragons, another to the Lake of Divinity. Another man brought forth a young boy, and cut open his throat into the valley, the first blood to be shed. From behind us on the south of our hill, the ululation of female voices rose up. Over the din, I detected a shrill high pitched voice, reaching heights far above the others. Our Priest’s daughter, I knew.
The levies accounted for nigh on half of our force, and I spotted Lord Cairwell’s banners on our right flank. My cousins must be there, I thought. Behind them there stood several free companies. There were the Straightened Swords on our right, in mail of burnished steel. The Grizzled Bears there in the center, wearing the pelts of their namesakes in great ferocious collars. And there on our right was the Order of the Pale Maiden, with a banner of a goddess in silks flying over their silver helms. In heavier armor, and made up of more ferocious veterans of war, these men would be crucial to our victory. We could only pray they would not turn against us should the battle go ill.
Six hundred archers from Otamay, with banners of our accompanying High Lord Ravata tied sharply to their backs against their wooden armor followed these. These were famed throughout Sabine for their accuracy and the power of their bows. Some few poorer hunters joined these.
To our left flank there stood some five hundred of the finest Yumi archers ahorse, under the command of High Lord Haduko, and some three hundred lesser horse. To our right the thousand horses of the Company of the Lancing Scarab pawed the ground impatiently.
Behind them was our final line of our infantry. A expeditionary token force sent from far away. Here were some three thousand Gizani Legion in scale and mail, holding great square shields and long shining spears. These were the reserves. The finest in our army. The troops that had been brought here by our Army’s supreme commander…
A cry went up from every throat, as four horses trotted out in front of our lines: white, red, black and pale. The soldiers lifted their spears and shouted, the priests lifted their voices in unanimous chant, and the screams of the women rose ever higher and loader, filling the air. Lords from every city save Se Sing Ba filed out behind them, some 30 in all, each carrying their own banners, save those few selected to carry those of our four High Commanders.
“Laegyus!” His men shouted his name with pride. “Laegyus! Laegyus! Laegyus!” It rose again, and I heard the priests shouting as well. “Laegyus! Laegyus! Laegyus!”
The man upon the Pale Horse raised his hand. I could not see his face, but the booming of his voice I could hear even from my position atop the hill. It cried out in a foreign language, strong, clear, and beautiful. This then was the great Gizani General sent to save us. General Laegyus. I did not know his tongue, but I knew the words he spoke.
“Men of the gods!” he shouted. “Our purpose is clear! The enemy has come before us today, in the sight of gods and men to make war upon us! We shall not allow them to ravage your homes and your villages! We shall not permit them to sack your cites and burn your temples! In the name of the Heart’s Desire, the cities you serve, and the families you love, I command you to be strong! Nay, it is not I, it is the gods themselves that command you! You have these holy men here before you! What is their judgement concerning their enemies?”
“Death!” the Priests cried with one voice. It echoed throughout the valley.
“Then as the gods command, we shall serve these heretics and traitors their due judgements! Stand strong, and I shall lead you here to victory!”
“Laegyus! Laegyus! Laegyus! Laegyus!” From thirty thousand voices the call went up. I yelled at the top of my lungs. There was no air left in me. The gods would surely hear our devotion here today. The blood would be shed, our homes would be saved, and the gods would have their vengeance. The sky was blood above us.
Screams leapt up from the throats of fifty thousand men. Young Lord Alcquakellie had sounded the advance. The battle was now. Death was coming.
General Laegyus turned and, with his generals, saw the swarming heathens as they poured into the ravine. “Lords, the time is come to prove your loyalty to the gods! To battle!”
Our trumpets rang out. The banner bearers returned to their respective companies and the archers spread out. I saw our two wings of cavalry depart from the camp and move out to our flanks. The Yumi bows were likely to do well, peppering the enemy to their deaths. I had heard no account of the Company of the Lancing Scarab’s cowardice either. They were like to prove true and strong.
“Advance the first line! And may the gods be with you!” General Laegyus pointed his sword at the foe atop his pale horse. The screams began again.
“Laegyus! Laegyus! Laegyus!” A storm of ironfaced men rushed down the valley to meet their enemies. The cries for their general slowly turned into shouts for their gods, and after that into shouts for their mothers as a blanket of arrows hit them. The cries of dying men was deafening. The air shrieked as it was cut by missiles from both sides. I saw that while the archers of the foe were firing directly into our infantry, the majority of our archers were firing into their counterparts of the Seven Stars.
Our men clashed against those of the enemy as they reached the base of the ravine. Our men had the advantage. We were fighting a defensive battle, the enemy’s task was to push through, and they were fighting uphill. The battle at this point was simple. Levy against Levy. Farmers armed with simple tools, fishermen with spears, village drunks with sticks, ruffians with long knives. Not true soldiers. The mettle of these men would not be tested until the real fighters arrived, our mercenary companies and the Gizani legion, against the Long Marches and Lord Alcquakellie’s personal levies would be the true deciders of the battle I knew. But despite the lack of training those simple smallfolk received, they were brave, and proved themselves just as honorable as the noble men by charging in to fight hordes of the monotheists. They died all the same.
For though men do not naturally kill other men, they excel at it when it is necessary. The cruel and murderous strokes I saw there were without count, the screams unbearable. And against the flapping flags of little lords of little villages, fighting for little gods with smaller men - there raged the united tide of Seven Stars, threatening to drown the world. A large banner fluttered in the center, bearing all seven of the unholy stars shooting through the sky.
Arrows landed amongst both sides, although theirs were fewer now, for High Lord Ravata’s archers had decimated those of the enemy. They were holding the majority of their fire, only loosing an arrow here and again against the ever dwindling number of enemy bowmen. The chanting of our priests seemed to be attuned to the singing of bowstrings, and the women behind the hill had not once been silent. But our lines were thinning, while at least a third of the foe had died, there were no more than half of our levies men holding back a tide of almost thrice their number, and our men were dwindling fast. A battle that had started at the third hour of the morning was now well past midday. The earth now matched the sky, for both were soaked in the reddest colors I had ever seen.
Our trumpets blew again. The free companies charged down into the fray. There were the Straightened Swords, the Grizzled Bears, and the Order of the Pale Maiden, all rushing down against the foe, cutting them to pieces with their swords, axes, and heavy maces. Our banners pushed the heathens back to the bottom of the valley, and started to move across it themselves. Roger’s rabble shivered, it was not to last long.
We boys cheered. We could smell victory. All it would take would be for General Laegyus to order in the Gizani legion and the day would be won. Priests shouted, cut themselves, some produced flames in front of their feet. The shrieking of the high priestesses changed into a cacophony of laughter. The call of the gods was loud, and leering. Sure enough, the trumpets sounded.
There went the legion, bounding down the hill side, ready to carve the enemy to pieces. The ground was shaking, as if a great flood was rushing towards a shore. Our men pushed down, into the very heart of the enemy, the Gizani forces swelling the ranks of our mercenaries and our dwindling levies. The enemy levies faltered, and some began to flee.
The Long Marches rushed down, to save the dwindling army of Roger. I could see the Old Axe, swinging his massive labrys. His axe was like a bell. Back and forth he swung it, hewing scale from mail, flesh from bone, head from shoulder. The Long Marches stemmed their wavering levies, and reached the massive banner, as it was about to be pushed back up the hill of the enemy. The time had come. The foe rallied, and held strong.
Now the true horror of the battle became real to us. Lord Cairwell’s banner faltered. We could see arrows land amongst both sides of men; cutting through the heavy air, the arrows flew upon the dead and dying. At the bottom of the valley there was now a mound of bodies that stretched from end to end. I could see now that it was taller than the tallest of men. Arrows protruded from it at all angles, and the armies climbed upon it in their rush to kill the other, and add more men to the pile. And indeed, more men were.
Up from our right, the clattering of hooves could be heard. The cavalry of our forces and the Seven Stars had not been seen throughout the whole of the battle, what could this be? We boys climbed over each other to see what the commotion was. Was it the enemy coming into the camp? Was it the Company of the Lancing Scarab bringing news of victory?
It was indeed the Company of the Lancing Scarab, and indeed on their heels came the enemy. Black they were, and huge. Armor covered them like beetles. Not in scales and mail were these, but in suits of the strongest metal. Great black impenetrable beasts they were. A great banner bearing the Black Star streamed above them. Their horses plodded after the multicolored tatters of the Company of the Lancing Scarab through the mud, weighed down with I had never seen the like, and knew I was not like to again. We are like to die, I thought. They will come into the camp and kill us all. Boys were beginning to run. The high pitched ululations of the priestesses rose infinitely higher. I thought of the priestess Bran and I had met earlier in the day, and wondered if she had offered up a prayer for me too.
But then, the heavily armored monsters turned, abandoning the chase of their much swifter prey. No danger remained from the Company of the Lancing Scarab that day. They had advanced halfway up our hill from our right, and now, as the Hammer of the Waters upon a bridge, they turned as one and charged back down the hill.
They crashed against our forces mercilessly. I saw the banners of Lord Cairwell be surrounded, and fall underneath the withering charge. Screams erupted in such terror and unison, I couldn’t believe my ears when I heard the cries of my cousins. But I didn’t need to hear them to know what had become of them.
“No!” Bran shouted. I turned and looked at him. Tears streamed down his cheeks. I remembered then how truly young he was, how he shouldn’t be seeing any of this, how he should never of left his home.
“No! No! NO!” He cried and cried. I held him there. He shouldn’t see any of this. I turned his head away, but he shook it violently and tore it from my grasp. He shouted their names, and I held him to my chest. He wanted to run into the fray, and die with them. I understood. I wanted to as well. But I would not let my last cousin die this day, any more than I would allow myself that honor that I thought I wanted. I turned my head from the battlefield where I knew my family died and dropped my spear. Bran struggled until he had not the strength to struggle anymore. A man could have drowned in our tears.
I heard horses’ hooves. I turned my head once more. Down in the valley, the mound seemed to be floating in a red lake, that the Black horses were now having to swim through. A young man of the Grizzled Bears stood upon the highest peak of the mound and hefted high a torn and tattered banner. His collar was high and stained; his wicked sword curved and bloodied. He shouted in defiance of his enemies, urging our soldiers on. The Old Axe arrived atop the mound, and began to face the young captain in battle.
Elsewhere, the Order of the Pale Maiden had turned their colors to the Seven Stars in the middle of the battle. Once the black armored cavalry had smashed into them, they had deemed that their only way to survive was to begin to kill our men.
But through them all, I saw the young priestess from before, leaping over the bodies of the slain. It almost looked like she was dancing. Her robes were covered in crimson, and she hefted two bloody axes in her hands. She grinned, with an almost wicked grin, finishing off the enemy’s wounded. Her laugh echoed through the valley like some enchanted song.
But the sound of the hooves stood before us, for there was General Laegyus on his Pale Horse. He pointed his sword at us, mere boys.
“Sons! Squires! The time is come! Here the battle will depend on you! Do this thing and charge down into that valley of death, no man would dare hold his honor against yours! Your fathers, brothers, and uncles need you! Your gods need you! Now is the place and the time, nay, the hour, where you are men! Slay the enemies of our peoples, and put an end to their evils! With me now! With me!”
He turned from us and kicked his horse into a gallop down into the battlefield. His staff followed after him, not a man of them younger than 50. Boys cheered and followed suit, rushing down with their pathetic excuses for weapons and headlong to their deaths. The banners of the five cities of the Grand Alliance of the Gods were lifted up from their poles, and they flew down the hillside. The archers of High Lord Ravata ran down, exchanging their bows for long curved blades. Their flags too streamed behind them.
In all this, Bran found new life. He punched at my chest and kicked at my knees until I let go of him. He dashed towards the battle. “I’m coming!” he cried, tears still streaming down his cheeks. “I’m coming! Don’t leave me! Don’t go!”
“Bran!” I called after him, my feet tripping as I began to descend the hill running after him. I left my weapon there. The ground was so muddy my feet sunk into the mud and I began to slide down the hill toward the red lake. Still Bran ran and ran and ran.
“I’m coming!” he called again. “Don’t leave me!”
“Bran come back! You’ll die!” I could no longer move my feet, or struggle against the crimson muck. I fell faster and faster, but Bran still ran ahead of me, and did not look back. He raced towards Lord Cairwell’s fallen banners, to his brothers, toward the black horsemen that would take his life.
“Bran!” I called again. Then it happened.
I heard nothing, but my throat was caught. I looked down and saw the tip of an arrow shaft protruding from my neck. I gurgled in shock and fear. I tumbled over and over and over. Blood filled my airways, I was drowning. I heard the priestess laugh amongst the sound of my disgrace.
I’m dying, I realized as I tumbled down the hill. I’m drowning, I’m drowning, I’m dying. The hill seemed to extend forever, down and down I fell, faster and faster I rolled. I’m drowning. I’m drowning. I’m dying.
I thought of Bran and how I wouldn’t be there to save him. I thought of my dead cousins, would they be waiting for me in the afterlife? I thought of the priestess, who had the kindness to pray for them, and her ruby red lips. I thought of brave General Laegyus on his pale horse. I thought of the village I would never see again. I prayed, for my soul, for my cousins’ souls, and I prayed for Bran.
“Don’t leave me!” Bran called through the mire. I don’t want to leave you, I tried to say, but all the came out was the rattle of a dying boy. A drowning boy.
I was at the bottom in a sea full of blood. The sky was red above me and the clouds were as smoke. It was raining again, as if the sky was crying for me. I heard feet splashing towards me. It was Bran.
“Don’t leave me!” he cried as I sank beneath the waves. Tears and mud streaked his face.
“Don’t go!” he called again.
I’m drowning, I thought. I’m dying, I’m dying, I’m dying.
I awoke in a sweat and clutched at my throat, feeling as though I might throw up. It was then I noticed than Bran was not next to me. I sat up right, and felt around me in the tent. Even my hands were covered in a salty layer of grime. I shook involuntarily, shivering with a sudden sense of cold.
“Bran,” I whispered. There was no answer. “Bran? Where are you?”
My grasping in the dark revealed nothing. Bran was not there. I shook my head. Am I still dreaming? Is this another nightmare?
I reached for the tent flap and winced as this Night’s Lion was failing, and a glow fell on my face. The Man in the Mirror Shield was finishing the Lion off, and had escorted the Pale Lady across the sky. The sun would soon be up, and morning would then begin. My head brushed against the tent flap, and I looked out over a blue sea and the smoldering campfire, from what seemed a half remembered dream.
I saw a boy with blue within blue eyes, seated with his back to the second moon, and the ocean lapped around him. He clutched his legs and stared into the red embers of dying flames, with all the somberness of an old man. He seemed to be searching for something. The Man in the Mirror Shield shone down upon his head, shimmering off the waves, reflecting wisdom from the stars.
More shivers racked my body as a chilling wind swept across the dunes, blowing sand and smoke into curls that snaked through the air. The eerie cold that raked through me told me I could no longer be in a dream. The air was too icy for me not to be awake.
“Bran?” I asked the boy tentatively. Who was this? Was that huddled, scared, strange haunter of the dark truly Bran?
The boy turned his head to look at me, and his eyes widened. He shuddered as I did, but not from the cold I realized, from dread.
In a quiet whisper I heard the boy say, “I dreamed of you.”
Written by The White Knight
Edited by The Flabbits
Copyright © 2018 by The Flabbit Room