A clear midwinter sunrise warmed our backs as we fell on the town, sweeping all before us. I admit that I sanctioned the slaughter there (our enemy would have inflicted the same), but I was weary of this bitter, long-fought war. Taking a small detachment, I left the smoke behind and followed a track into snow-shrouded hills until the screams and clash of weapons were no louder than the crows calling across the valley.
We came to a shrine by a spring, but my men had passed that way earlier and I was too late to save the hermit who kept it. As the more superstitious of our company struggled to bury him in the frozen earth, I uncovered his lodge and pressed my way in through a curtain of old heather, still brittle with frost. The old man’s books and sleeping pad lay just as he’d left them in the sandy floored cave, but something else caught my eye and I uncovered a narrow fissure leading to a deeper chamber. I briefly glimpsed my torch’s thousand reflections on quartz-encrusted walls, before it guttered out and I was transported – whether in person or vision, I am still unsure.
I found myself standing on a hillside beneath unfamiliar stars, the lights of another small town below me. The air was warm and laden with the scents of a thousand flowers and herbs whose names I would never know. Clustered around a nearby campfire, shepherds were talking animatedly in a foreign tongue; on a road beyond, three camels passed by, their riders silent and thoughtful. But these were not the reasons I was here. I had been brought to witness the other sound that came from the twinkling lights below – the rasp of steel, infants’ cries, mothers’ anguished screams. A figure in shining white stood a little way off, its head lowered in sorrow.
I was roused by shouts outside the cave. The men had finished the burial and were pointing eagerly towards a small group of figures picking their way slowly across the snow on the next ridge. We should be riding to cut them down – they would spread the word about our massacre, vengeance would be sworn and the war would drag on. One or two of my companions were already in the saddle, but I called them back and no one protested. The fugitives passed over the ridge and were lost to view.
All of this happened many years ago. I have seen no more visions but I still keep the shrine for the few travellers who find their way into the valley. From time to time they bring stories of the war, which has moved to different parts and is fought with unfamiliar weapons. The nights are mostly quiet, but I sleep with a sword beneath my pillow – these are hard lands and evil times.