“I’ve heard no one has ever seen his face, not even his own men.”
Dray gave a sharp laugh at the boy’s last comment. He huddled closer to the fire for warmth, aware the group were watching him. His old eyes moved over the men until they rested on the young wide eyed pup who had recounted the legend of the Tarasian Warlord. The boy had fallen into silence and the sound of the crackling fire was just louder than a distant wolf howling high in the mountains.
Dray realised they were expecting him to comment. “They are just tales for the campfire,” he muttered, chewing on a piece of dry meat he had found in the bottom of his leather pouch. “It’s no truer than the story of how the Warlord had killed a thousand men single handed.”
The boy, whose name Dray remembered was Vurst, nodded eagerly. “I’ve heard that story too!” The tremble in his voice betrayed how scared this youngster was. “They say he eats his victims and drinks their blood.”
Before Dray could destroy this myth, an older man with one eye whose name was Switch, leaned forward into the firelight, the flames flickering in his one good eye. “Well I faced his army back in Imoras.” He pointed to the empty socket. “I took an arrow to the eye as I stood on the battlements waiting for the army to advance. You saw how fierce they were when the battle started, Dray; we were lucky to survive.”
A silence fell over the men and Dray shuddered, looking up across the snowy plains that stretched out in front of them. A thousand Tarasian campfires burned in the distance as the army prepared to advance upon them. They had set camp three days ago and had not moved an inch forward. As a veteran of one war too many, Dray knew they were playing with them, zapping them of the will to fight. They had the city surrounded and more arrived each day, adding another fire to the sea of flames.
“We’re going to die, aren’t we?” a man wrapped in a cloak muttered. Dray looked at him, not remembering his name. Tomorrow when the fighting was over, and if he survived, then Dray knew he would know that man’s name. Right now he didn’t care.
Dray spat over the battlements, turned to the man in the cloak and stabbed a finger at him. “Talk like that’s bad for morale!” he snapped. But the damage to the men had already been done. Sighing, Dray looked down from the battlements at the gathering armies on the plain. The snow began to fall gently and he wondered how the Tarasians felt. Savages, people called them, but Dray could see the genius of the nameless warlord who led them. The fighting would start in the next day or two, once the terror really began to take a hold of the last desperate defenders of the wall. All this nonsense talk of the warlord was not helping.
“I hear he never takes his helmet off, because he has no face,” Vurst said, matter of fact. “They say he is not of this world.”
Switch shuddered. “Aye, but he bleeds like anyone else. If he bleeds, he can die.”
Dray gave a half smile to Switch, glad he had brought a little hope to the mix. But the one eyed warrior shook his head, adding, “If you can get near enough. But as no one knows what he looks like, how do you know who to shoot?”
Dray rubbed his hands over the fire. “The man hides behind myths and masks,” he grumbled. “Just shoot every Tarasian you see and perhaps you’ll get lucky.”
Vurst laughed at that, Switch nodding with a grin. The cloaked man looked down into the flames and sighed. Dray stared at him. “You don’t agree?”
The cloaked man shrugged. “It would seem our enemy is invisible. How do you fight what you cannot see?”
Vurst nodded grimly. “I heard there are a number of Tarasians that wear the warlord’s armour, spread throughout the battle field.” He stood up and looked over the battlements towards the snow covered plains and the camped enemy. “They fight fiercely when they believe their warlord is with them.”
Switch stood with Vurst and together they looked out at the plains, wind blowing their cloaks around them. Dray shook his head. “Sit down the pair of you! Is it a wonder why you lost your eye, Switch, when you stare right at the arrow?”
Switch chuckled. “I’m looking at them with my bad eye.”
Dray gave a hearty laugh. They had been fighting side by side for many years and he had been there at Imoras when Switch had lost his eye. That was ten years ago and even then Dray was old. When he had pulled the arrow from Switch’s eye, they had vowed to never fight another war again. How things seemed so different when a battle had been fought. There was always that strange euphoria that survival brings when you made promises to find a new way of life. Dray had vowed to settle down with a good woman and write his life story, to grow old and die before he could complete his own legend.
But fighting was all Dray knew. And the young pup, Vurst, had that look of a man about to fight his first battle. Looking at him, Dray saw the firm face of a proud man, but also the young scared eyes of a boy staring through. A few nights ago he was sleeping safely in a warm bed with a full belly and war had been far from his mind. Dray had forgotten what that felt like. A mercenary, he travelled the land, a sword for hire. Whoever paid enough gold would find a living legend fighting in their army, pushing the men to victory by just his very presence. Morale was the sharpest sword an army could yield against the mightiest of enemies.
Switch was the same, though ten years his junior. They had not seen each other for three years and it was by chance they had come to this doomed city. Word had spread that the Tarasians were marching north and the king had called for fighters from all around. The chances of survival were slim, but the gold paid was too high to turn down.
“It’s not the gold, really,” Dray said allowed, more to himself.
Switch turned to him. “Eh?”
Staring into the flames, Dray saw his entire life play out before him. “We don’t need the gold, do we? I mean, how many wars have we fought in?”
Switch made an effort of counting his fingers, but gave up. “You know I can’t count. But, aye, it is more for the sport of it than the gold.”
The cloaked man snorted contemptuously. “You call a bloodbath a sport?” He stood up and strode to the battlements with Vurst and Switch. “Come dawn, the fighting will start, signalled by a long horn that will reach out and crush the last of the men’s spirit. Those who try to flee will be hacked down by the enemy and those who stay will be worn down until they are crushed.”
Switch’s good eye narrowed, his hand clenched at the hilt of his sword. “Watch your words, lad; a battle is fought with sword, blood and sweat, but it is won by heroes. You have the greatest warrior fighting with you.” He pointed to Dray.
The cloaked man looked Dray up and down. “I just see an old man who seeks to find his past glory; there will be no glory here.” With that, he spun on his heels and strode down the battlement towards another fire, wrapping his cloak about him for warmth.
Dray watched him go. “Men like that are dangerous.”
Switch nodded. “Aye; want me to kill him?”
Dray thought about it a moment, then shrugged. “What would be the point? He only speaks what everyone is thinking.” Turning to Vurst, he invited him back to sit at the fire and the three men huddled around again for warmth as snow began to fall. Lost in his thoughts, Dray’s mind led him down a hundred battles and he could smell the blood in the air, the ring of screams in his ears. Reaching out, he caught a pure white snowflake, studying the pureness of it, imagining it stained red with the blood of the enemy.
“They say the warlord was born from lightening striking the ground,” Vurst began again, his voice grim. “They say his touch can kill and his voice can shatter stone.”
Dray laughed. “This warlord sounds more powerful than the Gods!”
Switch took a swig from a flask and offered it to Vurst. When Vurst took a drink, he gasped and spluttered. “Now you have a bit of thunder in you, lad!”
Dray’s mind had wondered away again and he looked down the battlement. The man in the cloak had wandered out of sight, no doubt spreading more disaffection. “No one knows what the warlord looks like, do they?” he asked.
Vurst shook his head. “Only a chosen few have looked upon his face.”
Dray stood up, drawing his sword. Hurrying down the battlements, he hunted down the cloaked man who had pointed out they were all going to die when the battle began at dawn with the sound of a horn. Switch fell into step next to him.
Approaching the next fire, he demanded to know where the cloaked man had gone.
A soldier pointed across the plains. “The fool took flight towards the enemy. You know him?”
Dray laughed uncontrollably. “I’ve heard no one has ever seen his face, that he wanders his enemy’s camp and breaks morale.”
The first light of dawn spread out from over the mountains and the snow eased off. The morning air was still for a long moment until it was shattered by the sound of a battle horn, followed by the thunderous noise of a hundred galloping horses. It was a good time to die.