Once, when we made camp in the village at the foot of Rivenrock, I met a boy with one leg and a wooden crutch.
He’d hobbled over Azoc–a tall man from Aysgarth who had received a nasty shoulder-wound from our skirmish with some of the Dark One’s Swarm.
He was lucky to be alive. The Swarm fight like they don’t know pain. Which wouldn’t surprise me, considering when you stab their bandaged bodies, they bleed spiders. With the lumps in those bandages I wouldn’t be surprised if that was all that was underneath.
Azoc’s first few days were nothing but shaking and trembling and leaning on a makeshift staff for support.
And then he came upon a corpse in the road. Blood soaked his cloak where the arrows had been pulled out of his back, and his wounds had crusted over from road dust that had gathered in his open wounds. He lay face down, and nobody dared changed that. After all, he could’ve been someone we knew.
Only Azoc dared to approach the body. The dead man’s weapons had been taken, along with whatever armor he had on him. But Azoc saw a red stain on his leg. I had assumed it was blood.
Then he reached into the dead man’s pocket and pulled out what was left of a collection of sweet-berries. He licked the juice off his fingers and shuddered at the taste of it. “Beautiful,” was all he had said.
Since then, he’d kept the berries in the folds of his cloak. He had been eating them all day as we wandered through the village. And the more he ate, the less he shook.
But then the boy hobbled over. “Azoc.” He had heard his name from our time camped near his village. He approached the man looming over him and held out cupped hands. Azoc laughed and handed the boy a handful of sweet-berries. When the boy waddled away, he turned to me and shook his head. “One leg. Ninth Hell, he’s got one leg. Some poor fucker had a dull blade.”
As Azoc was dealing with the one legged boy, I remember seeing Balfour Stormcrow thumbing ticks off of his flesh in the shade of a maple tree. He deposited them onto a wide shiny leaf, and the second they hit that leaf his dirk came down hard and fast, cleaving it in two. By the time he was done he had a small pile of leaves dotted with ticks, all chewed up by that dagger.
He smiled every time he brought that dagger down. Every time he split a tick in half.
Nobody knew when Balfour had joined the war. Everyone you asked could only say that he was a foot soldier before them.
Some wondered why he never rose through the ranks. Especially considering that sword of his. Nobody ever saw him hone it, yet it always seemed to keep its edge. Sergeant Koth used to swear he saw runes on the crossguard. I suspect it was him who started the speculation that he was a noble.
A rumor had spread that every time Balfour was considered as an officer, he committed some offense that ultimately denied him a new rank.
I had asked him about the truth of this, once.
“Might be there’s some truth to it,” he’d said. “You know I’ve always loved spending my days footsore.” He leaned in close so that I could smell the salt beef on his breath. “You ask me, I think they’ve kept me here because they know I’m the best there is among our rank. The best of the worst, as it were.” He grinned. “Meaning no offense, of course.”
We watched the stars that night. It felt hours spent in silence. Then Balfour spoke. “Do you think the Dark One’s followers call him the Chosen One?”
“What? Like it’s reversed back where he’s from?”
“Exactly! In his land, is our Chosen One is the Dark Lord? Is he called the Chosen One?”
I grinned. “Now that’s a thought.”
“Do you ever wonder if we chose the wrong side?”
Balfour shifted onto his side so that his back was facing me. “No.”
It took us five days to climb Rivenrock. The wind tugged at our cloaks, making our procession a trail of banners. A gust of wind caught a man-at-arms and took him over the mountainside. He didn’t even have time to scream.
At length, Lieutenant Fray turned to me, red cheeked from the cold, and said, “Why do we call him the Dark One? Does he have a name? Is he embarrassed about his name? I’ll bet it’s Maurice.”
“Well,” I said, “People don’t exactly want to hear about the Dark Lord Maurice. That doesn’t exactly put fear in the hearts of your enemies.”
“That’s true,” he said with a shrug. He trudged further along the mountain. I was surprised to see him shivering. Rumor had it that Fray was from a mountain city before he joined the war. “Best call him the Dark One, then. Keeps things simpler.”
I used my cloak as a pillow that night as I lay next to Lieutenant Fray, hoping the wind wouldn’t carry me off the mountain in my sleep. We watched the stars, and in the distance. We saw bright flashes. The Chosen One—our Chosen One was miles away, putting himself to good use.
“Can I tell you something?” Fray asked.
“If I could have one wish come true–any wish, it would be for my get a messenger raven from my father telling me it’s okay if I don’t win any glory. All he writes about is glory. I want him to be okay with my service.”
Fray never made it across the mountain. A company of Swarm ambushed us. The last I saw of him, a Swarm had him by the throat, its hand oozing spiders.
I never saw the killing blow and no one found his body. Sometimes I wonder if he survived. Perhaps they took him back to the Dark Lord. I wonder if he called him Maurice.
I once said as much to Balfour when we had been assigned to pick through battle-wreckage. He laughed from deep in his belly. “Who in Nine Hells could conquer the world with a name like Maurice?”
He saw a Swarm stir and he put his blade through its neck. Spiders scuttled through the gaps in its bandages, then died. “I’d trade places with Fray if I could,” he said. It did not seem wholly in jest. “Just for the chance to mock Dark Lord Maurice.”
He twisted the blade.
Once, Azoc had tried to teach me the language of Aysgarth. It was a city in the mountains. Probably the same one Lieutenant Fray came from. “Let’s start with the basics.” He’d said. “Stones.”
Their language was structured around describing stones. They had many names for stones. Too many.
But as he looked around for one he could identify in his native tongue, he found none. “These rocks are unfamiliar,” he muttered. He spent a good hour searching for at least a pebble from home. One he knew. It went on long enough that I wondered if he was still searching for my benefit.
At length, he laid a hand on my shoulder and squeezed so hard that my knees almost buckled. “You know what?” he said through a clenched jaw, “Forget it. I’ll teach later. When we’re closer to Aysgarth.”
I remember every time our cart broke down. It always seemed to be after we’d stopped for provisions, but not close enough to a village that could help us. I was usually one of the first to help drag the cart of provisions through the dirt.
It was raining, one time. Balfour, Azoc and I made sure the wheel kept turning, lifting it slightly so that the cracked spoke wouldn’t shatter. “You know,” Balfour said, “This is what it’s all about.” He gave a grunt as he heaved. “Fighting for the Chosen One. Saving the world from the Dark One.” He gasped for breath and slackened his grip on the cart. We’d come to a brief halt to catch our breath.
Azoc leaned on the back of the cart, chest heaving from the labor. Balfour looked at the two of us in turn. “Isn’t this what you had in mind when you decided to save the world?”
I remember The field of grass weighted with wind, bowing under the company’s progression to war, only to rise up after we’d passed.
I remember being ambushed in the woods, drawing my sword at the sight of the Swarm all around me.
I can recall snatches of Balfour in that battle. It’s strange, there’s little else I remember of that skirmish. I don’t remember striking down any Swarm, though my sword had the spider-blood to prove it.
Yet the snatches of Balfour are what remain clearest in my mind.
I remember a Swarm landing in front of him so suddenly as to send him stumbling back.
I remember him going for his dirk, first. The one he’d used to kill ticks. I remember him lunging to stab a Swarm only to realize too late that he’d forgotten to re-sharpen it.
I remember him drawing his sword in an attempt to rectify his mistake.
I remember the fear in his eyes as the blade punch punched through his bowels.
At some point I’d fallen to my knees. I was screaming. Screaming until my throat was raw.
I remember Azoc hauling me to my feet. Forcing me to keep fighting.
And after the battle, I remember these things, too:
The hilt of a sword held by a slim, dead, hand.
Azoc saying, “Couldn’t be helped.”
Azoc saying, “Right?”
Azoc saying, “Talk to me.”
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