No sooner knighted he was at war, the last three years felt like thirty - or what he imagined thirty would feel like, once he was that old.
“Mordrak!” Prince Tabor interrupted his thoughts as he stood before Nan-Enn, the last in a series of cities to be attacked by he and his fellow knights. The prince strode towards Mordrak and with a tweak of his ginger moustache, said, “Today this citadel is ours for the taking - then we can rest awhile." The citizens had declined their chance for quarter now for the third, and last, time. "Just think! Nearly all of Escavia is now tamed.” The prince’s fair hair was cut just above blue eyes that glittered with the promise of victory. “No need to await my brother.”
“We’ll be assaulting the walls anytime now, then?” Mordrak asked somewhat surprised. “We're not awaiting King Tell?"
The prince slapped a hand on Mordrak’s broad shoulder. “Just await my orders, will you?” He straightened his posture and moved on his way.
Mordrak’s eyes narrowed as he considered the consequence of a failed assault against Nan-Enn, or more likely how Tell would react to his brother snatching his victory from under his feet. Surveying his waiting men-at-arms jesting and bantering he wondered if they would care who did what at all after these last two month's siege.
“They have no hope,” boasted one of them. “Look at that smoke! They're burning their very corpses. And as few living as Nan-Enn might have now, it might as well burn down anyway!”
“Aye, more dead bodies than alive, that’s for sure,” replied another. "And the stench!" He wrinkled his nose. "How can you make so light of it?"
Mordrak felt a little cheered listening to them. Their morale was good; no one seemed to fear for his own safety or that of any of their fellows. No one seemed to assume that they or their companions might not return from battle.
The crowds of soldiers' talk was turning to the moment of the imminent assault. Then Prince Tabor re-emerged from their midst. “Two blasts of the horn,” he shouted in a deep voice, his tone stern, “...signals the first wave of attack. Nevertheless," he paused for a moment, "nevertheless there will be no talk of pillage and rape!” Raising his voice above the cries of protest, he continued, “The city is to be granted quarter! My brother, King Tell, wants a nation to rule, not a heap of ashes at his feet.”
At that there was a ripple of anxious debate, and a few voices were raised again in complaint. One especially pronounced individual called out, “We'll end up besieging every city if we’re seen to be soft. No more quick surrenders!”
“They’ll surrender quickly enough once they realise their lack of options.” And without allowing further room for discussion, Tabor called out the names of those who would lead the first wave of attack.
Relief swept over Mordrak when his name wasn’t mentioned. He would not be amongst the very first to storm the walls, accompanying those who would likely be the first to die. Cowardly? Perhaps. It was not something he would voice; nevertheless the possibility of death was real, despite his men’s jesting. Some of them were sure to die.
Mordrak called a man over. The individual was dressed in heavy, black leather armour and approached without hesitation. “Sir Mordrak?” he asked.
“Stand close please, Fellis.” Mordrak looked at the unruly beard before considering the man himself. They were reasonably well acquainted for the last couple of years. Mordrak's father brought them both together at his first battle. Mordrak recalled looking at his eyes for the first time where he sensed Fellis was trustworthy, as no doubt his father trusted him with his son. The man never disappointed. He was a commoner, yet fought as well as many a young knight. Father had never had chance to explain much and Fellis himself avoided questions, mystery as he was. “It shouldn’t be long before the horns sound.”
Fellis nodded and stood at a respectful distance, rubbing imaginary dirt from his seasoned leather armour. Pleased with his own chainmail as Mordrak was, he felt a little naked without his horse. There was no sortie from the city to harry Tell's army so there was no need of a horse. Horse's don't climb ladders, he mused. The occupants of Nan Enn intended to fight behind their walls.
Then the horn blasted twice, its resonance deep. Before the final note waned, the first wave of assault began; men pushed siege towers forward over wet grass, which was quickly churned to mud. Other soldiers carried ladders towards the city whilst arrows from both sides of the wall blackened the sullen sky, the sound like the hiss of serpents. Before Mordrak, many of Tell's men were screaming cries of war and victory - and pain, the wounded left in the pools of blood and the dirt to writhe in their agony. There was no noise anywhere like the noise of men fighting for their lives on a battlefield.
Mordrak’s heart pounded as he awaited the call for the next charge. He looked at the rugged Fellis. His face was hard, set in resignation as he watched the first assault gain the walls. At the next sound of the horn, his men charged with curses and threats against the defenders of Nan-Enn. Mordrak roared and ran on across the mud, leading his men to join battle on the walls.
As they reached the foot of a ladder, Mordrak slapped Fellis upon the shoulder and laughed. "Onwards and upwards, eh!" The battle surely could not last too much longer now that the wall had so easily fallen.
Now on the parapet, he made a quick survey. There were indeed only a few score defenders along the walls that cradled the simple homes and buildings within, as predicted, whatever part of the wall one might consider. Women and children bolstered their numbers; Mordrak felt dismayed as it was not right that these people should fight. His hopes were that flags would soon be raised to show the walls completely captured, yet the few defenders were falling so wastefully, desperate to defend their posts. They gave no indication that any of them would surrender. Mordrak looked below the battlements as the arrows ceased at last, and he could see isolated melees breaking out. The people of Nan-Enn had even began to torch their own homes - a proud people indeed. “They’re still trying to destroy their own city. They’ll give nothing away!” he shouted to Fellis.
With little to do about the locals burning their own city, Mordrak and Fellis ran on. Mordrak wondered if his men would honour Tabor's command not to pillage and loot as if the Nan- Ennites might appear to give a mandate. Mordrak quickened his pace along the battlements where pools of blood and the dead endangered footing. Followed by his henchman, they reached a fight. But three defenders here were overborne by many knights, and Mordrak could not see what use he would be with this task. Below, Tell's men had pushed on into the streets where Mordrak decided he would be of more use. He saw men run into the building below him so he leaped down upon the thatched cottage, and Fellis followed. Together they cut their way through the roof. As they hacked their way through, an arrow spitting fire fell by them. Fellis caught it up using his leather gauntlets and threw it to the ground. More fiery darts came, though, and while Fellis tried quenching the fires, Mordrak hacked desperately at the thatch.
Fellis wasn’t fast enough. Despite the recent wet weather, the thatch began to kindle where a mounting fire soon cut them off from the ramparts. The thatch smoked in foul wreaths which began to choke both men, but finally Mordrak cut sufficient thatch to access the loft below.
Once inside, the thatch crackled with fire above them, and the smoke filled the loft. It was a small cottage. Bearing in mind there was to be an unpleasant reception awaiting them , Mordrak moved quickly toward the rickety wooden ladder that led down to the ground. They slid down it and half fell, half threw themselves to meet three defenders who appeared ready to confront them - two men and a third who was nothing less than an ogre, with perhaps more defenders in the other room. Mordrak faltered before the ogre - he alone would be as much as any man could cope with. This monster was over seven feet tall, with arms the size of Mordrak’s thighs.
In moments, guarding one another’s backs, Fellis again proved himself to be an excellent swordsman; few others would have been able to stand up to the men despite the poor odds. No less worse, the burning thatch was beginning to fall from the loft in clumps creating an acrid smell poisoning the air. Nevertheless, the lightly armoured men were not as well-trained as Fellis. Mordrak was determined to make Fellis give an account for his prowess, after the battle; he was not an ordinary man at arms. He would not talk about himself, it was so dumbfounding. Two of the men were slain by him, and his success lay in his expertly executed feints.
As Fellis weaved and sliced, he drew the attention of the ogre, which gave Mordrak an opening. Mordrak swung the enemy’s sword aside and sliced it back at the ogre, catching him in the chest and wounding him badly. Still, he stood his ground. A lucky strike by the ogre, clumsy though it was, caught Fellis by surprise, and he fell to the floor with a cry.
Panic began to seize Mordrak. Fellis was deeply injured, and Mordrak was barely able to quench his fear as the ogre’s laughter scorned him. He realised he should have called for support before rushing to this cottage, for now he was cut off. He chanced a glance up towards the loft where the fire was blazing, but there was no help there.
Now the ogre was upon him, smashing his mace down on Mordrak’s shield. He took the blows without moving, though they shook his every fibre. His muscles seemed paralysed by the weight of the ogre thundering down upon him. At last he stepped backwards, dwarfed, dizzy, nauseated, and more than a little bewildered as to how he had managed to keep hold of his sword. The ogre kicked a chair against him, bashing him through his armour and bruising his shins. It nearly knocked him off his feet. A fearful premonition of a slow and frightening death flashed through his mind, but the vision disappeared as he saw Fellis begin to twitch and move. Hope was at hand.
Mordrak leaned forward and lifted his shield to take another blow, and somehow, he kicked the chair back against the ogre.
For a moment, each redressed his balance. Then the ogre threw the table against Mordrak, again forcing him away, and then kicked the chair back at Mordrak though it spun to a stop beneath the part of the ceiling that was beginning to collapse from the fire. The cottage was rapidly becoming more and more like a furnace, and smoke from the attic was now filling the room. Sweat prickled from every pore of his bruised, weary body, and he felt as though his strength was sapped away with every drop of perspiration. The air was hard to breathe and his eyes stung.
Using all his power of will and summoning every fibre of strength, Mordrak surprised the ogre by the force of his blow, yet the creature parried with a furious counter-sweep. Mordrak’s arm ought to have been broken by the impact of the strike against his shield. He asked himself whether wounding this beast again was even possible without Fellis as a distraction. Then as he stumbled over the chair, he mustered every thought of confidence: for this ogre, he said to himself, is untrained. This knight, he scolded himself, has trained since boyhood. There is no excuse.
Still, the danger was great; cinders from the burning ceiling continued to shower down on him, and the roof was sure to collapse at any moment.
The ogre snarled and leapt to one side. Deftly on his back upon the floor Mordrak thrust his sword catching the ogre in the groin. The creature howled and staggered backwards giving the chance to regain his feet. Ignoring the curses and fury of the ogre, Mordrak swept his sword towards the beast, even as he moved for the door - then, seeing his one chance to finish this, Mordrak redirected his strike towards the ogre’s hand and struck it off. The ogre howled, his wail like that of a bull being slaughtered and blood gushed from the severed limb. Balefully the ogre looked at his hand lying in a pool of blood upon the floor. With his hand gone the ogre's rugged face turned from a ruddy pink to purple; he was enraged. Fellis was now crawling unseen behind the ogre, and badly wounded as he remained. Reaching as high as he could effectively stab, Fellis thrust his dagger between the ogre’s buttocks. The ogre finally fell dead before Mordrak could strike a final blow.
“Fellis, come with me. We’re done. The roof will give way any time now!” The cot where the parents normally slept slid from the loft, dragging burning cinders in its wake. There was nothing about the building now that one could call “sturdy.” Mordrak slashed his sword down against the ogre’s throat with relish and then rushed to Fellis to help. With aid the man rose to his feet, and heavy as he was Mordrak took most of his weight. Blood had congealed thickly from his wounded chest where Mordrak hoped Fellis had not burst his lungs.
“I can hardly breathe!” Fellis gasped as he clutched his throat.
"It is acrid! We've got to get out of here!"
The building was groaning as the blaze increased. A rafter fell noisily from the ceiling, crashing onto the floor sending sparks all over with the impact. Mordrak imagined the building would topple down upon them just before they arrived on the street. His chainmail was quite heated and he could feel sweat drip from every pore. He kicked the door open. Fiery cinders falling from the thatch flickered wildly about and not from this cottage alone. Much of the city was now ablaze. Mordrak pushed Fellis through the hail of cinders.
At one side of the street stood a stone building that Mordrak guessed was a storehouse free of activity. Otherwise all around were melees; the defenders were being gradually forced back to the centre of the city but still they would not yield. Looking farther onwards Mordrak could even see women fighting, and their children were slaying the wounded on both sides with swords and axes. Mordrak dared not leave Fellis; any of the city folk would surely kill him if they found him, yet Mordrak doubted the man’s chances of survival in any quarter.
A group of little people began jeering as it was clear Mordrak could not fight and support his companion at the same time. They threw stones and large lumps of wood. At their sides were axes. Mordrak knew his only hope lay in seeking shelter within the storehouse. He dragged Fellis towards it, pulling Fellis along as best as he could aware that he was apparently an easy target. Fire suddenly ripped through the windows of the storehouse from within. It gave Mordrak no choice but to lay Fellis down here in the street if he was to defend themselves. A hail of heavy stones scattered about them from the gang of little folk. Mordrak considered this group of trouble makers. They were dressed in robes, but their voices sounded young, they were probably children though he hoped they were gnomes for why would children wear robes? He had never seen a gnome but talk had them as short folk, probably a little shorter than dwarves.
Their debris showered against him though his helm protected his head, and he leapt over a flying plank of wood that had been aimed at his knees.
Now each individual drew their axes. They ranged from perhaps eight to fifteen in years of age and each stood their ground as he towered above them. Their screeching sounded out in high pitched terror, and otherwise their words filled with hatred for him - these were nothing more than youths. Mordrak did not want to kill them, but he had no choice.
Rather than being routed they jostled together, trying to protect one another and pitifully attempting to scare off the knight. Mordrak wanted to run, pulling Fellis in his wake, but it was a useless plan. A braver individual made a grab for his knees only to suffer a foot kicked in his face. Mordrak hoped basic violence would scare them off. and now with his broadsword slashing through the air, this was act his final means of scare tactics.
One of them threw himself in the way and fell to his sword. Mordrak was momentarily confused. Were these children intent on suicide? Another ran behind Mordrak towards Fellis. Seeing the danger, with heavy heart, he had to defend the man. Their skills with their axes were feeble against his sword.
Mordrak’s heart beat wild as much with sorrow as fury, yet it seemed futile whether he was angry or whether he was sorry. These children wanted to die.
“Run! Run! Run!" he shouted at them. "Why all this waste?” But their threats continued, "How could I not kill you?" They all fell to his sword.
At first he had hoped he was mistaken, that these were some sort of small folk; perhaps they may have been gnomes as he had at first hoped. But as the last of them fell he accepted the truth he had known all along, that they were mere boys with perhaps one girl.
Then a cry rent the air and the horn resounded; the city had yielded.
He looked down at the children’s bodies. Had the city yielded moments before, their stories would be quite different? Now all of them were dead. In his heart and mind he felt pity vanish for them, he hated them. They had turned him into a killing monster no more than a brute beast. He looked upon their faces and his heart burnt. He especially hated the fifteen year old and the six year old children, these two age groups the spurs to the band of brothers: the eldest leading and the youngest following as an example to those in-between. How he hated them. He clenched his teeth and cursed a vow to the gods that no song should ever be sung for them. They could have met nobler lives had they waited. Just minutes more... had they waited just a few minutes more... They could have waited. For a second he wondered what was up with him, why he should start this hatred. He wondered if a sort of madness crept into his mind.
Behind him the cottage had collapsed and he hoped for the same fate for the whole city, that every building the inhabitants had set alight would fall.
He attended to Fellis again and ignored his men herding the remaining prisoners towards the market square. Fellis was unconscious but was at least breathing, albeit fitfully, and his pulse was a little stronger than it had been. Mordrak rejoiced that the man might yet live after all. He summoned two squires to carry Fellis, and he led them towards the market place supposing medics would be there as anywhere.
“We have won,” Mordrak breathed. He dared not consider the cost. He passed over any misgiving he’d ever felt about King Tell’s wars. Praise gods they were just. Thank all the worlds one day he might die... and forget those seven disgusting faces of the youths. Bitter hatred burned within him; if he had looted he would fire the plunder; he would slay any woman lest he have cause to remember her offspring - and how he would hate her. He wondered if he would ever discover who the mothers to the children were; he would curse them. He would hate every woman here, lest she be one of them. Freya was now a disgusting god to Mordrak’s mind; Freya, the light of youth and fertility. Where was she now?
Bugles sounded and cheers cried out for the arrival of King Tell. He had not yet claimed for himself the title of Emperor but rather the throne of a High King.
“Gods let his speech be good,” Mordrak said under his breath. To date Tell had proven to be an eloquent speaker.
As a glimmer of conscience arose in the back of his mind he wondered what gave him the right to entertain this bitter hatred towards Nan Ennites.
Mordrak looked forward to meeting his father who would have arrived with the king by now. They had ridden off to attack a relieving army. Perhaps the kinship would lift him from the gloom and the sullen atmosphere that hung over him. Yet this feeling overrode his prickling conscience, he had never known the likes of before. Was there something else, here? He wondered. Saddled with a millstone around his neck indeed, was there also some sort of warped enchantment that lay over the city which had kept the inhabitants fighting for their own late king?
He sought some herbalists and told them to see to Fellis as a priority. "Do you sense enchantment?" he asked.
"We deal in herbs, not mysticism," they replied.
The army of Tell, his soldiers, retainers and followers had gathered. Perhaps there were thirty of the citizens and soldiers of Nan-Enn huddled in a group watched over by pike-men. A few children had also been rounded up. The rest of Tell’s army gathered around the King’s platform, creating a complete circle. The camp followers crowded behind them. Fully armoured knights stood upon the platform with Tell, his standard fluttering noisily above them in the breeze: a white unicorn upon a black background was spearing a great rampant dragon of gold. Mordrak stood in the crowd and watched, he felt too self-conscious to attempt mounting the stage but was content to survey Tell's attendants and his father. There was no sign of his father, however and it occurred to him that Prince Tabor was not there to be seen either. Now he was distracted as the King began to speak.
King Tell shouted clearly; his voice was strong and easily reached the ears of the people.
“For too many generations,” he paused as he surveyed the crowd, “Escavia has been a land of flowing blood and rebellion. Now Escavia is to be a land of justice the whole world can look to and know is an example of the gods! As I am to rule Escavia by the gods, you shall know that she is to be my feast or my famine, my bride or my whore depending on how you deserve to be ruled. Escavia shall yield to one High King, and to one High King shall be the throne and to the one throne one sceptre shall mark the monarch above the low kings of this land. Our lands of Escavia shall be healed and be like the maiden’s womb. And Escavia, our Escavia shall be like the breast for babes; flowing from her brooks shall be living water, upon her plains shall be the ears of ripe wheat and peace shall reign over her hills of grazing cattle. My people, for my people you are from this day forth, I promise you a harvest you shall reap with joy.”
There was a roar of approval from Tell's people and a murmur of dissent from the few citizens of Nan Enn. Tell continued his speech, raising his hands for attention and ignoring the derision, “Remember every worthy labourer has sweat upon his brow and chaffed skin upon his hands. Yet by the rewards he reaps, his belly is full and thoughts of festival fill his dreams during his repose. I promise you peace and prosperity, my protection! Rejoice, for your lives are made anew! If we are not united in vision, there can only be bloodshed and heartbreak.
“As a sign of my benevolence I have granted this city quarter. No further life shall be taken, and freedom is assured to all who want it. A place in my growing army is also offered to any knight here or man-at-arms who feel disposed to serve a king who swears fealty to his people! As King, I serve; I serve the people by my rule! I hold each person with equal regard to one another.”
There was much muttering as the few townsfolk had their doubts.
Tell continued, “A king must serve his people, and his people must serve their country. In the morning I shall accept the fealty of all here.”
There was silence for a few minutes and then a few hoots of derision mounted again. But Tell had finished and without further ado, he shook hands with some of his dignitaries and though some stepped forward from the ranks to receive Tell's blessings, there remained no sign of his father. Then the king gathered some friends and left for their tents. In this city now, there were no comfortable quarters. The army cheered and raised their weapons joyfully in the air drowning out any derision.
Mordrak stood by; he felt the speech had been inspiring to his people, and Tell was considered to be a gifted speaker who had held their attention. It was this and Tell's charisma that swayed Mordrak's father to his cause. Now Mordrak looked around for his father and made his way over to some friends in sight. His father was nowhere to be seen. His heart began to feel heavy. With them was his squire whom he felt not yet mature in years for battle. Tulan’s face fell at the sight of his master, his friends also looked a little awkward.
Mordrak felt grief clutch at his heart, judging by their faces he knew father must be dead, surely he was killed when intercepting the relieving army.
Mordrak's squire Tulan showed complete sympathy for his grievances; Mordrak would come to commend him for his patience that morning. In Mordrak's family pavilion that felt empty without his father, they had spoken of Mordrak's woes throughout the night.
“You will be fine, Sir! It is nothing more than your conscience, and I must say yet again the children would have killed Fellis without a qualm.” He rubbed his face. Brown hair tussled over his broad shoulders. Tulan was mid teens, not ready yet to shave.
“I don’t know what to do.” Mordrak wrung his hands. “Cursed I am. And my father dead. Would he be proud of me for killing the children, when I should have tried to frighten them away? Well, I did try to frighten them away. How would my father have judged me? He was otherwise pleased with me. He took my words and listened to me when we were deciding to join King Tell or not. But did he dream I would come to this?”
Tulan sighed. “Sir Mordrak. You told me you tried. Even children make their own decisions and they decided to die. Do you think the children would have wept had you died? Gods! peasants don’t care about the fate of knights! Your father was a man who clearly loved his sons, yes, even your younger brother who you say was ever skulking in the shadows."
They slept a little and in due course awoke as the sun arose giving the morning light to the clear blue sky.
Tulan said, “I see your armour is battle worn. You need replacements. Buckles, belts and straps. You clearly fought bravely and wisely.”
Mordrak did not want to sorrow and girding his spirit he arose. “I shall come with you.”
They sought out the camp followers for the items but most people were asleep.
"Do you sense something in the air?" Mordrak asked Tulan. "Something... I don't know what."
"It is probably the smell and the quiet after so long a siege, Sir."
"Let us walk through the citadel, Tulan. Maybe we can lay a wraith to rest."
As they headed to the market square passing by smoking buildings if they weren't outright burning, Mordrak wondered if they passed the homes of the children he killed. He wondered though why they were in robes and not dressed in usual breeches and shirts. There was something amiss there if nothing else.
They spoke of the things they saw, but they could not shut out the cries of the young children and the squalling of babes that rang across the streets. Most of the buildings were burning rubble.
“There they are, Tulan! Do you see? Just like them!” Like the youths he had killed.
A few youths meandered about, their faces set, haggard and weepy or simply dazed. “Just like them, Tulan!”
“Sir! It is not them, though.”
Smoke stank out the air, buildings smouldered with dying fires, other buildings continued to burn with certain liveliness.
"There is the building Fellis and I fought the ogre, though the whole place is looking strangely the same all over. Do you think I am losing my mind? Or is there a presence? Is there actually a strange work going on here?” He led Tulan to a weeping child and asked the matter.
“My mummy and daddy are dead!”
Something stirred in Mordrak’s heart. Someone once said to him that the orphans are the true war heroes. “When?”
“They died last night. I was asleep. My mummy and daddy are dead!”
After a while, a little before Tulan and Mordrak reached the square, rumour swept through the gathering ranks of the victors that most of the adult Nan-Ennites had taken their own lives during the night. Their children were left orphaned behind them. Mordrak could see the absence of local folk. It looked likely that there was more truth to the rumours than Tell’s people wanted to believe.
When finally he arrived, King Tell openly wept at the news of the suicides. His grief was sincere and his sorrow was almost beyond endurance to those present; they joined him in his lament. To Mordrak, it was unthinkable that Tell was orchestrating something dark, something sinister. Nevertheless, Mordrak found he could not weep; the faces of the seven children spun inside his head. His sleepless night had hardened his heart, however much he felt for the High King. The seven faces that haunted him quenched all pity within his soul. Their faces appeared with every closing blink of his eyes; added to this, shimmering like a backdrop to the dismal picture was the ghost of his father scorning him.
Mordrak looked about the grey stone city, sensing only the smell of fire, smoke and the rancid aroma of death. But there was something more. It was not the abandoned architecture of the buildings that had been rich with style, it was that there was beauty to this city that now lay ugly. It was all now dismal... so eerie. Mordrak wondered how or why man is prepared to pay the price of war: the scars, the fears, the tears and the loss. He wondered if this city would ever again bustle with prosperity, or if it was cursed beyond hope.