The night was growing tired and dawn would be upon them soon, but as of yet, they had seen no signal.
Nearly an hour before, the march had been halted as Argaes consulted with several of his men, including Brower and Lamarr. After some deliberation, Brower saluted, and took off into the darkness, followed by two others. Then with seemingly silent orders, the main body split into two, one turning south, while the other continued in a north easterly direction.
Kora had noted, with relief, that he had not fallen into his father’s group.
But now they were only waiting.
General Argaes had undoubtedly changed plans at the last moment, opting for a more secure way of accomplishing the mission.
While they had the numbers and force to simply walk right in and lay waste to the camp, General Argaes understood that advantage was everything, and he wanted as much of it on their side as possible.
Many of the men had fallen into a restless sleep, while others sat and prayed. It was not so much that they were frightened, or worried, but battle had never been kind to a single soul, and it would be no different this time. The threads of life were thin, and could be severed even with the dullest of blades.
Aldren found Kora sitting silently by himself and dropped to the ground beside him.
‘So, you think you are ready?’ He asked.
‘Yes. Of course.’ And why should he not be? He had been training since the beginning of his memory. While not the best swordsmen of their ragged army, he was well equipped with the skills and talents needed to fight.
‘Aye, well, I must say that I am surprised the General is allowing you to fight tonight.’
‘Yes? And why would you be?’ Kora asked, a bit more than intrigued by the words.
‘If you had heard him speaking with Lamarr earlier, you would understand.’ Aldren answered, taking a handful of cool sand and pouring it onto the ground in a small pile.
‘Why? What did he say.’
‘Only that he wished….’ Aldren’s words trailed off into the silence as his eyes became riveted on something in the distance. Kora followed his gaze, straining to see what it was that interested him.
From their position they were in view of the camp, only because of the orange glow which reflected off the dusty haze aroused by the storm. But further on, a much brighter and menacing burst of light began to spark up, growing quickly.
‘The signal, you think?’ Aldren asked, rising to his feet.
For a moment, Kora was unsure, but an instant later it made sense. Though there was little vegetation to be found out here, tall grass surrounded the oasis, and the long spell of the drought would have rendered it extremely dry. And flammable.
‘Brower is lighting the grass.’
‘To kill them?’
‘No, I do not think so.’ Kora stood and watched for a few moments longer. ‘There is not enough for that. A distraction, perhaps.’
It became obvious that this was the signal they had been told about, which meant one thing.
The time of blood was at hand.
A tired old man rolled over in his sleep, hugging the fur tightly around his withering frame. Perhaps he was only tired, but to one such as I, it seemed that he shivered not from the cold of the desert, but from the freezing realization that life was cruel.
Not that he had ever seen any other side of it.
The camp was quiet. Earlier there had been dancing and singing, boisterous laughter as the men boasted of their feats, wept for their fallen comrades, and reveled in the bounties they had collected. Many had not returned, and amongst those who had, few returned whole.
Ahh, but such is the way of their people. And has been, and ever will be.
That is the proper term, I suppose, if you are speaking properly. And where no one rules, everyone does. Just, not over themselves.
A slight wind breezed through the sparse trees, stirring the tents and spreading the dust further. Out here, though, one learned to cope with the sand. To them, it was no more a hindrance than water to a fish.
And then there was the young child, so innocent and pure, all except for the nightmare which raged in its mind, tainting. It had seen something out in the desert, something terrible and vicious. To young to speak, it could only cry, and it was those cries which allowed me to enter. You may think me cruel to do such a thing, to toy with the mind, but it is not so terrible after all, compared to the things your kind do.
There was a whirring of noise as the wind picked up, shooting sharp blasts over the dunes and through the oasis. It was cold, which would be surprising to some. And then things began to happen.
At first, it was only a lantern in the distance. No one took notice, for no one cared. But as it quickly began to grow, the beast rising up and charging towards the camp, a yell was heard, then the clanking of a weapon, and suddenly the men were running. Perhaps some stumbling man, drunk with the spoils of war, had dropped a torch. Perhaps the wind had carried an ember. But the fire was was raging now, illuminating the area for a great distance.
Then a scream.
A cry of death.
There were men everywhere. And women, and children. Running, fighting. The ring of iron on iron, fist against fist filled the night air, surrounding him in a constant array of motion. And Kora could only watch.
He had rushed with the others, crying mightily, his heart throbbing in tune with the horns, his feet churning up the sand beneath. He was prepared, and all of his anger flowed into his arm, at the ready, eager to feast.
But now, he could only watch.
He had never seen such ferocity amongst the men. He had only ever seen them in training, and skirmishes. But out here, everything changed.
‘They are like animals.’ Aldren had told him while they waited. ‘No honor, no prowess. They only live to eat, sleep, breed and kill, and they will do anything to continue the cycle.’
Suddenly, Kora was unsure which was the monster, for they all seemed so mixed and mingled. His thoughts betrayed him then, and he realized that they were ruining any chance he had of accomplishing his goal. But he could not move, his feet seemed cemented in place.
The men had always told stories of these so called barbarians, and of the terrible things they had done. The raids, the ambushes. It seemed to him, at the time, that they were simply mindless rabble, running about in the wild, causing trouble. He had heard tales of how they kidnapped young children, only to torture them, leave them to die in the desert.
Now, they all looked the same. Adonoa. Human. Just like him, with hopes and dreams and fears.
And how the men were so eagerly destroying that.
But one thing remained, one thing which he could not change, and he realized that this was the only way to prove his worth.
His sword was drawn and raised when the chance arrived and a man rushed upon him, crying wildly and swinging a heavy scimitar-like weapon. Kora matched his ferocity of a sudden, throwing into his own yell the anger and hatred towards his father. By the gods, he would show him!
The first blow was parried, as Kora still was in a bit of shock. The barbarian did not waste time, though, and lashed out once again, aiming to cleave his skull. Kora dodged, then dodged again, and his instincts took control.
A swift feint to the left, a glancing blow in the opposite direction, and his thoughts began to fade. And how he enjoyed it.
Training, for Kora, had always been enjoyable, but always a test. There was always something to prove, someone to best. But out here….
It was only him, and the man and the blade.
A heavy blow crashed against his sword, jarring his arms, but it also caused the man to come off balance and Kora was able to slip his blade through his defenses, the tip barely slipping along his thigh, but it was just enough, and there was blood. It was a small cut, but a victory nonetheless and Kora nearly cried out excitedly. Suddenly, it had become a game.
The barbarian became angry and swung wildly. The attack was parried, the weight allowed to slide off the blade, and the man fell to the ground. Stunned just a bit, he rolled quickly, avoiding a downward strike, then kicked at Kora’s foot, nearly knocking him to the ground as well.
He was up again. Another swing, another missed opportunity. He was no good at this sort of thing.
A deep gash was cut across left shoulder, weakening it and his blade dropped just a bit. He dodged a jab, countered with a powerful sweep. Kora took a step backwards. The man followed, stretching his point of balance. A kick to the leg, a blow of the wind, and it was over before it truly had begun.
As the man toppled, Kora allowed his weight to naturally slide along the blade’s edge. It cut a long line across his chest, tapping against each rib, severing the throat, through the chin and face, cleaving jaw and tooth, flesh and bone alike.
His body thumped harshly against the sand.
Kora almost could not believe it had ended so quickly, and it filled him with pride. He had been tested, and tried, and found worthy. His father could disapprove no longer.
The thick blood slid along the edge of his sword, rolling over his hands. It was hot, and sticky, and he looked down at his feet to the fallen soul.
There was a last struggle for air, spurting of blood, and another life was ended.
It was a game no longer.
Something happened within Kora, then. A hard stone rose in his throat, cutting off his own breath. His stomach churned, his vision swam, and the strength of his legs gave out. Falling to his hands and his knees he felt the pooling liquid stinging his flesh. He tried to gain control of himself, but he was powerless to do so and it frightened him. His eyes grew dark, then sparks of light shot before him, illuminating the the grotesque features of the barbarian’s face.
The contents of his stomach expelled themselves from his lips. Putrid and vile. But it was the taste of death which was the most bitter, the smell filling his nostrils and mind.
He wretched once again, the bile rising to his throat and then forcing itself back down. For how long he sat there, he could not tell. But when he was finally able to rise to his feet and stumble away he noticed with dismay that the fighting had moved on.
And there stood his father. The General’s eyes burned holes into his heart, and as he turned and continued on with his men, Kora knew it was the end.
Stumbling away, he attempted to banish the frightening images from his mind, but they would not leave, determined to haunt him for as long as possible. The darkness which enveloped him as he began to leave the camp was welcome. He wished to escape, to hide. Anything but face what must come.
He fell to the sand, alone, and betrayed.
But Reader, I was there.
The interior of the tent was dark, and cold, and as he pulled aside the flap covering the doorway only a small sliver of light shone through, falling on her face.
Her eyes went up to his, capturing his gaze, and time itself seemed to freeze.
It is not what you think, though.
Instantly, he was captivated by her raw beauty. She, on the other hand, could not drag her eyes away from the crest printed on his coat. The symbol, the Horn, was etched into her mind as a tool of tyrants and warlords. For her, he was no different. She spat, remembering the times that the Empire had graced her with its presence.
Valor in strength. Honor in power.
Yes, they were very kind.
The temperature of her blood began to boil, but for the moment, she was helpless to act.
Kora was not bound as she, but still, he felt much the same. I had watched him lie there in the sands for sometime, grovelling in his mind and searching for a way out. But there was none to be found. Like the boy which had come before, he sought to change what had come and gone. Fortunately for one such as myself, mortals are not given that power.
Eventually, he came to terms with himself. Though he knew that it would bring dishonor upon his father’s name, he realized that, to him, it mattered little. For nineteen years he had served his father’s purposes, followed in his footsteps, strove to be everything he ever wanted his son to be. And for what? It was too much, but now, it was over, and life would take its course.
Perhaps, he could begin living it as his own?
But then a noise awakened him from his self induced coma, calling him back to reality. He gathered himself, wiping the sand and gravel from his face as he sought out the sound. It led him back into the camp, or to the very edge as the case may be, and to a solitary tent. He wrestled with the idea of entering, unsure of what might be waiting inside. And there was also the matter of returning to his own camp. The horns had already been blown to call them back, and the men would have been long gone.
It sounded like a child, or perhaps a woman. Which he could not tell, but something drove him to continue forward. Sad, that he was unaware of my own presence, my own nagging.
I wanted to see what might happen. Had I known what was in store, I would have left it well enough alone, continued on my way, and never look back. But look he did, and I witnessed the collision of two worlds so entirely different that they were destined to change the course of fate. Even the gods could not halt it.
His eyes went over her as if it was his first experience with a woman. It was not lust, nor was it rapture. Only the curiosity of a child.
But most of all, there was her hair. A bright blushing of maroon fire.
A crown of flames.