Warning: This work has been rated 18+ for language and violence.
Lucian lied on the hard wooden floor and stared at the moonlit wall of the small bedroom. Sleep eluded him despite his exhaustion, and he wondered if Radi's snoring or the cold breeze entering from the open window were to blame. He had often found it difficult to sleep during the journey to Melliark, and this night felt no different to him. His mind was still filled with doubt over his future, even as he lied safely indoors among new friends.
As he dwelled on the upcoming combat evaluation it became more difficult to keep his eyes closed. Dyne said he was in the military a long time ago, he thought. Should I ask him for advice in the morning?
The night went on as Lucian drifted in and out of consciousness, trying to shake his uncertainties and fears. He almost found peace before the breeze blew into the room again, causing him to pull his blanket higher over his shoulders. This must be how Darius felt the night before he left for Ragamsol.
After yet another unsuccessful shift in position, Lucian heard a soft shuffling sound behind him. He slowly rolled to his opposite side and noticed that Dyne was no longer lying on the floor next to him. The wooden floor creaked on the far side of the room
Lucian pushed himself up slowly with his elbows to see Dyne gently close the door and exit with his blankets slung over his shoulder. He must not be able to sleep either. I might as well join him. Lucian waited a few moments before he wiped his eyes and stood. Quietly walking on his toes, he carefully stepped over Radi and left the bedroom.
Lucian closed the door behind him and turned towards the dining room table, but to his surprise, Dyne was nowhere in sight. Looking into the dark corners of the room, he took just a single step forward when he heard something slide under the front door. Curious, he cautiously moved to the door and crouched over the object. He found what felt like a small piece of paper with something attached. As he lifted the note into the moonlight, a key fell from between the folded page and dropped onto the floor.
"This is the key Zaine gave to Dyne for the house," he whispered to himself. "Why would he--" Lucian hushed himeslf as he heard a soft voice coming from just outside the door. He pressed his ear against the wooden door and listened again for the sound.
"Come on, girls,” Dyne whispered to the horses. “It's time to go home."
What? Go home? No, he's not... He can't! Lucian immediately picked up the key and unlocked the door as the note fell to the floor. Still barefoot, he stepped outside into the cold morning air and looked to his left to see Dyne climbing into the front seat of the wagon.
"Quietly now," Dyne whispered to the horses.
Lucian stared at Dyne in disbelief as he ran to the wagon. "What are you doing?"
Dyne squinted through the darkness. "Oh, Lucian? What are you doing awake so early?"
"What about you?" Lucian demanded. "How can you do this?"
"Shh. Lower you're voice, Lucian. Calm down."
"Calm down?" Lucian shook his head. "I can't believe you would do this to Juliana! In the middle night without even a word. You... you can't just leave her like this!"
Dyne lowered his head and sighed. "She already knows. It was planned this way from the begining."
Lucian took a step back. "What?"
Dyne pushed his luggage from the seat into the back of the wagon. "Come up here."
Lucian calmed himself momentarily and quickly climbed into the seat next to Dyne. "You can't do this," he pleaded. "She still needs you. We all do."
Dyne put his hand on Lucian's knee and looked at him. "Listen, Lucian. I would stay, but I promised my daughter I would return safely."
"You mean Juliana's mother? I don't understand. Why would she want you to--"
"Lucian," Dyne interupted. "There is... There is something you should know about me. " He looked over his shoulder and steered the wagon into a nearby alley.
"What are your orders, commander?" Zaine shouted.
Reyner held his hand against his brow and looked out across the battlefield. Only half of the men he personally led through the waist-high currents of the Nelna were still standing, and the flames of Ratheim's wizards began to illuminate the night sky as they rained down from the far side of the battlefield. He looked on as the enemy force continued its march, almost unimpeded as they began to ford the stream.
"Fall back to the tower!" Reyner shouted. "All frontline soldiers retreat to the hilltop and hold the tower!"
Zaine slogged through the current and stood next to his commander. "But, sir! General Dorain has ordered us to prevent them from crossing! If we pull back now the river will be lost."
Reyner head his sword high and signaled towards the hill behind them. "Don't be a fool, Zaine! It's already lost. Those orders we're given under the condition that Rathiem was not reinforced. But if we defend from the hill our archers will outrange their warlocks!"
"Oh, of course! They won't advance past the river without magic support."
Reyner nodded. "Precisely. Now pull everyone back quickly. That's an order!"
Reyner and Zaine began to call out the commands to the soldiers as they waded against the current towards the hill. "Fall back! Fall back to the tower! Archers cover the retreat! Aim for nearest targets, nearest targets only!"
Reyner reached the west bank of the river when a young soldier suddenly emerged from the waters; coughing blood as he crawled to Reyner's feet.
"C-Commander, I can't--" The warrior rolled onto his back and cried out in pain as he pressed his hands against a deep wound in his side.
Remker kneeled beside his soldier and inspected the wound. "Don't close your eyes, son. You're strong enough to get through this! You hear me?"
The young man grimaced and nodded weakly as he struggled to breathe.
Remker tore the sleeve from his tunic and pressed it against the soldier's side. "Zaine! Get this boy to the healers!"
Zaine sheathed his blade as he ran towards them. "Yes, commander!" He quickly wrapped the soldier's wound before lifting him onto his back. "Just keep breathing! There's help for you up at camp. Just hold on." Zaine began to ascend the steep hill with the young man on his shoulders.
"I'll be right behind you, Zaine." Reyner frantically searched the river for any more of his surviving men, covering his nose and mouth as the wind carried heavy smoke and embers from the northeast side of the river. "Everyone, fall back!"
"Commander!" someone answered from the stream. "Anyone please! Please help!"
Reyner squinted through the smoke to see a young man struggling to fend off two enemy swordsmen as he backpedaled against the waters. Reyner charged into the river without hesitation. "Hold on!" he coughed. "I'm here with you!"
The young Marcerian solider thrust his sword into the upper arm of his closest enemy as he evaded a strike from the other. His enemy doubled over in pain, but held onto the blade and took it with him as he fell under the current. Now disarmed, the young soldier panicked as he fled his remaining pursuer towards Reyner.
"This way!" Reyner called out to the soldier. "Retreat! Fall ba--" As he shouted, an enormous ball of fire descended from the sky and erupted in the water ahead of him, engulfing the young soldier as well as his enemies.
The force of the magic blast knocked Reyner onto his back and under the stream. Disoriented and shaken, he quickly resurfaced and felt for his sword in the muddy riverbed. With his ears still ringing, Reyner soon retrieved his blade and looked ahead. The young soldier's charred corpse drifted towards him as he cleared the water from his eyes and nose. Damn Warlocks! They'd even burn their own to block our escape!
A second explosion detonated against the hillside behind Reyner as he stood and gained his bearings. He looked out across the river to see seven more of his men still fighting from beyond the reach of his voice. Another nearby explosion forced him back towards the hill, and Reyner reluctantly fled the battle; cursing his enemy's name with each smoke filled breath.
He sheathed his blade and trudged up the steep hill behind his men. "Get the wounded to the healers immediately!" The responses to his orders were forced and weak, some not even audible as most needed all of their strength just to press on. Reyner felt the heat of Ratheim's flames at his back as fire rained down against the base of the hill.
Exhausted, Reyner kept his head down and pushed ahead. The rising smoke began to blur his vision, but he knew he would soon reach the summit and escape the fumes. Just a little further. We should be able to regroup and hold them in the valley. Dammit! If only I had known they called for so many reinforcements.
Reyner reached the hilltop moments later and nearly fell to his knees, catching himself on a large boulder nearby. He breathed in the fresh night air and forced his weary legs to continue towards the border tower, passing by many of his injured and fatigued soldiers.
Many of the wounded men in his battalion lost the strength to stand shortly after reaching the summit, collapsing to the ground even as their comrades tried to hold them up.
"Where are the healers?" Reyner shouted as a man fell before him.
"Here, Commander!" Two dozen white-haired men sprinted past Reyner and towards the injured soldiers carrying supplies and water. With glowing gemstones in hand, the healers quickly knelt beside those with the most serious and life-threatening wounds. The eldest healer came before Reyner and handed him a flask of water.
"Are you hurt, commander?" he asked. "We came as soon as we received the order from captain Zaine."
Reyner drank the entire container dry before answering. "I'll be fine, Ahrios. We were out numbered, but most of us made it out by my count."
Ahrios folded his hands and bowed before Remker. "Thank the Goddess."
Reyner shook his head and pushed the flask against Ahrios' chest. "There was no Goddess near those waters, Ahrios. I assure you. Now go tend to my men."
"Of course, Commander. There is just one thing."
"What?" Reyner snapped.
"G-General Dorain requests your presence at the tower."
"What? Dorain is here?"
Ahrios nodded. "He's just arrived and begun to set up camp within the hour. Captain Zaine already left to brief him."
What is Dorain doing out here? What about the fortress at Fheor? Reyner dashed off towards the tower. "Get my men on their feet quickly, Ahrios. And get anyone who can stand a bow. Ratheim is not taking this hill!"
Reyner reached Dorain's camp within minutes. The general's forces pitched their tents in the safety behind the the border tower; where they were arming themselves for battle. This is all that's left of Dorain's battalion? Did he split his men to reinforce the other generals? Who is holding Fheor? One of Dorain's captain's pointed Reyner to the largest tent at the far end of the campsite, and Reyner heard Zaine's voice from inside as he lifted the curtain and entered.
"Yes, general," Zaine said kneeling before the general, "there's at least a hundred Elentien among their reinforcements."
"There's certainly more than that," Reyner said as he entered. "I haven't seen them advance that aggressively since the fortress at Kehn last year."
Dorain, only just starting to equip himself for battle, fastened his steel gauntlets against his arms and turned to Reyner. "Ah, commander, you've come at last." He waved his arm towards Zaine. "Leave us, captain. Your commander and I have urgent matters to discuss."
"Yes, general." Zaine saluted Dorain and Reyner as he stood and walked towards the exit.
Reyner put his hand on Zaine's shoulder as he passed by. "Wait outside for me, Zaine. Ahrios is watching the front for now."
"Understood." Zaine said with a nod. He saluted Remker and left the tent.
Dorain walked over to the corner of the tent and stared at a map spread across a long wooden table. "You believe they had more wizards, commander?" He asked as he secured his sheathed blade to his belt.
Reyner followed Dorain to the map and examined it. The blue and red painted figures spread across the map were all concentrated within five miles of the Marceris-Ratheim border, but none were closer than those positioned in the Nelna region.
"Many more, sir." Reyner added three additional red figures to the Nelna river from the side of the table. "We were overwhelmed almost immediately. I gave the order to retreat as soon as I realized, but we still suffered heavy--"
"How many men do you still have?" Dorain asked, looking at Remker with urgency.
"Just over eighty percent, I believe. Roughly three hundred."
"Excellent!" Dorain exclaimed. "It's all falling into place. We have them!" Dorain began moving pieces on the map to reflect the current situation. He removed a single blue figure from Remkers force, but added three additional enemy figures on the river.
This cannot be! Reyner thought as Dorain slid pieces across the map. They're planning their invasion here? With that many men we won't be able to stop them from crossing the border. He turned to Dorain. "Sir, is this map is correct?"
The general stared at the map with wide eyes. "Indeed. Our spies have confirmed Ratheim's movements. This will be their numbers once they receive additional reinforcements at dawn." Dorain walked away with his hands folded behind his back. "Nearly a third of Ratheim's entire army will charge the border by this time tomorrow."
Remker followed Dorain away from table. "W-We must call for aid, general. We cannot hold back a force of such size!"
"There is no one who will reach us in time."
Remker shook his head. "No one? What of your men at Fheor?"
"Fheor was lost to us. What you saw outside is what remains of the men who fought there."
"Then, then we've no choice but to retreat immediately! Without Fheor this position holds no strategic--"
"Prepare your men, Reyner! We attack the river at dawn."
"Dorain!" Reyner shouted. "H-Have you gone mad? Ratheim outnumbers us eight to one!"
Dorain began to laugh as he sat in a large wooden chair and strapped on his steel greaves. "I have nearly a hundred of our strongest wizards here under my command. And those fools have chosen to stage their assault from the river."
No, he's not thinking of... He wouldn't. That would be suicide!
"Your battalion will drive them back into the waters. It is of no consequence if we are overwhelmed there, as long as our initial charge forces them back into the Nelna. If Ratheim wishes to minimize casualties they will be forced to send their supporting warlocks into the river. But my own wizards will be positioned in the river just upstream from the battle. And then..." Dorain stood and retrieved a large gemstone from his satchel. The clear stone shined bright blue as it rested in his palm. "In the frozen waters... those fools will breathe their last!"
"And what of my men, Dorain?" Reyner shouted. "You'll be marching them straight into an icy grave!"
Dorain stood from his seat and shrugged. "Most of the men under your command are Kliaten soldiers. And inexperienced ones at that. Tell me, commander Reyner, how long have they been in service? Eight, Nine months?" Dorain chuckled as he retreived his chain mail.
Reyner clenched his fists as he stepped towards Dorain, confronting the general face to face. "Six months for most of them. And you know that Kliaten resistance means nothing if the entire bloody river is frozen over! What's come over you, Dorain?"
The general set his armor aside and smirked as he stared back at Remker."So, half a battalion of rookie Kliaten in exchange for Ratheim's strongest wizards. You must admit, commander, his majesty would be more than pleased with such a trade."
"Tell that to the familes of my men!" Reyner stared straight into Dorain's eyes. "I won't do it."
"Don't be a fool, Reyner." Dorain snapped. "Your men will die as heroes! Heroes who's deaths finally turned the tide of this war. The greatest sacrafice men of their standing could ever hope to achieve. Thier sons and daughters will sing of this battle for decades!"
"No!" Reyner shouted. "The war will be won on another day and their fathers will return to sing with them. Have you lost your mind, Dorain? Or are you throwing my men's lives away to avenge those you lost at Fehor?"
Dorain scowled and glared at Reyner as he pushed him away. "Silence, fool! You would do well to remember to whom you speak." He held his gemstone up to his chest as it's light began to intensify.
The unearthly chill of Dorain's magic forced Reyner to step back, but he did not take his eyes off of the general, nor did his resolve waiver. "I won't do it, Dorain. I'm ordering my men to retreat back to Forghem."
Dorain laughed. "No, commander. Or should I say, captain?"
"As of this moment I hereby demote you two ranks and order you to return to Melliark. Your troops will assemble into my battalion effective immeadeatly."
Reyner stepped back to the entrance of the tent and held his arms out at his sides. "You can't do this, Dorain! It would be a slaughter! I won't let you!"
"Excuse me?" Dorain lifted the gemstone over his head. "You have no say in the matter. Now begone!" Dorain lunged forward as he activated the gemstone.
The ground surrounding Reyner began to freeze as an intense chill ran through his legs. Within seconds his arms began to tremble from the freezing pain, and he nearly slipped on the ice forming underneath his feet. "Dorain," he whimpered, the frozen breath barely escaping his lips. "Don't do this. Please." Reyner fell to one knee and held his chest as the intensity of the cold magic overwhelmed him.
Dorain stood over Reyner and chuckled as he lowered the magic stone. "Get out of my sight you disgrace! Before I order you down into the river with the rest of them." He laughed as he lifted his leg and kicked Reyner's jaw and knocked him onto his back.
I can't let him do this. I won't! Reyner's hands slipped against the ice as he crawled to his knees and caught his breath. He wiped the blood from his mouth and glared at the general, who looked upon Reyner with anger and disgust.
"Go back to Melliark you fool. Crawl back into the hole you came from!"
"Dorain!" With all that remained of his strength, Remker sprung to his feet, drew his sword with both hands and swiftly thrust it into Dorain's sternum. He cried out in anger as he pushed the blade all the way through the general's back, driving the hilt forward as Dorain's blood dripped onto his hands.
The stunned general looked down at his pierced, bloody torso and fell to his knees. Reaching for the blade with trembling arms, he looked up at Reyner in disbelief. "You! D-Damn You!" Blood poured out from his body and mouth as he weakly tried to pull the sword out from his body.
Reyner ripped the blade out from Dorain as he stepped away, allowing the general to fall face first onto the dirt and ice ahead of him.
Dorain's entire body shook as he weakly raised his dimming gemstone. "T-Traitor! Curse you... You Bastard! Curse--." The general covered his mouth as his body convulsed on the ground. Within moments he was silent, lying motionless in a pool of his own blood.
What have I done? With his arm's shaking, Reyner kicked the dull gemstone away from Dorain's lifeless body. He then heard the sound of the curtain open behind him and turned, ready to strike with his bloodstained sword.
Zaine entered quickly and glanced at Reyner before crouching over the fallen general. His mouth hung open as he stared at their fallen leader.
Reyner backed away. "Zaine, he was--."
"I know, I heard everything." Zaine stood quickly and snatched Reyner's sword from him." "Take his horse and get out of here! I'll tell everyone he ordered a full retreat to Forghem. Go quickly!"
"But Zaine, his men will come looking--"
"Just go!" Zanie shouted as he tossed the bloody sword aside. He grabbed Reyner by the shoulders and shook him. "I'll take care of the body. You have to get out of here!"
Dyne frowned as he hunched and looked down at the horses. "I spent the next three years on the run. It wasn't until after the war that I was able to settle in Panelsca. But word of Reyner's betrayal had spread all over Marceris by then, so I changed my name shortly before I married."
Lucian stared at Dyne, unsure of how to respond. "Dyne, you. You actually killed--"
"Those men were all I had, Lucian. They were my family back then." Dyne looked back over his shoulder at Lucian. "I grew up here in Melliark, but ever since I was a child, I was alone. I never knew my parents, and I spent most of my youth stealing from good people just to get by. So I eventually joined the military just for the steady meals, but over the years I changed as I rose through the ranks. I found myself caring more about the my men than even winning the war. They weren't just my comrades, I loved them like brothers... and sons."
Like sons? He killed the general to protect his family? But... I killed a man out of rage after mother was already gone. I wasn't able to protect anyone. Lucian looked ahead and remained silent as Dyne continued.
"When Dorain told me his plan, I just couldn't accept it. I chose my family over my country. I murdered one of our best generals. And without Dorain's leadership and tactics, countless others lost their lives in the battles that followed. The war was eventually lost... because of me."
"Dyne, you... you've put yourself in great danger by coming here," Lucian whispered. "If anyone found out who you are or what you've done, if anyone recognized you they would--"
"Now you know why I can't stay, Lucian. I promised Juliana and her mother I would return to Panelsca. Zaine is meeting me at the gates soon, he knows one of the night guards who will let me out without any questions."
Dyne risked his life to bring Radi and Juliana to Melliark. Unsure of how to respond, Lucian climbed out of the wagon and stepped away as Dyne snapped the reins and steered the wagon out from the alley.
"I'm glad we met, Lucian. Please look after Juliana and Radi for me until you're sent out into the field."
Lucian caught up to the wagon as it turned out onto the street. "Dyne, wait."
Dyne brought the wagon to a halt. "What is it?"
"You said that Juliana knows? Do you mean she--"
"She along with the rest of the family, yes. They all know what I've done."
"So then, the reason Radi and you..."
Dyne sighed. "He hasn't called me grandfather since his father told him. And I don't blame him. I was just as brash and arrogant as him at that age. I'm sure I would've felt the same. But Juliana, she--" He stopped himself and looked away.
Dyne wiped his eyes against his sleeve and looked ahead. "Even after she learned the truth, she would still come to read the Aeda to me, even against her father's wishes. And even when I refused to hear it she would still come back the next day... with that same smile.”
That sounds just like her. Even when I tried to push her away she wouldn't let me.
Dyne turned and stared at Lucian from above. "Sometimes I think this journey was as much for me as it was for her. It's going to be several years before she completes her schooling here, and I don't how much time I..." He wiped his eyes again and cleared his throat. "Please watch after her, Lucian. I know she's ready, but she knows little of life in the city. So look out for her while you're still here. If not for her sake than for mine."
Lucian nodded. "I will, Dyne. It's the least I can do to repay you both."
Dyne smiled and chuckled softly. "I had a feeling I wouldn't regret bringing you along. Thank you, and good luck." He cued the horses forward once again. "Farewell, Lucian."
"Goodbye, Dyne." Lucian stood silently in the middle of the narrow street and watched as the small cart disappeared into the morning fog. I'll keep her safe. I promise.