I couldn't believe how still everything seemed, how peaceful the world was pretending to be. There was no wind to stir the leaves around us, and the clouds hung motionless in a pale sky. I looked around and even those few of us left waited where they stood without moving, waiting for the next attack. We stood without hope, waiting for the end. I looked towards the king and saw him tighten his armour and adjust the grip on his sword. I could see by the look in his eyes that he, too, knew this was it. He had lived to see the end of his kingdom, the end of his people come crashing down with the Trolloc horde. But by the Light he had lived long enough to see saved what part of it that could be saved, and by the Light he would live long enough still to send back to the Dark One at least a handful more of His servants.
The feeling of cool water running over my hand brought me back to my senses. I glanced down and saw that you were no longer drinking from the water skin I had pressed to your lips. I hurriedly snatched it back and attempted to wipe the water from your chin. I only succeeded in smearing more mud and blood across a face already caked with it. Your eyes were glassy, staring off at nothing and your breathing was ragged and uneven, but for now you lived yet.
"I won't survive this next rush," you rasped at me. "Burn me but I don't think any of us will."
I didn't even bother trying to comfort you, to tell you to keep up your hope. It was pointless and insulting to a soldier such as you. Meaningless platitudes were best saved for those of us who had never seen a battle, had never faced a Trolloc.
"It's strange, what one notices at the end," you continued, though I could see the strain of speaking was almost too much to bear. I supposed you needed to leave behind what you could while you had life left in you.
I sat waiting for you to finish, but it appeared whatever it was you had noticed was not meant to be shared with the likes of me, a simple farmer from upcountry, despite everything we had been through together. I took no offence; emotion had been burned out of me.
In the distance horns sounded; their call familiar to me by now. The horde was advancing again. The bare score of us left in fighting condition stood no chance of repelling them one last time. Even so we all stood a little straighter, our stances a little firmer.
As I attempted to stand and ready my axe, you grabbed my arm with a strength I found surprising, considering all the blood you had lost.
"The Light burn you you country lout, you aren't leaving me down here to be trampled to death. Help me stand!" Without even questioning how you hoped to keep your feet in your condition I pulled you up. I even picked up your sword and handed it to you, knowing you'd just insult me for overlooking a soldier's weapon. You took it with your off hand, seeing as how your main one had been messily removed hours ago by a Trolloc's sword.
"That's better. Haha, old Aemon seems to think he can kill them all and save the Mountain Home. Oy! Aemon!" I was only slightly shocked to hear you address the king as such, though, as a soldier himself, he was clearly used to it.
"I bet you 50 gold marks I kill twice as many as you this time!" I was completely surprised to see him smile, and for a ripple of laughter to go through the soldiers. A warrior's life was clearly very far removed from what I was used to.
With that my mind drifted back to what I had been, only a scant few days before . . .
I had been a farmer all my life, raising cattle and sheep for sale in local markets. I had never thought of taking up the sword, of joining the Band; a simple farmer's life was enough for me. Even so, I was always proud to be a small part of the Thorn in the Dark One's Foot. I had always thought the Mountain Home would stand forever, or at least until long after my children had returned to shelter in the Creator's hand.
That's why the news of our impending doom took me by complete surprise. A messenger came through our village, warning us that we had all been betrayed by the Ten Nations. A Trolloc horde was attempting to force a crossing of the Manetherendrelle. They were being contested by the Band, which was itself surprising since only the week before they were in Bekkar, but Aemon and the Band would never let a thing as trivial as an impossible march stop them. We were told that, by the order of the king himself we were to flee as far and as fast as we could, for the Red Eagle would not win this battle.
At that a strange mood came over me. I kissed my wife and children good-bye and, shouldering my axe, began running. I had never thought of taking up the sword, but I would not let my family, my home, fall without paying the price.
I ran all day and all night, and by the next morning had made it to the banks of the Manetherendrelle. Once there I saw that the Band had already been pushed back across the river, but even yet the Red Eagle proudly flew over the survivors. I had expected to receive scorn and laughter when I arrived, but I was not the first, nor would I be the last. Peasants and goodwives all had come, carrying whatever they could: swords, axes, scythes. Some only had a frying pan or a rolling pin. But every one of them, one and all, were welcomed and cheered as if they were a thousand footmen armed and armoured to the teeth. We were clapped on the back by seasoned, grizzled soldiers as if we had fought a hundred battles with them.
We were all the reinforcements that were coming, and so were given a hero's welcome.
"What's this, a pig farmer thinks he's a soldier? Well, that axe is better than some I've seen today, and you've got the look in your eye. Then again I suppose you wouldn't be here without that look. Come brother, today we shall stand together and, Creator willing, not die too quickly."
That was my first meeting with you. I couldn't make out much of you under your armour and the blood of man and Trolloc alike. You already had a wound under your eye that still oozed blood, but the fire in your eye said you were yet prepared to take more to defend the Mountain Home.
I never learned your name, and you never asked for mine. Under the Red Eagle that day all were equal; and all were one.
I somehow managed to kill my share of Trollocs, and even saved your life once or twice. We fought side-by-side and back-to-back the entire time, and I think I came to love you there. Not as a wife, or as a woman even, but as a fellow human. You were my last link to the peace and sanity of before, and I cherished you for it.
The sound of charging feet and hooves brought me back to the imminent death we all faced. I wasn't sad and I wasn't angry. I simply was for a short time longer.
"This is it friend. I shall see you on the other side, eh? Who knows, perhaps this is enough to secure us a place with the Heroes of the Horn. Can you imagine? Hahaha!"
With the laughter still on your lips you charged, with myself right behind you. All around us the remaining few who stood beneath the Red Eagle joined us in running to our death.
First singly, and then together, we screamed. Screamed for what we had wrought, and what had been wrought upon us. I had saved what I could, and it was time to end it. The Dark One may have beaten us this day, but we had beaten him just as badly. The Mountain Home had fallen, but the Red Eagle had scattered to the wind and, someday, the Thorn in His Foot would rise again.
The last thing I was aware of before a Trolloc poleaxe took me in the chest was you and I, with one voice, yelling: