Marius nudged his horse closer, bringing Anton back into the present. “What’s that over there, at the edge of the forest?”
Following the direction of Marius’s finger, Anton allowed a touch of his power out to improve his eyesight. He saw the unmistakeable signs of soldiers on horseback. “Draw up” he snapped back. “Into defensive formation”.
Reinaldo sat back on his horse and checked that the militia were getting themselves into the right place. He cast a grim look at Anton who shrugged slightly. Meilyr had had no need of a serious army for far too long. The men and women who formed the militia were willing and keen but untried and undisciplined. If they were lucky this was just an advance party of general infantry, if they were unlucky they might just end up dead. He tightened his hold on his reins. The horsemen were closer and there was no mistaking the one who rode in front. It had been months since he had seen Malchor and the last time had been bittersweet. His stomach curled at the memory. Malchor had come to see the troops after the massacre at Ravens Water. He had wanted so much for his idolised commander to show disgust and horror, to pull up General Corran and execute him for war crimes. But Malchor had been pleased, had congratulated the soldiers as the dead lay rotting in the field beyond them. He had disappeared to his tent, sick to his soul, and Malchor had found him and sat with him, not saying anything but offering comfort.
He clenched his jaw. “Malchor leads them. Remember what I told you, if I give the signal I want you to close in as tight as you can; I’m not sure how wide I can spread a shield or how long it will last.”
He dug his heels in and rode out to meet his former mentor, his friends at his back. Both parties reined in about 10 metres apart, watching each other warily. Anton spared a glance for the militia but trusted Reinaldo to keep them in line. He gritted his teeth as Malchor eyed his patrol and then met his eyes with a sardonic eyebrow raised.
“Well my boy, it appears you have fallen rather far in the world. Ten men under you when you could have had a battalion.”
He kept his gaze straight. “I never wanted a battalion”
Malchor laughed. “Come now, we all know that’s not true.”
The war lord circled his horse and walked it closer, still stopping a few metres away.
“It isn’t too late you know Anton; I am rather forgiving where you are concerned. Come back to the light and that battalion can be yours. I will spare your friends, you do not need to doubt that, you know I value loyalty and they must have done much to earn yours.”
He was aware of Marius sitting ramrod straight next to him, his breathing rapid. Reinaldo was as stolid as ever and Anton felt his faith as a reassuring support at his back. “Even the Elven friends, Malchor? Because I have a rather large number of those.”
A moue of distaste crossed the other man’s face. “Really my boy, that’s a bad habit you will need to cure.”
Anton pushed his horse forward, anger rising. “Don’t call me your boy. You don’t want me back because of some twisted affection, you want me back because of what I can do”
Malchor’s brows lowered and his chin lifted. “Yes, I won’t deny that is a part of it. You need guidance, Anton, training to use your gift appropriately.”
The words, so close to what Baelmah had said, made his hands clench involuntarily and his horse danced out of control for a second. A doubt crossed his mind. Could it be that Malchor did really want him back to help him? A part of him deep down wished it with all the intensity of a fatherless boy. But then out of the corner of his eye he saw Malchor’s soldiers widening their perimeter and he didn’t need Reinaldo’s sudden shout to realise that they were trying to separate him from his patrol. He shook his head at Malchor and wheeled his horse around, drawing his sword as he did.
“I will not join you again, Malchor. My place is with my friends. All of my friends.”
Malchor nodded gently. “It is a big decision Anton. Perhaps we can convince you. The longer you stay away and refuse to come with me, back to where you belong, the more innocents in Meilyr will suffer.”
He saw the signal, small as it was and yelled a warning to the patrol. He was too late. One of the soldiers had been concealing a small but lethal crossbow and had manoeuvred himself into close enough range that the single bolt went straight through the eye of one of Anton’s young patrollers. A deep rage hit him as the boy slumped from his horse and he cast Malchor a look of fury as he spurred his own horse towards the bowman. He dodged the second bolt easily and with one swing of his sword decapitated the soldier. Gareth, his name was. He remembered him from the Ravens Water and felt no sorrow at his death. He was dimly aware of Malchor issuing sharp commands and his patrollers being pulled together by Reinaldo’s calm voice. He rode towards his crew and turned to face the enemy.
“This patrol is just the first shot Anton,” called Malchor, “I give you one day. If by dusk tomorrow you have not presented yourself at the city gates ready to come with me then the city of Meilyr will suffer my wrath. It is your choice, but maybe the deaths of these patrollers will hasten that choice.”
With that, the man who had held so much of Anton’s heart turned and rode off, leaving his soldiers to kill or be killed. Anton’s chest hurt and he tried to deny to himself that he had expected better of a war lord. He raised his fist and the militia shuffled their horses into as close a formation as they could. While they were doing so he eyed the advancing soldiers. There were four he did not know and he thought he might try to spare their lives unless they made that impossible. He recognised all of the other 7 and of those there was only one, an older man named Patric, who he thought he would try to spare. The others had too much blood on their hands and too much darkness in their souls. Still, he thought, he should try.
“Brothers” he called, “you know me. You know that my word was my life and loyalty my watchword. The path you are following is an evil one. You know in your heart that I am right. If you lay down your arms and leave, never to rejoin Malchor, then I will let you go. If you do not I will be forced to kill you, but know that I take no pleasure in it.”
One of the ones he didn’t know laughed, “Well, that’s an offer I think I can refuse.” But he noticed that Patric at least was weighing his sword in his hand as if trying to decide. When next he spoke he aimed his words at the older man. “It isn’t too late to change your path. Lay your sword down and choose again. Choose life and peace.” Patric met his gaze and shook his head slightly. The pain in his eyes hit Anton deep inside. “Brother, it is a hard road but it is a better one”.
The man looked at Anton then and at the patrol, young and untried. His face screwed up and he re-sheathed his sword. “I never signed up to kill babies” he said, “I wish you luck Anton, you were always a good man and a good soldier”. He then kicked his horse and took off at a gallop towards Devnor, putting as much space between him and Malchor as he could.
“One down” he heard Marius mutter. He nodded grimly but his heart rejoiced. Maybe it was only one soul that joined the light but that was one soul more than there had been. Small victories. He summoned the energy and the light grew, spreading over the untried patrol and leaving him and his friends outside it. Marius turned wide eyes on him and Reinaldo grinned. “So”, said his big friend “we fight now”
Anton pulled his knife out and used his knees to urge his horse forward. “Yes, we fight now.”
In the end it wasn’t much of a battle. He had no compunction using his power to help him fight and it was surprisingly easy to do so and maintain the shield over the young patrollers. He figured it was like a muscle and got easier the more it got used. His sword swung out and his knife followed and soldier after soldier fell from their horses. The fight ended on the ground and none were left alive. He let the shield down and the patrollers dismounted and came to help round up the horses. A couple of them threw up. He looked up from cleaning his blade to see one of the older ones, Callum, frowning at him. He quirked an eyebrow at him. “Yes? What is it?”
“One of them is a woman. You killed a woman.”
Anton nodded as Marius and Reinaldo came to stand close to them. “Yes, she is a woman.” He sheathed the knife. “Her name is Hafwen.”
The patroller shook slightly and turned an aghast face on him “you knew her?”
He put his hands behind his back, unconsciously taking the stance of a commander. “I knew all of them except for two. I either served with them or trained with them. I did both with Hafwen.”
“But she’s a woman! You don’t kill women!”
Anton capitulated and put a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “She was a soldier. Don’t demean her abilities by denying her that. Soldiers kill and get killed. That’s the job. If it makes you feel any better she was particularly good at killing, and had no trouble killing even the youngest child at Mergoth. Now, be a soldier yourself and saddle up. We need to arrange for someone to bury the bodies before they rot.”
As a shaken Callum drew himself up and went to do as ordered Reinaldo put a hand on Anton’s shoulder. “The boy was right on one thing, you aren’t a man who is happy to kill women, or people who were once your companions. Are you alright?”
He rubbed his hands over his face. “No. But not because she is dead, or even because I killed her, but because I remember her as she was before. Before this fucking stupid war. She wasn’t a bad person. How did we end up here with my blade in her gut and the blood of Elven children on her hands?”
From Redemption, WIP – first draft complete now working on revisions.