It was warm in the valley. Far to the west the sun had begun its slow descent, pulled by the great chariot of the gods. Its fall was heralded by a great wall of fire, which raced to meet it, setting the sky alight. Through thick blue haze to the east, the first stars could be seen, shining eyes waking from slumber. A cold wind blew, racing over the rugged hills and through the thick conifers, liberated by the icy shadows which slowly stretched across the land. But the wind never reached the valley. The valley was warm. The sun lingered longer here, stubbornly clinging to the long green grass and the wide, gentle river. It kissed the waterfalls, setting them aflame, and turned the steep slopes crimson.
Mallis stood on top of the ridge, gazing westwards. His face shone red in the failing light, and deep shadows etched his rugged features. His armour shine like a beacon, visible for miles, yet Mallis had no need for subterfuge- there were no enemies in the valley. Silently he savoured the last of the sunlight; his dark skin favoured the heat, and it had been a long time since hed been truly warm. He sighed as he felt the breath of the ice wind which swept down from the mountains. Reluctantly he turned, and began to make his way down towards the river. His thick leather boots skillfully avoided the rocks and tripweeds on the rugged slopes. Mallis was denied his brethrens night-vision, but years in the wilderness had made him sure-footed.
He looked down at the camp beside the river, now sheathed in the shadow of the valleys western edge. A dozen circular tents had been erected on a wide shoulder near the bend of the river. Each was only large enough to sleep three men, and even then uncomfortably. Banners flew from each tent, and another larger one had been planted in the field at the camps southern perimeter; all of them displayed the same sigil- the Green Tree of Edhelnore. Near the main banner, just a short distance from the camp, a fire had been built. A few of his troops were sat around it, flickering shadows hunched for warmth. He had nearly reached the floor of the valley now, and could make out who they were, even though they were silhouetted against the glare. They were his men, and he knew them all well.
He walked through the tents, towards the fire, stopping occasionally to check the ropes had been secured, and the pegs were deep enough. Most of his men were inside, asleep no doubt. His men were disciplined, and seldom drank. He scowled as he looked around him. Two weeks ago there had been close to a hundred tents pitched, in a valley very similar to this. Now they had been reduced to a dozen. Nearly three hundred men had been killed, within one short afternoon; and now the remnants of the host were his to command, for now at least. He wished his men were less disciplined- he could use a drink!
He was close enough to the fire now to make out the voices. One of the men was singing, plucking his golden harp which shone in the firelight. He recognised the song, an Elvish ditty sung by all soldiers, telling of the great Formorian Conquest, and the Triumph of the Avallani. He stopped for a moment, listening to the sweet sound of the harp. A white mare was tied to a tree a few feet away, snorting nervously at the fire. Mallis patted on the nose for reassurance, unconciously admiring its bright coat. The horse neighed contentedly, nudging Mallis with her snout. Mallis scratched her ear distractedly, frowning at the scent of horse-sweat. It had been a fast retreat, and Mallis doubted that he smelled any better.
The singing had stopped now, and the three soldiers sat in silence. Mallis stepped into the firelight; they were his troops for now, but they were his friends above all. He needed company tonight.
"See anything?" asked one of the Elves. He was a slender man, dressed in the green uniform of the Elven Skirmishers. He sat with one of his bare legs up to his chin, still holding his bow. His prize possession, a weapon he carved himself from mallorn wood. Mara, he called it, his sisters name, and it seldom left his hand. It was a beautiful work of craftsmanship, smaller than most bows but deadly accurate, and wrapped in green ribbon. The elfs thin face looked gaunt, and a worried look crossed his usually stoical face. His one eye studied Mallis. His other eye was covered with a black patch, a wound from long ago. Nobody knew the soldiers real name, not even Mallis, but everybody called him Dead-Eye.
Mallis sat down next to Dead-Eye, adjusting his long jade scabbard. He covered the floor with his cape to keep the grass from staining his breeches. "No sign yet," he said sullenly. He looked at his other two companions. The man with the harp sat across the fire from him, his child-like face seeming almost angelic in the firelight. Another skirmisher, Olwe wore a scabbard like Mallis, though in truth his blade was more slender, more suited to fencing than butchery. He wore an expression of awe, like he always did, as if everything was new to him, and exciting, and a joy. Mallis envied him; he was very much aware that he was gradually becoming an embittered man, and was desperate to slow the shadow smothering his heart. Olwe had a child-like innocence about him, which sometimes grated the other soldiers but more often than not cheered them. His saucy songs about debauchery and orgiastic wenches made him popular with the soldiers, and brought some much-needed morale to the recent long nights.
His other companion was his second-in command, a beautiful Elven maid with long hair which shone silver in the moonlight and golden in the sun. Her full red lips and deep green eyes didnt betray her emotions, and she looked as if she was half-asleep. Mallis knew better- Loria saw all, and no doubt knew how grim things had become. Yet she was a good leader, and would reveal nothing of her true feelings to the troops. Only Mallis would learn of her fears and worries. He was her confidante, and she was his, and he relied on both her wisdom and her temperance to inform his decisions. She stirred as Mallis spoke, her bright eyes regarding him. She knelt beside Ol, her long green boots folded beneath her, her hair and clothing showing no signs of the toils they had endured this past fortnight. Her longsword was sheathed upon her back, its diamond -encrusted hilt sparkling above her left shoulder. It was an heirloom of the house of Rowenna; Calenaur it was called, a vicious blade for a vicious maiden. The fire cast shadows on her well-formed body, accentuating her curves, and Mallis swallowed. Beneath the beauty, and the warm heart, she was a skilled warrior, willing to do what needed to be done, whatever the means. She was his strength, his wisdom, his common sense and, above all and despite his best attempts to ignore it, she was the woman who had stolen his heart. He didnt know if Loria was aware of his feelings, but if she was she wisely played dumb.
"Give them time," Olwe said, as he adjusted one of the strings on his harp. "Theyll be here before dawn, you mark my words," he added in his usual optimistic voice.
"They should have been here yesterday before dawn, at the latest," Mallis said solemnly. He watched the flames crackle in front of him, imagining shapes dancing before his eyes. In his imagination he saw a host of Morrim warriors, naked and blue, marching over a hill. They swept down over the Elvish warriors like a tidlewave, the Elves screaming as they drowned. When they had passed a pile of bloody corpses remained, broken and disfigured, the churned grass dyed red, the Elven banner still standing, torn but proud, blowing in the wind. The corpses were set aflame by the enemy, a vast bonfire of friends, roaring ever upwards. The fire would crackle as moist skin melted, the cries of the wounded being extinguished by the flames. Mallis turned his head away from the flames. Olwe was still talking.
"Ill bet you a gold piece they arrive before dawn," he said again, his soft voice full of hope. "Theyre probably just delayed. Its a long journey from Belestar- anything could have happened. Perhaps theyre still sheltering from that storm we saw yesterday," he said. It had been a tremendous storm, lighting the southern sky with a silver glow as if the moon had erupted. The sound had been deafening. Temir had been sure it was over Belestar- and he knew these things. "General Calibir isnt afraid of much, but hell be damned if he lets his precious golden locks get soggy." He laughed at his own jest, then stopped when he realised that nobody else was.
"They should have left Belestar three days ago," Loria said, frowning. "If they were in the storm, then were in for a long wait. Its three hundred leagues to the border, and few of them have steeds." She idly plucked at the grass with her long fingers, a sign that she was worried.
"Have any of the scouts returned yet?" Deadeye asked. He was a man of few words, a trait which Mallis admired.
"No, but theyve sent messengers. Theres been no sign of them. Miryl and Delwe are staying at the border, but Ive ordered the rest to start returning. We cant wait around for them forever, and if we need to break camp I want all the men back here. Weve lost enough as it is," Mallis said. "They should be back no later than tomorrow morning. If youre right, Ol, and the General makes it back by dawn, then theres no problem. But if youre wrong, the company is returning to Emynost. Theyve had long enough. The Queen is expecting us."
"Im right," Olwe said smiling. "Youll see. The General and the Ashes will turn up, youll be wrong and Ill be one gold piece richer!"
Mallis shrugged. He wanted to smile at the mans optimism, but he feared the worse. Instead he stood, stretched, and wiped the soil off his cloak. "Well, its time to retire," he said, nodding to them. "If you three are still feeling restless, perhaps one of you can go and relieve Temir- hes been up on the ridge for hours," he said. Deadeye and Loria nodded, and Aul gave a little farewell wave. In truth he didnt want to be alone with his dark thoughts- but neither was he is in a sociable mood. Sleep would be a comfort tonight, yet he knew it wouldnt come. He would spend the night, lying awake, running through the battle in his head, like he had done for the past fortnight. Sleep, if it came at all, would be fleeting and filled with dark dreams.
He turned away and walked towards his tent, the three of them mumbling behind him. Without the hearing of his Elven brethren he was forced to guess what ill utterances were being exchanged. He walked between the lanes of tents, his night vision ruined by the light of the fire. His tent stood at the northern end of the camp, the same size and design as that of his men, save that he had it to himself. His horse, Batriki, was tied to a small pine next to the tent, a beautiful black stallion he had gotten from the Holy-Lands. The horse was engrossed in the grass it was eating, its head bowed, but it swished its tail in recognition. Mallis stroked its mane fondly, before lifting the tent-flap and walking inside.
The tent was dimly lit by a small lamp which Elring, his aide, had set up whilst he was on the ridge. The tent was sparse, with just a small sleeping-sack at far end, and a small wooden folding-table in the centre flanked by two stools. On the table sat his helmet, his badge of office; the helmet which all captains wore was forged from the green-metal Lasang which the Elves seemed to favour, and was carved with small doves and trees with impossibly long branches. The helmets green plum, freshly combed, was spread proudly on the birch surface, and its golden visor was raised. Mallis picked it up, and held it to the light, admiring it critically. Mallis rarely wore it, as it was too extravagant for his taste. But it was a sign of his rank. Lord Prospero had given it to him, a week ago, before he returned to the Elven city. Congratulations, he had said, his young face solemn, you are now Captain of the Oak. Mallis placed it back on the table, not bothering to straighten the plume. It was a privilege, bot not one head south or wanted.
Next to the helmet was a more welcome gift; Elring, bless him, had left him a wooden bowl, filled with hot water. The water has been carried from the river and boiled, and was still warm. The steam rose gently in the still air, warming his face. He smiled, knowing that Elring would have taken the opportunity to find him a clean uniform too, for the morrow. His clothes stunk of stale sweat and grime, but hed ridden out from the camp every day in his futile search of the General, and bathing hadnt been his first priority.
Quickly, he untied the brown leather straps which held his cuirass on, and slipped the steel over his head. He placed the armour on the table, next to the helmet, hoping the birch would hold the weight. It did, and Mallis removed his shirt. His skin was dark, naturally, but his skin was thick. When he had first become a soldier, nigh on twenty five years ago, the steel had chafed and cut his skin, and even a slow march had eventually become unbearable as the layers of his flesh were grated away. But the fires of time had forged him into a warrior, and his skin had regrown, tougher and thicker, and the steel no longer bothered him.
He dipped his hands into the water, and held them there, enjoying the warmth. The heat seeped into his bones, soothing the aches of too much time holding a rein, or wielding a sword. Slowly, he scooped the water into his hands, and poured it over his face, feeling it drip down his high cheek-bones, and onto his small beard. Hed been on assignment for three long months, with few inns or hearths, and hot water was a luxury that hed been denied in Vancumar.
The brief gust of air and the sound of the canvas flapping signalled the arrival of a visitor. Mallis didnt turn at first- he knew who it was. The sweet scent of flowery perfume drifted on the night air.
"Captain," said Loria gently. "Am I disturbing you?"
Mallis turned, drying his face with his shirt. "Whats on your mind?" he asked. Loria and Mallis had been friends for a long time- they were past pleasantries. Loria had worries, and Mallis had been expecting her to turn up. He looked around for a stool, and nudged it towards her with his foot. She shook her head.
"I can come back later," she said with a small smile, directed at his bare chest. A large scar had been cut diagonally across his chest, a wound which Loria herself had given him.
Mallis shook his head. "Speak your mind," he said simply, throwing his shirt in the corner. He sat down in the remaining stool. Loria might be in a formal mood, but he was damned if he was going to make his legs suffer for any longer.
"If I might speak frankly sir," she began. "Are you really planning on leaving tomorrow?" She stood straight, her arms behind her back, as if she was being inspected in the ranks. Mallis sensed she wasnt happy with the situation .she seldom called him sir.
"I take it, by your tone, that you dont think its a good idea," he said, untying one of his long leather boots.
Loria hesitated. "Youre the Captain, sir," she said, her eyes briefly looking towards the floor. "But orders are orders. The general ordered us to meet him here."
"Damn it, Loria," Mallis said, yanking a boot off, "You know what the orders were- you relayed them to me; we were to escort the Prince out of danger, get into Edhelnore with all possible haste, and wait for him and the rest of Ash Company in this valley. We were to wait until dawn on the first day of the third week, that was this morning by the way, and if he didnt arrive, we were to march on. Im following orders, and you know it." Mallis knew there was more to this, so he waited.
Loria studied him, watching him as he made a start on his second boot. After a while she spoke. "Yes, sir," she said simply. "But theres something else," she said.
"Then out with it," he said heatedly, throwing his boots in the corner with his shirt. "and if you sir me one more time, lieutenant," he said sardonically, "Ill kick your pretty arse out of this tent. By the gods, Lori, youre not usually such a stiff-bitch!"
Loria coloured slightly, not at the insult but at the language; the Elves rarely spoke as colourfully as their mannish allies. Nevertheless she smiled. Mallis sympathised with her- theyd been friends for a long time, but he was newly promoted and Loria wasnt sure which side of rank and friendship this conversation fell on. Things werent as complicated when he was a lieutenant and she was a junior. "The men know the orders as well as I," she said, finally sitting down in the stool. She crossed her legs, and stretched them out in front of her. "Both the spoken orders and the unspoken orders. If General Calibir hasnt arrived, we are to assume that he and the whole of the Ash Company were defeated. Well, hes not here, so what does that tell you?"
Mallis sighed. "It tells me that those Ursani bastards have butchered them."
"So, you have no hope of any survivors?" Loria asked.
"Oh, theres always hope," Mallis said, standing. He walked over to his pack near his bedroll and, after a brief rummage, pulled out some Elvish-bread. He broke it in half, passed a piece to Loria, and returned to his stool. "There will be some survivors, even if its as bad as we fear. They cant have all been rounded up; no, theyll be returning in small droves, a bit at a time. "
"Exactly," said Loria, after she had swallowed a piece of bread. "There is hope. Mal, the mens morale is at an all time low. The Argani army, the oldest army in the world, has been defeated by Ursani. Ursani! Nothing but a bunch of unorganised axe-wielding barbarians. Sure, we lost a lot of good soldiers in Vancumar, but that was a victory. A victory against our greatest enemy. To be all but slaughtered by a bunch of tribal primitives- the men arent taking it well. They are shaken, but they still have hope."
Mallis pinched the bridge of his nose. To be a captain in times of victory was, no doubt, exhilarating and rewarding. To be captain in the wake of defeat was to carry the burden of the world. "Im aware of the mens morale," he said, smiling sympathetically. "Do you think that now Im Captain that Ive lost touch with them? It is precisely because of this that Im sending them home. Waiting around here is doing them no good at all. Theyre brooding, and growing restless, and thinking. A defeated soldier shouldnt be thinking, he should be distracting himself with wine and women, or art, or whatever the hell he likes to do. The longer they wait here the more anxious they get, and every second without word from the General is another small defeat in their hearts." Mallis stood and walked over to the table. He leant on it, his back to Loria, and stared unseeing at his helm. "The Death Queen is dead. A new age is upon us. We have a new king, and a heir on the way. In a week, Queen Melwen and her husband will be throwing a great feast in celebration. The lords of Atlantea will be there, and kings from all over the Empire. Even lord Caledor will be attending. Therell be feasting and singing and dancing, and wine and women galore," he added smiling. "All in celebration of the fall of the Dark One. And in honour of those heroes who helped fell her." Mallis turned, and gestured to the doorway. "My men. My men are some of those heroes. They didnt wield Durins Steel, but they fought on the plains of Vancumar, and they defeated Her armies. They died on those plains," he shouted. "They are the heroes. This feast is in their honour, and I will not have them miss it. They need it, and they deserve it."
Loria stood, and walked over to Mallis, laying a hand on his broad shoulder. "They need it now, but in the long run, forgetting wont help. Memories have a habit of returning unbidden. And they wont feel like heroes if they think theyve abandoned their friends. Would that we were Men, and could forget our thoughts with wine and ale. But what they need are answers, not distractions. They wont thank you for it, not in the long run- eventually you will be the one who made them abandon their allies, and who took away their hope." She smiled, to soften the words. "Hope must never be taken, it must be surrendered. Dont let them blame you. Let them wait. For as long as they need to. If nobody returns, so be it- at least theyll know they did their duty. Theyll abandon their hopes, but theyll do it themselves, a bit at a time, a day at a time. But dont take away their hope- its all they have left, at the moment."
Mallis picked up the helm, running his finger over the carvings. Loria was stood close to him, her sweet perfume mixed with the scent of her body. But for once, it was a distraction he could ignore. "Tomorrow, the army will break camp, and you will lead them north. I have no intention of returning with you- I never had. I will stay, and I will wait for any survivors. I suspect we will see some soon, if not tomorrow then within a few days. Perhaps even old Calibir might turn up, who knows? Hes a lucky sod. I have a wish to at least find out what happened, even if we cant hope for a victory. But let the men see that I have not given up. Let them see me wait, dutifully, as ordered. They can go, then, back to city and their loved ones. And celebrate, like they should. And they wont have to worry about abandoning their allies, because Ill be here, waiting for them. And they wont have to give up hope, because Ill be holding it for them. Theyll simply be following orders, the way a soldier knows how. The responsibility will no longer be theirs. And even if the news is grim, in the end, at least somebody was here waiting, just in case. Theres nothing for them to do, nothing they need to do, so therell be nothing they can blame themselves for not doing"
Loria nodded, seeing the wisdom in the words. With nothing else to say, she gave a little salute, and made to leave. Mallis watched her go, pondering her words and wondering if hed made the right choice. Loria stopped at the door, and paused before looking back. "Its a good plan, Captain," she said. She opened her mouth, as if she was going to say something else, then stopped herself. She nodded again, gave the briefest smile, then disappeared into the night.
Mallis turned to the table again, and returned his helmet. When he turned back, Temir was stood there. The tall man stood to attention, though he seemed to be breathing heavily, as if he had been running. He had a thick scar down his left cheek, and an unruly mass of long black hair, tied in a ponytail. He had four daggers tucked in his belt, and a shortsword hung at his side. "Captain," he said. "Theres somebody coming. On horseback. I cant see who it is, but hes definitely Elvish. Looks like one of the Ash, by his armour. Probably a scout."
Mallis grinned, and walked to the corner to pick up his shirt. Of all the luck! Thank Eleniel. If there was one survivor, thered be more along soon. If this man was a scout, the rest of the army might be hot on his tail. General Calibir had always been a lucky bastard. "Temir, go and wake the rest of the men. Have a scout go out to meet him. And see if we cant find some bloody ale somewhere in this camp."