A nervous hand, entombed in plate mail, flexed itself uneasily around the leather bound sword hilt as it sat resting in its scabbard. The occasional sound of metal moving against metal broke the heavy silence as bodies shifted uneasily in the morning mist which sat upon the steep sides of the pass, unmoving and watchful.
'D’ya think Marketh is sending his whole lot against us or are we in for a fair fight?' a voice spoke quietly. Foren glanced at its owner and shrugged, his mailed shoulders clinking with the movement.
'Probably, this is his big day, he gets to put our heads on pikes," he replied flatly.
It was a dark morning, and black crows had come out to watch the spectacle below, circling above like tiny watchmen. The pass itself was narrow, jagged with rocks and sparse of vegetation. The winding path that cut its way through the peaks was strewn with debris that clattered its way down from above. It was wide enough to hold a line of two hundred men before it rose too steeply to stand on, which was proven by the host who now stood there like warrior statues.
Foren looked to his left and took note of the hardened faces making up the front line of this most desperate action. They stared grimly forwards, wet from the rain that had fallen maybe an hour before, jaws clenched, bodies tense. A horse whinnied somewhere behind him, reminding him that their Lord was with them. All other men were without steed, there was no use for cavalry that couldn’t manoeuvre.
They stood ten rows deep, making them around two thousand in strength. Not a lot considering the army that was making its way through the cragged peaks towards them.
The man who has spoken to him gave a weak smile and looked away. He was the image of every other soldier, moulded by fighting and shaped through its horrors.
Foren readjusted his stance, his legs were starting to feel tired. He'd been stood there unmoving for much of the morning, his heavy armour weighing heavily on his frame. He wanted nothing more than to remove it, lay it carefully on the ground in front of him and walk away from this madness. He was no coward, but today was death, it was the end of his life and those around him.
He wondered at the thoughts around him, what other men would be thinking and how close they were to walking away too. No one wanted to die, it was a myth, a fairy tale to think that soldiers stood bravely and died with triumphant shouts. He'd seen how different it really was. Men died screaming, shouting the names of their loved ones and pleading for their lives. Horror, pain and the smell of the slaughter house described any battlefield. The sounds of battle were the wailing of the nearly dead, and the desperate cries of the soon to be dead.
"Stand ready," commanded a voice behind him. Its calm owner was Fael Amron of Bastion, a tall willowy man who was second to Lord Amron, and his first born son. Not the heritage and lineage mattered anymore. There was nothing for him to inherit, nothing for him to control. It was all gone, or would be by nightfall.
Foren joined the others in standing slightly more upright than he had been, and peered with narrowed eyes to the point where the pass turned sharply to the right. A small figure, wearing a cloak and carrying a bow stood high on a rocky shelf, his arms waving slowly from left to right and back again. It wasn't a complex signal, but its meaning was simple, they were coming.
The response was a cacophony that could only be made by an army as steel covered bodies adjusted themselves and drew weapons. The front line held their long wooden pikes, their wickedly pointed ends wouldn’t be lowered until the last moment. The lines behind drew oiled swords, the only weapons fitting for close combat of this kind.
A distant, rhythmic sound could be heard. It was deep, musical and hellish. The drums were beaten by all of their foes as they marched into battle. It kept their savage owners in line, and sent tendrils of fear through their enemies. It was all for effect, but the effect was startling. Men shifted uneasily and breathed faster, gripping their weapons for comfort. They rocked from foot to foot, their mouths let out low sighs.
"Gods, that sound, it goes through me," said a man behind him. He was right, it was so deep and strong he could feel his insides vibrating. It was so unnatural.
A cry rang out from the rocky shelf and all eyes watched a limp body fall from its edge and land broken somewhere below. What had killed him wasn't clear.
The sound of the drums carried less now, and seemed more solid. Figures began to emerge at the far end of the pass in a smooth flow, line after line of black armour and razor edges. The host of Marketh wheeled into view in all its dread, a never ending sea of violence.
The army they faced was nothing like them, almost alien in comparison. They fought for their God, because he spoke to them and drove them mad. Whispered to them in their sleep and showed them images of death and slaughter. They wore blackened armor, and carried weapons Foren had never seen before. Serrated metal cleavers, axes with grinning faces carved into their heads, maces adorned with crude spikes and barbs. Weapons meant to tear flesh and sever limbs, to make men scream and to wash the floor with blood.
They had poured out of the unknown west merely a decade ago. No one had spoken to them then, or since. Nor did anyone know why they were here. The burned cities and untold numbers of dead were the message they brought. The blood covered shrines they erected, covered in the naked corpses of villagers and townsfolk symbolised their Gods will.
And so it had to come to this, a last stand against the tides of evil before the men and women of Baranor were snuffed out and darkness closed fully in.
The drums stopped, and their owners walked impassively back through the madness behind them, leaving the soldiers to their work. Was soldiers the right word? Foren didn't think so. The soldiers he knew fought to defend or retake, had families and lives to return to. It didn't describe what was happening here. They were facing murderers; killers whose twisted hearts were here to take their souls to gift to a God he had never heard of.
Silence descended upon them, a moment of tense waiting that proved too much as one man buckled to his knees, retching and coughing frothy bile onto the stones.
"We're going to die," he said, almost in a whisper. And die they did.
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