“Rally to the general! Rally to the general!” shouted the tall, lanky soldier as he fought his way toward Darnon.
Kail thought to himself that if they survived this battle, General Darnon would likely discipline him for issuing commands. What he did not know is that Darnon greatly admired his skill with a sword, and regarded Kail as the best he had seen in his long military career.
Over the last nine years of war, the two had engaged in an odd sort of dance. Darnon was keenly aware of the respect his troops had for Kail. A respect not only for his individual prowess in battle, but for his uncanny understanding of the battlefield. As he was now demonstrating, Kail instinctively knew where he and the others were most needed at critical junctures in a battle.
In the beginning, when Kail first joined his army’s ranks and began to positively affect the outcomes of battles, General Darnon decided to reward his new soldier with a promotion. But each time he prepared to issue Kail a field commission, the rogue would do something that forced the general’s hand and demanded reprimand. Darnon came to realize that these altercations were no accident. Over time, he learned what Kail already knew: that he could serve best as a rank-and-file soldier in the thick of battle. So, the two played out their game. Darnon would dole out light punishment and Kail would act indignant, then reluctantly accept his penalty.
“Fight your way to the general!” Kail bellowed again and again over the din of battle.
His general was indeed in trouble, as was the army’s position in the overall battle. Only minutes earlier, Darnon’s command post had been overrun. The enemy was countering in near-perfect fashion the battleplan drawn up that very morning. The general now found himself surrounded on three sides. His skillful use of his massive two-handed sword was the only thing keeping him from being overwhelmed. Three of his officers fought frantically to protect his back, but two were so slowed by wounds, they could barely defend themselves, let alone their commanding officer.
“The general, the general,” Kail continued to scream, as enemy after enemy fell to the savagery of his blades.
Kail fought as he often did, with a medium-length sword in one hand and a long dagger in the other. His blades were literally a blur, the speed and uncanny accuracy of their wielding unmatched. A wedge of soldiers followed in the wake of Kail’s lethal blades. Many of the men owed their lives to the fighter as he mercilessly dispatched the enemies that came toward them. Those not killed outright by Kail were quickly dealt with by the throng of soldiers growing behind him.
“To the general, to the general!” Kail heard his entreaty taken up by soldiers across the battlefield.
The shouts took on a cadence that seemed to cause Kail to intensify his frantic fight to reach the general he respected and admired. Darnon had been so intent on his own fight for survival, it was only now that Kail’s shouts began to register. Allowing himself a quick glance, Darnon made eye contact with his tall soldier. That brief exchange gave both the exhausted warriors the boost they needed to close the gap.
Kail finally reached the ring of enemy soldiers surrounding Darnon. As the skillful swordsman attacked them from behind, each foe quickly fell in turn. The last two made the mistake of wheeling to face their new threat, only to be cleaved nearly in two by the wide arc of the general’s long sword.
The shouts imploring the men to rally to their general continued unabated even though Darnon was temporarily out of harm’s way, surrounded now by dozens of his men. The shouts persisted in no small part because of Kail. Darnon couldn’t comprehend why his usually astute tactician continued to encourage the troops to rally to their general. The only affect apparent to Darnon was that his troops were collapsing into the center of the battlefield, now completely surrounded by the enemy with little hope of escape.
“To the general, to the general!” continued the shouts from Kail and the mass of troops surrounding Darnon. Such conduct exasperated their leader, and he began to second-guess the man he had once trusted implicitly. In this moment of despair, when Darnon thought the lives of the troops he commanded and his own forfeit, he heard the sudden thunder of hooves and the clash of steel. The Jerimassian cavalry exploded into the enemy with such force, the sounds of new battle drowned out the localized fighting. Darnon’s army began cheering as they realized help had arrived, seemingly from nowhere.
The enemy, so sure of complete victory only moments before, now found themselves caught in a vice. Darnon’s surging troops pressed them from the inside out, and they were completely surrounded by the formidable Jerimassian cavalry. The skillful horsemen darted in and out of the enemy’s ranks, inflicting heavy casualties then disappearing before any defense could be marshaled.
As they had done in several prior battles, the enemy troops now turned their aggression on their leaders. Darnon’s troops aided these common soldiers as they attacked their superiors. Darnon and his men knew that the bulk of the enemy fighting force was made up of men coerced into fighting to keep their families alive.
For the last nine years, their foes had served under an evil entity named Zybaro. He overran villages and captured their inhabitants, forcing anyone capable of serving into his army and enslaving the rest. The new soldiers were forced to fight or witness the murders of their loved ones. Enforcing his brutal siege with the aid of powerful, mutated magicians called nollax, Zybaro swept across Malabrim, amassing an immense army. Malabrim was the country General Darnon and Commander Namir now fought, hoping to free as many souls as they could and disrupt Zybaro’s methodical march to total domination.
When the conflict was at last over, the remaining enemy troops dropped their weapons and placed their hands, fingers interlocked, on their heads. Over the years, Darnon and his men had seen this scene play out many times. Without waiting for orders, the soldiers began corralling their now-placid enemy towards an empty area of the field. They would next begin the long process of removing their enemy’s armor and searching for hidden weapons.
Kail set out to help the troops with their task, but made it a point to pass close by the general en route. He spoke softly so that only Darnon could hear.
“I’m sorry for the confusion back there. I saw Commander Namir’s scouts on the ridge. I thought it best to get everyone away from the perimeter.”
Darnon couldn’t help but return the soldier’s unrepentant grin.
The general heard a commotion and turned to see Namir reining in his horse a short distance away. The commander dismounted in the fluid motion of one who has spent a lifetime in the saddle. Leading his well-disciplined steed forward, the reins slack between them, Namir approached
Without offering a formal greeting, the commander got right to the point. “My scouts reported they saw you having a hard time.” Not waiting for a reply, Namir pressed on, genuinely concerned.
“Darnon, you know I was ordered north. We stumbled across a mine being worked by the most wretched souls. We couldn’t allow their agony to continue. If we hadn’t taken the time to liberate them, we would have been well over a league from here.”
Darnon face reflected his regret but not shame. He inclined his head, indicating acceptance of just how dire the situation would have been without his friend’s aid.
“The state of those miners was the worst I’ve seen yet. Children as young as four or five years, piled like cordwood, dead of malnutrition and exhaustion. The condition of the ones left alive was so deplorable it made the dead seem like the lucky ones.” Namir paused as he struggled to deliver his dark narrative.
When he continued, contempt edged his voice. “When the guards saw the overwhelming odds and realized they had no hope, they turned on their captives. If not for some of the stronger miners defending themselves, the slaughter would have been far worse.”
Darnon’s pained look and glistening eyes were reflected in Namir’s countenance.
“Between the captured soldiers and those you rescued, at least we saved a few,” Darnon all but whispered.
Namir gestured to the surrounding battlefield. “I agree my friend, but at an ever-increasing price. How long can we keep this up?”
“What alternative do we have? We can’t just leave these people to their own fate. Besides, how long will it be before those miners are replaced by our own families?” Darnon demanded.
“I know how you feel about the prophecies, Darnon, but if the clerics of Hinloose really have found the means to bring the Summoned Ones to our aid, don’t you think we should at least try?” Namir asked, expecting the same skeptical response he had heard so many times before.
Darnon replied in a matter-of-fact tone, “The air has grown cold. This will be the last of this year’s campaigns. Let’s get these people healthy enough for travel and back to Bericea. Once there, we can make plans for the summoning as we await the spring.”