A plume of breath flew from my nostrils and disappeared into the foggy night. I raised my right hand in a tight fist as we neared the crest of the mountain and the column behind me halted. Everyone dismounted, stretched their arms and legs, and kneaded their tired muscles. The camp was set up swiftly and the sweet smell of roasted meat wafted through the misty air.
I gripped my lance tight, white knuckles showing through, as I slowly walked my horse towards the cliff. The gelding balked slightly and I could see the worry in his eyes. I leaned against the stirrups, murmured gentle words of comfort, and slipped him a lump of sugar.
Karas hesitated for few moments and then cautiously lumbered forward, his ears flat against the skull, picking his way carefully among the strewn rocks and shrubs.
As the fog covered my companions behind me, I began to think of the events that led to my being here.
I, Major Varyl Rarth, am not a born soldier.
I was born in the valley of Shamrock, at a little hovel near a beautiful flowing river. We were a small tribe who lived in peace with the neighbors. My Father Doran was the Village Chief and my mom Averyn was the head priestess. When I grew up, I was enchanted by the whole place – the luscious bed spread of green that swept you in its arms, butterflies that were in colors of yellow, green, red, purple and humongous canopy trees which towered over the village in a protective embrace.
There was a waterfall nearby and I loved the sight of foaming water fall slowly with a heavy rushing sound from the top and hit the bottom with a splattering sound. I would giggle madly as the water fell down and splashed all over.
I still remember the day when I was playing catch with my friends when my mother called me.
My mother’s face had acquired that stern look, brows furrowed, and her close-set eyes brooding over me as if she was quite unsure of how to proceed further.
She then cleared her throat and continued, ‘what do you think about life –’ she enquired, as she slowly moved her arms in a wide circle, ‘– this life here, in the mountains?’
‘I think it’s great…,’ he replied readily.
‘I love…all of it. I would not wish to be anywhere else.’
‘But, Varyl, what about life beyond this? Don’t you ever want to go out and explore the land beyond these mountains?’
‘Well…No…’ I stammered. There were definitely moments when I wanted to go out, staring jealously at birds, wondering how it would be if I can fly anytime, as high as I want, to explore the land beyond, my imagination spiced up by tales from Old Mujahedeen, the tinkerer.
‘Sometimes,’ I ended up blabbering.
My surprised eyes met hers, and I saw no mockery there.
‘I know what you must think, Varyl. Life here is comfortable. Peaceful. Known. You know what to expect. Such things must make you feel — I don’t know — Secure, and safe.’
She wiped her mouth with her linen tunic, and put her hands top of mine.
‘I want you to have a great future. To this effect, I have arranged for you to continue your education in Deharun,’ she said as a matter of fact, and nodded her head vigorously as if it was something already decided.
‘What?’ my mouth dropped open long enough for a house-fly to get in, do a twirl, and get out leisurely.
‘Why? What’s wrong here? What did I do? I will be good I promise. I will do all my chores on time. Don’t send me away. Please… Please…’I went on rambling, hoping she would change her mind. I was not sure what I had done to receive this punishment.
She laid a placid hand on my trembling knees and softly murmured: ‘It’s for your own good, Varyl. Just four years. It will go through swift – so swift, you will feel as if you never left. It may not make such sense today, but you will thank me for this later.’
The coarse, mountainous air whipped my face and thick, gelatinous tears flooded my eyes. A trickle of snot fled through my nostrils and looked out, only to be pulled back in swiftly.
Though I didn’t want to leave, there was a small piece of my brain rejoiced at that fact I was leaving and was already making plans.
‘When am I leaving?’
‘Tomorrow at Dawn.’
The next day dawned with a sense of forbearance, pinched with a twist of fate that entwined with my future.
I woke at the sound of hooves thudding to a stop on the gravel road outside. My heart leaped with the joy that there was horse outside.
“Horsey!” I threw away my blanket and rushed towards the door.
I saw the bright-brown shades first, followed by blotches of white as I zipped forward. The hooves were painted bright-red in color as befitted a trading wagon. Brass bells were looped over the harness and they jingled a brief melody as the wind passed by. The horse’s eyes were honey-almond with its bushy eyebrows jutting outwards like an umbrella.
The wagon itself was teakwood with a nimble figurine of angel adorning its top shone like a diamond star.
As the wagon’s purpose slowly became clear to my sleep-addled mind, I reeled back – the excitement was now gone from me, as quickly as the puff of air escaping a tea kettle.
There was a comforting hand on my shoulders and I twisted sharply to find that it was only my father.
He smiled wanly and asked me to get ready.
At last I was ready to leave and my father beckoned me towards him.
‘Varyl…listen to me.’
I did and we spoke for the next hour or so. In between mother came and she joined the conversation.
To this day, I still don’t remember what we spoke of. My memory is hazy at that point.
Finally, my father clasped my hand and mother said, ‘Your father and I will sire a new brother for you when you return. We will be here. The mountain will be here. We will remain and await your return.’
She met my eyes squarely and said again: “I promise.”
It was the only promise she ever broke.
A week later, when I reached Deharun, I heard that my Sokutan tribe was attacked under the cover of night, on the very day I left.
It was the neighboring tribe, Massun, many said. There was no blood feud between us, but their chieftain, the greedy Animron Tharir was hungry — hungry for coins.
The whole village had been ransacked and looted. Men were tortured and maimed. Women were raped. At the end of it, no one was left alive. Everyone was put to the sword and all the houses torched.
Someone later told me that the streets were full of decaying corpses and a putrid stench wafted around the village for days.
I wept for days, clutching desperately to the last memory of the place, of my parents, of my friends, my people. The need for vengeance burnt like an incandescent storm through my veins. It consumed my every thought.
I shuddered and my thoughts pulled back to the present.
The day was sixteen of Namua, third-passing of Remnor and year of the Serpent.
I stood at the edge of the cliff staring down at the valley beyond. The same valley where my tribe were murdered in their sleep.
My eyes scanned the encampments of the army below and it fixated on the bright yellow parasol against the largest tent.
In my mind’s eye, I could see Animron Tharir, having his dinner, and discussing his next plans to rape another village and plunder its wealth.
I almost smiled now, a feral grin that stretched between my ears. I would have howled deeply if I were a wolf. I turned my horse and galloped towards my waiting men.
Let Animron make his plans.
I have already made mine. Animron would die tomorrow.
The next day dawned, the rising sun in the color of blood, its red tendrils slashing at the pregnant clouds to clear its path upward.
At my signal, all the horses trotted forward, gently then steadily until their rhythm synced together.
‘Forward! Wedge!’ I yelled and the riders spread out in inclined formation, sharp and ready to spear the opposing enemy at both flanks. At the resounding thud of hoofs, the encampment before us slowly awakened, men blinking their eyes hard against the morning fog, rubbing them twice, a mark of disbelief swatting their eyes at the sight of a thousand horses thundering towards them, their manes tearing at the wind.
Few even made as far as their swords as the cavalry tore through them.
The rest of the pieces were taken care by our infantry. It was all over before noon.
A futile resistance from few of the guards was dealt with and few seconds later, I ordered my soldiers into the main tent.
I felt at unease then. The triumph of victory started to fade away very fast and a cloying sickness seemed to spread in my mind.
All thoughts were murky and vague. For a brief moment, I thought it was some sort of sorcery but my heart knew it not to be so.
It felt like the approach of an impending doom.
As my captain made his approach towards the tent, my heart was erratic, bouncing up and down to be free of my chest.
A blurred feel of urgency, and a sense of unease passed through me, as I reached my arms feebly to stop my Captain from approaching the door.
He seemed to be further and further away each time and the only thing left was for me to observe him as if I was a distant spectator of an event past.
Time seemed to warp in twisted angles, light bending hither and thither in unruly directions, and threads of fate seemed to unravel before my very eyes.
I took a deep breath and started counting in reverse under my breath. “Ten, nine, eight, seven…”
For some strange reason, I had started and kept with the countdown, my mouth mumbling the words of their own accord.
As the count reached one, the captain entered and closed the door behind him.
Just as the last of sand rushed through to the other side on my hourglass or Watch as I liked to call it, the door opened again.
As I looked towards the door, I saw Animron, held captive, both hands bound together with iron shackles, being pushed towards me.
He shambled forward and fell before me, his mouth drooling spit like a rabid dog.
His right hand quivered in arthritic pain, as he desperately clutched my Cuisses in an attempt to stand up.
I brushed him aside and said, ‘How does it feel to be the victim, Animron?’
He just muttered in desperate whisper, squeezing air through his pocket of lungs.
‘Please – Please – Pl –’
The words died in his throat as I squelched my boots on his chest.
I liberated my sword from its sheath and it glittered in the morning sun as the first of its rays bounced from it.
Steeling myself for the kill, I brought down the sword. I was halfway when I saw two other people emerging in chains from the tent led by my guards.
The vanguard began to utter: ‘These two people are the other co-conspirators with Animron.’
Any other words seemed confused and stretched out as I did not hear anything that came out from the Guard’s mouth. My jaw hung open and I dropped my sword on the ground.
‘Are you all right Major,’ my lieutenant came forward.
I plopped myself in the nearby chair and said, ‘I’m alright. I need to talk with these…conspirators.’
My hands were shaking real bad and a clamp of sweat coated my forehead in small streams.
I ushered them quickly inside the tent and asked: ‘Were you really the mastermind behind Animron’s schemes?’
From their look, I could see that they did not recognize me. In one way, it was a relief.
‘Yes,’ they replied.
The question came out in a strangled croak from my throat, ‘Why?’
They both hesitated and finally my mother spoke.
‘Power. We desired it. We reached for it. We both needed it. We could not cope up with our paltry lives as it was. We had the desire. Animron provided the means.’
I blinked tears from my eyes and spoke, ‘You destroyed your own kin and kith… Your own village.’
‘You see…To attain greater power, sometimes sacrifices are necessary,’ my mother replied.
‘Life is like a game of chess. To keep your king, you have to remember that pawns always die first.’
They laughed in unison at their horrible joke and said, ‘We are not that heartless. We still managed to save our son. We knew that once we started on this path there was no going back. We sent him to the city before the massacre.’
I trembled and asked, ‘Was he a pawn too? To be used for later?’
I threw my last question knowing the answer in my mind. ‘Would you like to see him?’
They looked at me, their blank slate eyes burrowing through me and replied, ‘No. This is the life that we chose. I would not want him to be burdened of our crimes.’
I stood up and brusquely walked away from them.
Just before I went out, I leaned against the entrance, turned back and said, ’Too late. You already have. Goodbye Father and Mother. May God have mercy on your souls.’
I stood a moment longer to see the stake of truth strike their hearts and light of recognition hit their eyes.
Outside the sun was a vivid gold coin against a clear backdrop of blue.
I laughed then, a raucous laugh that tore through the air and permeated the foul mood surrounding the camp.
Soon I was joined by my comrades and we all laughed and it felt like a release –- a release of pent up anger and washed up dreams.
As I watched the sky, a lone eagle drifted up in the sky towards south. Soon it would rain and new life would grow in these lands.
There is another member of the Sokutan tribe I must take care of. He would be playing in the garden now, hollering and running fast despite my wife’s constant shrills.
I smiled and made my way towards the waterfall to collect colored pebbles for my son.