I mentioned some time ago that I would post the short story for my university assignment on here so here it is. If you want to point out anything I can change then be my guest 🙂 Feedback is always welcome!
The Vision of One
I watched the thick, acrid haze plume high into the afternoon sky above Mill-High Castle, caused by the fires raging like cornered lions from the battlefield outside the walls. Even though the air was congealed and choking it could still be shattered like fragile glass by a single arrow.
An archer stood atop the northern battlements that had seen the brunt of the attack the day before. The man stood rigid, his short blond hair laced with dirt and singed from the fires I had just seen him subdue. The call of a solitary eagle diverted his attention, and mine, from the muddied blanket down below, its presence a hopeful sight to behold amidst the death. This is, at least, what I saw it as.
This religious war is enough to test someone’s resolve, even mine. No, I could not falter in front of my men now… never. I tightened my grip on the hilt of my sword. It is only in the wake of the Lord Karsen’s vision that we can move forward against these heretics and prosper. It had been barely three or four hours since their last attack but it had given my men enough time to prepare a few surprises for the next wave.
Our Lord wrote in the texts that he had been given the eternal responsibility of guiding this world onward; that we are his loyal subjects and that anything other than worshipping and following him was treason against the fabric of the world and had to be extinguished.
I stared down at the courtyard, in my own little world.
‘Donovan, Donovan,’ cried Lord Miller, the steward of the castle, as he barged in through the oak-panelled door behind me.
My back stayed to him as he began to vent his frustrated concerns at me. ‘Can I help you Lord Miller?’
I didn’t need eyes in the back of my head to see his expression of anger. ‘Why have you chosen to arm my staff? You’ve already commandeered my guards.’
‘A necessary precaution given present circumstances,’ I replied.
‘Like hell it is,’ he snapped, the anger in his voice resting on a hiss. ‘It isn’t your responsibility to arm innocents who don’t even know how to fight.’
I had already had enough of him as I turned on my heels to face him, the bottom of my tunic circling in the air. ‘I have the religious right, as well as the military one, to conscript the subordinates of any lord in the realm for defence purposes.’ I took a step towards him and lowered my voice. ‘If you do not agree with that then take it up with the divine ministers back at the capital.’
‘And how would you intend I do that in the middle of this turmoil?’ he asked sharply.
I could not help but snigger. ‘Exactly my point, Lord Miller – out here on the southern plains we are on our own with nothing but our Lord Karsen and his wisdom to guide us. So, before you start going off at the deep end I recommend you take a look at the bigger picture and think about surviving this mess. After all this is done you may take up a case with the ministers.’
I engaged his face, following the slow shrinking black holes in his eyes against the brown. I knew I had the jurisdiction and divine authority to utilise his stronghold and so did he… he was just a stubborn fool.
Without a word he raised an accusing finger to my face, as if to say ‘you will regret this’, and then exited as suddenly as he had appeared, barging past young Valerie.
‘Report captain,’ I said blankly.
Valerie saluted and stood at ease, her armour clinking as she moved into her stance. I looked at her dark red hair, which was matted with sweat, and then to her pale green eyes. Forgive me Lord Karsen but she is a real beauty.
‘The preparations for the northern and eastern walls are ready. Scouts report minimal activity to the south and west but I have tightened up security and posted 50 per cent more guards there, mainly the castle defence forces. I have ordered a round-the-clock inspection of all troops to ensure they are refreshed, motivated, fed and – ’
I lifted my hand and shook it. ‘You’re standing at ease, Valerie, but you are nowhere near as relaxed as you seem.’ I let a small smile cross my lips. ‘Take a breath and sit down.’ I pointed to a chair that was against the wall, one of many in this cavernous hall. She sat, hands clenching her knee plates.
‘I thank you for the in-depth report. How are you finding your new post?’ I walked over to the long table and rested against it.
Valerie brushed some of her hair to one side and licked her lips. ‘It’s a bit daunting, especially since Captain Torellos was killed… the troops are a bit disheartened.’
I lowered my head. ‘I know. Captain Torellos was a great man, highly decorated, and a personal friend of mine. He is with Lord Karsen and the rest of his flock now.’
There was a pause.
‘Permission to speak freely, commander,’ Valerie asked solemnly.
‘I fear for this battle and the lives of my men and women.’
‘As do we all. Remember that we battle for this sacred land of ours. Lord Karsen created the land of Rochen for us – his children. We must protect what is his, what is ours. He put us here for a reason, he guides us, so the least we can do is fight for the stability of this world.’ I smiled at her again. ‘The monk will reiterate this to them so do not worry.’
The door opened again and in walked Nathan, bow slung over his back.
I looked up. ‘What is it, Nate?’
His battle-worn face looked grim. ‘We have a problem,’ he began. ‘A small army is approaching from the west.’
‘Small?’ I stared hard at him.
‘Sorry, I mean massive.’
The sight stood before us like the cold statue of death. Rows upon rows of heretic forces armed to the teeth and dressed in a colourful assortment of shawls, armours and robes. The weapons they wielded varied from daggers to great swords and from short spears to glaives. Two hooded figures stood to either side of the column of unknown warriors and cradled overly big battle horns on wooden stands.
I turned my head to one side and looked at Nate. ‘Mercenaries you reckon?’
He nodded, his eyes still fixed on the vast army. ‘I would estimate a few hundred of them too.’
‘Coupled with the heretic scoundrels,’ I began, lifting a finger in the opposite direction. ‘Numbers are reaching over a thousand strong.’ I watched Valerie step up beside me, a soft wind batting her hair backwards. ‘What are our own numbers, captain?’
She swallowed hard and folded her arms. Her tension was more obvious than the colour of the grass being green. She angled her head and looked at me. ‘We have about 150 defenders, sir.’
I cursed. ‘Bring 50 of them to this wall immediately.’ I turned sharply, almost stumbling from the speed, and looked from one end of the courtyard to the other. The drop from the battlements seemed a lot higher when standing on top of them. ‘I need half a unit of archers ready to volley over the wall at my command,’ I called. I hoped that the tinge of fear hadn’t bled through.
A hand grabbed my shoulder. It was Nate’s. Without a word I looked up, following his gaze. My mouth gaped and I felt my heart rise into my throat. ‘Hurry up with those troops,’ I yelled. ‘The mercenaries are charging.’ The sounds of the two horns virtually vibrated the smoke like an earthquake. I darted my head about scanning for a sword. Valerie handed one to me with a firm thrust.
‘Here.’ She nodded at me, her mouth a thin line of sternness.
I gripped the sword’s hilt and shot up against the battlements, Valerie on one side, Nate on the other. A few patrolling guards had mustered themselves, swords at the ready, shields prepared to take the blows of whatever weapon met them.
Screams hurtled up from below the walls as the tops of ladders appeared along the battlements simultaneously, smacking against the stone with an angry offence. I waited for a few moments. I could see the ladder in front of me jiggling as the warriors below began to climb up it. I looked to the floor for something long. A fallen brazier lay on the cold stone, its wooden stand splintered at one end. I grabbed one of the legs and yanked it free with ease. It may have had damp but it would do.
The enemies grew closer.
I jammed the piece of wood against the ladder and shifted my weight. With a satisfying heave I watched it tilt and fall back down to the ground, a few cries of horror travelling with it.
‘Push the ladders away from the wall,’ I called out. An arrow whizzed past my face, the head just narrowly missing my cheek. I ducked behind the nearest merlon and glanced around to see more of my men rushing to the wall, swords waving. I heard another clank nearby – more ladders.
I waited a moment.
A foot scuffed on the wall with a growl.
My sword swung around in a narrow arc and gutted the first attacker, his body falling doubled-up. The impact of swords against shields ensued all around me, mercenaries meeting my men head on. I thrust my sword into faces of adversaries before they scaled over the wall, eventually pushing the second ladder away. Running over to one side I flicked my blade across the face of a stocky man in dark green and red leathers. I pulled a soldier up from the floor and patted his shoulder to carry on.
The wall was only just holding. 50 of us against two or three hundred and this was just one single front. I took a second to look to the north and east walls and saw the men standing defiantly, looking around at the raging battle, the smell of blood gradually filling the air like a choking mist. I ploughed forward and took out three men who had stormed over one of the crenels, slaying two of my soldiers in the process. My hand found its way to one man’s neck. The strength of my grip surprised me as I saw the slender form started to gasp for air, my sword holding off his axe.
Something had brimmed to the surface – I could feel it crawling over me like a swarm of bugs. I squeezed tighter. The man’s axe fell. The soft crack met my ears over the din of the battle and I watched the body crumple to the floor. The air stilled a little. I could feel it now.
Nate was a few paces away from me parrying two mercenaries with ease, eventually vanquishing them both with bloody swings. He barged into another angry attacker coming over the battlements, sending him screaming downwards.
Something flew past my head. I ducked down again to avoid the arrows, bringing my sword up in an arc into an attacker’s crotch.
‘Archers!’ I screamed. ‘Loose!’
A volley of projectiles rose into the air over the wall and hung like one gigantic storm cloud ready to erupt. They rained down on the attacking horde. I couldn’t see how many had been taken out but a few blood curdling screams gave me an idea.
A second volley, whistling overhead like sirens, arced and fell with deadly precision.
I ran a man, dressed all in black, through the chest.
‘Nate, are you alright?’ I yelled over the clashing and shouting.
He spun round, his short sword slashing a jugular, the blood showering onto his head. He stared at me, his chest heaving.
‘Just dandy, Don.’ He cut across the wall to my side. ‘Just like old times eh?’ Amidst all the carnage, the bloodshed, his smile warmed me. I was glad to have a friend such as him by my side. We had been through so much in the past together.
‘You take this side, I’m going over to the captain,’ I said with a nod.
Valerie was struggling to hold her side of the wall. I moved as fast as my legs could carry me.
It all happened so suddenly.
All I saw were the stone steps flashing before my face as I hurtled down them like a god falling from the heavens. I clutched my side as I rolled from one step to the next, my speed increasing. I landed in the dirt; my face plunged into the smoked mud, and lay still for a moment. I felt for my sword but found nothing to grab. I slowly lifted my head. My neck burned like the devil’s wrath as I struggled up to my knees. My hand pressed against my chest, on the giant purple cross on my tunic.
Pain grabbed me again as something blunt smacked me between the shoulders and sent me back into the mud. This was the end – I was sure of it. I had failed.
I grumbled as I heard the call.
Whoever had been standing over me was now dead; their body lying across my legs. That mercenary was certainly heavy.
I strained to look up; my vision blurred by mud and blood. This was an unexpected sight – Lord Miller was dressed in a set of black battle leathers underneath a full plate of armour over his torso. He brandished a long sword like a maddened villager with a torch as he rallied the archers for a third wave of arrows. I kept my head down and crawled pathetically forward toward his feet.
‘I told you when you first came here that the situation was going to be bleak.’ Miller held out a hand. I stared at it for a second – a bridge had been built, I felt. I took it gratefully and wobbled as I straightened up. His eyes were steely, his mouth as straight as the shaft of an arrow.
‘I… thank you, Lord Miller.’ I bowed my head a little.
‘I’ll be damned if I’m going to let my castle fall to a bunch of madmen and mercenaries,’ he grunted, the sword bouncing about in his grip. His eyes scanned the battlements behind us, an unusual coolness about them, and he licked his lips. ‘I suppose we’d better tell those mercenaries to bugger off.’
Before I could say a word he had shot past me with half a dozen men-at-arms in tow. I could tell I was gaping like a fish again. Another arrow whizzed by and into the thick, gloopy ground. Why had I frozen? I stood there, my eyes fixated on the arrow as it gradually dropped to one side, unable to stay upright in the mud.
Nate’s booming shout shook me out of my trance. I looked around.
‘Get your carcass up here already.’ Nate resumed his fight with a wide slash into someone’s midriff. I staggered onwards, clumsily grabbing my fallen sword out of the mud and shaking it free of the sticky mess. I paused half way up the steps. Something had just occurred to me – if this mercenary army was assaulting now, what were the main forces doing?
‘Archers, close quarters… hold this section of the wall.’
I made my way down the stairs past the ascending soldiers and trotted through the mud to the northern wall. The heretic army remained camped. I tapped the shoulder of the lieutenant and gestured with a firm hand to them. ‘Any movements?’
The lieutenant, a middle-aged man with blonde hair and a crow-like nose, blinked back at me with deep green eyes. ‘Not that we can see… sir,’ he replied rather sheepishly.
I could tell that the presence of a religious leader in a small backwater castle was a source of intimidation, let alone the fact that a large army was poised to strike at any given moment. I surveyed the rest of the north wall defence force and noticed a few heads turning sharply back to the heretics.
‘I know this is a situation that would rival that of hell itself, but we must stand together and lead the way for the path of the righteous against these people – these heretic vermin.’ I walked in front of the team of defenders, hearing a few hard swallows as I went. ‘I would not be surprised if a fair few of you do not trust me whatsoever, however we are all in the same boat and in order to keep this ship sailing we must hold this wall at all costs, we must –’
Something caught my gaze – one soldier had gone pale, his eyes suddenly sinking. Then I noticed a few others. I turned.
‘Ready the defences!’ I cried.
The army had finally made a move.
The air had thinned and grown as dry as a desert. My mouth had become arid. The fighting had reached a surprising stalemate as heretic upon heretic scaled the walls only to be taken out before they got over or vanquished pretty quickly.
Surely this was not their all?
Of course I had thought too soon.
A heaven-splitting explosion erupted from the portcullis like a volcano and the entire castle shook right down to the foundations.
‘They’re using explosives,’ I heard someone scream frantically.
My head and heart raced. Such technology was rare and highly illegal but what should I expect from heretics?
Above the screams of chaos I heard Nate barking orders to the nearby soldiers who had been battered and bruised like a badly beaten dog.
‘Defend the gate! Anyone who can do it… defend!’ I hurled myself back from the north wall, leaving the soldiers and conscripted fighters to it, and raced down the steps leading to the portcullis… or where it used to be. My chest grew silent. People formed a line either side of me. I looked at them. There were women from Miller’s staff armed with swords, half of them looking scared but at least fighting alongside the men.
A roaring battle cry pierced the air, rippling it like a stone into water. I feared the worst now – defeat would ensue if the main body of the army breached the courtyard. They avalanched through the main gate.
We waited to meet them – 15 of us roughly.
It was like a boulder squashing a sapling. The heretics slammed into our line with snarling faces then fanned out to the side. My sword flailed through the air, my arm tired from the fighting, and met two maces coming at me overhead. I stumbled backwards, almost losing my balance. I thrust and caught one man in the neck, blood spurting out over me. I flinched as it went into my eyes. I sliced blindly as I struggled back, clearing my face with my arm. I opened my eyes just in time to see the other man lunging at me. I swerved to one side and grabbed his weapon hand then stabbed my sword into his chest, driving it in like a long nail into soft wood.
‘Forces coming from the eastern forest, they look like cavalry, sir.’
This was not what we needed – an insult to injury.
‘Fight!’ I cried. ‘Fight for what you love most.’ Battling on only for our Lord Karsen was probably not the most effective motivation – I was pretty sure he would fight for what he loved the most too if he were here.
A cascade of shrill cries from the main gate met my ears. Shouts of cavalry had disturbed the heretics, their rear flank turning around in turmoil.
It was like nothing I had seen before. Through the gate I saw the majestic heads of mounted warriors carve through the enemy like a hot knife through butter. Long, curved blades swung about as a section of them turned into the gate and began hacking into the people in front of me. My defensive line suddenly disengaged and trotted backward, using their brains, in order to avoid getting hit by the saddled beasts and their riders.
It was then that I saw the white tunics and purple crosses on the horsemen and breathed a sigh of relief. They wore the helmets of the eastern faction of Karsen – a decorated steel helm that left their faces open and had a purple, white and black feather Mohican on top.
Something had finally gone our way.
The battlements slowly grew quiet; the heretics unable to flee through the gate attempted to climb up to the wall and jump off but were pushed back down to the courtyard where they eventually laid down in surrender, whimpering.
This was a close victory.
I had taken stock of the losses. We had lost about 70 men and women in total, but at least we had fended the enemy off. Miller had been killed up on the wall by an arrow to the face and Valerie had sustained a hefty injury to her hip from a broadsword. As for me and Nate we had pulled through by the skin of our teeth with no major damage.
I met with the cavalry captain in the main hall and arranged with him for his forces to remain, temporarily, to aid in the clean-up operation and to hold the castle until a relief force turned up. He had agreed wholeheartedly and set about getting things in motion. I, however, took time to mourn the dead.
A funeral pyre was made in the courtyard as night fell upon us and I led the prayers and hymns. Tears were shed for the loss of loved ones, fellow comrades, and respected people. As the fires raged on against the black of night I could hear the spirits flowing away into the afterlife, their words of peace caressing my mind. I was glad that no soul had been left in a tormenting limbo or a restless chaos.
There was something, however, that weighed on my mind – what was it that had caused such an unrest that people had turned against the faith of Lord Karsen? There hadn’t been an uprising for many years and now, all of a sudden, there had been. There was a figurehead according to one of the heretic prisoners. Whether he or she had been present at the battle, I had to find out what was going on not just for Lord Karsen, but for my own sake as this would drive me crazy if I had left it alone.
When I had returned to Karsen City to the south I went to the council with my concerns about the siege and the heretics. Many heads nodded but the idea of an architect of heresy after so long was laughable to them. They ordered me to continue with my duties and not follow this, but I couldn’t let it rest.
I was courteous and agreed to their orders, but I had already planned my actions – I would find out about the source of this uprising, this figurehead. I would bring them to divine justice even if it meant going against the council or not.