I kicked my heels into the horse to keep up with the others, and for the first time since the start of this ordeal, I thought to myself, I’m too young to die. The horse galloped forward, and in the distance, the edge of a great field of tall grass lined the horizon.
The tops of black helmets rose up in the distance climbing up the slope of the other end of the field like a line of obsidian specks. A line of black as far as the eye could see dotted the edge of the horizon. I rode at the front of the vanguard, so far in the front, that I was only two places from High Lord Kirl who led the charge. Kirl drew his blade, and I instinctively drew mine in a flash with the rest of the vanguard. I remembered back to the stories the elders told around the fire about The Throng: stories of hellspawn and demons.
As the distance closed between us, The Throng’s long pikes and shields glimmered in the morning sun. They wore pitch black plated armor from head to toe. A great volley of arrows flew up from the rear ranks of the enemy. Kirl raised his sword high. He grimaced with concentration and shouted out a word from our cryptic ancient tongue. The swarm of thousands of arrows changed paths as they descended, landing harmlessly to the left and right of us.
Galloping at full speed, we closed the distance to The Throng in a flash. The enemy pointed their pikes down at us and met our charge. A pike caught me in the gut, and I jumped upwards careening high over the first line of footmen. It hurt, but it didn’t pierce my chainmail. The smith promised me it would be good for two or three solid blows then no better than common steel.
It threw my mind into gear with the pulse of adrenalin raging through my heart. I’m going to die, I thought to myself. I plunged my sword into the chest of the closest of my enemies, and in a flash, the high points of his life echoed through my psyche. His first true best friend, his first experience with a woman, and his training with The Throng. It rushed through me, and I pulled my sword free.
The sword drank up the thin glaze of blood and gleamed clean and shiny in the sun. An enemy tried swinging at me, and my blade moved out of instinct parrying the pike. I pushed the blade through the faceplate of the other soldier, again, another life flashed before my eyes. My anger flared like a tiny burning chunk of charcoal in my chest. These people were the same as we are–why do they attack us?
In a heartbeat, I thought back to my own life. Three months ago, it changed on a new year’s morning with my youngest sister jumping on my bed shouting, “The call-to-arms! The call-to-arms!”
I growled at her. “Get out of here.” Thinking, could it be true so early in the year and just three years after the last invasion?
I rolled over in bed and went back to sleep. I wasn’t about to give up my warm bed over the cries of a six-year-old. Then a few minutes later, a firm knock reverberated on my door, which I knew to be my dad.
“Yes?” I asked.
“They’ve called the conscription, Son. Get up and get breakfast.”
I crawled out of bed, ran my fingers through my hair, and headed to the kitchen for breakfast. I made my decision as I jumped down the last three steps of the stairs. I would fight. Mom set a plate down on the table and poured me a cup of milk.
“They’re expecting everybody to report today, Memnock,” Dad said. “You don’t need to take anything with you. Just go down to the town center after breakfast.”
“He shouldn’t have to go,” Mom said. “There are rules. We already lost one son. He doesn’t have to go.”
Dad glared. “I faced The Throng three times, Woman! It’s not a death sentence.”
Mom reached up and touched her eye like to rub back a tear. “I miss Jericho.”
“We all do. There won’t be many this time what with the last conscription being just three years back. He’s needed. We’ll still have Jacob.”
I spoke quietly between bites, “I’m going to fight.”
Mom and dad simply nodded. I finished the last of my food and went to my room, what used to be mine and my big brother’s room. I wanted to at least be wearing my best pants and shirt. I donned my coat and headed to the front door. My little brother eyed me and looked down at his feet.
I ruffled the little bugger’s hair. “Don’t worry, Jacob. We’ll break their line. We’ll send them running back to the ocean.”
Jacob twisted his head out of my reach obviously preferring not to have his hair ruffled. “I want to fight!”
I thought silently to myself, if I fail you might just get your wish. “You’re too young, little brother.”
“I’m too young for everything but chores!”
I laughed and reached for his head a second time. He dodged out of the way and ran. I headed downstairs.
My mom, dad, and little sister waited at the door for me. I nodded to them. “Well, I’m off.”
Mom tried to smile. “Just remember, you don’t have to do this. You can change your mind.”
Dad sniped, “He’s not going to change his mind.”
I smiled. “Goodbye.”
I made it to town and some soldiers directed me to the army’s training field. When I made it there, a soldier told me to stand in line. One by one young men would step into a tent, then step back out of the tent through a separate opening wearing a blue bandanna on their arm. When I got to the front of the line, I kept hearing someone cry out right after a person stepped into the tent. It came to be my turn, and I stepped into the twilight. A shirtless, veteran fighter, with rippled muscles and scars, sat behind a low burning fire of embers. He looked me in the eye. Then he whipped his hand out from behind his back and threw something at my face. I caught it. I cursed. It hurt my hand, a chunk of iron, and it would have hit me right in the face!
“What’s your name?” The fighter asked.
I almost threw the iron pellet back at him. “Memnock.”
He wrote down my name in a book, glanced at me again. “Your brother was Jericho?”
“You look like him, and just like Jericho, you’ve made it into the vanguard. I’m putting you with Lord Patrick.” He stepped forward and tied a red bandana on my left arm and pointed towards a flap in the tent. “That way.”
“What do I do?”
“Find Lord Patrick and tell him you caught the iron.”
I stepped through that tent flap into the troop compound. I went from person to person asking about Lord Patrick until I finally found him with a group of well-dressed men wearing purple tunics with gold borders. I told him I caught the iron pellet. He grabbed me by the shoulder and grinned like a starving carnivore that just grilled a thick steak. I simply stared back at him.
“Most young men hear about the test, and make a conscious choice. If they want to be in the vanguard, they try and dodge the iron. If they don’t want the glory, they let the pellet hit them.” He shook his head. “They just close their eyes and hope not to lose a tooth.”
“I never heard of anything like it. What’s it mean to catch the iron?”
“Boy, it means either you got very lucky, but you’re actually inept, and you’ll be one of the first to die, or it means you were born to fight in the vanguard. You’ll ride by my side, and I’ll be right next to High Lord Kirl.”
I smiled, hoping for the latter. Lord Patrick turned to face the other lords and seemed to ignore me.
“What should I do?” I asked.
Patrick pointed to a pile of rusty old swords. “Take one of those swords, go to one of those trees in the field over there, and hit it.”
“Hit it again. Until you can’t hit it anymore.”
I nodded. I went over to a stack of swords and picked out one of the less rusty ones. The edge of the blade looked dull and here and there it had nicks in it. I tested the balance. It clearly weighed heavy towards the point and seemed far heavier than it needed to be. I walked back over to Lord Patrick and cleared my throat. “Excuse me, my lord, will I carry this sword into battle?”
Patrick shook his head. “You surely won’t be fighting a tree when the time comes either. We’ll forge a blade for you to use.”
The next day, in the chow tent, I gave up trying to count how many young men had a fresh bruise on their face from the test of the iron.
A few weeks later, I was summoned to the armory tent. I stepped inside, and Lord Patrick waited. He handed me a sword in its scabbard. “There’s your fury blade, Memnock. Take it!”
I took the sword and drew it. I hefted its weight and smiled. The balance was perfect and the edge razor sharp. Suddenly it purred in my hand like a young kitten almost. I looked to Lord Patrick. “It’s alive?”
“Yes, forged with dragon’s blood, attuned to you. It has your name on the hilt.”
I looked and indeed carved on the hilt was the word, Memnock. I smiled and sheathed the sword. Months passed as the army trained and trained. On the eve of the battle, I met Kirl for the first time. He had piercing hazel eyes and a tightly trimmed beard. He stood next to a boiling cauldron of red liquid. Patrick waited for me. An ancient hag poured some of the liquid into a silver cup and held it out to me.
“Drink it, Memnock,” Lord Patrick said.
I took a sip. “Eww, what is it supposed to taste like?”
“Dragon’s blood,” Kirl said. “Drink it. It’ll prepare you for the battle tomorrow.”
I drank it down. It burned in my stomach. It tasted of ash, soot, copper, and salt. Setting the cup down, I looked to the lords.
“In the battle tomorrow,” Kirl said. “You’ll be at Lord Patrick’s right, if he should fall, form up with me.”
I pondered the situation. “What if you fall, Lord Kirl?”
Patrick laughed with some passion. “If he falls, Memnock, all is lost.”
“My boy,” Kirl said. “If I fall in combat, you can consider yourself in charge. Advance. The plan is a simple one. We need to punch through the body of The Throng and reach their command pavilion, hopefully killing some or all of their generals. In the past, if we’ve reached their command pavilion, they’ll order a retreat. We’ll have to give chase. Understood?”
I nodded. Both lords seemed to ignore me at that point–I looked to Lord Patrick. “What should I do?”
“Most men try to sleep, some know they can’t and just stay up, play dice, and watch fires burn.”
I knew that meant I could do whatever I wanted, a rare luxury in military life. “Thank you, my lord.”
As I walked towards my tent, my thoughts drifted. The earth below my feet seemed to get swampy and mushy. It felt odd, but I felt strangely at ease. I wanted to get plenty of sleep so I went into my tent and lay down on my mat. I drifted off into endless colored dreams. I dreamed of so many things it felt like an afterlife’s worth. Dreams of harvest time played over and over in my mind intermixed with dreams of my family, and then there were the dreams of women, dozens of dreams of women. I woke to the sound of thundering drums. The first time they’d played the drums since the start of my conscription. They thumped so loud, and my head felt so strange that it felt like they vibrated through the very Earth. I donned my chainmail and strapped on my blade. I stepped out of the tent, and a beautiful vixen of a maiden ran towards me carrying another silver cup of red, frothy liquid.
“Memnock!” She shouted out.
My first thought was that I dreamed, but that I should play along. “Over here.”
She stepped towards me and held out the silver cup. “From High Lord Kirl.”
I took the cup and drank it down. The sheer acid taste of it burned my throat and woke me to the reality that this wasn’t a dream.
* * *
As the battle raged around me, I struck down opponent after opponent, trying to fight my way back to the rest of the vanguard. With each enemy I struck down, I seemed to breathe in their life force and grow stronger. My blade stayed clean and sharp the entire time, then I noticed it started to cast off white light and move faster than I could possibly swing it myself. That’s when a behemoth of a man struck down Lord Patrick with one swift blow to the neck sending his head flying off.
He stood a hand and a half taller than me and almost twice as wide with black hair and pale blue eyes. His arms and legs rippled with muscle. Unlike the other enemy warriors, he wore no armor save for a horned helm and leather protecting his groin. His axe blade glistened red with blood in the stark morning light. Blood of my fallen brothers.
I charged him aiming with all my strength for the point on his neck where it attached to the shoulder. He flashed his teeth at me. Then he moved the axe with a swiftness I couldn’t believe and our blades stuck together. We both jerked back at the same time pulling the blades free. He examined the edge of his axe peering intently at the new dent. My blade didn’t lose its edge. I redoubled my effort striking over and over at his face and neck. For every strike I made, the axe flashed.
He flipped his grip on the axe, and I saw it out of the corner of my eye aimed for my neck. I ducked straight under it, and an exposed kneecap presented itself as a golden opportunity. I lashed out with my sword slicing an inch deep cut right through his leg. My enemy screeched in pain and dropped his guard. I didn’t have time to revel in it. I spun around, lopping his head off.
In a circle around me, the fighting had stopped and both sides watched. Then I heard a low roar from my side of the line. A great splattering of lightning crashed down around Kirl. The word ‘Rally!’ sounded louder than thunder from him. I ran like the wind through the tall grass and over the bodies to where Kirl stood.
I reached the high lord first. The Throng surrounded us, but more of the vanguard approached. I looked to Kirl. “Why do they attack us? They’re no different from us.”
“It’s because we use magic, Lord Memnock. Don’t you feel the power flowing through you?”
I paled at the thought. Why not use magic? Magic strengthens the farmer’s plow. Magic seals the grain silo. Magic heals wounds. I took note though. Arcane energy flowed through me like never before.
The vanguard finally formed up around us. Kirl howled. “Advance! Advance!”
My guts pulled me forward into the hornet’s nest of enemy swords and pikes. In the distance, with just a few more ranks of enemies in the way, the honor guard flags of the enemy war generals rustled in the wind.