The fortress, over in the horizon and under the white vigil of a great celestial rock, stood boastful. It stood with braced armor formed square outside the walls, straightening polearms out into the reveal of moonlit plains that gleamed sharp shines along the blade’s edge. It stood with catapults menacing atop battlements that dotted the corners of the vast eggshell walls. It stood with horseback assailants ready to sail the windless air to their glory of ragnarok on the field with lancers and barbed clubs. It stood ready for the calamity of a force it imagined with its own strategies in mind. It stood ready. But, not for everything.
Cavalier General Verde sauntered back and forth before the closed maw of the fortress’ entrance. He raced his eyes up and down the cracks of the wooden gate’s colossal panels, occasionally shooting back to his steely men, and then back again without so much a grunt. His armor shivered as he moved. His blade, a typical longsword, swung indecisively from his belt. His greaves at times seemed to sink into the ground, the filth encrusted and glass-riddled ground.
About the entrance square, parting streets in every so direction, was greying confetti and the ashes of mourning fireworks. Floats had been abandoned in their jubilee path, misshapen and decrepit in their stance. One in particular, the hickory man atop a constantly running stream, was particularly interesting. The wood was splintered and the man, atop his cane, was leaning heavily as his right leg had shattered and the fountain where the water in the stream recycled had been clogged and so all around the float was a growing ocean consuming the square.
Arrows scattered amongst the debris. A few soldiers were stricken and they watched their blood leave them. The medic was also wounded, clutching desperately at his wounds and trying to patch them, but just couldn’t use all his cloth to heal himself. He dragged himself, clinging to the slippery floor with each pulling hand, to the other fallen soldiers. He would stop beside them, the breath blowing out of his lungs and the crimson fate dripped steadily from these billows. He would tear the cloth. He asked the man where the wound was. The response would be a whimpering seizure of the bacteria pool. The medic ripped the metal off the place. His hands bled now. His head burst internally. He continued. It exploded again. He took the end of the cloth. Again his head burst, but his mind drifted. He extended it over the wound. He breathed with straining gasps. He pulled the cloth around the appendage. Blood scraped itself out of his throat and splattered on the man. His eyes blurred. He tied the cloth. It was secure. He was done. He released the soldier from his helmet and caressed the back of his sticky head and told him it was done with, that he’d be fine. He looked on over to the next injured man, sprawling violently and howling like a soul drowning in fire. The medic rose to this occasion. And, as suddenly as inspiration hit him, so did his mortality and with a blinking turnover he collapsed forward, smashing into a dissemination of glass.
General Verde double-timed between the two points of the gate. In between his anticipation of the other side, he took a look back at the square. The medic was dead. He returned to the gate with a silent grunt. His pace slowed. He turned his head, concealed in a barbut helmet with the eyes covered in tinted glass. His expression was anyone’s guess, lest they could translate the cloud formation of his breath as it slithered out of his mouth in marching succession.
The straightened wall of standing steel stood at attention and straightened their backs, struck their eyes at their commander and silenced the air of their anxious thoughts.
“I feel the rats on us. We strike out of this gate, blades shimmering like the lightning of the heavens, at the first draw of our blood.”
A unison of huzzah! The clamber of unsheathing blades struck their measure like the double time of hi-hats. They marched to the gate, left by right on repeat in 2/2 measures as they lined in a column and the drawbridge opened in legato. They left the silence of the causeway and into the fantastic symphony of macabre. Each donned his role in the orchestra and they waited for the door to drop with a tempestuous bass.
Outside the walls, down the shapeless corridor of the dark drawbridge, was a regiment at the ready, pikes ready, and nerves tightened to the point of snapping. Verde’s regiment emerged in crescendo with chanting and stomping until the men ceased and put rest onto the staff. Verde, their conductor, trailed off to meet with the captain of the exterior guard, Cpt. Strodnak, a short and rather unimpressive specimen of authority. His face melded with his jaw and all of that barely seemed detached from his shoulders to begin, if only by the intrusion of his large pauldrons. Verde, however, was formidable in both height and countenance, striking the guard with the aquiline gaze of his misty eyes.
“How goes the watch?” Verde sneered down onto Strodnak, arms folded and eyes darting anywhere but the dullness of his comrade. He could be said to be on alert for the enemy, but the enemy would certainly not emerge from the sky above. “We’ve lost tw’ men,” his voice was the squealing of a rumbling toad, “in a foory of arrow fire. We can’t s’em to pinpoint ‘ere they are. W’ know they’re out ‘n th’ f’elds, but wheneve’ they strike they are n’here to be s’en!” Verde turned from the insignificant officer and marched towards the crest of the guard. He unfurled his arms and stood crucified, glaring onto the field.
“We know you are there! So don’t you dare play the coward, or we’ll come out there and hunt you down ourselves. You can’t hide from me! I am General Davide “Hawk” Verde of Alessia Castle, the Eye of the East!” He was met with the shimmer of moonlight waltzing across the empty plains, not even touched by wind.
“Damn. Raphael! Fetch me my bow!” From the T formation emerged a soldier with orange ornate armor, holding a wooden composite bow that had feathers on either side. “Excellent, my boy. Have you ever wandered why I am given the titles I have?” He struck an arrow on the right side of the string and brought it all back as close to his chest as possible. The soldier simply shook his head, stating the negative.
His armor was something to be admired. The entire metal would roll at its edges off the outline and into the atmosphere about him with the texture and color of furious magma, but in the breast was a swirling convection of gentle waves in a steel tide pool.
Verde had both eyes alert; the arrow was made to trill across the gentle spotlight with a dulcet allegro viciousness, slicing the light into fraying fabrics. It descended quietly at the end of its note on the slightest dot of light. A grunt was heard from the distance, across the great expanse, and Verde chuckled to himself. He slapped another arrow atop the same spot, and repeated the pluck of the string and the emission of the mortifying note. The clatter of a fallen shield was heard. He pulled once more. Another pizzicato note careened to its unfortunate audience. The thud of a nearby man. “They’re getting closer, but I still can’t see a damn one. Raphael, take my bow back to whence it came and instruct that toad of a man to join me up here.”
Raphael took the bow and hurried back into the formation. Once he was gone, Stronadk stumbled out to the front of the formation, mace in hand. “Just the toad I’m looking for. Stronadk, instruct your men to proceed forward or, at least, give me the command of them.” Stronadk gave Verde the incredulous look of a man requested a foul sexual deed. “I c’nnat d’ that f’r you, gen’ral. See, th’ men f’llowe m’ co’man ‘nd I,” he held that ‘I’ like it required the emphasis of his entire lung to epitomize, “’m they’re co’mannder ‘nd they f’llow me!”
“All men under the banner of Stronadk, you are best to take your weapons and take to my tail, for we will soar into the enemies and demolish them entirely with one fell swoop! We shan’t show them the slightest mercy.”
A unison of huzzah! The clamber of unsheathing blades struck their measure like the double time of hi-hats, all down the line a continuous swell of the soft metal swish. Stronadk’s guard returned their blade, a formal gesture, and proceeded forward with their pikes straightened and their pilar shields marching in step with the beat of the greaves. They braved the luminescent twilight, courage in numbers, and inched into the borderless expanse, for the rollicking edges lapped over the sight of the end, whether or not there was any. They entered the kinetic paralysis of war, a sensation all at once frozen absolutely and skittering like nuclear fission electrons. The smashing metal of greaves broke the serenity, but brought a back-minded monotony that was assimilated into the air.
With a signal, Verde deadened their advance. The rustle of armed rats caught his attention and dragged it to scattered corners of the field. “Where in the damn are they?” The rustling escalated and aggravated, fluxing in between every speck of pollen that has any smidgen of trapped moonlight in its descending ballet. Back and forth, his attention was quartered. That farthest tree could hide them. Or perhaps they’re behind the nearby hill. Could it possibly be that they sail above them? There is nowhere about them, in any spot directly in their view, being the entire field, that an adult army could catch Verde by surprise. He struck three of them! The helmets, the fallen bodies, the blade, the blood, the anything that affirms that he did indeed, with his hawk eyes, strike them down. They couldn’t have left. The rustling is getting louder. Are they actually rats they fight?
“Sir. To our right.” Verde heeded the voice and darted his eyes to the farthest of his periphery, barely spotting the shadowy force, twenty men to a row some columns down, encroaching on their right. “Right.” Verde grinned. “Widen our formation! My men, spill into the line, and we’ll widen ourselves into two lines.”
The men did as requested. A unison of huzzah!
“Let us move forward and demolish them in one fell swoop. Do not hesitate. Charge them. We have the advantage in numbers.” The two lines were vast indeed, the violent belt that strangled the plains. They proceeded onto the diminutive rectangle of soldiers, approaching as though in a rolling rollick. “When this battle ends, the capitol will again recognize the name of Davide “Hawk” Verde as a triumphant one.” This he whispered to himself and only for himself.
The men crashed past him and raged, their pikes splashing up and down in the momentum and their line breaking into crests and troughs. Then, at the penultimate moment, they tightened, crystallizing to a glacial wall, and their pikes crashed into the first three lines. Sailing away from the edge of the pikes weren’t sanguine regrets or hanging entrails, but the soft amorphous cotton of a cushion. The assailants reeled in their blades and examined their prey closer. They were decoys with heavy aluminum armor.
The sound of hatches alarmed their hearts and from their left and their front and their rear sang the pizzicato symphony of their destruction. “Men! Close formation! Close formation!” The vast line scrambled to wrap about itself, but at all points in the line, men staggered at the mercy of their frantic fiddler, pulling strings and launching sixteenth note arrows into hearts and minds and throats, leaving the fallen speechless and gurgling. Those unfazed still stumbled over the fallen and met the stray blades on their descent. Shields too heavy to maneuver were abandoned as the fearful darted to escape, heading back for the castle, but a gate of spears spurt from the ground and made mincemeat of them. “They’re below us! The fucking rats are below us!” Those that found themselves in any semblance of a tortoise formation charged their shields into the saltarello, deflecting spears and arrows alike. Occasionally, the well-timed surprise spear would penetrate the foot of the formation and take out one of the outer shields long enough for an arrow or two to strike within before the formation could be reformed, still moving at the pace of a rapid.
Verde found himself ensconced neatly in one of the quicker formations, almost at the foot of the castle. “Sir. We should retreat to the Eastern Gate.” “Who said that?” “Me sir, 2nd Lt. Giardel. You should see for yourself.”
At the first hint of any security, the formation opened itself on Verde’s side and revealed the grim scene at the Northern gate. Several of the guards under Stronadk’s service had mutinied against the remainder and skewered the majority of them, save Stronadk who was holding his own against the traitorous vermin. His mace, an iron tulip of sorts, swung decidedly between breastplates, crushing the metal of his enemy into their chests and suffocating them as they flew back. He wasn’t kinetic in his attacks, but he had sense enough to dodge enemy swings and effectively attack their exposed flanks. It was a stocky inspiration of battle. Verde burst through the maw of his formation, gleaming longsword in the moonlight’s blessing, and charged the blob of soldiers.
“Strynodk!” He ducked a blurring blade and pierced the elbow. “We’re better to retreat to the East Gate!” His blade slid from the elbow and glided across the chest. The assailant staggered back.
Another head swipe came. He bent forward and caught the hand between his head and shoulder. His blade hacked off the offending arm.
Verde twirled into a crouch, bringing his blade across the hip of his attacker. He pounced forward, forcing the soldier to fall over him.
“Rit!” To and fro, left man and right man fell at the chuckle of the mace.
The squadron of two tortoises reached the rendezvous point and wreaked their havoc on the vermin. Behind, fleeing soldiers of Verde’s command flayed pitiably in the storm of a silent moonlit twilight as red blossoms burst to meet the sky’s grace.
In the drawbridge corridor, more traitors scurried out.
“They’re everywhere.” Twirl and crash, two men decapitated in a fell swoop of the Hawk. “Fall back! Fall back to the East Gate! Alessia Castle will not fall!”
Another gleam of silver. Verde stumbled left foot, right foot, left again onto his butt. The gleam of silver came down. The Iron Tulip smashed against it, dull in color, and pushed it back. Stronadk crushed the assailant’s head.
Exasperated as his hesitant comrade pulled him up, he roared, “Who is responsible for this! Who would dare humiliate me! I am the strategic master of two campaigns, The Eye of the East!”
One of the men returned from the abyss, an auxiliary soldier named Renie. “Sir! The enemy is emerging from the ground! I saw them. At the helm is Gonzol, the Mad Feral.”
Verde understood. He gazed, with his famed eyes distant in his own mind, out onto the field of his foolish hubris. He saw men splattered amidst the tools of his conceit that quilled them and ended them. He saw blood marshes sparkle in the glades of grass of his ego. He saw the last of the breathing try and outpace the timpani of an impending doom, pitying every last one as they pulled beggarly at the grass that softened and tore from the blood. He felt the heat envenom his soul and the bubbling of his juices and he tossed his barbut to the ground, cursing. He was free to do so, as the men around him had already jeopardized themselves to hold the South Gate. He cursed still.
“V’rdy! Come ‘n! W’ most ‘et to th’ Eaast Gyate! Wh’ts wrong!”
Verde, proud strategist and accomplished archer, fled with his ally to the East Gate. He knew, though, that the Castle would not the stand the night. He called for Raphael and whispered for him to secure a passage out of the castle by dawn. Raphael affirmed and departed posthaste along the castle line.
It was not Gonzol that was feared, albeit the man’s reputation was greatly deserved. Rather, it was his master, the indication of Gonzol and the connotation of his presence, that struck epiphany and fear together like cymbals in Verde’s heart. Vulpes. The Silver Fox. He, the person, would not be seen until the final strike on Allesia’s throat, the extended plan and the extended beg for mercy, shot from the shadow right before its eyes. All of this was a strike from the shadow from right before Verde’s eyes.
He never saw it coming.
© 2015; Nikolas Reda-Castelao