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The Hero

The morning mist hung above the field where yesterday they’d seen death. The blackbirds were at work already picking at the unfortunates they had left behind. Tarben felt sick for them. There had been no chance to retrieve their fallen companions. He knew it had not been right, but there was little he could do. Verlak had talked to them long into the chill night, but now, in the cool vapor light of morning, Tarben felt less sure. For all he knew, Verlak had drawn them here to face their death as well. He had told them what to do, and then left them with assurances and little else and taken that damned greatsword with him.

“I tell you, Tarben, he’s not going to come,” Aryk muttered in his ear. “What we going to do then, eh?”

“We’ll do what we have to do. Just be still.”

“I don’t mind telling you, I’m not feelin’ right about this.”

“Be still!” he hissed back. He could feel the sweat upon his palms despite the chill of the air.

The minutes wore on. They felt like hours. Aryk was fidgeting beside him, and Tarben wanted to move too, but he knew what Verlak had told them. They had to wait, here in this position, amongst their own dead, open and vulnerable and exposed. He flexed his fingers against his sword hilt, tension building inside him.

As the first rays of sunlight lanced across the open spaces from behind the hill, he heard movement. Phylux’s troops were coming. Tarben could still not believe that he was standing there waiting, he and Aryk alone. The sounds of marching men and horses grew louder. The clank of metal and mutter of voices became more distinct.

Spearmen marched around the edge of the hill. The red of their shields glowed gold with the light of the morning sun. Horses flanked them on either side matching the pace of the footmen. Tarben could see more than the approaching force. In them, he saw his own death. Still, he gritted his teeth and waited.

“Hold, Aryk, hold,” he whispered.

Finally, one of the riders spotted them and pointed. The warmth of the sun was dispersing the trailing fog and Tarben felt naked and alone.

The one obviously in charge gestured to his men to stop. He scanned the flat ground between them and the edge of the trees, looking for more of Tarben’s men. He leaned across to one of his riders to say something. Although the sounds carried across the space between them, Tarben could not make out the words. The officer straightened in his saddle and laughed. Tarben gripped his sword hilt more tightly and stilled his urge to run. Aryk stood firm beside him looking nervously toward the spearmen arrayed across the field.

The officer leaned down and grabbed a spear from one of the soldiers standing beside him. Tarben felt his guts go cold as the rider hefted the spear in one hand and spurred his horse toward them. He reined in halfway across the intervening space. His horse pawed at the ground and its breath steamed as it snorted.

“Are you so eager to die?” he called across to them. Tarben merely stood and waited. The officer pointed up the hill with his spear, and Tarben followed its line. He had not noticed the priests appear, but they were there now. “Let them send you on your way. You clearly wish to join your companions.” The officer narrowed his eyes. “But wait. You’re the one they call Tarben. You, I would have alive.”

The officer signaled to the horsemen behind him. Tarben could only stand and watch as they rode up to join their leader.

“Take this one,” said the officer. “I will enjoy asking him some questions. Kill the other one. He’s of no use to us.”

Tarben swallowed back his nervousness, watching and waiting. He couldn’t help thinking how they had come to be here.

#

It was the night before. Both of them sat in the small forest clearing, their horses tethered nearby. His men also clustered around, or stood further back through the trees, keeping watch.

“It always amazes me how you can eat after that.”

“It always amazes me how you cannot,” mumbled Aryk around a mouthful of dripping meat. He grinned and waved the chunk skewered on his knifepoint in Tarben’s direction, the grease shining on his chin in the firelight. “I always get powerful hungry after a good scrap.”

Aryk, the little cutpurse, had proved useful from time to time, but sometimes his hot temper and variable morals led Tarben to question. Still, Aryk had stood by him, unswerving in his loyalty. Tarben had to give him that much. From time to time, he wondered what Phylux had ever done to the thief, but his companion had always refused to be drawn.

“Aye, no doubt it’s all the strength you lose running from the enemy.”

Tarben ducked the lump of meat that sailed past his head.

“Now there. Look what you’ve done. Making me waste good food like that.”

Tarben snorted and returned to staring at the fire. There were good fights and there were bad fights. Today had not been one of the good ones. It hadn’t helped that Phylux had arrayed those cursed priests on the hill above them. Having a handful of snakes waved at you whilst being screamed at with the voices of damnation was enough to put anyone’s mind off the battle. They’d lost some good men today. By the gods, he detested snakes. He listened to the sounds of the remaining few of his men filtering through the trees around him. When they’d started the day, there’s been near to fifty. Farmers, blacksmiths, carpenters — what sort of fighting force was that? Overall, they’d lost near two dozen of their fifty today. Fifty against two hundred didn’t make for good odds, but these men had been fighting for their homes and land. They knew the area too, which should have swung things a little in their favour if fortune had chosen to smile at them, but it hadn’t.

Tarben hunkered down to rest his forehead upon the cool hilt of his sword. He stared beyond it to the flickering embers and the hot ash of the fire. There had to be a way to get through and past those ranks of spearmen. He couldn’t close with them; they were too tightly packed. If he tried to go around them, the ranks inclined and formed up to block him again. He cursed Phylux for his thoroughness; the man had trained his troops too well. Tarben had to admire him for the snakes too. That had been a good move. He wished he’d thought of it.

“Come on Tarben, eat something. You’ve got to keep your strength up.” Aryk waved a freshly carved slab of meat at him, but Tarben gestured him away distractedly. There was thinking to do.

As if the spearmen were not bad enough, he had to contend with cavalry as well. The spear were slow, so there might have been a chance to get around them, but every time they had tried, those cursed skirmishers had cut off the approach. No, the horsemen protected the flanks too well. What he needed was something to punch through the center. If they broke the spear, then that was the backbone of Phylux’s forces gone. The troops wouldn’t have a chance of standing up to Tarben’s men if that happened. The real trouble was that his men were too few. Yet another village had fallen under the heel of Lord Phylux. Since the death of his own village, Caerinford, Tarben had sworn to stop the petty lord. A year ago, less, who had heard of Phylux? But after the border wars and the drain of men from Vistara, the lordling had seen his opportunity, starting small and then little by little expanding his power and influence. Phylux cared nothing for the people or what he wrought, merely for power. It mattered not what he destroyed.

A quick breeze wafted smoke from their fire around their campsite. Tarben rubbed his eyes and grimaced. The smell of meat juices dripping from the spit sputtering in the coals gave it an acrid tang. His eyes stung, but it was more than just the smoke.

He had had a home once, long gone these many months. His mother, his sister taken, the farm put to the torch, the grain stores looted, and his father stretched out across the gateposts, lashed there and sightless from where the birds had done their work. Since that day, since his return from the army and the border wars, Tarben had wandered, gathering others around him to fight, to retain that which was theirs. Thoughts of simple revenge had long since passed.

#

Tarben woke to the feel of Aryk shaking his shoulder.

“Hey, Tarben, wake up. Somebody coming,” Aryk hissed.

“What is it?” Tarben asked in a whisper.

“Don’t know. Someone coming through the trees. Sounds like only one. Over behind us—out of the forest. What do you want to do?”

Tarben had already reached for his sword. His mind raced. It couldn’t be anyone sent by Phylux. He wouldn’t be that stupid. If it was someone alone, then they were probably only heading this way by accident.

“Are the rest awake?” Aryk nodded. “Tell them to hold then. Let me deal with this.” Tarben got quietly to his feet.

“Tarben, what’re you going to—?” Tarben stilled Aryk’s whispered query with a gesture of his hand and Aryk scuttled off through the trees to convey the message.

Whoever it was plainly wasn’t trying to sneak up on them. The footsteps were clearly audible, crunching through the leaves of the forest floor. Tarben relaxed and straightened from his crouch. He let the point of his weapon drop to the ground and casually leaned his weight on it while he waited. The noises of approach grew steadily closer. A hulking fur-clad figure emerged from between the trees and wandered into the dim glow of the fading fire. The stranger pulled up short and turned his thick-maned head from side to side as if suddenly confused by the light.

“Ho there, friend,” Tarben called to him. “Can I be of some assistance?”

The stranger narrowed his eyes and peered at Tarben from beneath heavy brows. His scrutiny was unhurried as he scanned the rude campsite, Tarben’s sword, and lingered for a moment on the remainder of Aryk’s meal. The huge man grunted and tossed a heavy and travel-stained pack to the ground at his side. He reached slowly up behind his back and, just as slowly, revealed the metal of a large blade from behind the wild mass of his grey-streaked and matted hair. Tarben tensed. He grasped the hilt of his own weapon and dropped into a defensive crouch. The big man’s face broke into a wide grin beneath his orange beard, and he threw back his head and bellowed a laugh.

“I don’t want to fight you, little man. You look like you’ve had enough of fighting for one day as it is.” He tossed his large blade to one side to fall on the ground near his pack. “And you can tell your friend over there to come out from behind that tree. He wouldn’t get near me with that knife of his anyway. There’s too much of me to stick.” He slapped his broad belly and grinned.

Aryk slipped his dagger back into his belt as he stepped sheepishly from his place of concealment.

“Who are you?” Tarben asked, waving the point of his sword in the stranger’s direction.

“Aye, who am I indeed?” The big man planted meaty hands upon his broad hips and grinned at them again. “What say you put down your sword? I’ll come in and share a bit of warmth from your fire, carve myself a lump of that meat over there, and I can tell you all about who I am. Meantime, you can tell me all about who you are, and what you’d be doing in my forest.”

Tarben had a moment’s hesitation, and then glanced at Aryk, who shrugged in response. Slowly he lowered his sword.

“Fairly put,” said Tarben. “Who are we to deny you hospitality? Come sit with us.”

“Well, my thanks to you, friend. I would be grateful if your other companions would extend their hospitality too,” the big man said as he inclined his head in the direction of the trees. Tarben nodded and raised his hand, telling his men to stand down. The stranger gave a satisfied nod and strode across the clearing to stand looking down at Tarben. He had left his greatsword where it lay, not even offering it a glance as he left it.

“So, little man … they called me Verlak once. You may as well use the name. What shall I call you? You and your friend with the knife who would stick me now if he could.” He looked at Aryk and gave a none-too-friendly grin. Aryk looked around nervously and carefully moved his hand back away from his knife hilt.

“I am Tarben, and this is Aryk.”

“Good, now we have names, for what good they are. Will you sit with me, Tarben?” Verlak moved over to the fire and helped himself to a slab of cooling meat before settling his vast bulk on a stump by the fireside. Tarben crouched and watched across the embers as the giant of a man tore chunks from the meat and chewed noisily. When he had finished enough to have satisfied three men, the stranger smacked his lips, belched, and wiped his mouth with the back of one hairy paw.

“So, Verlak, tell me what brings you here.”

“I should be asking that very same question, Tarben, not you.”

Verlak peered at him across the flames that rose once again as Aryk stoked the embers. Aryk looked up from the patterns he was drawing in the dirt with his finger.

“You see, it is you who are here, in my home.” Verlak made an expansive gesture at the forest around them. “It is you and your companions who are the guests at my hearth. Be sure not to abuse the privilege.”

“Tarben, you going to let him talk like that?” Aryk said, a sneer on his face.

Verlak swung his head deliberately toward Aryk and fixed him with a look like thunder.

“You, little man, should hold your peace. I could tear your head from your body if I chose to.”

Aryk jumped to his feet and scrabbled for his knife, but Tarben stilled him with an out-thrust hand.

Verlak grunted. “Aye, heed your friend, Aryk. He knows better than you. That is the reason you follow him, and not the other way about.”

Tarben ignored the comment and continued his questioning. “What do you mean, your forest, Verlak? We see no marks or signs of ownership.”

“Nor will you, Tarben. Nor will you. Ah, but it’s mine all the same. I tolerate your presence here because it suits me. I tolerate it more than I do that pestilence that now sits beyond the trees.” Verlak’s apparent arrogance was beginning to annoy, but Tarben stilled his urge to do something about it. “I watched you and your men today, Tarben,” the big man continued. It was not a good day for you. You lost more than you should have, but I think you know that.”

“Aye, more than I should have.” Tarben sighed. “But what is that to you?”

“You pit yourself against that scum Phylux,” growled the big man. “That is reason for me to be interested. I would see aid given to any who stand in the way of Phylux’s ambitions. He brings a darkness upon all of us. I watched you today, from up there upon the hill. You lost today, so tonight I am here.” He looked across the fire and narrowed his eyes.

Aryk cleared his throat and spat into the flames. “Listen old man, we’ve heard what you’ve said, but we don’t need no telling about what happened today. You’ve shared our fire; you’ve eaten our food. Time’s right for you to be making your way to wherever you’re going.”

Verlak ignored him and continued speaking.

“What did you have on your mind trying to fight against spear and cavalry together, Tarben? The men you had, and those that you still have, they’re no more than light skirmishers. The sort of numbers you’d need to face a force like that—”

“Why?” asked Tarben. “We hit them quickly, out of the trees. They shouldn’t have been prepared for our strike. Surprise makes up for numbers. Anyway, why should I listen to you?”

“Because Tarben, I know a lot more about it than you might think. Don’t let the appearance of an old man deceive you. Would you believe me more if I’d wandered in here in full armor? I think it probable, but then I doubt I would have had the hearing you’ve given me thus far. Besides, it’s not very practical to wander about in full battle array.” Verlak grinned through his beard and slapped his thighs. “I have reason for wanting to see you succeed. Phylux has ruled unopposed for too long. I should have done something about him when I had the chance. All you saw today was a raiding party. His forces are growing, and his position is strengthened with each new village or town he grinds beneath his heels. I’ve sat for too long, buried deep within these woods. Now I mean to act. I can help you Tarben, and so too, you can help me.”

Aryk snorted. “You talk pretty words for an old hermit living in the middle of a forest.”

“And if you know what’s for the good, you’ll listen to what I have to offer, little man.”

“Aryk has a point, Verlak. Why should we listen to you?” said Tarben.

“Will you not take me on faith then?”

Tarben merely stared across at him.

Verlak continued with a sigh. “No, I should not have expected it. Aye, well, if I must, I must.”

Verlak wiped the palms of his large hands on the fur of his coat. He leaned forward and stretched out his arms in front of him. He hunched his shoulder and moved one hand above the other, fingers curled as if they held something more than empty air. Aryk glanced between Tarben and Verlak. Tarben could see his companion was tensed, ready to leap in attack, and he could see the concentration etched across Verlak’s brow. The old man would be a fool if he were to try something now. Tarben watched and waited. Verlak narrowed his eyes and stared at the space above his curling fingers.

He gave a mighty roar and stood. A loud noise split the air above the old man’s hands. Suddenly, those hands were empty no longer. Between them, he held the hilt of a massive sword. Orange sparks flickered up and down its length.

Tarben’s diminutive companion fell back in shock and his jaw dropped open. Tarben’s own eyes widened in disbelief. He could not possibly have seen what had just happened. Perhaps the old man had bewitched them somehow. He glanced back over his shoulder to where Verlak had dropped his sword, but the leaf-littered ground beside the discarded pack was empty. Slowly, he turned back to face Verlak. He chased for thoughts, but there were none.

Verlak allowed the weight of his blade to fall back against his shoulder. He looked beyond Tarben to the trees surrounding their clearing, then back to Tarben. His face broke into a humorless smile.

“So, will you listen to me now, Tarben? At least I think I have your attention.” He chuckled wryly. “If you would grant me the favor of telling your companions back there to join us, or at least put up their weapons, then we can talk more. They have seen enough blood spilled today; would you not say?”

Tarben shook himself and motioned vaguely toward the surrounding undergrowth. He didn’t even bother to look as his group of battle-weary men moved one by one into the clearing. They would only act on his signal. His attention was on Verlak.

“Let me tell you something more of myself, Tarben. I’ve been around for a long time. I know Phylux, and he knows me. My name is Verlak. Some have called me Verlak the Bear.” Tarben heard a sharp intake of breath behind him. “Ah, I see the name is known. You may be too young to have heard it, but there are some who will not be.”

Tarben rubbed his forehead. He had heard the name somewhere before, but it was a long, long time ago. He was still reeling from the shock of what he had just witnessed, and, though he groped for words, none came. He glanced across at Aryk, who barely managing to salvage some of the little dignity he possessed, maneuvered himself back into a sitting position. His small companion brushed twigs and leaves from his hands but forgot to close his mouth.

“Tarben, I’ve seen what you’ve done here,” Verlak continued. “I will sing your praises for that. Whipping this band of outlaws and villagers into some sort of discipline takes natural skill. But I fear it’s not enough. You can lead men, Tarben, and that is a skill worth having, but more is needed if you would prevail.”

“What do you mean?” Tarben asked him. “Oh, you may as well sit, and put up your sword. I think you have our attention now, and I have the feeling that the night will be a long one.”

Verlak smiled across the fire at him and nodded his great head once, before doing just that. As he laid the broad blade on the ground beside him, Tarben marked the green gem set at the pommel. He had heard tales of a sword such as this, one that conjured fire and directed its strike. It had a name.

Aryk had crept up beside him. “Is that…?” he whispered in Tarben’s ear.

Tarben shook his head to still him.

“Good, then let us begin,” said the old man. He had noted their nervous glances in the direction of the now resting blade and the corners of his eyes wrinkled in amusement. His hand reached out to gently caress the hilt of the giant sword lying on the ground beside him. “I see you may have some knowledge of my old friend Soulstealer here but pay her no mind. We must begin.”

“What does he mean, Tarben? Begin what?” Aryk said looking confused. He scratched the back of his head and screwed up his face. “Far as I see it, we don’t need no advice from some old man comes wandering out of the forest. We don’t know nothing about him. What I see is, we’re doing all right on our own. Sure, he’s got a fancy sword, but that don’t mean nothing to me. What we need’s a hero, not advice from some hermit thinks he knows this and that. If that sword of yours is so good old man, then maybe you want to play at being a hero for us, but that’s about it.”

“Listen, little man.” Verlak narrowed his eyes and swung his large frame to face him. “Talk of heroes is what gets you dead. Heroes don’t just happen. Put all your faith in one man, in a particular magic or a special weapon and you’ll wind up deader than those you left behind today. I could come and fight with you. What good would that do? Phylux would concentrate his attention here, pour troops in from surrounding areas as soon as he heard. As I said, Phylux knows me. You have neither numbers nor experience. My presence would do you more harm than good. What you need is a strategy and a plan. You can’t win a battle on faith alone. Nobody’s a hero if they’re dead, and there’s nobody that can’t be replaced. A fighting force is like an animal. It has parts of it that do different jobs, but it functions as a whole thing. Bits and pieces of it don’t go wandering off. If they did, then the creature falls apart. Yes, I have a blade, a powerful blade, but you need more than that.”

“So, what’s that got to do with us?” asked Aryk skeptically.

“That’s what was happening today. I watched your attack. Small numbers of your group ran in and tried to break through. There were too many of them for you and they were too well placed. They worked as a unit, whereas you did not. The cavalry guarded the flanks of the spearmen, and the spearmen did their job by keeping you channeled to where the horsemen could hit you and cause the most damage. After each skirmish, they could retreat behind the spears and regroup, safe and protected when they were most vulnerable.”

Aryk chewed his finger as he thought about what the old man was telling them.

Verlak continued. “What good would a hero have done you today, little man? What would an old man with a special sword have done for you?”

There was a long silence.

“What would you suggest we do, Verlak?” Tarben asked after the pause. “What choice did we have?”

“I’m not sure, Tarben, but I think your little friend may have given me an idea.”

#

Tarben dropped into a crouch, waving his sword in front of him. He could feel Aryk behind him pressed up against his back as they circled as one, ready to slash at the first horseman who approached. The riders started to circle too, wary of the sharp blades being waved toward them. Tarben glanced through the ring of riders, over toward the spearmen, who now stood relaxed, watching the scene before them. The time had come. He took a deep breath, planted his feet, and stood straight.

“You,” he spoke to the horsemen that surrounded him. “It’s time you left this place.” He passed the hilt of his sword from one hand to the other, and drove the blade, point first into the ground in front of him. The rider directly in front of him grinned.

A mighty bellow echoed across the valley from the hill above them. There, silhouetted in the sunlight, a huge fur-clad figure grabbed one of the priests, lifted him high in the air, and tossed him down the face of the hill. The other priest was already running. The officer’s eyes grew wide with shock as the white-robed body tumbled down the hillside.

“Now, my companions,” Tarben called in as loud a voice as he could muster. “Your time has come.” He picked up his sword and swept the blade in a wide arc. “Come! Come back from the dead and join the living.”

From all around, came the stirrings of motion. What had seemed to be corpses now started climbing to their feet, weapons in hand. Rapidly, they advanced upon the horsemen with moans and cries.

The officer was the first to be dragged from his horse and stilled with a blade across his throat. The other riders spun their horses in confusion. Tarben jumped at the nearest and dragged him to the ground. His blade made short work of the downed man. One by one, his men attacked the exposed horsemen and one by one, the horsemen died.

Within minutes there was nothing left of the cavalrymen except their riderless mounts. Verlak had been right. Separate the parts and the animal will die. Tarben smiled as he turned toward the spearmen who now milled in confusion. He broke into a trot toward them. A glance up at the hillside showed Verlak, now with greatsword held high above his head, charging down toward the foot soldiers as well, orange fire coursing up and down the blade. Not a single one of his men had reached the spearmen when they broke and ran as one. Two or three would get away, but his lighter-clad fighters easily overtook the rest. Tarben gave up the chase and stood surveying the results.

The old warrior had told him something during the night; something that stood out more than all the other words that had passed between them. You don’t become a hero by losing a fight.

Verlak wandered across the field toward Tarben, picking his way among the fallen, and the groups of Tarben’s men who now stood congratulating each other on the empty field, still dressed as the dead they had left behind on the previous day. As the old warrior approached, Tarben could see his grin.

Verlak reached out with one large hand and gripped his shoulder. “Today, Tarben,” he said. “Today you start to become the hero you seek, not me. This day is just the first. May you become the legend that we need, and not the sword.”

Tarben scanned the bodies littering the field and knew Verlak was right.

The old man grunted, shouldered his ancient blade, and lumbered off towards the trees.

Tarben was left standing there, watching the broad retreating back. He thought of calling after him, something, but now…now there was tomorrow to think about.

– The End –

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