By Sword and Song

The Song rang out clearly from the battlefield. Aliara heard it in the lilting moans of the wounded as the ground spread crimson beneath them. She heard it in the joyful chorus of the victors as they stood triumphant over their foes. Before she’d become a Knight-Initiate, people had often told her they could hear the Song in the simpler aspects of life. Farmers in the scratching of their plows as they tore through the soil to prepare it for seed. Mothers in the bubbling laughter of their children as they lay in their cradles. Yet, for her it was the battlefield that cast its voice to the sky in a hymn that was both mournful and exalted at once.

“The plan worked perfectly,” Aliara breathed as she looked around for her horse. One of the Illdrin, the heathens from the south, had struck a lucky blow and unhorsed her. His part in the Song ended soon after.

“You are surprised, Aliara?” Havvermath rumbled.

Aliara looked up at her friend and mentor, and smiled at his gentle rebuke. “I guess not. I’ve heard people speak of the general in awe since I first began training to be a Knight. Some even claim that He of Many works through him in battle, giving the general insight into the minds of the enemy.”

Havvermath nodded. “I too have heard this.”

“Do you believe it?”

Havvermath rode silently a while considering the question. Aliara didn’t mind, she knew her Sword-Father to be a thoughtful man. She waited for his answer and let the sounds of the battlefield wash over, and comfort her. Spellchanters could be heard, using the power of Voice to heal the wounded and praise He of Many for granting them a fragment of His power. She smiled to hear this, feeling closer to the Most High and knowing that the agonized moans of the wounded and dying were but parts of the Song.

“Well?” Aliara prompted.

“I think it is for the Spellchanters to ponder the will of He of Many, and for us to deal death to those who would be His enemy,” Havvermath said.

Aliara frowned at Havvermath, but before she could reply she noticed their Sergeant yelling at two Knights. His face was flushed and his eyes flickered dangerously between rage and murder. Sergeant Falmere saw them and waved them over, glowering at the other two Knights as they hastily departed.

“Where have you been, Havvermath? Everything’s falling apart, and you’re off flirting with this doe eyed child?” Falmere growled.

“Sir, Aliara is a Knight-Initiate, and I am her Sword-Father, set to look after her until her own blade sings true.” Havvermath placed his hand on Aliara’s shoulder. “This was her first battle, but already she holds her sword steady and delivers death like a seasoned Knight. I have no doubt that she will soon have no need of me, and easily surpass my modest skill with a blade.”

Falmere snorted. “Always the humble Knight, eh Havvermath?”

“I only speak the truth. What is it you require of us, Sergeant?” Havvermath asked.

Falmere narrowed his eyes and looked around, making sure no one else was in ear shot. “The general was abducted and his honor guard slain while we battled the Illdrin.”

Aliara muttered a prayer to He of Many. “But, how?”

“We don’t know. No one saw the godless bastards come or go! Luckily, one of our Spellchanters managed to pick up their trail. He said he could sense the vestiges of the general’s incorporeal form or some such crap. Who knows what they’re talkin’ about half the time. All that matters is that we can track the general, and get him home safe,” Falmere said.

“I’ll alert the other Knights,” Havvermath replied.

“No!” Falmere barked. “No one can know! Only us three, the Lieutenant, and the Spellchanters are aware of this. If the rest of the Knights find out there’ll be panic, and half the damned army will charge off on their own tryin’ to find him.”

Havvermath sighed. “What aren’t you telling us?”

Falmere spit and scratched his chin. “There’s more god-cursed Illdrin camped to the south. An even bigger group than the one we just fought, and they’re lookin’ for trouble.”

“Then I will stay here with a squad of Knights and sing my last verse in the Song, while the rest of you go and save the general,” Havvermath declared. “It will be my honor to die so that the general may live.”

“I’ll stay with you,” Aliara said, gripping the hilt of her sword.

“Shut up, both of you!” Falmere shouted and pointed at a lone Spellchanter who approached. “You two, and this fool are gonna rescue the general. A small party will attract no attention, and you’re our best warrior, Havvermath. You’re easily worth ten other Knights.”

“I think you overestimate–.”

“Shut up, I said! This is Colvin, the Spellchanter who found the general’s trail,” Falmere explained.

“These are my escorts? Why so few?” Colvin asked with a frown.

“I must agree, this is foolishness!” Havvermath protested. “Let us at least take a full squad of Knights.”

Aliara waited for the Sergeant to explode and start screaming at Havvermath, but the rage never came. Instead he sighed and his shoulders slumped. He looked like a man drowning with no land in sight.

“I tried, Havvermath. I tried to have the whole bloody army ride off after the general the moment I heard about this, but the Lieutenant won’t hear of it. When I pressed the point, I thought the dead eyed son of a whore was gonna have my head for insubordination. You ever try arguing with him?”

“This is pointless,” Aliara said. “If it’s going to be only us three, then let’s stop wasting time and go. Each moment we wait could be the one that costs the general his life.”

“Doe eyes is right. Go! Get the general and bring him back to us!” Falmere shouted.

Havvermath nodded. “My blade shall free the general or slay all those who had a hand in his downfall. I swear it, Sergeant.”

“Let’s hope it’s the first one,” Falmere muttered.

Aliara couldn’t help but agree.

“We have to hurry,” Aliara growled. They’d been on the road for half the day and barely made any progress. The Spellchanter seemed to be having a conversation with each blade of grass they passed by instead of hurrying to the general’s side as they should be. “I could walk faster than this!”

The Spellchanter continued his incantation, ignoring Aliara, as he’d been doing all day. Colvin was bent low to the ground, following a trail only his eyes could see. His hands twisted, and curled, creating strange symbols in the air. Havvermath held the reins to his horse, freeing Colvin’s hands to work his magic and find the general.

“Patience, Sword-Daughter. The art of the Spellchanters is beyond us, therefore it is not our place to question Colvin’s pace. He of Many chose Colvin and blessed him with the gift of Voice. Do you doubt the wisdom of the Most High?” Havvermath asked.

“I’ve found it!” Colvin shouted as he grabbed his reins back from Havvermath, and jumped on his horse. “The Illdrin were concealing their trail with some type of unknown power.”

“But how? The Illdrin turned their backs on the Most High. They lost all their Spellchanters when they betrayed Him,” Aliara said.

“I don’t know,” Colvin replied tersely, slapping at the back of his neck, then frowning at a bit blood on his hand. He rode off without another word, assuming correctly that the Knights would follow.

Aliara shared a concerned look with Havvermath, then the two of them followed the Spellchanter. Daylight burned hot and bright but died all too quickly, and soon they were riding through a starless night, shrouded by cloud and worry. A stray beam of moonlight tore through the cloud cover, alighting the three of them, its light seeming garish and intrusive in the otherwise black evening.

Havvermath dismounted and motioned for the others to do the same. “We must keep on, but riding in the smothering darkness which surrounds us is too dangerous. Do you still follow the general’s trail, Colvin?”

“Yes, the trail is bright and clear to me. It wants us to follow and I’d like to oblige it,” Colvin said, his voice high and feverish. “He is near.”

“Then let’s go!” Aliara shouted.

Havvermath remained still, staring off into the endless shadow of the night as if he could part the darkness and find the general with his naked eyes. “There is a foulness in the air. Can you not taste it?”

“Havvermath! I must insist!” Colvin growled.

“Listen to him, Havvermath,” Aliara urged.

Havvermath gripped Aliara’s shoulders and gazed down into her eyes. “Heed me, Sword-Daughter. I feel a presence tickling at the edges of my awareness and making my blood run cold and slow. Quiet your mind, and hear the Song.”

In the past the Song had only spoken to Aliara in battle, but here it shrieked and moaned as if in pain. The wind howled through her armor, and the animals of the night whimpered in their holes. A shadow rested here, thick and suffocating out all things good and alive. It dampened the Song and made her feel alone, and bereft of the blessings of He of Many.

Tears pooled at the corners of Aliara’s eyes. “What’s happening?”

“I don’t know,” Havvermath said.

“You two are children,” Colvin hissed. “Children playing in the games of the divine and unaware of the stakes! He is come! The Illdrin were right all along!”

Colvin approached, grinning as if hearing a grand joke for the first time. His face was covered in sweat and his shoulder twitched with each halting step he took. He opened his mouth and let out a keening wail that sounded like hundreds of pebbles scraping across a mirror.

“Do not come any closer,” Havvermath commanded and drew his sword.

“There will be no peace, until quiet reigns. The end of life, the end of Song,” Colvin screamed and pointed at the two Knights. The air shimmered and fire blossomed from nothing, hurtling towards Aliara and Havvermath.

Aliara rolled to her left instinctually. The flame singed her hair and stole the air from her lungs. She coughed as she leaped back to her feet and saw Havvermath charging Colvin.

It was all too surreal, Aliara couldn’t move, couldn’t help, all she could do was watch as Knight attacked Spellchanter. Havvermath dodged through the Spellchanter’s magic, twisting through lightning and tendrils of darkness that made the night seem bright in comparison. He swung his great-sword, slicing through Colvin’s neck and dropping the Spellchanter’s head into the grass with a thud.

Something shrieked in the distance.

“Havvermath!” Aliara yelled and ran to her mentor. As she passed by Colvin’s head she noted that his eyes were clouded over by a white film and thick black blood oozed from his neck. “Are you alright?”

Havvermath nodded and wiped a bit of sweat from his brow. “I am unharmed, but my heart weeps for what I just did.”

“He was insane, he would have killed us if you hadn’t stopped him.” She looked down at her gauntlets, toying with the straps. “I shamed myself in that fight. I…I couldn’t attack. It felt wrong to attack a Spellchanter.”

“You did not shame yourself, Aliara. It is good that you held back. I had no need of you and would spare you the burden of slaying one who was just a friend. If I had faltered, I know that the cry of your blade would have been there, protecting me as I protect you.” Havvermath sheathed his sword, and patted Aliara on the shoulder. He knelt over the Spellchanter’s corpse, offering a prayer to He of Many.

Aliara waited for Havvermath to finish his prayer, then offered her arm to help him up. “What happened to him? Why did he attack us?”

“I do not know. I would give anything to speak with the general right now. I feel the loss of his wisdom more keenly than ever.”

Mocking laughter echoed around them.

Aliara’s hair stood on end and she glanced at Havvermath, who was staring off into the night. She followed his gaze and noticed a light that hadn’t been there before.

“What is that, Havvermath?” Aliara whispered.

Havvermath turned towards her. “That is where they’re holding the general and where we’ll find the answers which we seek.”

Aliara frowned. “I think it’s a trap. I think whatever poisoned Colvin’s mind lives there, and waits for us to come.”

“I have no doubt you’re right, but it does not matter. If the general is alive, then that is where he’ll be. We must go and play our part in the Song. We are Knights,” Havvermath said.

“I understand,” Aliara muttered, then gazed at the light. Once more she heard Colvin’s screeching spellsong and saw his milky eyes as he tried to kill them. “I’m afraid, Havvermath.”

“So am I,” Havvermath admitted.

There was more laughter in the dark.

Aliara crouched in a bush and stared at the long abandoned garrison which the light had led them to. The garrison itself looked like it was ready to fall apart. The walls were riddled with cracks and some of the roof was caved in. Strangest of all, the light that had drawn them here had gradually disappeared as they approached.

“I see only one entrance,” Havvermath whispered.

“Are we just going to charge in? Perhaps we could sneak in a window?”

Havvermath shook his head. “To what end? They know we’re here. It’s clear they have some sort of sorcery that we do not understand. We must strike fast and hard. Be ready for anything, and nothing can surprise us.”

“I’m ready,” Aliara breathed. She was ready to kill, or die if need be to save the general.

Havvermath stood, and drew his great-sword. He nodded to her, then hurried to the garrison door and kicked it down without breaking a stride. It flew off its hinges and across the dusty floor, making so much noise that Aliara was sure they heard it all the way back at the camp. Flickering torches burned in sconces on the walls, making Aliara wonder why the light hadn’t been visible through the windows.

The two of them walked quickly, neither speaking as their eyes searched for enemies. Aliara’s heart hammered in her chest. She glanced at Havvermath and saw that he was pale and covered in sweat.

There was a thunderous crash, as if a great wall or barrier had shattered, then the air was sucked out of the hallway and shrieking laughter assaulted their ears. As the air disappeared so too did the light, and they were left in darkness with only each other’s labored breathing to remind them that they weren’t alone.

“Are you alright?” Havvermath rasped.

“Yes, I just wish we had some flint and tinder. I left mine back with the horses,” Aliara said.

As the words left her lips they echoed back at her, seeming to come from dozens of different voices at once. The walls themselves sounded as if they were shrieking the phrase, “back with the horses,” mocking and high pitched. It went on for several moments and Aliara covered her ears and moaned. Soon she realized that the words were twisting and warping. Now the voices were chanting, “lie with the corpses,” with shrill giggles ringing out after each word.

“Enough games! Show yourself and let’s be done with this!” Havvermath shouted.

The chanting stopped. The torches on the walls began to burst into light, beginning at the end of the hallway and blazing towards them one after another. Something was coming, Aliara was sure of it. Something dark and horrible and when the final torch lit, the world would shrink and die instead of having to face the lurid gaze of this abomination.

The final torch burst into flames, nothing happened. The world still existed. “Praise to the Most High,” Aliara whispered and took a deep breath. “I thought for sure some horrible creature was coming to end us. This place toys with my mind.”

“Lie with the corpses?” Havvermath asked and swung his great-sword.

Aliara managed to raise her weapon and parry her Sword-Father’s attack. Even still, the force of the blow sent her own blade backwards and it slammed into her helmet, knocking her off her feet. She shook her head groggily and rolled to the side as a sword whistled by, embedding itself into the stone floor.

“Havvermath! Fight it off! Don’t leave me alone in this place of darkness!” Aliara shouted.

Havvermath roared and pulled his sword from the floor. His eyes were clouded and tears flowed unchecked down his face. He took a shambling step forward, and his whole body shook with the struggle. He was fighting whatever power claimed him, fighting it with all his might, yet it was clear the Knight was losing the battle. Havvermath swung his sword again.

Aliara ducked underneath and stabbed at him, but her blade was batted away and her vision blurred as a gauntleted fist slammed into her mouth. She fell to her knees, spitting out blood and teeth.

Havvermath grinned and raised his sword over his head.

Aliara closed her eyes and waited for the blow that would splatter her across the hallway. She had failed her fellow Knights and the general. Her part in the Song had ended.

“Strike, Aliara! Strike now, before it regains control!” Havvermath screamed, startling Aliara into opening her eyes.

She saw that Havvermath’s eyes had lost their white film, at least for the moment. “I can’t!” Aliara cried.

“If you love me, then you will strike. I can’t hold it back, the evil is coming, kill me now, Sword-Daughter!”

Aliara sobbed, willing time to reverse and take them back to the battlefield where enemies were enemies and you could trust the Knight by your side. She had no great power though, none but the strength in her arm and she used it as she’d been taught. Her blade shot out, sliding under Havvermath’s breastplate and through his stomach, into his lungs.

Blood dripped from Havvermath’s mouth, and a smile curled his lips as the Knight fell to his knees. “Save the general,” Havvermath managed to mumble between bubbles of blood, before his great-sword fell from limp hands, and he tumbled face first into the floor.

Aliara wept silently as she crawled to the fallen Knight and rolled him onto his back. “Havvermath?” She pulled off a gauntlet and angrily wiped away her tears before closing her Sword-Father’s eyes. As she did, she noticed a small cut on his neck, leaking blood as dark as ink and foul smelling like a bog.

She checked her own neck, searching for any wounds, big or small and found nothing. She was unharmed other than her swollen lip and ruined smile. Aliara slid her gauntlet back on and picked up her sword before standing. She could feel eyes upon her, and the whispers returning. “I do not fear you!” Aliara shouted and was surprised that she meant it. There was no room for fear in her heart, not while it was so heavy with grief.

Aliara continued on, first at a brisk walk, then a jog. She tried to focus on the jingle of her armor and ignore the whispers tickling at edges of her hearing and the slow thuds that sounded like footsteps behind her.

She turned a corner and reached the end of the hallway. There was a door, slightly ajar with light streaming out from the sides and bottom. Aliara pushed it open with one hand and stepped in, ready for whatever nightmare lurked inside.

It was the general, tied to a chair, his face covered in blood and his eyes shut. Aliara let out a sob of relief and ran towards him, pushing a table out of the way, the noise making his eyes pop open.

“General Mantalar!” Aliara called out as she wiped away the blood on his face and neck, searching for a cut leaking black blood. “Are you alright?”

The general’s eyes widened and he shouted, “Behind you!”

Aliara spun around. Two figures, tall and thin, with milky eyes stood behind her. They had the curved swords of the Illdrin, but were missing the flowing red hair that marked their kind. Instead, they were bald, and had small horns protruding from their foreheads. Their skin was dry and translucent. It cracked like old parchment when they moved and Aliara was surprised that blood didn’t leak from the tears. The creatures grinned in unison, showing off pointed teeth as black saliva dripped from their mouths.

“Lie with the corpses?” They asked as one, then charged Aliara, howling and laughing as they ran.

Aliara screamed back, sick of being afraid and powerless. She moved with speed and grace, moved as one trained by Havvermath should. She dodged her enemies’ attacks, and scored cuts on their torsos and arms. A grin lit her face as the floor grew wet with their sludgy blood.

Her body and sword were one, and she moved fluidly, as the Song dictated. It rang out clear and true as it had in the battlefield earlier that day. Her blade found the neck of an Illdrin and left the twisted thing headless and twitching on the floor. The other laughed, as if the death of its comrade excited it, then renewed its attacks.

She ducked beneath an eager swing, then stabbed it through the neck with her sword. Its mouth opened and closed like a fish on land, struggling to breathe, as blood leaked from its neck and mouth. She yanked out her sword and watched grimly as it slumped to the floor.

“That was for Havvermath,” Aliara whispered, and wiped her sword clean on one of the creature’s stinking robes.

“Havvermath?” Mantalar asked. “Is he with you?”

“He was,” Aliara said and cut the general’s bindings. “He fell, a victim of the poison of this place.” She feared to tell the truth, that her own blade took her Sword-Father’s life.

Mantalar stood and eyed his rescuer a moment before picking up one of the Illdrin’s blades. “I’m sorry to hear that. He was a good friend and a great Knight. The Song is diminished without him. Come, let’s leave this place of pain and misery, and rejoin the army.”

“Is it wise to use a blade from one of those creatures? I’ve seen their magic corrupt good men.”

“Their poison spreads through the blood. My guards were infected by it, a knick from an Illdrin blade or dart in the neck was enough to change them. As long as we are not cut, we’ll be fine,” Mantalar promised and motioned to the door with his sword.

Aliara nodded, not wanting to question the general, yet fearful for his safety. They exited the room and the two of them walked quickly and cautiously through the garrison. Before it had seemed alive with a malevolent presence, but now it was just a building, old and falling apart.

When they arrived at Havvermath’s body, the general knelt over it a moment, praying to the Most High and Aliara fought back her tears. This was not the time to mourn. There was still danger, and duty beckoned.

“When this is all over I’ll send men to retrieve his body,” Mantalar promised and stood. “He deserves better than this cursed place as a tomb.”

“He does,” Aliara agreed, not trusting herself to say more.

She led the general out of the garrison and to the horses which were tied to a tree. When she hopped on her horse, Aliara thought she heard a voice whisper, “back with the horses”. She waited a moment listening, but could only hear the horses nickering and the general grunting as he hopped onto Colvin’s mount. Aliara shook her head, dismissing her fears and the two of them rode off, eager to leave this place of death.

As they travelled back to the camp the sun began to rise, chasing away the night and lifting some of the grief from Aliara’s heart. With the warmth of the sun on her face, she finally found the courage to ask the question that had plagued her mind. “Where are the Illdrin getting this power? How can it stand against the might of He of Many?”

“The Illdrin are desperate. Our armies defeat them in every battle, and by the end of the summer, their foul race will live only in memory. I don’t know where they found this insidious power, but I do know that they call it god,” Mantalar muttered darkly.

Aliara nodded. It seemed that the general knew no more than she did.

Mantalar grabbed Aliara’s shoulder. “Is that smoke coming from the camp?” He didn’t wait for her reply, but instead, kicked his horse into a gallop. Aliara did the same, riding hard to keep up with the general.

Aliara saw the army fighting a desperate battle against a horde of Illdrin and what seemed to be many of their own Knights and Spellchanters, corrupted by the fell magic of this unknown god. The Song rose up from the battlefield, sounding mournful and desperate.

Lieutenant Kaerdin appeared to be leading the host of traitors, and suddenly it all made sense to Aliara. That’s why he wouldn’t let the army stick together to retrieve the general. He wanted to be rid of Havvermath, who the Knights would follow even against their Lieutenant if it came down to it. Kaerdin rid himself of his two rivals and now he worked to spread the poison of his god.

General Mantalar spotted a group of Knights, surrounded by cackling Illdrin, and charged towards them. Aliara followed and soon they were locked in combat. The soldiers let out a ragged cheer when they saw their General and renewed their attacks. Aliara cut the head from one Illdrin, then her sword found the eye of another. Within moments, the skirmish was over, and now she and the general had a full squad of Knights.

“Have any of you seen Sergeant Falmere?” Mantalar asked as his eyes searched the battlefield. He didn’t wait for a response, but pointed his blade and his Knights followed.

One man, bleeding and tired, called out as they rode. “He’s dead, General. That bastard Kaerdin stabbed him in the back as he tried to form up a defense. Kaerdin’s betrayed us all.”

Mantalar nodded, his eyes calculating, planning his next move. Aliara stayed by his side, determined to protect the general at all costs.

Knights and Spellchanters rallied to their General. Hope blossomed where before there was only despair and each man and woman fought as never before, striving to outdo the Knight beside them. Blasts of fire and lightning rained down upon them, but their own Spellchanters countered the effects.

Kaerdin locked eyes with the general and pointed his sword, challenging Mantalar to single combat. Aliara willed the general to ignore it. He wasn’t a hot blooded Knight in his first battle and should know better than to fall for such things.

Mantalar nodded, his eyes burning with rage at Kaerdin’s betrayal and the loss of life. The general charged at Kaerdin, ignoring the cries of his Knights. Aliara tried to get to them, but the press of battle kept her away. The general fought bravely, each attack executed flawlessly, yet he was tired and injured, and Kaerdin was infused with unholy power.

Kaerdin slammed the hilt of his sword into the general’s nose and the Song wavered as Mantalar fell from his horse. Aliara fought desperately, killing and shoving to get to the general.

Mantalar reached for the sword he dropped when he fell, but Kaerdin kicked it away. “The Song is ending,” Kaerdin shouted, and saluted the general mockingly. “Silence will reign.”

Aliara screamed and burst through the line of enemies, her sword stained black with the blood of the tainted. Kaerdin twirled around in surprise, his eyes cold and dead like a winter storm. He swung, but Aliara knocked the blade away. Their swords touched and parted over and over, the ringing of the blades setting Aliara’s blood afire.

The Song filled her, and weariness fell from her muscles. Kaerdin’s snarls and grunts of pain were a hymn of praise to her skill and the splatter of his blood, a paean. He raised his sword too high, offering Aliara an opening and she took it, smiling as her sword slid into him. When his eyes darkened she laughed, then pulled out her sword and watched his lifeless body collapse to the ground.

Knights cheered and Illdrin fled in terror at the sight of their fallen leader. Someone put their hand on Aliara’s shoulder. She turned and saw the general, weary, but alive.

“You fought bravely. Your blade sang true this day. Havvermath would be proud.”

Aliara smiled, praise from the general was like praise from her Sword-Father himself. “What now, General? Our army is victorious, but took a terrible beating.”

“We continue on,” Mantalar said grimly. “They made their move and met with failure, the Song endures.”

“The Song endures,” Aliara echoed and knew that he was right. It was the same war, the enemy just had a new weapon. The Song rang out from the battlefield. She closed her eyes and listened, black blood running down her neck.

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