05 December, 2006

Michael's Enemy

If you read the post titled Chapter 1, then you have met Michael. Here is a glimpse of his future. This chapter has been worked to stand alone as a short story, so will be modified when it is reinserted into the larger text. When this will happen, I don't know. If you have no idea what I'm talking about, read the short article titled The Saga, on the right, and below the Explanation. As always, let me know what you think.

Leather creaked; a horse stamped and snorted; a few others followed suit; men and women spoke softly to soothe their mounts. Runners moved swiftly among the ranks, but orders were spoken quietly and passed on with equal solemnity. The morning was cold, as was to be expected at such latitude and altitude. Michael and his forces had pursued their quarry to this final, unmapped spot. Their quarry had no place to run; they had backed themselves against a wide and swift river which flowed beneath steep canyon walls, with inhospitable mountains climbing behind. The river bent south here and Michael had cut off their brief eastward flight by simply going east himself. The enemy had no choice left, but to surrender, or die.

Ten years had passed since the war had begun. Ten years of blood spilt by steel and by magic. Ten years of children weeping for their parents, of parents crying for the mercy of death. Ten years of famine and pestilence, of hatred and despair. Ten years, ten years and today, it would end. The man who had unleashed this evil upon the world sat upon his horse across an idyllic mountain meadow from Michael, surrounded by the tiniest remnant of his armies. Michael’s soldiers outnumbered the enemy’s by four to one, his magicians by three to one, numbers that would assure a crushing defeat, should the enemy choose to fight. Today, it would end.

Michael had joined the fight some eight years before, along with his wife, when the conflict had first reached their home. A raid of horsemen had burned and looted the village where he sold his crops. When they saw the smoke, they had immediately saddled the horses and ran towards town. They had arrived right after the soldiers had left, just in time to witness first hand the brutality of the enemy. The few people left alive were in shock, some barely able to gather the strength to stand. A few were trying to care for the wounded, but most were simply standing, staring into the flames of the buildings, or sitting by the bodies of their families, many wailing in pain and sorrow. It was a vision of the depths of Hell. Women and children had been raped and killed, men and boys tortured, many locked in buildings and left to burn alive. The raid had been lightning quick, but the effects would be felt for many generations. The village was thrown into its death throes, and would never recover. Michael and his wife had spent a few days helping to move the survivors to some of the surrounding farms, including their own, and then left to join the fight, to stop the evil from spreading further.

Michael’s abilities with the sword and with the Power, and his penchant for victory when he led, granted him a rapid rise through the ranks, until one day the remaining leaders of the world of Light and Truth had asked him to lead their combined might against the Darkness. That was three years ago. When Michael had taken command, Light was fighting a rearguard action as it fled from before the falling night. Now, Dawn was breaking once more. At last, the killing would end. This is why Michael fought, to bring peace to the world again. He gave a few moments to thinking of that world, of how it was already beginning to heal. Commerce was slowly resuming, and the nations that had united against evil were nearing an agreement to make it a more lasting union. Fear had even left some places altogether, and children had begun to laugh and play once more.

Michael’s plan was simple today; he would wave the flag for parley, and offer his terms: surrender unconditionally, and the soldiers lived. They would become slaves of the army, but they would live. They all deserved death many times over, but he did not want to kill any more people, whether or not they deserved it. Though he never hesitated, he hated every moment of it. Too long had he played this role that he so detested, the role of the avenging angel. Though his cause was just, he often felt as if he were only a mirror of the evil he fought. But, to have listened to these feelings would have been to surrender to true evil, and that was even worse. Michael had longed for this day, when this conflict within him would finally come to an end.

The man responsible for these many years of torment was another matter. Michael would capture him, and his closest followers, by force or by surrender, and they would be tried by a court of Power, then executed. There was no way around that. Michael did not want to shed more blood, but these men’s blood had to be shed.

Michael looked out across the meadow, scanning the lines of his enemy. As his eyes alighted upon one dark figure, they locked there in place, and his vision narrowed till it was all he could see. All sound faded from his ears as a voice spoke in his mind. I have your son, the harsh, hate-filled voice whispered. Michael’s world came to a stop; he could not breathe, his heart refused to beat, as he saw that it was true. Dangling by a chubby leg from the dark figure’s outstretched hand was his wailing, infant son. Let me go and he will live. Dimly, as from a great distance, the wind brought from behind him, perhaps from where his wife now stood, ready to command her legion, a cry of heart-wrenching despair. He pushed it from his ears before he could hear it for what it was, for he knew it was deadly to him. His heart stood frozen, his heart raced in his chest. He swayed in his saddle as he sat there like a stone. His blind eyes saw every nuance of light, and his deaf ears picked up every sound. Already he was gathering his Strength to save his son, though he knew he could not. Michael was swift with the Power, as swift as thought, but his enemy was just as fast, and already held the child. Plans, half-formed, were discarded; surprise was his only hope, and he had no hope. Despair began to crush his soul with its strong and icy hand. Panic boiled up from the depths of his heart. The voice came again, with more command, Let me go, or he will die. The wind brought another cry; again Michael would not hear it, could not hear it. Thoughts, irrelevant, relevant, broken and scattered tore through his mind as he tried to save his son. Dimly, he became aware of his officers asking for orders, asking what was wrong. Could they not see? Did they not know the enemy had his son? He would have to let him go. He could do nothing else. The war would not end today. There would be peace for a few years, but the enemy would come back, stronger, smarter, more subtle. Victory for the Light would be a false hope. He had his son! His only son! This thought screeched in his mind, until it swallowed everything else.

He felt pain. It threatened to kill him, to drag him into Darkness. His soul swelled and pushed to escape its tortured, mortal prison. He embraced the pain. In the darkest recesses of his soul he froze the fires of it and turned the ice to his own flame. The bloodlust he had fought his entire life had finally won. With a voice so devoid of human emotion that his hardest captains felt fear, he spoke, “No prisoners. Slaughter any who surrender, hunt down and kill any who flee. No man of that army leaves the field alive today.” This order was passed, but Michael did not hear it. He spoke again, “Sound the charge,” then threw all the Strength he had at the man that held his son, even as he spurred his horse into a run.

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