The winter sun shone weakly on the battlefield, coaxing thin tendrils of mist out of the sodden earth. To the north stood the White Citadel, its faded spires reaching to the sky like the fingers of some ancient, skeletal hand. From high up in the Butcher King’s last stronghold the two armies would appear miniscule, insignificant, like ants milling about on their mounds.
Farran was blessed with no such safe and remote perspective. He sat astride his charger, eyes scanning the field before him and the massed ranks of the Butcher’s army beyond. Beside him the queen and her generals held fervent counsel, discussing tactics and formations and all manner of other things. Farran paid them no mind. His job was not to be concerned with such things. His job was only to kill any who would harm his queen or stand in the way of her cause.
Hearing his name, he turned his gaze to the commanders. All eyes were focused on Isana, as ever. The Warrior Queen, last hope of the realm’s deliverance from the Butcher’s tyranny, risen to power not merely as a result of her bloodline but through the respect and loyalty of all those who met her – a true heir to the God-King for whom she had been named. Even now, haggard and dirtied by her long campaign, Isana seemed to emanate strength. Wherever she went Farran saw love in the gazes of the men (and often the women) who beheld her, captivated by her pale, beautiful face and flowing, fiery red hair. He supposed that he, too, felt love for her, but not in the same way. Isana had saved him, dragged him from the depths of despair and thrust him into the light, given him new purpose. A reason to fight. A reason to live.
“Farran stays with me,” she was saying. “He is my personal guard. He’s no use to me trudging through the forest.”
“I understand that, my queen, but we need our strike from the flank to be as hard and fast as possible. The men respect Farran. I have no doubt that with him leading the surprise charge their resolve would be strengthened tenfold and-“
“You heard the queen,” Farran interrupted. “Sir Arren or one of the other knights can lead the flank attack. My place is at her side.”
The general looked as if he were about to object, but Isana cut him off again. “Do you not think the Butcher will be suspicious when his scouts report that my most trusted warrior is nowhere to be seen? If we want this ambush to be a success he has to be caught off guard. Send whoever you think suitable, but Farran stays with me.”
Her tone brooked no argument, and the general bowed apologetically. “As you wish, my queen. I shall send for Sir Arren.”
The commanders resumed their discussion of tactics, and Farran returned his attention to the battlefield. The queen’s army had encamped behind the brow of a small hill on the great plain leading to the Citadel. To the west of the plain lay the woods from which the ambush would emerge, sprawling out into the distance but also looping behind the queen’s encampment. She had been careful to position scouts throughout the forest to warn of any surprise attack the Butcher King might mount, but so far all had been quiet. Too quiet, in Farran’s opinion. The Butcher was known for his guile as well as his brutality. He no doubt had some dirty trick in his arsenal, and the longer he kept it hidden the more disquieted Farran became.
The queen and her generals finished their discussion and rode back down the hill to the main camp, leaving the forward guard to keep watch on the army ahead. Farran followed, guiding his horse clumsily through the bustling camp to the queen’s tent. He had no love for riding; unlike the highborn generals he had never received training as a child. He felt most at home with his feet planted firmly on the ground, axe in one hand and shield in the other.
Farran dismounted and followed Isana into her tent, leaving the generals outside. When Isana had first chosen him to be her guard, this had drawn many an incredulous look; the beautiful queen shadowed even to her private quarters by the scarred, wild-looking warrior with the mane of unkempt, dirty brown hair. But with each thwarted attempt on the queen’s life, his presence had become seen more and more as a necessity rather than an oddity.
“The end is near,” Isana said. “Today we decide the fate of the realm.”
“We’ll win,” Farran replied. “The Butcher has weakened. We outnumber him at least two to one, if the scouts speak true.”
Isana made no reply, but looked perturbed nonetheless. In front of others the queen never expressed doubt, but in private she allowed her true feelings to show.
“Help me with my armour,” she said at last, and Farran obeyed. Before long she was clad in a full suit of steel plate, embellished with the golden sun she had taken as her sigil. The pair left the tent and joined the commanders once again.
“An ill omen, the men are saying,” one of them said with a glance at the sky. “They say the moon turns crimson when the Old Gods are closest and their evil leaks through to our realm once again.” Farran followed his gaze. The Blood Moon hung in the sky like a great red eye, almost level with the sun. It had been getting closer and closer for weeks, and sometime soon would come the eclipse, but Farran was not worried. He had as little love for superstition as he did for riding.
“Old wives’ tales,” he said. “The only evil we need to worry about is the damned Butcher, and after today not even him.”
“Well spoken,” Isana agreed, but Farran spied a brief hint of that perturbed expression again.
Suddenly a horn blew, and one of the lookouts came galloping into the camp. “Your Highness!” he yelled. “The enemy has sent forth a party bearing the Butcher’s standard. They seek parley.”
“Then we shall ride to meet them,” Isana replied. “Farran, Lord Garwin, with me. The rest of you, get the men in formation. The battle is nigh.”
Farran went to mount his horse, but suddenly came the sound of a girl’s voice, muffled and distorted.
“Farran!” cried the voice. “Come quickly! Pa says we need you!” Farran glanced around, searching for the source of the voice, but saw nothing. Again the girl called out, her voice clearer this time.
“Farran! Please wake up!”
Farran gazed around again, but now everything seemed to have changed. The soldiers moved in slow motion, as if walking through water, and everything was slowly becoming covered in a fog so dense that Farran could hardly see. He whirled around, confused, crying out as the world disappeared around him-
He came to with a jolt, sitting bolt upright and gasping for breath. Gone was the battlefield, and in its place a cramped, dingy bedroom, the smell of damp heavy in the air. The girl at his side shrank back as he leered at her with his one good eye.
“Please,” the girl whimpered. “Pa said to get you. Tall Sam is threatening to kill Willas. You’re the only one he’ll listen to.”
Realisation dawned on Farran at last. He had been dreaming again, although the memories he relived in his slumber often felt too real, too vivid, to be called mere dreams. The battle beneath the White Citadel had been long ago, however. It no longer mattered. Nothing much mattered any more, save for the daily struggle to survive.
“Stay here, Alice,” he told the girl as he climbed to his feet, throwing on a woollen jerkin and britches before wrapping a strip of cloth around his head to cover his bad eye. The sight of it tended to unnerve the other villagers. “I’ll send your father to get you.” He didn’t wait for an answer, walking towards the door. There hung his axe and shield, pitted and tarnished from all the blows he had taken and the blood he had spilled over the years. He had no need for them this time, though. He’d handled far worse than angry farmers in his time.
He strode out of his small cabin, stepping over the old dog lying asleep on the porch. The collie was near enough blind and just as deaf, but Farran looked after her as best he could. He felt sympathy for her, aged and scarred just as he was. Besides, she often seemed to smell trouble coming long before the villagers caught wind of it.
It was dark, as always. Farran’s cabin stood atop a small hill which looked out over the forest, giving a clear view of the Blood Moon as it began to rise, a bloodstain leaking steadily over the horizon. It was a sight that had repeated itself for nearly two decades now. Days and nights still came and went, the moon tracing the path once made by the sun, but the feeling of true daylight was but a distant memory. The faint crimson light that bled from the skies now was no substitute.
He trudged towards the main part of the village, separated from his cabin by a stifling ring of tall pines. Here it grew brighter, the torches and lamps of the village spilling light across the muddied earth. Willas’ lights were dotted about too; ethereal orbs hanging silently in the air, bobbing slightly in the breeze. Farran found them unsettling – he’d never trusted magic – but he was thankful for them anyway. Without them the crops would have withered away long ago. All the more reason to stop Tall Sam from killing the old mage.
He soon found the belligerent farmer, shouting as loudly as he was. As his name suggested, Tall Sam was a giant of a man, standing at least a foot over most of the other villagers, Farran excluded. His mop of curly brown hair was dishevelled and greasy, and his face was a livid red.
“Tell him, Farran!” Sam yelled as soon as the old warrior drew into sight. “We ought to stand up to that b.astard! He’s been lording it over us for too long! Who’s he think he is?”
“The man who keeps food on our bloody plates, that’s who,” said the man stood with him. Ren was much shorter than Sam, and much calmer. “If you kill him we’ll all starve, you feckless idiot.”
Sam stepped towards Ren, making to hit him, but shrank back when Farran stepped in. “Ren, go get Alice from my cabin,” he said over his shoulder. “I’ll deal with this fool.”
“Don’t tell me you’re on his side,” Sam said as Ren hurried away. “It’s wrong. Can’t you see it? We all work day in, day out while he sits on his a.rse, then he has the nerve to make all his demands, the toothless old f.ucker. The things he’s said, the things he makes people do - somebody needs to teach him a lesson!”
“And you think you’re the one to do it?” Farran said. “Drunk out of your mind and threatening to kill him? He’s a greedy b.astard, but we need him. Last thing we need is a p.issed halfwit scaring him off.”
“Who are you calling a halfwit?” Sam shouted, stepping forward and glowering angrily down at Farran. Other villagers had come out to watch the argument now, but Farran paid them no mind.
“I’ll tell you this once, Sam,” he said, a dangerous tone entering his voice. “Drop this, go home and sober up. Otherwise it’s going to end badly for you.”
“Don’t threaten me!” Sam replied angrily, shoving Farran backwards. Farran reacted without thinking, lashing out and hitting Sam square in the face. A familiar cold anger washed over the old warrior, and he punched him again, sending Sam stumbling backwards, blood streaming from his nose. Farran didn’t let up, shoving Sam into the wall of the nearest house. Sam groaned and tried to step away, but Farran didn’t let him, grabbing hold of him and pinning him to the wall.
“I warned you,” Farran said through gritted teeth. “Leave Willas be, or I’ll really lose my temper, gods take your soul.” He pushed Sam to the dirt and walked away as a few other men rushed in and pulled Sam to his feet. He was dimly aware of the stares and murmurs of the other villagers. Let them talk, he thought. They need me as much as they do Willas.
Ren was waiting for him back at his cabin, leaning against the wall whilst Alice sat stroking Farran’s dog. “Is everything alright?” he asked.
“It will be,” Farran said. “As long as that simpleton got it through his thick skull to leave Willas alone.”
Ren still looked troubled. “As foolhardy as he is, Sam has a point, you know.”
Farran groaned. “Gods be damned, Ren, I’m not going to have to break your nose too, am I?” Ren laughed. To others that may have been a genuine threat, but he was one of the few people that Farran counted as a friend.
“I’d prefer you didn’t,” Ren answered. “It might not hurt to pose the same question to Willas, though.”
“It would. Soon as he feels threatened he’ll turn tail and run, find some other village who’ll keep him fat and lazy. A few days after that our lights’ll go out and we’ll go hungry again. However much he’s taking in tribute, we’d lose far more without him.”
“It’s not just the tribute, Farran. We give you more too, remember, and nobody has a problem with that.”
Ren gave a deep sigh. “There’ve been rumours for a while, but I didn’t know for sure till today. He’s been forcing the women-” He paused and glanced at Alice, still stroking the old dog. “I think you know what I’m telling you.”
Farran’s tone hardened again. “How did you find out?”
“Sam’s daughter told me. Willas said to her the other night that if she didn’t do as he asked he’d stop putting his lights up at their fields. That’s why Sam was so angry, Farran, he wasn’t just drunk.”
Farran glanced at Alice again. Sam’s daughter was only a few years older. If Willas was forcing girls her age into his bed, where did he draw the line? Would he wait a few years before harassing Ren’s daughter, or was he already eyeing her up? The thought made him shudder. That cold anger was rising again. This time he embraced it.
“I’ll put an end to it,” he said. “It’s like Sam says, the old bedfordshire clanger needs a lesson.” He stormed past Ren into the cabin, grabbing his axe.
“Steady, Farran,” Ren said, stepping in front of him. “He disgusts me too, but as much as I hate it we still need him. Don’t go doing anything rash.”
“I know,” Farran said, tearing the cloth strip from around his head. His bad eye bulged from its socket, the sightless, milk-white organ awash with flecks of bloody red. “I’m just going to scare him. I won’t hurt him.”
Not much, anyway, he thought as he marched towards the old mage’s hovel.