I will never forget the worst weeks of my life. Interesting that they ended up leading to the most fulfilling years I ever experienced. At the time, my only goal was survival. There was no tomorrow, only the moment I was in. Thoughts of today, tomorrow, or yesterday lead to death. This is easier said than done, of course. Getting lost in memories nearly got me killed on several occasions. Staying in the moment, however, brought me to my destiny…
As I stumbled into the barn, late into the night, rain pounding every inch of land, my exhaustion had reached its peak. Nearly a week and a half on the run with little reprieve had gotten me this far, but I had doubt I could take another step from that spot. I had no idea where I was, somewhere north of where I started, but that was all I could say. All that mattered at that moment was a warm quiet place out from the rain. The only hope was that I truly had gone beyond the reach of the patrols in the south and that the owner of this farm did not wake before I could move on in the morning.
For the first time since coming to this land, I felt a bit of comfort, slightly safe, and very tired. I made my way to the hayloft as quietly as possible, which proved quite difficult with my injury. Even with the rain and the occasional clap of thunder, I feared making too much noise. There was plenty of hay, masking the sound of any movement, I made and finding a comfortable spot to try and rest for a time was not difficult. The rhythmic drumming of the rain brought sleep almost instantly. I do not know how long I slept, but the dreams should have ended my sleep quickly. My sister played a prominent role in most of them. Even if she was not present in most of them, her favorite phrase to me called out continuously. I told you so…
I hated those words, always have. This time however, I had a feeling she may have been right during our last conversation. Those would definitely be the first words out of her mouth if I ever had a chance to see her again. I could have been in my own bed, warmer and safer than I was at that moment. She told me not to go. Told me there was nothing to be salvaged down here.
“They’re not like us, Lorat,” she had told me. “Not anymore.”
“At the end of the day, they’re as much Immari as we are Catrine!” was all I could muster.
“Oh Lorat, it’s been two centuries since they, or even we were Immari. The Dereliction saw to that. When the Empire abandoned them, they abandoned us all.” She just looked at me. That was the first time I ever saw pity in my sisters eyes. She knew, without ever asking, how lost I felt at home.
“Volun… volunteering to serve Lockas is what I need to do, Catrine. I don’t know what else there is.”
She continued to stare at me, the pity there another moment before disappearing. “You will always have us, Lorat. But I know that will never be enough if you stay. Just be careful. And promise me one thing.”
“What is that?” I asked her, smiling.
“When you find what you are looking for, whatever it is, come home to us. Please?” Tears began to pool in her eyes as she spoke.
“I’ll do my best, sister. I promise.”
She jumped at me, wrapping her arms around my neck, sobbing into my shoulder, before turning and running out of the courtyard. That was the last time I saw her. I left for Sydligar a few days later. I told you so…
This was the first night of actual sleep since disembarking in Valoor so it was not surprising my dreams would recount the days leading up to it. That first dream, back home with my sister should have shook me awake, but my exhaustion was too great. My sleep only seemed to get deeper as both my dreams and the night progressed.
We arrived in Valoor without fanfare. The “Great City” was not what it had once been, not since its sacking five years prior. There were already several thousand Lockasian troops in the city, doing what they could for the people. Most cried out for bread, their faces gaunt from long periods without food. Others beseeching to be taken to the ships and taken back to Lockas. These people were starving and wanted out, but there was nowhere for them to go. Sydligar was known for its lush farmland, but without a central government to bring the grain in from the land, the people of the city starved. The outland peasants were not much better off, but at least they were able to grow a little food for themselves.
On the docks I felt as lost as I ever had back home. I simply followed one of the men in my unit, doing my best not to get lost and left behind. Our mission was “simple,” they said. Secure Valoor and then move south towards Belivar’s Pass, wiping out any savage Vilde we came across. Everything our scouts reported told us the Vilde had gone back beyond the pass, beyond Ushedrah’s Wall and left Sydligar, leaving only small bands here and there. How wrong they were. I told you so…
We marched south, half our strength left behind in Valoor. For two weeks we made our way, scouts sent out continuously, looking for any Vilde in the vicinity. No trace was found. The locals reported not having seen any in nearly a week. It should have been a warning, but our overconfidence overruled our better judgement. The barbaric Vilde would be no match for us, they were little more than dogs to many in the Immari world. I had no such delusions, but I was not in the position to say otherwise. The fact they had taken down the Sydligar Confederacy was written off as a side effect of The Dereliction 200 years prior. No military aid from the homeland in the north, Lockas locked in a rebellion against the homeland, and an endless wave of barbarian hordes would weaken even the hardest of men. To most, the sacking of Valoor was an anomaly that was likely never to happen again.
It took us just over two weeks to reach Belivar’s Pass, a narrowing between Ushedrah’s Wall to the west and Adler’s Dagger to the east blocked by a massive fortification built five centuries prior. It was a monument to the power of the Immari Empire then. Now it was a broken husk, its gates demolished with the surrounding stonework crumbling. Not a single Vilde had been seen as we made our way and that continued as we reached the pass. If only it had stayed that way.
I am not certain how it all happened, it was all a blur once the chaos began. We had stopped just shy of the wall, a few scouts sent out beyond to survey the area for any hostile forces. They never came back. Before they were even missed, a great horn bellowed to the south beyond the wall and was answered by a pair to our east and west. Within seconds, what looked like thousands of Vilde poured out of the forests in the distance bearing down on us. Simultaneously hundreds more had emerged within the rubble of the gate. The banner markings of the Alkari, Hitari and the Methani made their way toward our position. Men scrambled for their gear, some having taken off their armor in preparation of the coming night, others tossing their tents aside to take up sword and shield again. My heart sank even as I made my way into formation, seeing how many were coming at us. We were far outnumbered. This was not what the scouts had reported. These were not random bands of Vilde, but a massive blade of death and vengeance no one had predicted.
The memory faded as any recollection of the battle was lost amid sheer terror and my unrelenting desire to survive. I have no idea how many of them I killed, or if I even killed any of them. All I am certain of is coming out of the fog, running. I was running for my life and I was not alone. There were two other men with me, men I did not know. They had the same look of horror in their eyes I was sure was in my own. My shield was gone, the mail on my arms and chest battered, blood smeared everywhere, with only one comfort left to me. My sword. I was thankful I had not lost it. It was chipped now, and bathed in blood, but it was all I had left to me. The sounds of battle were fading, the cries of the dying still echoing in my head. I told you so.
There was no telling how far we ran, or for how long. Dawn was nearing, the horizon slowly turning pink. We must have run all night to be that close to daylight. The names of the two men that escaped the carnage with me lost to memory as soon as they were spoken. Neither one had any better recollection of what had happened than I. We agreed on only one thing and that was making our way back to Valoor as quickly as possible.
“I say we stick to the road and keep going,” Broken-nose declared. His nose pointed to the left and never healed correctly. It was easier to recall than his actual name.
“Are you mad?” Scarred-lip cried. The right side of his mouth had a huge scar over it, that being the only description of him I recall. “They came down upon us like locusts! I saw a few others get away but they were being chased down by those savages just as quickly. If this one here,” he continued, pointing in my direction, “hadn’t been so quick and keen with that blade of his, they would have been on us as well. There’s no way in hell I’m going near a road where those bastards will be. If you want to go that way, that’s on you. I’m going cross country and heading north safely.”
I had no idea what he was talking about. A blade felt comfortable in my hand but I only ever thought of myself as competent at best. Apparently I had enough gut reaction to have defended myself last night. Neither of them had more than their daggers at their belt, they either lost their swords while fleeing or dropped them with their shields when they fled.
“We can’t get too close to the road, they’ll find us,” I finally said. “If we stick to the country but keep the road in view, we’ll have a better chance of seeing any Vilde coming. There’s no telling how many of them we could find bearing down on us with nowhere to hide. At least this way we can be near the woods and have some kind of cover.”
They stood there, their minds contemplating my words, running a hundred different scenarios before finally relenting and nodding in agreement. We were several feet from the edge of the wood we had stopped in earlier. Deciding to wait for better light in order to determine where the road lay, we walked northward.
Waiting for the sun was a blessing. As we were on the eastern side of the road, we could see the road clearly. When it finally bathed the land in light we stopped in our tracks before jumping behind trees. On the road were two dozen Vilde just south of us. They were moving slightly faster than we but were scanning the wood on both sides of the road as they went. Had the sun not come out when it did, they would have easily seen us. Fortunately it diminished their sight enough that we were well hidden within the treeline. My heart was beating so fast I thought it would jump from my chest. None of us moved, or said a word while they passed. They never stopped, never came to inspect our little hiding place. An eternity, or perhaps several minutes later they were gone.
“Thank the Gods,” Broken-nose finally said. “When I saw them my heart leapt into my throat. I thought they would see us for certain. If Paike had not come out when he did, we’d be dead.”
Yes, thank Paike. I was never one to pray often. My family was very keen to observe their religious duties to the Immari gods, but we were hardly zealots of any one god. That day I prayed and I thanked Paike profusely. It was all I had.
With the sun up and confirmed Vilde in the area, we made our way deeper into the wood while doing our best to still keep the road in view. The terrain was not easy to navigate. The trees took up every inch of open space above, blocking any view of the sun, making it even darker the further we were from the edge of the treeline. Their roots were everywhere as well. Our pace was much slower than it had been that morning, meaning if there were more patrols out there, they would catch up to us quickly. Forgetting this may have been our downfall.
It was four days after that fateful evening at Belivar’s Pass. The trek had been excruciatingly slow, but we were still alive. We had seen two other Vilde patrols in the area, all of them heading north. That was not a good sign. If they were all heading north and none returning, that could only mean one thing. The larger body of men was coming as well. That was also the day the rain started. Not a large downpour, but a steady drizzle that darkened the sky a bit. The trees gave us decent protection, but this meant we were slowed even more as what little light we had was diminished even more. Our only recourse was to move closer to the treeline and hope the rain made it harder for those on the road to see us.
We were able to pick up our pace a little at that point, though it was still slower than I would have liked. The haze from the rain made it harder to see the road but that only meant it was just as hard to see into the wood as well. We had been making our way for a couple of hours at that point when we heard them. Thousands of Vilde came up the road from the south. There were so many of them that they were already in view when first heard them. The earlier patrols were only twenty or so men so they stuck to the road and simply kept an eye out as they marched. Their destination had been more important than their ability to scout apparently. This group however took up the entire road and was nearly to the treeline on both sides.
We scrambled deeper as quickly as we could, but it was not fast enough. No sooner had we begun to move deeper we heard a single voice cry out, a lone figure pointing in our direction. Instantly a hundred of them were rushing the treeline.
“RUN!!!” I yelled and did not bother to look if they followed but I heard the two of them curse and the pounding of their feet behind me anyhow.
I tried to balance my distance from the treeline with the light level as I ran. Too deep and the light was insufficient to see the roots that would have certainly tripped and ended me. But if I got too close to the edge the trees were more sparse which would allow me to move faster but also opened me to attack from behind more easily. I kept running as long as I could.
It had only been a few mins when I heard Broken-nose cry out in pain. I only spared a second to look back and see him twist as he fell, a small axe buried in his shoulders. Not daring to stop, I kept going, as did Scarred-lip. Neither of us wished to experience the same fate so we moved deeper into the wood without slowing down. My eyesight must have been better than Scarred-lip as we made our way. He stumbled several times and eventually fell to the ground with a snap.
“My leg!” he cried, “It’s broken! Help me, please!”
I stopped, looking back at him, seeing the Vilde still coming. Our eyes locked for a moment before I turned away and ran.
“Noooooo! Come back! Don’t leave me!”
I ran more from his cries than the Vilde did then. Helping him would only have meant the death of us both but that still did not change the shiver his wails sent down my spine. I tried to block it out as best I could and ran on.
A light began to appear in the distance before disappearing a moment, then reappearing. I figured I had gotten turned around and was heading back toward the road for a moment before I saw it to my left. My heart sank. I was nearing the edge of the forest and about to come out on the northern edge. Once I reached the open plain, there was nothing to stop them from killing me. There was nothing else for me to do but run anyway. I was not going to just give up and let them kill me too.
I broke through the treeline and ran faster than I ever had before. As a child I was always the fastest among my friends. Few could outpace me. I was not interested in testing this with any Vilde. I heard them within moments crashing through the forest, their blood cries drowning out the rainfall. I refused to look back even as spears landed behind me and small axes bounced wayward. The ground was slowly sloping upward, making it harder to keep my pace. The rain was not making things any easier either as I began to slip with every other step.
The roars of the Vilde were getting louder and louder as I fled. I was nearing the peak of the slope, hopeful I could gain some advantage to the down-slope to follow. Allowing myself to look back once, I never saw the cliff as I fell to the frigid water below. The shock of the impact as well as the touch of the freezing water was more than I could take. More spears entering the water as I looked up was the last thing I remembered. I told you so.
I found myself, early in the night, washed up on shore like a piece of driftwood. There was no telling where I was, or how long it had been since I made my escape. It hurt to move as I stood. My left thigh had a gash, from some rock in the river perhaps. I slowly made my way inland, away from the water. I started to make out a sound slowly as light also appeared nearby. Stopping where I was, I listened carefully, fearing the worst. But it was only singing, joyful singing. I stood there, perplexed as to why I was hearing singing before finally taking my first painful step toward it. As I inched closer the light proved to be a small village in the middle of nowhere. There were a half dozen or so individuals dancing around a pole in the square while others nearby sang their song. It was part of the festival for Haldus. If this were the spring solstice it had been five days since I fell. That was when my stomach began to grumble. I had last eaten the night before the Vilde found us, and that was very little at that. I dared not come any closer to the village. Their allegiances were unknown. I had heard the Vilde had allowed most villages alone so long as they shared their harvests. There was no telling where the next Vilde would be. I had to move on.
Taking a guess as to where I headed northwest toward Valoor once more. I needed to rest more than anything and I began to look for a quiet place, wooded preferably, to sleep for a bit. That was the plan at least, but the rain came once again, this time harder than before. The drops fell so hard they hurt the skin. I had lost my chain mail when I fell into the river, not that it would have been much help now, but it would have blocked some of the rain. The only thing I could do was continue to walk and hope to come upon a wooded area quickly.
Several hours later, the rain still pounding, and not finding a single wooded area, I came upon a farm. The windows were all dark, as it was well into the night. I decided this was going to be my best shot at a night’s rest. It would be the chance I needed to wrap my leg and head out in the morning. I stumbled inside, not wanting to take another step once I was in. I told you so.
Coming out of my dreams in the hayloft I felt as though something were not quite right. Trying to roll to my left I fell from the loft to the ground, knocking the wind out of me. It was daylight I realized, and I was not alone. Scrambling, searching for anything to protect myself I saw a large lone figure in the barn with me. He was all shadows with the light outside behind him.
“You can be at ease, soldier,” he said, his voice calm and solid. “There are no Vilde here. You have my assurance of that. I heard you talking in your sleep. Catrine you called out, was it? You have the sound of Lockas to me.”
I could not, would not move. This man was dangerous, very dangerous. A simple farmer put more fear into me than a Vilde patrol and I could not tell you why. My legs would not respond, nor my arms.
He entered the barn fully, slowly closing the door behind him. That was when I saw him, and I knew him. I had never met him, nor laid eyes upon him prior to that moment, but I knew .
“The Anvil of Valoor,” I finally sputtered in wonder.
“I hate that name soldier, I always have. I’m Marcai Orban, but you can call me Marcai.”
“L-Lo-Lorat Vilsen,” I stuttered, taking his outstretched hand.
“Come, let’s get you mended up.”