Leilen was a shared mythology, an idyllic past that I never lived but that I remembered all the same. It was the smells of a childhood that I didn’t enjoy and the laughter of the brothers that I never met. It was a common history of the things that I knew, and all the things that I didn’t know. For me, Leilen was my past, present and future, it was all I knew and all I needed to know. See, Leilen was an ideal that never truly existed, but it didn’t need to. I was a romantic; we were all romantics back then.
We signed up for the war together, on the same day, at the same place. He was the first in line and although it was my idea, I was the last one to sign my name in ink. It had been three years since the war started and everyone was tired. The boys who weren’t killed were now grown men, but you wouldn’t think so when you looked at them. Some had barely grown any hair and a few others hadn’t even started to grow, yet they had spilled more blood in a few days than their grandfathers did in a lifetime. Mothers, sisters, brothers, fathers, cousins. Leilen demanded sacrifice from all. Leilen is a generous land, but a thirsty one as well, and it would drink from the blood of its children until its belly was full and her thirst was quenched.
My uncle had served, my father as well, and when it was my time, I felt the call of Leilen deep within my blood, urging me to join the crimson banners. But I was weak and afraid. That’s why I spent one week convincing Bellwin to join.
Bellwin was strong, Bellwin was agile, and he was fast. He would make a great soldier, but more than that, Bellwin was my friend. He would be there to comfort me if I would cry at night. He would be there when I would be so exhausted from the strain, that I wouldn’t be able to stand up. He would be my laughter and joy. He would be the strength inside of me that I wouldn’t have. He would be a piece of home, he would be my talisman, my protector, and guardian, but more than anything, Bellwin would be there. I needed Bellwin more than he needed me. No. He didn’t need me. He was strong and fast, he didn’t need anyone, but he didn’t feel the call of Leilen in his blood. His uncle hadn’t served, his father hadn’t served, and his mother would rather keep him by her side for all eternity instead of relinquish him to the jealous embrace of our thirsty land.
I spent one week following him, clinging to him like a remora does to old ships. He was a good man, which I think is why he never blew me off. For seven days and seven nights I pestered him. Every day I would perform the same routine, I would visit his house first thing in the morning and knock three times at the door, his mother always answered, I would ask if Bellwin was home and she would close the door, and cry “Your friend is here” in her unmistakable lowland accent. For seven days I woke at dawn, ate breakfast, went to their house and waited patiently for Bellwin’s mother to open the door and command him to meet me.
I first tried to convince Bellwin using stale rhetoric and images of a distant past that probably never existed but for the fantasy that lived in my mind. I tried to appeal to his sense of duty (trying is the key word, for I am sure that not even I believed my own words) and I exaggerated the atrocities committed against us and downplayed the ones we inflicted. I talked about everything and nothing, I only wanted my friend to join me in a cause that I did not understand but felt obliged to join. It was in the evening of the seventh day that Bellwin accepted. By then I had almost given up hope that Bellwin would join and we had spent the day remembering our early childhood, and thinking about the days before the war. We were sitting atop a small hill overlooking the big valley below, when he told me he had made a decision. He looked down to the river and without looking up he said “Be honest Arthur, do you think we will make it back?”
“I would like to think so” I said, but I knew that the chances were that we wouldn’t. He laughed and looked up at the sky and told me “I think you are lying, but you are either convinced this is the right thing or you really do believe we will make it back. Either way it would be better dying doing what’s right than living with the guilt of having avoided that choice.” He could see straight through my lies, and yet, he accepted to join.
We signed up the next day, and got assigned to the fourth land brigade. We thought it was a good assignment, because the fourth land brigade had never been deployed to any front in three years. However, a week after our training ended we got our orders: we were to join the third army in the west.The western part of Leilen was mostly empty, it used to be a lush floodplain, fertile and full of life, but centuries of overgrazing, erosion and war had left it a barren wasteland. Its only use now was as a natural defense against any invading force foolish enough to dare cross it. We survived the desert march at Anarat and joined the third army as they advanced through the pillar of Jarat. I can’t imagine we were what General Lammond, the leader of the third army, expected when he was granted his reinforcement request, but a brigade of starving children was better than zero brigades of starving children. Anarat was an open tomb. Life itself gave up once the sandhills to the south turned to rocks, dunes and dust. The plateau’s only permanent inhabitants were the bleached stones that marked the way for the caravans, and sometimes for the armies.
We were told that the third army had been deployed to cut off any potential access to supply routes and protect the western flank from a potential surprise attack across the sandhills. We were to provide additional support to their rear so that they wouldn’t be vulnerable in case the Salrican cavalry decided to show up. When we met with them it appeared as if we were the army and they our reinforcements.
Our brigade leader was a man called Batista, he was a stern man, but a good soldier, he was the most impacted by the state in which the third army was when we arrived there. Most of us had never seen combat in our lives, and we had never seen what a field army looked like, but Batista was a veteran and he had served with the first army in is youth. When we had left three weeks before, we were told that we were going to join a large defensive force protecting our west flank. Once we got there however, it was obvious they were too few of them, even unexperienced recruits like us knew they were hardly enough to even fake a stand against a direct push.
That night we unpacked and set up our camp. After we were settled, the brigadier took me, Bellwin and three others with him and we headed over to general Lammond’s quarters. I can only imagine that the brigadier was in dire need of answers, any answer and he wouldn’t wait until dawn. The general welcomed us, and let us join him in his tent, he invited us to join him at dinner and he looked happy enough to see us, but the brigadier wasn’t one to waste time. Batista immediately asked Lammond if the army had separated back at the dunes of Anarat, or if they had survived an ambush, he even asked if their soldiers had suffered dysentery or a bad fever outbreak. Lammond was confused by Batista’s questions and he didn’t seem pleased with the brigadier’s tone. “I don’t believe I understand what you are implying, brigadier” was his first answer. “The third army is as complete as the day it left the capital. We have lost three men, good men, but their demise would hardly constitute heavy casualties. We have not been ambushed nor have we been the victims of disease. I don’t understand why you would make such accusations.”
“This force is no army! It can hardly be considered a defense regiment, how are you going to guard the entry into Jarat with such a meek force? Our own brigade is barely enough to fight more than three divisions. You…we will get massacred if the enemy marches here” Batista replied to the general.“Yes, we would. But the third army is not a defensive force, brigadier. On the contrary, we are an exploratory one, and we have found our quarry. That is why you are here now. Not to defend the pass”
Batista was surprised at Lammond’s words. His superiors had clearly lied to him, lied to us and lied to the whole country. The official story was that the third army had been deployed to intercept and fend off the advance of one of the main enemy columns that were heading towards the western pass. They were to guard this chokepoint and use the sandhills as territorial advantage. That is why they weren’t in the frontlines fighting with the rest of the forces, they were guarding our exposed flank. But according to Lammond, that was a lie. The third army was never meant to guard Leilen, and they also weren’t equipped to engage enemy forces. That was abundantly clear when we arrived, as our brigade outnumbered the army two-to-one, even calling them a battalion would have been too kind. This was not an army, and yet we were all told that they were meant to protect us from a surprise attack.The general didn’t seem too worried about their lack of troops, and although he was clearly happy to see us, he was not expecting us to provide much of a back-up. He must have sensed the concern in the Brigadier’s voice, because he then told us what the true purpose of the army was.
“A few months before the war started, our ambassador, ambassador Rayel, heard a rumor about a special regiment that had been sent to the sandhills near Jarat, not far from where we presently stand. According to her sources, this was not a scouting regiment, nor a border guard; instead, she said her informants specifically told her it was full of engineers and sappers. As a precaution, we reinforced the border guard and increased the number of patrols, but nothing ever happened. To this day, the sandhills are as devoid of life as they have been for ages. However, some months after the first battles began, we started to hear stories from returning soldiers, stories that hadn’t been told by those returning from the frontlines before. They were telling stories of supernatural foes in the battlefields. They talked about rabid warriors who would keep fighting even after being stabbed multiple times in their guts, they told stories about sorcerers who could conjure storms in broad daylight and bend thunder, wind, and rain to their command. They even told stories of knights wielding weapons so sharp that they would cut straight through armor, pierce cloth and hack limbs in one fell swoop. We dismissed these stories, we dismissed all of it as old tales and superstition mixed with the fear and agony that only a soldier who has been in the battlefield understands. We kept hearing these stories though. Once we heard them from people returning from different fronts is when we started to worry. We were also losing. A year and a half of fighting and the dead were pilling higher than what we ever expected them to be. Leilen had always thirsted for blood, but this type of butchery was unheard of. We suffered more casualties in the first six months of the war than all our losses in the previous one combined. We were not prepared, and neither were the common folk. We couldn’t keep asking them to send their loved ones to the slaughter like we had before.
So, the High Court gave an order. We would retreat from open combat and all enemy combatants were to be taken for interrogation when possible. We hid in open fields and our soldiers turned from honorable warriors to backstabbing thieves and kidnappers, but it was worth it. We stopped our own bleeding and we started to get information. We must have interrogated hundreds if not thousands of Salricans, unfortunately, most of them told us what we wanted to hear, and not what we needed to know. This went on for some months, until last year, when we struck gold. We captured someone that had been part of the same engineer regiment that got sent to the sandhills. After a few hours of interrogation, he told us that the engineer regiment had been sent to the desert to dig for something, he said he himself knew only his own orders, and that every other member of the regiment had been told only what they needed to know as well. According to him, once the regiment had returned from the desert, senior field officers in all parts of the Salrican army had been given new armor and weapons, he said they called them “regalias” and that some of those officers had been sent to fight deep in the lines, directly against our soldiers. He also told us something quite interesting, he said that those regalias were not made by any artisans, but that they were found.
That engineer regiment had been sent to the desert to dig, and what they found were these “regalias”. We didn’t know if the regalias were connected to the stories our soldiers were telling, but the timeline was relatively close to when we first started hearing the stories, and if they believed that digging in the desert was worth it, we needed to keep up with them. We still don’t know why the engineer regiment stopped their work, our prisoner only said that they received orders to return after they sent the first set of regalias back and that was it. That is how the third army came to be. We were created for the sole purpose of finding out what was hidden here, in the desert. We were tasked to find whatever it was the Salrican engineers found and if there was anything left, something they didn’t find, recover it and take it back to Leilen. We couldn’t justify diverting any force away from the frontlines to go on a fool’s errand digging up sand in the desert, it would have been political suicide – so we started to circulate rumors of a western column marching towards the Jarat pass and it gave us the excuse to send a small but specialized force here.
You are here because we finally found what was buried beneath the sandhills. We have found our own regalias.”
General Lammond then took us to a heavily guarded tent in the eastern part of the camp where they had stored the regalias and once we were inside, he showed us what the treasure was. They had found thirty-two sacks, each one had a silken cord that ran along its mouth and allowed it to be closed, and they were all made of velvet. A final flourish of golden thread ran along the mouth of each sack, accentuating their elegance. Eight sacks were dyed in an indigo color, eight more were dyed in emerald, and sixteen sacks were dyed in a crimson shade, an auspicious sign as crimson was the color of Leilen. Each sack contained 8 different items and they appeared to be random in nature, however all sacks contained one weapon, a full set of armor and two pieces of jewelry. All of the items were as pristine as if they had been made that very same day.
Bellwin and I were awe-struck at the beauty of this treasure. I could see that these regalias were rare and powerful beyond measure – although I couldn’t tell you why I felt that way. But I’m sure Bellwin felt the same as I did. I’m sure anyone who placed their eyes on top of the regalias would have felt the same. The craftwork of the armor and the jewelry was unmatched by anything that I had seen in Leilen up to that point. The weapons were certainly far deadlier than our own equipment, and if the enemy had set their hands on something like this, it would explain the stories that Lammond said our troops were telling.
The following morning, brigadier Batista and general Lammond discussed what their next step would be and how to best utilize our combined forces. Marching had been difficult, and I wanted to rest, but I was happy that we were not joining a fighting force. Even though the sun never ceased to shine, and the heat was so oppressive that breathing was painful, even though I had been driven to exhaustion more than once, and that the nights were so cold that we had to sleep with our horses to keep us warm, I didn’t have to worry about fighting. I was safe, and Bellwin was still by my side. So if we had to march back across the desert, or if we were going to be running errands instead of fighting, I couldn’t care less. I had fulfilled the obligation demanded by my bloodline, and I had been spared the wrath of our foes. I was not going to be look a gifted horse in the mouth. At noon, Batista and Lammond explained the new orders.
We were to take the thirty-two regalias back to the capital and deliver them to the High Court as fast as possible. The whole army would not be marching back as it would take too much time to mobilize all of us, and it could also alert enemy scouts of our discovery; having our combined forces suddenly march back across the desert just forty-eight hours after being reinforced would be too suspicious. Instead, a hand-picked cavalry unit composed of thirty-two riders, one for each sack, and guarded by two guards each for a total of ninety-six riders would ride back and deliver the regalias by hand. Brigadier Batista would lead this unit to the capital, and he himself was supported by four lieutenants as well. The last member to join was the lead engineer of the third army, he was to brief the general command of what they had found and possibly discuss how to further continue their exploration once the war was over. In the end, this special unit consisted of one hundred and two soldiers, and they were to make a journey that took us three weeks, in five days.
I was not selected to be one of the one hundred and two riders at the beginning, but after Bellwin was chosen, I asked to join him as one of his guards. The brigadier was not convinced I was strong enough to complete the trip in time, but I swore to him that I would not leave Bellwin’s side, and I promised him that he would not be better guarded by anyone else. I was the weakest of the group, that was evident, but Bellwin managed to convince Batista, he said that I was the reason he was there in the first place, and that I had family in a border town so I knew the terrain - this was of course, a lie - which could prove useful in case we needed to change our route or worse, get ambushed.
As promised, I never let my eyes off Bellwin for three days straight. The way back to Leilen was as empty as it had been the first time around, the only signs of life were the tracks that we had left before and had not been swept by the wind. We rode as fast as we could for three days straight, we rode until dusk and woke up before dawn, we rested the absolute minimum, and as soon as the horses were awake we edged them on. Even if we didn’t need to make the trip back in five days because of the regalias, our horses would have surely collapsed on the sixth day.
It was when we had reached the edges of Anarat that the earth shook.
The earth pounded beneath our feet as if it was a massive drumhead. The pounding started slow, loud and severe, and then it grew faster and louder, each beat closer to the next, until the drumming resembled marching steps. The earth vibrated as if an army of giants was marching towards us, it pounded and pounded with such a strength that it scared our horses so much that some of them threw their riders off and they ran into the desert. And then, just as sudden as the beating of the earth had begun, the desert air went still and a humid heat fell upon us. Dark clouds replaced what just a minute before had been arid, cloudless skies.
With the thunderclouds came a great sandstorm, and I saw a figure clad in black rise above it. Bellwin then murmured something that chilled me to the bone, “there is no wind” he said. He was right, there was no wind blowing, and yet we could see the desert dunes being shaped like clay and the sandstorm growing larger in front of us. Suddenly, the black figure twisted in an unnatural way, contorting itself like a rag doll and bending its limbs in impossible angles. It hung motionless in the sky for a moment and then it fell back to the earth, plummeting behind the stormdust.
The next thing I remember is Bellwin slapping me awake, and the sandstorm raging all around us. Our whole unit had been swallowed by the dust and I could only see what was directly in front of me. Bellwin was next to me and I had grabbed hold of his arm, Loric, Bellwin’s other guard was behind me, and we could hear Batista screaming somewhere in front of us. We were trying to follow Batista’s voice when we got hit by the first volley. An arrow pierced Loric’s shoulder and a few other fell directly in front of my feet. I then heard Batista’s voice grow louder, and then the sound of steel clashing against steel. The sandstorm was too thick for us to see anything, but the fight was loud. I knew they must have been fighting close to us. Loric, Bellwin and I moved into a triangle formation as our training commanded and we drew our swords, ready to face an invisible enemy. We were standing back to back when an arm grabbed my leg and pulled me down into the sand, I fell into one knee and stabbed the ground frantically, trying to kill whatever had dragged me, but as I did, more arms shot through the sand and grabbed hold of me, trying to pull me down into the dunes. Bellwin and Loric ran to me and cut two of the arms clean. I stood back up and prepared for the next attack. Loric kept slashing at the arms and with each slash the sand turned redder and redder, until a scimitar pierced the sandstorm and lodged itself in Loric’s chest.
After Loric was killed, I instinctively sought to guard Bellwin. As I turned to protect him I saw a second scimitar come from the side and slit his throat open. When Bellwin fell, he was still holding his regalia. He had been given one of the crimson sacks, and he had held it with him ever since we left the third army, he said the crimson color was proof that it belonged to Leilen and he never let go of it until his very last moment. When the sack fell to the ground, I felt the very same ground shake. I ducked the next attack and grabbed the regalia as fast as I could. I ran away from the sand ghosts until I couldn’t run anymore. The fighting was raging in all sides, through the thick sand I could hear the screams of the dying, the sound of steel cleaving meat and the splash of the blood in the dry sand. When I finally realized what had happened I cried to the heavens, I cried and begged to any god who would listen to my pain, my anger and my rage.
I got no answer, no one would listen to my anguish, no one, except Death. She had listened, she had been there since the start, she had taken the sandghosts, she had taken Loric, and Bellwin, and who knows how many of my fellow comrades. Madam Death had been here, and she had listened to me. There is a saying in Leilen that a man is not done being created until the day he is dead, I knew then, I understood what I had to do. I ripped opened the regalia sack and took what I needed, I had lost my sword and shield while I was running away, but now I was not running away anymore, I was running into battle. The regalia was a mix of polished black and silver steel with deep engravings that I did not understand. I put on most of the armor, what fit me anyways, and I grabbed the bronze maul that was inside, a Warhammer would be a better description. I had never trained with a hammer in my life, but when I picked it up, it felt like I was born to wield it.
I turned back and walked into the sandstorm, I went searching for the sandghosts that had killed Bellwin and Loric, I wanted to crush their heads under the weight of my hammer, I wanted to feel their bones break and their blood paint the sand red. I soon found one of them, I swung my hammer and shattered his scimitar in a thousand pieces, he looked at me like a frightened deer before I pierced the front of his skull with the back of my hammer, blood spilled and I felt the grace of Madam Death fell upon me. More sandghosts followed, and more bodies piled behind me. I was sworn in steel and pledged for revenge. I kept marching, swinging my hammer at anything that moved, I swung it hard, and I swung it fast, each time that my hammer struck true I felt a raging pleasure fill my heart. I marched on and I crushed every single body that crossed my path, I was never hurt, not a single scimitar cut my skin, not a single arrow pierced my cloth.
I only stopped when I saw the brigadier’s eyes looking back at me from behind his shattered skull. I had bludgeoned his head so hard that his skin stuck to the hammerhead and I had to pick the pieces away one by one. It was not only Batista, but half of the sandghost I thought I had killed, were the members of my own unit. The brigadier didn’t even lift his sword against me. He thought I was there to help him. I didn’t even see him until I had to clean his brain from my weapon. I thought about stopping, but I hadn’t found the sandghost who killed Bellwin, that was all I cared about, Bellwin was only there because of me, and I had promised, I had sworn to protect him, and I didn’t. Worse yet, I fled as soon as I had the chance. A shandghost had slit Bellwin’s throat and all I did was take away his prized sack of loot and run away like the coward I was.
Leilen was the idyllic past that I never lived but that I remembered, but Bellwin, he was the brother I never met, he was the laughter of my childhood, he was my past and he could have been my future. I heard the silence fall upon the red battlefield and felt scared. I wanted to be with Bellwin, I wanted to meet him and hold him once again. I cried to the heavens and I begged for death. When I went back searching for him, I saw him in all of them. Every single one of them wore his face, they all had his dark hair, all their eyes gleaned with the same green hue. I encountered a hundred Bellwins, a hundred mirror images of his warm corpse. I ran into each one of them, looking for deliverance but no one would embrace me. They all rejected me, lashed back with their swords, poles and daggers, and I killed all of them in turn, each one of them. I killed Bellwin a hundred times, and a hunred times I mourned him. A hundred times I lunged myself at Death, and a hundred times she rejected me that day. It was her reward for becoming her avatar in this world.
At some point, when the bodies ran out, the fighting stopped and I stopped seeing him. I couldn’t find him anymore. It was then when I realized I had lost Bellwin forever. Once the sandstorm finally stopped, I turned back and walked again into the sandhills. I don’t remember much of what happened after. I suppose you must have captured me a few days later, I would have died from thirst otherwise.
Until the day I find you again, I will feed my revengeUntil my heart stops, every breath of mine is yours