By Marlene Simonette
Kallias of the Broken Helm stood over the fallen king, his sword glistening in his left hand. The fires that laced the tapestries about him seemed to cheer. His mission was accomplished. A dynasty toppled.
Why, then, did he feel as if he’d lost? Something…something was missing…something was wrong.
He wandered the halls. The attendants he passed—the witch who’d helped him gain power, the loyal soldiers, the drudges—all made efforts to speak to him, but quickly desisted.
A distant sort of pleasure at having perfected his glare made him want to smirk. Then the strange gloominess set on him again.
Kallias took heed to his steps until he came to a balcony. The air was clearer, despite the smoke ascending from the city’s broken towers. He tilted his head up and sucked in a breath. The smoke didn’t smell like smoke. It smelled like…incense.
He closed his eyes and lost himself in thought. Scattered, messy thoughts, filled with scenes of the recent battle and echoes of old memories. He could just remember the beginnings of a worship ritual, shaking hands holding his own…
The shifting of plate metal dragged Kallias from his thought. The disturber was a commander, then, since none of the regular soldiers could afford such fine armor. Now that funds were available, he’d have to rectify that.
Kallias hissed between his teeth. “Why do you disturb me, commander?”
“It’s nearly sundown. Do you wish for us to set our heels?”
“No, never. To set in your heels is to become comfortable. Comfort leads to complacency, and that…well…” Kallias gestured for the man to take in the city at large. “…that leads to what happened to the sots here.”
When he received no reply, Kallias frowned and faced the man. “I see I need to make myself clearer. Despoil what you can, burn what you cannot, and move out to the encampment.”
“If I may.”
Kallias really looked at him then. Not many of his underlings were willing to speak out. Many of them wanted to—some so much so that their thoughts danced in their eyes—but few ever had. The commander’s face was hidden entirely behind his helmet, which seemed more of a mask than anything.
A mercenary, then. Kallias made a mental note to restrict the witch’s freedom when making arrangements in the army. It wouldn’t do to have soldiers that could turn in the midst of a battle. She should know that, of course. So the question was why. He would bring it up with her later, when he had pulled his thoughts together.
The commander had a short sword strapped to his left side, but he also had a quiver of arrows and a longbow. He took a half step forward, just short of aggression. “Sire, why do we not hold the city? We have everything we need.”
Kallias faced the ruins again and closed his eyes. “No.”
“But why?” The tone of the commander’s voice seethed with annoyance.
Kallias answered without turning. “In truth, I want to see if the enemy is as strong as I am. If they are able to use what has been broken to achieve victory.”
The commander didn’t answer. After a moment of silence, he said, “You requested that there be no survivors.”
Kallias waved his hand as if brushing away a fly. “I want to test the kingdom itself. I want to see how they like it when they lose a part of themselves.” As he had.
Kallias opened his eyes. The commander offered him his bow. “You are quitting the army?”
“No. I want to see you hold true to your word. Look.” The commander pointed down with an arrow, into the courtyard pitted with shattered stone and bodies. Among the bodies moved a single form. Small, too far down to see clearly.
Kallias took the proffered weapon and knocked the arrow. A charm given to him by the witch flared to life beneath his breastplate, sensing his need for enhanced sight.
Kallias pulled back on the string, and watched.
The child—a boy far too young to be out fighting, yet he wore chainmail and clenched a small spear—stumbled among the rubble. He stopped every few bodies, his shoulders drooping with each examination. Then he came to a body half-buried beneath two others. A woman’s.
The child dropped the spear, fell to his knees, and lay there.
His own mother, his own tears that wouldn’t come from exhaustion…
The boy glanced up, and resignation filled his eyes. Hopeless. Broken.
Kallias cursed and, unable to hold the tension any longer, loosed the arrow.
Without saying a word, Kallias returned the commander’s bow and stormed down the castle steps. In the courtyard, the boy remained where he had been, the arrow lodged a few feet from him.
Kallias set his hands on the boy’s limp shoulders and hefted him upright. “Look at me,” he said.
The boy did so. His eyes told stories of a voice that would be heard no longer, arms that would comfort no more.
Then his eyes came to the form of the commander. Fear stiffened him. Then he shuddered, and went limp.
Kallias looked back with a frown. He supposed the wide mouth and dark eyes might be scary, but still…
He had a lot of work to do if this boy was to grow. He wrapped his arms around the boy’s legs and performed a soldier’s carry.
“Sire,” the commander said.
Kallias glanced back, his view slightly obscured by the boy’s body.
The commander removed his mask. A small smile stretched across a clean-cut, weathered face. “I will follow a man any day. But not a monster.”
Kallias nodded. “Then an official welcome to the ranks, general.”
The man’s eyes narrowed, and he replaced his mask. “I will not accept flattery.”
“And I do not give it. Anyone who is willing to test me like this is welcome at the strategy table.”
The man nodded.
“You are in charge of carrying out the defense of the city.” He mentally activated an amulet, let the witch know of the new arrangements, and cut off the connection before she could probe his mind. “You are dismissed.”
Kallias set off across the courtyard, intending to procure a horse and begin making his way to their encampment in the forest. The best thing for the boy at the moment would be distance.
The general strode beside him. “If I may.”
“There is an infirmary set up nearby.”
Kallias smiled. He hadn’t done that in a long while. “You anticipated. Be careful not to do that too often.”
“I look forward to working with you.”
“And I with you.”
Copyright 2017 by Marlene Simonette
Copyright 2017 by Marlene Simonette