Sunday, August 28, 2005

Allegiance

The following entry used to be the story for the S'pore Polytechnic Creative Writing Competition, but, as will be seen, its a little bit too long (the limit was a thousand words.) So there.

***

Allegiance

Pale dawn filled the yawning sky. The sun, wreathed in pale wispy clouds, rose in the east, and a silky topaz light covered the awakening world.

Lord Landan Sayde stood in his chambers, situated high above the plaza that was even now massing with a great host. Even from the loftiness of the King’s Tower, Sayde imagined that he could hear the ceaseless clamor of the thousands of men below. Sayde pulled at the gauntlet on his right hand as his squire fussed over his armour. He winced as the boy fastened the heavy steel plate securely on his chest, and resisted the urge to make a sound as a carelessly fastened leather harness rode up his crotch.

Sayde’s squire gave him a brief apologetic look. “My lord, they say you will be leading the heavy horse to the battle,” he said as he re-fastened the wayward harness. Sayde gave no answer to that. The boy made a good squire, and would doubtless become fine knight one day, if the gods were good. But he had a worrying disposition towards nosiness. Curiosity in excess serves a man his own cold leftovers in the end, as the sages said.

But the squire was oblivious to Sayde’s lack of answer. He continued, nonchalant, as he straightened out Sayde’s mailshirt and soothed the creases in his cloak. “Cruel Sendric will be at the field, they say, my lord. Father says this will be a crucial battle. He’ll be riding out as well, my lord, under Lord Pandon, leading the vanguard. You are riding in the foreguard, my lord?”

Sayde loosed a quiet sigh. “Yes, Leo.” Sometimes innocence and naïveté could be precious. Especially to one who had seen many terrible things in life. Like him. “The foreguard Harriers are my command.”

“Pity you aren’t leading the foreguard itself, my lord.” The squire finished tying the last of the laces on his boots, and stood, blowing on his hands and admiring his handiwork. “The foreguard sees the most battle, don’t they, my lord?” His face was shining with excitement. “Would it that I were old enough to go. My lord father says your first battle makes you a true man.”

Battle is as likely to make you a dead one, Leo. A wise man prays for peace in his time.” Sayde adjusted his gorget. “Thank you, Leo. You will be a fine knight one day.” The squire beamed with pleasure. “Luck to you, my lord,” he gushed. “May you slay many a foe this day,” he concluded, more formally. Sayde nodded gravely in return. “Though they say some of the Cruel King’s best bannermen are on the field. Lords Shien, Tartar and Skyde are coming, or so they say. And the Silken Sword, my lord.”

Sayde stopped in his tracks. He turned, keeping a carefully neutral expression. “Lord… Tlyan? He is on the field?” His tone was carefully nonchalant, but it could not keep the shock and tension out of his voice. Deep down, he felt long-buried emotions stirring in their fiery bowels.

“Why, yes, my lord. I heard tell from Lords Tymont and Shelldike. The Silken Sword’s commanding the foreguard. The scouts, my lord. The news came in while you slept.”

Sayde walked away without another word.

***

Sayde’s face was set in dark grim lines. For a man who rarely smiled, it gave him an even more fearsome appearance. The stableboy squeaked as Sayde took the reins from him. Even his destrier whickered uneasily, sensing his master’s mood.

All of a sudden he felt that his heart no longer belonged with the battle. His thoughts were plagued incessantly with memories of Tylan, whose swordplay was so smooth and elegant that men on both sides called him the Silken Sword. Sayde was no coward. But his heart lurched at the prospect of facing Tylan on the battlefield. He suppressed those thoughts with savage determination, gripping the reins tightly in his gauntleted fist. Before him the glimmering plaza stretched wide and vast, packed with forty thousand men. More were assembling outside the keep itself, a host of a size that the Kingdoms had rarely seen.

Gods, I beseech you, that I should not face Tylan on the battlefield. Not again.

***

The mighty host rode rank by rank out the huge gates of the city. King Vaeran himself rode at the head. With Sendric abroad the king could not afford to seem cowardly, huddling safe within the walls of his castle. He was obliged to face his foe on the battlefield. But it was a challenge he was glad to take. Vaeran was a brave warrior and a good strategist, and he was well-loved by the smallfolk, even the ones languishing under Sendric’s cruel rule.

Sayde rode at the head of the column of calvary, brooding amidst the cheers of the populace. He paid little heed to the flowers, the coloured papers, and the spring leaves cast on him and his men. Vaeran is loved, indeed. And today may see me cursed before gods and men.

It seemed an eon before the entire seething mass of men and steel streamed out of the bright city. The huge city gates lumbered shut with a resounding boom, and the deafening cheers of the people were suddenly muted. Sayde muttered a quick prayer, and spurred his horse on.

The host crossed the Maiden’s Neck and deployed themselves before the precarious crossing, waiting for the approach of the enemy host. Sendric’s army was possibly larger by five thousand men; but they had an advantage in terms of location; the White City had been built upon a high hill, commanding an excellent view of the surrounding lands. Sendric was approaching from the east with his siege weaponry, and the bulk of his host hoped to win through the Maiden’s Neck and seize the countryside, pillaging the environs.

From the high loft Sayde could make out the approaching enemy. Light from the dawn glinted off the splendid array of steel in the distance. Sayde tried not to think of Tylan, but stray thoughts he could not control were creeping up with malicious intensity, and he began to sweat under his helm. His hand gripped tight on the hilt of his longsword.

The wait was almost unbearable, but at last the approaching army reached the base of the hill. Lord Pandon roared an order and flung his sword forward, and a thousand bolts of death were loosed from a thousand bows. The deadly shafts blackened the sky and descended like rabid wolves upon Sendric’s host. Sickening tension filled the air as wave after wave of arrows were loosened, driving their way through neck and head and chain-mail, a deliverance of death.

At last King Vaeran let loose the hounds of battle. The clear call of the king’s warhorn resounded across the plain. Pikes were lowered, swords unsheathed. The Valekyd, Vaeran’s own house knights, belched forth a fearsome basso roar as they ran downhill, swords swinging with wild abandon. Footmen filed through gaps in the pikemen rows, brandishing shortswords and warhammers, descending to meet the approaching army below.

Sayde unsheathed his own sword and turned his head. “Form up!” Warhorses neighed. “We ride down to dance with death!” Pointing his sword forward, Sayde led the charge. The drumbeat of iron hoofs filled his ears as he rode. He felt the familiar rush of adrenaline surge into his blood, and a strange calm settled on his senses. His consciousness narrowed into a pure cone of scything parity.

They plunged into the flank of the enemy like a dagger through unguarded flesh. Sayde felt the onset of the battle high. He rode his horse high, calm as his sword sloughed through his enemies, calm as his arms became drenched in hot blood. The dance of death tilted precariously towards one side, and it was not his. Beside him Mandore Kane, his knight-at-arms, laughed as he cut down the enemy. They had seized the field. Kane slaughtered the infantry captains and chopped through an enemy banner that had been planted upon the bare earth swimming in blood and bile, sending the great pole with the green-and-gold sigil of King Sendric’s house upon the banner crashing down upon the ground. The soft fabric turned black as it soaked up the blood.

“My lord Sayde!” This was Kane’s voice, grating in his ears. “The enemy foreguard knights are unprotected from the backs and flank, in engagement with our forces! I say we seize the chance and crush them between the King’s hammer and our anvil!”

Sayde looked around and saw it for true. Sendric’s infantry lay dying on the field, and the bulk of his forces were on the other side of the battle, fighting with Vaeran’s rearguard knights. Freeriders and mercenary forces would also be riding abroad and plunging into the fray from the rear. They were free to crush the knights of the foreguard, as long as the battle did not sweep their way.

But Sayde hesitated. He remembered the words of his squire. Tylan commanded the foreguard. Sayde’s heart gave a sickening lurch and his weathered face fell. Kane was staring at him. “My lord? Are you well? We must ride, soon. The fray approaches on swift legs.” Sayde gritted his teeth, looked up with eyes that were haunted by sorrow. “Raise the banners, Kane. We will ride.”

“Very good, my lord.” Kane shouted for the banners. “We ride! Sayde knights, we ride!!” Sayde and Kane led the long line of the surviving knights in a furious gallop towards Tylan’s men. “Wedge up!” Kane roared. “There will be more slaughter this day!”

The prospect that had so haunted Sayde was now imminent. The specter of the unbearable thought of facing Tylan rose in his mind again, and it would not go away. The vast bulk of Sendric’s foreguard loomed ahead of them, engaging Vaeran’s knights. In the distance Tylan’s banners, silver sword on an azure-blue field, fluttered in the wind. Once again the knights plunged like swift lightning upon the foe. There was no time to react. Sayde’s knights carved a vast swath of death across Tylan’s men before they could face the new threat. Under the hammer and anvil Tylan’s forces broke and scattered. Tylan himself still led a hard core of his most experienced knights, an island amidst the seas of Vaeran’s men, desperately fighting their way out of the encircling foe to flee back to the core of Sendric’s army. “They must not be allowed to rejoin Sendric’s army,” Kane declared to Sayde. “We must capture and kill the Silken Sword.” Sayde squeezed his eyes shut under his helm. “We must seize the chance, my lord. Ride to the Sword’s men and pinion them under our swords, and the day will be yours.”

Black anger filled him. He felt filthy and unclean. All he could do was to mutter, “Do it, then.” He dug his legs hard into his destrier’s flank, and the warhorse spurred forward, blood dripping from its mouth where it had crushed the enemy between its jaws. Together his knights rode to engage the dense knot of Tylan’s men fending off the swords of Vaeran’s footmen. Morningstars flashed and gored men’s bowels. Beside him he could hear Kane’s roars as his sword rose and fell, rose and fell. The cries of men filled his ears. A piercing shriek from a dying knight caused Sayde to look down. The knight was lying in a pool of his own blood, and he was weeping in pain even as his hands tried, ineffectually, to gather his spilled entrails. Kane’s horse rode over him, and the hooves landed with a sickening splash and thud, mangling his organs even more. A last kick cracked the knight’s skull, and when the hooves rose they were slick with blood.

Sayde’s stunned reverie broke only in time to block a swing of a sword from a wildly screaming knight. His parry slid quickly into a fluid strike that lashed a red smile above the knight’s gorget, sending him toppling off his horse. He looked around. His knights had done their work; the enemy was dead or scattered. But Tylan’s tattered banners still rose high above the boiling battlefield. As Sayde watched a stray arrow whistled through it, tearing at the thin fabric.

Kane came to him, breathless and face flushed. He was grinning from ear to ear, even as one ear was dangling from a thread of skin. “My lord! The enemy is broken, but the Silk Sword still rides.” His face fell as he saw Sayde’s expression. “My lord?”

But Sayde had had enough. He turned his horse and galloped away, not heeding Kane’s surprised cry. He was leaving the fray to his men. He could not face Tylan in the field. Could not look upon his face again.

But the gods had another plan for Landan Sayde. As he spurred his horse forward an incoming knight with Sendric’s green-gold serpent emblazoned on his surcoat rode past, straight at Sayde. Almost by reflex Sayde lifted his sword and stood ready. Then he looked up, and his sword froze in midair as his eyes met that of Lord Tylan’s.

Sayde only stared. The Silken Sword’s golden helm was askew and his viridian cloak torn to rags, but his features still shone reassuringly out of an older, more weathered face than Sayde remembered. Tylan’s eyes wrinkled as he smiled a bitter smile.

“Landan.”

Sayde swallowed and held firm his sword, even as it was pointed toward the bleeding ground. “Tanaris.” The name was said in a ragged whisper.

Tylan’s smile faded, and was replaced with a look of sadness. “Old friend. So…finally, we meet once more, on the battlefield.”

“It didn’t have to be like this, Tanaris.”

All around them a battle raged. They were in the eye of the storm of blood. A curious lassitude came over Sayde. Ironically, he felt at peace, not a bit like what he had imagined of this encounter on many a sleepless night. Finally, he had met his friend again after all these years.

But Tylan’s weathered face only deepened into an angry scowl. “It had to be, when you declared for the False King and forswore your vows.”

“Open your eyes, Tany. Look upon Sendric’s kingdom. There is nothing there but blood and cruelty. Sendric once put an entire village to the sword, men, women and children all, just because one man cursed him behind his back. Who can declare fealty to a king who wields cruelty as a weapon?”

“He is a Nirius of the first blood.”

“So is King Vaeran.”

“Only of the second, and of the queen’s blood.”

Sayde felt frustration well up in him. “Vaeran is a noble king, and wise.”

He was not prepared for what came next. Tanaris’s features contorted into pained anguish, and his words came out in a low, hollow growl. “Sendric killed…he killed my daughter, Landan. You think I have never considered? You think…” he wiped his lips with an angry flourish, and his voice resumed its normal timbre. “But we are not here to quibble over allegiances. I heard all your arguments. You betrayed me, Sayde. Betrayed me, and your rightful king.”

You betrayed me. My allegiance was never his”

“Enough.” Tylan drew himself up to his full height. With infinite grace, he drew his sword. “Now our swords will cross, and we will die in the name of our kings.”

“No, Tanaris.”

“No?” The mocking answer came, and Sayde’s ears burned. “Are you afraid to face me in combat? I can’t count the number of times I threw you in the practice range.”

“Remember, Tany. Remember our friendship. Remember the times of Jindric’s reign, where we were the greatest friends, and men marveled at the strength of our bond. They say that no stronger bond save a marriage could be forged between Houses Sayde and Tylan.”

For a moment Tylan’s scowl wavered. Then his face hardened again. “Those days are long past.”

“No friendship dies a complete death.” In a fit of daring, Sayde slid off his horse and stood before his erstwhile friend. He removed his gauntlet and held out his hand.

A tear slid slowly down Tylan’s face. “I will not waste my daughter’s blood.” His gait shifted to a swordsman’s stance. “I am sorry, old friend.” He brought his sword forward and drove the deadly point towards Sayde’s face.

Sayde stared at his doom. The deepest nightmares of those nights were coming true in the most terrible fashion. But even so, he could not bring himself to cross swords with Tylan.

The sword point halted a centimeter away from Sayde’s face. Tylan trembled, and the sword point wavered. “Fight, damn you, FIGHT!” He shook his sword. Sayde stood, impassive, almost daring to hope. Finally, Tylan lowered his sword. The point grazed at Sayde’s cheek and left a bloody red line. It was the most delicious pain on earth, and Sayde felt that he had, at last, reached the very ends of the world.

“You will not fight, will you?” Tylan almost sounded wondering. “You have more honour that I…brother.”

“I could not raise a hand against a friend.”

“Then you are honourable.”

“No less than you.”

Faint smiles flickered across both their faces. “Then I will go…brother. Till we meet again…in hallowed halls.”

“And share a cup of mead.”

Sayde stood there watching as Tylan ran to Sendric’s battered host, even now being pummeled to bloody bits by Vaeran’s victorious forces.

"Till we meet again…Tanaris,” he echoed under his breath.

***

2 comments:

nat said...

5/5 stars! =)

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