From the moment light broke through my thin, damp eyelids, I was told I would kill a great evil. My father, so sure of himself that I would grow strong enough to lead an army, that not only would I be willed enough to lift the sword, but brave enough to drive it through evil’s heart myself. He celebrated the night I was born, found in the morning with his face buried deep in the hay of pigs. A fight over coin, coin that was for our food, spent on women who preferred their patrons more sober than he. An old man not strong enough to handle his due beating, that was whose blood flowed through me. Not the red of a king, or knight, but a drunken cheat. Mother spoke to me these words of where I came from each new winter to make me stronger, ‘You will be better than him, you must be better than him.’ She would hold onto my face and speak this to me, gentle whispers at first, but on some nights, when the year had been rough, she would scream it, spittle hitting my cheeks, her throat wrung dry for days after. Her weeping apologies in the morning sounding like an old dying cat.
Entering a child into the trials from birth would provide a monthly sum of coin, this gave the kingdom its army, and the peasants in the mud, hope. Many had children just for the money, but my mother had been forced to enter me, not just as a soldier, but as a leader of those soldiers. It was why I was born; my father would enter me into the trial of leaders, and the coin that came in would feed his lusts and addictions. Mother refused at first, but with him gone, there was no other way to make money. It was this or starve.
On my tenth winter, I was led by tall and stern-faced men to a cave. Facing the points of their swords towards me and seven other children from my village, their large shields forced into the hard-cold mud, sealing the entrance. Our only light from the cracks between the metal and wooden barrier. A barrier that muffled their laughs and wagers, which slowly faded as they left, not to return for several days. Immediately one child, a blonde and freckled boy from five houses down from me began to scream, he teared and pulled at the shields, not one would budge, he was the first to die. Each night, I would close my eyes cold yet calm, certain it would be my last day, but each morning they would open, the remaining children surrounding and prodding a blue lipped corpse. The hunger stopped being painful after the fourth day, and instead it drove to insanity. Licking at the wet, cold walls, chewing the frozen meat, the darkness helped, it was only meat.
I remember the moment the light woke me, bright and burning, it stung the skin and shone bright red through the eyelids. Frail and weak, I and another survivor of the cold cave were carried into the village square on the shoulders of large men, armour chafing against my sunken stomach. Lowered to the ground, across from me was the tiny girl who survived the seven days with me. Her hands gently rising to catch the morning sun on her palms, holding them after to her cheeks. Only one child will be brought up to lead this village’s army, only one child can leave the circle being drawn in the dirt around us. A stick and a large stone placed in the middle.
“I’ll forgive you, fight!” My mother screamed from deep within the crowd, her voice dry and brittle.
As I picked the stone from the ground, I kicked the stick over to her, a young sibling of the girl in the crowd shouted her name, “Locke!” Staring at her younger brother, Locke picked up the stick, a weak swing tearing the skin from my arm. A thud from the stone in retaliation knocking her down, the stick falling from her grip.
As mother begged me to win, I begged the stone to carry more weight, to speed more momentum in my swings. I found that strength, with thin trembling arms I held the stone high above my head, trickles of warm red running down my arms. Her gentle eyes, forgiveness.
“I will be better than him,” I say to myself, and the stone is brought down. I realise that I never will be, he was a coward and I am brave, but he was never a killer, and now I forever will be.
* * *
As new winters passed by, I grew taller and stronger, yet more doubtful of my place, despite my mother’s proud last words, ‘You always were better than him.’
In the days of training, we learnt of the army we’d be facing. It was never a great evil as we’d been taught to fear, but a man. A king named Erskine, from a land in the north called Nodyerg. He had different thoughts and beliefs; whose people practised a different way of life than us. Thirty winters ago, a war between our kingdom and theirs brought an end to both armies. Unable to fight, the two kings promised to settle the feud with another war, a great war. And so, after weeks moving our armies into the north, the battle ground solid and cold, the mountains surrounding us peaked with snow, that war was here.
“Leaders, march forward!” The prince screamed, he was young, as our king had grown too old to make it through into the frozen north. His armour was patterned with bronze and silver, his helmet had a ring of golden thorns surrounding the top. Yet our armour was different, rusted; and old, welded shut. Once the armour was on, it could never be taken off, not unless the war was over, and we had won. “Army of Locke!” The young man screeched, shaking me from thought, his shrill voice echoing around inside my helmet.
Raising the reins of my horse I moved forward towards him and five others. “Here,” I spoke bluntly. His piercing stare broken by a shiver from a cold wind, I could see wool poking through the bottom of his helmet and wrists, yet me and the other five army leaders remained still.
“We ride forward first. To speak with Erskine and his generals,” the prince spoke, his lips losing their young pink.
“A discussion with peace in mind?” A woman spoke, her red hair speaking the wind’s direction, the only one of us whose army didn’t wear helmets.
“There is no peace when there is evil, blasphemous and pure as evil can be!” the prince barked. Turning his horse to face the hill, three figures stood waiting for us in the distance. A tall and elderly man in silver and red armour, with two others beside him, one the height of a child.
Struggling to keep his horse in a straight line, the prince led the way to the top of the hill. As we began the incline, King Erskine’s army came into view, large and in perfect formation, their armour clogged with dirt and battered with rust. But it was the faces that stood out the most, rotten. The flesh hung loose from sun bleached bone, the eyes hollow and dark. Flocks of ravens circling the army, resting calmly on the shoulders to pick at the scraps of rotten flesh. The birds would eat their fill then fly up high, only to come crashing back down after, convulsing, and dying on the ground. King Erskine was now in ear shot, and his face was close enough to read the wrinkles on his weathered face. His beard was plaited perfectly, with rings of gold holding the plait together at the end. A large sword with the handle carved from bone lay embedded in the dirt beside him. The two figures with him kept their heads low, though the one that was the height of a child was most definitely a child and the taller one on the left was most certainly a woman.
“Where is your king, boy?” Erskine spoke first. His voice wasn’t gravely like I’d expected, but soft and jovial.
“He has entrusted me to bring home his victory, your dealings today will be through me,” the prince replied, his voice chattering in the cold.
“Ah, so you’re the prince, my witch spoke that a nephew had been born. Did my brother spite your ears with my sins, or can I expect a hug?” The king chuckled to himself, the woman beside him raising her head to laugh softly with him. Beautiful with only light wrinkles around her eyes, and greying hair poking through the bottom of her helmet.
“Why is there a child on the battlefield?” I spoke, as I felt whoever could bring a child to such a thing, perhaps is evil.
“And who might you be, lad?” Erskine asked, dodging the question, the young child remained as still as his dead army.
“I am the army of Locke,” I say, my horse lowering it’s head to chew at a frozen tuft of grass.
“You five, I know just what my brother has done to you, and the unfortunate ones that fell before you. A child is to be brought up in warmth, not a cold cave,” Erskine replied softly, some of his words lost in the wind. The child then raised his head, and like the others his face was just bone, but clean and white with colourful flowers resting in the eye sockets. “Your king, my brother... took my boy and put him through that very same trial, without my knowledge. He left him for seven moons, my poor boy frozen and cold, his remains picked at by starving children, crying for their mothers.”
“It is our way, to find the strong and grow warm against the cold,” Shouted the prince, his horse growing restless and turning in a complete circle, the prince straining his neck to stay focused on Erskine.
“It became your way, we argued for years about how to build our army stronger. And look at what It’s brought you. Five brave men and women, unable to feel the cold, each one of them still lost in that cave. But you prince, you shiver!” Erskine yelled, the witches eyes pooling with black, and the young child struck, biting fiercely at the horses legs, causing them to buck and drop the prince. A hard thud onto the frozen ground, the prince cursing as he riles in pain, holding a broken arm tight to his chest. “Go back to your father, go back to your warm,” Struggling to climb atop his horse, the prince galloped down the hill, cutting through our armies and fading into the morning fog.
“Your army, is it the very same one you lost in the first war?” I asked, Erskine’s warm glow on his son, wiping his mouth of the horse’s blood.
“Why waste the lives of my people, who right now rest at home by their fires, warm. Blasphemy was what my brother called it, a crime to God to raise the dead, but I call it a crime to waste more life than needed. Once those that joined me perished in battle, his army and mine both wasted away on this field, and today each one of them stands again, to fight,” Erskine spoke, his jovial attitude had lessened, he spoke with heart yet his hand had already lifted the sword from the dirt.
“Our armies are ready; how shall we begin the battle?” Raising the reigns of my horse.
“By first arrow, avenge the one I strike. Fight and die, become part of my army, or fight and win, and be freed from your welded armour,” Erskine ordered, a dead soldier passing him a bow, the witch taking the sword from him and wiping the blade clean of the soft mud that rested beneath the hard frozen ground.
“His mood changed quickly. For a moment I thought peace might actually be an option,” the woman with red hair spoke, our armies growing closer as we made the descent.
“It was, but we made him drudge up old memories, he’s here for revenge against a man not even here,”
“And he must go through us to enact that revenge,” the woman replied, turning her horse to face her army. “Good luck, army of Locke!”
Stepping down from my horse, I drew my sword, the army I’d trained with for several years standing ready. Each one of them prepared to die for a kingdom that doesn’t even know our village’s name. Born to defeat a great evil, but maybe that evil wasn’t the man ahead of me, pulling an arrow from his quiver, but the man back in the kingdom I’d never set foot in. Perhaps it was both of these men, and their old grudges towards one another. Drawing the arrow to his cheek, I know what my purpose is, to win this battle, and then wage war on my own kingdom, start life anew with peace between both. The arrow now loose, not another soldier raised from their deserved rest, not another child locked away in the dark. I was born to defeat a great evil, I suffered so that others may never.
“Ready!” I shouted, the shuffles of all five armies as they drew their weapons.
The arrow hung in the air for a few seconds before it began to tilt, it’s long journey back to the earth. My men stood steady, each one knowing they may be the one the arrow strikes down, first blood. His dying grunt the siren that starts the charge, the signal that dawns the battle. A whistle as the arrow cuts the air, it’s pitch growing louder and higher. A thud, and the arrow cuts easily through me, the rusted metal cracking an open hole in my armour. Falling to the ground, the armies roar in anger, and the charge begins, the siren sung. The ground beneath me trembles, and the air is filled with the sound of clashing swords. I wonder what the evil I was born to defeat could have been, perhaps it was me, for striking down that girl. And in that instance I find myself shivering, back in that cave.