Tanek Strife-stricken watched the enemy encamped in the valley below. From his vantage point on the cliff above the pass, he could see their tents painting the once green fields in striking yellows and purples. Such beautiful colors, bringing such pain and misery to Tanek’s people.
He stood there, on the barren rocks of his forefathers, listening to the wind carrying the flapping sounds of enemy banners up the mountain slope, and felt his world tremble. The war had been raging for four years already. Four years of holding the pass with too few men against an endless tide.
I can’t do this anymore, he thought, as images of the fallen crept to his internal awareness. Faces of men and women, his kinspeople, slain on the cold rocks, their blood seeping into the thirsty cracks.
Tanek groaned. He had to do it. Who else would lead? Who else would keep them together? There were so few left now. So little of them remained that the houses back home stood vacant, empty shrines to the lives now gone.
The crunching of gravel cut through the wind in Tanek’s ears. He turned his head sharply, a survival instinct drilled into him by the enemy. One of his scouts approached, carrying a piece of paper.
“Sir,” the youth said, “this just came. Apparently, they want to talk.”
Tanek stiffened. “They didn’t want to talk when they first came,” he said. “Unless for them it’s customary to talk with a sword instead of words.”
The scout, a boy of barely 13, stepped beside Tanek with an expression far too grim for his age. “We captured the messenger. Should we kill him?”
Tanek took the letter. In four years, this was the first time they’d received any form of communication from the enemy. It was almost a mockery.
“Seems like they’re desperate to end this war,” the boy continued, looking down at the enemy camp. “They hadn’t expected it to last this long.”
“They thought they’d round us up like goats,” Tanek said, his eyes carefully examining every word of the letter. “Maybe we shouldn’t have resisted. All this could have been over long ago.”
“I’d never surrender!” the boy exclaimed, shooting a glance at Tanek.
Tanek sighed. “I know. Neither would I.”
The letter had been sent by the general leading this campaign, a man signed as Rudius Hammer, First General of king Eshnaton’s Glorious Armada. A fancy title.
But for the first time, Tanek knew the name of the man he was fighting with. The general stated he wanted to have a meeting with the leader of the resistance, to discuss their potential surrender.
Rage as hot as fire ignited inside Tanek and he crumpled the paper.
Surrender! They hammer us for four years and now they want us to just surrender!
“We must continue what we’re doing,” the boy said. “It’s working! They’re starting to see that we’re tougher than we look and now is our chance to strike at them!”
Tanek’s hand relaxed and he let the ball of paper drop to his feet.
“No,” he said, suddenly feeling as tired as a man twice his age. “No, it’s been enough.”
The boy looked at him.
“Our people are all but gone, son. Our homes lie empty, our wounds too deep to keep standing. We need rest. Even if that rest means death.”
“Father! How can you say that? They killed Mother! And my sister!”
“And they’ll kill you, and me, and everyone you know,” Tanek said. “It might take them a while and they might pay heavily for our deaths, but it’s inevitable.” He shook his head. How could he ever have hoped to win this?
“So you’re a coward, then?”
“I wish I was,” Tanek said. “That way I’d surrender long ago and perhaps more lives could be spared. But I’ll do what I can now.” He began walking away from the cliff.
The boy paused for a moment, then stormed after him. “If you surrender, nobody will follow you! We’ll keep fighting! You can’t make that choice for all of us!”
“I think we’re beyond the point of surrender,” Tanek said. “We’ve become a people of war - even if we win, we lose.”
The boy’s footsteps stopped following, but Tanek didn’t turn. He continued down to the pass where his men held positions.
All right Rudius, he thought. Let’s see if I can get close enough to you, you bastard.
Tanek took no escorts.
Despite objections from his men, he descended down the mountain alone. Eventually, soldiers in yellow and purple seized him on the path. The bastards had ambush parties waiting in every nook and cranny of the mountainside. Like bark worms, dug into the trunk of a healthy tree.
At first, the soldiers believed it was some sort of trap, that the leader of the rebels couldn’t have come alone. Even as they brought him down into the valley they still seemed tense, as if expecting an attack. That brought Tanek a little satisfaction, seeing them so fearful of his warriors.
If only they knew how little their numbers were...
Once in the valley, about thirty soldiers escorted Tanek through the camp. Men paused as they saw him. Most of them seemed surprised as if to say; This is the great rebel leader we’ve been fighting? But he looks like a shepherd!
They wouldn’t be wrong.
The soldiers escorted Tanek into the main tent where a large table stood and one man sat behind it, bent over a map, one hand supporting a head in deep thought. The man didn’t wear armor like the rest, only a tunic of yellow and purple. A dragon insignia above king Eshnaton’s sigil indicated this man to be the general. Rudius.
The soldiers shoved Tanek toward the table and then backed away - about a third of them remained close by, with three more guards standing just behind the general.
“I think I can handle one tired rebel,” Rudius said, still looking at his map. “Leave us.”
The soldiers clinked out of the tent, but the three guards remained. Their eyes were fixed on Tanek with hands resting on their sword pommels.
“You can sit-”
Tanek leaned on the table, provoking a sharp drawing of swords from the guards, and glared at the general. “So you’re the bastard that’s sent my wife and daughter to an early grave. I should kill you where you sit.”
Rudius raised a hand and his guards stopped. “That way you’ll join your family in death if you believe in such things. Nothing else would change, except for the complete extermination of the remainder of your people.” The man finally looked up from his map. Tanek hesitated. The general was right there, all he had to do was jump over the table, draw one of the daggers from the guard’s sheath and get one good lunge at Rudius. They’d cut him down as soon as he got close, but not before he could kill the bastard.
“You’re considering it.”
Tanek thought of all the dead… and all the living. He slumped into the chair. I can’t do this anymore…
“Very well,” Rudius said and snapped his fingers. The guards put away their weapons and stepped back. A moment later a group of servants appeared from a side entrance. To Tanek’s surprise, they carried plates of food and started placing them on the table.
“A much-needed conversation.” Rudius waited for the servants to bring everything; roast meat, steamed vegetables, cooked potatoes, a jug of wine, even a roll of sweet bread. Tanek stared at the sight in disbelief. “Leave us.”
The guards exchanged looks.
“If he wanted to kill me he’d done it by now.”
“I relieve you of duty, soldier. Go.”
The guards looked at the general, then glared at Tanek, but finally left through the side flap. Tanek had a feeling they’d stay close.
“Please, eat. You must be starving.”
“Is this a joke to you?”
Rudius's shoulders suddenly slumped and he rubbed his eyes like a man that’s had one too many sleepless nights. “I haven’t had the desire to laugh ever since I set foot on your cursed land, rebel. I know what you must be thinking; here I am, the general of this army, bringing death and destruction to your people while gorging myself on the spoils of war.” He took a strong sip of wine. “You’d be wrong. While I’m in no physical threat here, I’m dying still the same.”
Tanek blinked. Here was the man responsible for all of Tanek’s grief and suffering. Here he sat, the head of the dragon, the man every warrior under Tanek’s command dreamt of killing. The cause of so many deaths…
As Tanek looked at this man, he thought he’d feel rage.
He’s just as tired as I am, Tanek realized. Only now did he notice the wrinkles under the general’s eyes. The slight sagging in his cheeks, the slumping of shoulders. The grey in his hair. The sharp lines of worry on his forehead.
“Not hungry?” Rudius asked. “I’m aware of the conditions you and your men live in. You don’t have to refuse food just to spite me.”
Tanek’s stomach sounded. He couldn’t remember when was the last time he went to sleep with a full belly… or when he ate something that actually tasted like food.
He shrugged and reached for a roasted stake - then realized the servants had brought a knife for him too. A thought of stabbing the general crossed his mind but his hand found its way grabbing the steak instead. As he bit into the juicy meat he could barely hold back the tears.
“Why?” he asked, after swallowing.
The general looked at him.
“Why are you attacking my people?”
“Believe it or not, that is the exact question I’ve been asking myself lately,” Rudius said. He poured Tanek a cup of wine, then refilled his.
“You don’t even know?”
“I know why,” Rudius said. “I just don’t know if I can live with it anymore.” He stared at his cup, then looked Tanek in the eyes. “I’m tired, rebel. Exhausted. Stretched far beyond my breaking point, held together only by the liquid in this glass and the denial of the truth I can now no longer ignore. This war… is wrong.”
Tanek observed the general’s face with intensity, trying to spot any hints of lying or manipulation.
All he found was pain.
“I’m astounded, rebel. I don’t know how you do it. Resist us, that is.” He sipped more wine, not touching his food. “For four years you’ve been repelling my army from that god-forsaken pass up there, gripping stubbornly to your rocks like mountain goats. I send wave after wave of fresh men, well trained, well equipped. But all I get back are bodies. Some of them have your arrows in them, but the majority of them, your mountain takes.”
Rudius shook his head. “Storms, beasts, famine… How do you survive up there? What do you eat? Where do you find water? I send a mule worth of supplies for every two men, and still, it’s not enough. Yet you endure, with nothing to back you up but the barren land you call your home. How do you do it? Why do you defend it so furiously?”
“You attacked our home,” Tanek said. “Our people, our way of life. Of course, we will defend it. You would not fight for your home, invader?”
“I’m not sure I would,” Rudius said. “Seeing how you value yours makes me question whether I even have a home.”
“What do you want? What’s the purpose of this meeting?”
Rudius tried to hold contact with Tanek’s eyes, but broke it, drinking from his cup. “I’ve come to a realization,” he said, removing plates of food to reveal the map he’d been looking at earlier. “That pass is the only entrance to the North. My army can’t go around the mountains; to the east, there is the Storming Sea, to the west the brutal Savage kingdoms. We cannot go over the mountains, because you are guarding the only accessible route. My scouts have tried finding other paths, but… There are none.”
“My people will fight to the last person.”
“I know. And eventually, they will all die. My army is huge and I can afford casualties, while you rely on every man. So if this goes on for longer, I will eventually win.”
Tanek didn’t say anything. The truth spoke for itself.
“But it won’t come to that,” the general said.
“Forgive me if I find that hard to believe,” Tanek said.
“I understand your doubt and should expect no less. Frankly, I’m surprised you haven’t tried to kill me yet.”
“I’m still debating.”
“Well, it would do you no good regardless.” Rudius reached to pour Tanek another cup but paused as he noticed Tanek hadn’t touched it yet. “It’s not poisoned.”
“I cannot share a drink with the man who is responsible for the deaths of half my people.”
Rudius flinched as if stabbed through the heart, then leaned back into his chair. “I have realized this campaign is in error. I will be going back to the capital within the next week.”
Tanek stared at Rudius, his body tensed like a crossbow string. “Don’t play games with me, invader. My tolerance for lies is nonexistent.”
“It’s not a lie. This war has broken me.”
Tanek couldn’t believe it - a tear fell from the general’s eye! “I… I thought I was doing good, for the kingdom. I’ve commanded the Glory Armada in countless battles, each time advancing the fortune and prosperity of our king.”
The general flinched, then sighed. “Not once I questioned my orders. Not once did it occur to me to look beyond my own pride and ambition and see what my actions brought to the people. Oh, the king was satisfied with me, yes. I brought him new lands. New riches. Not once did I stop to think that perhaps not all wanted to be a part of his kingdom.”
“It’s a little late for growing a conscience, invader.”
Rudius nodded absently. “I know. But with you, I can still make amends. I can still stop.”
“You cannot amend this.”
“But I can go back to the king and tell him your land is unconquerable. I’m the best general he’s got; hell, the best this kingdom has ever seen. If I’m not able to break you, no one can. And we both know that I could break you… eventually.”
Tanek tensed, finding his mind reaching toward that knife. “But why would you go back now? Your king would not be pleased.”
“He can go to damnation,” Rudius said, emptying the cup down his throat. “I’ve been his hound for too long. I've got so much blood on my hands that not even the grace of God can wash it away. I know what I’ve done. And I know I will pay, one way or the other. But I can, at least, try to make the debt ever so slightly less.”
Tanek stared at the general. Could his words be trusted? Was he playing some twisted game… or was he losing his mind in this drawn-out conflict?
“When you return to your people,” Rudius said, eyes staring vacantly, “tell them I’m sorry. I never knew. I followed orders like a sheep. I know it doesn’t amount to anything, but just… tell them I’m sorry if you will.”
Tanek wanted to say something but Rudius raised his eyes to him. They were red. “I have sent supplies up the mountain. When you return you should find your people well-fed and clothed. My men have been given orders to abandon their positions and return to camp. We’ll start dismantling the tents tomorrow when the storm passes. Within a week, this army should be gone. I’ll tell the king I failed; your people bested me. He will believe this because I will give him my head willingly, should he wish it. Your people will never have to suffer such grief again.”
“That’s a bold claim,” Tanek said. “Why should I trust any of this?”
Rudius blew air out of his nose gently. “Because I’m a broken man, trying to salvage what’s left of my soul. And I have a proposition for you.”
Tanek noticed a spark igniting in the man’s eyes. “What kind of proposition?”
“If I survive the confrontation with the king, I’m going to flee into exile. I’ll come here and seek you out.”
“To train you and yours. To turn your mountain into an impenetrable fortress. To make sure such an invasion never strikes your people. Or, if you won’t have me, to give my life for what I have done.”
Tanek didn’t know whether to be enraged at the audacity or relieved at the possibility of the war ending. Even if he could trust the general’s words, there would certainly be others that would come. A general couldn’t just walk away from a war… could he?
“Please, finish your meal,” Rudius said and stood up. He bowed to Tanek. “My men have orders to let you pass. No harm will come to you. Now please excuse me, I have matters to attend to.”
Tanek could only watch in dumbfounded shock as Rudius stepped toward the tent flap, then paused.
“I never got the name of the man that I’ve been fighting for four years.”
“I can give you the names of all the men and women you’ve killed,” Tanek said.
Rudius tensed his jaw. Then he nodded and walked out.
After Tanek left the camp, nobody stopped him. He returned to the pass and his men, and he never saw Rudius, or any other man wearing yellow and purple, again.
And neither did his people.