Discorded drunken music swaggered up from the city of flapping canvas below. Tuneless yet merry lutes, belched singing and half hearted cheering, all battling for dominance over the melee of whetstone and anvil. What a racket it made. Never been a night different though, not to Jax's memory anyway. Same patriotic songs, same heroic stories, same bloody business needed doing come morn'. Only thing ever changed was the number of the dead. And that only traveled one road. Pointless the lot of it.
Something has to change.
Blowing out a smoking breath, Jax wiped sweat and grime from his forehead then tilted his face to the stars, thankful for the bite of frigid breeze.
"Still can't sleep lad?" Jax turned to the rasping voice of Roman. Filling the forge's doorway he chewed on the end of a never lit pipe, half of his burnt and scarred face cast in craggy shadows from the crackling fires within.
"No. Thought working some iron would tire me out, but it just made me angry."
"Aye. Angry." Jax spat into the grassy verges, folded his corded arms and clenched his square jaw.
"You can talk about it lad. Whatever it is, it will stay between us."
"Words ain't going to fix it."
Roman placed a meaty hand on Jax's shoulder, "You would have to try to know for sure, no? Three nights now, all them other men down there are off celebrating their return, but you–"
"They're fools, or brutes, or worse yet, both." Jax hissed the words with more venom than he had intended.
"I'd say you're right there."
Roman pointed with the stem of his pipe, over the encampment, beyond the tattered standards whip cracking in the wind, towards the flickering braziers snaking up the mountain path. "It's a tough road to walk, but we've all had to do it. Can't be letting what happens on the other side of the Breach define you. Life goes on Jax."
"Not for everyone."
"Course not lad, it's war ain't it. Someone has to pay the butcher's bill." Romans face scrunched up, mustache twitching, "Captain Jenricks said only you and one other from your division made it back. Should see that as a blessing I'd say. Do you know how lucky you are?"
"I do." Jax lied. It didn't feel like luck. To be cursed with the faces of the dead, normal faces, with families and friends, and his axe buried in their skulls. How he had roared, charged, even laughed. The memory twisted his guts. Her face most of all filled his mind, fair, innocent, almost beautiful.
"Well what's the matter." Roman snapped, sucking on his pipe and exhaling from habit. "Thirteen years you've worked this forge, every blasted day all you harped on about was wanting to swing the swords, not forge them. You bragged, played, even snuck off into the regiments saying you would slay so many Pharinesse that they would retreat at your very battle cry. And now, you're blooded and you sit here whimpering. You're alive lad! By the Ancestors, you're alive."
"And for what?" Jax balled his fists, blood hammering anvil loud in his ears.
"For the realm, lad. For the realm." Roman pulled a flask from his pocket whilst shaking his head, unscrewed it, gulped, sucked at his teeth, then sniffed. "You know what even one of them beasts will do if they ever get over those mountains? "
"Beasts? Laughable. They going to do any worse than what we are doing to them?"
Roman scanned about him, squinting into the shadows, brows drawn in, "You need to take a moment Jax, the wrong person hears such a question they might call it sympathy for the enemy, treason even."
A mirthless, hollow laugh slipped past Jax's cracked lips, "Wouldn't want to point out the truth now would we? Wouldn't want to stand up for what's right? Best just pretend we are the heroes, eh? Protecting the realm, bullshit."
Roman stepped closer, voice lowered to conspiratorial tones, "Careful lad, I mean it. You've been the nearest thing I've had to a son since I dragged you from the streets of Callion so I'll protect you. Even if it's from yourself, you hear me?…but don't push it."
Snapping the flask from Romans hand, Jax swilled the foul liquor then winced. It burned his parched throat, scorched away his boiling self loathing rage. Forced him to face the truth. To face her. Again.
"There was a girl," Jax's voice was flat, as if it was all that had to be said.
The silent moment stretched impossibly long as Jax gathered the words. There was no easy way to say it. But he owed it to Roman at least to be truthful.
"Orders came down on the fifth day. Reinforce the thirty first, break through the Pharinesse lines no matter what and hold until the Mages could set up another Syphon. Contain the bastards, end the bastards, that's what Jenrick's roared fifty times, maybe more, as he marched us up the mountain path. All clanging armour and whimpering prayers. Boys pretending to be men. Men pretending there was little to be feared of."
Jax licked his lips, "You hear the stories, listen to the songs, but nothing can prepare anyone for that sight. The Breach, a hole to another world, looked like Hell itself to me. Damn Clerics and their blood magics." The two spat almost in unison, but for different reasons Jax's reckoned.
"I remember lad, and it's twenty odd years since I crossed over. Fire and death. Death and fire. No place for good folk. And the stench. Just glad I made it back and found 'way to make myself useful enough to not have to return." Roman nodded towards the forge as if Jax hadn't heard the tale a hundred times. "So you were scared then lad?"
Jax shook his head. "Should have been. Should have been emptying me guts like the other lads. But no, all I could think was how much I wanted this. How great a song they would sing about me. How everyone would call me a great man. No orphan, no smithie, no, there goes Jax the Destroyer. Drove back the filth and closed the gap all on his own. Damn foolish notion. Child's idea."
"We all think like that every now and then, Jax. We all want to be admired and loved. Nothing wrong with that, perfectly normal. No need to be beating yourself up over something you imagined now is there?" Roman flicked spit from his pipe then clamped it back between his yellow teeth.
"Maybe. But when the horn blew Roman, we charged, and I ran faster than anyone else. Out of the dugouts, leaping decaying comrades like they were just clumps of autumn leaves, barreling through Pharinesse like they were wheat and I was the scythe. So I swung my axe high and low, and reaped the bloody harvest. I laughed, and roared, and forgot who I was. What I was. They were the problem and I the answer. I was a beast, no man. What a song they would sing, eh? That is all that ran through my head. As If I was watching myself. An image of a warrior I had pulled from a nightmare."
Roman cast a sideways glance at him, took another drink of his whiskey, "So…this girl?"
"Aye, the girl."
"On the twelfth night we fell upon an enemy camp. They had not seen nor heard us coming. I snuck between crumbling black walls, a ruin of some kind. Sat around a campfire they were, cooking and sharing whatever they had, laughing, singing, polishing weapons. Their black and crimson segmented armour lay next to each of them, their insect-like helmets glinting orange and red from the flames. But they were…just like us. No creatures from hell, no demons that ate children, just normal…people. Amongst them a young girl was passing out water or wine, she had a smile for everyone. But she spotted me, and I froze."
Jax pressed his eyes shut, then paced back and forth, his hands digging into his hips. "Everything the Empire has been saying for decades is a lie Roman. All of it. And for what?"
"For the rea—"
Jax raised a hand to stop the vile lies spilling from the one person he once considered a friend. Family even.
"They were slaughtered, without hesitation, with glee. That's when I saw it. We weren't heroes, I wasn't the only beast, we all were. The Breach came from us, we punched a hole into their world, our Clerics, our problem, we invaded their land, we –"
Jax spun, blood flooding his mouth, disbelief filling his mind. Something thudded the side of his face again, bone cracked on knuckle and sent him sprawling amongst the pebble strewn grass.
"I said not to push it boy!" Hissed Roman through gritted teeth. "Everyone has to serve. We do what we're told, when we're told!" He grasped Jax's jerkin and raised his fist one more time.
"You saw it too. You knew all along, and you told me all the tales! All the lies!...You bast–" Jax's nose crunched under the old smithies fist and he slumped back to the ground.
"You see some little girl get run through and you think you're going to turn your back on everything. After all I give you, after all the Empire has granted us." Roman wiped red from his swelling knuckles, "That'll be enough of that crap, you hear me?"
Jax couldn't help it, it just bubbled out. Laughter. Loud obnoxious laughter. He pushed himself up onto his knees, shoulders shaking as if some great weight had just been lifted from them.
"What you laughing at boy? Need another slap?"
"You don't get it." Jax stood, blood filling his mouth, salty, bitter, refreshing. "The little girl, she didn't die." He stepped closer to Roman, chest puffed out, brow knotted. "I wouldn't let that happen, not to a child "
"What you saying boy?" Roman growled.
"You already know, my division, they didn't make it did they?" Jax smiled, his hands out wide.
"This…this is…madness, treason…you little–" Romans fist jabbed, but Jax dodged. He tried again, Jax caught it, squeezed, twisted with all his teeth grinding might until Roman barked and stumbled back.
"You've changed boy, you're no ward of mine, you're done for you hear. Done for!"
Something twanged from the darkness beyond the forge. Romans eyes grew wide. And wider still as he looked at the arrow protruding his chest. He gasped, fumbled at his shirt, and dropped to his knees, wheezing.
"For three nights I sat awake wondering, how would you react if I told you. Would you see my point of view? Would you hear me out?" Jax knelt before Romans blanched, gurgling, face. "You choose violence, you couldn't even see another point of view. You're no fool, nor brute, you're something much worse - a coward."
Grass rustled under the black cloak of a hooded figure, their bow held loosely as they ambled out of the night.
Jax gestured for her to come closer, "Roman I'd like you to meet Farasa." He grinned at the old smithies bulging eyes and snatched breath. "Some bandages over the face, Empire armour, a dash of blood and no one even batted an eye."
Roman shuddered, collapsed to the dirt staring at the Pharinesse face beneath the hood.
Standing Jax put out his palm and Farasa dropped a set of hand axes into it. "You worried about one making it over the breach, ha. I count two," he pointed between them.
Romans fingers stretched weakly upwards as if grasping for life itself. His shirt a dark mess, eyes dull, his arm dropped and he fell still with a final wheeze.
"What now?" asked Farasa with that beautiful melodic voice.
"Now we begin."