Sir Galtero stood atop the battlements of the castle walls, looking out across the gently rolling green hills shrouded with a wet mist. He saw smoke in the distance, a village went up in flames, he guessed. The sun was a pale-yellow circle high in the sky – but a thick curtain of storm clouds was quickly shrouding it. A growing chill was settling in – tonight was going to be a frigid, rainy night.
Galtero looked back at the keep of the old, rugged fortress, covered in climbing moss and crumbling in a few places. Despite this, the keep presented itself proudly, perched atop the peak of the hill, overlooking the loose-fitting stone battlements that ran all the way around it. Galtero’s great-great-grandfather had constructed the old fortress. And although the stone of the defences had the look of a beauty fallen out of grace, the wattle-and-daub village houses that lay between the wall and the keep were entirely new. They held dozens of helpless citizens who had fled here after the fall of the capital. Galtero caught glimpses of their faces through the narrow windows of the houses – the mothers cradled their crying children while the older men attended wounds dealt to them while trying to defend their families. After the war…there weren’t many fighting men left. This was the final stronghold of the Kingdom. And although the capital had fallen and the King had been slaughtered, Galtero refused to give up hope. Galtero sighed, leaning forward on the stone wall and chewing the inside of his lip. He knew it was useless, sitting up here in his chain mail hours before General Sol Abaddon and his forces arrived, but he couldn’t help it. He was the last loyal General alive, which meant all the responsibility for keeping this fortress and its people safe fell to him. It seemed so much worse because Galtero had seen what Sol Abaddon did to Castles, he overran. He’d seen the torture he did to loyal soldiers. He’d seen the things his men did to women. Somehow, Galtero was supposed to protect everyone from that – a feat that not even the mighty King could accomplish.
Galtero turned, looking back at the keep and crossing his arms. The air had the faint putrid scent of a burnt- out campfire, and it’s lasted few tendrils of smoke. But for now, Galtero looked to the top of the watchtower beside the keep, watching the tendrils of blue magic whipping back and forth as the ethereal chanting of Hector, Galtero’s advisor and head mage, drifted down to him. Galtero knew that up there, Hector was working a magical incantation to heal Queen Rachel’s wounds. She was now this Kingdom’s only remaining hope, for she knew the powerful General Sol Abaddon’s weakness that could bring his downfall. Or so the Queen had said before she passed out from blood loss. The image of her eyes sliding back in her head made Galtero shiver. And so, Galtero was here, at the end of all this. It soon would be decided. The Kingdom might limp on, finding a way to keep on surviving. Or the last trace of democracy and equality would be erased from the world; a light snuffed out. Never to return.
Galtero didn’t leave his spot on the wall, over the main gate, for the rest of the day. Evelyn, his wife, came out eventually, bearing a cup of cold soup and some mouldy bread.
“Thought you might be hungry,” she said softly, setting the bowl on the battlement beside Galtero’s arm, “I know it’s not that great, but you know how low we are on rations now…”
Galtero remained in thought, arms stubbornly over his chest. “Thank you, Evelyn.” He managed. He wasn’t anywhere near hungry.
“I know this has all fallen on you, Galtero,” Evelyn started, her eyes concerned, “But you’re the strongest knight I know. If anyone can handle it, it’s you.”
Galtero gave Evelyn a forced, side-long smile. He politely munched on the bread.
Evelyn’s shoulders slumped, sighing. She took her place beside Galtero, leaning on the wall. “Will, you at least tell me about everything going on in your head? It’s not good to just let all that anxiousness fester inside you.”
Galtero chewed on his lip. “I’m just worried, you know. These men are tired, exhausted even. Half of them have a wound of some sort. It doesn’t help that we hardly have enough food to go around. They’re just so loyal and brave…I wish I could do them better.”
Evelyn stroked Galtero’s hair soothingly, looking into his eyes, “You do them better than anyone could.”
Galtero wished he could believe it. He looked along the wall to where one of his men paced, on duty. His surcoat over his chain mail and plate was torn and ragged. He was a perfect example of every one of Galtero’s depleted garrison: tired, dirty, and hungry. Some of them only had leather armour. They were low on arrows, and only had one defensive catapult active, and the gate was about to rot off of its hinges…
“Hey, hey,” Evelyn said, “Don’t go there. I see you worrying. Worrying doesn’t solve anything. Come back.”
Galtero tried to clear his mind. He looked at the ground. “The worst part is that Sol Abaddon has catapults, ballista, and his biggest battering ram. Not to mention an insanely large force to pilot all of it.”
“But Sol Abaddon’s men have something that yours don’t.”
Galtero looked up, at least vaguely interested. “And what’s that?”
“They adore you, and they adore their country. They are fighting for more than money, and that will be what lets you win, my love.”
Galtero looked over to the man stationed on the wall again. Yes, his armour was smeared, bloody, and worn, but that steely, determined glint remained in his eyes. The one that Galtero had seen in all the men at the beginning of the war, and one that had ceased to leave them.
Evelyn smiled. “And, of course, you still have that spiky ditch that your men are digging.”
Galtero was surprised when he puffed a laugh. He looked out to the terribly constructed, shallow ditch he had tried to assemble.
Galtero looked back to Evelyn. He smiled, genuinely this time. “You really do know how to make me feel better.”
“Of course, I do. That’s what I’m for, silly.”
Galtero looked over the wall again, a newfound determination burning in his heart. Sol Abaddon could come, but Galtero would fight him until hell froze over. Then he’d fight him on the ice.
The tension only got worse once the sun went down, and Sol Abaddon’s forces camped on the edge of sight. Their fires burned brightly on the horizon, and even from here, Galtero could hear their shouts and drunken laughter. The enticing scent of fresh beef wafted to Galtero and his forces, and everybody tried to hide the fact that they were licking their lips and wishing they had some of that. Galtero could practically taste it falling apart in his mouth. Even a good drink would be good about now – anything to distract Galtero from his stomach eating itself.
Galtero and his forces tried to get some sleep. There weren’t any proper beds, so men could be seen laying in the grass, atop the walls, and next to houses. It looked like bright sprinkles dotted across a green cake which was the hill. No one dare take off their armour or put up their weapons. While he watched Sol Abaddon’s army, Galtero couldn’t help but thinking that they looked like an army celebrating a victory, not preparing for a battle.
Sol Abaddon knew that Hector’s spell to heal the Queen would be complete in only a few days. If not for that fact, Galtero and his men would never have had a fighting chance – they were on five days of food, and that was at half ration. They would have been starved out within the week. The Queen truly did know something that important, because Sol Abaddon only wasted two days surrounding the castle, waiting. Galtero still didn’t like it, and he didn’t intend to sit behind his walls and hide. Anyway, his men needed a morale boost.
“Catapults, fire!” Galtero called on the second day, running along the wall and dodging arrows buzzing through the air like angry hornets. He took a projectile on the shield, then watched as flaming balls roared through the air, a tail of flames streaming behind them like a comet. Then they impacted, exploding into pieces and throwing fire all over Sol Abaddon’s ranks. Men screamed, and multiple enemy siege engines caught fire.
That must have really ticked Sol Abaddon off because he attacked the following night.
Of course, the moment Galtero decided to try and get some sleep; he heard the chanting of a party driving a battering ram. He heard shouts of panic as his men scrambled to the walls.
“They’re here!” Galtero cried, instantly turning back around. His fatigue vanished in a moment. He snatched up his helm and tore his sword free of its sheath, sprinting at the gate. He rattled in his armour. He struggled to buckle his helm. He saw Evelyn as he ran, off to the side of the path. The base of her dress was covered in muck, and her face was painted with fear. For Galtero.
“I’ll come back, Evelyn!” Galtero called, his footsteps momentarily faltering. He hoped he could keep the promise when in his heart he knew most likely none of them, would come out of this alive. His heart was seized in a terrible ache, quite suddenly. The next words were barely choked out through the thickness in his throat.
“I promise, Evelyn. I’ll come back.”
Evelyn, her chin trembling, gave a nod before whipping away a tear with her sleeve. She nodded again. “I love you, Galtero!” her eyes were glassy.
Galtero’s shoulders slumped, the tension suddenly draining from him. “I love you too, Evelyn.” He swallowed. “Now go.”
Evelyn nodded, turning to hide her tears, covering her mouth with her hands. She hurried for the keep on the hill, gathering children. Galtero saw her shoulders shaking.
Galtero turned back to the wall looming over him, then squared his shoulders. A cold, hard determination hardened in his heart. It spread into his limbs like hot fire, then he exploded with motion, ascending the stairs to the battlements in seconds.
He found his men lined up, shoulder to shoulder, along the battlements. Their shields were painted with the red symbol of a fallen kingdom. It was time.
The walkways atop the battlements were wide – wide enough to hold a legion of men four ranks deep. But today – Galtero’s force was one rank deep.
“Men, it was an honour to fight beside you!” Galtero called, standing out before them. “Now it’s time to die together, in the name of freedom!”
The men rose a battle-cry in response, their eyes becoming fierce, banging swords against shields.
Galtero turned, watching the black army before the walls advance steadily, their gleaming masks engraved with the face of a man who murdered daily. Galtero gripped his sword, his gauntlet locking into place around it.
“Here they come!”
The walls held for perhaps four hours. Long hours. Evelyn watched from the top tower of the keep, the winds of a bloody night tearing at her hair, the bright face of the moon shining on her face. She had long since lost sight of Galtero in the tumbling mass of bodies that slowly became more and more black. The sound of sharp metal battering into itself rose the hairs on Evelyn’s neck – even from here.
The defence finally faltered when Sol Abaddon unleashed his secret weapon – an Erog. The massive brute gave an unearthly bellow before shattering the main gate that had held fast against the spiked battering ram. After that, the grotesque beast collapsed in the courtyard, having fallen prey to arrows. But the damage had already been done. Releasing a chorus of otherworldly yelps and cackles, the masked warriors spilled into the fortress with terrible eagerness. Fires began to eat away at the village houses, lighting up the night with that same horrible eagerness. Galtero fell back into the castle yards, but Galtero himself had to be dragged by two men so he wouldn’t keep fighting.
Galtero sat in the dark keep, his helmet between his hands, staring into the dark depths of the eye-slits. He listened to the banging of the battering ram on the small keep gate, and the grunting of his men as they struggled to keep it closed.
What was the point anymore? Sol Abaddon had gotten through the gate. It would be mere minutes before the battering ram shattered the last remaining defence and hope was lost. Galtero looked up at his men. Still, they struggled to keep that gate closed with everything they had. Still, they weren’t giving up.
A realization went through Galtero, almost like a tremor shooting through his body. He didn’t need to defeat Sol Abaddon’s entire army.
Galtero stood. “Open the gates,” he commanded.
Galtero’s commander looked back, a wound on his forehead bleeding into his eye, “What, sir? Are you sure?”
One of the other men called, “He’s given up!”
“I haven’t given up,” Galtero replied, “Open the gates!”
Galtero drew his sword and slipped on his shield. “Get in front of the citizens, men. It’s time I dealt with this myself.”
Hesitantly, the men eased away from the gate and formed a protective barrier in front of the crowd of helpless. The board in place to brace the gate only lasted a few seconds. And when the gate splintered open, Galtero stood here, the only man in their way.
The black-cloaked, masked men stopped in their tracks, confused.
“Where is Sol Abaddon?” Galtero bellowed, “Where is the General? Tell him I’ve come to face him!”
As the General shouldered the way through his men, Galtero saw the hopeless looks grip the faces of his soldiers. General Sol Abaddon was said to be unkillable. His men claimed he was a god and could not bleed.
Sol Abaddon lifted his chin proudly. “Oh, Galtero. Finally, come to accept your fate?”
“I’m here to deliver yours, snake.”
“As feisty and uncooperative as ever, I see. Well, it will be a shame to kill you.”
Galtero settled into stance. “We shall see.”
Sol Abaddon laughed, “You know, Galtero, you were my favourite of the Generals. How ironic that you’re the last to die.”
“That has nothing to do with it,” Galtero said, “Simply the fact that I saw your heart turning black before anyone else.”
Sol Abaddon’s eyes darkened. “All right, Galtero, that’s enough. Time for you to die.”
Galtero unleashed a mighty war cry and charged. With a single sweep of his blade, General Sol Abaddon shattered Galtero’s shield and sent him smashing back against the wall.
Sol Abaddon smiled. “I’ve been waiting a while to do that.”
Galtero coughed. “Why didn’t you just do that to the gate?” his arm felt numb.
Sol Abaddon opened his mouth to reply, but his face suddenly changed. What was that? Confusion?
That’s when a sleek, curved blade protruded from his chest, sliding smoothly past bone and muscle.
And suddenly the Queen’s face appeared from over his shoulder, her teeth gritted. “This is for my husband, scoundrel.”
She extracted the blade, and General Sol Abaddon collapsed forward, blood pooling on the ground. His men fled.
As the Queen helped Galtero to his feet, he asked, “What did you know? What was Sol Abaddon’s secret?”
The Queen looked deep into Galtero’s eyes, “That he bleeds,” she said.