Chapter 15
The Bloody Battlefield

Crimson Field, Gladius

"They say a warrior is alive only on the battlefield. I could never determine if that was true or not. It felt so fulfilling when I fought, but it also felt like something was being taken away from me. A life of war and a life of peace... I have lived both. Maybe I would have been happier knowing only one..."
--Excerpt from the assorted writings of Mark the Guardian

Terentius stared at the western horizon. Twenty years ago, he marched with Randwulf's troops from those distant lands. Then, he was nothing more than a simple mountain bandit conscripted into the Marauders after his chieftain was defeated in a holmgang. Then, he was the aggressor. It was different now. This time he was responsible for defending the kingdom against a threat from the outside.
Except for the profusion of grossly exaggerated reports from Corinth and misidentified captives dragged in by bounty hunters eager to collect, the citizenry had not made much effort contribute to the search for the mysterious swordsman and his band. There was no doubt that a subversive element persisted even after all these years, but it was only a small part of the problem, as was the resourcefulness of the enemy and his ability to evade detection. As troublesome as those factors were, their portion was insignificant when compared to primary cause of the disappointingly fruitless search.
The greatest obstacle was the indifference of the general populace. As long as it did not have a direct and immediate impact on their daily lives, they turned a blind eye and a deaf ear to the world around them. It had eased the conquest of the kingdom, but made keeping it all the more difficult. In his frustration, Terentius was almost inclined to wish that they set their wills against the Crown, just so long as their hearts were bent on something. Their utter lack of care was maddening.
His thoughts were disrupted by the gallop of an approaching horse. It was one of his lieutenants, stopping only a few paces from him.
"Sir, is this really necessary?" he asked, referring to the forty-man detachment behind them.
"Surely you've heard about the incident in Corinth by now," Terentius said. "They've already killed too many people. We can't afford to be careless."
"Even so, there is only five of them, yes?"
"Six, actually," the Captain corrected. "I got a new report from Lieutenant Svenson only a few days ago. It's one of the main reasons I've called so many men here."
"What report, sir?"
Terentius took a deep breath. Two months had passed since he dispatched Harald Svenson to hunt down Mark, son of Luther, and his gang. His return to Darkwall hardly matched the Captain's expectations. Just remembering it made his guts squirm. Telling it would be even worse.

* * *

Four days earlier, Terentius was watching the Palace Guard as they performed their daily drills. He knew most of them resented their status as members of the Gladian Guard. It made them train all the harder to prove themselves as the equals, if not the betters, of the more prestigious Marauders. Perhaps the King attached them to the Guard for that very reason, to ensure that they never got complacent. As long as it made them do their jobs well, Terentius could not care less if they did not like being members of his unit.
A commotion at the gate brought the sparring matches and exercises to a halt. Terentius walked over to the gate to see what was wrong and saw the gatekeepers pull a Guardsman lieutenant off his horse. He quickly recognized the lieutenant as Harald Svenson, but he was supposed to be accompanied by a twelve-man detachment. Where were they?
As he got closer, he saw that Harald was not his usual confident, composed self. There was a wide-eyed look to him that was tinged with delirium and, most surprisingly, fear.
"What happened, man?" the Captain demanded. "Where is your detachment?"
"They're dead!" Harald screamed, froth bubbling at the corners of his mouth. "They're all dead! I, I can't believe it! That monster!"
"What monster? What are you talking about?"
"He's not human!" Harald raved. "He's become a berserk! No iron can bite him! No man can touch him!"
The Captain held his forehead in bafflement. "You're not making any sense!"
"Pull yerself tagithah, sah!" one of the gatekeepers shouted.
That same gatekeeper slapped Harald in an attempt to bring him to his senses, but in his excited state he mistook the effort for an attack and screamed curses as he reached for his sword, though his scabbard was empty. The two gatekeepers took a firm hold of him and shook the lieutenant vigorously as if to shake out his madness. It seemed to have some effect. Harald calmed a little and drew closer to his right mind.
"Tell me what happened, Lieutenant," the Captain ordered.
Harald began slowly, shaking his head unsteadily as he spoke. "That mercenary... We were looking for him for so long... Several days ago in Eagle, we were searching this old estate when we ran into the Minstrel Thief, but he gave us the slip outside the city. We hunted around for several days, but nothing...
"We had heard that there was this old woman who lived in the ruins of that estate and when we were back in Eagle, we caught her. She wouldn't tell us anything, so I decided to bring her here, soften her up in the dungeon a bit... We were just passing through the gates and there he was... He demanded that we surrender the old woman or die. He'd never killed before, so I thought I'd call his bluff..."
"Wait a moment," Terentius interrupted. "What do you mean he never killed before? Didn't this mercenary kill some Guardsmen in Cruz?"
Harald shook his head more vigorously. "I don't think so. When I fought him in Watercress, he actually blocked the Drunkard Prince's sword at his own peril to spare the lives of my men... That swordwench in Rowan, she must've been following his will back then, because she didn't hold back in Corinth. He, he didn't have the stomach for killing..." He switched from shaking his head to nodding. "I knew it... I could tell... I could feel him holding back when we fought..."
Terentius furrowed his brow.
"This isn't the same story you told me before."
The lieutenant twitched in annoyance. "Who cares about that now?" he snapped. "You weren't there... You didn't see it... You don't know!"
"Know what? Speak plainly!"
Slinging his head back, Harald stared at the sky as he continued, "I, I thought I'd call his bluff... He gave us one final warning, but I didn't believe him... I sicced four men on him. They were mounted even... No way a single swordsman on foot could hope to survive..."
"What happened then?"
Harald lowered his head so he could look directly at the Captain. His eyes bore testament to his sincerity, but they also showed his derangement. He started drift as he began talking again, a faraway voice of someone trapped between sleeping and waking.
"Thor's own lighting sprang from his sword... Bright sky-spears pierced my men straight through..."
Harald no longer sounded like a soldier reporting a botched mission. He spoke more like one of the bards of his people, passing down a legend of long-dead heroes. It was as if he had no other voice with which to tell the story.
"I couldn't believe it..." he said. "Then I saw..."
"Saw what?"
"I paid it no mind when I first saw him, but after those cloud-arrows slew my men, I realized he was not the same man that dodged his fate in Corinth... No, not the same soft cleric masquerading as a swordsman... His face was grim and warlike and he was geared for battle as a true wolf-feeder. His mail was of exceedingly fine quality, bright scales like silver feathers... a shield well-made... emblazoned with a fierce eagle, dread hunter of the skies... and the sword... Only the skalds can describe that man-slaying blade, shining, terrible... The power of the heavens are in it... The gods' retribution its purpose..."
A chill went down the Captain's spine. He knew what the gear of the Guardians looked like and there was no questioning the import of Harald Svenson's words. Although it would have been easy to succumb to the creeping fear, Terentius kept his wits about him and pushed the half-mad lieutenant for more details.
"You still had eight men left. What happened to them?"
"I did not yield my ground, no... I ordered my men to attack... From that cruel flesh-render he hurled a blue-white orb that seemed like a star to me... It struck one man and burst into a cascade of tree-splitters that claimed five more... The other two were overcome with terror and fled, abandoning me to the pitiless sorcerer-swordsman..."
"How did you survive?"
"After all I had done to him, I knew there would be no fleeing for me... Would that I could say my father's name and my own honor moved me to pluck up my courage..." Harald shook his head. "I cannot, I cannot... Doomed to die, I made a go for him... He cleanly hewed my halberd and cut me from my steed... I fell to the ground and though there was no more hope for me, I drew my sword to meet steel with steel... He was no longer the man I had once fought... In a single stroke he disarmed me and I was at his mercy, though I expected none...
"He held his keen blade to my neck and his face was as cool and unmovable as stone when he said these words: 'Ten men died for your pride. For your crimes against my countrymen, I should cut you down here, but I have a use for you. Go to Darkwall. Tell them Mark the Guardian is coming to meet Randwulf to resolve the sins of twenty years past.' Then the Drunkard Prince lifted me up. He set me upon my barebacked horse and I was let go. I rode without pause for three days and now I'm here...
"The King is mighty and his allies powerful... With the warlock of the tower, perhaps they can best this Mark the Guardian... But woe betide any lesser man who dares to face him... Only death awaits... Only death... Death... Death..."
Harald once again sank completely into madness. The gatekeepers kept their hold in him tight lest he bring harm to himself or others.
"Take him to the infirmary," Terentius ordered. "Maybe the doctors can do something for him."
As the gatekeepers carried the raving lieutenant away, Terentius could feel his stomach churn. The son of Luther the Guardian was in Gladius. He had uncovered the ancestral gear and become the new Guardian. Now he was coming this way with an unknown number of followers. The King and the Marauders never felt so far away.

* * *

Terentius' much abridged account of the incident left the lieutenant completely dumbfounded.
"Svenson said all that?" he asked in disbelief. The lieutenant shook his head, unable to reconcile the conflict between the Captain's story and his own experience. "A proud guy like that... You could cut off his arm and he'd claim it was never there just so no one could say he lost it. For a single man to do that to him... Now I almost fear these forty men aren't enough."
"I'll have reinforcements from the Palace Guard ready to move just in case," Terentius said. "You're in charge here, Lieutenant. Remind the men to do everything they can not to kill the Drunkard Prince. If possible, capture this Mark the Guardian and his companions alive, though I doubt they'll be easily taken."
"A criminal might escape the garrisons, but no one gets away from the Road Patrol," the lieutenant boasted. "They got lucky before, but now our honor's at stake. By sunset, the whole lot of them will be safely locked away in the dungeon until His Majesty returns."
Terentius nodded. "Make it so."
As Terentius rode back to the castle, his unease only increased. He knew he was in over his head, but no one would come to save him. Protecting the kingdom was his responsibility and the burden was on him alone. All he wanted was to hang on until the King returned, but he feared even that would prove to be beyond his ability.

* * *

Jill had just returned from scouting what lay ahead. She reported to Sonia, who relayed her findings to the rest of the group.
"I still think you should've killed that Svenson guy," she chided Mark, "but you said you had a plan." The fencer sighed. "Well, you wanted them to know we were coming and it looks like they got the news. They've got about forty men waiting for us less than a mile away. We've got two options: we go around them or we go through." Sonia paused, taking in the mood of the others. "Just remember that if we leave them, we'll have to watch our back the whole time."
"How can you expect to stand against such odds?" Teresa asked, more concern in her voice than admonition.
"We go through," Edward declared, sinking the point of his blade in the ground.
"Ye ow'a lissen tah moi gel," Jasper warned. "Ye'll gi' us owl kill'd."
"I didn't ask for your opinion, thief!" Edward growled. "Feel free to leave any time. You were never wanted in the first place!" He glared at Teresa. "The same goes for you."
"Hey!" Sonia snapped. "Those two have been a hundred times more useful than you, you no-good drunkard! You don't have any right to criticize them!"
"What was that!?"
"Stop it, both of you!" Mark shouted. He took a breath. "I'm getting tired of saying that. Look, if we're going to keep squabbling like this, Randwulf's men have already won. I agree that we should go eliminate the threat, but Teresa is no fighter." He turned to the thief. "Jasper, I want you to stay here and protect her while we're gone. If we're defeated, fall back to Stormtree and from there, go to Cruz. You should be safe enough at the abbey." He put his hand on Jasper's shoulder. "I'm counting on you."
"Mark..." Teresa trailed.
At first, Jasper seemed unsure about the orders Mark had given him. His look of concern quickly transformed into his usual cocksure grin.
"Shoah," he said, "Oi'll teyk keyah o' moi gel. Ye jes' meyk i' beck oloive."
"Thank you, Jasper," Mark said with a smile. His face hardened as he turned to Sonia. "What's the plan?"
"Jill's going to pick off a few from the edge of the forest and shake them up a bit," Sonia said. "The three of us will take advantage of the confusion and charge right through the middle. Once they've been split up, we'll only have to fight them in twos and threes. It should be easy enough."
"I thought you weren't going to be my pawn," Edward remarked sardonically.
Mark's reply was blunt. "I'm not fighting for you. I have to confront Randwulf for my own reasons."
"More answers, is it?" the Prince sneered. "Haven't you given up on that foolish quest of yours? What else is there to know?"
"I'll know when I meet him," Mark said. "Besides, if I leave you to your own devices now, you'll only get yourself killed."
"We might end up dead anyway," Sonia said grimly.
"It's a risk we'll have to take," Mark replied. He turned back to Jasper. "You know what to do."
The thief nodded. "Oi gotcha. Guhd lahk."
Teresa made the sign of the cross. "Godspeed, everyone."
As they parted company, Jill had already run out ahead. They were outnumbered ten to one, but sometimes the crazier the scheme, the better the odds of it working out. It would either be a remarkable success or a catastrophic failure. There was little room for anything else.

* * *

The forty-man detachment mulled about anxiously as they waited for the first signs of their enemy. A few had witnessed Harald Svenson's ravings and all of them had heard about the attack on Corinth. Even the few veterans among them old enough to remember the Crimson Revolt twelve years ago did not know the same anxiety about facing an opponent.
The lieutenant did what he could to maintain order in the ranks, but the men were getting restless. They were used to being on the move, actively hunting down their enemies, not waiting out in the open, exposed and vulnerable to attack. Time slowed to a crawl.
The mind-numbing wait was shattered by a single whizzing arrow that landed squarely in the neck of one of the riders. As he fell to the ground gurgling his own blood, another was struck dead in the eye, letting out a screech before keeling over.
"Shields!" the lieutenant yelled. "Shield the right flank!"
Even as he was shouting the order, another arrow pierced the mail shirt of a third man and by the time a shield wall was raised a fourth man was dead.
Of the eight crossbowmen in the detachment, seven were still alive. To them the lieutenant shouted, "Fire a volley into the woods!"
As the seven men launched their bolts into the woodline, one of them was killed by an arrow that flew into the gap in the shield wall that had allowed them to fire. The lieutenant hastily ordered his men to tighten the shield wall before any more of his precious few crossbowmen were lost.
"Close it up!" he barked. "There can't be more than two or three archers out there. It's not worth launching a high volley. First and second squad, get ready to march into the woods! We'll flush out these archers before they cause any more trouble!"
Little did the lieutenant realize that there was only one exceptionally talented archer harassing him, much less that three other opponents were headed right for him while his attention was diverted.

* * *

The Guardsmen were so preoccupied with Jill that they were completely blind to the onward rush of Mark, Sonia and Edward. Their strategy was simple and straightforward. Edward would charge at the middle to disrupt the formation, Sonia to the left to draw attention away from Jill and Mark to the right to strike their exposed flank. Edward cut down two men and wounded a third with the first swing of his massive blade. The bodies had not even fallen when Sonia lunged forward. Her ignited rapier a blazing firebrand, she ran through the nearest man of the shield wall. At that very same moment, a bolt of lightning from Mark's sword shot through three men before arcing off into the distance. Seven men were dead before the Guardsmen even knew what was happening.
"Courage, men!" the lieutenant shouted, overcoming his own shock to take control of the situation. "Show no fear! Split them up! Keep them apart!"
Of course, the lieutenant did not see that his order to split up the attackers divided his own forces, which was exactly what they wanted. With the attention of his men shifted to the new threat, they forgot about the archer in the forest, whose arrow took down another man. Three of the mounted soldiers and three of their dismounted counterparts raised their shields to bolster the formation's defense, but that reduced their effective combat strength by six and the three swordfighters did not relent. The fierce skirmish that would later be known as the Battle of Crimson Field had now begun.

* * *

In the Warlock's Tower, one of Shadowblight's apprentices looked over a Seer's Pool fashioned after the one used by his master. He saw the pitched battle being waged little more than a mile from the castle gates. A sinister grin twisted his face with demonic glee.
"You're doing well, my friend," he said with a wave of his hand. "Let's see how you handle this, Mark the Guardian."
His crazed laughter echoed throughout the dank chambers of the tower and spilled out over the castle grounds, much to the discomfort of Darkwall's residents. Past the moat surrounding Darkwall, a hidden gate opened to reveal an underground tunnel. The growls of wild beasts echoed in the depths, beasts that were now free to wander outside.

* * *

The lieutenant had been killed by one of Jill's arrows. Without him, his men were gripped with panic and lost any semblance of organization. They were not much of a match for the skilled warriors to begin with and were now falling quickly to the four assailants.
The Guardsmen's effectiveness may have dropped, but it did not prompt their opponents to slow their momentum. Burying his sword in the man he had wounded earlier, Edward abandoned it and fought the Guardsmen at close range with his mace and axe. A crossbow bolt pierced the Prince's pauldron but did not touch his flesh. Batting one man aside with his mace, he brought his axe down on the head of the crossbowman who damaged his armor, cleaving through helmet and skull easily. Her quiver empty, Jill sprinted onto the battlefield to claim some used arrows, fighting off any Guardsmen she met with her hunting knife and a broken spear she took from a nearby corpse. Like Edward, Mark and Sonia were fighting in close with the Guardsmen, relying on their skill with a blade rather than their magical powers.
Mark had just dispatched the man he was fighting when he saw something in the distance, its shape obscured by the cloud of dust it raised. When it stopped and the dust finally settled, Mark could see it clearly for the first time. It was a great beast with red, pebbly skin that would stand a little taller than Edward if it chose to stand upright instead of lurching forward. It seemed just as content to walk on two feet as on four, with hands and feet that bore claws like daggers. Its head resembled a lizard with a muzzle that concealed full rows of long serrated fangs and curled horns like a ram's protruded from the sides of its skull.
It opened its mouth to release a low hiss, its thick purple tongue thrashing about in viscous saliva. Fixing its serpentine eyes on Mark, it leaned forward and stiffened its muscular tail. With a screech it charged at Mark, tearing up large clods of earth as it ran and plowing through a wounded Guardsman unfortunate enough to be caught in its path.
Edward had knocked back three men he was fighting in just enough time to see the creature charge. His whole body froze and his eyes grew wide. His hands began to shake, gripping his weapons only because his gauntlets were locked in place.
"That... that monster..."
His mind was flooded with the memories of twenty years ago, memories that haunted his every waking moment no matter how hard he tried to drown them out with ale and spirits. In his mind's eye he saw the image of his father broken and bleeding, only moments from death. Beside the fallen king was a monster, narrowly defeated by his superior strength. After all the years that had passed, that very same monster was charging at Mark here and now.
The Prince was shaken out of his paralyzing fear when his attackers collided into him in a renewed assault. Human opponents, at least, were nothing to fear. Crushing the skull of one man, he was able to focus on the battle once again.
Meanwhile, Mark sidestepped the creature's blind charge, but it did not go far past him, digging its claws deep into the ground for a quick stop. Before it could turn and make a new attack, Mark rushed at it without hesitation, fully aware that even the slightest opening had to be exploited if he wanted to survive. Focusing his energy into his sword, sparks flew as he brought it crashing down on the creature, cleanly severing its tail. As the tail flopped about like a fish out of water, the beast howled in pain, leaving a trail of dark blood as it whirled around and thrust its thick skull into Mark's chest. Even with the protection of his armor, he felt the blow acutely, his ribs still weak from the damage they had suffered during his capture. He reeled from the attack, barely managing to stay on his feet.
The creature swiped with one hand, only to be blocked by Mark's shield. The other hand snaked past his defenses and clutched his arm from behind the shield, burying its claws deeply in his flesh. Not allowing the pain to affect him, Mark raised his sword and swung at its wrist. Fresh blood spewed from the separation of hand and arm and the creature cried out from the new injury. Maddened with pain but still fixed on killing its prey, it reared its head back to strike again while Mark charged his blade a second time.
Instead of butting at Mark as before, it opened its wide jaws to bite. The brief pause would ultimately prove fatal. Swinging with all his might, Mark's glowing blade sent the creature's head flying in the air. Electricity crackled though its heavy body as it landed in the grass with a dull thud, its dark blood spreading out in a wide pool.
Mark stood over the monster's corpse in triumph, his breath slow and weak. He winced in pain, but not from the injury to his ribs. Looking down, he saw the creature's hand still grasping his forearm. As Mark plucked the hand off, he heard Sonia's voice cry out just a short distance away.
"Mark! We have to get out of here! Reinforcements from the castle are coming this way! We can't hold them off any longer!"
Mark waved in acknowledgment to Sonia and they began to run. Once they joined Jill and Edward, a momentary glance behind them revealed the hard-riding reinforcements in the distance.
"There's no way we can outrun their horses," Sonia said, "and they'll burn down the whole forest if we hide in it. We can try running, but we may have to go down fighting..."
Mark stopped and faced the oncoming enemy. "There may be another way..." he replied coolly. Sonia turned and went to Mark's side. He nodded to her and looked over his shoulder. "Edward, Jill, go on ahead! We'll hold them off here."
"You can't just throw your lives away!" Edward protested.
Jill added to his protest, "I won't leave you behind, Sis!"
"I don't intend to die here," Mark asserted.
"I'll be right behind you," Sonia said to Jill. "Go meet up with Jasper and Teresa."
"But--!"
"Don't argue!" the fencer shouted. "Just do it! Please!"
Jill nodded haltingly and turned to leave with Edward following behind her. Sonia looked to Mark. Although she was unafraid to face the Guardsmen and unequivocally trusted her cousin, she did not have the slightest idea what he was intending to do.
"What do you have in mind?" she asked.
"Focus all your energy into your sword," Mark said. "Use whatever attack you can to slow them down. I'll try to buy you time."
The two Elemental Knights stood silently, their eyes closed, deep in concentration. Fed by a stream of new energy, the gems all over their gear glowed in steadily increasing intensity. The sky grew dark and became fully overcast. Flashes of light in the clouds and rumbling thunder were the heralds of what was to come. Countless bolts of lightning struck from the heavens, razing the ground and shattering the advance of enemy.
Her arms crossed, Sonia stood motionless in unwavering focus as the glow from her gems enveloped her. Her eyes opened and she spread her arms wide. A high wall of flame burst from the ground in front of the Guardsmen, making pursuit impossible.
"Now!" Mark yelled. "Run for it!"
The two turned and ran as fast as their legs could carry them. They had bought themselves a little time, but they did not know how much. They had no intention of stopping to find out.
It was foolhardy to make a stab at Darkwall with only four people, but it had not been a total loss. In their victory they had gone farther than any who went before them. Though Mark had insisted that his only goals were to confront Randwulf himself and to protect his companions, he could not deny being moved by the rush of battle. Now more than ever he felt closer to the goal of overthrowing Randwulf's tyranny. He may not have come to Gladius for revolution, but the revolution had most certainly come to him.