Chapter 11
The Good Shepherd

Pastor Hills, Byrn; Anno Regis 1285

"How does one act when faced with injustice? Will he support the oppressors? Will he stand idly by? Or will he stand up for what is right, no matter the cost? If you are going to stand against injustice, pluck up your courage, for all deeds, righteous and wicked alike, are never without consequence."
--Excerpt from the assorted writings of Mark the Guardian

The sky was overcast as General Leifson's detachment marched into the hill country. It would probably snow again, but unlike the storm two weeks ago, the snow would probably stick. It made the mission to bring supplies to the main force all the more pressing. Never one for niceties, Sven would exercise even more brutal efficiency than usual.
Most of the herders in the area raised sheep and their flocks were kept out in the open year-round. The white dots clustered on the hills could be seen from miles away. They would be the first to fall victim to the Marauders' advance.
Sven knew the flocks would not be entirely defenseless, so he put the Byrnan conscripts in front to test the resistance. Slingstones and sheepdogs were little match for the Marauders, but it was all the better to let the hapless conscripts suffer the damage. The general stood by and watched the scene unfurl with great amusement. The skull of one conscript split like a ripe melon from a well-placed stone and another howled like a stuck pig as the dogs tore into him.
The archers Sven brought with him were of varying quality. They started a contest of downing targets from a hundred yards away. A couple were skilled enough to hit the dogs, while others went for the larger sheep. One missed his mark and killed a conscript instead, but it was no great loss.
A shepherd fell to the ground after being shot in the shoulder. Sven saw it as an opportunity to bloody his axe a bit. Casually walking in the midst of the fighting, it did not take long for Sven to reach his chosen victim. The shepherd was still on the ground, writhing in pain from the arrow. It was a laughably easy kill.
He raised his axe high to finish the job in a single sweep, but something knocked the axe out of his hand. He realized that something was a slingstone only after another one struck him in the leg. Although he was wearing greaves, he could hear the bone crack from the blow. He dropped to his knees, drawing the attention of a few of his men.
"General Leifson!" an axeman cried as he rushed to his commander's aid.
A slingstone promptly left a four-inch dent in the soldier's helmet, ostensibly smashing into his forehead as well. When another Marauder went down in similar fashion, Sven turned his attention to the source. It was a lone shepherd armed with a sling like many of his peers. For some reason, he had not gotten mixed up in the fighting yet and was now exploiting their flank. Desperation seethed from the other shepherds, but this one was eerily calm and collected. He did not rush in picking his targets and it quickly became clear to Sven that he had hit exactly where he meant to. Sven's armor made him stand out from the other Marauders and this shepherd was clever enough to take it as a sign of rank. He was clearly no ordinary peasant. Nevertheless, Sven would not let a mere Byrnan get the better of him.
"Archers!" he shouted. "Shoot that man!"
Twenty nearby archers loosed arrows in unison, but as they flew towards their target, the shepherd clutched at his chest with his free hand and a blast of wind scattered the missiles in all directions. Sven gaped at the sight. It was the same sort of power used by the desert man Tariq. It seemed impossible, a lowly shepherd wielding magic.
"Take him down!" Sven barked with a hint of desperation in his voice.
Dozens of men answered the call and rushed at the shepherd. But the shepherd did not flee in the face of this charge. He held his ground and kept his hand at his chest. The winds whipped up again, slowing some and flattening others. A fair number were advancing valiantly against the wind when a more powerful gust sent the lot of them flying back.
The winds blew stronger and stronger. Sven planted his axe in the ground to resist the blast, but the wind was too powerful. He was sent flying along with the men who had taken up the charge, tossed like ragdolls into the main formation. As fearsome as the Marauders were, they could not stand against the fierce gale and the entire unit was forced to take cover on the leeward side of the nearest hills.
Sheltered by the hills, the Marauders had little choice but to bide their time. A field doctor was putting a splint on Sven's broken shin while the general plotted his next move. He knew very little about magic and doubted he could simply wait out the shepherd. He would not let the detachment stay pinned down by a single man. He had to take a different tack.
"You," he addressed a nearby sergeant, "get three squads and flank that man. Stay low and stick to the leeward side of the hills. We'll raise a distraction over here. That'll be the cue to attack. All three squads are to attack at once." Sven gripped his axe. "Destroy him."
"Yes, sir," the sergeant replied.
Once the three squads had moved out, Sven gave them some time to get around the target. Dragging himself up to the crest of the hill to watch the impending attack, he signaled the diversionary squads to charge forward. They made plenty of noise so the real attackers would not miss their cue.
Everything went according to Sven's plan. While the shepherd's attention was drawn to the diversion, he was attacked from all sides. There was no way he could fend off all of them at once. Sven was sure of it, but the shepherd was not out of tricks yet. Much to the surprise of his attackers, a whirlwind rose around the shepherd and swept the assailing Marauders off their feet. The axeman general very nearly thought his plan had failed when a determined pikeman saved the day.
The pikes wielded by the Marauders had an enchantment on them. Normally, they looked like ordinary spears, but with a word they could extend to three times their length. It made for easy carrying and never failed to surprise the enemy. A great many Byrnans had been felled by this weapon and now the magic wielding shepherd would be added to that number.
The point shot forward and skewered the shepherd, punching cleanly through his torso. Once the mortal wound was struck, the winds died down. The opening was immediately exploited, not only by the Marauders selected for the attack but by the diversionary squads as well. Nearly fifty men swarmed on the shepherd and savagely hacked him to pieces. Had Sven's leg not been broken, he would have led the rush. He cursed the shepherd for robbing him of the chance to exact revenge personally, but his miserable demise offered some consolation.
When the men were done with him, no one could recognize the shepherd's remains as human. It was tempting revel in the victory, but there was still much work to do. Sven rallied his men and the offensive resumed. The surviving resistance posed no challenge and the Pastor Hills were bathed in the blood before the sun set.

* * *

General Giles did not like his assignment, but orders were orders. The hill country was littered with sheep carcasses, all of which needed to be prepared by his men. They did not have much salt to preserve the meat nor did they have enough fuel at hand for smoke curing. The only other option was to wind dry the meat, even though it would not keep as long. As long as the winter cold held up, it would not be much of a problem.
In addition to the meat, the wool could be harvested and woven into blankets and heavy clothing. Not too many of the conscripts or Marauders in his company knew how to shear sheep, but they would have to manage somehow. All in all, there was a lot of work to do and it would not end once the hills were cleared.
Scattered among the dead sheep was the occasional human body. Some were killed a single arrow or swordstroke. Others were badly mutilated. The official policy of the Marauders was to leave all the dead, foe and comrade alike, out in the open to rot, but Giles would not allow it on his watch.
He called out to one of the few officers in his detachment, "Lieutenant, select a dozen men to bury these bodies."
"The Marauders don't bury the dead, sir," the officer replied.
Giles backhanded the officer for his impudence.
"Do it!" the general barked. "My punishment in Arita doesn't give you the right to insubordination. You will obey orders."
The officer glared at him, but did not try to challenge his superior.
"Yes, sir."
The lieutenant stalked off without saluting, but Giles did not care. He had always had a problem earning the respect of his fellow Marauders. Neither Titian nor Gladian, he was treated with contempt for being different from the others. His ability got him to where he was and while he did not command the respect of many of his subordinates, at least his rank demanded their obedience. It was enough to get by, but now even that was slipping away.
Keeping the men busy was the best thing for him to do. As long as they were preoccupied, they did not have the leisure to entertain mutinous thoughts. When Giles thought about it, he realized that the King must have had that thought in mind when he gave Giles the assignment.
Entrusting one of his officers to oversee the men, Giles took the first group of replacements to the nearby village, where Sven's detachment was finishing its work. He could never get used to the sight of burning homes and slaughtered civilians, but such was the face of this campaign.
Just from looking at the scene, Giles could see Sven's strategy. He had split his detachment in two, circled around the city and struck from the east and west on the south side of the village. The idea was to force any fleeing villagers into the hills, where Giles' detachment would be waiting for them, rather than driving them to the unsecured lands further south. As always, the objective was total massacre.
Most of the village had already been taken. Only a few houses on the northern edge remained untouched. Giles would have to move quickly if he wanted to claim any survivors. He quickly turned to the lieutenant charged with the replacement platoon.
"Hold your position here," Giles ordered. "If any villagers come this way, take them alive."
"But, sir," the officer protested, "our orders are to--"
Giles interrupted him, "As long as I'm the ranking officer here, you'll do as I say."
"Yes, sir."
The pikeman general wasted no time making his way to the nearest house. He pulled on the door, but it was barred from the inside. He knew it would not stop the Marauders. If they did not break into the house, they would simply set fire to the place. There was only one way Giles could save the people inside.
He kicked the door. It resisted. He kicked it again, knocking the door off its hinges and taking the bar with it. He went in cautiously, certain to meet resistance, but found no one. They had to be hiding.
The din of battle drew closer. Giles was running out of time. He hastily sifted through the blanket of straw covering the floor and found a trapdoor. The trapdoor was bolted, but like the bar on the door, it would not be enough. Using his pike as a lever, he pried the trapdoor open. Now it was time to deal with the people inside.
More than a month had passed since Giles had first come into contact with the Byrnans. In all that time, he had been working to learn the language from the prisoners he had taken. He was hardly fluent, but he knew enough for the most limited communication.
"I will not hurt you," he said.
"Like you didn't hurt the people in Arita?" a man's voice scoffed. "I've heard what you animals have done!"
"If you don't want to hurt us, leave us be!" a woman cried.
"You can't hide here," Giles argued. "They'll find you... They'll find you and they'll kill you. I can protect you if you're my prisoners. It's the only way to save your lives."
"Why should we trust you?" the man asked, his voice still full of hostility.
"You don't have any choice," Giles said. "If you stay here, you will die. You'll burn or they'll come in and kill you themselves. Now, either I'm lying or I'm telling the truth. At least you have a chance to live if you come with me." He paused. "There's not much time. Choose now or I'm moving on to the next house."
After a brief silence, the man spoke up.
"Will you give me your word?"
"I swear to you," Giles replied. "No one within my power will harm you or your family."
Slowly they filed out of the cellar. First the man, followed by three children and lastly the wife with an infant in her arms. Giles put his hand on the man's shoulder.
"Stick close to me," the general said. "I'll need your help to save your neighbors. I can't guarantee an easy life for any of you, but it's better than dying."
The man nodded and motioned for his family to follow. To protect his captives from attack, Giles exited first. Sven's forces had not yet reached the edge of the village and the replacement platoon was staying put where he had left them. He still had time to save a few more households.
With the villager's help, Giles had an easier time coaxing the Byrnans into his custody. By the time Sven's troops had wholly overran the village, he had nearly twoscore prisoners. Before they reached him, he gathered the prisoners together and had them sit down to make them a smaller target. He paced around them to ward off any Marauders who might try to attack them. In spite of Giles' recent troubles, no one would dare to challenge one of the Five Generals.
The prisoners were understandably distraught at the sight of their village being destroyed and their neighbors butchered before their very eyes. Giles knew his words counted for little, but he tried to comfort them nevertheless.
"Your homes can always be rebuilt," he told them. "As long as some of you survive, your people will not die out."
He received no reply. He expected none. He knew he would serve them best by keeping them alive. The Marauders would not harm them as long as he was around. His rank would protect them. There were only two people who could override his authority and the King had given him license to take captives as he saw fit. None of his peers had the audacity to countermand the King. He thought he was safe, but he had made a grave miscalculation.
He did not expect to find Cadmus Martial in the area. The Commander of the Marauders arrived shortly before Giles' own detachment for the twofold purpose of inspecting General Leifson's progress and getting a piece of the action. Flanked by a personal bodyguard of twenty men, Cadmus rode up to Giles and his prisoners.
"What are you doing here, General Giles?" Cadmus asked.
"I need skilled labor for my assignment, sir," Giles replied. "These people know how to handle sheep. They can properly dress the carcasses. They can spin and weave the wool, too. I only wish I could have gotten here sooner and secured more workers."
Cadmus scowled. "More workers, eh? Hmph..." He pointed his sword, dripping with fresh gore, directly at Giles. "You're weak," he said scornfully. "You sympathize with the enemy."
"His Majesty has permitted me to take prisoners, sir," Giles countered.
"Don't interrupt me, savage!" Cadmus snapped. "You care more for our enemy than your own men. I have to wonder about your loyalty."
"I've done nothing disloyal!"
Spurring his horse forward, Cadmus slapped Giles upside the head with the flat of his sword. Smeared with the blood of Cadmus' victims, the pikeman barely managed to stay on his feet, but he stubbornly refused to let himself fall in the face-off with his superior. It made Cadmus all the angrier.
"I told you not to interrupt me!" the old patrician howled.
It was not beyond Cadmus to cut down Giles then and there, regardless of the consequences. But he did not take the quick and easy path. He reined in his raging temper to exact a far crueler and more thorough punishment.
"It would be too easy to kill you," he said. "After spending nineteen years training you, it'd be too much of a waste. No, I'm going to teach you a good lesson instead. The Marauders are your only friends, your only family. Anyone who isn't a Marauder isn't even human. I'm going to break you of your attachment to mere chattel like these."
Cadmus turned to his bodyguards. "Men, you'll follow these orders to the letter. First, take the babes from their mothers and dash them on the ground." Ignoring the cry from the women, he continued, "Next, cut down the children, then the women, the aged and the infirm. Have the able-bodied men dig a grave for the lot and put them in with the rest of the conscripts."
"You can't do that!" Giles protested.
"I can and I will," Cadmus replied icily. "I'll do it every time you take prisoners. We don't need women and children slowing us down. And the men will welcome death when it comes. Bear it well in mind, General Giles. All your captives will suffer the same fate. If you still pity these people, you'll put them out of their misery."
Giles gripped his pike, but did not move. Cadmus smiled wickedly.
"I thought so. You need this lesson." He pointed at the prisoners with his hook-tipped sword. "Men, you have your orders. Execute."
As Cadmus' bodyguards approached the prisoners, Giles stood between them.
"Stand down," he ordered.
Cadmus laughed. "You think you can counter my orders? I'm not Sven Leifson. I'm your commanding officer. There's no question of whose orders to follow. You can't win this. Learn from your mistakes and I won't have to give you this lesson again."
Giles stood his ground. He glared at the nearest Marauder.
"This is your last warning," the general growled. "Stand down."
The bodyguards must have thought the chain of command protected them. They were wrong. The nearest Marauder was stopped dead in his tracks when Giles' pike punched through his neck. Before anyone could react, Giles yanked out his pike and struck Cadmus square in the chest. He unhorsed the former cavalryman, but he did not know whether or not he had dealt a fatal blow. It did not matter. The men were paralyzed. It was an opening Giles did not hesitate to exploit.
"Run!" he shouted to the prisoners. "Run for your lives!"
They did not question him. He waved for them to flee northward. There would be less Marauders that way. The chance of them surviving was slim, but not totally nonexistent. He covered their escape by killing two more men. The others did not give chase. It would buy him a little more time.
They had not gotten far when he was approached by the patriarch of Giles' first group of prisoners. Unlike most of the other captives, he was doing a good job of maintaining his composure.
"What do you mean for us to do now?" the man asked.
"We keep moving," Giles replied. "They will come for us. We need to stay one step ahead of them. We can't afford to stop for rest or food. It'll be difficult, but your lives depend on it."
"I understand."
"Then make sure they all know," Giles said. "I'm counting on you to keep them moving."
It was no easy task keeping a group that consisted largely of women and children on the move. They were soon complaining about being tired and hungry, but Giles could not show them any leniency. Whether Cadmus was alive or dead, the Marauders would surely hunt him down. He had considered separating from the prisoners, but it would leave them defenseless. He was the only one who could protect them.
They walked for nearly four hours before some of the children and older captives started to falter. Giles had no choice but to allow them a short break. There was not much he could do for them. They did not have any food or water, so the only comfort they could enjoy was a few minutes to catch their breath before they had to set out again. Clearly they could not go on like this for much longer, leaving Giles to think up a way to provide shelter and provisions.
He was deep in thought when he heard a scream from one of the captives. A middle-aged woman was clutching a wounded arm and wailing while three men struggled to restrain a boy not even ten years old. Blood was dripping down the boy's chin and he growled and thrashed about like a wild dog. The people were chattering in Byrnan too quickly for Giles to understand what they were saying.
He walked up to the captives to get a better idea of what was going on. As he got closer, a half dozen children pounced on the men holding down the wild boy. Giles could not believe what he was seeing. The children were actually tearing into the men's flesh. It was unreal.
More of the prisoners joined the effort to restrain the wild children, but just as many were succumbing to panic. Giles threw himself into the thick of it, trying desperately to protect the ones who had not been taken by this madness. While he was fending off one of the children with his shield, someone started to paw at him. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw that a young woman was consumed by the madness as well and she was attacking him. He tried to push her back and she bit into his vambrace, surely doing more harm to herself than to him. Not wanting to harm her, he held her back with the shaft of his pike. Her transformation made one thing clear: more and more of Giles' prisoners were being seized by this madness.
Even though he had his hands full with two attackers, his attention was drawn to an ear-piercing shriek. One of the captives fell at his feet as five others fed on him. The captive was not alone. Anyone who had not been taken by the madness was the prey of those who had.
The situation was unwinnable. Giles could not see anyone he could save. He shook off his attackers and fell back, only to watch helplessly as the maddened captives turned on each other, biting and clawing with all the ferocity of a pack of starving wolves. Within moments, not a single one of them was left alive. Even the victor of the brutal feeding frenzy quickly keeled over from her countless wounds, leaving nothing but a pile of mangled corpses.
All his efforts were in vain. He had not saved even a single civilian. He had thrown away the tatters of his military career for nothing. He would not be able to change anything and his life would soon be forfeit. It was in that moment of despair that he realized he was not alone.
Standing only a short distance away was the Dark Knight Vincentian and one of the warlock's apprentices. Giles was not entirely surprised to see them. He knew it was only a matter of time before any pursuers caught up to him and the apprentice's twisted magic explained what had befallen his captives.
Giles tightened the grip on his pike. He might not survive, but perhaps he could take one of them with him. If he was going to die, at least he could rob the King of one of his precious special operatives. It would give his death some meaning.
Not wanting to fall prey to a curse, he targeted the warlock's apprentice first. Thanks to its enchantment, Giles' pike quickly closed the distance between them. Sadly, instead of burying itself into the apprentice's chest, the pike's head passed right through him. An illusion.
Giles looked up and saw the apprentice hovering in the air, but he would not be getting another shot at him. The Dark Knight had drawn his weapon and was coming right at him. Giles stabbed at the Dark Knight, who simply batted the pike aside and continued his charge. The pikeman swung at Vincentian with his shield. He meant for it to be an attack, but ended up blocking a forceful slash of the Dark Knight's long, serrated blade. His arm was dragged down by the weight of the sword, leaving his head exposed when the Dark Knight followed through with an elbow strike that nearly knocked him off his feet.
Giles was still reeling from the blow when the Dark Knight's gauntleted fingers wrapped around his throat. Although the pikeman was actually a little bigger than Vincentian, the Dark Knight effortlessly lifted him off the ground single-handed. His strength was unnatural. Giles never stood a chance.
Just when he thought it was all over, the Dark Knight released him. It was a wonder he did not break his tailbone when he landed, even more so that Vincentian did not take the opportunity to kill him. The pikeman could only stare at the blank mask covering Vincentian's notoriously expressionless face.
"Get out of here," the Dark Knight hissed. "Run all the way to the sea and keep going. If you ever cross the Marauders again, you will die."
"Why are you sparing me?" Giles asked.
"It's not mercy," the Dark Knight replied. "You'll understand that soon enough." He returned his sword to the mount on his back and turned away. "Go... before I change my mind."
Giles did not think about it, any of it. Not about the people who had died, not about his lost honor. He did not think at all. His body moved of its own accord. He turned and ran and never looked back.
The pikeman's flight into the horizon did not go unobserved. The Dark Knight raised his visor as he watched him shrink in the distance. The warlock's apprentice descended close to where he stood.
"Are you sure about this," the Dark Knight asked, "letting him go like this?"
"What's the matter, Sir Knight? You want to get back at him for what he did to your daddy?"
"For not finishing the job, perhaps," Vincentian replied, ignoring the apprentice's usual mockery. He allowed himself a faint sigh. "A pity. All he did was make that monster angry."
"Aw, that's not filial piety," the apprentice said, "now is it? You're not a very good son, you know."
"Neither are you from what you've told me, but enough of that." Vincentian turned to him. "Why did you insist on letting him go? I know better than to expect any kindness from you."
"You expect right, Sir Knight." The apprentice grinned broadly. "I've taken a little peek into the days ahead and let's just say things will be more interesting if he's alive."
The Dark Knight did not inquire into the matter further. The apprentice's whims were as unpredictable as they were troublesome, but as long as they did not interfere with the King's plans, Vincentian was not going to get in the way. He looked at the pile of bodies, the latest victims of the apprentice's sadistic indulgence. He did not pity them, for death was the only true release. Their suffering was over. They were the lucky ones. In time, the pikeman general would come to understand this, too.