Chapter 3
The Choice

AZ 1454 - Late Winter
Kalonis, Notos

The rebels did not have a habit of attacking during the winter months. It spared Ionathas and the Hawks any significant risk to life and limb, but the long, cold days would make a man crave the chance for some action. Anything to break the monotony.
Ionathas was not sure if this time would be good practice for the Hawks or if their nerves would only be frayed further once they took to the sea for the long voyage to the Darklands. Not that he had broached the subject with them, not yet. In all honesty, he was not sure how many would be willing to join him, if any. They had followed him through many trials and perils, but this was perhaps asking too much of them. All the more reason for him to delay the day of reckoning, but little did he realize that the day had already come.
They were all sitting around the campfires for the morning meal when Raddai approached Ionathas flanked by a good dozen men.
"We need to talk, Captain."
"What's this about?" Ionathas asked.
"Rumor's been floatin' around that you're plannin' on goin' with the Zephyrians when they set sail in the spring."
Ionathas never intended to deceive them, but he did not want to deal with the inevitable conflict until it was closer to the time of departure. Now that it was out in the open, though, there was no point in avoiding the subject any longer.
Without hesitating, Ionathas replied simply, "That's right."
"And I suppose you expect all of us are gonna go along with you. To the Darklands."
Ionathas slapped his knee and stood up.
"Well, Raddai, now's as good a time as any to see where everyone stands." He looked around at the men and said, "Yes, the rumors are true. When the Zephyrians leave Notos, I'll be joining the invasion of the Darklands along with any Hawk who'll go with me."
"You think we'd follow you to the Darklands?"
"You tell me, Raddai."
Raddai glowered at Ionathas and said, "Samaos and Asom are dead because you took the half the Hawks with you to join that fool of a Duke and now you want us all to go die with the Zephyrians in the Darklands? You must be mad!"
Dabidos sprang to his feet and snapped, "Watch your tongue, Raddai!"
Ionathas held up his hand to keep the two brothers from going at it. Though it might prove to be a wasted effort, he wanted to appeal to the Hawks' good sense.
"The Darklanders nearly destroyed this land three hundred years ago and they're coming back," he said. "The Zephyrians are the only ones with the strength of arms to stop them, but they need every man they can get."
"What proof do you have?" Raddai asked.
"Proof!?" Ionathas balked. "You've seen the Darklanders with your own eyes! You've fought them! You know what they're capable of. Now imagine them swarming over our lands by the hundreds, the thousands, even tens of thousands."
"If we don't provoke them, what reason do they have to come here?"
"What reason did they have three hundred years ago? If the Zephyrians fail, who will be left to defend Notos against them? The Alliance? Us alone? We need to take the fight to the enemy and end it there."
"I'm with Ionathas," Dabidos declared.
"Of course you're with Ionathas, Dabidos," Raddai said scornfully, "but not everyone here will be his catamite. Who stands with me and our home?"
Dabidos glared at Raddai and clenched his fists.
"You bloody traitor..."
Raddai held his arms out like a pit fighter welcoming a challenger.
"You gonna raise a hand to you own flesh and blood, Dabidos? Well, come on then!"
Several of the men started to circle around them, expecting a fight to break out at any moment, but Ionathas stood between them.
"Settle down, all of you!" Ionathas barked. To all the Hawks, he said, "This has always been a company of free men. I lead you in battle, but I'm no lord to rule over you. You go where you will. You give what you can.
"It's a hard thing I'm asking, to brave Hades itself, but it's not going to be much easier staying here. Do what you think is right and let no man question your courage or your loyalty. Each and every one of you here has proven himself time and time again.
"Every man who stands with Raddai, stand with him now and be counted."
Those who were already with Raddai stayed with him and about twenty men moved behind Dabidos right away. That left about thirty men to slowly filter between the two sides. In the end, the tally was twenty for Raddai and twoscore and five for Ionathas. Even though the men chose Ionathas over Raddai by a two-to-one margin, it did not feel like much of a victory.
"You've made your decision," Ionathas said. "What do you want to do? Leave now? Wait for the Zephyrians to set out? I'll see that each of you has provisions enough to get back to Maranthe, but remember that the rebels are in control now."
"We'll show those damn rebels a thing or two," Raddai boasted. "They'll not hold our home much longer."
"I pray you're right, Raddai," Ionathas replied, though he knew they were all likely going to their deaths.
"We'll take what we need to get back to Maranthe," Raddai said. "As for the rest of you, if you're gonna throw your lives away, you might as well be dyin' for hearth and home."
"We'll do more for hearth and home than you will, mark my words," Dabidos growled.
"Enough," Ionathas said. "Let it go." To Raddai, he said, "You'll get your provisions. Good luck to you."
Raddai did not return the gesture of good will. Instead, he and his followers left to pack.
Ionathas sat back down with the others to eat. Their meager rations seemed particularly unpalatable this morning.
Sitting next to him, Dabidos asked, "Are you sure about this, Ionathas?"
"I meant every word I said," Ionathas replied. "No man who's forced to go over there against his will has a chance of coming back alive." He paused for a moment before adding, "The odds aren't good for us either."
"We're the Hawks of Maranthe," Dabidos said boldly. "It'll take more than all the hordes of Hades to stop us."
Though the breaking of their company and the grim reality of the coming campaign weighed heavily on his heart, Ionathas could not help but smile.
"I certainly hope so," he said, "because I fear that's exactly what we face."