Year of the Kings 742: Midsummer's Day

Midsummer should not be so cold. Karran drew his legs up to his chest and pulled the ragged blanket tight. The hard ground sucked the warmth out of his body, the night air slicked his face with dew. His weary limbs ached, but he had to keep watch…

He opened his eyes: his neck was stiff, his shoulder sore. A glance at the sky told him he’d slept. The last time he looked, it had been black with a thousand brilliant points of light. Now there was a glow above the mountains in the east and the stars were fading.

Something had disturbed him. He sat up, rubbing life into his arms, and scanned the hillside. A low mist covered the grass. His sleeping countrymen were indistinguishable lumps on the ground, two lines to left and right, too tired and desperate to care where they lay. He shivered, remembering the rows of bodies waiting for burial after the last battle. Downhill, the edges of the wood were lost in black shadow.

Soft voices. He looked right. Ten paces away, two men, heads together. One pointing towards the trees. He stood up.

“Sir…?”

The taller man turned and walked across to ruffle his hair. “There now, I won’t have my own grandson calling me ‘sir’. And a child needs his sleep, I’ve been telling my patients that for years. Rest.”

Karran peered at the old man’s face in the half-light. He could see that his grandfather was trying to smile, but the eyes didn’t join in the expression that his mouth made. He took a step forward and threw his arms around the man’s chest, screwing up his eyes to get rid of tears. For a moment they stood so, remembering a time before Karran was a soldier, before Dennara was a general.

The other man coughed to catch his leader’s attention. Dennara put his hands on Karran’s shoulders. “It is a day to be brave, my boy…”

Karran glanced down at his sword, too large for him, stuck in the ground as he’d seen the men do while they slept. Dennara shook his head.

“We will need more courage, and a different kind.”

Karran turned again to peer at the edges of the forest. Now he made out figures standing there – he couldn’t tell whether they had stepped forward in that moment, or the light had strengthened, or his eyes had grown used to the darkness. He didn’t see them, and then he did: silent, still, a long line of soldiers with spears, as many as the trees.

“We cannot fight them any more. I must talk with their general.” Dennara pointed: two men had waded out into the mist. One held a white cloth on the end of a long stick. The other was too tall – no, it was a plumed helmet. They stood quite still, a hundred paces away, halfway to the wood.

Karran pointed to the one in front. “Is that him?”

“Riadsala himself, yes. I must go. Wait here.” Dennara took a step downhill.

A sudden thought struck Karran. “Could we not shoot him? He is in range...”

Dennara stopped and turned, his face stern. “We could not. It would be wrong. It is against the rules of war to try to harm a parleyman. It would also be foolish. This is not a game you win by taking the other side’s leader. They could easily kill us all. I will not hide the truth from you, boy: I cannot understand why they are not killing us all right now, as his father the king has ordered.” He glanced over his shoulder at the waiting figures. “When a man has you by the throat, and then offers to talk to you, it is worth hearing what he has to say. Anything else must be worse.” He sighed. “I hope that you live long enough to know the benefit of that wisdom.”

Karran watched his grandfather walk away, alone, slow, his injured leg dragging. He hoped the enemy general also knew the rules of war.

He saw Dennara stop and give respect. The other man returned it, then removed his helmet and held out a hand. They stood together for a long time. The light grew stronger and the mist receded. No sound carried to Karran’s ears. His stomach squirmed with hope and fear.

The sun rose above the horizon. As he lifted his hand to shield his eyes, Karran realised that the prince and his escort were striding back to the shelter of the trees. His grandfather was returning slowly, painfully. Unable to wait any longer, he ran down to meet him halfway. Dennara didn’t speak: he was staring into the western sky, hardly aware of his grandson taking his hand.

Karran saw tears in the old man’s eyes. He blurted, “Will he kill us, then?”

Dennara sighed, wiped the back of his hand across his face. He put his arm around Karran’s shoulders and pulled him close. “No. He has agreed to show us mercy. No more blood will be shed on this good land. But his mercy comes at a price, my boy. I have agreed to pay, because we have nothing left but life, and that is worth more than even what he demands. But your children and your children’s children – what will they think of the bargain I have made today?”