Swylce

Musings and Writing of GG Alexander

Enemy Classes (Stranger Tales No. 5)

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When I was newly-wed, my soul-brother Agnin came home to my wife one night and pretended to be me. She laughed him away, saying that she knew well enough how to tell between us. Two days later, her cousin came to visit. When I came home from the tavern that night, I saw what I thought was my wife in my home, and I kissed her neck as I always do, when my Elspa walked in from the pantry and saw me. Never lived that down, not being able to tell my own wife apart from her kin, when she so easily saw through mine. But we learn to live with these japes and mistakes, and we learn to have better eyes, even when drunk.

In any city, in any country, across both the continents, you will always find a face like mine. Men with my square jaw, proud nose, broad warrior’s physique – men cut from the same cloth as I. They say the gods grew tired, when making the host of man. For the kings and lords and ladies, they carved smooth faces of beauty and character, and gave them clothes of intricate patterns and hair all colours of the rainbow. When they came to make the common folk, they said twelve faces was enough. So from the start, there came the two types of people: the rulers, and followers. The commanders, and the killers.

When Elspa gave birth to our son, she stared into his face and said, blue eyes bright, ‘He’s a warrior like his father!’ And though it took a few years for Brodin’s features to grow closer to mine, soon it was unmistakeable: my son, my face, my path. I didn’t understand my reluctance to smile on him, or the sadness which came over me when he took my axe in hand, and said ‘One day, I’ll wield this in battle just like you, papa!’

Agnin, though, he understood. When the King ordered us across the sea, we met at the tavern and, sunk into our tankards, he said he was afraid.

‘They want Tara to come as well,’ he said. ‘Both of us, across the sea. She wants to fight with the Valkyries again, and she won’t hear me when I say how dangerous it is. She doesn’t know it’s different fighting lordlings and high-soldiers. They never miss. They use magic to heal every gash we give ’em. They say this prince has never left an enemy soldier alive, and gods, they say his archers strike down Valkyries like flies. His tactician is a heartless monster with an all-seeing eye, they say.’

Deep in my drink, I asked him if he thought we would ever get out of fighting.

‘The gods made us warriors,’ he said. ‘We cannot rail against our lot.’

I want to rail, though. When we are set on opposing armies, it is like killing my reflection, and my wife’s, and my mage cousin’s, and every other acquaintance I’ve known. You learn differences of expression, posture, freckles, eyes shade, how they wear the same clothes and hair, so by the time you’re ten you can tell each of your friends apart – but you still, when you face an enemy of the same kind as your friend, you think there is a moment of recognition before you slam your axe into their skull. I know what it would look like to see my wife gurgle blood from a cut throat. I know what it would look like to see her fried to death. I know what it will look like if I, or Agnin, or my son are ever cut down. That is horror. That is my lot.

But when we were sent across the sea, we knew we were not to fight our own kind. We knew we were to fight the prince’s army. We knew that if we ever faced him, we would not live.

I kissed Elspa goodbye. I held Brodin tight, and told him I would be a proud warrior. We travelled across the sea, and we set upon unknown land, filled with enemies who look like us. A man with a distinctive face ordered us to stand, and fight, for the glory of the superior kind, for this petty battle between those with rich cloth and unique features. I did not rail, for it is my lot to die for their squabble.

Today, we stand, Agnin and I, at the mountain pass, with our brothers and sisters-in-arms. Ten faces to cover the lot of us. Cavalry twins talk of horses together, thin-bearded mages make sparks at each other across the crowd, young and stern swordsmen adjust their greaves in unison.

The commander shouts. They are here.

I see them at the foot of the slope, and gods help me, I gasp, for I have never seen such variety, never seen so many high-bloods in one place. Red hair, blue hair, yellow hair and brown. Robes of black, of silver, and amour painted navy and copper. Some are astride brown horses, some black, while their Valkyries ride white pegasi. If I begged and pleaded all my life, if I won all my battles single-handed, I would still never be deigned with a look of attention from any man or woman of them.

‘That is the favour of the gods,’ Agnin says. He sounds like he is about to cry. ‘They will never lose, even if we kill half of them.’

The horns blast. The Valkyries ride ahead, Tara among them. We charge.

The pegasi are dead by the time the prince’s first wave reaches us.

The prince, handsome beyond reckoning, comes upon us, cloak billowing behind him. He walks as if his determination alone will win him this battle.

Behind him, in a hooded robe, walks the tactician. Her eyes glow red under the shadow of her cowl. All-seeing eyes.

Agnin screams, for Tara’s body is somewhere he can’t see, and there is nothing else he can do. His axe makes barely a scratch on the prince’s armour. One cut with the sword, an Agnin has fallen to his knees. Another swing, and his head is on the grass.

I have seen this, many times before, but it has not prepared me for the pain I feel.

My duty is the tactician. She looks at me with those glowing eyes, and I see no empathy. Only calculation. I am a hillock on her road, and – she thinks – I see she thinks – there are a million more like me.

She raises her hand and flames burst from her palm.

It is my lot.

I heard a tale, once. From a wizened old man, cracked over the years. He told me that the gods, were the lordlings to ever lose, would remake the world once more, and try again, and again, until they succeeded.

I wish I had been born with the gods’ favour.

I drop my axe, and I face the tactician as proudly as my shaking body will let me.

‘Go on,’ I say.

Her moment of confusion is my triumph, before her flames engulf me.

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Written by G.J.

13/03/2014 at 9:21 pm

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