This short story originally appeared on the blog as the Lieutenant Liam story. I’ve gathered it here in one place to allow for easier reading. Want to know more about these characters? Check out the Rise of Aredor series HERE or other short stories HERE.
The battle was going badly. Liam ducked another arrow and fumbled for one of his own. His quiver was empty.
“Gavin! I’m out!” he yelled down the line.
“Sorry, Lieutenant! We don’t have many left!” Gavin yelled back. Liam cursed. More ladders bumped up against the wall. He risked a quick glance up at their tattered standard flying bravely on the walls. After three days of endless siege, Lynwood Keep was about to fall.
Liam threw down his bow and found his sword again. Just in time as a howling Calorin sprung over the walls at him. He wished this nightmare would end, that he could wake up and the invasion had never happened. Instead, they were fighting for their lives with no hope of any reinforcements. He worked his way down the wall towards the gates where another sound was added to the chaos. A battering ram had pounded ceaselessly since the day before.
“Lieutenant! What are you doing down here?” the old, grizzled captain of the Keep yelled when he saw Liam.
“Any new orders, sir?” Liam yelled back. He saw the quick look of desperation in Captain Marcus’ eyes.
“Same as before! Fight like the devil to stay alive!” the captain shouted.
They tried, but the Calorins kept coming. In the end, the gates were breached and the Calorins flooded over the walls as the defenders moved to the courtyard. Liam marshaled as many men together as he could, trying to get to the west gate and out into the forest. If they could make it there, no Calorin could catch the men of Lynwood Keep in the woods. But they never did. Liam had a brief thought that even if they had reinforcements, they could never overcome the Calorins. They were too powerful. He saw another one of his men get cut down, and then there was searing pain and darkness.
Waking brought no relief. He opened his eyes to see bloody cobblestones. He lurched upright, not knowing whose it was. A hand steadied him.
“Easy, Lieutenant,” someone said. He vaguely identified the voice as Bran’s. He sat up and held a hand to his throbbing head, feeling a mass of dried blood on his forehead. For the moment, any survivors had been forced to the center of the courtyard within sight of the ruined gates. There were more than Liam might have expected.
“What’s going on?” he asked Bran quietly.
“Not much. I don’t think you’ve been out for that long. As far as I can tell, they’re trying to decide what to do with us,” Bran said. He gave a quick nod to one of the Calorins. “That extraordinarily pompous one must be their leader. He’s been strutting around and getting a few cheers out of them for a while now.”
Liam almost gave a smile. Bran could be counted on to give a unique view of any situation. A faint moan distracted Liam. He turned to see that the wounded had been left with them as well. His healer instinct took over and he moved slowly to the nearest warrior, ignoring Bran’s faint hiss.
“Lieutenant, I don’t think you should…” the wounded man tried to say, but Liam pressed him down.
“Easy, Dan,” he said quietly. “I’m going to borrow some of your tunic so I can bandage your leg,” he said as he ripped a swath of cloth from Dan’s tunic. He did the same with others until one man stopped him by nodding past his head. Liam turned slowly to see that his movement had attracted the attention of their guard. The Calorin met his gaze and unexpectedly gave him a small nod and turned away again as if he had seen nothing. Liam quickly finished with the bandage on the man’s arm. But a few minutes later, his luck changed. He was using part of a cloak to try and staunch a gaping wound on a soldier’s chest. He heard Bran bark his name then another blow came. He was knocked forward and splattered with blood as the Calorins killed the man he’d been helping.
He rolled to the side, dodging another blow. This time he saw the spear and as it came down again, he grabbed it and yanked it from its owner. Springing to his feet, he quickly reversed the weapon and stabbed the Calorin. He killed two more before they backed away. A shout forced him to look. The Calorin commander had his sword to Bran’s chest. His intent was clear so Liam threw down the spear and was grabbed by two Calorins as the commander came to stand in front of him. Bran was right, Liam saw. The man’s face was arrogant, his hair perfectly combed, and his armor was spotless. He hadn’t fought at all during the battle, being more than content to throw his men at the walls until they all died or the Keep fell. He made Liam sick.
“I see you are smart,” he said to Liam in a clipped accent. “But I also see that you think you are brave. I have another word for men like you. Stupid or dead.”
“Technically, that’s two words,” Liam couldn’t help but point out. His response got him a blow to the face and smothered laughs from his men. That angered the Calorin even more and his men began to pound Liam mercilessly with their spears. They stopped when he fell awkwardly to his knees. The Calorin crouched in front of him.
“They don’t laugh now,” he said. “And they won’t when they see what will become of you.” He fingered Liam’s cross belt with the silver buckle. “You are one of their officers. No wonder they watch you. They respect you. You people are so loyal. What are you to them? A captain, maybe?”
“Second….Lieutenant…Liam…of Lynwood Keep,” he gritted around a mouth full of blood. His words echoed across the courtyard, silent now as everyone watched them. The men of the garrison straightened imperceptibly as he defiantly stated his rank. The Calorin said some words to his men and Liam was hauled upright and pulled in front of the prisoners. Two others were brought to stand with him. Captain Marcus and Third Lieutenant Ianto who could barely stand. Liam saw the blood dripping from a wound in his leg and a cut to his abdomen.
“Hold on, Ianto, maybe they’ll let me treat you in a few minutes,” Liam said to him.
“Doubtful, Lio. I don’t think our dear fresh faced overlord is going to let you do anything,” Ianto said as he grimaced.
“It was well intentioned, Liam, but stupid,” Captain Marcus said. “But it’s moments like those that I’m reminded why I made you lieutenant.”
“Really? I thought it was because you owed me a really big favor,” Liam said. He was punched in the ribs again and his captors growled at him in Calorin.
“Listen all of you!” the “overlord” announced to his prisoners. “Lord Balkor ordered that any prisoners shall be kept alive to serve us, your new masters. But, I’m afraid that your commanders must be removed.”
Bran saw immediately what he meant and sprang to his feet with a shout, hurling a curse at the Calorins. He would not be silenced even as they beat him down.
“However, it was requested that one be sent to another location, to remind others what might happen if they decide to challenge us. For this honor, I have chosen Second Lieutenant Liam. As for these others, let this be an example for all of you,” the Calorin said, drawing his sword.
Liam shouted and tried to fight free, struggling to stop the Calorin as his bright blade became stained with blood. Liam stared in disbelief at the still bodies of Marcus and Ianto. He hurled his hatred at the Calorin, his strangled shouts echoing in the hushed courtyard. He even hated himself as a tear freed itself from his eye.
“As for you – you will be taken to the coastal town. There you will be beaten and then executed with your weapons and this belt hanging above you so that everyone will know who you are. You will be seen as a failure and hated by the people because you failed to stop us from destroying their homes. Then see how far your bravery will get you,” the commander snarled.
Liam was dragged away in front of the garrison, still silent in shock over the last few minutes. The Calorins left him in one of the cells beneath Lynwood Keep. There Liam waited in misery for the dawn. When it came, he barely cared. His hands were chained in front of him and he was led out again. The captive Aredorians were all assembled in the courtyard as he was brought out. Horses stood ready, and on one hung a bundle of his weapons. He wondered dully how they had collected the right ones, but then, maybe he didn’t. He was forced to mount the horse and a Calorin took the reins.
They made ready to ride out when Liam heard his name called. He turned to see Bran step forward and salute him. Slowly, every man did the same. There was admiration in some of the Calorins’ faces. Liam’s throat choked for a moment, then he returned the salute. He wished that it could be his last image of the world. The guard made no attempt to punish Bran for his act of defiance, though the commander’s face showed that they would both be dealt with later.
The horses were held to a walk, and occasionally a trot. Liam rode with his eyes fixed on his horse’s neck and mane. He couldn’t bring himself to watch the forest as it slid slowly by. It had been his home since he came to Lynwood Keep as a young boy of fourteen, eager to start his training. And now, ten years later, he was leaving to die. His body would be discarded in some ditch, left to rot instead of being buried in the silent forest alongside countless generations of the defenders of the Keep.
They paused to drink and water the horses at a stream. Liam as before, got nothing. One of the guards had tried earlier, but the captain, as sadistic as his commander, had forbidden it. A few minutes later they moved on. By midafternoon they had entered a darker part of the forest. The Calorins shifted uneasily even though the path stretched out unhindered in either direction. They muttered quietly to each other, casting nervous glances to the looming trees. A moan and a thud brought them all to a halt. They turned to see that one of the guards had fallen from his horse. Another Calorin dismounted and went over to him, staggering back with a cry when he saw that the man’s throat had been cut. The patrol began to stir uneasily. There was no sign of anyone or anything but them. Liam was just as confused as they were. There was a flash and a knife spun lazily into the chest of another soldier. It had seemed to come from nowhere.
Then, there was a dark figure standing on the path, a lethal looking blade in his hand. Two men staggered back from the blade. Liam felt himself dragged from the horse and held in front of the Captain, a knife to his throat. The figure spoke.
“You think you can handle that coward if I take care of the rest?” he asked. His voice carried the slight accent of the coast. Liam found he still had plenty of fight in him, despite his aching body.
“Give me the word,” he replied. Even under the hood, Liam could have sworn the man smiled.
“Now!” he said. The man charged the five other soldiers who had dismounted to face him. Liam threw back his head, catching the captain square in the face. Cursing the manacles that hindered his hands, he managed to grab the knife and dispatch the Captain. Hoof beats alerted him that his rescuer was in danger. The remaining mounted soldier was spurring his horse towards them, javelin poised for the kill. Liam saw another spear lying on the ground. He scooped it up and ran towards the horse, kneeling in its path and setting the javelin at the perfect angle. By some miracle he was not crushed as the horse and its rider tumbled to ruin.
He was helped to his feet by his rescuer.
“Any get away?” Liam asked.
“Two took off south on horseback. The nearest village is still half a day’s ride if they even know where they’re going.” He sounded disappointed that any had escaped. “Let’s get these off you, if the keys didn’t run off.”
“The captain had them,” Liam told him. The stranger stalked over to the body and ripped the keys away from the belt, retrieving his knife from another Calorin on his way back.
“Let’s get out of here,” he said as he unlocked the manacles. Liam rubbed his wrists gratefully.
“What about them?” He gesturing to the bodies.
“They left plenty of our people to rot. I don’t see that they deserve to be treated any different.” His hood had fallen back, and Liam saw that his grey eyes were a hard as his voice.
Liam unbuckled his weapons from the saddle of the horse that had been killed. The outlaw did the same with the other two horses that remained. He stripped the packs from the saddles, as well a bow and quiver. He nodded wordlessly and Liam followed him from the path. After almost a mile, they halted at the entrance to a shallow cave. The last thing Liam expected his guide to do was drop the bags, stagger and half collapse. He caught at him.
“You’re hurt!” he exclaimed.
“My leg. It’s an old wound,” the man gritted. Liam helped him into the cave and helped him sit on the rough pallet against the wall.
“Let me see it,” he ordered. The man almost too grateful to argue and he began unlacing his boot. Liam had to help him pull it off and he quickly saw why. There was a dirty bandage wrapped around his calf, and dried blood down his leg was dampened by fresh blood oozing from under the bandage.
“Don’t move,” Liam ordered unnecessarily. He still had a pouch hanging at his belt holding some medicines and needles. He collected the water skins and found a clean shirt in the Calorin’s packs that he tore into strips. Wishing his own hands weren’t still covered in dirt and blood, he began to work away at the bandage. The man stared grimly at the ceiling as it came slowly off. But it stuck firmly to the wound itself. Liam poured water over it to loosen it, and tore it away. The man cut short an agonized cry and uttered a rough oath that caused Liam’s hair to curl a little.
“You could’ve warned me!” he said.
“How old is this?” Liam asked in return, pressing a fresh cloth against his leg.
“Almost two weeks,” came the reply.
“Arrow wound?” Liam probed again.
“Aye, I got shot as I made it into the forest. It was too deep, so I stopped eventually and pushed it through,” he said.
“Eventually?” Liam raised an eyebrow. Wishing for hot water, he began to wash it again with water from the water skins. The wound had broken open again during the fight, he guessed. He found needle and thread and began to stitch. “It’s a wonder you could even walk at all,” he said.
“I collapsed here a few days ago,” the man admitted. “I must have even been sick for a day or so. But food was in short supply so I had to move again. That’s when I saw you and that patrol. As much as it hurt, I hate them even more.”
“Where were you two weeks ago?” Liam asked.
“Fighting at Carnedd with the last of the coastal warbands and Prince Darrin. I’m the only one who made it here,” he said. The implication stung Liam. The Prince was captured or more probably dead. “You from Lynwood?” the man asked and Liam nodded.
“It fell yesterday.” The admission felt bitter on his tongue.
“Where were they taking you?” he asked.
“Darkan Village,” Liam replied shortly. He briefly touched his cross belt. “I was supposed to be an example.”
The man swallowed hard. “I’ve seen it. At a small garrison we got to too late. The men were gone but the captain’s body was left. That was the first time any of my men saw me get sick.”
Liam saw the belt and silver buckle across his chest. A lieutenant as well. They shared the same look.
“What happened to your men?” he asked.
“Most were still alive, but by now,” Liam let the thought go unfinished. “Yours?”
“Dead,” was the only reply. Liam wrapped a new bandage around the wound.
“That should hold you for a while. You hurt anywhere else?” he asked.
“Nothing that can’t wait. You should look after yourself,” he replied. “There’s a stream nearby where you can wash.” He made as if to get up, but Liam held him down.
“I can find it. You’re staying off that leg. Lie down and sleep if you can,” he said. It was as if those words made the man realize how tired he was. He lay back without arguing and within a few minutes was asleep. Liam rummaged quickly through the packs, finding some more clean clothes and even some soap. He left the cave and found the stream. Kneeling down, he drank thirstily, rinsing his mouth of the taste of blood that still lingered.
He looked down at his reflection in the water. Blood caked his forehead and a cut along his jaw. His uniform was stained with blood, though hardly any of it was his. He unbuckled his belts and pulled off his leather tunic. He pulled off the mail coat with some difficulty. It was the first time in days that he had removed it. His bracers and boots followed and he gingerly pulled off his shirt. He assessed the bruises and welts that covered his body. From the way his ribs ached, his suspected that they were cracked. He unwound the bandages from the other wounds that he had taken during the siege, and began to wash.
He finished and held himself underwater, allowing the cold stream water to wash away the last traces of blood. He used a blanket to dry and dressed in the Calorin clothes he had taken from the pack. After washing his clothes in the stream, he gathered everything together and went back to the cave. His rescuer was still asleep so Liam quietly laid his belongings down. Darkness was falling as he gathered wood together and started a fire. Sitting down beside it, he began to re-bandage his wounds. Several blows with a spear had broken open a wound on his leg. Unwillingly he took out the needle again. He hated trying to take care of himself and stitch his own wounds.
He was halfway through when the man stirred and opened his eyes.
“You need any help?” he asked watching Liam.
“After seeing the job you did on your leg, no,” Liam replied, not taking his attention away. He gritted his teeth as he pushed the needle through his skin again, closing the wound. He tied it off and wrapped a new bandage around it.
“I don’t even know your name,” the man said. “I’m Trey.”
“Liam. And thanks.”
“It looks like I might be the one who ends up in your debt,” Trey said, with a trace of a smile.
Liam looked up at him. The name sounded so familiar. Then he put it together.
“You’re Lord Cadwgan’s son,” he said. Trey’s face hardened.
“Was. He’s dead. How did you know?” he asked.
“Occasionally one of our patrols would make it all the way down to the coast. There were a few stories in which your name got mentioned,” Liam told him.
“What? Like how I can fight like ten men? How I held off a whole ship of Raiders? It’s all exaggerated. And in the end, I couldn’t stop the Calorins, could I? I ran. Darrin is lost, and my brother and father are gone as well,” Trey said bitterly. Liam stared into the dancing flames of the fire. There were no words to assuage the grief either of them felt.
They silently shared a meal from the rations in the packs. Liam caught Trey yawning again. It looked like he hadn’t gotten any decent food or sleep for days.
“I’ll take the first watch,” he said.
“You sure?” Trey asked.
“Aye, I don’t feel like sleeping right now.”
“Make sure you wake me in a few hours. You still need to rest,” Trey said. Liam only nodded.
But when Trey awoke, it was almost midmorning. Liam still sat by the entrance to the cave. He had dressed in his own clothes again and was cleaning and repairing his leather tunic, occasionally stirring the thick stew that simmered over the fire. He hadn’t slept all night, and had gone hunting and foraging with the dawn.
“What part of ‘wake me up’ did you not hear?” Trey asked him, sounding mildly angry.
“How’s your leg?” Liam asked in return.
“Good. The food will be done in a few minutes if you wanted to wash.”
Trey had managed to hold onto his own pack, and pulled new clothes from it. He shrugged out of his tunic and mail coat. Like Liam, he hadn’t taken them off in days. Pulling himself upright he found he could bear to put some weight on his injured leg, and limped slowly to the stream. After weeks of running and fighting, he had almost forgotten what it felt like to be clean. When he made it back, Liam insisted on seeing his other wounds.
“You’re quite the mother aren’t you?” Trey said as Liam finished and handed him some food.
“That’s what they tell me,” Liam replied, the faintest of smiles on their faces. They both tore hungrily into the hot food, something almost regarded as a luxury after the past weeks.
The better part of the day was spent in silence as they both concentrated on the task of cleaning, oiling, and repairing their gear. For dinner, Liam brought in several fish from the lines he had set that morning. He surrendered them willingly to Trey to cook, settling back against the cave wall and wrapping the cloak taken from the Calorins around him. It was summer, but the nights were always cool in the forest.
“So you know where I’m from,” Trey broke the silence. “What about you?”
“I was born in a small village not far from the forest,” Liam said. “I didn’t have much of a family there, so when I got to Lynwood, they became my family.”
“Why’d you choose Lynwood?” Trey asked.
“My grandfather served there. He was the Second Lieutenant too,” Liam said. “I can barely remember him telling me stories about the Keep, but they’re what made my decision.”
“What about your father?” Trey couldn’t help but ask.
“He died in a hunting accident when I was four,” Liam said.
“Sorry,” Trey said. Liam shrugged. It was so long ago, he barely remembered. They ate in silence again. Then Trey spoke.
“I’m taking watch, and I’m a First Lieutenant, so you can’t argue with me,” he said. Liam almost smiled.
“Fine…sir,” he replied. The ghost of a smile passed over Trey’s face.
“Don’t worry, I’ll wake you up later,” he said. Liam hadn’t slept in almost four days, and he succumbed to the exhaustion as soon as he lay down. Trey did have to wake him up, but not to take watch.
He heard his name called, and jerked out of a nightmare. For a moment he thought he was still there, the dream had been so real.
“Liam! Easy! What happened?” Trey asked concernedly. He helped Liam sit up.
“I just can’t forget him killing Ianto,” Liam said.
“The other Lieutenant?” Trey guessed.
“We grew up together so we were close,” Liam said. “He shouldn’t have died like that.”
“Maybe you’ll get a chance to avenge him,” Trey said.
“When? When could I possibly have a chance like that?” Liam shouted. “The Calorins have completely taken over! What do we do now? We’ve both lost everything, so what chance do we have?” he said hopelessly. He tried in vain to stop the tears, but his body refused. He dimly felt Trey hold him until they subsided.
“Sorry,” he said, wiping away the traces.
“That’s nothing to be ashamed of,” Trey replied, and Liam saw that his own eyes were bright with tears.
“What now?” Liam asked again.
“We do the best we can out here,” Trey said. “Maybe we aren’t the only ones who survived. If there are others, we can band together. I’m not dying out here in this forest until I give the Calorins absolute hell.”
Liam saw the cold determination in Trey’s eyes and felt fresh resolve of his own. They had lived when so many others hadn’t. They could find a way to make the Calorins pay, some way or another.