Those Who Stay Behind

Caden knew he should have left the town of Pons earlier, but it was too late for that. The men and women fighting in the streets had seemed to come out of nowhere. Like a sudden squall, they had just appeared, filling the street from every direction. The combatants wore no uniforms, and it took several minutes of watching before Caden was able to distinguish between the two sides.

One side was clearly more organized, with better weapons and even some armor. The other was composed of the men and women who lived in the city. None of them wore armor, and their weapons were crude, makeshift things. Even though they were heavily outnumbered, the first group’s discipline gave them a clear advantage.

Caden could see the Arkan seal on some of the first group’s weapons. They had been soldiers, once, although that time looked to be long past. Caden had heard about gangs of deserters grouping together to take over towns or small cities, but had never seen it for himself. This is not my fight.

Outside, the battle continued. The townspeople’s losses mounted. Soon the battle would be a rout, and the events that would follow were as terrible as they were predictable. He put a coin on the table and got up. When he stepped out into the street with his sword unsheathed, eyes were watching him from the windows above the storefronts.

He was immediately confronted by a former soldier, a man missing the top half of his left ear. The man recognized something in him and turned away. Caden had seen many recruits who wouldn’t strike a man in the back during a battle, but those that survived their compunctions soon lost them. The man went down. By the time any of the others knew what was going on, he had killed three more.

Even after they had noticed him, they were no match. Between their fatigue and his experience, all they could manage were couple of nicks and a few near misses. Then Caden found their leader. He wasn’t wearing anything to identify him as such, but the way the others acted around him made it clear. A mace was dangling from his left hand, even though it was made of solid iron his grip was relaxed and he brought it up with ease.

The man rushed at Caden, so fast that he wouldn’t have been able to bring his sword up in time had it not already been there. The mace was as heavy as it looked, and Caden barely managed to deflect the blow. The man’s momentum carried him past Caden, and the tip of Caden’s sword cut through the skin of the man’s left arm as he turned around. The wound didn’t seem to faze the man at all, and he came at Caden again.

The second time he charged, Caden was prepared. He sidestepped and caught the man in the stomach. Still, he could feel the breeze as the mace passed within inches of his face. The man stumbled, then lurched away, almost tearing the sword out of Caden’s hands as it caught on a bone or a piece of armor. Instead of falling down as he should have, the man straightened up, his wound knitting itself closed as Caden watched. The men closest to their leader stumbled, and a couple of them fell down entirely.

“Monster,” Caden said, his voice almost a growl, but the man only laughed. He was drawing the strength from his followers, as long as they lived he would be nearly invulnerable. But every wound inflicted on the man weakened them, and Caden could see the course of the battle beginning to turn as the townsfolk took advantage of their opponents’ sudden weakness.

Caden lunged at the man, the tip of his sword lancing straight at the man’s throat. The man knocked the attack aside with a wild swing of his mace that threw him off balance. Caden moved in to take advantage of his opponent’s mistake, but the mace was already swinging back towards him. He felt his sword bite down into the man’s shoulder even as the mace connected with his head.

Caden woke in a small cot, crowded into a large room with dozens more. The only signs of anyone else were the bloodstains on the surrounding cots. Sun was lancing through the windows, and for that he was thankful. There was nothing so terrible as waking up in the middle of the night only to be confined with ignorance until dawn.

Outside, the town was gathered around a series of fresh graves, and in front of the group was a priest, wearing the eight pointed star of Arkos. Caden made his way to the back of the crowd, and they were all so absorbed in the ceremony that none of them noticed him.

There were twenty-seven graves, rectangles of black dirt laid out side by side, three rows deep. At the head of each one was a wooden placard with a name written on it, and the priest stopped at each one to sprinkle sea-water from a small bowl. He moved in silence, until he had anointed all of the graves, then he turned to face the townspeople.

“Three days have passed since our town was attacked, and many died, but our town still stands,” he began. “It may be tempting to look back at what happened and feel anger, or sadness, but the truth is that each of these men and women gave their lives willingly, so that all would not have to. Our duty now is to move forward, rebuild, and grow whole again, to do anything else would be to dishonor the memory of those who are buried here today.” He let the words hang in the silence of the gathering before he bowed his head and finished. “The will of Arkos be praised.”

The crowd echoed the last words, bowed, and began to disperse. Several of them were surprised to see Caden, but no one addressed him. A few men, women, and children stayed to place flowers on the graves of their loved ones, but soon they too had left. The priest approached Caden.

“Some of the people were worried that you would not wake up,” the priest said. “They said that the leader caught you in the head with that mace of his before you killed him. Is that true?” The two of them started to walk back towards the temple.

“I think so, but I could be mistaken,” Caden said, touching the side of his head but feeling no injury. “Twenty-seven dead, it must be difficult on the town.”

“Yes, but not all of them died in the battle. A half dozen of them were old men and women who were found dead in their homes,” the priest said. Caden stopped when he realized what that meant, they gave their lives for me.

“Will you show me their graves?” Caden asked. Am I any better than those I fought?

The priest looked at him, into his eyes, then nodded and led him back to the graves. They walked to the back row of graves and gestured to six of them. He listed the names of their occupants, but Caden wasn’t listening. Instead, he pulled out his pocket knife and cut open his thumb, squeezing it as he walked so that a drop or two of blood fell on each of the graves.

“What are you doing?”

“It’s the least that I can do,” Caden said. He prayed that it was enough.