He drew a breath through his nostrils, and smelled the storm on the chill, earthy air. Kalfinar opened his eyes and peered beyond the torch-lit rampart of the battlements, and into the twilight-draped shadow of the woods.
“Think we’re getting some wild weather tonight. What do you think, Captain?” a young soldier asked.
Kalfinar didn’t need to look at the man to know he felt cold more keenly than those seasoned to the Hardalen peaks. “First of the North Storms will hit tonight. We’ll miss it. Night Command will relieve us shortly.” Kalfinar’s gaze remained fixed at the dark fringe of the forest that slid down the side of the mountain towards the garrison. “Something watches from the tree line.”
“I can feel eyes on me.” Kalfinar turned and looked at the soldier.
The man tried to hide the shiver that convulsed up his body, despite wearing a coat of oiled leather and fleece on top of his chainmail.
“Can’t you feel it?” A humourless grin stretched crookedly between the stubble of Kalfinar’s beard. He grunted and turned back to the woods. “Don’t fret it, boy. You’ll get the sense of it like the rest of us sorry old bastards.”
Eighteen years and a day since I took my commission. Longer than this lad’s been off the tit.
Kalfinar could smell the pungent oil from Sergeant Subath’s chainmail before he heard the veteran’s footsteps. He turned to greet his former mentor and his platoon of Night Command troops as they began the nightly ritual of relieving the watch.
“Major Kalfinar, sir. In welcoming the moon, let me relieve you of your duty. Anything to report?”
“It’s captain, Sergeant. Must we do this every night?”
“But, Major, these words have been our tradition for centuries.”
“Not the words, Sergeant. My rank.”
“Still a major to me, sir.” Subath winked in distracting fashion. His battle-damaged eyelid twitched lazily.
“Thought I was still a cadet to you.”
“Aye, you’re still that, too. You can be both.”
“I’m gratified, Sergeant.” Kalfinar leaned in closer to Subath and lowered his voice. “But in front of the lads, let’s just stick to captain. You know as well as anyone it was deserved.”
“Perhaps so, sir.”
Kalfinar sighed. “There is the correct order of things, Sergeant. Let’s not corrupt the judgement of our young officers too much, too soon.”
“As you say, Captain,” said Subath, wearing an ill-suited mask of reverential innocence.
“Better.” Kalfinar turned to face the woods as the first of the snowflakes began to float downwards. The small snowflakes sizzled as they drifted into the oil torches. “Quiet so far. Nothing to report. The first storm will hit tonight.”
“Aye. Could feel that in my knees these last few days,” Subath grumbled.
“One other thing. Probably nothing. I think there’s something in the tree line. A wolf, perhaps. I could feel eyes on me.”
“We’ll keep a watch. If we see it, we’ll drop it. The lads could do with some target practice.”
“Good.” Kalfinar fidgeted with the pommel of his sword.
“I’ve got it from here,” Subath said in hushed tones. “Get back in there and get yourself some sleep. You look like shit.”
Kalfinar smiled and clasped hands with Subath. “Thanks for your kind words. Good watch to you, Sergeant.” He strode off along the battlement and towards the stairs that led to the courtyard. Kalfinar ignored the huddled troops. He knew they watched and whispered as he made his way across and the mud-clogged courtyard towards the large stone keep. He had learned to stop caring what words were issued in dark corners.
He made his way towards the accommodation wing and lit an oil lamp before he entered his chamber. He shivered as he entered.
Window’s open again.
He strode to the window and shut it as best he could, in spite of the faulty latch. The room was the standard accommodation for officers. It comprised a square with unadorned stone walls, and a floor of age-smoothed wooden boards. A thin bed lined the wall nearest the door. Across from the bed were a writing desk and chair. Beside this stood a wardrobe and a large wooden chest, upon which sat a single worn book. He unbuckled his sword belt and hung it beside the bedside table. Kalfinar kicked off his boots and rubbed his hands to get the blood moving, not that it did any good. He walked the short distance across the room and hunkered down by the stone fireplace. He built a small pyre of birch bark and kindling, then picked up the alloy spark-rod and scraped his knife down its length. The shower of sparks caused a timid flame to grow upon the curling edges of bark. Kalfinar carefully placed a trio of logs atop the flame, and gradually brought the fire to life.
Bloody winter again, and so soon.
He heaved a sigh and removed his belt and chainmail shirt. He hung the mail and the rust-splotched under-jacket over the back of the chair, and pulled on a simple shirt. Kalfinar walked to the chest and picked up the book. His nightly ritual.
“The word of Dajda,” he read aloud from the cover, and then opened to where a page had been earmarked.
The printed ink had been stained and distorted by liquid at some point in the past, but that didn’t matter. Kalfinar knew every word within. He smiled bitterly at the marks of his tears. “For Dajda will welcome her children to her bosom, when their souls do rejoin. Rejoice, and let thy sorrow fly, for all are reborn in the mighty hall of Dajda.” Kalfinar hawked phlegm and spat into the tear-streaked text. “Fucking shit on you. No more.” He tossed the book into the fire.
The little girl running towards Kalfinar could not have been more than three years old. Her hair, curly and brown, was like her mother’s, but her eyes were deep green like those of her father. Kalfinar knelt and embraced his small, smiling daughter. As he held her, she laughed, and what a rich little sound it was. It was so familiar to him, as though he had heard it a thousand times before. But he knew he had never heard his daughter’s laugh, nor felt the warmth of her embrace. The image began to run and wash away like ink in the rain. She was gone again, as always.
Kalfinar woke slowly. The craving gnawed at him, as it always did when he awoke. He shivered and hot tears welled in his eyes. His hands fumbled as they searched the small bedside table for his jalsinum pipe, or anything that could relieve the hurt. There was nothing but the pommel of his sword. There hadn’t been any relief for over two years now. He offered a curse to the night and pulled his wool blanket tight about him. It was hopeless. The blanket provided little comfort against the gale that howled through the tall trees outside, or the chill within. It was a cruel night, and the weak fire that smouldered in the small fireplace put up little fight. He rested his head once more upon his bed and closed his eyes.
When sleep came, it was fitful and nervous. It was the sleep of one afraid to dream.
But Kalfinar did dream.
An oily blackness welled around him. A pervasive sense of malice stalked him as though he were quarry. Out of the uneasy darkness burst flame, broken by guttural and alien whispers. As the flames grew more violent and hot, the dread in his mind swelled, and flooded with panic.
He opened his eyes and saw a figure in the corner of his room. A blacker form in the shadows. It moved quickly in the murky dark. The gusts outside rose to a scream and lightning crashed as the being shot towards him. Kalfinar lurched from his bed and grabbed his attacker’s wrists. He held firm, struggling against his assailant’s strength, before directing a short punch to its throat. The attacker gurgled, strength wavering for just an instant.
It was all the time Kalfinar needed.
He pushed out and sent a kick into the figure’s midriff. It grunted and crumpled into the fireplace, raising a cloud of sparks and embers. Kalfinar turned and pulled his sword from its scabbard. As he spun back to face his risen foe, he brought the blade down with an overhead blow. With a wet thump, the sword cleaved into the body between neck and shoulder. Kalfinar tried to free his weapon, but it had become fixed in bone. From his assailant, there was no cry of pain. It took no notice of the wound, and slid the point of its knife into Kalfinar’s body beneath the shoulder.
Unable to free his sword, Kalfinar cried out and released his grip. He pushed at the attacker with one hand and grabbed at the knife in his shoulder. The blade made a faint sucking noise as he pulled it free. He then thrust the knife into the black figure’s chest. As Kalfinar released his grip, the would-be killer fell to the floor. Kalfinar’s head swam.
He fell into darkness.