The land near the rivers edge was soft, wet and dominated by tall reeds. Among the shoots, nearly two hundred battle weary men rested uneasily, sunken in the muddy earth as Les and Luke rode toward them, their horses hooves caked with dark soil.
As they entered the marsh, Luke turned to Kalder, "Move ahead to our men, let them know what is to transpire. When I am done here, I will meet with you and we will bring our forces together."
Kalder nodded before pulling the reins and turning away.
As the riders moved deeper into the marshland along the riverside, all eyes turned to the man they recognized on the back of the Endrians horse. Some soldiers rose, standing ankle deep in the marsh, questions abound.
"What's with the Endrian?"
"Is that Melchior?"
Whispers raced throughout the ranks and unrest bolstered forth.
"Silence!" Les demanded, his hand raised. "The situation has changed, this man is an Endrian commander, he has rescued Melchior from death and wishes to merge our forces. It is our last hope for survival. Beyond the hill, thousands march toward this position with obvious intent."
More cries came from the men, so many questions that they all merged into a babbling cacophony.
"Enough!" Les yelled. "There's no time." he said, turning to Luke.
Luke nodded and dismounted form his horse. He took Melchior onto his shoulder and trudged through the muddy riverbank toward the men.
A half dozen came forward, taking Melchior carefully while training their eyes without fail on the Endrian carrying him. Melchior was quickly sent to where the triage of the wounded was taking place.
Luke looked on as the men stared back at him with expectation in their eyes. Unsteady, he began to speak. "I know that somewhere, there's a perfect speech for this situation. Somewhere out there, there is a glorious oration that would quell all your fears and truly bring our two forces together under the same banner. I'm here to tell you that I don't know that passage, I don't have those words. Nonetheless, I do know that without our mutual cooperation, we won't survive to see the end of this day. With that said, I offer the Blackguard Brigade my allegiance, and that of my men." Luke held out the dark blade, expecting Melchior's men to take it. Instead they simply looked on. "Take the sword, it is not mine to carry." He insisted.
Men shook their heads, others stepped back.
A hand fell on Luke's shoulder. "They cannot take it." Les said.
"Then will you? Are you not the second in command?"
Les looked down at the ashen sword. "I too am unable to carry its burdens."
Luke shook his head. "I don't understand."
"This is not any sword. It cannot be wielded by any given hand. Be it fate, or chance, it has chosen you. As such, you are now and forever bound with its destiny.
"I don't believe in destiny, Les."
"Belief is not a requirement Luke. You have a new charge, and for your sake, I hope Melchior does not perish from his wounds, for I would hate to have to witness the transformation a second time."
Luke looked down at the weapon. "What do I do?"
"You lead." Les said with a faint smile before looking out over the men, all standing and ready to follow.
A rider closed on the Duke's entourage. He trotted in, nonchalantly. “Sir, we've pushed the remainder of Stahll's forces all the way to the Bascan. However, it seems that our scouts are reporting something odd.”
“What is it?” The Duke asked.
The rider cleared his throat and continued. “It looks as though the remainder of the Endrian forces are rallying under the Blackguard Brigades banner.”
For a moment, a look of concern washed over the Duke's wrinkled brow, but then with a light of recognition, he turned to the rider. “How many are there altogether?”
“They are reporting roughly four hundred men remaining sir.” The man said.
“They haven't the slightest chance. Are they standing ready?” Asked the Duke.
“Simply regrouping at the moment sir. There's no sign as to what they are preparing to do.”
“Then get back down there and find out damn it!”
“Yes sir.” The horseman pulled his steed about and broke into a gallop, returning the way he came.
Thomias set his eyes on the hillside of which beyond lay the rivers bank. There, on its shore, was his quarry. “I want to move up.” he said. “Make the order.”
The men Kalder spoke to all shot a glance over his shoulder and past him, their eyes wide. He himself turned to look, and there coming through the tall grass rode Luke, still brandishing the black blade. Behind the young Knight was the last of the Blackguard Brigade Irregulars; trudging through the marsh.
The Endrian remnants grew uneasy. Those standing put hand to hilt, those resting took to their feet.
“Be calm.” said Kalder. “We are one now.”
“Kalder.” Luke said, once he rode into earshot.
The aged archer bowed. “My lord.”
“No need for that here Kalder. You are my captain. Stand.”
“Les?” Luke said, turning to his right. “We are ready. What is to be done?”
With a glance over his battered forces, he pondered. “There's no hope for us to fight our way out. The way to the Gorman bridge in the south west is probably already cut off. Not to mention Endrian forces there will have no doubt already gotten news of our betrayal by the time we arrive.”
“Even if it were clear, we wouldn't make the trek in this condition.” Said Rook.
“North east is into the clansman, and Lorick's cavalry.” Blaine added.
Rook sighed. “Don't forget the archers in the wood line at the hilltop.”
Kalder cleared his throat. “I may have a suggestion.” he said.
All eyes turned to the old archer.
“There is a forest, to the northwest.” Kalder said, “It is on the north side of the river, and -”
“Drearwood?” Luke interjected. “You're proposing we risk going through Drearwood?”
Kalder nodded. “Jesba is not far from it's northwstern edge. We could cross the river, trek through the forest and be at your doorstep within a week.”
“That forest is not kind to travelers” Luke said, “I have been told it is an ossuary.”
“A grave site?” Asked Bishop.
“No.” Luke continued. “It is a term we use to describe an area cursed.”
Kalder nodded. “It is true, strange occurrences do take places in Drearwood, which is a lore we can use to our advantage. The clansmen won't want to venture through it, assuming they even attempt the river crossing.”
“They may not have to.” Les said. “If we don't survive the river crossing. How many of us know how to swim?”
Blaine put his hand up. “That isn't necessarily a requirement.”
“Go on.” Bishop said, intrigued by the comment.
“I have in the past used bundles of sticks and hay lashed together to help carry me across water as a personal raft. There is plenty to cut here. If we move quickly, we can discard our heavy armor and have each man gather up their individual bundles and cross the river.”
Les nodded. “That might work.”
“I can cross with my men first on horseback and cover you from the far side.” Rook said.
Les surveyed the men. “Any objections?” There was silence. “Very well. Blaine, describe the amount of wood and hay needed to help each man across and ensure they are constructed properly. Rook, rally your men and cross as soon as possible, cover us from the far side. Bishop, set up a defense to hold them back as long as possible I'll send you reinforcements shortly.” He glared up the hillside, expecting a runner to come charging down with news of the enemy on their heels, though the hill was still placid. “They'll be on us any moment. Let's get this done.”
The men nodded and immediately set out to complete their orders, leaving Kalder and Luke waiting.
“What of us?” Luke asked.
“As soon as half of your men have their bundles constructed, have them report to Bishop, I'll do the same. We'll need all the time we can muster if we're to have anyone actually cross safely.” Les saw Kalder scrutinizing the river intently. “What's the matter old man?”
“The current is strong. The horses could make it relatively quickly across, but when we are in the water we will linger, and drift westward. This is not entirely a bad thing.”
“Out of one harms way, and into another.” Luke said, thinking of the churning waters.
Les nodded silently. “It is the only way.” His mind wandered, and his attention shifted to his wounded brother. “I will check on Melchior, and report to you when I return.”
“Report to me?” Luke asked.
“Yes, haven't you figured it out yet? If Melchior passes on, you take up his responsibilities. You become the dark rider, the commander of the Irregulars.”
“And if he lives?”
“That.” Les said as he began to trot away. “... is an outcome of which Melchior will have to decide. I can scarce imagine the possibility of two men wielding the ashen blade at one time. For now, however, there is no question. You are the bearer of the burden.”
Luke looked down once again at the steel in his hand, its unnaturally cold blade causing condensation to form on its edge and evaporate into a pale mist. He wondered of its origins, of its purpose, and of the power he felt coursing through his arm as he held it. He wondered, and feared for what the answers to his questions may be.