In The Winter of Their LivesMature

The seemingly endless expanse of the Bascan river glittered as the sun crept to the west. Amidst the waves, thirty five horses blew mist from their nostrils on the exhale; their breathing intensifying as they swam with fervor across the rushing waters.

Rook looked back, his view bobbing as water lapped at his face. He was chest deep in the river, afloat on the strong swimming strokes of his chestnut mare; of whose head was the only thing to break the water's surface. On the banks behind him the men were slashing shoots of grass and felling small trees with their swords. He peered, as best he could, to the ridge where the stillness he witnessed made him briefly wonder if there was a battle underway at all. The anxiety clawing in his chest was not eased in the slightest; he knew their time was short and that, any moment now, a horde of men would come cascading over that ridge. Looking forward, the far bank of the river seemed no closer than it had been from land. He sighed, got as comfortable as he could on his horse and comforted his mare by stroking her neck from beneath the water's surface. “You're doing great darling,” he told her, peering at the distant bank with unease. “You're doing just great.”

- - - -

Behind him, Bishop could hear the cracking of trees and whipping of swords through the tall grass. He shook his head and refocused; concentrating his senses on the ridge ahead. The satchel of javelins draped over the rump of his courser was nearly empty. With a grunt, he reached back and snatched one of the few remaining projectiles; his gaze never leaving the hilltop. At his sides, his formation of scarcely over a hundred men stood firm; their spears like tall quills shooting up from the ground as they stood easy. The width of the line was barely enough to cover the men hard at work behind them; but it was their last line of defence and Bishop was not in the custom of failing. He knew that the odds were highly against them; and that it was likely he would die safeguarding the passage of his brothers. His grim thoughts were interrupted when he heard the patter of hooves behind him. 

Kalder rode up to his side. “Sir, I've come with the first round of men who've constructed their share of bundles. We're to help you hold the line.” 

Bishop turned to see a good hundred men; a mix of pikemen and archers. He nodded, “thank you,” he said, “but if we all hold the line; there won't be anyone left alive to cross the river with your beloved bundles.”

Kalder smiled, there was a moment of silence before he spoke. “Many of these men are old and sickly. We were Stahll's shock troops. Expendable. I don't think any of us really intended on making it back home. Your men,” Kalder looked about. “Your men are young and have a good deal of life ahead of them. I would rather we in the winter of our lives take their place among the dead.” 

With a chuckle, Bishop reached over and put his hand on the old veteran's shoulder. “My friend, we are all much older than you might imagine, though I do certainly appreciate the sentiment.” In an instant, Bishop's face grew stern; his lips became a tight line.

“I hear it too,” said Kalder, unphased. 

The men about them stirred; a rumbling at their feet bode only dire news.

The enemy would soon be upon them.  

The End

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