Blood on the Snow

Jaromir cracked his scarred knuckles and gazed down the vale below him. Pinpricks of flickering light broke the floor of darkness, the only signs of the outland lodge that stood in the valley’s center. Dawn was still hours off, but he could not sleep. Like countless others of the Gatlyktan host that was assembled on the bluff, sleep did not come easily before battle.

He nodded at Kelby, the young, spry man that dogged him ceaselessly, and meandered his way back towards his tent, speaking softly to the various soldiers that he encountered on his way. The camp was utterly dark to avoid detection, but the lion’s keen eyesight, undiminished in his age, aided him in his travels. Though he wished for a bit of quiet before a battle, leisure time was something that did not come easily to a lion of his repute. Despite the hour, heads poked out of nearly every tent he passed: gazing admiringly at his impressive stature, asking small bits of advice or blessing, tossing playful banter and bits of encouragement. All the general demands of leadership… without the position.

The group’s leadership fell on Daichi, a young man, a boy really, and Gatlykta’s first born. This was his first command, and it showed. Jaromir passed the commander’s tent and nodded, noting that the man acknowledged him quickly, before looking away, as though quite busy.

Sighing, Jaromir continued his patrol.

“Are you excited Jary?” a lynx purred. He felt, rather than heard Asta materialize from the shadow and drop into step beside him.

“You should be asleep sister.” The lion growled, displeased with his younger sister’s behavior. As always. “This isn’t one of your games, Asta.”

“When are you going to take me seriously Jary?” he could feel Asta frowning beside him “I’m twenty-five, you know.”

“Aye, on the seventh, I recall.” Jaromir paused, massaging his beard. “And I’m twenty years your senior smarkind.”

“Don’t little one me,” Asta hissed, “I’ve killed a man with my fists.”

“Aye. And I wish you’d stop that. It’s dangerous to go about without a weapon, sister.”

“You don’t use one.”

“I’m bigger than you.”

* * *

Kelby marched by Jaromir’s side as the host made their way toward the outland lodge, dawn yet to break over the eastern horizon. Despite their stealth, the sound of boots crunching through ice filled the still morning air. Jaromir frowned. It seemed unlikely that the outlanders would hear them at this distance, but he wanted to leave nothing to chance.

Kelby yawned, and Jaromir started at the sudden noise by his side. “I thought I told you to sleep?”

Kelby yawned again in answer, covering his mouth haphazardly with a mailed gauntlet. “It’s just hard to sleep before a fight. You know that better than I.”

It was true that he had trouble sleeping before battle; that much was known among all the soldiers of the Gatlyktan host. It was, however, for different reasons than the bloodlust they touted him for.

“I was thinking…” the boy began with a half-stifled laugh, “I was thinking that I’d try fighting bare-handed today.”

Jaromir frowned. He had expected a childish quip, but he was going for the throat today.

“I was just thinking, since you do it so well-” Kelby pressed, determined to get a rise out of the old lion.

“Aye, boy. That you should.” Jaromir snarled through his teeth, turning to face the startled human. “And I’ll make sure your mother gets what’s left of you.”

“I was just–”

“I know.” Jaromir interrupted. “But it’s time you realized that war, this fighting… people die. And it might just as easily be you or me that does the dying. A piece of steel may be all that saves you today.”

The boy nodded, swallowing heavily. Jaromir couldn’t fault him. He’d been at least as reckless as Kelby when he was sixteen. “But you…”

Jaromir smiled as a yell broke down the line, then another.

“I’m an old lion Kelby, and a lion fights with his claws.”

The sun had crested over the trees to their right, casting a scattering of brilliance across the crystalline path that led to the outland lodge before them. The sun sparkled and refracted beautifully on the snow and mail of the assembled fighters, and the stillness of the morning was broken by the sound of drums and horns, the pounding of feet, and the hoarse yells of warriors.

“Stick close, boy,” The host broke into a run, descending upon the frightened defenders, a wave of iron and leather. “I’ll show you how a lion fights.”

Jaromir’s stride and impressive stature lent him a spot on the van. As such, he led the tide of warriors as they crashed into the feeble defenses the outlanders had raised. Arrows rained upon them as the fighters reached the rudimentary barriers that had been erected between houses., hoping to buy enough time to whittle down their impressive numbers. A few men fell to his sides, but Jaromir pressed on as the arrows bounced off his breastplate and thick hide. He bared his claws and roared as the inconsequential arrows struck him.

He approached the main gate at charging speed, and lowered his shoulder, bracing for impact. He knew that this would be the most heavily defended point, as it was the widest entrance into the small lodge. The longer they faced the hail of arrows that pelted them from above, the less effective they would be when they were able to fight.

Jaromir grunted as his shoulder struck the wooden gate with a crash. Something splintered on the other side, and he heard men’s shouts as they moved to fortify the barricade. He backed up, then turned and charged again, roaring with strain as the gate again shook back on it’s hinges, but managed to hold against his effort.

“Focus fire on their ram!” came a voice from inside.

“There’s just a single lion down there.”

“Kill him then!”

Jaromir smiled through his strain. He knew by the sounds the gate was making under the force of his blows that this hit would be the last. He signaled to Daichi, then lowered his shoulder and smashed into the barrier a final time, roaring with satisfaction as the mass of timber and iron splintered and fell inward, onto the reeling defenders that had braced the door from within.

“By the gods,” a man stood helpless as Jaromir caught him under the chin with a swipe from his massive paw, sending his head careening into the mass of defenders beyond. The body toppled lifelessly as Jaromir charged the mass of defenders, roaring.

The outlanders fought valiantly for their homes, for their families, but to say that they were outmatched would be a gross understatement. This was a slaughter.

Jaromir reaped as he walked, using his paws as blades to cleave a bloody swathe through the tide of defenders that blocked his path. He did not relent, and he did not turn to see how his fellows were faring. Such was his way, his duty. His goal was to kill the shoja. To end this violence outright. He could worry later.

The tide thinned as he cut his way to the shoja’s hut, until, finally, it was just the leader herself, and four honor-guard that stood before him.

“You have fought valiantly, felian.” The shoja coked through poorly constrained tears. “I am afraid that I must end this fight, however.” The woman sighed and hefted a battleaxe. Her soldiers drew their blades and advanced toward the lone giant, themselves two felians and two men. Jaromir bent his head in respect, still several heads higher than the shoja while bowing, and advanced, taking the guards unawares.

A blade flashed to his right, and he dodged narrowly. Utilizing his momentum, he swung with his massive paw, crushing the left-most defender’s shield beneath his bulk. The man tumbled into the house behind him, motionless. The felians attacked in sync, and as Jaromir stove in the helm of one, he noticed that they must be twins, due to their features. The felian’s brother roared, and advanced recklessly, falling quickly to a rending slash to his naked throat.

The final man stood fast before his shoja, his fear bubbling forth from his very core. He shook, holding his blade uncertainly, then advanced with a cry.

Jaromir smiled at the man’s bravery. They both knew his fate, but the man had advanced anyway.

As he turned to face the shoja, the last honor-guard lying crumpled at his feet, Jaromir roared. He advanced, though the woman stood uselessly before him, her battleaxe worthless in frozen hands. He advanced, though tears streamed down her face. He advanced, though tears streamed down his own.

Jaromir walked slowly toward to gate, the blood of the fallen shoja still fresh on his claws. The Gatlyktan host had made short work of the outland defenders, and of the fallen that littered the battlefield, he recognized few. He spied Daichi ahead, dispatching a young man armed with a pitchfork, and made his way towards him, nodding at the various warriors that weaved in and out of battle before him. His job here was done, that the warriors knew, and none expected Jaromir’s intervention in their struggles.

Such was not the way of Gatlyktans.

Daichi hailed him as he approached, cleaning the gore from his blade. “So you’ve slain him then?”

“Her. Aye. She fell valiantly. As befits a shoja.”

“Good.” Daichi frowned. “I had hoped to do the honors myself. The men…”

“The men expect you beside them sir,” Jaromir smiled, “And that you’ve done admirably. It is my place to cut the head from the Ice-eater.”

“But still…” Daichi sighed. “You’re right. Without their leadership they’re lost. Just as without you–”

“You did well today Daichi, your father would be proud.”

Jaromir turned from the embarrassed commander and stopped a passing soldier. “Have you seen Kelby and Asta?”

“They were to the west, by the breached gate there.”

Jaromir clapped the man on the shoulder and continued on his way, barely noticing that Daichi made to follow him with a host of seasoned veterans, his own honor guard.

Jaromir turned his head from the battle that raged before him, instead focusing on picking the easiest path towards the western gate. He hoped that he would not encounter any resistance on his way.

Now that the bulk of the defenders had fallen, the Gatlyktan host had moved on to the women and children of the outland lodge. This was the reason that their defenders had fought to the last man—it was not the Honvaran way to spare their enemies, and the only prisoners they took were to be used as slaves, or worse.

He sighed as he watched their soldiers pick through each house, dragging the women and children into the street, sorting, and using those that they saw fit. This was the side of war that he had the least stomach for.

As he approached the western gate, his journey punctuated by the sounds of distant screams and crying, he saw his sister.

The lynx stood by the entrance to a ruined hovel, the body of a woman at her feet, and a young boy in the hovel’s entrance, a too-big sword fumblingly clutched between his unsteady hands. Behind him, a small girl sobbed uncontrollably, clutching at his legs and crying for her mother.

Asta laughed as she beheld the scene before her, she kicked viciously at the dead woman as she laughed, fueled by the anguish of the two children before her. To her sides, other Gatlyktan soldiers watched, laughing and cheering her on.

Jaromir frowned as he broke into a jog, then a sprint.

Asta was dead before Jaromir could reach her.

She moved carelessly around the boy, who stood stricken with fear in front of his sister. She juked in and out of the range of his sword, poking here and there at him, cutting him a bit with her claws, then dodging out of range before he could hit her. She was toying with him. Toying with her life.

Jaromir was furious. Not only was Asta not using a weapon, she was behaving like a petulant child.

“Come now child,” the lynx purred “why don’t you step away from that doorway so I can play with your little sister? I promise you we’ll get along. I know I did with your mommy.”

The boy was crying, but he held his blade strongly in his trembling hands, warding away the felian that danced in and out of his reach, looking for an opportunity to strike.

The boy tripped and fell, his foot having caught on a bit of rubble. As he fell, his blade plunged forward, and Asta, caught unawares, and without a weapon of her own to shield herself, caught the sword’s point below her left breast.

With a single cry, Asta crumpled to the earth, bringing the boy’s sword with her. Silence. The Gatlyktan warriors watched the lynx fall. The boy regained his feet and looked around him bewildered, then at the felian that now lay slain at his feet.

He did not have time to look up as Jaromir reached him, cleaving him nearly in twain with a single swipe. He shook his head sadly. He had not wished this on his sister.. He had not wished to kill the boy, but he had slain a Gatlyktan soldier. He had slain Asta. A swift death was the best that he could offer him.

“Soini!” the girl cried, falling to his side as the boy crumpled to the earth, his face unrecognizable beneath the outpouring blood. She sobbed as the silent soldiers watched on, unsure and terrified as to what the great felian would do. The laws were clear. This was an enemy. Whether she was a child or not, Asta had died.

“Asta!” Kelby pushed past the Gatlyktan soldiers that had formed around the scene, and up to Jaromir’s side. “I’m sorry Jaromir, I didn’t…”

“It’s not your fault Kelby.” Jaromir sighed and massaged the bridge of his nose.

Kelby nodded and approached the prostrate felian, then shook his own head and pulled the blade from beneath her. “It’s a shame. A damn shame.” He looked at the blade now in his hand, the blade that had felled Asta. “Jaromir.”

“Aye.”

“Do you,” Kelby paused, “do you want this?”

“No. I’d rather be done with it.”

Kelby nodded, then stood by Jaromir’s side, blade in hand. He motioned at the sobbing girl before them with the point of her brother’s blade.

Jaromir shook his head. “There’s been enough blood this day.

Kelby frowned. “That’s not the way–”

“There has been enough blood Kelby.”

Kelby shuffled his feet.

“Finish this farce and let’s be done with this Jaromir.” Daichi approached now from behind with his honor guard. “The girl must die, you know this as well as I.”

Kelby looked expectantly at Jaromir, who did not move. He glanced at Daichi with a frown.

The commander nodded sadly.

Kelby took a step forward, then swung the felling blade downward, the blade poised to slay two sisters that day.

With an almost imperceptible movement, Jaromir darted out his paw, and catching the blade in his massive palm, crushed the sword to splinters. Turning to look at Kelby with fury in his eyes, he snarled “there has been enough blood today.”

Kelby backed away, swallowing heavily, suddenly fearful for his life. He looked at Daichi uncertainly, and found the young commander as aghast as he felt himself to be.

“Jaromir!” Daichi was beside himself as he strode forward. “I’m giving you a direct order!”

Jaromir dropped the shattered remnants of the sword and ignored the young commander as he bent towards the hysterical girl, his eyes never leaving hers. “What is your name smarkind?”

The girl’s tears stopped at the evident compassion in the felian’s voice. Though the lion had killed her brother, she could sense his intentions, and could see that he meant her no harm. “Li… Lili… ya” she stammered, wiping her eyes with her small arm.

“Lily?” the lion questioned.

The girl seemed to ponder for a moment, as though thinking through the consequences of correcting him, then nodded with a shy smile. “Lily,” she managed to squeak out.

Jaromir smiled back at her. “Lily is a beautiful name, smarkind. My name is Jaromir.” He offered the girl his arm, and as she hesitated, smiled again at her.

Again weighing the options, the girl eventually approached the lion, gasping as she was scooped into his arms.

Jaromir turned toward the still stunned Kelby and nodding, made his way past. Daichi stammeringly repeated his question to the retreating lion. “You must kill the girl, Jaromir! You know the consequences of insubordination.”

“Never again. Bury the boy and his mother with my sister.”

The lion walked with the small girl in his arms, past the Gatlyktan soldiers, past the stupefied commander toward home, turning away from the battlefield, determined never to return.

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