Dorcinus felt the hot breath, then the rough fur of the gizelantos as it nuzzled into the side of his neck. Gizelantos were better than horses in this land. They lacked the speed of a horse but made up for it in their size and ability to sense a storm before it was even on the horizon. It was the sensing of the storm that made them invaluable. Storms were never just storms when you were in the East.
The gizelantos turned its nuzzle into a nudge, prompting Dorcinus to give the beast a soothing pat on the snout.
“I know, Shali. It’s picking up speed.”
Dorcinus’s focus was on the far side of the valley where, through the thick lining of trees, a crackling blanket of clouds made their way towards him, casting a shadow that dragged along a sheet of falling rain… and something else.
The sound of footsteps pulled his attention behind him where he saw Jistol approaching. No stead, as usual. His incessant refusal to board neither a horse nor a gizelantos had made the long travel difficult. It was worth it though, Dorcinus knew. Jistol may not be the best at what he does, but he was close to it, which meant the prat was useful, noble blood and all.
“The storm approaches, commander,” Jistol said.
His words were so perfectly articulated that you wouldn’t know it was his second language; his first being one of the ancient ones. It wasn’t atypical for the kin of the Capital Nobles to be taught one of the dozen or so ancient languages. It was something of a symbol of wealth.
Here. Look at my child. They’re so incredibly set up in life that we can delay their education by teaching them a language no one uses.
The whole thing seemed pompous to Dorcinus, but he wasn’t a noble. Nobles… well, they were their own breed. The whole language thing certainly hadn’t held Jistol back, though.
“Yes. It would seem the local wicken was right for once,” Dorcinus said.
Jistol smiled and took a seat on a nearby rock. “Enough bolts of lightning and a fire will eventually spark to life.”
Jistol had meant it in the figurative, but looking out at the roiling clouds, Dorcinus couldn’t help but think of it in the physical. Was that another factor he’d forgot to consider? He narrowed his eyes.
“What of the potential for fire danger in this battle?” he asked.
“…Somewhere between impossible and extremely unlikely. Fires don’t usually catch under a cascade the size of that.” Jistol nodded at the approaching clouds and the wall of water beneath it.
Dorcinus let out an exhausted sigh.
“You need to sleep, commander. You’ve been carrying the weight of a thousand men around with you since we left the Capital.”
“That’s because there are a thousand men’s lives in my hands. Are you certain this is the right choice?”
Jistol raised an eyebrow. “Positive. We need to know what’s on the other side, and this is our best chance at doing that.”
They let silence cling to the space their voices left. The distant sound of pouring water and crashing thunder joined it, an omen of the impending battle.
“We have a Crystalyn, now,” Jistol said. “It won’t be like last time.”
Dorcinus withdrew his eyes from the storm. “She arrived?”
“What shade did they send?”
Dorcinus raised his eyebrows. At least the capital was taking this seriously. The storm’s recent encroachment on bordering cities must be having an effect. It was about time… for they had so little of it left.
“Impressive, yes?” Jistol said. Dorcinus felt rather than saw the smile on Jistol’s face. “So now you can rest, yes?”
Dorcinus shot him a withering look before gripping Shali’s reins. In one motion, he hoisted himself on top of the beast, placing his right foot in the first stirrup and his left in the second, then swinging his right over the animal’s back.
“Commander…” Jistol said. His voice carried a note of warning. “We talked about this.”
“You talked about this.” Dorcinus sighed. “Let it rest, Jistol. If my men will be in danger, then I will be as well. I’ve always led from the front.”
“It’s foolish,” Jistol warned.
“It’s honorable,” Dorcinus said, urging Shali forward. “The rest of the nobles could stand to revisit that word.”
Jistol watched Dorcinus lumber away on his wretched beast. He swore, if it seemed like he was about to be taken to the mother’s grounds, he’d take at least one of those beasts with him. The way they just… stared had always given him the chills. He pushed the thought away, his eyes fixing on Dorcinus’s fading back. He would do him a favor and not tell the capital that he’d said that… not as if it mattered much anymore. Dorcinus was a good man—just on the wrong side of things. He’d tried to steer him clear of what was to come.
Jistol rose from the rock he’d been sitting on and walked to where Dorcinus had been standing. He looked out at the approaching storm. Who knows, maybe they’d make it through.
A growl crept up his spine; not his own. He looked over his shoulder and into the eyes of a dog, waist high, and dispatching patches of its shedded fur to the ground. A mastiff, perhaps? Jistol wasn’t entirely sure; he tended to lump dogs in with the horses and gizelantos. Even so, he should’ve at least known its breed, since he’d grown up with the damn thing.
“Another message?” Jistol groaned. He was growing weary of the constant contact with the Capital.
“No, just a walking companion.”
Jistol swung his head to the speaker and found an old man staring back at him, the ruby gem embedded in his chin reflecting the fading light in the sky.
“Afraid so,” the older man replied.
Jistol felt a spike of pleasure at seeing his grandfather, followed by a quick chill of reality. He wasn’t here for a family greeting. “Did father send you?”
The old man let out a sigh. “Afraid so.” He walked over to his dog, who abruptly sat on his haunches at the older man’s approach. He began scratching the dog behind its ears.
Jistol watched in mild annoyance. “Does he think me incapable of carrying out simple orders?”
“Are they?” The edge of hardness in his grandfather’s voice took Jistol by surprise. “Are they simple? We have not seen the proof from you that they are simple tasks.”
Jistol rolled his eyes. “Then, please, do sit. Enjoy your brief rest before returning to the Capital.”
“I wish my presence here was only that of observer,” the old man said, his tongue shifting to one of the ancient languages. “This is too crucial a step to leave in your hands. Your father’s words.”
Jistol felt his blood boiling, but he didn’t allow it to show. His father’s words must be followed. “Of course,” he said, his voice matching the ancient tongue his grandfather had provided. “You may proceed.”
The old man smirked. “Relax. I’m not here to take your authority. I’ll step in when I need to.”
“If you need to,” Jistol said.
The old man returned an amused expression. “I am Selcratin V. Siltrun. I raised your father. And I still needed people to take command on one or two occasions. It’s a part of learning the trade.”
“The trade…” Jistol muttered.
He found himself looking out of the tree-line at the amassing troops. They’d be departing soon. A sudden pang of guilt afflicted his abdomen, sitting there until it took on weight. Memories of his interactions with them fought their way into his mind.
Feeling his grandfather’s stare, he shoved the memories aside, returning to his role… to his obligation that only blood could tie.
“Problem, grandson?” Selcratin asked.
Jistol didn’t have to turn to see the smugness on his grandfather’s face. His tone painted enough of a picture. That, and he’d seen the expression enough as a child to burn it into his memory.
“Yes, quite an annoying one right next to me,” Jistol said.
Selcratin let out a chuckle despite himself. “If it weren’t for that wit of yours, we’d have thrown you to the wolves years ago.”
Jistol didn’t laugh. He wasn’t entirely sure it’d been a joke. And if that thought hadn’t sobered him, the disappearing backs of Dorcinus and his thousand men would’ve.
He turned away from the sight, the pain. This was what he wanted. This was who he wanted to be. He would not be caught on the wrong side. He took a step but felt his grandfather’s hand grasp his shoulder. The strength of it was greater than one would expect from someone so old, effectively rooting him in place.
“Watch,” Selcratin said.
“I’d rather not,” Jistol said. He eyed the hand gripping his shoulder. “Friend or foe, I don’t like to witness slaughter.”
“You will watch,” Selcratin said. It was an order. “One, because confirmation is the most delicate part of any order, and two… because you owe them that much. Have the strength to witness your own crime. Do not turn from it.”
Jistol sighed, seeking relief that wouldn’t come. The weight in his stomach was growing, as if tied to the distance between him and the soldiers he’d betrayed. He prayed that the tactic he’d provided ended up working… despite the lack of evidence that it would.
He turned, then—not to watch his own misdeeds unfold and not to regain a sliver of the honor he’d lost. He turned because the screams had begun.