It was so cold the very breath seemed to freeze before it could reach the lungs of the men on the walls. They were wrapped in wool and fur, as much as they dared. None wanted to lose their maneuverability. Wherever their flesh was exposed the frost bit like needles. Great torches were lit along the parapet, but their flames had no power over the cold.
Arbein clutched his old musket with hands he could barely feel. He remembered that someone had told him that as long as you could feel the cold you were good. Only when it stopped hurting did it become dangerous. Somehow loosing a few fingers to the frost didn't seem like such a big deal anymore. He stared into the dark night and wished he knew how to pray.
The old fort had been built long ago, in a time when the greatest threat were the ambitions of the neighbouring nobility. It overlooked the village of Wolford, and had fallen into disrepair over the years since it was built. Besides, its curtain-walls were no match for modern cannon anyway. Arbein wondered if they would offer any protection against the enemy they now faced.
The entire village had gathered inside the fort. Or, those who had survived the raid the night before had huddled together behind the half-broken walls, seeking refuge from the cold and the enemy.
Two days ago a rider had come through the village. He was grey-faced and weary, but what Arbein remembered clearest were his eyes. His eyes were those of someone who knew that all hope was lost. He had told of a great dragon burning down the Five Forts, and of elves coming in great numbers out of the North, killing all in their path. The man had only stayed long enough to change horses before he rode south. He had to warn the King, he said. Those who had heard the traveller's words found them hard to ignore. Even if they told of unbelievable things, the eyes of the speaker had caused the fear they carried to haunt the listeners.
Still, they didn't run. Where could they run? This was their home. That night they had made sure everyone was safe inside their houses, and that they had plenty of wood for their fires. The men had checked their weapons, and the women had sung soothing songs of summer to ease the minds of the children.
An hour before dawn, when all but the most stalwart had been asleep, thinking themselves foolish for having heeded the words of a madman, they came. Arbein had been awakened by his old wolfhound, ol' Toker. The rugged old beast stood facing the door, growling deep in its chest. Arbein had fallen asleep in his chair infront of the fire, his musket in his lap. The fire had almost died, and it had gotten a lot colder. He had been able to see his breath in the freezing air.
It had been so quiet. Nothing but the low growl of ol' Toker and the beating of his own heart. Then he had heard the first screams. They were faint, but still they had sent a chill down his spine. An old soldier, he had heard and seen bad things, still these screams had put a fright in him in a way he'd never experienced before. It had been like some old, long forgotten memory of horrible things had resurfaced from somewhere deep in his soul.
His old lady had woken up then. She had been made of stearner stuff than him, but then he'd always know that. She had been a camp-follower when he served as a musketman in the Corrillian War, and they had married when the war ended and he was sent home. Now she had told him to be a man and go help their neighbours instead of hiding behind barred doors like a cowering old woman. He had put more wood on the fire, put on his boots and his great-coat and left her. She had cocked the old crossbow he used for hunting and stayed behind with the dog.
Since then it had all been like a horrible nightmare no one would ever wake up from. Outside it had been freezing cold, so cold that the snow itself groaned. Other men had also left their homes to lend a hand against whatever it was that had fallen upon the poor screaming soul. They had sought together, as if guided by some deep instinct had told each of them that the only strength they had against what was out there lay in numbers. Casting nervous glances around them, clutching their weapons -- axes, a couple of spears, a halberd, crossbows and a few muskets -- they had made for the sound of the screams.
Arbein remembered hoping that the poor bastard would just die and that the screaming would stop. It had come from the Minister's house. The Minister had come to Wolford only two years ago, a young man, and he had quickly become well liked by the villagers. He had schooled them well since he came, and all who wanted had been taught their letters by the patient and charismatic Presbyter.
They had found him, or rather, what was left of him, in front of his house. He had been kneeling on the ground, only a few steps from his door, arms stretched upwards. Arbein still couldn't understand what he had seen there. It was like there was a tree growing out of him. Even as they watched, young branches pushed through the skin of his hands, buds folding into beutiful, green leaves. From his mouth the stem of the three still stretched towards the bright stars above, budding and branching, growing thicker even as they watched. The screams had lost all semblance to anything human.
And then they had seen the fires. All the farms on the western side of the river had been burning. It had been like the spell they had been under had been broken, now every man feared for his own life, and that of their loved ones. They had run back to their homes, only to find several doors open. Arbein had rushed to his own cottage, small, built with his own hands. All he had in this world was inside those walls. His door had been open.
Snow had blown in, covering everything inside in a fine powdery coat. He rembered it being pretty. All white and serene, with the only colour being where drops of blood had landed, frozen to resemble red blossoms. Ol' Toker was lying in the middle of the floor, peaceful, like he was sleeping on a bed of crimson flowers. His old lady was on her back, cut open from groin to chin, pale and lifeless surrounded by her own flowers. There was so little blood, he remember thinking.
Since then they had only waited in fear. They had sent out their two best riders on their best horses, one to Glencaellyn and one to the Lowlands, but no one believed that any help was coming. They were alone, and out there, somewhere in the cold winter night the enemy was biding his time.
Arbein shifted his weight around, trying in vain to keep the cold from gnawing too deeply on his bones. He looked over to the man beside him, Tyme Miller, a young lad, palefaced and drawn, holding a crossbow older than himself. He tried to smile to the boy, and wished he could think of something to say that would ease his mind.
The arrow came from nowhere. It struck the boy in his neck with a soft sound, like a dagger piercing a linnen shirt. Tyme seemed suprised, then he simply fell over. Arbein could hear others fall as well. His instincts kicked in, he checked the powder on the firing-pan of his musket, put it to his shoulder and tried to find a target. Around him arrows from hidden hunters claimed more lives. He thought he saw something outside the walls and fired. The sparks burned his cheeks, and the smell of burnt beard and gunnpowder filled his nostrils. He was a soldier, and he would die like one! Powder, ball, no time for cloth or cotton, ramrod, he had never loaded a musket faster in his life. People were screaming now. Ramrod out, prime the pan, gods be damned, but he would take at least one with him.
The elf leaped onto the parapet. He was tall, ivory-skinned and white-haired, glorious to behold, clad in mail the color of snow. Arbein threw his musket to his shoulder. The elf seemed to smile as he swiped his long, slender blade across the musket. Arbein looked in wonder as he saw his left arm, the barrel of his gun, and his right hand fall to the snow. Red blossoms seemed to appear on the stones around him.