"Behold," says Fahad, standing atop the embankment. "Dawn's cold fire rises above the hillside and illuminates the onrushing foe." He snaps a flat pebble out across the rocky plain.
"We have been fighting horrible beasts since midnight," comes Rasikh's voice from below and behind the earthen barrier. "Tell me, has dawn burned the nightmare off?"
"Not by half," answers Fahad. "The hound-headed Harriers appear more monstrous in the sunlight. And I can see our blood staining the armor of the Jarnhár soldiers." He adjusts the placement of the three javelins in the ground next to him.
"It was better in the obscuring black," says Rasikh, "when we had time for reaction only. This wait is oppressive. How long until they reach us?"
Fahad peers toward the far horizon, and frowns.
"A quarter-hour still, at least. Then Bellucan's horde will crash against us." He flicks another pebble. "We brave sons of al-Qasr will not see sunset, I think. This is not the end that Fahad ibn Azzam expected." He readjusts the sheathed scimitar in his lap, as if some perfect drawing position will provide that edge he needs to survive.
"How go our comrades?" Rasikh's voice has grown muffled, as if he no longer faces his companion.
"Knees and hearts go weak along the line," Fahad shakes his head. "Last night, we Qasri fought because teeth snapped around us, steel struck from the shadows, and Harrier howls sounded in the gloom." He rubs the jagged cuts in his arm where one dog-faced warrior clawed into his flesh. "This morning, we face head-on the relentless brutality of Bellucan the War Dog's horde." Fahad sweeps his hand slowly across the horizon. "Already masters of a dozen conquered lands, the Harriers and the Jarnhár men seek nothing now but slaughter and continued sport." He flicks another pebble.
"That is sixteen pebbles since we drove off the scouting force," comments Rasikh. Fahad looks down at his hand.
"I have not been counting," he replies. "Rather, I count ten-to-one odds for us this day, Rasikh bin Wajih. Ten-to-one! Still, we will not roll over for the War Dog's minions." Making a chopping gesture with both hands, he punctuates his argument. "I say that, with little separating us from the worms at present, we must prepare again to fight! These last moments deserve our most fiery action, instead of this desolate waiting."
Rasikh briefly looks over to his rampart mate, shrugs, then resumes his pose of unconcerned leisure. He lies with feet extended and back propped against the embankment. His conical helm rests on the ground beside him, next to a small, round shield and a heavy crossbow. Rasikh's knife occupies his right hand and makes short, peeling strokes across a length of thick reed. Between the tongue peeking from his lips as he concentrates and the grime smeared all over his artillery uniform, Rasikh resembles a young boy playing at soldiering.
"We'd be just as well served visiting the campfires for a second breakfast," says Rasikh to his fervent fellow. He jerks his thumb over his shoulder to indicate the far horizon. "Or we could discuss this lovely blue-pink dawn that salutes our finale."
"Dear gods, what a terrible squanderer I find myself stuck with!" laments Fahad. "I am sorry, Rasikh, but I've seen hundreds of suns rise. I see no cause to linger in discourse over the most recent example when my life sits in the balance!" Pebbles seventeen and eighteen flit over the ground in rapid succession. Irritated, Fahad leaps up and draws his scimitar. He moves through a series of sword drills while Rasikh still blandly whittles at the reed. After several near-silent moments, Fahad ceases his blade work and turns to address Rasikh once more. "I mean, don't you feel the need to resist, to combat the powerlessness infecting our current situation?" Fahad's sword falls to slap against his leg in a gesture of exasperation.
Rasikh makes two more quick cuts at the reed with his knife, then pops the peeled end in his mouth. He sucks the tip for a time, smiling, and considers his reply. Shifting the reed to one side of his mouth, Rasikh responds.
"In some ways, I have lacked power over my life for years," he begins. "Like you, the Holy Ones did not see fit to make me a nobleman's son, and my lack of choices stems from that divine error.” A wink acknowledges his blasphemy. “From a joyless apprenticeship to that grumpy tanner, to my negotiated betrothal to the banker's shrill daughter, little of my mortal journey has progressed according to my direction." He pauses and pulls out a small pouch from his pocket. From this leather holder he extracts a silver Qasri coin, bearing the king's visage on one side. Fahad recognizes it as the first, symbolic payment a new warrior in the army receives along with uniform and weaponry. "The face on this coin decreed I spend my final months firing quarrels at al-Qasr's enemies." Rasikh flips the coin around twice in his fingers, his eyes going distant. "Now, I choose to do otherwise." Off to the side, his comrade purses his lips.
"Cavalry would have been my pick," adds Fahad to his companion's soliloquy. "And I certainly prayed to join the home defense of the capital city, even if the Blessed Rayya interpreted my words to mean I sought glory out here in the frontier bloodbath." He sheathes his scimitar again and dashes halfway up the mound to observe the fiendish army closing over the broken ground. "They're approaching on pace," comments Fahad. "Sure you wouldn't rather charge out and meet them?" Rasikh spits out his reed and glares up at his partner with a disgusted frown.
"You truly delight in ignoring my words, don't you, Fahad?" He stands and spreads his arms wide. "I would much rather be nowhere near here! All of my life I have done things that I had no desire to, and at someone else's behest. Each duty that fell to me I nominally chose to undertake, but only because I understood my future life would suffer if I refused." He kicks a pile of stones into a clattering cascade, then points toward the advancing foe. "Now, I stand with no hope of a future life, powerless to prevent my death, and I refuse to fight as I am required!"
"Would you prefer to flee?" Fahad gestures back through the camp.
"Oh, indeed," grumbles Rasikh. "Let's run now, when our swift-footed foes will certainly catch us!" He tosses the idea skyward with one hand. "We should have fled two days back when that spineless captain rode to 'warn the next fort.' You still owe me an apology for that!" He waggles a finger at the swordsman. Fahad's eyes widen.
"I owe you an apology?" His voice rises.
"You owe me something," Rasikh growls. "It was you who kept me from deserting after hearing that the border forts had been overrun. As I said, you do not listen to me!"
Flopping down against the embankment, Rasikh discards his small knife and crosses his arms with a huff. He stares straight ahead with teeth grinding together. Above, on the short rise, Fahad tilts his head faintly to the side in silent contemplation. He selects his nineteenth pebble from the pile of rocks in his hand and prepares to cast it down the hill toward the battle plain. Then, as his arm pulls back for the throw, he pauses, looks down at frowning Rasikh, and lets the stones drop. Fahad walks down the bank and crouches directly in front of Rasikh.
"Rasikh, my friend, I do listen to your words," Fahad begins. "And," he pauses, sighs. "I do not think I will be able to fairly recompense you for remaining at this post with me." Dark brown eyes rise to regard him. "I also feel helpless and unfairly stripped of choice by the inevitable doom sprinting toward us under the War Dog's banner. All the wishes my mouth has shaped over the years will soon be closed off to me, save one." Fahad raises his right index finger, teasing Rasikh's eyes to follow. He closes his fist. "But before I share my sole remaining dream with you, I must relate a tale overheard near our prisoner stockade some days ago. It seems odd to draw hope from the words of the very foes about to overrun us." He shakes his head while Rasikh lifts an eyebrow. "But so goes one Jarnhárish man's story:
"Once, a chieftain of Jarnhár found himself betrayed, defeated, and captured by another lordling of those southern lands. His soldiers cut down, his brother's heart still dripping in his enemy's hand, the chieftain spat defiance at his traitorous captors. They bound his arms tight and tossed him into a pit of venomous serpents. Lying atop certain, squirming death, the great warrior called for, nay, demanded his lute from the laughing foemen ringing the pit. Perhaps his request amused them, for a champion of the enemy hurled the stringed instrument down beside him. Yet, so well had they tied his arms that the chieftain's fingers could not reach the lute. Instead the warrior plucked at the instrument with his toes. Nonetheless, he displayed such musical skill that his captors applauded in admiration, and even the pit's scaled denizens ceased their hissing to listen. Soon, the chieftain had lulled all of the snakes into contented slumber, except for one gnarled, vicious adder. That fiendish serpent hissed loudly, then burrowed into the chieftain's heart, giving the warrior his death wound."
Fahad nods and rises, seemingly denoting an end to the tale. Meanwhile, Rasikh cocks his head and squints at his comrade in perplexity.
"Your ending lets me down somewhat, Fahad, with its less than miraculous finish for the heroic chieftain!" He chuckles darkly. "Did you intend to inspire us or our enemies with that story?"
For some moments, Fahad has been pacing around the two soldiers' area, walking in circles while Rasikh has been speaking. Now he turns and extends a pointing finger at his companion.
"Both, good Rasikh, and that is the tale's lesson!" He stalks forward and gestures sweepingly. "The chieftain and all his allies and hirelings failed! They died, and truly never had a chance of surviving their rivals' treachery. None survived to tell their own tale." He pauses to let that remark sink in. "Yet in that great hero's ending, his executioners saw such bravery and achievement that their descendants still relate the legend." Fahad's scimitar darts from its scabbard and stabs through the air to menace the doom wave surging from the far horizon. "That is my one remaining wish: to greet imminent death with a fierce blade and a leonine heart, so that the conquering foe can sing of my valor even after my comrades' voices cease their songs."
Rasikh regards his fellow, who stands rooted and still, a statue posed in gallant opposition. Rasikh's nervous digits fiddle with the silver coin marking his service to the crown, and he turns it to catch the light.
"Once I am dead," he murmurs, "it will matter little if any memorialize this worthless life." Two more times the coin flips over, then Rasikh suddenly closes his hand around the silver disk and looks to have made a decision. He tucks the marker and its leather pouch away, and seizes the heavy crossbow that rests loaded beside him. Rasikh hops to his feet and steps up to join Fahad on the embankment. As the swordsman hides the scimitar, Rasikh presents the crossbow to him stock first.
"Here," says Rasikh, "my trusty friend can outdistance your javelins a good pace, and I imagine it still yearns for Jarnhárish blood, despite its owner's pacific mood." Fahad takes the heavy bow and nods, though his face betrays some hesitance or doubt regarding his comrade's gift. "Don't look at me so, Fahad, I am sure decided."
"Why?" asks the battle-eager swordsman, truly motionless for the first time since dawn. His unarmed companion laughs sadly.
"Ah, well my wishes and dreams of a good ending are sunk into oblivion, and I go soon to join them." Rasikh snaps to a solid salute and glares hard at his companion. "As you are a loyal son of al-Qasr, I charge you, Fahad ibn Azzam, to fight until no Harrier or Jarnhár-man doubts your valor, until you achieve your final wish and the enemy's bards weep to sing your tale!" Rasikh breaks off the salute and slouches away down the bank. "I shall spend what time remains enjoying Blessed Rayya's sky and thanking the Holy Ones for your great heart."
Rasikh resumes his earlier position against the embankment, feet extended between his helm and shield. Above, Fahad has yet to regain speech and instead examines the heavy crossbow, peering at each of its components as if mesmerized. Rasikh stretches and yawns loudly, then lays back with exaggerated ease to rest with arms behind his head and eyes closed. Looking down, Fahad gives a half-smile and moves to stand directly behind the (retired) archer.
"Thank you, Rasikh," he whispers. Then, louder, "And have you no great wish to share, no desired ending to expound as fate comes within bowshot?" Rasikh opens his eyes. They shine as he replies.
"No, my friend, I am at peace, even with my uncontrolled life of mediocrity." For a brief spell, utter pain and terror contort his visage, but he squeezes his eyes shut and forces his quaking muscles to relax. "I wish only that death would come gently, without Bellucan's rending claws." A nineteenth pebble flicks out over the rocks, and Rasikh grins at the sound. Two breaths pass as Blessed Rayya's clouds roll by above. After another extended sigh, Rasikh murmurs "Such a beautiful dawn today."
Fahad looks down on his restful friend, the crossbow hefted easily in his arms. He glances over his shoulder toward the battle plain, from where the shouts of men and canine howls now rise. A fearsome resolve hardens his face. Looking forward again, Fahad lifts the bow to firing height and pulls the trigger. The quarrel zips forth and splits sleeping Rasikh's forehead, killing the resting soldier instantly. His last breath drifts up to his comrade, who stands a minute with eyes shut and head bowed.
"Holy Ones forgive me, Rasikh," says Fahad. "This is a poor way to repay you for not deserting me. I hope I have spared you some pain." He prays. "Blessed Rayya receive you, Rasikh bin Wajih. And may your next life offer no end of peaceful skies."
Then Fahad's eyes flare open and he leaps into fiery action. The crossbow falls to the dirt while Fahad's hands each grab one of his planted javelins. He wrenches both missiles from the earth and spins to face the onrushing horde. Over the growing cacophony of dogs and baying men, the soldier bellows, "Come to Fahad ibn Azzam, you wretched curs, and feel what a lion of al-Qasr can do!" Both javelins fly out over the embankment in rapid succession. Fahad yanks the final spear forth and draws his scimitar. "For Blessed Rayya and the Qasri kingdom!" he screams, dashing down to close with the foe. His roar mingles with the battle din and fades out.
At the embankment bottom, Rasikh lies at peace, a smile on his shattered, bloody face.
André N. Lepine, creator and editor of Elephant Never, studied medieval literature and creative writing in college, has worked as an editorial assistant at a marketing magazine, and has been the unofficial editor/proofreader of every office he’s worked in. He founded Elephants Never in October 2017 as a way to share his writing and indulge this idea he’d had about short little elephant stories. As the publication’s Editor, he seeks to amplify others’ voices and stories, and has a light touch on accepted work.
You can find him on Twitter at @andre_n_lepine and his magazine at https://elephantsnever.com/