“Your majesty, the wagons will go no farther,” called out the young driver, his leather jerkin smattered with the cold sludge.
“Then we will proceed on foot,” came a reply from behind.
King Byzantius flashed a smile that sparkled even against the colorless skies. The monarch hopped from his wagon and into a puddle while he ran his gloved hands through his blonde hair.
Sounds of splashing hooves caused the soldier to salute but only brought a smug grin to the face of the king. A rider clad in silver armor commanded his horse to a halt and scanned the two men with his gray eyes. “I have been informed that the terrain is impassable, your highness.”
“Impassable for horses,” rejoined the king with a wave of his index finger. “Our boots will serve just fine, general.”
General Belisarius scowled at Byzantius, his dark brows meeting between his steely eyes. “Why not wait for spring, your majesty?”
“Because we are here now. Give the order.” Jogging back toward the main host, King Byzantius’ gold armor glimmered, a beacon in the paltry sunlight.
The general shook his head and managed a chuckle from his thin lips. He pointed his eyes to the clouded sky. Letting out a sigh, he pleaded, “Gods help me with that one.”
Still at attention with his sword snapped over his shoulder, the soldier stared at the general. Belisarius noticed the man and snapped, “You heard the king. Move out!”
Armored boots sunk into the soggy earth as cold rain drizzled down from the grey skies. They marched under the whipping banner of the King of Umbria, a pair of heraldic lions, gold against a scarlet background. On their backs hung all the supplies a man could possibly carry, playing both warrior and beast of burden. Despite the oncoming rain, no signal rang out for them to slow and the soldiers pressed onward, their hands numb in the soaked leather that covered them.
The company had departed from the Umbrian ports at the beginning of spring, hearts full of thoughts of adventure and glorious battle. Youths, barely past boyhood, stepped from Umbrian ships; now, hardened men walked the nearly frozen bogs, beaten and worn by razor winds and frigid rain. Under the guidance of General Belisarius, these Umbrians had found success on the continent’s southern plains, driving the defending Thanes from their villages and farms farther north with each victory. These triumphs seemed ages ago in the minds of those men whose memories were instead turned inward. Now that winter was approaching, their minds were set with thoughts of family back in Umbria and the warm fire and food that awaited them.
Marching at the head, and driving the advance was King Byzantius, with General Belisarius at his side. While the soles of the common soldier sunk into the cold mud, those of the two leaders appeared to tread only on the surface of the moor.
“If I may abandon decorum for a moment,” spoke the general to his young leader.
Byzantius glanced around him at the frigid foreign landscape and let out a laugh, hot breath accompanying his mirth. “We abandoned decorum back with the wagon train, my friend.”
“Why are we continuing onward, my liege?”
The monarch’s sharp blue eyes shot to the commander’s toughened face. “For the fight,” replied Byzantius.
Noon came but brought no reprieve from the rain or cold. Even the strongest rays of sunlight could not penetrate the clouds looming overhead. The distant silhouettes of two men brought a halt to the company with a blast of a bugle. Byzantius and his general marched out to meet the pair, leaving the shivering columns of men behind them.
“Returning, my lords,” saluted the lead soldier, his breath heavy.
“What news of the terrain ahead?” Belisarius asked, returning the salute.
“Lord General,” replied the knight, his long moustache plastered against his face. “More swamps farther to the north. We believe a forest beyond the moors, but the men could not go on.”
“And the Thanes? Any sign of them?” The king’s eyes flashed.
“None, your majesty,” said the mustached man, turning his head and lowering his eyes.
“They may be wintered, your grace,” added the second soldier.
Byzantius’ lips turned downward and his eyes reflected the clouds above his head. He blinked and the sparkle returned. “What say you, General Belisarius? Should we chase the sleeping bears from their den?”
The general’s black brows, flecked with white, once again came together over his rugged brow. “That would be most unwise, your majesty. Our men in no condition to-”
King Byzantius chuckled and held out his golden hand to have the commander stop. “No need to continue, my friend. Your point is well received.” Then, he turned his bright face to the scouts. “Have the men make camp here. At first light tomorrow, we turn south for Gellia.”
As the two scouts jogged off with the order, the general stepped next to the monarch. Clasping his armored glove on the young king’s shoulder, the seasoned soldier’s face softened into a smile. “I am gladdened by your wise and prudent decision.”
Raising his blonde eyebrows, his majesty smirked. “You won’t be so glad when you are the one making camp.” Both leaders shared a hearty laugh as they trotted back to the main host.
“Thanes! Out from the mists!”
Bugles sounded and boots pounded as the Umbrian camp scrambled to life in the dismal light of dawn. King Byzantius’ youthful joints survived the cold night wrapped in chainmail. He was first to burst from his quarters, armor shimmering white and gold, even in the pale morning. Those stumbling about to order their equipment saw their monarch dart between men, offering praise and encouragement – a beacon of energy and confidence. After Byzantius had called his knights to form into columns, General Belisarius came striding to the front of the lines, hands running through his loose black locks streaked with bits of gray. He and the king turned to the north and peered into the mist.
Out on the moors, rows of silhouettes had dug into the mud and mires, each warrior against the shoulder of his comrade. Belisarius’ grey eyes rolled up and down the terrain. “How many?” His lord and companion asked, face pointed toward the Thanes.
“A thousand, perhaps,” replied the commander, his voice as cold as the air. “The largest force we’ve seen since making a beachhead.”
Byzantius nodded, his hand wrapped around the shining hilt of his broadsword. “Then we end this campaign today.”
“I feared you would say that; but even I will admit the fight is unavoidable.” Belisarius bowed his head and muttered a prayer under his breath. Then, he raised his head. “What comes?”
From the haze, two shades approached, their weapons clattering as they ran. A pair of tall Thanes, their fair faces nearly the same as the cold mist hovering over the swamp. “In the name of Theodoric, Cyning of Ravenrock, we demand you return from whence you came.”
“I have been waiting for this Theodoric,” replied Byzantius with a smirk. “Surely your leader would not send me away without a single greeting.”
“Believe me intruder,” scowled the larger messenger, “a little man like you could not handle our Cyning’s handshake, much less the swing of his hammer. You will soon learn this.”
They turned and marched back to the Thaneish host, leaving the two lead Umbrians at the head of their lines. “What is the strategy?”
Belisarius furrowed his dark brows. “Land is flat and damp, improper for any feint or ambush we could send, even if we had the time. The enemy is already entrenched and looking to make a stand, so it seems. Our only advantage is our reputation.”
“Then, let us show them the truth in our character.”
“I am with you, my king.”
As the trumpeter’s call rang out through the ranks of hardened Umbrian infantry, the soldiers of the kingdom formed into two sections, one behind the monarch and the other with his trusted general. A second blast sent the men streaming toward the Thaneish lines, armored boots splashing through the pools and soaked grass between them and the native enemy. A booming roar rose up from opposing force as the Thanes broke their entrenchment and came rushing to meet their foes. A clap of thunder resounded to the gray skies above as the two armies clashed on the damp field on that cold, dreary day.
Byzantius ducked a swing from a Thaneish war axe and drove back hard with his shimmering sword, the blade slicing the fog with a sparkling arc. The assailant fell and Umbria’s monarch was upon another foe, his arm cutting through without sign of fatigue. Those around him, warmed from the heat of battle, pushed against the enemy line, now driving the Thanes back on their heels. Hours had been spent as each side fought for precious inches of the sanguine mire. The Thanes would rally with a resounding cry and strike with united vigor, felling many fine Umbrian youths with the edge of their war axes or under the weight of their mighty hammers. Then Byzantius or Belisarius would lead a foray upon one of the lines and break through, causing the Umbrians to gain ground. Back and forth they struggled, both sides paying dearly but neither force relenting.
“Little intruder!” Byzantius heard a gruff voice call out from the fray.
The monarch whirled around and found the large captain lumbering forward with a great axe gripped by his meaty fingers. Byzantius managed to flash a grin. “Still awaiting your great King Theodoric, or is he amongst your brethren already dead?”
“He is working his way to your dangerous commander, the old battle sage. He sent me to dispatch the little boy in gold.”
“I pity your lord, for a grim death awaits him if he faces Belisarius.”
“You should worry for yourself!” The Thane captain rushed forward, his momentum trailing behind the mighty edge of his weapon. Byzantius stepped to the side, the soft earth where he had once stood rent by the heavy blow. As the man tugged the axe from the soil, the king dashed forward and plunged the blade into the attacker’s neck, just above the collarbone. The Thaneish captain fell to the ground, his heavy frame sinking into the mire beneath him. Byzantius pounded his muddied chest plate and the Umbrians around him let out a cheer for their victorious monarch.
“Push, men of Umbria! For Belisarius cannot be the lone man of honor today!”
Another cheer followed by a renewed charge on the Thaneish lines came from the Umbrian ranks. The afternoon sun battled with the gray clouds overhead, stymied by the rain and fog. Neither Thane nor Umbrian were immune to the lingering day; and, as the battle wore on, blows were slower, colder, lacking the fires of the bellicose morning; and the voices of victory and valor could no longer be heard. The sky became tinged with orange, red, and eventually violet as the last clash of metal rang out. Day had ended and no side was victorious. As darkness came upon the moors of Thanelaw, the native forces pulled back and the reluctant Umbrians returned to camp.
That night, as soldiers sat around their fires and officers spoke in their tents, their mouths were filled with tales of battle. No longer were Thanes undisciplined or cowardly in battle; rather, many of even the highest-ranking Umbrians claimed them to be as rugged of a foe any had faced. King Byzantius shared this sentiment, regaling his senior commander about the strength and skill of the Northmen, always sure to mention his own superior skill, of course. Belisarius, on the other hand, sat with the king, but spoke little. He would offer a few words to a question or simply agree with a statement; however, beyond these few words, the general would sit and stare into the fire with his steely gray eyes.
On the other side of the battlefield, the Thaneish camp was abuzz with similar feelings. The Umbrians were no longer simply invaders, who would kill women and children without hesitation. They were also not the skinny little men, worms wrapped in cocoons of metal, who could easily be squashed under the foot of a real Thaneish army. Fallen on the field that day was the hatred and contempt each side carried; but born in the hearts of both groups of men was the desire to come out the best.
After his meal, Byzantius sat in his tent as General Belisarius paced about the canvas quarters. “My king,” said the seasoned commander, “how many more need to fall to win this battle? I would have liked to push farther north, but we cannot continue. I suggest we return to the ships moored back south.”
“But what of the Thanes? Can we get a count of their numbers?”
“Only of the ones here,” the general replied, his grey eyes fixed on the young monarch. “There is no way to determine their reinforcements or supplies. King Byzantius, you had your fight and at great cost.” He stopped his pacing and turned to the king. “This campaign needs to end.”
Byzantius nodded, though his fine lips were pursed together. “You need not convince me any more, my friend. However, our losses this day have put me in a poor situation.” He jumped from his seat and landed with the ringing of his mail, his joints still nimble from the fatiguing day. “I want victory without seeing another drop of Umbrian blood.”
“Victory comes at a price, my king. Our treasuries of blood run low and any withdrawal by the hand of our enemy further indebts us to this land. Please Byzantius, put your fancies of clean victory behind you.”
As the monarch sighed at his advisor, an attending soldier galloped into the room and sluggishly bowed to his general and king. “My lords, an envoy from the Thaneish camp is on their way. Our gate guards would not stay him. Should we attempt to arrest?”
Belisarius’ hand shot to his sword but King Byzantius stood straight and smiled. “An envoy? Single? No,” he shook his head, “show him in.” He looked over to his commander and nodded, his face still warm. “Just keep your eyes on our guest.”
The guard bowed and jogged from the room. From the canvas, Byzantius saw a dark silhouette approach. By the size of the cast shadow, the king expected his tent door to open at any minute. Yet, it took several seconds for the Thane to arrive, its figure growing to near inhuman size before the entrance flaps opened. It stooped in and a gust of air followed, flickering the torches ensconced into the walls. The Thane stood to his full height, the top of his head nearly touching the high roof. Belisarius’ cool eyes sized the emissary, from his giant boots to the blonde locks flowing forth from the top of his head and down his shoulders.
King Byzantius stood straight and put his fists against his waist. “You are standing before King Byzantius, Sovereign of Umbria and all her peoples and waters. You are a representative of a belligerent force. Speak quick, be respectful, and there will be no incident. Speak.”
The giant shifted his weight from one foot to the other. He smiled, broad and kind in the warm light and held out his left hand, palm up. “Peace,” the Thane said, his voice filling the quarters with rich song. Then, he extended his right hand, palm also up. “Honor.” His eyes locked with the king’s. “Which would you choose?”
“I would have both.”
“A great man knows that he need not choose betwixt the two.” The Thane smiled again and nodded his head. “I am Theodoric, Cyning of Ravenrock, and Chief of the Thanes you see before you.”
Belisarius grunted, but did not take his palm of the pommel of his sword. Byzantius nodded and said, “Theodoric, welcome. I am interested in your offering of both peace and honor. Continue.”
“The strength and bravery of Umbria has shown that your kingdom is an enemy worth fighting. We Thanes have sought such a foe and our battle will surely give our Skalds much to sing of. Now, blood had been spilled on both sides and though my men have been slain in honor, I would not wish to see anymore leave to the halls beneath the earth. Do you share these feelings, king?”
“My men are cold, tired, and miss their homes. They have traveled nine months through your lands and wish to leave this bitter place. However, I am bound by my people to leave with a victory Umbrians can celebrate. To return now from whence we came would be no consolation to those back home who have lost so much.” He narrowed his eyes into the certain stare of Theodoric. “You too must understand the need for a victory, yes?”
The Thane nodded, his blonde curls bobbing with his head. “Thankfully,” the Cyning said, “I have an occasion for victory at the cost of little blood, if you would listen to the council of an enemy.”
“Wisdom in words care not for the mouth by which they are formed; nor do my ears hold such prejudice.”
Theodoric beamed at the king’s fine words. “Spoken as a Skald, King of Umbria.” He straightened his massive body and spoke to both commanders. “To end feuds and prevent kin from enacting vengeance for generations, my people believe in the sacred rite of the duel – two men, one claim of victory. I would challenge you, leader of the southern people, to a final test of arms to ensure no more of our brethren fall.”
“I will take the challenge,” Belisarius announced, stepping forward into the direct torchlight, his sword arm crossing over the young king’s chest. “I am Leon Belisarius, Knight-General of Umbria, and Lord Strategist of the Frigidian Campaign. Surely I am the great foe you seek, Cyning Theodoric.”
Theodoric raised his sunny brow. “Indeed. Many of the refugees from the south spoke of a cunning and swift strategist, who struck without warning and even less mercy. Though you are far from the bloodied demon some claim you to be, to face you in single combat would certainly be a great honor.”
“Enough,” Belisarius interjected, now fully stepping between the towering Thane and the young monarch. “Then you accept my challenge. Tomorrow morning at the break of dawn I will meet you for combat. Winner takes the field and all of Frigidia as their domain. Agreed?”
“And has the honor to be sung of by the great Skalds of today and beyond,” added Theodoric. “Tomorrow at dawn then. You may bring your weapons of choice, general. We fight until one can fight no longer.” Cyning Theodoric turned his massive frame and stooped out of the entrance to the king’s tent, his impending shadow long cast upon the canvas wall.
“Wait, Belisarius,” Byzantius wrapped his hand around the seasoned warrior’s shoulder. “You don’t have to fight him. The Cyning came here for me and I am the true leader of this host. I will shoulder this burden.”
The general turned to his king, gray eyes fixed and visage hard as steel. “I promised the late king, your father, that I would see you safe or see my last breath. I cannot let Umbria lose both the campaign and her sovereign, my liege.” He sighed and let his strong shoulders drop. “I am a soldier, Byzantius, destined to either die gray or on the field.” Belisarius took his single hoary lock between his thumb and forefinger. “It seems I am blessed to do both. But you, you are the leader of our kingdom, fated to do far more than this campaign. Umbria needs you more than an old general. Please, Byzantius, if you cannot grant this to your second-in-command, you can grant it to your teacher, mentor, and friend, can you not?”
King Byzantius took a deep breath, his chest heaving with swelling emotion. He shook his head, and looked down, unable to meet the hard gaze of his life-long friend. “I cannot…” He muttered, blinking his blue eyes. “I never thought you would fall here.”
Belisarius chuckled, his laugh deep and from his throat. “Do not discount me yet, your majesty. Theodoric is getting quite the foe on tomorrow’s first ray of light.”
“Please,” the monarch choked, taking the older man’s hands in his, “you must live through the day.”
“None has yet seen my end, Byzantius,” he replied with a smile creasing his rugged face.
That night, the soldiers of Umbria ate as well as their packs would allow. Both General Belisarius and King Byzantius saw to it that the general’s armor, sword, and shield were in the best possible condition. The commander seemed at ease, his movements smooth and his eyes alert, confident. Byzantius personally inspected the preparations for the duel, letting his old friend get to bed early. Once Belisarius was wrapped up in his sleeping pallet, the king’s errands turned to his own. He, too, had preparations.
By the early hours of the morning, the younger man leaned over the sleeping general, the normally steely eyes seeming lees dangerous behind closed lids. Byzantius reached into his tunic’s pocket and produced a vial of a reddish liquid. Popping the cork and placing the lip of the small flask to Belisarius’ mouth, the king muttered, “Sorry, my friend. But some battles are meant to be. Theodoric and I must decide the end of this campaign.”
Rays of sunlight peered through the drab clouds on the horizon, offering just enough illumination to cast the foggy moor in a pale light. Umbrian armored boots stomped through the slushy puddles and imprinted their shape into the earth as the company led King Byzantius to the middle of the field. They formed a semicircle around their king, who was now dressed in shining silver armor, a deep violet cloak falling past his waist. He stepped ahead of his troops, the sword at his side jingling off his metal shell. In his hand, the monarch gripped a halberd, its prominent spike and high blade polished last night to perfection. His blue eyes looked into the mist as the morning winds began to stir. Behind him, one of his lower commanders planted the scarlet standard of the Umbrian kings into the ground, the standard unfurled in the early Frigidian breeze.
Figures formed just beyond the Umbrian assembly. The Thanes made no noise as they approached, leaving even the shallowest pool undisturbed in their march. Forming a similar semicircle, the two edges of the companies joined and the dueling ring was set. Theodoric’s massive shape emerged from the Northmen line and stood before Byzantius and the entire Umbrian host. Immediately, flashing sapphire eyes began to scrutinize the Cyning’s armor. It was heavy cloth, hung over the tall, mountainous frame. Boots and glove appeared to be some kind of hide. Byzantius could not see any plate or mail on the Thane. His breathing slowed, clearing his mind of the Frigidian haze.
“The battle is until one man can fight no more,” announced a Thaneish herald from within their group. “The victor claims dominion of Frigidia and to him and his kin go the honors of war. According to Thaneish tradition, no man can claim the right of first strike and the duel will begin at the combatants’ discretion.”
The fen fell silent, save for the cold bursts to air. Theodoric began muttering a prayer to the Tyrgen, the God of War. Byzantius closed his eyes and cupped his hands. “Father Helm, guide the blade of the Umbrian people and protect the blood of your nation in this duel.” His blue eyes opened and Theodoric lifted a weapon that resembled the trunk of a tree with a single, massive, stone bole at its head. He slung the war hammer over his shoulder and thundered toward the Umbrian King.
Theodoric cleared the field in three strides. Byzantius lurched to step away from his foe, his eyes widening as his right foot refused to budge. Glancing back, the metal boot had sunk into a patch of particularly thick mud. He pulled once and the earth would not give. It only took a moment and Theodoric was upon him.
Lowering the hammer to the ground, the Cyning of Ravenrock tilted his whole frame into the swing and knocked Byzantius right in the chest with the mighty hammer. His boot came free, but the monarch was sent flying into the air, back toward the Umbrian host. With a clatter of metal, he landed face first in the mud at the feet of his loyal soldiers.
Silence dominated the air as the Thanes stood still as boulders in the haze and the Umbrians froze in their tracks. Theodoric planted the stone maul into the dirt and raised his head, shattering the tension with his thunderous voice. “Men of Umbria, will any be the champion for a king who laid down his life for you?”
The men remained silent, some staring at the fallen sovereign, others gripping the handles of their weapons. Only the blowing northern winds disturbed the still of the battlefield. A rattle of armor brought all eyes to the pool in which Byzantius was stretched. His limbs struggled back to life and his young muscles strained to lift the trembling, encased body. The king, reeling to his feet, shook his head and focused his blurry vision. He took a breath, grimacing with the surge of cold air. “I am no king, not on this field. I am a man and soldier of Umbria.” He swallowed hard. “If I die, it will be with honor.”
Theodoric raised his oaken hammer, nodding his golden head. Eyes locked and muscles tensed, each man knew that this would be the last moment of peace one of them would ever see. Breath steamed from the Thane’s nose. The king’s numb fingers curled around the grip of his sword. He raised the blade over his head, his jaw clenched.
A single snowflake descended from the sky, fluttering loops in the air before falling in the space between act and effect. Theodoric saw the flake melt on the warmer earth and relaxed his stance, standing to his full height. Byzantius, his youthful brow furrowed, lowered his sword and glanced around the field.
“The first snow,” said Cyning Theodoric, his voice warm against the wintery air, “is a sacred word from our father Isig.” He grabbed the hammer and drew a line in the wet ground with the handle. “Nature has willed that our conflict end here, King Byzantius.” Reaching over the line, Theodoric offered his hand to the monarch.
Byzantius took the gesture and shook hands with a man, only moments ago he was prepared to slay. He unfastened his violet cloak, unlinking the silver and ruby chains around his collar and folded the garment. “Here,” the king offered the cloth to the Thane. “It is the royal standard of Umbrian Kings; know that with it come both peace and honor. Nature has spoken, and both of our people shall listen.” Theodoric took the gift and bowed. He then turned to his men and they began walking back north, disappearing in the mist nearly as quick as they had come. The king turned to his soldiers, standing in the falling snow, shivering and looking about at each other. “Come, men of Umbria, we head for home.”
Back at the camp, the steely figure of General Belisarius awaited the monarch; his fiery gray eyes set under two creased black brows. Byzantius greeted his old friend with a laugh, though the motion of the chuckle brought pain to his ribs.
As Byzantius strode by, a scowl spread across the lips of the seasoned campaigner. “Were you not the king and son of my dearest-”
“Leon,” glanced the king over his shoulder, “it is done.”
General Belisarius halted when saw the sapphire eyes of his liege. Gone was the youthful sparkle and fiery lust for combat. In their stead was a cool reflection, as if the hardened strategist were looking into a mirror. “I see. If you will come to the table, your majesty.”
The general directed the king to a map on a table. At the head of the parchment was written ‘Campaign for Spring,’ and included arrows denoting movement for infantry and several now units expected as reinforcements from Umbria. King Byzantius smiled at his general and shook his head. He removed the blocks from the map and took out a block of charcoal. At their location, Byzantius drew a dark line.
The next day, the Umbrians packed up and headed south. They spent the rest of the winter at their beachhead in Gellia, remaining in Frigidia until the seas calmed for their return trip. Once home, Byzantius and Belisarius where hailed as heroes and victors. A triumphal arch, called the Arch of Frigidia, was even built to honor their campaign. That very year, King Byzantius ordered a wall to be built in their newly gained northern lands, running over the exact spot in which Cyning Theodoric had drawn in the earth.
That wall still stands today, marking the border between Umbria and Thanelaw, and embracing the first snows of each year as the marking of its birth. Neither Thane nor Umbrian has ever tried to venture beyond the wall. Though Theodoric and Byzantius have died long ago, their legacy remains; and, as long as either of their people live, both shall respect the will of nature.
© July, 2014 Jackson Hoerth
Jackson Hoerth is a philosopher who is obsessed with world building.