This story is by Cora Gascon and was part of our 2018 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Enemy forces surrounded the small town. From the edge of the forest, Sylvan could see the glow from many rival bonfires.
It was not the duty of the rangers to protect the small villages in the area – unless paid to do so. However, this situation was different. War had been raging for the past year, and the kingdom was barely holding on. Another defeat could break them. The King’s army was spread thin – it was impossible to protect them all. All of the soldiers protecting the village were trapped inside, their only hope was that forces from the outside would come and aid them. Yet no one would. No one, but the rangers.
Many of Sylvan’s company would lay down their lives – it was a choice that he and his men were willing to make. The decision had been clear…until he had received the news.
It had been several months since he had last seen his home. A fellow ranger had given him the news the day before. Being away from his wife for so long was hard enough, but now – now he had a son to return to as well.
How could he risk his life when he had a son who needed him? Who would provide for his wife? Most of the rangers had families; but they had relatives outside the order who would care for them if they were to fall. This wasn’t the type of work the rangers were accustomed to either. Normally, the stakes weren’t so high.
This enemy wasn’t simply conquering though – they were killing for the thrill of it. Sylvan knew they had to do something.
In the distance, a volley of flaming arrows flew towards the rooftops of the nearby houses. Fire blazed, and the night was lit with an eerie orange glow. If the rangers didn’t make a move, the town would burn to the ground. Sylvan groaned inwardly, was it worth it to die for people he didn’t know? Perhaps his men could go without him. No, his honor wouldn’t allow it. The men needed their leader, and what a coward he would be if he let his brothers die for a cause he had supported. “Is honor worth abandoning my family?” The thought pierced him like a barbed arrow.
Ashes began to float slowly down into the woods, like petals falling from a spent flower. “If only I could see my son just once,” he thought. Turning towards the dark forest, he gazed into the trees, thinking about the small cottage, resting only a day’s journey away. That was where his home was – so close – too close.
Sighing, he motioned to the hidden rangers. As if out of thin air, the forest floor was lined with about twenty men, all clad in browns and greens, and armed with bows and swords. Each man carried an extra bundle of arrows, as well as an extra sword strapped to their backs. All of them were ready to follow him.
“The plan is simple,” Sylvan announced. “You ten,” he motioned, “will enter the town from the back, and give your spare weapons to men inside. Once you reach the watchtower, your group will split. Five will prepare bows at the top, and the other five will guard the bottom. I will take the other half of you, and we will surprise the enemy from the outside. They will not expect an attack from behind. We should retain the upper hand. Keep to the trees, and keep hidden.”
Immediately, the men were on their way. “You know the signal,” Sylvan whispered to Eric, the leader of the other ten. Cinders were steadily falling, and the two houses closest to the woods were all but consumed. Dark figures could be seen outlined by the flames. The enemy was moving. Sylvan motioned to his men; they moved to their positions around the village. All they needed was the signal.
No one knew exactly how long it would take for the other rangers to be in position – the watchtower was in the middle of the town. Even from where they were, the rangers could see the black form towering over the houses.
Soon, Sylvan was standing alone. Following his lead, his men had spread out around the village. It would be so easy to leave. “No!” Sylvan shook his head. “Eric and his men are already in the field, I can’t desert them!” Glancing around, he took a few minutes to catch sight of the closest rangers. If he were to leave, who would lead them? Sure, they all knew the signal – an arrow lit with a green flame fired from the top of the watchtower – but what happens when they advance? “They could figure it out,” Sylvan thought. “Besides, they are all here by their free will. They know the risk, and are prepared to die if necessary. What if I’m not? What if I can’t?” He sought to justify leaving, yet nothing he told himself would cover the guilt of letting his men fight alone. Nothing warranted abandoning his comrades. Leaving would be selfish, and dishonorable. He had told them that he would be there for them, it had been his idea to launch the attack in the first place.
The green flame shot upwards like an enchanted star falling into the middle of the town. It was time to decide. In the distance, the two rangers he had been able to see in the shadows, began to move. Clenching his teeth, Sylvan took the first heart wrenching steps towards the battle. Yet with every step, it felt as if he was leaving a piece of himself behind. An unseen force was pulling him back – back to that small village in the woods. Lifting his chin, he fixed his eyes on the burning town before him. Setting his jaw, and gripping his bow, he prepared to enter the fray. As he advanced, his stride grew faster, and his confidence returned. He was doing the right thing.
Then, he saw the figure – a boy kneeling over a man. The sight stopped him cold. Childhood memories flashed before his eyes – long ago, that boy had been him, kneeling beside his fallen father. Turning around, he faced the forest, tears flowing down his face. Sparks flew towards the trees. Before he knew it, he was looking through flames.
Breathing hard, Sylvan shook his head. Once again, he turned his back on the woods. With solemn resolve, he drew his sword from his back scabbard. Soon he was in the midst of the fighting.
Eric’s group had successfully given many men fresh swords and new arrows. The enemy was nearly evenly matched. Flames raged around them, and the rangers were hard pressed to stay their ground. Sylvan witnessed the two men nearest to him die. Sure, they had surprised the enemy, but no longer did they have the upper hand.
At the base of the watchtower Sylvan found Eric’s body – he had a spear through his chest. After a moment of hesitation, he ran up the spiraling staircase and found that all of the men at the tower had fallen. Enemy archers had taken up positions and were firing into the chaos below. Sylvan caught them off guard knocking two of them over the edge, and slew the remaining men within minutes. Breathing hard, he looked down upon the burning village. There, standing over a fallen ranger, he saw the enemy leader. Eyes narrowed, he slid his sword back into its scabbard, took an arrow from his quiver, and nocked it. Slowly, he took aim at the man. Behind him, he could hear the shuffle of feet climbing the stairway of the tower. Blocking it out, he exhaled, and loosed the arrow. Down, fell his target.
Lowering his bow, he watched as the men around their leader began to panic. Shouts rang out, and pain shot through his head – then darkness.
* * * * *
When he woke, it was morning. The sky had a strange reddish hue. Putting a hand to his head, Sylvan stood up gingerly. His whole body ached as he gazed out across what were once rooftops. “Aaaah,” he stumbled, and caught himself on the ramparts of the watchtower. His leg had been hit with an arrow and he had a large gash in his side. Taking wheezing breaths, he turned his attention back to the town below. Nothing was left. Yes, many townsfolk had survived, and yes, the enemy had fled, but the cost was great. What he saw next caused his gut to clench. The forest was drowning in a sea of flames. Sucking in air, he realized what that meant. Slowly, he let himself sink down onto the cold brick floor. Blood fell, crimson, onto the white ash. Tears ran down his cheeks as he closed his eyes, smoke rose all around, and darkness enveloped him.
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