The crisp night air kept the stench of death at bay. Ice crystals blanketed the field and buried the bodies in a sea of white that sparkled like tiny diamonds beneath the moonlit sky. All was quiet except for the howling winds of winter tearing across the solemn plains. The only victor of this battle was Obidion the Ferryman, who was eager to transport the souls of the dead from this world to the next.

I

“In times of war, we wait for peace. In times of peace, we wait for the next war.”

—Herroclese The Elder

In the mountain Kingdom of Sansylgate, King Emmerick Wulfbrok sat alone in his library when a knocking upon the chamber door roused him from his reading.

“Who disturbs me at this hour,” the King said with enmity in his voice.

“It is I, Your Grace. Gilliam Chasetree.” His words—though spoken with great urgency—were softened by the solid chamber door. “I come with news from the battlefield.”

“Enter.”

Chasetree, a stout man with tree trunk legs, a wide torso and short arms hardened with muscle, rushed into the library. 

“Permission to speak, Your Grace.”

“Go on.” King Wulfbrok set the book he was reading on a small table and folded his hands in his lap. “Where do we stand?” he said, slowly encircling his wrinkled thumbs around one another.

“Well,” Chasetree started, dropping to one knee in front of his King. “It is not good, Your Grace.” He took in a deep breath and exhaled slowly. “There were no survivors.”

King Wulfbrok turned to his right and gazed out the window. The flames from the nearby fireplace danced in his clear black pupils, but his irises—gray like the sea after a storm—betrayed the fear he felt in his heart.

“So all is lost then?”

Chasetree rose to his feet and stood in defiant confidence. “No, Sire. As I said, there were no survivors. Not on our side nor theirs.”

The King pulled his attention away from the window and looked back at Chasetree. “You mean to tell me, not a single soul left the battlefield alive?”

“That is correct.”

“How can that be?”

Chasetree steadied his nerves the best he could. “It is most peculiar but not unheard of. I can only surmise to say that every man fought to the bitter end.”

“And the scouts’ findings?”

“They have not reported back yet.” Chasetree bit his lip. The King was not known for holding back his temper. “It was a Garnarian Sheepsman who reported the outcome of the battle to us.” 

“A Sheepsman!” the King exploded. “We have the fastest riders of the Five Kingdoms and you tell me a filthy Garnarian Sheepsman learned of the outcome before our own scouts?”

“Your Grace, the weather conditions have not been favorable to—”

“To Hell with the weather conditions! This news should have been brought to my attention this morning.” He struggled to his feet. Chasetree attempted to help but King Wulfbrok smacked his hands away. “I need to meet with the Oracle. It is the only hope we have for salvaging what remains of our land.”

Chasetree cast his eyes toward the ground and King Wulfbrok watched as the man tried to conceal the worry spreading over his rugged face.

“The Oracle is available for counsel, yes?” 

“Sire. No one has seen…” Chasetree paused. He knew any lie that passed through his lips could very well send him to the gallows. It would be best to tell the truth and face the King’s wrath. “The Oracle has made it known that She does not wish to speak with you.”

“What!” The King’s voice thundered with renewed anger. “How can she deny me my right to counsel? I am of Datretian blood spanning back 13 generations.” He slammed his balled-up fist on the wooden table next to him. “There would be no Sansylgate if it were not for the sacrifices made by my family. Their blood is one with the soil of this very land!”

“Yes, Sire. But there is nothing we can do. The Oracle’s word is Divine Law.”

The King’s white beard shook imperceptibly as the deep well of rage inside of him bubbled to the surface. “Why does she refuse me?”

Chasetree knelt upon one knee again. This time he bowed his head before the King. “Forgive me. She said the blood spilt upon the Holy Plains was the ultimate insult to the Gods.” He raised his head and met the King’s concerned eye. “The blood on your hands can no longer be washed clean, so says the Divine Law of the Five Kingdoms and beyond.”

“So that is how it is?” The King spoke softly as if all the fight had left his spirit. “I am no longer pure enough to speak with the Divine?” He looked down at his hands; scarred and misshapen from many years of battle. “Like all great men before me, the time has come.”

King Wulfbrok extended a hand to Chasetree. The commander took it and the King pulled him to his feet. 

The King embraced Chasetree. “May death be kind to me, my son,” he whispered in the commander’s ear. “May it come swiftly.” His words grew louder. “And if I have truly lived a righteous life, I pray the Gods to grant me one honor. In death, I pray that in their great mercy, I shall finally know peace.”

With that, the King dismissed Chasetree and resumed his reading. Only, the words no longer held any importance to him. His mind was elsewhere; it was with the thousands of dead in the frozen field of Thodornia. And with any luck, he too would soon meet the Ferryman and be allowed to dine with his ancestors for all eternity. 

If only the Gods so allowed it. 

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