– – –
Luik hadn’t slept at all.
He lay restless on his bed, anticipation stirring his mind. He was thinking through all that lay ahead of his people, all that he would face. And yet for all his worrying the outcome still eluded him.
Dusk was still a long way off when he rose and sent the messengers out on their errands. He figured it would take most of the pre-dawn hours to assemble all the warriors.
The messengers raced from the palace and spilled through the streets, knocking on doors and delivering the King’s orders:
To Men of Dionia fit to fight: Be ready for battle within the hour. Meet outside the City Gate. Women wishing to tend the wounded are welcome.
~By order of the High King of Dionia, Luik son of Ragnar
Luik donned the armor he had worn only days before, now cleaned and mended. Despite the repairs, the rings of his chain maille shirt were stained with patches of rust and blood that no brush could ever remove, much like the memories he bore. The leather scales of his courbouilli were mixed and matched, the old and new blending together in a battle-weary vest. And the great helm of the Lion Vrie was far from its pristine beginnings, now a scratched and dented shell. No amount of buffing would ever remove the gouges on the metal—or the pictures in his mind.
He wore a red cape slung over his shoulder and strapped his sword belt around his waist. He fingered his Vinfae’s handle and tried to repress the fear that came with it. So much blood…
Would this be the last battle he would fight? It seemed a meaningless goal, too long for the way things used to be. One could only swim upstream for so long before relenting to the pervading current and allowing it to carry a defeated body away. Exhausted. That was how he felt. Even with the promise of the Most High, he was tired of fighting. And truth be told, he did not want to fight today. It was the Luik of an earlier time that had longed for the battle, to charge headlong into the fray. Standing here now, all he wanted was to sit beneath a shade tree in Bensotha Valley and eat a piece of fruit. Talk with his family. Play rokla with his friends. And kiss his soon-to-be bride.
He looked at himself one final time in the long mirror.
“Perhaps today is the last battle,” he said to himself. “Perhaps today it ends.”
• • •
“A fine day for a fight,” Jrio said as Luik entered the King’s Counsel Room.
“Day? What have you seen of it, Jrio?” Kinfen asked. “It’s as black as a Dairneag’s soul out there.”
The small group chuckled.
“And dawn will be coming all too quickly for us to see enough Dairneags,” Gorn added. “What say you, King Luik?”
The warband welcomed him, and they moved around the table together, each man arrayed in battle dress. As per Luik’s request, only the Dibor and a few of the Lion Vrie were gathered.
“I’m not sure where to begin today,” Luik replied at last, “save that I hope we will see the inside of plenty of those black souls.”
“Hey’a!” they all affirmed. He continued after they settled in their seats.
“I must confess I do not want to fight today.” A hush fell over everyone. “I do not want to fight ever again. For all the knowledge I have gained, for which I am indeed grateful,” he eyed Li-Saide and Gorn, “a part of me wishes I had never known it. However, my will has little to do with anything, and I am content knowing that.
“But if it is one more battle that sees Morgui to his fate, one more swing of my sword that brings freedom to the children I have yet to see, then I will rise to the occasion with zeal as if it were my first day. Truly, men, I have never been more proud of any group as I am of you. We have seen the face of death together, and yet we live. You have dared to place your lives in harm’s way too many times to count, yet you sit here at my invitation ready to draw your swords again. I am honored among kings to serve with you. Ready to spill my own blood if called upon.
“These are humbling days for me to be sure. Never has my life meant so little…meant so much. But I recognize it is not about me. It is not about each of you. Our lives are but vapors, here one moment, gone the next. And what is our purpose? What is our destiny?
“I have never had such a full understanding of my life as I do today. I have been handed a gift, a chance to breathe, to love, to make decisions. Even to die. But it means nothing apart from one Person. The Great God.
“Unless my life—our lives—are lived in Him and for Him, they mean nothing. In and of themselves, they are meaningless. Even our greatest exploits, our fame and our legend, are what in the coming ages? Memories? And when memories fade? Then what?
“I confess to you all this day that my life is not my own. If the Great Father would require His own Son to go to death—His life in exchange for ours—then I can offer nothing less than my own life. Anything else would be an insult to His Name and bring disgrace to His Offering.”
Luik caught the eye of his father, Ragnar. He saw fatherly pride in those eyes. And he longed for it. But recognition was not what Luik wanted; acknowledgement was not what he sought. He had had that.
“It is not my pride that brings Him honor; my pride is an affront to Him. It is not my convictions that earn Him honor; for that is pride again. It is not acts of heroism nor my righteousness. They, too, are dismissed when compared with what He has given up.
“Nothing can compare. Nothing. With what He has accomplished? With what His will has forged among the legacy of men? Our offerings are stale compared to the life He has laid down. The King of Glory sent to die in exchange for our freedom!
“I said that I do not wish to fight. But the truth is that I don’t have to. The Most High is doing it all from here on out. My life is nothing to me if I do not have Him. If He wishes me to die, then so I die.
“Some might say I have given up. But I realize, this day, that I have given in.”
Luik stared each man in the face, taking his time as he did so. He was measuring them—each of them—not against himself, but against the Most High. And each one was found lacking. He could see it now. Despite all their efforts, there was nothing to compare with the Great God. Nothing to compare with who He was…what He had done.
“My life is not my own,” Luik said at last. “I am dead in Him. I don’t even want me inside of me.” He closed his eyes, not understanding what he was saying. But he had to say it. “I want Him inside of me. If it’s me, then what do I live for? But if His Spirit lives in me, then I live for everything…I live for His sake…His will.”
Silence once again consumed the room, and each man was left to his own thoughts. Luik gave them some time—gave himself some time—to think about what he had said. He felt as though no other words were important as these. As a King, there was nothing more imperative he could mandate than this.
Finally, Luik stood from his seat and the others followed. He withdrew his sword and said, “I am dead to myself, but I am alive in the Most High.”
The men drew their swords and repeated the same words. In that moment they became invincible, in the present life and the next.
• • •
The Dibor walked the route out through the King’s Gate and into the city below. The buildings lay in shadow, the only light cast upon their darkened exteriors coming from the lanterns scattered among the windows and a dark blue twilight waking in the western sky.
As they walked, the warband met up with other men headed south to the City Gate. Wives were kissed goodbye and children embraced. Soon the main thoroughfare was bursting with people, onlookers standing on the rooftops for a glimpse of the warriors. These were their fathers and brothers. These were their heroes.
All at once someone began cheering. Like a wild brush fire spreading through a dry valley, the praise took flight and sparked every street corner, open window, and rooftop until the entire city was ringing with tribute.
Luik and the others passed under the massive outer wall through the City Gate and into the open, stopping then to stare at the sea of men that had gathered. Countless heads turned to them as they stepped into the field, their faces consumed in the twilight. Before them were the valiant men of Dionia. Her protectors.
“I never knew she had so many,” Quoin said from behind.
“Nor I,” Jrio whispered, not wishing to disturb the majestic sight. “Nor I.”
The warband slowed to take in the sight while the men of the city continued to pass beside them and find their places amongst the growing throng.
“They are so quiet,” Fane spoke up, the only noise coming from those cheering within the city behind them.
“They’re waiting,” Li-Saide answered Fane’s unspoken question. “Look.”
They followed the dwarf’s outstretched finger and examined the faces of the men more closely. They were not so much looking at Luik or the others as they were looking around. Their eyes searched the sky above, the mountains peaks to the south, and the western sky.
“They’re looking for Him,” Luik said.
“Aye, wouldn’t you?” Kinfen asked. The Dibor looked to one another and smiled.
“Aye, I would,” Jrio put in. “Most surely, I would.”
Luik and the others remained just outside the gate, standing on the stone bridge while the final ranks of men descended and joined the army. The women and children in Mt. Dakka pressed up to the gate and flooded the ramparts, their eager faces looking out expectantly.
Luik raised a hand, calling for silence. The cheering subsided and the entire warband gave him their attention.
“Men of Dionia!” He listened to his voice echo out over them and drift into the mountain passes. He felt each pair of eyes fix fast on him. “Sons, each of you. Fathers, many. We wait for the sun to dawn on what will be the Day of days for our land, the beginning of a new freedom for our people. A new reign. You have seen Dionia through her darkest hour, and yet you still stand. For this, I can only commend you. Although I cannot guarantee your success individually—for no man knows what his next breath may bring—I do know this: The White Lion has come for us, to set us free, and to liberate us from the affliction of our enemy!”
He thundered out the last line and raised a fist skyward. The warband cheered as one, hope kindling afresh in their hearts.
Luik then turned to his leaders. “You know your orders,” he said above the cries. “Be swift and mighty.”
“Swift and mighty!” they said as one, making the sign of blessing as they departed to their places among the warband.
Luik faced the throng once more. He could see the sky lightening in the west. But something else caught his eyes to the east…
Fane followed his gaze. “A storm,” he said.
“Aye, and a dark one at that,” Luik added.
“Morgui controls the elements as before,” said Li-Saide.
Luik nodded and then continued in his address to the rest of the men. “I am sending your kings and leaders among you. Listen to them as you would me. You each have a role to play, and you honor one another with your lives.”
Luik could see the Dibor and Lion Vrie moving amongst the warriors, giving orders and grouping them off in hundreds and thousands. It was a strenuous task to be sure, but Luik had confidence in his men. They were, after all, the best.
Orders were passed back through the ranks, the details echoed over and over so each man could hear. The leaders explained the strategies just as they had been explained to them. The news was passed on until even those in the farthest reaches of the field had heard.
The western sky continued to lighten and Luik wondered if the task would be complete in time…before He arrived…
He felt a touch on his elbow, too graceful to be a boy’s, too gentle to be a man’s.
“I will be by His side,” Anorra said softly.
“And your arrows watching my back,” Luik replied without even turning.
“To be sure,” she said. “There are a number of women who wished to come along. To help.”
“We will be grateful. Keep them out of harm’s way.”
She hesitated. “I will…”
Luik sensed the concern in her voice and turned at last. Her yellow hair was bound in a tight braid, her face the essence of beauty to him. She wore a silver tunic that shimmered in the dawn light, made up of countless tiny plates that moved with her. Below that, leather breecs tucked into her tall boots and a knife lashed onto her belt. Her bow was in her left hand and two quivers were strapped to her back. He caught his breath, speechless in her presence. “I will be as the Most High wants me to be,” he said finally.
She was not pleased with his response, but she knew it was as it must be. “I know.” A half smile curled in her cheek. She would be glad when this day was through.
Something tugged at Luik’s sleeve.
“It is time, my Lord,” Li-Saide said. “He comes.”
Luik turned toward the western sky and watched as an orange glow warmed the canopy, driving out the black of night. He was reminded of his dream just then, of the single star moving through the illuminated sky on its own. First it was hardly noticeable. But soon it gained speed. And descended.
“Hear me now!” Luik hollered over his army. “The Most High will meet with us in the blink of an eye, and we will be caught up with Him into the sky. When you open your eyes, you will see the enemy before you. Do not hesitate! Do not delay! Exact the vengeance that the blood of your children cries out for! Give him no quarter, and do not spare a thought for yourselves. This day must be won. And remember, He is with you always!”
Luik clutched his Vinfae and pulled it out slowly, with the sound of the blade drawing against the metal throat of the scabbard. When it was held aloft, the single sound was repeated thousands of times over, producing a song of war.
“What happens next?” Luik asked Li-Saide over his shoulder.
“How should I know?”
The candid response brought a smile to Luik’s face. How should any of them know?
It was right then that everything slowed down—almost froze. Luik’s vision panned outward as if leaving his body and swiveling out over his men. Then the angle pitched upward and addressed the western sky.
He could hear pounding in his chest.
His heart beat.
Or was it something else?
It beat like drums in the ground. Running.
Something was running toward him.
The intensity of the light beyond peaked, a single flare of sunlight piercing the darkness like a sword. Then everything around him turned white, bathed in light, until he had to shield his eyes. It was too intense.
He was too intense.
– – –