We knew. Looking around at the grizzled men I had spent my life with, I could tell they knew. The sound of shifting armor, creaking leather, and the rattle of helmets filled the quiet meadow we were stationed at. The high walls to our backs served as a reminder of what we were fighting for, regardless of how impossible it was.
I pulled my leather shoulder pads into place and Irek tied them for me. I nodded to him and the helmet slid over my cropped grey hair. I should have looked harder for my own helmet, this one was too large. My gaze shifted to the dust cloud on the horizon. After our first scout had failed to return, Irek sent out our most stealthy to investigate. We knew now it wasn’t just an approaching storm.
“This is it, men,” Irek said roughly, drawing our attention. We all turned to our leader for what we assumed to be the last time. He smoothly climbed up the wheel of a broken wagon and turned to face us, standing a head and shoulders higher than even our tallest, Aron.
In a voice roughened from decades of life, Irek addressed the army. “We’ve battled a long time. We’ve lost many. But we are strong.” His bright blue gaze settled on me and he nodded slightly before shifting to Bren at my side. “We are good at what we do, at protecting those who need it.” He lifted his wiry arm, and in extension his sword, towards the wall behind me. “Prepare yourselves. I am proud to call you mine.”
As one, the warriors called out Irek’s name and pounded our fists against our chests once. He nodded at us and slowly returned the gesture of honor and respect. As he jumped down, I turned towards the tall stone wall behind me. The desire to see the people inside just once more was so strong that I took several steps towards draw bridge door. I could picture their faces, full of hope and love as I bid them goodbye.
A strong grasp on my arm made me turn away from the wall, from those huddled inside the small castle. Irek stood close behind me with a furrowed brow. “Yearn not for them, brother,” he spoke softly. “They have put their trust in us to provide safety. We must go into battle with the knowledge that only we are able to do so.”
I stared into his eyes for too long, because we could hear the drums from the approaching dust cloud now. I nodded and grasped his arm. “I understand,” I said steadily, though my heart ached. He nodded and turned away, only to stop and adjust Bren’s armor where the small man could not reach.
I sighed softly and took my place in the back of the line. It was up to me to get any who managed to slip by. I drew my sword and muttered a prayer of protection, just like I had before every battle over the last forty years. I watched as Irek took his place and motioned for the archers to prepare. The rest of the army shifted as one, their minds tuned together after a lifetime of battles fought with the men at their sides. Though I could only see but a few, I knew that all two thousand warriors drew their swords for a war we would not win.