The roar of thunder jerked Tristan from his thoughts. Suddenly the world came rushing back to him. The rain fell in sheets, and the occasional rolling thunder was accompanied by the din of a battle being fought just outside the walls of the fort. It took him a few more moments to realize someone was yelling.
“Boy! Don’t you make me yell louder!” The man shouted as he strode towards a mounted warrior.
“Apologies, lieutenant Thatcher, won’t happen again.” The horseman replied.
“Good. Get your men together, you’re out.” Thatcher said simply, starting to turn away.
“Finally! We’ve been itching for some action.” Laughed the brash rider.
“Not today, boy. We’re piked, here. Reinforcements aren’t coming, we’re in bad terrain, the enemy is all around us, supplies won’t last a tenday, and Talos has really backed up and dropped all over us with this Gods be damned storm. You and yours will ride through the gates, hit their right flank, break through and go home.” The lieutenant summarized, his stoic countenance never breaking.
Something started to nag at the back of Tristan’s mind as the lieutenant spoke. Something he felt he should know, floating just beyond the edge of his comprehension. He was getting the strangest sense of déjà vu as he watched the lieutenant and the rider speak.
The crack of thunder nearly deafened him, and he shut his eyes against the flash of lightning that followed. When he blinked open his eyes, they befell a very different scene. The field was littered with broken bodies as Tristan rode slowly through it. His grey horse moved cautiously, picking its footing as it navigated the sea of dead Tethyrians. Off to his left he heard someone begging for help. As he turned towards the source, the voice was cut short by the tip of a spear held in the grip of the rider from the fort.
Tristan made his way towards the other rider, that feeling of déjà vu crawling up the back of his neck again as he slowly closed the distance. He considered calling out, but when the rider’s spear came down again, he thought better of it and pulled his own steed to a halt. He sat and watched as the other horseman made his way around the battlefield, pausing just long enough to administer a final mercy to the dying. Mercy delivered at the tip of a spear.
The storm continued to rage above, casting lances of lightning through the black clouds that illuminated the slaughter field in nightmarish ways. Dead eyes stared up at the careless skies. Bodies lay clustered in small groups, a hollow testimonial to the loyalty of the dead who died fighting side by side with their brothers.
Another blast of thunder shook him to the bone and the flash of lightning blinded him temporarily. As he blinked away the dots, his vision slowly returned to him. A new sight greeting his returning vision. This time he was in a village, or what was left of one. The homes were mostly destroyed, blackened by fire. Some had completely collapsed and existed now as barely distinguishable piles of rubble and broken dreams.
It was a moment after that he realized he was not alone, he seemed to be following someone; The rider from before. Again, he hesitated to call out to the lone rider, and that nagging sense that this was something he should be familiar with tickled the back of his mind. He continued to trail the rider in silence. The rider was slumped in his saddle, and even his horse seemed to trudge through the husk of the village. Whether it was exhaustion, sorrow, or both that weighed on the man Tristan could not be sure. But he suspected it was the latter.
The smell hit him before he ever saw it; The stench of rotting bodies, and the gut turning odor of charred flesh. The rider in front of him had come to a stop where the road broke into the village center. He could imagine a time before when the villagers would gather beneath the giant tree that dominated the center of the village. He envisioned festivals with music and life, social gatherings between lifelong friends, and young lovers sneaking kisses beneath its boughs in the moonlight. But what he saw now was the brutal execution of that peace, the heartless murder of that innocence.
Bodies hung from the branches thick enough to support them, swaying in the wind like a macabre wind chime. Chained to the trunk were the charred remains of those villagers who were unfortunate enough not to get a branch and a noose. He felt his heart break as he stopped beside the rider at the entrance to the nightmare in front of them. After a time, the rider dismounted and approached the tree.
Tristan sat silently as the rider dropped to his knees in front of the bodies. By the subtle shaking of the shoulders, he knew the rider was weeping. He himself felt tears drifting down his cheeks, but felt a strange disconnect, as though he had already wept over the loss of life at some point. The rider reached out to the charred body of a young child but stopped just short of touching them. Instead, he reached down and pulled something from the child’s hand before swiftly rising and walking towards Tristan, a fire-blackened necklace clutched in one hand.
“You said you would never forget this.” The rider spoke, his voice muffled by the helm.
“I never forgot this.” Replied Tristan.
A bolt of lightning crashed into the top of the tree, splitting it ruthlessly in half. As the flash faded, the rider removed his helm and Tristan found himself staring into a familiar set of blue eyes; his own.
“Tethyr deserves time to rest, free from the horror of war and shielded from the evils of the world.” The rider-Tristan reminded him as he jammed the child’s charred necklace into his hand.
The roll of thunder rocked Tristan from his sleep, and he sat bolt upright, his hand closing on the grip of the axe on the night stand. It took some time for his eyes to adjust to the dim, flickering candlelight of his room at the inn. He was alone, drenched in sweat, and breathing heavily. He closed his eyes and forced himself to calm down before rising from the bed. There was a bucket of rainwater he had sitting on the table, and he made his way to it through the dark room.
After splashing his face with some of the cool water, Tristan began to make his way back to the bed. But he stopped when he caught his reflection in the mirror, causing him to turn and contemplate the sight of himself. There was a time when he was strong, fit, full of life. Though time had passed, and he had certainly regained some of his weight, that once healthy body remained unusually gaunt. The fire-blackened necklace stuck out in stark contrast to his dusky skin, and he found himself idly running his fingers over the metal of it. Tristan lost track of how long he stared at himself in that mirror, but another roar of thunder snapped him from his moment of self-pity.
With a slap on his cheek to focus himself, Tristan began to dress himself. His armor lay nearby, and he couldn’t help but think that he was going to need it today. Today and many more days to come. He had not forgotten. He would never forget.