“Treason Properly” by J.J. Cragun

The rifle in my hands bucked as I pulled the trigger, spewing fire and death. The crack of the bullet splitting the air echoed eerily across the small mountain valley. The beast looming in front of me was easily eight feet tall. With curling horns atop its head, mottled black fur, and a face more human than beast, the monstrous creature roared as the bullet tore through its chest. The terrifying brute fell, but it wasn't alone. The second beastman, even larger than the first, looked my way. Those eyes, which were once intelligent and full of life, were now dead. There was no rational thought behind those dead eyes. Just lifeless, unfeeling hate, and a mindless drive to destroy the living. And, unlike so many of my comrades, I was still among the living. If I wanted to stay that way, there was more killing to be done.

“Aeric!” I cried out, stumbling back and away from the brute. The beast started for me with lumbering steps.

Aeric wasn't old enough to grow a proper beard, but that hadn't prevented him from being conscripted into the Royal Fusiliers Brigade. He knew death was coming for us, but he never faltered. Without a word, he accepted the carbine I thrust at him, then handed me a freshly loaded rifle.

Every instinct in my body screamed at me to shoot. The towering beast was almost on me. But I knew better than to give in to the urge to panic fire. Though the lumbering monstrosity was so close I could hardly miss, I only had one shot to kill the beast. A less-than-perfect shot meant we were both dead. Instead of firing wildly, I forced myself to concentrate. With practiced motion, I raised the gun and aimed directly at one of the beast's dead, lifeless eyes.

It was close enough to strike now, one powerful arm raising a club high in the air, an instant from smashing the life out of me.

Sucking in a breath, I kept focus on the front sight, then pulled the trigger. Again, the crack of the carbine echoed across the valley and through the trees. There was no other sound. Just the distant echoes of a gunshot. Then the towering beastman swayed ponderously before finally toppling over, dead.

Aeric handed me a fresh carbine. I surveyed the landscape, looking for another target. We were up on a hillside in a narrow draw. The entire battalion had been stationed up on this hill, overlooking the small river valley down below. Four hundred armsmen and one hundred riflemen had been stationed here. It was thought a battalion could easily hold this narrow valley. But as I swept my gaze across the hillside, it was clear that estimation had been disastrously optimistic. Smoke floated eerily through the trees, blanketing the hillside in a noxious fog. The gunsmoke was thick in places, but from my vantage point I could see most of the valley. Nothing moved in the lazily drifting smoke.

Five hundred men lay dead on the hillside. An even larger number of enemy corpses littered the ground. But that was scant consolation as I surveyed the carnage, realization slowly dawning that all the men that I had lived with, trained with, joked and drank with, were now dead. Of the entire five-hundred-man battalion, only Aeric and I had survived.

For the last twenty minutes this hillside had been a living hell, drowning in the cacophony of violent battle, awash with deafening explosions of gunfire and the screams of the dying. Now, the contrasting silence was downright chilling. We were alone out here. But the deathless forces of the Betrayer would keep coming. More undead would come. They always did.

Aeric turned to me for instruction. The boy was bloodied and hurt, but the brave young man still had fight in him. During the battle, undead vulturelike beasts had swooped down on the battalion, killing dozens. One of the deadly creatures had raked him with vicious claws, leaving bloody furrows across his head and face before I shot it out of the air. A hastily applied bandage got the worst of the bleeding stopped. But the bandage covered his right eye, his dominant eye, which prevented him from accurately firing a rifle. Unable to shoot, he had courageously insisted on reloading for me instead. And the young man had certainly saved both our lives as he methodically, efficiently reloaded rifle after rifle, despite the chaotic violence that had engulfed the hillside around us.

Both of us slumped to the ground in exhaustion, taking a moment to catch our breath as we considered the hundreds of bodies, both human and beastman, that now covered the ground.

The beastmen tribes had once ruled the lands to the west of Shayne. The rolling hills and forests of the Western Marches had been their undisputed territory for generations. Shayne had even opened trade with several of the more peaceful tribes. But the beastmen had been too fragmented, too tribal, to stand against the undead army of Tetrax the Betrayer. They had been unable to unite in the face of a greater threat. Now they served Tetrax, united in death.

“What do we do now, Briggs?” Aeric asked, his good eye scanning the hillside as he took in the carnage all around us.

“We need to fall back to the command outpost at Fort Montoya. They need to know the pass is lost. Command thought we would hold this valley easily. They will be caught flat-footed if we don't warn them.”

Aeric nodded his head. “It's two days walk to reach the fort. And these beastmen move faster than we do.”

He wasn't wrong. We had no hope of outrunning these creatures. They could run faster than a man, and they didn’t seem to tire. But we didn't know how far away the next wave was. Maybe we could reach the fort first. Maybe we couldn't. But we weren't going to find out if we stayed here.

“Find yourself an extra rifle or two. If we run into any more beastmen, we won't outrun them. We'll have to fight them. But be quick about it. We need to get moving.”

The younger man nodded grimly, and both of us set about scavenging from the corpses of our fallen comrades. I picked the three cleanest carbines I could find, in addition to extra powder, ammunition, and water skins. I tried not to look at the faces of the men as I coldly stripped useful gear from dead bodies. Forgetting the horrors of this day would be bad enough. Remembering the faces and accusing, dead stares of fallen friends wouldn't help me sleep at night.

Aeric geared himself up as well, and the two of us set off. Speed was of the essence, but we were both exhausted from the battle. I set the quickest pace that I thought we might be able to maintain, and we headed for the narrow strip of dirt road that would lead us through the pass and on to Fort Montoya on the other side of the mountains.

Neither of us spoke as we trudged across the battlefield and up the grassy slope, avoiding the bodies of fallen friends and comrades. Aeric kept glancing over his shoulder, back down the hill, as if he were expecting the beasts to come charging out of the trees at any moment. And perhaps they would. It was impossible to know how far away they were. Gunsmoke from a hundred carbines rolled lazily through the air of the narrow valley, partially obscuring the view. But all was silent, with nothing but the gentle breeze rustling through the leaves to keep us company.

We soon left the veritable carpet of dead bodies behind as we crested the hill and made the road. Then both of us jumped as a clump of tall bushes on the opposite side of the narrow road suddenly started shaking. Both our rifles were up and at the ready in an instant. My heart was beating hard enough that I could feel it in my temples, but I fought back the fear and steadied my aim. We waited, but nothing came rushing out at us. The bushes rustled again, followed by a bestial snort. Aeric flinched at the noise, but his gun was steady.

“Should we shoot?” he whispered.

“No, hold your fire. I'm going to get a bit closer. If anything jumps out and tries to tear my face off, then you shoot.” I took a step closer, then turned back to the young man. “And don’t you miss.”

Aeric nodded, returning his full attention to the thicket of bushes in front of us.

I cautiously made my way forward, one ginger step at a time, carbine raised and at the ready. There was another snort from inside the thicket, but this time I was more hopeful than afraid. Using the barrel of my rifle, I pushed some branches aside. Hope welled in me as I spotted a horse in the thicket, her bridle tangled up in the branches.

I turned back to Aeric, a smile on my face. “It's one of the battalion horses. She must have bolted during the fight and got herself tangled in the thicket.”

Aeric brightened immediately. He knew what this meant as well as I did. A man couldn't outrun the beastmen, but a horse could. And the big chargers used by the battalion officers could support both of us for leagues, if we didn't push her. This was a fine stroke of luck. More than that, really. This was salvation.

“I'll get her untangled from the brush. Stay here and keep an eye out.”

“You sure leaving a one-eyed scout to watch for trouble is a good idea?”

I grunted a laugh. It was nice to see the young man still retained something of his sense of humor, despite what he had just been through. I waded into the bushes and set about calming the animal as I unwrapped the lead from the tangle of branches.

I freed the horse and led it from the thicket. Aeric wasn’t waiting for me where I had left him. Instead, he was crouched down on the far side of the road, peering down the hill at something. He turned back to me, a look of dread on his face. Whatever he had seen had scared him, but he wasn’t running for the horse. Instead, he was waving me over to join him.

With a growing sense of dread creeping through me, I secured the horse's lead to a thick branch and darted across the road, lying down next to Aeric behind a dead log. Then I looked down the hill. Not sixty yards away, two men were struggling up the hillside. Neither of the men were riflemen, nor were they armsmen from the battalion. They were both dressed in heavy plate, armed for melee combat with sword and shield. These men were obviously knights of Shayne, but I didn't know who they were or why they were here. Then, my attention was drawn to what was clambering up the hill behind the two men, in hot pursuit.

A pack of the undead, at least twelve strong, was steadily gaining on the two knights. Their dead, lifeless eyes were fixated on the men as they sprinted up the hill after them. But though the beastmen were fast, and uniform in their desire to kill, they were undisciplined. The undead brutes were spread out in a ragged line, the quickest of them already closing on the two fleeing knights. The slower creatures were still some distance off.

But that wasn't the worst of it. Bringing up the rear, astride an undead nightmare horse, was the last thing I wanted to see. I was looking at one of The Eleven.

I couldn’t stop myself from shivering at the sight of the fell creature.

In life, The Eleven had been the personal guard of King Sirius Shayne, father of the current king. But the eleven brave knights had all been slaughtered during the Battle of the Betrayer. Then Tetrax used his fell magics to bring the Eleven back from the dead to serve as the leaders of his cursed army. The eleven brave knights that had dedicated their lives to protecting the Shayne family now fought to destroy the Kingdom of Shayne.

The dread knight was clad in ornate mail armor, filigreed with gold and black trim. He held a long lance in one hand, and a brutal long sword was strapped across his back. And though the fearsome creature could have easily run down the two fleeing humans, he seemed content to hang back and let his minions do the dirty work. The skeletal steed of the knight cantered at an easy pace behind the pack of undead as the beasts closed on the two fleeing men.

When this particular Dread Knight had been alive, in the service of the King, he had been known as Oneal Sharps, Master of the Lance. But upon undeath, the Betrayer had renamed him Rictus. And Rictus was feared by the soldiers of Shayne for good reason. This horrific creature had killed many brave men.

The fastest of the beastmen was a hulking simian brute, with hugely muscled arms and long canine teeth jutting from savage jaws. The monster closed the distance with loping strides, on all fours, then threw itself into the air, leaping towards the trailing human. The man whirled around, raised his shield, and braced himself for the impact. The gorillalike beast smashed a huge forearm into the shield with such force that the sturdy warrior buckled, falling to the ground under the strength of the blow. But his companion hadn't abandoned him. A gleaming sword flashed through the air, taking the brute's arm off at the elbow, then flashed again, cutting deeply through the beast's neck. The simian creature tried to lash out with its remaining arm, the mindless fury and focus of undeath driving it on, but the man sheltering under the shield sprang back up, slamming his shield into the beast and sending it tumbling back down the grassy hillside.

Other undead were on them now. The two humans, understanding they could flee no further, grimly turned to face their pursuers. It was unlikely they would survive, but you don't become a Knight of Shayne if you’re the type of man that lies down and dies quietly. Side-by-side, the two men set themselves, ready to fight to the end.

I faced a dilemma, in that moment. These two men looked capable and determined, but they stood no chance against Rictus and his undead beastmen. But they would likely keep the enemy occupied long enough for Aeric and me to flee on our horse. Honestly, it was probably our duty to run. We had to warn command at Fort Montoya that the pass had fallen. That was far more important than the lives of two knights. If command didn't reinforce the pass in time, The Betrayer's forces would sweep down into the vale and slaughter hundreds, maybe thousands. Alerting the fort had to be our first priority.

Right . . . That's what I would tell myself as I tried to fall asleep at night, racked by guilt for being a coward. In that moment, Janey's face flashed into my mind. My beautiful wife. What would she say if she knew I had left two of my countrymen to die?

I knew exactly what she would say. I knew just how her pert little nose would crinkle up as she said it, too. She wouldn't yell, or scream. She wouldn't try to reason with me. She would shake her head, once, then ask me if I felt good about my decision. That's all she would do. She always knew how to see right to the heart of a matter.

“Curse the moon,” I swore. I wouldn't feel good about abandoning these men. That's what it came down too, despite the very, very bad odds. “That woman is going to get me killed,” I muttered. Then I raised the carbine, steadied the barrel on the log in front of me, and announced to the terrifying creatures below that I was present, and that they should probably come and kill me.

Both knights were fighting for their lives. A stout beastman with tusks and claws was slashing wildly at the shorter man. If not for the gleaming plate mail and shield, that knight would have been shredded. But as it was, the valiant fellow was standing his ground, warding the boarlike beast off with his shield as he fenced with another creature carrying a spear. The knight was incredibly skilled, holding his own against two foes at the same time.

The other knight, a head taller than his companion and wearing a sky-blue cape that marked him a Royal Guardsmen, wasn't faring much better. He was fending off a pair of beastmen himself, but a third, pantherlike creature was slinking off to the side, scrambling higher up the hill to come in behind the guardsmen.

The carbine bucked, and the air rang out with my shot. None of the combatants had been expecting the jolting retort of the gun, and the two men visibly flinched at the loud noise that echoed repeatedly off the narrow walls of the valley. But the pantherlike beastman did more than flinch. The bullet fired from my carbine caught the creature in the side, tore through both lungs, and sent the beast toppling down the hill.

The big Royal Guardsmen used the distraction to his advantage, knocking aside the club of one of his attackers. Then he lashed out with his gleaming sword, skewering the rat-faced beast in front of him right through the chest.

The shorter knight wasn't faring so well, however. The boarlike beast managed to get a hand under the knight's shield and grabbed his boot, yanking the unfortunate fellow right off his feet. He landed hard on his back, stunned for the briefest of seconds by the fall. With my second carbine already at hand, I sighted in on the boar man's tusked face. The piglike beast jumped, landing on top of the knight, then reared back with one claw-tipped hand to slice at the man’s face. I focused in on one of the monster’s beady, undead eyes, and pulled the trigger.

The bullet punched through the thick skull of the creature, killing it instantly. The beast collapsed heavily atop the fallen man, its full weight settling on his chest. The knight seemed to be in quite the unfortunate position, trapped as he was, but the spear-wielding beastman was too eager, and lunged for the kill. The knight shifted slightly, interposing the dead body atop him in between himself and the spear, trapping the weapon as it skewered the dead boar man. The knight lashed out with his brilliant sword, cutting the legs out from under his attacker, then used the brief reprieve to roll the dead creature off his body and spring back to his feet.

I dropped the spent carbine, reaching for my third rifle. Aeric snatched it up and began reloading. “We're fighting instead of running, then?” he asked, beginning to reload with practiced motion.

I glanced at the young man, knowing the brave lad would follow my lead instead of running, even if it would likely get us both killed. I didn’t know what I could possibly say that would prove worthy of that kind of trust. So I didn't even try.

“One of those knights down there owes me money.”

He snorted a laugh as I returned my attention to the fight.

The tall Royal Guardsman had fought the club-wielding beastman to a standstill, but the second, slower group of undead had arrived, swinging the odds back into the favor of the undead. Now each of the knights was outnumbered almost four to one. The situation was dire.

The shorter of the knights finished off the beast that had fallen to the ground, but several undead moved to surround him. A burly goat-faced beast with an axe charged forward, swinging wildly. The short knight skillfully parried the blow with his shield, then managed a slash in reply, slicing his foe across the chest. But the monster ignored the grievous wound and attacked again.

Engaged as he was with the goat beast, the knight was hard-pressed to turn and face a thin, catlike female coming at him from his right. She clutched wicked daggers in either hand. I didn't know if those knives were sturdy enough to pierce the knight's tough plate armor; it wouldn't do to find out the hard way. Sighting in on the feline creature, and leading her ever-so-slightly to compensate for her lateral movement, I pulled the trigger.

In the split second before I fired, the knight whirled on her, throwing his shield up to slam her away. “Curse the moon!” I swore. The bullet hurtled towards the undead woman, but was intercepted by the knight's shield, and the loud report of the bullet ricocheting off the thick metal made me cringe. The thump of the ricochet bouncing off his shield startled the knight, as did the bright sparks that suddenly leapt from the metal near his face. The moment's distraction caused him to falter, and the goat-faced beast slammed that heavy axe into his side, blasting the knight off his feet. His magnificent breastplate saved him, but it must have been a terribly painful blow. The stout knight was smart enough to keep moving, so he let the momentum of the fall carry him down the hill as he rolled a couple of times. He came back to his feet, sword now clutched in two hands, his shield lost in the fall.

Cursing violently, I dropped the carbine and reached for one of Aeric's loaded rifles, hoping I hadn't just doomed the knight with that errant shot.

When I turned back to the battle, I noted the large guardsman was down, lying on his back, swinging his sword frantically as the encroaching group of undead drew closer, mobbing the fallen man. His brilliant armor deflected most of the damage, but I knew some of the blows got through. He kept fighting, desperately trying to keep them at bay.

Another goatlike beastman grabbed the knight's shield, attempting to pry it out of his grasp. The creature's head imploded as my next shot caught it squarely in the ear. The prone knight tried to roll to the side, to create space to rise back to his feet, but he was still surrounded by three undead foes. A brute with a spear lunged, catching him in the back. That breastplate saved him from instant death, but the powerful blow cracked his armor, and the tip of the spear pierced the brave man's flesh. He screamed in agony, but never stopped fighting. He desperately struggled to pull free of the spear in his back. The pain must have been terrible, but he spun away, breaking the haft of the spear, then rose to one knee and struck out with his sword, felling a foe with a powerful blow that nearly split the creature in half.

Again I fired, this time taking the undead monster holding half of a broken spear in the chest. The brute grunted in surprise, toppling off his feet and tumbling down the hill. I had one more carbine at hand. Aeric was busily reloading, but it would be at least twenty seconds before the rifle he was working on was ready to fire. The shorter knight farther down the hill still faced three foes. He was giving ground to keep from being surrounded. The larger knight, wounded and bleeding, was facing two opponents. He still had his sword and shield, and was back on his feet, but was moving slowly now.

Deciding the knight trying to dodge three opponents was in graver peril, I sighted in on the large axe-wielding goatman and fired. Hitting a moving opponent in the midst of a melee, while being careful not to accidentally hit allies, is much easier said than done. The bullet whistled towards the brute, but only caught him a grazing blow to the back of one meaty thigh. The undead beast faltered a step, but didn't so much as glance down at the wound. The creature's attention was unerringly fixed on the knight.

“Not good,” I muttered, angry at myself “Aeric . . . ?” I implored, willing him to load faster.

Aeric grunted something in reply that didn't warrant repeating as he finished loading the carbine, then veritably threw the rifle at me as he began loading the next one.

In the brief moment I had taken my eyes off the battle, the shorter of the two knights had managed to fell another beastman, chopping it down with brutal efficiency, but the axe-wielding brute made him pay for it, hitting him yet again. The knight was expecting the blow, and managed to roll with it. He fell even farther down the hill, but didn't suffer serious damage. His partner wasn't so lucky. The guardsman batted one of the undead monsters aside with his shield, and lunged at the other, skewering an antlered beastman through the stomach with his razor-sharp blade. But his attack was too low. His strike certainly hurt the creature, but he hadn't hit anything vital. The beastman screamed in defiance, then lashed out with a large, furry fist, punching the knight in the face. His helmet served to protect him from some of the blow, but the beast followed the punch with another, then another. By the time the fourth blow fell, the knight's gleaming, dented helmet flew from his head, and he was falling again. The valiant man yanked the beastman with him, sending the wounded creature tumbling down the hill, but he had no defense against his last attacker. A rat-faced female with a sickle loomed over him, weapon raised for a killing blow.

My bullet took her in the shoulder, shattering bones as it tore through the upper part of her body. The un-thinking beastwoman tried to use her weapon anyway, but there wasn't enough left of her shoulder to hold the sickle. She tried to swing, but ended up sort of just twirling down to the ground, off balance and sorely damaged.

Turning my attention back to the other knight, I let out a breath of relief. He was holding his own against two foes. And the injured man was out of harm's way, at least for a moment. The longer the two valiant knights could drag this out, the better. It gave us more time to reload.

I began turning towards Aeric, ready to tell him we had turned the tide of the battle, and that we might just survive this. But that's when I spotted the forgotten Dread Knight, sitting atop his fell steed. He had finally decided to join the battle. Spurring his undead mount to a full gallop, he charged, iron-shod hooves tearing at the grass as the great beast hurtled towards the shorter knight.

Rictus had angled his charge to come in right behind the knight. He had cleverly waited until the desperate man was looking in the wrong direction, his full attention on the two foes in front of him. The knight had no idea that death was fast approaching from behind.

The full weight of futility fell on me as I dropped the empty carbine in my hands. I screamed, hoping to draw the knight's attention to the horrific being charging from behind, but he was at least seventy yards away now, and fighting for his life. Aeric was just picking up the rod to charge the carbine in his hands. Seven seconds, at least. Far too long to take a shot to save the knight. I could only watch in horror as the fell-steed ate up the ground with terrible speed. The Dread Knight lowered his lance, sighting in on the back of the embattled knight.

From seemingly out of nowhere, the other knight, the one that had been so grievously wounded, shot down the hill like a madman, letting gravity do most of the work as he miraculously kept his feet. His brilliant blue cape fluttered behind him as he picked up speed. The guardsman threw himself at the other knight, knocking the smaller man clean off his feet, sending him bouncing painfully down the hill. Saving him from certain death.

And taking his companion's place at the tip of the lance.

Rictus spitted the valiant man with the lance. The guardsman's limp body tumbled lifeless to the ground.

Anger and revulsion welled up inside of me. That brave knight had just given his life to save a brother-in-arms. Aeric handed me a primed and ready rifle, and instinctively I aimed at the Dread Knight. But out of the corner of my eye I noticed the axe-toting beastman, now charging down the hill to where the other knight had finally stopped rolling. That knight, though disoriented and bruised, was struggling back to his feet. He was still alive, but wouldn't be for long. Switching my aim to the beastman, I fired.

The bullet smashed through the brute's spine, dropping it instantly, right at the feet of the remaining knight. He must have still been a bit addled from the fall. He seemed to notice the creature for the first time as it came to a stop at his feet, then he looked back up the hill in my direction.

“Don't look at me, idiot,” I muttered, though I knew he couldn't hear me. The man was nearly one hundred yards away at this point, having tumbled all the way down to the base of the hill. “You're not out of the woods yet.”

In a seeming stroke of luck, I realized Rictus had carelessly trampled the knife-wielding beastwoman with his horse. Both her legs appeared to be broken. She wasn't completely dead, but she was no longer an immediate threat. That just left Rictus to deal with. The Dread Knight had wheeled his horse around, drawn the massive longsword from his back, and was bearing down on the remaining knight, who had lost his sword in the fall. The man was completely unarmed.

Aeric handed me a carbine. I would have one shot at this. If I missed, the knight was a dead man.

Leading the charging steed, I compensated for the speed of the horse, then took into account the distance. I said a silent prayer that my aim would be true.

Then I fired.

* * *

It is said that The Eleven are very hard to kill. There were different theories about how one might dispatch one of the Dread Knights. Some said you had to take the head off. Others said fire was the only way to do the deed. Over the past year, since this war with Tetrax the Betrayer had started, I had heard a dozen theories and rumors about how one might kill one of the Eleven. I had no idea which, if any, of the theories was true. But I had a very real concern that shooting one, at a hundred yards, might not do the trick.

So, I shot the bastard's horse instead.

The bullet shattered the hip joint of the rear leg. Mid-stride, the beast's leg buckled, and it toppled heavily to the ground, sending the Dread Knight tumbling violently through the grass. Such a fall would have taken most any man out of the fight, but Rictus smoothly rose back to his feet. He glanced first at the thrashing, undead horse, then at the sword in his hands. The fall had broken the weapon near the hilt. He was left holding nothing more than a handle and a few inches of blade. Furious, he looked up the hill, directly at me. Despite the distance of some ninety yards, I could feel the hate of that baleful glare all the way from there. But the Dread Knight had prey closer at hand, and it turned to look for the knight. To his credit, the man hadn't been idle while I shot the horse out from under Rictus. He knew the reputation of the creature hunting him, and he wasn't going to hang around waiting for me to kill it. Instead, he was hustling back up the hill, searching frantically for his fallen sword. He found the blade in nearly the same moment that the Rictus rounded on him. Not more than a breath later, Aeric handed me a fresh rifle. The stalwart young man was still loading carbines with quick, smooth precision.

Rictus regarded the short, powerfully built knight. Then the creature turned its terrible eyes towards me once again. Just as before, the gaze of the powerful creature was a palpable thing. I could feel the monster appraising me, hating me. I could sense its desire to tear the life from my body. Despite myself, I let out an involuntary shudder. The wrongness of this creature tore at my sensibilities. But I didn't turn away. I didn't run and hide in terror. Steeling my resolve, I turned my focus to the front site of the rifle, and hoped a bullet would hurt this creature.

But I didn't get to find out. Rictus tossed the handle of his broken sword to the ground in disgust. Then he spoke. His sibilant, raspy voice carried all the way up the hill to me, despite the fact that the Dread Knight used nothing more than a whisper.

Well fought,” the creature hissed, his eerie voice seeming to carry like the wind itself. “You prove to be worthy foes. I am most pleased. I will return with a new hunting party. Then I shall drink your blood.”

With that, the undead knight whirled away and fled back the way he had come, seeming to float over the grass as he moved. Within moments, he was gone, fading into the trees.

“What . . .” Aeric asked, breathing heavily, “. . . was that?” The young man, stalwart as he was, had clearly been unnerved by the voice of the undead knight.

I turned to him, a smile on my face as relief washed over me. “That, my young friend, was one of The Eleven.” Aeric paled noticeably, but I continued speaking before he could panic. “When it found out Aeric of the Royal Fusiliers was up on this hill, it fled in terror.”

The young man grunted, but he seemed to be at a loss for words. “Aeric, load the rest of these rifles, and keep your eyes peeled for trouble. Er . . . your eye, at least. And make sure the horse doesn’t bolt. It's still our ticket out of here. I'm going to go check on the knight.”

Rifle at the ready, I moved out from behind the log we had been using for cover and made my way down the steep slope. The knight finished off the few undead that were still twitching on the ground, then walked over to the fallen body of his companion. I reached him about that same time. The young knight was visibly shaken.

“I'm sorry about your friend,” I offered weakly.

The knight shook his head sadly as he gazed down at the guardsman. “I've known this man since I was a boy. He saved my skin more than once. I always knew he might die protecting me. But I never really believed it would come to that.”

“He died a hero's death,” I observed. “That was quite a selfless thing he did. I'm sorry we couldn't save him. I missed too many shots.” It was my turn to shake my head. I hadn't known the dead man, but the sting of his death hit me, too. If my shooting had been more precise, if I had prioritized targets better, maybe he wouldn't be dead now.

The knight stood up, then clapped a heavy, mailed hand to my shoulder. “I'm sure you did all you could, soldier. We're at war. Part of surviving war means learning to live with what you have lost.”

I gave the man a nod, and together we trudged up the grassy slope. The knight spoke as we reached the top. “It was a good thing your company still held this hill. I was afraid the entire battalion had been wiped out. Tell me, how many men do you have left in your command?”

We crested the hill in that moment, and the knight seemed stunned when he didn't see a company of fusiliers waiting for us. “Behold, my command,” I said, pointing to the bloodied young man sitting on the log. “A one-eyed boy, and a scared horse. In all honesty, it isn't my command. The boy and I both hold the rank of private third class, which is the lowest rank in the army. The horse probably outranks both of us, by seniority. Technically, this is probably her command.”

I looked to the knight, to see if he appreciated the absurdity of this situation as much as I did, when I noticed Aeric jump off the log and throw himself down on one knee. “My lord,” the young man hastily blurted out, his eyes fixed on the ground in front of him.

It took me several seconds to figure out what Aeric was doing. I looked at the young man, then at the knight, then back at the young man. I finally noticed the royal crest on the knight's breastplate. A lightning bolt clutched in the mouth of a warhound. The emblem of House Shayne.

“Oh,” I finally muttered, realization dawning on me like a wagon full of rocks. “You’re Prince Gegard.” It was half a statement, half a question. I had just been having a casual conversation with the Crown Prince of Shayne, heir to the throne. Stating I felt like an idiot doesn't do the sentiment justice. Immediately, I moved to kneel in front of the prince, but halfway down I thought better of it. I was in uniform, so I rose and began to salute, slapping my right hand over my breast. But then I thought better of that, too. I had no idea what decorum dictated I do for the crown prince. I froze, panic setting in, though that was hardly a first for today. I was getting used to the sensation. “I'm sorry, sir. Do I salute you, or kneel? Or maybe both?”

Prince Gegard grunted in amusement. “Relax, soldier. You two just saved my life. I should be saluting you.” He turned to Aeric. “On your feet, lad. The two of you just did the kingdom a great service. You just saved the crown prince. I’m certain you don't get to say that every day.” Gegard took a moment to look around, as if to assure himself that it was, in fact, just the three of us up here. “And, might I add, that was some damned fine shooting. I figured at least half-a-dozen fusiliers were up here firing away. You two should be proud of yourselves.”

“Just doing our job, sir,” I mumbled, giving the prince a nod.

Aeric seemed just as uncomfortable with the praise as I did. He mumbled something incoherent about getting the horse and walked away.

The prince turned towards me. “You two are really all that are left of the battalion?”

“Afraid so, sir. I figure we're done here. Two men with rifles aren't going to hold this valley. We were making for the pass, heading towards Fort Montoya to warn command that the battalion has been wiped out.”

Prince Gegard nodded his helmed head. “I concur. We three can't hold this position. We need to warn command immediately.”

Aeric returned with the horse. The expression on his young face was grave. Once again, he had been thinking ahead, and had figured out something that was just now occurring to me. He walked right up to the prince and held out the horse's lead, offering it to Gegard. “Lucky we found this horse, sir,” Aeric said, fighting to keep his face steady. Only then did the obvious dawn on me. This horse couldn't hold three men. By saving the prince, we had just doomed ourselves. We couldn't very well ride off on the charger and leave the crown prince and heir to the kingdom to die.

“Curse the moon,” I swore under my breath. Saving the prince had probably just cost both of us our lives.

Prince Gegard accepted the lead automatically, then paused as he too did the math. He realized what it meant that Aeric was offering him our horse. Despite the gravity of the situation, Aeric's next words did me proud. He didn't even hesitate. “Best be on your way, my lord. We have no way of knowing how soon the enemy will return. They could be back any moment. You should get yourself to safety, sir. And warn command that the pass has fallen.”

Prince Gegard nodded his head solemnly as the young man spoke. Then he let out a short, sardonic laugh. He paused, then laughed again, this time a little more emphatically. Then he turned back to Aeric. “You're not wrong, Private. We need to warn command. But do you know what will happen if I ride out of this valley, all alone. The lone survivor of an entire battalion of men? Do you understand what would happen if the prince was the only man to leave this valley alive?”

That caught both of us off guard. Aeric shook his head in confusion. The prince laughed yet again, shaking his head slowly. “If I ride out of here alone, we lose the war. End of story.” He paused, letting his words sink in.

“I would think, sir, that everyone would be relieved you survived,” I interjected.

Gegard shook his head in disagreement. “My mother would be relieved. My father, and indeed, every other man, woman, and child of Shayne would think me a coward. To have been the sole survivor of this battle, they would all assume I had fled, leaving my men to be butchered.”

“But that's not the case,” I protested. “I saw you fighting down there. You slew half-a-dozen of those creatures with your own sword.”

“And at least a dozen more before that,” the prince affirmed. “But the truth wouldn't matter. There would be no way to corroborate that story. There would be no evidence other than my own testimony of how heroically I fought as the men all around me died. No one would believe the tale. They would think I had run at the first sign of battle, leaving the battalion to be butchered to cover my retreat. No man would ever willingly follow me into battle again. The morale of the nation would be shattered. The Kingdom of Shayne would never recover.”

He looked at both of us in turn. “I admit, it is a tempting offer. But if I ride out of here on that horse, the war is lost.” Then he smiled sadly as he continued. “You two climb up there and ride for the fort. I'll make my way on foot. If you're quick, maybe the reinforcements from the fort will find me before that Dread Knight does.”

Aeric and I exchanged bewildered looks. This day had taken one-too many strange turns. Neither of us knew what to make of this development. But the prince wasn't going to let us worry over it. “I know what both of you are thinking, so let me make this easy for you. Both of you get up on that horse and get moving. Now. That's an order!”

Aeric seemed to be in shock. He tore his gaze from the prince, looking to me for guidance. I shrugged. “The crown prince gave you an order, Private. Mount up.” Still seemingly in shock, the young man clambered up into the saddle.

“Your turn,” the prince said to me, pointing at the horse. “Ride hard for the fort. I don't relish the jog ahead of me. This armor looks pretty, but after a few leagues it's like walking around with an anvil on my shoulders.”

I walked over to the horse. Was I really about to abandon the prince here, with a horde of enemies on the way?

Janey's beautiful face appeared in my mind's eye again. Her nose was crinkled as I imagined her looking at me. Do you feel good about that decision, she seemed to say to me again. She was always asking me that, even when she was leagues away. She really was something, my Janey.

“Curse the moon,” I swore out loud. “You're going to get me killed, woman.” Both of my companions were looking at me oddly. I didn't care. It was my turn to chuckle. I reached up and grabbed Aeric by the arm. “You did good today, Aeric. I'll fight by your side anytime. Now ride hard for the fort. Command needs to know what happened here.”

Aeric peered down at me with his good eye, the intelligent young man fully realizing what I meant to do. “You can count on it.”

The prince interrupted us, stepping forward as he realized something was amiss. “What are you doing, Private? I gave you an order. Get on that horse and get out of here.”

I rounded on the prince, putting one hand to my ear as I spoke. “I'm sorry sir, but I've done an awful lot of shooting today. Riflemen are often hard of hearing. Firearms are uncommonly noisy.”

Before the prince could react, I turned back to injured young man on the horse. “Ride hard, ride fast, and get yourself safe, Aeric.” Then I slapped the horse hard on the flank, sending the charger off at a gallop.

The two of us watched the young man ride away for a moment before the prince spoke. “Private, you just disobeyed a direct order from the Crown Prince of Shayne, in a time of war. You've just committed high treason, soldier.”

“What's the punishment for something like that?”

“Hanging, as I understand it,” he said, with mock gravity in his voice.

“Do you have a length of rope, my lord?” The prince shook his head. “Then you'll just have to hang me after we get your royal ass off this mountain.”

The prince stared at me in shock for a brief moment before a wry smile crept onto his face. Then he began laughing as the two of us started walking. “It's a long road back to Fort Montoya. Are you going to be flippant with me the entire journey?”

“I'm afraid so, sir. If I'm to hang for treason, I feel I should make the most of it. General flippancy, disobeying orders, and insulting your royal person are all well within the realm of possibility. I figure on committing this treason properly.”

The two of us were smiling as we entered the pass, enjoying the moment of levity. We both knew it wouldn't last.

Copyright © 2019 J.J. Cragun

J.J. Cragun is the grand prize winner of the sixth annual Baen Fantasy Adventure Award. The award recognizes the best original adventure fantasy short story in the style of fantasy greats like Larry Correia, Mercedes Lackey, Elizabeth Moon, Andre Norton, J.R.R. Tolkien, and David Weber. For more information on the BFAA, including formation on past winners, and now to enter, click here.