Death. An all too familiar sight to the warrior who stood upon the bleak battlefield. His name was… it didn’t matter anymore. He’d had a name once, but it had lost all meaning to him long ago. That life was gone. As a soldier they had called him Brawn, not his real name, but that hardly mattered either. That name too was gone along with the last of his brothers-in-arms, mere moments ago. Around him, the valley was littered with fresh corpses, friend and foe alike, still and silent. He was alone.
The warrior looked down to the body at his feet through the slits in his helmet – his last kill – a thick blade embedded deep into still-warm flesh. He gripped the handle of his long sword tightly and pulled it free with a sickening wrench. A sharp pain shot through his chest and he slumped down, clutching his side. A damp substance leaked from between his plated armour and dripped into the already blood-quenched dust below.
The sound of his heavy breathing mingled with the soft breeze upon the ashen-dunes. This land was a dying one. Once it had been fertile and plentiful, or so he had heard. That was long before his time. Now, men fought over its barren husk for the few remaining islands of fading green, sustained in no small part by the blood of those who fought over them. Blood was the currency of this accursed land. Such was the life of a soldier of the Nomerian Guard.
Nomeria. His home. He could hardly remember it now – so long had he been away. How long had it been? Years? A decade? More? Too long. There, the land was still rich and green, or so he remembered it. He had sworn that he would see it again, and now, it seemed none remained to hold him to his duty, if it could be so-called. A duty to hold these lands – this worthless dust-bowl of blood and shit – in the name of a distant empire that would never even know his name, or those of his brothers.
Traitor, they would call him; deserter; oath breaker; coward. He could not return as a soldier. Though, just to see his home again would be worth the life of a rogue. Rogue… a fitting name for him now – free of oaths and vows. A fresh start – his own. Rogue gazed at a tree not far away, one of several scattered about the valley. Its twisting form stood out against the surrounding grey. Where there was life, there was hope.
‘Water…’ he gasped to himself through parched lips. Just saying the word out-loud helped spur him into action. He rose to his feet with a groan and staggered towards it, using his sword as a crutch.
As he neared, he admired the leaves as they danced in the wind – a rare sight in such a forsaken place as this, even dull and sparse as they were. He reached the tree and collapsed against it, then removed his heavy helmet and tossed it aside. Rogue took in a much-needed breath of air – stale, but uninhibited.
Removing a dagger from his belt, he began the task of digging into the trunk and for the sweet nectar within. The battle had been long and hard-fought and he had not had a proper drink since the morning. After some time, water began to flow and he collected what he could into his canteen, easing his thirst at last.
A movement caught his eye, not from the field of death, but the base of the tree of life. He peered closer between two gnarled roots into a small burrow. Something moved again – an animal? No… a boy.
Small and frail, and asleep beneath a cover of dry leaves, the boy could have been no more than a few years old.
‘Impossible!’ he blurted out. Aroused from sleep, the child began to cry at the looming face above his hiding place.
Rogue jolted back in shock. What was a child doing here in this of all places? He scanned the valley as if looking for some explanation. Though of course, there was none. He examined the boy closer, brushing away the crown of leaves from his head. His skin was pale, and hair white-ash. It was almost as if… no. It couldn’t be. The tribe of Aver had long been extinct. And yet… the resemblance was striking. The child wore nothing save from a simple crimson sash around his waist. Rogue removed his ragged cape and carefully plucked the boy from the burrow, wrapping him in a bundle. Better than nothing he supposed. Resigned to this strange twist of fate that had brought him to this moment, Rogue lent back again with a sigh.
As he gazed up at the creeping branches they reminded him of the elms he himself had been fond of climbing as a child. His gaze returned to the boy now resting peacefully once more. Rogue, formerly Brawn of the Ascanian Guard, and his name before that, smiled at the boy.
‘Sleep, young Elm.’ he said. ‘Tomorrow is a new dawn.’