The beautiful autumn day was at its end, as the bright sun was nearing the line where earth and sky meet. The lazy wind, waving the green and black flags on the battlements, was getting chillier. The birds were getting quieter and so were the people on the streets below.
One would guess they were getting ready for sleep, locking inside their homes and hiding away any lights. But Eldrid could already see with her own eyes the real reason for the sudden silence taking over the town of Panagyurishte. She could see the black crowd, crawling from the South, getting bigger and bigger every time she blinked. She could see the black flags of a foreign empire, which had ruined her life in a matter of days. She could see the murderers of her friends, her family, marching with no rush towards the city walls, as if they knew their victory was inevitable.
“They’ve taken Isperih.”, she heard the voice of Atis behind her. “East Wind is down.”
Eldrid felt shivers down her spine. Less than two weeks. That was all the Masks needed to take over the states from the Black Sea to the Western Lands. The same states that had been fighting their pity wars for every inch of land for years. She had bled side by side soldiers from each of these states and she had bled against them as well. And now these states no longer existed, their soldiers probably dead. The Kingdom of the Seven Hills no longer existed, her soldiers probably dead.
“The King?”, she asked.
Hope was not something she could feel anymore, but as long as the King was not confirmed dead, not everything was lost. Although it felt lost to her. Eldrid could still see the faces of her brothers and sisters they had left in Plovdiv. She would never forget the fire and the sheer madness in their eyes, as they realized they would make their last stand within the city walls. As they realized they would finally die for their Kingdom and never be brought back to life. She could still see how Liraley and Siegfried had exchanged a meaningful gaze, how Nerissa, covered in blood, had grinned in one of her crazy smiles, how Redric had raised his shield and nervously waved his sword, as if he was impatient to continue slaughtering Tenebran soldiers. She could see Amris and Eon take up shields and swords, as they were no longer able to use magic. They, and many more, had stayed behind so that the King could escape the city and gather international forces in Panagyurishte. And Eldrid had gone with him. She left her friends to die and lived to protect the King and take back the Kingdom.
Only to find that the international forces would never come. When word had arrived that Sofia had been taken by the Empire and soon after Dobrich and Vidin, hope for a consolidated counteroffensive was gone. His majesty had made a decision – leave the town and go into hiding. A few members of First Elite platoon had left with him to aid him in future resistance actions. And a few members of the platoon had stayed in Panagyurishte, under Eldrid’s command, to delay the Tenebrans and buy the King some time to evacuate safely.
“How many people live in this town?”
Atis remained silent for a second, as if he was unsure whether it was a rhetorical question.
“About ten thousand, I believe.”
Eldrid almost laughed. The number seemed ridiculously small to her. The Kingdom had lost so many more soldiers and civilians during the ten days-long defense of Plovdiv. She had lost so many people far more dear to her than the ones living in the town beneath her. But then it was different. They had something to fight for then. Now it seemed pointless.
“Should we prepare for their attack?”, asked Atis from behind her back.
Now it was her turn to remain silent. She did want to prepare for their attack. She wanted to fight them until there was no blood in her veins and she was willing to let the whole town burn to the ground if that meant more Tenebrans would die in the process. She hated them more than she believed herself capable of.
But her platoon was not gone yet. Not all of it. Some of her mates were in the fortress right behind her and others were probably already somewhere far up in the mountain, along with the King. The people, living in this town, did not have to suffer because of her pointless lust for vengeance. Resisting the enormous army, which had already neared the city walls, was futile and to say the least – stupid.
Quick steps echoed behind her and soon a fully armored Amon joined them on the battlement.
“They’re coming from the North as well.”, he announced hurriedly. “Word arrived that they had taken the Heralds’ territories.”
Eldrid wanted to scream. And cry. And fight. And die. But all she was going to do was surrender.
The male figure, standing calmly ahead of the black army, was getting closer and clearer. The torches around him made his shadow dance on the ground as if it was alive.
Perhaps it was alive. And perhaps he was no man at all.
As she was walking towards the Tenebran army, waiting patiently in front of the city walls, the names of the Sevenhilleans Eldrid believed she was saving did not leave her mind. Neither did the names of the ones she could not save.
The rest of the platoon was waiting in line behind her back, as if they could do something if things went wrong. There was no guarantee they would be spared. But it was guaranteed that their comical forces didn’t stand a chance against their attackers.
She could already see the illuminated face of the Tenebran leader, waiting patiently for her. Not the face – the mask. Black as the night, shiny and terrifying. There was absolutely nothing where his eyes were supposed to be. Just two black holes, aimed at her. Cold sweat was running down her neck. She was afraid and she hated the creature before her even more for it. Eldrid wanted to tear the blasted mask off his face, she wanted to stab his eyes or whatever he had in those black holes as many times as the number of dear people she had lost because of his Empire. But she squeezed the Sevenhillean banner she was carrying in her right hand and finally reached the Black mask.
“Where is your king?”
His voice was deep and dark and deprived of any emotions. He wasted no time in waiting for her to speak first.
“I do not know.”
The Mask said nothing else, as if he knew that she was telling the truth. After a few seconds, which seemed like hours to her, he asked again:
“Who are you then?”
Eldrid lifted her head higher and looked straight into the mask’s black holes.
“I am Eldrid Ruin, Field First knight in the First Elite platoon of the Sevenhillean Army.”
The Tenebran soldier casually put his hand on the hilt of his sword. Eldrid spoke again.
“But not anymore. For my platoon no longer exists. And neither does my kingdom.”
The words hurt more than a hundred grave wounds. The Mask said nothing for a while, staring at her as if he was expecting a catch.
“Very well then.”, was all he said.
He waved and two regular soldiers took the black and gold banner from Eldrid, folded it and took it away. And just like that, the Kingdom of the Seven Hills was conquered for the first time in ages.