Harrow stared up the grassy slope as he caught his breath, wondering how the last hundred yards in a five day trek could somehow seem the longest. At least a reward awaited them on the other side; warm fires, dry tents, clean clothes, and best of all, something hot and fresh to eat after days of stale bread and dried beef. He didn’t think he’d ever be so happy to see an army encampment as when he topped that rise.
His men began to pass him on their way up, footsteps weary but voices raised in hopeful good humor, and Harrow turned his thoughts back to the moment at hand. He glanced back once to the crest of the hill and moved to follow them when a glint of light ahead caught his eye. He was still staring at the field of swaying grass in search of the flicker’s source when a dull thunder rumbled from somewhere ahead, its tremors reaching his tired feet a few seconds later. Just as the first riders appeared over the ridge Harrow realized what had caused the brief flash of light, because he’d seen it a dozen times before: the sun reflecting off the polished steel of a spear tip.
“Cavalry!” someone yelled, and another added in horrified understanding, “It’s an ambush!” Chaos erupted as the line of horsemen plunged headlong toward Harrow’s meager band. They would be slaughtered, of course, outnumbered as they were and with neither the armor nor weaponry to face such foes on equal footing. Anyway, for all he knew the rest of the army already lay slaughtered beyond the hill and no help would come from any direction for them. Yet habit trumped nihilism and Harrow found himself shouting orders to draw blades all the same, his own already in hand. However futile the situation might be, he trusted his men to fight and knew they trusted and depended on him to lead. Better to die on your feet than kneeling before your foe.
A rider bore down on him and Harrow raised his sword with a bellow, slashing out with a rage petulantly fueled by the idea he’d come all this way only to be robbed of the simple hope for one hot meal. He thought too, as he parried and dodged, of the men who would fall at his side; the ones who sat around the fires each night and spoke of wives or sisters or mothers, who wanted to go home as much as he but had never spoken the words for fear of mockery. None of them wanted to be here, not really, but this was the way of things and if you were lucky you went home with only scars and stories. If you were unlucky, well… you found yourself in a situation like this, and stayed a lot longer than you’d intended.
A pike knocked the sword from his hands and without thinking Harrow reached for the scything blade, determined to take at least one of the bastards with him. The rider reared back and the pike slipped from Harrow’s hands, leaving long gashes in his palms he barely felt. He retreated to where his sword had fallen amongst the trampled grass but before he could reach it something struck the back of his head and he fell in a daze of dancing stars. His last sight before slipping into unconsciousness was his own blood pooling on the torn earth, a sight which he realized should have bothered him, though he couldn’t remember exactly why.