Conscription

The sun was coming up and Nalfar was out walking with his brother, Falverd. The sky was a bright red and the air was crisp and cool. The houses in the town of Erimont looked slightly red in the early morning light. The two brothers walked side by side, admiring the beauty of the morning.

Falverd was bigger than Nalfar, and was the eldest of the two brothers. Falverd would inherit their father's house and land, but wanted to make some money by joining up with the army for a few years. Nalfar had the harder job, in that he had to find himself a trade.

Falverd was tall and broad shouldered, with a muscular build and brown hair. Nalfar's hair was the same shade of brown, but longer and messier. He was smaller and much thinner, and not nearly as strong. He was nineteen and his brother was twenty-four. Although he never let on to anyone, Nalfar admired his brother and looked up to him, almost as a hero of sorts.

So when a recruiting party arrived in the village bearing the Emperor's seal on their tunics, Falverd was, expectedly, elated. He rushed over to the small table where the scribe was sitting, ready to note all the new recruits, and Nalfar followed.

"Names," said one of the soldiers standing either side of the scribe.

"I am Falverd Hoffrensson," replied the elder of the two brothers.

"I am Nalfar, but I do not wish to join up," said the younger.

"Very well," said the soldier, and set about looking for other recruits.

Nalfar went home while Falverd spoke with the soldiers. He did not want his brother leaving for the army, where he might be killed, but there was no way of stopping him. Nalfar was left feeling grim and uncertain about the future.

When he told his father about what had happened, he was equally disheartened. They both knew what might happen to Falverd while he was away, although, by unspoken consent, neither of them voiced their concerns.

Nalfar's mother had died giving birth to him, or so he had been told. He had never known her, but when his father spoke of her, his eyes became distant and brimmed with tears. He and Falverd lived in a cabin with their father, Hoffren, which also served as the village's general store.

When Falverd returned with a smile on his face and his blue tunic under his arm, for that was the army's colour, the sun was beginning to set. Nalfar and his father both put on happy faces, which did not reflect their mood, and drank to the honour of the soldier within the house.

As the first rays of light poked tentatively through the shutters, Nalfar awoke to the sound of metal striking metal, followed by the hiss of red-hot steel being cooled in a bucket of water. The forge next door must have been starting early to craft gear for the soldiers.

The day dragged by with little event. Falverd spent the day sparring with the soldiers and other recruits. Nalfar watched with envy, jealous that he could not even wield a sword properly, but was also worried that this might be the day when he would last see his brother. When the sun went down, Falverd went straight to his room and fell asleep, tired from the day's exertions.

Two hours before dawn, there was a loud knocking on the door and Nalfar heard his father shout: "Go away! We don't open for another three hours!"

"In the King's name, open up!" shouted the voice of a soldier. Why would the soldiers be taking the recruits now? They had said they would be leaving at dawn. Confused, Nalfar pulled his clothes on, left his room and went downstairs to find his father letting the soldier in. Falverd followed him down the stairs a few seconds later.

"What can I do for you?" Hoffren asked the soldier.

The soldier replied, "It does not please me to say this, my friend, but we did not get as many recruits as we would have liked, so I'm afraid we must begin conscripting men for the army. I am sorry, but we must take Nalfar as well as Falverd."

"No!" shouted Hoffren, "Not both my sons! Please!"

"I'm sorry, sir, but we do what we must. Nalfar, we leave at midday. Be there or we'll take your father to prison." He deposited a blue tunic on a chair before leaving the house.

Hoffren began to sob quietly. Falverd went to comfort him, and motioned for Nalfar to go and pack for the journey. During the hour he spent on the task, a knot of worry formed in Nalfar's chest. Worry for himself, for his father and for his brother.

Nalfar went to see his father and they talked, with Falverd as well, until nearly midday. They talked of inconsequential things but Nalfar was glad to be spending some time with his father before he left. When the time came to leave, Hoffren gave both his sons his blessing then pulled Falverd over to the side, where they spoke for a moment. They embraced and Falverd left.

Nalfar turned and looked his father in the eye. Both of them were full of sorrow, but none mentioned it.

"I cannot do this," said Nalfar to his father.

"Yes you can. Don't be afraid," Nalfar's father said. "You're just as capable as any of the other soldiers. It's all up here," he pointed to his head, "Be brave, Nalfar." With that, he turned and walked away.

When Nalfar arrived at the village square, he found twenty-six people, himself included, plus family saying their goodbyes. At a call from a soldier, all who were not accompanying them left and the soldier addressed the group.

"Thank you for coming. My name is Captain Beirman. We will go to the nearest training outpost, where you will all be tested to your limit. We will spend a month there before you will all be separated and put into your factions and sent off to do your duty. Right, let's go."

Many of the men were sobbing as they left the village, as were many more of the people they were leaving behind. Emptiness filled Nalfar as he left behind all he had ever known, but he did not look back, for fear of being unable to turn round again.

The sun was still high in the sky when the village was lost from sight. Nalfar bit his lip to keep from crying and tried to block out the fear that he had seen the village for the last time.

He did not think he would last long after training. The battles would be too much for someone built the way Nalfar was. He usually relied more on his mind than body, and was cunning and clever, but not, he was sure, made to be a soldier.

The walking was tiring and the day was hot, and before long they were stopping to eat and drink, before continuing in their march. They walked until the sun set and made camp just off the road. They settled down for the night and Nalfar quickly fell asleep, tired from the day's walking.

That night, it rained heavily.

When Nalfar woke in the morning, he was soaked to the skin along with all the other soldiers. The mud squelched under their feet as they left the camp under the torrential downpour. It was cold and Nalfar wanted nothing more than to sit in front of the fire at home and drink a cup of hot tea.

Walking in the rain was difficult, as it was driving into the group's eyes and stinging their hands. Men were slipping and falling all over the place and when it happened to Nalfar, he ended up even colder and covered in mud down one side, although the rain soon washed the mud off with its sheer force.

The group continued without a word spoken, and skipped lunch through unspoken consent. It was, without doubt, one of the most miserable days of Nalfar's life. No-one could have guessed that it was about to get worse.

The group came to a river which had burst its banks and was flowing at twice its usual speed. The water flooded Nalfar sodden boots, but he felt no change in temperature in his already-numb feet.

"There is a bridge just a few miles downstream," said the captain, "from there, it is less than a day's walk to the camp."

The few miles seemed to take hours to traverse, and Nalfar and the others slipped in the mud a more than a few times on the way. His feeling of self-pity became devastation when he saw what remained of the bridge through the rain, and he heard several of the men groan or swear explosively when they saw what he saw.

Captain Beirman called for silence before explaining that they would simply follow the river until they found a shallow enough crossing point. The men were running on empty but carried on in the hope of speeding their delayed arrival at the camp.

Darkness began to descend and the group pulled away from the river and found a slightly sheltered clearing in the trees. Nalfar was about to go to sleep when they were all called to stand round the captain.

"We need food," he said simply. "Ten of you must go and find some for us. Meat of any sort will do. You," he pointed to a small man with long blond hair and a beard to match, "you will go. Along with," he pointed randomly, selecting the hunters quickly.

"Sir, there are only nine there," said a tall, thin man at the front of the crowd.

"My apologies," said Beirman. He pointed at Nalfar," You will go with them," he handed them each a bow and a quiver of arrows.

Hunting. The last thing Nalfar had wanted was to be chosen for hunting. The day had been long and harsh and he was barely managing to stay on his feet. As the group ventured deeper into the woods, the rain abated, revealing a clear night sky sprinkled with stars and a full moon.

The further in the hunting party went, the more they began to feel as if they were being watched. The feeling intensified until the hairs on the back of Nalfar's neck stood on end.

"This doesn't feel right," said one of the hunters, "I feel like we're being followed."

"I agree," replied another, "this isn't right. We've been walking almost half an hour and haven't seen any game, or any animals at all for that matter."

The sound of a branch snapping came from somewhere further off into the trees, and the hunters could barely make out a low growl emanating from the same spot. They all looked toward the sound just as a pair of yellow eyes appeared, reflecting back the light of the hunters' torches so they looked to be glowing.

The growl intensified and what might have been a bear burst out of the undergrowth. But this was no bear, it was huge, yes, but it was not stocky enough to be a bear, and also far too quick. But there was one other thing that gave it away.

Bears don't have yellow eyes.

The hunters dived to the side as the beast leapt at them and quickly scrambled to their feet. They drew their weapons and turned to face the creature.

"Dinner!" shouted a short man with a broadsword, and lunged for the creature which was again charging towards the hunting party. The beast pinned him to the ground and ripped his throat out in one swift, powerful movement. Nalfar's stomach turned and he almost vomited from the fear and the gore.

It looked up and made eye contact with Nalfar, its yellow eyes piercing him and studying him carefully. There was a deep understanding and intelligence in the glowing yellow orbs. It was a cunning, ruthless creature and Nalfar wanted nothing more than to turn and run from this monster.

One of the men drew his bow and loosed an arrow at the creature, which lodged in its shoulder. Another man threw a torch at it in desperation, which landed near the beast's forelegs.

The torchlight showed the creature in every savage detail. It had thick, black fur and a monstrous animal face, with huge, bloody teeth in its mouth. Its razor-sharp claws glinted in the torchlight and Nalfar saw that its forelegs were longer than its hind legs. It was too thin to be a bear, but its body was rippling with muscle. Nalfar had never seen anything like this before.

The hunters froze completely when the beast rose up on its hind legs and assumed an almost human posture. It growled, lowered back onto all fours and, quick as a flash, leapt the five or so meters between it and Nalfar and sank its teeth into his right leg. He didn't even have time to react before the pain hit.

The pain was excruciating. The huge beast's teeth were scraping the bone in the middle of his leg and blood was spilling onto the ground at an alarming rate. The beast shook Nalfar and he thought his leg might fall off. The pain was too much for him to even register the fact that he was screaming, then it was lessened as the beast let his leg go, before redoubling as the cool night air came into contact with the wound.

The last thing Nalfar saw was the huge creature fleeing as all eight other hunters hacked at it with swords and other weapons. Three turned round and sprinted over to him once the beast was gone. One of them tried to talk to Nalfar before he passed out.