The wind whistled over the treetops, threatening to bow the ancient firs to the will of nature. Flakes of snow danced over their heads, clinging to the frost on their armour as they waited. They stood in the mouth of a mountain pass. Rocky cliffs lined either side of the funnel, gradually growing narrower as they peered onward. The air was icy, only adding to the trepidation of the day.
“This is their work, ye know,” one man beside him whispered. His breath blew little white clouds that dissipated almost immediately. “Nymphs. They can control the weather. Contort it to their twisted will.”
The man on his other side mumbled a small prayer to Celeste and Amaranth before staring solidly onward. Snow was gradually filling the pass. It would make it difficult to fight off the advancing worshippers. But it would be northern snow, not those flimsy winters from the woodlands. They had the upper hand by knowing their country; knowing the weather blessed upon them by Moirai.
A shiver passed through him. The pass was cold, even for this season. He wasn’t one to believe the legends about how the nymphs granted their worshippers the power to control nature itself, but it was hard to miss the unnatural air hovering over the heads of his men. They all believed, superstitious as they were.
He snorted softly and shifted his weight between his feet. His toes were freezing in the steel-plated leather boots he wore.
Superstition, he found, was far too prominent in big cities. He had always come to believe that it was the littler settlements that had more practicality, even though common belief said otherwise.
His father had been the most practical man he had ever met. Perhaps that was why he didn’t share the ridiculous beliefs of his men—mere people could not control the weather, and why would the nymphs bother blessing their power on their worshippers?
Well. It was up to him to encourage them once more. The people of Shield were counting on him and his army to keep them safe from the woodland maniacs.
Shaking so the gathering snow slipped from his steel armour, he unsheathed his sword with a metallic ring and marched away from the front line. The hushed babble from the crowd softened until all was silent, and every single wary pair of eyes rested on him.
But what could he say? Yes, he was the hunter of his village, but he did no inspirational speaking when he brought home the pelts of feral creatures in the wilds near home. He never had to raise the spirits of his fellow hunters and fishers. This was all foreign and new to him. And he had no idea what to say about it.
He exhaled long and slow, revelling in the brief warmth his breath filled his helmet with. “I have nay control over what ye all have learned in the chapels o’ your big cities,” he shouted, so his voice echoed off the rock walls of the mountains around them. Several of the nearby men muttered something about him being a runt from a village barely settled, but he ignored it. If they wanted to be petty, they could very well do it. “But where I come from,” he boomed, “we learn that all that is mighty in nature, all that is pure o’ the sky and ocean, that is all Celeste! May our lady guide our hands in battle, and may Amaranth bless our blades under his almighty name!”
His voice shuddered as he hesitated, scanning the crowd to see if he truly had the attention of his army. He had never spoken before such a mass before, but nobody seemed to be mocking his speech just yet.
And he had to keep going. He had to finish it. Remind them just what glorious deities were on their side. “And should this vile weather be the work of Ire, not some silly woodland nymphs who do not even exist! Least o’ not in our fair land!” He waved his sword to the cliffs surrounding them, imposing and dark even in the swirling snow. “Those fairies are nothing to our gods!”
“And what if we all die, General?” someone several lines back shouted over him.
He dropped his sword arm back to his side and glared into the crowd. “Aye? What if we do die? Fide bless our homes and make our women bear sons, aye?”
“Aye!” several voices crooned excitedly.
“And Erudite will bless our souls and bring us wealth from our woodland neighbours!” Exhilaration washed over him; hearing his soldiers, his comrades and countrymen shout their readiness for battle, pump their swords and axes to the air: it made him anxious to get started, to drive the nymph worshippers back to their ancient forest glades.
“Moirai may weep and wash the blood o’ our enemies from our blades,” he bellowed. Birds cawed as his rumbling voice startled them from their winter roosts, and the yells of his men were briefly accompanied by the flutter of many wings. “And it is her word that dictates our destinies this day! Nay nymph nor her worshipper can control who we are, and what we are meant to do!” He flung his arms to the side, and a grin etched his face as the triumphant roars of his men filled his ears.
His second-in-command stepped forward a few steps as the others shouted and roared their excitement for battle. Resting a gloved hand on his shoulder, the smaller man murmured, “They come, sir. What shall ye have us do?”
He glanced over his shoulder and saw the dark specks of the woodlanders arriving in the widening mouth of the pass. At their distance, it was impossible to tell if they were armoured and laden with weapons. Shield was nearby; the nymph worshippers were in lands foreign to them, and this grand army would stop them.
Whirling back to his men, he lifted his arms to the sky and shut his eyes, letting Moirai’s crisp, ice weather kiss his bearded cheeks. “We shall drive them back!” he shrieked, raising his blade to the clouds. “We shall show them just what the Army o’ the Blade is, and why their nymphs do not compare to our gods!”
And with his army at his back and his elegantly crafted blade in his hand, he turned and faced the approaching woodlanders, grinning.