Liffrik sighed and leaned heavily on his bloodied axe. Though his shoulders swooped, and his head hung low, he towered over all those around him. The glorious dead. He stood near the edge of the skirmish, with the scavengers and the silence, the rest of the Gwaed troops further up the ramparts, rejoicing in the victory, singing praises to Cryf, the Hearth, and congratulating each other.
But Liffrik saw things differently as he beheld himself in a nearby pool of murky water. His shield was chipped, the wood sodden red - in whose blood he couldn't even tell anymore - and the iron bands looked as strained and tormented as his body felt. Arrows had cut through his armour and he was sure at least one of them had pierced his skin, but he felt as if hot daggers were pushing against it in a hundred places so he couldn't say for sure. He wasn’t sure he cared, either.
'The day is won, Liffrik!' a deep voice drifted towards him from uphill.
'Our friends are dead, Gornne,' Liffrik felt an acrid bulge building under the crown of his brow and found his eyes welling up. He swung his shield at a nearby fwultwing and it cawed, flapping lazily away.
Gornne approached the corpse and stared into the death-hazed eyes.
'Is that Zerik?' he asked, falling in by Liffrik's side.
'Yes,' Liffrik felt his tongue dry up, 'And over there lies Gilurr. And over there, Suramn. Year after year our numbers dwindle. Someday no Gwaed will battle at all.'
'Oh, turn it aside,' Gornne slapped Liffrik vigorously and set on breaking off some of the arrows still sticking through his armour, 'What kind of talk is that? Have we not been fighting these battles for dozens of years, ever victorious?'
'Yes,' Liffrik nodded.
'And have we not grown from strength to strength, no matter the outcome?'
'Yes,' Liffrik agreed again, though not lightly.
'And are we not pledged to keep our people safe from the Blackened and their Voidspawn?' Gornne asked and spat as if even mentioning the names bothered his tongue.
'Then why darken your thoughts over something as unavoidable as destiny, Liffrik? This is not just any death our friends met today, this is the death they've been living for all their lives! The chance to thin the ranks of the enemy and join the Elders in the War Neverending, to keep our realm safe from threats on high! Come now, let the way-setters do their jobs and join us in celebration - you've earned it!'
Liffrik glanced and saw the way-setters collecting the fallen and preparing them for their final journey, moving slowly alongside their bear-drawn carts, loading up bodies and weapons, standing by the side of those that were breathing their last, and killing off any remaining, half-breathing enemies. Liffrik took a knee and leaned into his shield. He sniffled loudly, his graying beard trembling as he breathed a deep sigh.
'You're right, Gornne. You're always right.'
'Of course I am, I'm older than you are!' Gornne laughed, 'Come, let them be, we'll see them all again someday. May the steel on their chests never tarnish.'
'May their bloodline ever utter their names,' Liffrik finished the saying.
He slowly got to his feet and made after Gornne, then stopped and retraced his steps, kneeling by every one of his friends along the way. He made sure their weapons were by their side, and, initially on nothing but a whim, he gently closed their eyes.
Gornne saw him and grunted, 'What are you doing?'
Liffrik got up, gave the place another quick glance, and started back after Gornne.
'How are they supposed to find their way to the Hearth with their eyes shut?' the latter quipped.
'The Elders can bring them by their side on their own. They should at least have some rest along the way. They've earned it.'
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