Elkar stood near the makeshift wooden table holding a blazing torch. He was in his polished and most ceremonious armor, shinning dully under the full moon. The flames of the torch danced on the gold emblem portrayed in the center of his breastplate and reflected the tears that slowly rolled down his cheeks, stopping only to be absorbed within the dense whiskers of his well groomed mustache. The symbol on the warriors chest of the panther’s head seemed to breath with every flicker of the torches flame.
On the wooden table lying amongst the small branches and decorative flowers was the lifeless body of Dorian. His gloved hands were folded across his chest and covered with a silver and gold buckler that housed the same emblem depicted on Elkar’s armor. Tied neatly around his waist was the familiar brown sash that represented all infantryman.
Elkar could remember when Dorian was selected to train the new Panthers. He was so excited because Kyle, their mutual childhood friend, had also been selected. The three had made a name for producing quality soldiers that could effectively wield deadly weapons, and had the heart to continue fighting beyond the point of exhaustion.
They had built so much together over the years, all to be destroyed by a nightmare of a patrol only two days prior. Kyle and Dorian had been winding through the Skytop Pass when they were ambushed by a large group of the Bultov Riders, an organized and intimidating group of thieves that were terrorizing the outer trade routes. The two warriors fought back to back as their fellow Panthers dropped around them, unable to defend against the endless stream of attackers. Elkar remembers responding from the walls of Thylark to the sound of the trumpet that all patrols carried, followed by a platoon of infantry. Horses were driven hard to the area where the last sound had faded, over a mile up the steep grade.
As Elkar rounded the first turn his nostrils began to burn with the recognizable smell of death as the wind poured like a funnel through the pass. The warrior slowed to a steady gallop, careful not to fall into the same fate as his comrades, as he could only imagine the worst. He had crested the first peak when his stomach dropped, nearly knocking the breath from his lunges. In front of him was nearly two score of the hated Riders, victims of the well trained Panthers. Humans had been flayed open and extremities were detached from the furious strikes of sword and axe. Well placed arrows protruded from the gaps in armor of the helpless Rider who found themselves in the sites of the deadly green Panther archers. Among the dead, Elkar also saw the familiar brown and green sashes of his own people. Anger flushed over him as he stared at the end result of an ambush, with neither side being the victor.
Elkar quickly snapped too, realizing where he was. “Jarel,” ordered the commander, “take your team and push forward a ways. See what you got then set up security.”
“Copy,” replied Jarel, as he came back to reality. The weather beaten team leader began barking orders to his men as they cautiously rode up the pass, looking for signs of the Riders.
“I’ll take flank security,” stated Morgan, reading his commanders mind. Elkar simply nodded at the second class infantryman as his men already began to move. Elkar turned to discuss with his third team leader how to transport all the dead men back to the city. Frustration still clouded his mind as he stood, saddened by the death of so many great warriors. He watched as the two healers attached to the platoon began searching the slain Panthers in some great hope that there may be life.
“Jarel!” a shout came from a distance. “Come quick.”
Elkar heard the excited shouts and the thunderous sound of horses running. Quickly, the warrior drew his sword and started up the path in a full sprint. ‘Not again, not while I’m here.’ he whispered to himself. Now, it was Elkar’s turn to taste blood.
Back at the northern gate, Panthers waited impatiently, as another group of reinforcements were about to deploy up the pass to aid their comrades.
“As soon as that last team of archers gets here, we will ride,” yelled Sergeant Pravius, commander of a heavy cavalry company. Approaching the end of his days as a Panther, the silver haired veteran was already holding his long handled axe in his powerful hands. The worn blades still shinned even after years of abuse by the experienced fighter. His aged face continued to peer out to his destination, as if he was looking for a sign, or signal.
Reaching where the commotion has been, Elkar immediately saw what the yelling was about. Lying on the ground was Dorian. The warrior labored his breathing, struggling to force every inhale of life into his body. Elkar ran over to his friend and discovered his neck had been lacerated and was bleeding badly.
“Healer!” he yelled. “Someone get me a damn healer.”
Elkar sat in the dirt cradling Dorian’s head. The soaked ground was replaced with Elkar’s thigh, quickly absorbing what remaining blood drained from Dorian’s body.
“Hold on there, Dor,” he choked out, holding on to what little control he had. “The healers are coming. Gonna fix you right up.”
Dorian tried to respond, but only formed sounds of struggle within his throat. His breathing continued to slow and fade to an unrecognizable level.
A healer arrived fast, her long legs covered the ground quickly. She skillfully grabbed a wad of rolled cloth and pressed it firmly onto Dorian’s throat.
“You have to help him, please.” plead Elkar, his voice barely above a whisper.
“I will, sir. I will do everything I can.” the healer responded, her face shadowed by sadness and the recognition of Dorian’s status. Grateful for the cover of her long brown hair, the healer tired, but could not stop Dorian from slipping away.
Elkar sat quietly as the shadow of guilt and pain loomed over. His friend Dorian took his last breath. It was not the healers fault, it was not the leadership and protection that failed. It was just the business of freedom. Freedom for a land Dorian had always said he was willing to die for.
Back at the ceremony, Elkar touched the torch to the sticks and hay below the table that served as a hasty cremation station.
Holding in his tears, Elkar turned and addressed the remaining members of their small party, the flames behind him jumped to life, popping and cracking as the accelerants began to roar.
“Cremation is the quickest way for Dorian to meet his maker.” Elkar began, his voice deep but soft. “This is the fate he wanted, the dream he spoke of for years. Dying for a realm that always gave back to its people. The people he vowed to protect. Unfortunately, there are those who do not share our values.” Elkars voice began to rise.
“The values of our land, and the values of the Panthers. You will be missed, Dorian.” The warriors head raised, he looked towards the sky. “I will miss you. I only wish you did not have to make this journey alone.”