"Again Take Up Thy Sword, Warrior King"
by Tony Noland
His grip on the leather-wrapped hilt shifted as the Warrior King leaned on his longsword for support. The steel-shod tip of the scabbard scraped against the stone steps during the long climb to the uppermost balcony. Dhoane'e remembered days when he would take these stairs at a run, two or even three at a time, dashing upwards to reach the view over his little domain. From his highest tower, he could see the entire valley, and could also best see that which threatened it.
One flight below the top, Dhoane'e stopped to rest. A curse had laid him low, and it was three days of torment before his own magicians could break the spell. He was weary, weary of leg and arm and heart, weary the way he knew old men grew weary. Yet the invaders came, and who would stop them if not the King? There was no one else to whom this task could fall. When he was a lad, he was thin and penniless, without prospects or property. At great risk, he left the land of his birth, turning his back on its cold granite halls and harsh, glaring light to seek whatever fortune he might find.
So many years of travel and hardship, but they all blurred together as but a moment of prologue to the beginning of his true life. When he first set eyes on this valley, with its fields and rocks, the cool rills that traced around the meadows, he knew that he had found his home. He bargained for it, paid for it, fought for it. Certain that this was his life's purpose, he took it and declared himself King. Dhoane'e, who once had been possessed of not a handspan of ground to call his own, was now absolute monarch... of a tiny sliver of land less than three days march across.
Even now his own conceit in naming his realm after himself caused him to smile. He climbed to the top, standing straight and sparing his sword further indignity. It was powerfully magical, forged by the second-best armorer among the green dragons. The keenness of its edge matched the vitality of the wielder. He drew it out four fingerwidths and checked the edge, then slid it back with a sigh. Barely sharp enough to cut potatoes, let alone slay the monsters that massed on his valley's doorstep.
They had come almost from the first day of his self-administered coronation. Any man with property may call himself King, be his crown of emerald-encrusted platinum or a filed iron band. But a crown of any kind attracts the dreaded monsters. To be a King was to fight them in a constant war. Thousands who had grown weary of the fight had renounced their claims and cast off their diadems, seeking lives of peace under another man's rule.
Such was not his way.
Dhoane'e fought with vigor, and, after a time, fought also with hard-won skill and experience. With his bear-like strength and his keen wits he won battle after battle. Settlers came to his valley to see the new Warrior King of this tiny realm. Liking what they saw, some stayed to be his people. Now, in the bright morning sunlight, with the cool air flowing down from the mountains, Dhoane'e looked over the valley and felt refreshed. More than two thousand settlers were here, with more coming every month. His little kingdom was not so little anymore. In addition to the settlers, there were one hundred and fifty five who had joined the ranks of the noble class. He looked over his sun-lit kingdom and was pleased.
Until the first shadow of the day crossed the land.
To his right, from the narrow gorge path that led up into the wastes beyond the realm of kings, the monsters rolled forward. They ranged in size from taller than a man to the size of a hill. Huge and powerful, they shook the earth with each step. They were blind, slow and stupid, but what made them fiendishly difficult to fight was that they were almost completely invisible. Their armor-hard magical skin made them so, and it covered all parts of them save for their gaping mouths. Like twisted black lines floating ten, twenty, even fifty feet in the air, their mouths would flex and writhe, ready to lunge downward to bite off the head of man or beast.
These dreaded lines of death came to all Kings of the earth, in proportion to the size of his realm. Dhoane'e had heard frightening tales of the continent-wide armies of such that came to attack the Greater Kings, and he longed to test his might against them. One day, he vowed, he would join the hallowed ranks of the Greater Kings. Today, though... today he had to summon the strength to protect his little kingdom.
Standing on his balcony, he raised his fists to the air and breathed deep, breathed in until his ribs cracked. Then he shouted out his battle cry with all the force he possessed. Again and again he did this, and his spirit quickened. He smashed his fists against his chest, the plates of his gauntlets striking sparks from his armor. The blood pounded in his ears and he felt his battle-lust wash away his fatigue. With a running leap, he jumped off the balcony and onto the glowing bridge of solidified air that led to the field of battle. As he ran he drew his shining sword, and its edge was now so sharp as to slice through a rainbow. He circled the air with it, and the keening whistle caused all the invading horrors to turn to face him.
With a bellow of conquering fury, King Dhoane'e of No Land attacked the first of the Dead Lines!
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