[The following is something I thought up for a <1000 words story challenge on sweek.com. The aim was few characters, but epic fantasy. Enjoy!]
Tara watched as the white bird climbed towards the clouds.
“Just a little further,” she whispered, clutching her spirit stone close.
The slender little bird danced left. A second later, a black claw ripped the air where it had been. Tara breathed a sigh. The talons belonged to a winged serpent, one of the many giving her messenger chase. A haze of arrows from below joined the pursuit. But it wasn’t enough. With one great flap of its wings, the raven stole away. Two heartbeats later, it disappeared from view.
“For the Emperor?” the man beside Tara asked. Gerald, her father’s Captain. His armour was a soft shade of silver in the twilight. His hair, framing his face, was traced with lines of grey. Even after all these years, he still found reason to smile.
“I’ve told him we’ll hold the fortress at any cost,” Tara whispered.
Gerald banged a fist to his chest. “A light that never dies,” he said. His voice was braver than his face, which now fought off a frown. Perhaps he considered that part of his duty.
Tara nodded, turned her attention to the horde ringing her fortress. There were thousands of them, spread out in colour across the land like a patchwork quilt. The noise of their hungry breathing alone was like thunder. All manner of crude steel rose from their ranks. Pikes, spears, swords. They advanced slow across the field. She’d seen something like it only once before.
It was in the months before her mother died, when her father thought to build a garden. The two of them sat there for hours, as though whatever precious breath her mother had left might last longer beneath the trees.
But soon, the Winter Wane took her, as it did everybody else who suffered its chill. The garden then turned to rot before the spring. All that was left there now were weeds. Weeds and half-memories.
The white walls of the fortress, on the other hand, shone even as the sun melted into the horizon. Evredel: her family’s castle, a beacon of heavenly fire known across the north. Among the grasses this far from the empire, it was the last flower left.
“A blood sacrifice,” Gerald said, pointing to a spot in the rabble. “They’re summoning their God to-”
His voice trailed off.
At the front of the enemy lines, an old man sank to his knees. Even from the wall, Tara recognised the blue glow, though it was lost to the shadows of the horde. His name was Verden, the Water Spirit. Tara preferred to call him Dad. She felt the blood throbbing in her ear as the Barbarian King trudged up behind him.
He’d only left two days before, riding out ahead of a great host as the first light of dawn kissed the sky. “Home for dinner, sweet spirit.” Those had been his only words. The saddest part was that Tara had believed them. The same man, now ruined and chained, tried to stumble to his feet. The Barbarian kicked him back into the mud.
Gerald’s hand found Tara’s shoulder. He probably thought she’d try to save him, but she knew he was beyond their aid. Even if she had time to open the gate, it was the last thing Verden would want.
“A river runs the surest course,” he’d once told her. The words of a calculated man.
Her father seemed to give her a moment’s glance, then the axe took his head from his shoulders. Tara collapsed against the battlements at the same time his body met the floor. By the time she had blinked the first tear, the drums had already started.
Over the noise, Gerald was calling to a soldier. But that was only what Tara saw. She’d retreated into her mind too far to suffer sound.
“Your Grace,” Gerald mouthed, and Tara realised she’d just become Queen. She saw a bundle in the Captain’s arms, hugged as close as mother and child. The Inheritance Sword. Gerald was choosing the middle of a war to make her a spirit.
How can anyone be expected to become great at a time like this?
She had her hand on the sword when the answer came.
The first few inches of steel slid free. The metal pulsed with light, flashing with the colours of the elements. Water, earth, wind. The only shade she didn’t see was the one her people needed.
Beyond, the battle had begun. Tides of barbarians crashed into the wall, shrieking as they listed blood-drunk up ladders. Some of the monsters they tamed lapped over with them, feasting on whatever they found. The air carried the song of steel, the smell of fear and the iron taste of blood. Tara could only watch as the garrison crumbled.
That was when she heard the gasp.
“A light that never dies,” Gerald whispered, falling to his knees. “A light that lives!”
The sword in Tara’s hand stole the colour of flame. The fire, white-hot, erupted inside her too, toasting her blood, wreathing her heart, licking every fold of her skin. By the time she’d started to glow, her men were already cheering.
“To arms,” she shouted. Her voice, as though it were cannon fire, boomed across the fortress. Everywhere men rallied and charged back to the walls. A great snake, coiled round a pale tower, was the first to feel their wrath. It took a dozen spears and skewered, fell to the earth.
Out on the plains, the Barbarian King shuffled his hand. His great war machines lumbered forward. Soon, their missiles filled the sky, screaming down on Evredel. A few pocked the gate and blew it from its hinges.
Tara leapt to the courtyard, felt her fiery cloak wriggling behind her. She met the earth with a small puff of ash. She took a deep breath, flexed her fingers on her sword, and turned.
Beyond the ruin of the gate, through the ghost-grey smoke, the barbarians roared.
They were coming.