Inhelbeld strode out of the gates of the citadel to the clamour just beyond the limits of the narrow streets of the shantytown. His sword rested lazily on his shoulder and his helmet he dangled from his free hand.
He can see the first trickles of retreating guardsmen and legionaries heading down the three main roads like lines of ants. Those that could run did so with as much strength as they could muster. Many of them had abandoned their heavy helmets, some have given up on their suits of armour altogether. Those that could not run had their heads lowered as they dragged each other towards the citadel, half in indignation and half in exhaustion.
The air was thick with confusion. News began to circulate among them that the centre walls had fallen, and the gates were opened. Others said that captain Cornelius had led a counterattack and retaken the great gates. Still more contradictory news came in as the retreating men gathered along the main roads. Whispers came that another army had been mustering behind the besieging force, others said in hushed tones that the general had finally given in to old age.
Inhelbeld paid little attention to them as he strode down the road leading to the central gate. He was confident in the ability of the soldiers manning the walls. He was confident in Commodus and Belisarius' tactics. He does not allow doubt to cloud his judgement. But the whispers did not stop.
At the head of the retreating columns were men with ashen faces. Yet when he passed by their hearts were gladdened, and their faces glowed as their confidence renewed. But by the time he had reached the loose ends of the column few had even the strength to lift their heads, and fewer took notice of his presence. They were bloodied and many were badly injured. Inhelbeld reasons they must've fought as the rear guard during the earlier retreat. The city gates ahead were open and a host gathered in its shadows, licking its wounds and preparing to bite and strike again.
Amidst the soldiers, he noticed a group of four pushing a cart. They were all wounded. Two wore crude bandages around their head and a third carried his left arm in a makeshift sling. His hand dangled, threatening to fall from the stump of his wrist but by an inch of flesh and skin. Still, they pushed. In the cart was a shape collapsed on a bed of hay, mortally wounded but refusing to die. He was badly bloodied and his face was gnashed by terribly deep cuts, Inhelbeld could not make out who it was.
Seeing Inhelbeld with his one open eye, the shape struggled to lift himself, before collapsing again. Blood spurted from his wounds from the effort and his group called out for help. A legionary, himself wounded in the legs came back from the retreating column to help. Inhelbeld went with him and called his men to continue ahead.
"Come, soldiers, where on the walls were you stationed?" He called out, "I'll push him until we reach the rest of your comrades."
He hacked off a loose wheel and pushed alongside them. They thanked him as they trudged along but said little for a while.
"The centre walls captain." One of them replied hesitantly, "47th regiment."
"Also the centre," Said another with great effort, "We're all the same regiment."
"Cornelius' men?" Inhelbeld asked, surprised. It was unlike the stubborn captain to retreat first. "How many more of you are still fighting on the walls?"
"We're all that's left of the guards stationed there. The captain told us to fall back before- before it was too late for us. We- our group were trying to get off the walls before-" Said a young guardsman. With those words, everything clicked into place inside Inhelbeld's head. His eyes wandered to the man in the cart, whose one open eye was fixed on him.
"Before the Arvendi started to retreat." Said the dying man, calmly and steadily, "I took charge of half the regiment when we were cut off from Cornelius. Most of us were killed trying to get off the walls. Only these kids made it out of there." He turned his gaze to his loyal soldiers. "Good men aren't they Inhelbeld? I told them to leave me by the old well in the inn, they wouldn't. A shame they're here with old folks like me."
"Basil- " Inhelbeld spoke clumsily, "You're not going to die here."
"I know." He replied, choking at certain syllables, "I should've died on the walls, I wanted to die with my family. I've defied death twice. I'm not going down so easily."
Inhelbeld wanted to speak but Basil stared at him with force. He relented before the breath could escape his chest. They continued to push until a second wheel snapped from the cart. By that time, a group of legionaries together with an Anumani physician had arrived. Inhelbeld left the wounded men with them but took the young soldier aside.
"Good man," He whispered, "There's something I couldn't bring to ask old Basil, but where is your captain? Where is Cornelius? You weren't with them from the start, were you?" He scanned the boy, seeing none of the deep wounds that had been inflicted on his compatriots.
"I don't blame you, but I need- "
"He's dead." The soldier interrupted, his voice overcome with sorrow, "When the walls were about to fall, he ordered the rest of us to escape. I was following him." He broke down and knelt, weeping.
"We had made it as far as the first watch-post when the doors were flung open and we heard those horsemen charge towards us. The halberdiers tried to fend them off but were swept aside. The captain was struck with some white arrow and the rest of us had prepared to carry him back, but he refused. We tried fighting back but fared no bettered than the others. They were too heavily armoured for our swords to be any use, and they kept throwing those white arrows at us. In the melee I saw that the captain was struck with a lance and knocked to the ground, I went in without thinking and dragged him behind one of the narrower alleys. I said he needed to live and offered to carry him back, but he said- "
His voice broke.
"He turned to me- He turned to me. He turned and said that I needed to live as well." He fell silent.
Inhelbeld lifted his hand and placed it firmly on the boy's shoulders. He said nothing as his head dipped and his brows furled into a grimace.
"You need to live as well." He said after some time, his voice hoarse and fragile. "Go, collect yourself and get back to the citadel, we haven't finished this battle yet."
The soldier took out a hidden pouch in his tattered coat. He struggled to unfurl it and to loosen its leather fastens with his trembling hands, but continued anyway. Finally, he produced a silver bell.
"The captain-" He said slowly, piecing together a painfully confused sentence, "The captain gave this to me before... Before they found us. He wanted to give it to someone. But I couldn't hear who."
Inhelbeld's eyes widened. He took the bell from him with both hands and held it tightly.
"I know who this is for." He said quietly, "Leave this to me. You've done well, you've done very well."
The soldier nodded and turned to leave. Inhelbeld stopped him as he donned his war helm.
"One last thing." He said. The syllables of his words shook with quiet anger. "The horseman, did you see who it was? Who did it? Is there anything I can find him by?"
"They had a red banner, sir. A banner with a red dragon."