Many kingdoms have knights – warriors clad in armor, gleaming and true – but few can stand against Vallamere and the Swordsworn, twelve mighty heroes bound by oath to serve unto death. Even then their armor, names, and blades pass on to the next worthy hero, a legacy of steel that is the closest thing we Imperials have to gods since the old gods disappeared.
You have heard the tales of our battles. You have heard the armies chant the names of the Swordsworn. But you have not heard of our sins.
I am not going to tell you how I became Vallamere. I will not tell you of glorious deeds done in the service of the empire. I shall not speak of glory, or of honor. I have no wish for praise. This world thinks me a hero. I am here to tell you I am not.
There are few who understand the true purpose of a Rune Stone, even amongst the kings and scholars of the world, though there are many who think they understand.
I am the King’s Shield, the First Knight, and so I sit at his right hand. To my right are a mere three of the other Swordsworn. Across from us are several of the Imperial Pillars. Altogether, we are eight. Less than a dozen men to plan the strategy for a battle between armies of thousands. Across the table, one of the Pillars raises his arm. I have not been Vallamere long enough to know the names of all the Pillars. This one’s name escapes me. I look to the other Pillars. Each of them raises his hand, in turn. My fellow Swordsworn raise their arms. At last, the king looks to me. I do not raise my hand. The king says my name, questioning.
It is generally believed that Rune Stones are wards. They keep the demons – and the gods – from finding purchase in our realm, banishing them to heaven and to hell. Yet the stones are more than just wards. They can also be used to summon demons. One need only shatter the stone, and one invites demons into the mortal realm. Here they will remain, unleashing destruction in their wake so long as the stone remains broken. For this reason, the stones are often used as weapons. With each side vying for an edge that will turn the tide of battle, Rune Stones are not only used to prevent the enemy from summoning demons to aid them in battle. The stones are also used to summon them for themselves.
“The Horen will shatter our stones the first chance they get. They will not hesitate,” says one of the Pillars. “You would vote not to allow your king that same advantage?”
“I would not see my king possessed by demons.” Clarifying, I add, “I will break the stone myself.”
It is cold.
We stumble through snowdrifts, lean against trees rimed with frost. Never have I seen a sky so black. This is a land without stars, as empty as the eyes of the dead the Horen leave littered behind them. We walk in the footsteps of snowbeasts, of sabre cats, creatures of fang and claw. Valkryn alight from trees bare of leaves and circle overhead. Our armor is like ice, our beards white and frozen, numbing our minds, driving out all thoughts but one.
It is cold.
And today, we go to war.
I lead the charge over mounds of snow, my eyes narrowing as I urge the troops forward. I plant my battle standard in the ice before disappearing into a wave of blades, my own sword whirling. Beside me, the Swordsworn fight on, each of us cleaving through the bone armor of the Horen as easily as gutting a fish. This is not my first battle. I raise my shield, deflecting their spears, and make my way behind enemy lines. My sights are set on one thing.
The Stone. It is a font of power. I can feel its magic swirling around me as I approach, slaying any who get in my way. I spare a glance behind me, but my fellow knights are lost amidst the clang of steel, the cries of men. My king is nowhere to be seen. I return my focus to the Stone, reminding myself that I can look for him when my task is done. I can hear ancient voices rising from the Stone in whispers. Raising my steel, I swing, chipping away at the Stone with each strike. My blade vibrates in my gauntleted hand, but the Stone begins to crumble. At last, the Rune Stone shatters, its magic rises from the slab, and I feel a rush of power wash over me.
I’m not sure what I expected. I suppose I thought I would hear the demon’s voice in my head. I thought it would guide my hand, corrupting my body but granting me power. Instead, the power rushes past me. I can feel it, like when the wind rushes through your hair on a blistery day. Such power. Such raw, primal energy. But it is not meant for me. I watch, powerless, as the runic magic finds my king. Before my eyes, the king disappears. In his place, a demon marches forward.
The Horen scatter in the demon’s wake. Their cries echo as he lets out an unholy roar, impaling them upon his spikes, tearing off their heads with his teeth. This is a vile creature, no trace of my former king left in him. He quickly turns the tide of battle, seeking out the barbarians and raining carnage down upon the battlefield. I can see why the Pillars and my fellow Swordsworn wanted to see the Rune Stone broken. Already I can see that we have won the battle. But it has come at too great a cost.
What have I done? I ask myself this question as the barbarian army retreats. A dozen arrows pierce the demon’s hide. The remaining Horen are gravely injured or have fled, but still, the demon continues. It is a creature of chaos, and it will not stop until it is dead. Even as the Rune Stone reforms, it refuses to be banished. Instead, the demon approaches the Stone, intending to shatter it once more. I am all that stands between it and the Stone.
I search the demon’s face for any sign that still remains of the king, but there is none. Without a word, I raise the sword and shield upon which I have sworn sacred oaths. The sword, I have sword to use to fight in the king’s Honor. The shield, I have sworn to use to defend him. Now, I raise sword and shield and use them both to destroy him. The demon is strong, but the fight ends quickly. His body falls to the ground. I half expect his demonic appearance to fade away, revealing the slain king within, but it does not. He remains in his demon form.
The Imperial army advances. I return to their midst, my head held heavy with despair. I see the eyes of my fellow Swordsworn as they fall upon the body of our former king. The knight lets out a riotous cheer, and the army joins in, failing to understand.
Amidst the chaos of battle, they must not have seen the king’s transformation. They ask me what became of him, and when I fail to meet their eyes, they assume he fell in battle. Only I know the truth.
The minstrels have since written songs of my glorious battle. Each lilting note is a dagger in my side, a painful reminder of what I did that day. I have kept my secret until now. I confess it only to an old man, a Chronicler. I know that you will write it down on your scrolls, but otherwise the secret will remain ours alone. It is not for my pride’s sake that I keep this secret, but for that of the king. May he be remembered as the man he was in life, not as the demon he became.