The Battle of Agrador was over. The demonic troops of Baldrick the Black had cut through the army of King Alaric, sending the royal forces fleeing for their lives.
The barbarian warrior Jalkar wandered across the battlefield, the lone living soul among the dead that lay there unburied and unmourned. A light dusting of snow covered the ground, intermingled with splatters of blood.
The icy wind blew through the gaps in his armour and cut Jalkar to the bone. He wrapped his cloak tighter around his body, but it did not help much.
This morning, Jalkar had been a mercenary in the service of King Alaric of Lysias. Now the king was dead, his army scattered, and Jalkar was out of work. So he headed for the camp of the mercenaries, hoping for a jug of ale, a bowl of hot stew, a warming fire and a few hours of rest and sleep. The simple pleasures of a soldier on the field of battle where every day might be his last.
At first, Jalkar almost missed the sound over the howling wind. Then he dismissed it as his mind playing tricks on him, born out of the instinctive uneasiness that came from walking across a field where there was none but the dead.
Then Jalkar heard the sound again, and again, until even he could no longer ignore it. A pitiful wailing echoed across the battlefield.
Jalkar followed the sound, expecting to find a wounded but still-living warrior among the piles of the dead. Should he locate the wounded man, he would do his best to save him, if he could. Should the wounded man be beyond saving, Jalkar would grant him a swift and merciful death regardless of which side he’d fought on. This was the way of the warrior.
Alas, all the bodies he passed were clearly dead, their eyes already frosting over. Yet Jalkar still heard the wailing, ever more pitiful and desperate.
“Where are you?” he called out. “Answer me and I shall help you.”
But there was no answer. The dead remained silent. Only the wails could be heard, growing weaker as life and strength faded from whoever was the source of those pitiful cries.
Jalkar was just about to give up the search and continue on his way to the mercenary camp when he heard the wailing again, very close by. He looked around for the source of the sound and spotted a knight, lying face down in the snow. Jalkar could not tell whether the man was one of the Black or one of King Alaric’s men, for his armour bore no insignia.
But no matter on whose side he had fought during the battle, now the knight was merely a man in need of aid. And so Jalkar dropped to his knees and turned over the body. The strange knight was a big man and in full armour, so he was heavy. But in the end Jalkar managed to roll him onto his back, only to find himself looking into empty eyes, already frosted over with death.
But Jalkar barely paid any attention to the dead knight, for there, shielded by the man’s armoured body, was the greatest miracle Jalkar had seen on that fateful day, a day which had already seen the Army of Black sweep through twenty thousand of King Alaric’s men as if they were paper soldiers. For there in the snow, underneath the body of the dead knight, lay a wailing baby.
It was a little girl, only a few hours old, tufts of red hair still matted with the fluids of birth. She was pale, her skin already turning blue with the cold, and her cries were weak. Yet by some miracle, she was alive.
Jalkar grabbed the nearest piece of cloth, which happened to be the banner of the Order of the Crimson Seal, and wrapped the baby in the tattered banner to keep her warm. He doubted the Knights of the Crimson Seal would mind, considering they were all dead, slaughtered to a man.
Jalkar clutched the baby close to his chest and folded his woollen cloak over her.
“Have no fear, little one,” he whispered. “You’re safe now. I shall protect you.”
The baby cooed, almost as if she understood.
She needed warmth… and milk. Both could be found in the mercenary camp, so Jalkar hastened back there, his precious burden clutched close to his chest.
Barely an hour later, Jalkar was sitting by a fire in the mercenary camp, the baby in his arms, suckling contently from a skin filled with fresh cow’s milk. She looked healthier now, her little cheeks turning rosy.
“What are you going to do with it?” asked Skuffcor, a one-eyed warrior from the frozen north.
Jalkar did not even look up, so entranced was he by the little girl in his arms. He held out a finger and the baby’s tiny hand curled around it, almost as if she were making a pact with him.
“Raise her and protect her, as if she were my own,” he said. “She is my daughter now.”
“You can’t keep it,” Skuffcor grunted. “You’re a mercenary. What do you know of babies?”
“I know that they need milk and warmth and love and…” A distinctive smell reached Jalkar’s nostrils. “…That sometimes they need their swaddling clothes changed.”
Skuffcor emitted a bout of raucous laughter and slapped Jalkar on the back.
“Some nursemaid you’ll make.” A curious gleam entered Skuffcor’s lone remaining eye. “What are you going to call it?”
“Anora,” Jalkar said softly, and smiled down at the child who was his daughter now. “After my sister who succumbed to the fever three winters ago.”
And this is how Jalkar became guardian to the Lady Anora, who would grow up to become both the most terrible danger and the greatest hope the land had ever seen.
— Cora Buhlert