<center>~ Eyes Forward ~</center> With a scream of pain, the horse fell out from under him. Dumas felt himself flying forward, and with a muted clank he hit the ground and rolled into a tree. For a long moment he lay there, breathing hoarsely. It would be easy to just lay there, so very easy. They would find him here, and it would all be over. No more pain, no more guilt, no more suffering and sorrow. Dumas opened his eyes, looking at the branches of the tree above him. There were no leaves -- the tree was dead, its branches dry and gnarled. Beyond the tree were clouds, gray and forbidding, a curtain across the sky. There was a heavy rattling of metal coming toward him, breaking through the underbrush. So easy to do nothing at all. There was a brief glint in his eye, and Dumas opened his eyes wider, searching. The rattling was growing near now. Had that been the sun, yet shining beyond that murky veil? The weary soldier closed his eyes. His enemies were almost upon him, they would find him. He was ready to die. Dumas opened his eyes again, troubled by that thought. He was ready to die -- but not like this. Lurching to his feet, Dumas drew his kryss, just as the enemy scouts broke through to him. Dashing forward, Dumas slammed his left gauntlet into the unprotected face of the first one, and with a powerful lunge, thrust his kryss through the chainmail around the second one's middle. The third attacker swung a longsword at him, but Dumas dodged to the right, pulling his kryss out. Almost immediately, Dumas thrust again, aiming for the fourth attacker, again shattering the metal links with a powerful thrust. Pulling back on the kryss, Dumas spun to the right, parrying a slash from the first attacker, then following through with a slice across the man's throat. His last remaining attacker swung at Dumas again and again, but succeeded only in scraping his armor a few times before the kryss found an opening and took it. Breathing heavily, the warrior leaned on his sword, thrust partway into the ground. Four more lives lost, to spare his one. So many lives... Was his own life worth such bloodshed..? Having no answer, Dumas proceeded to undo the straps of his armor, discarding the plates and links -- he wouldn't be able to carry the weight. Looking toward the south, he felt despair once again, but when he looked back northward, he fell to his knees in shame. Dumas rocked back on his heels, clutching his head. So many men... Dumas began to feel his eyes watering as he thought of the battle only hours before. Standing up swiftly, Dumas grabbed his kryss and sheathed it. He could shed no tears for them, not until he had honored their sacrifice. He reached down and grabbed one of his attackers' crossbows, and a case of bolts. He went over to his fallen steed, grabbed a buckler from the gear stored on it, as well as a waterskin and a packet of rations. With a grunt of effort, Dumas managed to pull the crossbow bolt out of the poor horse and throw it aside. A straight shot and true: Ark had been dead before Dumas had finished rolling. He patted its shoulder one last time -- the horse had given him everything it had. At last, though, he could put it off no longer, and turned southward. There was no looking back... he must keep his eyes ever forward. Moving into a light jog, Dumas began to run onward toward his destination, trying to set a pace he could sustain. His mind would give him no peace as he ran -- he deserved none either. A game -- that’s all it had ever been to him. A challenge: moving the pieces to meet the opponents' pieces, making sacrifices where necessary. Those pieces were lives; he had known it. He had known that the game was life or death. No, no game this -- this was reality, this was suffering, and pain, and the will to fight against it. This was a battle for the freedom and for life. Like those lives that were just lost. Lives lost because of him, because of his game. The mission was vital, they'd been told. Dumas, in command of a thousand men, set out to accomplish it. By all rights, they should have broken through. All logic supported that fact -- except that the one they were fighting against had no regard for her soldier's lives. She threw them to the meat grinder, sent them to their deaths, not caring how many, if any survived, so long as they fought. Retreating from the losing battle had been no option. He had ordered everyone to ride through the enemy force, onward toward their goal. Dumas cursed himself, cursed his decision. Only he had broken through. He wished he had died beside his men. He might have just given up. Dumas turned to look behind him, imagining the bloody battlefield left miles behind him, beyond the trees. He still could. For the first time in almost two decades, though, he knew who and what he was. He was ready to die, yet he was also ready to live. There were duties waiting for him, people depending on him. If he died, he would not be able to handle those responsibilities. Someone else would have to take on his burdens. Dumas turned his eyes forward as he continued to run. Dumas had responsibilities to the land he had lived in for nearly twenty years, obligations to the land that had given him a new life when he had lost his old. To the men who gave their lives for that land, who gave their lives following him into battle, to them he also had obligations. But would it not be easier to just let it end? He looked over his shoulder again, at the gray, lifeless landscape behind him. Just lie down and die, leave the troubles of life behind him. Dumas turned his eyes forward again. Leave the troubles of life behind him, to burden somebody else. Lifting him from his thoughts was the sight of a monumental slate pillar rising above the trees. Dumas ran faster now, hurrying to reach the clearing around the tower. At last, he reached the edge of the lifeless forest, and scanned the lay of the land. A denser forest grew to the east, to Dumas’s left. To his right, in the west, ran a good-sized river, dotted with small ships. Men-at-arms patrolled everywhere. Were he well rested, it would be a phenomenal task to overcome so many. It would be nigh impossible in his current state of fatigue, with only a kryss and wearing no armor. Dumas looked west, towards the boats on the bank of the river. If he could steal one, he could make his way back home. Once there he could get more soldiers, or have his lord send someone more capable. Wouldn’t he only be jeopardizing the mission were he to attempt it alone? His fist shook as he turned his eyes away from the boats. By the time he got more men, the enemy might have better defenses set up, now that they knew the tower was a target, and more would have to die than already had. The men had pledged their lives in defense of their home, and if he went for more men, then they would have to pay up early. Dumas turned his eyes forward, to the dark stone tower. Soon, his eyes began drifting to the left, towards the coniferous forest. He could go into that forest, find someplace to rest, regain his strength. He would be fresh for the completion of the task. Wouldn’t his odds be better if he were well rested? Dumas ground his teeth, and turned his eyes forward. There was a good chance he would be found, and then he would have failed. Also, the defenses would likely be much improved by the dawn of the next day. His best chance was to use the element of surprise. If he didn’t have that, then he had nothing. Abruptly, a thought came to his mind as he looked to the ground. Why was he risking his life for this land? Dumas thought of all the thieves and brigands thriving in the land. He had few friends -- they could all just leave the fight behind, go to someplace safer. The faces of those who had fallen during the night, some this very morning, ran through his mind, then, and his back straightened. For them. That was why he was doing this. He turned his eyes forward. Dumas checked that his kryss was clear in its sheath. Reaching over his shoulder, he pulled out the crossbow. He loaded a bolt, and then paused. He looked toward the murky skies, waiting for sunshine, preparing to pray for success. Then he stopped. He had only himself to depend upon -- he would help himself. Dumas lifted the crossbow, and drew back the bolt. Taking careful aim, he lined up a person he hoped was the caption of the guards. Dumas took a deep, calming breath. Eyes forward, Dumas, he told himself as his finger tightened on the trigger. Eyes forward.