A Force to Be Reckoned With

Joel 'Cop' Furches

The Barbarian looked from the stone tower to the stormy horizon. Dark clouds loomed everywhere, blocking out the setting sun. It was several hours to nightfall, but it might as well have been midnight. The only light came from the silent flashes of the lightning storm far off in the distance. But there was something else looming on the other horizon, and it hung over his head like a dark pall. From every land, every corner of the world, a rumor had been stirring. At first it seemed too impossible to be true, but as the rumors became ever more frequent and more descriptive, mounting like a storm front, he began to feel a true and palpable fear.

The wind picked up and the clouds began to pour forth their abundance. As the rain rushed down, his view of the horizon was obscured. Still he watched.

The word had broken yesterday. They would be coming to his land soon, the white-robed army, and he could do nothing to keep them away.

The voices from other lands had told of them, this army that covered the land like a swarm, a plague. Though they were from every race and nation, they all moved as one, and they were reputed to be unstoppable, unopposable. Every army that had moved against them had disappeared, and the white-robed army only grew stronger.

When the Barbarian's rowdy, violent men had heard of the coming of this army that would surely desecrate their land, they had all moved as one to oppose it. The Barbarian warned that they should remain within the walls of the fort and prepare for a siege, but the men would have nothing of it. They rose with swords and leather armor and great iron axes of war, with spears and flails and clubs, and they set out to destroy the army that whispers had told was about to overwhelm them. The Barbarian watched as they marched over the horizon... and continued to watch as nightfall came, and morning sprang in its place. Now nightfall was impending a second time, and his men, he knew, would never come again.

The robed army WOULD come, though. No castle wall, no angry weapon of battle, not even all the gods of heaven and earth and the waters under the earth combined could save him from that. He had no more time; he must choose now how he would face the juggernaut. And when the question arose, he knew he had no choice. He would face them the only way he knew how.

As dawn broke, the storm had run its course, and the clouds were parting like curtains, revealing the golden sun peeking over the horizon. The fog fled before the amber rays of light. The Barbarian's eyes squinted, as, looking eastward, he saw that more than just frost sparkled white in the morning light. It was the blindness one experiences when looking upon a freshly fallen snow in the morn. A moving blanket of robed men ambled quietly forward even as the sun that illuminated them shrank all the early shadows before it. Fear gripped the throat of the Barbarian, and he tightened his grip on the enormous battle-axe he held. He was standing defiantly outside the gate of his castle, vulnerable to whatever wrath this army dealt upon him. He knew his death was near, and it terrified him. Yet he would take as many of the enemy with him in death as he could. He thought of archers and slingshots and catapults, and snorted to himself. He could not appear so threatening to this vast army that they would waste such artillery on him. He would lull them into a talk, and then strike down their leader. That alone might shake their ranks. He closed his eyes and swallowed. He didn't want to die.

The robed army was slowed by its mass, and it seemed like hours before it drew toward the waiting warrior.

"Ho!" he called to the line approaching.

"Peace!" someone in the line called back.

This surprised the Barbarian. What manner of greeting was 'peace' from an advancing battle group? He did not contemplate this long, but rather called back, "I would speak with your leader!"

He felt small before this great group, and knew that their leader, whoever he was, would most likely never concede to speak with him. Then the Barbarian noticed something subtle happening up ahead. At first he was not sure what was happening, but when the realization struck him, he was amazed. The entire army seemed to be slowing and coming to a halt. Why would so great a mass of people stop for one man in their path? This utterly baffled him, but before he could contemplate it further, one of the members stepped slightly forward of the wall of bodies.

"Come here and we will talk."

The Barbarian eyed him suspiciously, then gripped his axe in both hands and slowly moved forward.

"You will not need the weapon," spoke the man, "we are not here to harm you."

The Barbarian held onto his axe all the more firmly as he moved forward. He scanned the men as he neared them, and noted in surprise that, though each carried packs and supplies on top of and under their robes, they seemed to be devoid of weapons.

The Barbarian knew even as he approached the last several steps that something was very different here. These men seemed more like a monstrous caravan than they did an army. Nevertheless, he was committed to a course of action, and would carry it out. Even as the speaking man raised his hand in greeting, the Barbarian darted forward on his last two steps, and with a great cry, cut deeply into the man with his battleaxe.

The greeter fell heavily to the ground, and was immediately pulled back into the mass. His comrades quickly produced clothes to wrap his wound, and salves to clean it, while another man stepped into his place, and finished the greeting where his wounded predecessor had left off.

"You do not need to be afraid, we will not harm you."

The Barbarian was frozen in shock. Finally, he screamed in desperation, "You should be the one afraid! I cut down your leader, and I could cut you down with another stroke!"

"He was not our leader, just as I am not our leader. I am aware of the danger. Cut me down if you must, but another will simply take my place."

"I'll cut you ALL down!"

The robed speaker offered a small smile, "I doubt very much you could summon the energy it would take to kill us ALL. Please, may we speak before you set about slaying?"

The Barbarian stared ahead darkly. Things were obviously much different than he had believed, but he found it difficult to halt his hatred-filled impulses after already attacking one of the number. In an instant, his entire outlook on the situation had radically been brought up short, and he was struggling to adjust to the change. Deep within his chest, an ache of guilt struggled to break free.

"What do you people want?" he finally asked.

"We simply ask for permission to cross through your land. In exchange for this favor, we will help you in any way we can," the speaker shrugged.

"And if I refuse you passage?"

"We would avoid your land. And we would still offer our help, if you allow us."

"You and your people are already well into my land."

"Our apologies. We were led to believe you would allow us to pass through."

"Forgive me if I do not believe you," the Barbarian snorted, "I have heard rumors from every land and nation of your... people. They say you are a great army, and that no nation has been able to stand before you."

"We are a simple group of pilgrims," the speaker replied. "Many have abandoned their native lands to join us, and our ranks have grown. We have not come to conquer, but to divide."

"Two days ago, a group of my very close men went out to meet your people in battle. They have not returned since."

The speaker nodded. "They came out against us as have many armies. They fought and cut down many of our number before they realized that we were not fighting back."

"Then where are they?" the Barbarian cried.

"Hold your peace, they are with us even now."

The speaker motioned behind him, and out of the mass stepped several robed figures. Each figure removed his hood, and one by one, the Barbarian saw the faces of those who were his comrades and friends.

The Barbarian stood speechless. Finally, he managed to whisper, "What treachery is this?"

One of his close friends stepped forward to speak.

"We have chosen to join them, my friend. Please do not be angry."

The Barbarian looked sadly at his friend.

"What have they done to you to change you so? Why would you leave this land, and all that it has to offer, for a nomad's life?"

"These people are like none I have ever met," his friend said, almost pleadingly, to him. "They live, the entire lot of them, to help one another. They travel as no army or caravan I have ever seen. They do not leave the young and the weak behind to be picked off by savages. The strong remain on the outside of the group as they move, and the weak remain safely at the core. They take no consideration for themselves at all. As you have seen, they would unthinkingly give up their lives to protect the group. At first we thought as you do, that they were fools, idealists. But once I saw the reality of their commitment, I could not live outside this life that they have."

The Barbarian looked into his friend's face for a long time. This man who he once called friend seemed a stranger to him. For a moment, he even entertained the idea that these people were who they pretended to be. And then he knew the truth. They were a headless body, a monstrous creature that moved across the lands absorbing the weak minded into their mass.

"To perfect," he growled, "to perfect..."

"We made no claim to be perfect," the speaker replied. "We bicker, fight, and disagree. But in all this we strive not to tear one another down, but to do what is best for the whole."

The Barbarian was too tired of heart and mind to argue with this pretentious lot. They had taken his friends and his people from him in a way no army could ever hope to do. They pretended to have a desire to help, when all they sought was to proselytize.

"Who is your leader?" he asked.

"Our leader cannot be seen."

"Well tell him that your people may pass through my land, camp here if you must, but be on your way as quickly as possible. I will have nothing more to do with you."

The speaker nodded, "Very well."

Without another word, the Barbarian turned on his heel and strode quickly back to the waiting gates of his cold, stone castle.

The Barbarian ate alone that night, forbidding himself to think. He had pulled a great jug of wine from the cellar and hoped to down the entire vessel before the night was done. Outside, the sinister force of the white-robed army built their fires, ate their meals, played with their children, and rejoiced at the many people from his land that had abandoned him for the utopian vision they pretended to offer.

A knock came at the thick, wooden door that closed off the pathetically empty dining hall to the rest of the world. Startled, the Barbarian spilled his drink.

"Who is it?" he called gruffly.

The door creaked on its hinges, and a narrow face appeared around its edge.

"It's just me," the face smiled. It was one of the Barbarian's fighting men, a Savage.

The Barbarian grunted, "I thought you would be feasting with your new-found friends."

The Savage let a slight smile cross his lips.

"Just because I joined them, it doesn't necessarily mean I am one of them. I slipped away from their company to speak to you."

The Barbarian raised an eyebrow, but said nothing.

"You see," the Savage began, after helping himself to some wine, "When the rest of the men grew tired of killing those who would not fight back, they began to speak with them. They were, as I am sure you are, fascinated by this strange group. At first they granted the robed strangers passage through your land, and then, as the talk continued, they offered to escort them. As the next day followed, the group would stop at every farm, and every cottage. They would offer food to the inhabitants and help with farming and repairs. They would tend to the sick, clothe the poor, feed the hungry, and go out of their way for such niceties. For most, that was all it took. Almost everyone they helped ended up joining their ranks. In the end, so did your men."

"And so did you," the Barbarian grunted.

The Savage shrugged.

"I travel with the white-robed army now, yes, but my objective has never changed. We set out to defeat this army that came to desecrate your land, and I still intend to do so."

The Barbarian leaned forward in interest.

"Well, my friend, it's like this," the Savage smiled, "Once I realized that this army did not conquer with swords and spears, but with kind words and good deeds, I changed my strategy as every warrior must. Your other men may have fallen to their beguilements, but I found that the way to the defeat of so great an army was not in violence but in subtlety.

"I," the Savage gestured grandly to himself, "will be like one of them. I will infiltrate their ranks and slowly undermine their ideas and teachings. So great a mass of people cannot hold themselves together through kindness alone. They already have the seeds of destruction in their midst. I will simply nurture the seeds until they disintegrate in anarchy."

The Savage looked greedily into the face of the Barbarian. "Join me," he spoke in intensity, "we can accomplish more together than I can alone. You will have the revenge I know you desire!"

The Barbarian considered the man for a moment before giving a sigh.

"I know what you are saying to me, and I think I can appreciate what you are doing. But I am tired of this struggle."

"The struggle will not die when this army has left your land," the Savage spoke. "Better to fight than to remain in your castle walls withering away from absence."

"No, my friend, no... I will not be joining you. If my men ever regain their minds, please tell them to return. Otherwise, I will set about the business of rebuilding this modest kingdom of mine."

The Savage glanced heavily back at the door.

"Once our backs are turned to the rising sun, I'm afraid there will be no return," he replied. "Very well, your decision is made. It was good seeing your face once again. If you ever wish to find me, follow the trail of white robes that have been cast off the backs of the disillusioned and malcontent."

The Savage reached within the folds of his own robe and removed another thin, white cloak. He tossed it casually across the table, where it landed in the lap of the Barbarian.

"A memento," he smiled. And with that, he was gone. The Barbarian took the robe in his hands and ran it's soft fibers between his fingers. A long time passed as he stared off into the distance. Finally he grunted, threw the robe into the fireplace, and strode out of the room. Behind him, the fire flickered and then died as it smothered under the white cloth.

It took a full day for the vast sea of robed bodies to finally disappear into the setting sun. The Barbarian watched their departure with a deep uncertainty brewing within him. He smiled it away. The army was as good as doomed. Their mass was so great it could not support itself. They had no leader, and any soul with greed could seize the reigns. No, the army would collapse beneath its own weight, and history would never even remember its existence. He thought back to the words the Savage had spoken.

"They already have the seeds of destruction in their midst."

On the eastern horizons, the storm clouds were mounting anew.

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