“It’s simple. We just need to find his heart and destroy it,” Jorge explained.
Henrik blinked. Until now Jorge had been explaining what sounded like an ordinary, if dangerous, mission behind enemy lines. Except now he was getting a lecture on basic anatomy?
Jorge could see his confusion. “Look, you know the legend about the giant who kept his heart in a box?” he asked. “As long as his heart was safe, he couldn’t be defeated, until Melenil tricked him into telling him where it was, yadda yadda.”
Henrik nodded. He may not have been the sparkiest wand in the coven, but he knew his sagas backwards.
“It’s the same with the Other King. He’s hidden his heart somewhere, and that’s his weakness. We just need to find it.”
This was a stretch, but far from the weirdest thing that Henrik had heard recently. Everyone knew that the Other King’s warlocks were stronger than theirs, but nobody knew why. They clearly had powers beyond what had been thought possible. Even when they weren’t on the battlefield, his magicians made their presence felt. Henrik had fought things that used to be human, and things that had never been human. The otherkin were the worst, because they didn’t fight right. Sometimes their arms were blades, and bent in unexpected places. Henrik had killed one, but if it had been just a touch faster… Well, it hadn’t been.
If the Other King’s warlocks could turn a man into a bladed weapon, then maybe they could remove a man’s heart too.
“Alright,” he said, finally. In the end, Jorge was his sergeant, and so if Jorge told him that the Other King flew around at night on a broomstick dressed as a yak, then Henrik would believe him.
Jorge squinted up at him, and opened his mouth as though he was about to say something. Then he shut it again.
“We leave at dawn.”
Once they crossed the front lines, the squad settled into the comfortable rhythms of covert ops.
When they passed a village, Filip would descend and listen for rumours, or talk of troop movements to unusual locations. He was tall and pale like the Other King’s people, so he could mostly pass. When he didn’t, the rest of the team were there to bail him out.
That was Theo’s speciality. He was a minor warlock, which meant he knew all the usual tricks like closing wounds, but his real talent was distractions. Preferably ones involving fire. There was also the time that Henrik saw him punch a man’s jaw right off in a way that definitely wasn’t natural. Or maybe he was just really strong. Henrik didn’t ask that kind of question.
Henrik, you see, was a simple man. He knew the forest and he knew hitting things. That meant that until everything went pear-shaped, he was here as a woodsman first and foremost. Henrik was fine with that. If anything, it made him the most beloved member of the team, since his hunting was the only thing that broke the monotony of military rations.
And Jorge… Jorge was the sergeant. That meant he knew things that you weren’t allowed to know, and made decisions that you weren’t allowed to make. If he made the wrong call, then the team would die. That was okay, because he hadn’t made one yet.
Finally, they found it.
The Other King’s heart was kept in a cave beneath the highest mountain of the Allevian Range. Only, when they reached the “cave” it turned out to be more of a fort. Henrik had expected the heart to be isolated, protected by the wilderness and weather, but apparently the Other King preferred walls and warriors.
That, however, was a problem they could deal with.
Two days of observation later, they knew all the guard patterns. On the third night, they struck. They scaled the wall silently, and it wasn’t until Theo set the storeroom on fire that the alarm was finally raised. With Filip skewering hapless guards carrying water buckets, Henrik and Jorge carved a swift passage into the heart of the fort. The Other King’s soldiers fought like demons. Clearly they knew the value of what they were protecting.
Finally, red-painted and wild-eyed from combat, they reached the final chamber. Breaking down the door barely slowed Henrik, but the scene within stopped him dead.
The interior of the chamber was a simple cell, with a bed and a table. The table was bare. Behind the table there was nothing but the cowering, tear-streaked faces of a woman and two small children.
“Where is the heart?” he thundered, but he couldn’t quite finish the sentence. A dreadful realisation was welling within him, but through his battle focus all he knew was that something was not right.
There was a moment of bewildered silence. Then Jorge laughed, a sound of genuine mirth so far removed from the current situation that it was obscene, like a garland on a corpse.
“You monumental idiot,” he said slowly, gesturing at the Other King’s family with his bloody gladius, “It was a fucking metaphor”.
With that, he set to his labour. Henrik, appalled, found himself following, bound by strings of duty and camaraderie as tight as any chains.
Later, much later, after they broke the Other King’s people as they had broken his heart, Henrik would realise that he too had left his heart in that cave under the mountain.