by Tom Rolland
Languid, lazy clouds of shell smoke danced in slowly expanding circles across the pocked and cratered mud flats of the Northern front. They cavorted and flirted with the lingering progeny of Cygnaran smoke canisters, wandering aimlessly in the morning breeze like lost children.
The sun was a weak, blurry disc through the stinking haze of the artificial cloud bank left in the battle’s wake. It clung to the muddy, churned earth as though reluctant to ascend; to dissipate into the ether.
There were no animal sounds, or bird calls on the trenchline. The Vermin would come out soon, of that there could be no doubt, but for the moment the animals would stay away. The earth had been sundered, burnt and shaken. War had claimed this place and nature would be a long time reclaiming it for herself. Nothing stirred in the funereal silence of the trenchline.
Nothing save Garrid Syridian of the Bainsmarket irregulars.
Garrid had no solid, comprehensive memory of the violence that had engulfed his position the night before, but his body did. The body never forgot, or forgave. Bruises were coloured frescoes, underscored by scars and scratches retelling the story of his troubles in lurid detail. He had awoken to find himself sitting upright with his back against the wooden revetments of the trench’s forward face. He was spattered in drying blood that may, or may not have been his own. It was the least of his worries.
His body was numb and, as yet, he hadn’t mustered the courage to check for injuries beyond those that he could see. His head was full of cotton wool and a thick, foul tasting residue coated his tongue. He knew that taste well from basic training. It was the aftertaste of the chemicals from a Trencher smoke grenade. The air in Trench 4 was thick with it, giving the morning sunlight a wan, sickly quality.
He swallowed hard and flexed his fingers experimentally; biting back a sigh of relief to find sensation there. He tried to raise his legs and gasped in pain as a stabbing surge of agony registered in the trunk of his right thigh. He watched in panic as a pool of thick, dark blood began to spread in a widening pool beneath him. Gritting his teeth, Garrid reached underneath his leg and searched the raw, ragged edges of the wound with tremulous fingers. It was mercifully small and his questing digits soon found the broken, serrated tip of a bayonet pressing gently against the thigh bone.
He closed his eyes and stuffed one end of his ragged scarf into his mouth before biting down hard. He gripped the metal shard and counted down slowly from five, offering up a silent prayer to Morrow as he did so. He tugged and felt the metal come loose, lathering his fingers with hot blood and torn gristle as his head jerked back violently against the revetment at his back, knocking him unconscious with the agony. His last thought as he descended into oblivion was relief. If he had screamed then someone else might have found him and Garrid wasn’t sure if that was a good idea yet.
Sporadic memories formed in his tired mind, mingling with the half remembered screams and plaintive wails of the dying; a cacophony that grated on the senses and formed a grisly, morbid accompaniment to the basso rumble of Khadoran war-chants and the dull ‘thump-crack’ of their punishing siege guns. He closed his eyes.
* * *
From the sandbagged position atop the parapet, Kavin’s manic laughter drifted across the firestep, punctuated by the high pitched roar of the rotary machine gun, as he tracked it back and forth across the expanse of chewed mud and broken tree stumps that comprised the no-man’s land before them.
Hungry, forlorn looking Grey clad figures with axes and squat, ugly rifles darted from sparse cover to sparse cover, firing off ineffectual shots from their short-ranged, high calibre weapons, or making futile, short-lived charges toward the sandbagged breastworks of the Cygnar position. Most of them died spasming and thrashing from the impact as they were riddled with high velocity slugs; seemingly ignorant, or uncaring of the fate that awaited them. Red petals blossomed in the fire streaked night as chests, heads and limbs disappeared, or were disfigured in puffs of bloody smoke and screams of agony.
Their blood soaked into the mire of mud and snow underfoot as the horizon lit up with the infrequent muzzle flash from their own artillery pieces far to the rear. Garrid hated those moments and the dreadful clarity that they brought to the battlefield. The seemingly random bursts of light betrayed the true extent of the forces arrayed against them and not for the first time he cursed the name of Captain Lander and his insufferable toadying.
A Defender, hell, even a Grenadier would have made all the difference here, but the arrogant, journeyman Warcaster wanted to be closer to trench 1 and the command elements ensconced there. He was willing to sacrifice every man in the trench line in order to make his superiors feel safe from the fury outside.
“Warjacks are here to support ‘real’ soldiers sergeant. Not your prison rabble of murderers and rapists. Make do with what you have.” he had said, glibly. Easy for that piece of shit to say, thought Garrid. The approach to trench 1 was a death trap with overlapping fields of fire from nests of carefully concealed long gunners, cannon squads and chain gun teams, not to mention the regimental Warcaster, Colonel Vance and his units of elite gun mages and sword knights.
Garrid had been told that trench 1 was dry and stable with a whole platoon of trenchers assigned to maintenance and bilge pumping in an effort to offset the inevitable flooding that came from being below the water table. Garrid was sergeant of his platoon, making him the highest ranking of Lander’s subordinates, so he had argued the case vehemently. Lander hadn’t listened. Trench 1 was obviously more deserving of the regiment’s armour than the lowly penal soldiers in their squalid trenches.
Arrogant, cowardly bastard, he thought. Men were dying, (although most of them were enemies, but that wasn’t the point.). The sight of a warjack would have made even Khadoran light infantry think twice about attacking in such numbers, although with the benefit of having viewed their most recent suicidal charge only moments ago, he now doubted that anything would deter the winter guard from their headlong charge into oblivion. Maybe death was preferable to living under the red Empress of Khador? He was determined not to find out.
Crouching on the firestep were Enniel and Kuros, military rifles projecting through the loopholes in the sandbag parapet aiming, firing and reloading in a steady, dependable rhythm. Enniel’s’ mouth was moving beneath his uniform scarf. Garrid didn’t need to hear him to know that the young soldier was repeating the mantra from basic. He knew that it helped him to stay calm. All soldiers had their superstitions. He turned to Enniel as Kuros whooped.
“Morrow’s blessed balls, En! You should’ve bin a long gunner, you should!” Enniel grinned at the younger man’s praise, turning slightly to make one of his typically arrogant, cocksure boasts. He never got the chance. A Widowmaker in the tree-line perforated the front of his helmet with such force that his forehead caved inward like a bashed, boiled egg. Kuros was staring, open mouthed in horror at the ruin of Enniel’s face until Garrid barrelled into him, his large, muscular frame bearing the younger man to the duckboards underfoot where they sprawled in an ungainly mess of limbs. “Smoke!” yelled Garrid and all along the line, the men of his platoon fell back from the firestep, pulling the round, black spheres from their packs and satchels; pulling out the wax tapers and hurling them over-arm into the air. The gunfire in the immediate vicinity died away to be replaced by the sound of exultant shouts and the thunder of numberless footfalls against the tortured earth of no man’s land.
“Advance unit, fix bayonets!” yelled Garrid, helping Kuros to his feet. The younger man offered a curt nod of gratitude to his superior and went back to his position with a final, furtive glance at the prone form of Enniel, dead on the firestep. Suddenly, the parapet disappeared in a pall of thick, white smoke. The trenchers had donned their scarves tightly about their mouths and noses. The Khadorans had not.
“Up and over my lads, into the bastards! For King Leto!” Twenty trenchers from first platoon roared, taking up the cry and surging over the lip of the trench to meet the milling Khadorans head on as the reserve unit manned loopholes and used the time to make desperate ammo and supply runs. Garrid plunged headlong into the wall of smoke before him, joining the line that had formed along the salient.
“CHARGE!” he yelled and the trenchers levelled their rifles, firing at waist height as they ran. There were screams and the unmistakable sound of flesh rupturing in the quagmire.
“Break and hunt, hunt them down!” the call was taken up along the loose line of troops as they hunted and killed amidst the impenetrable morass. Garrid had his bayonet extended before him, eyes darting from left to right, seeking enemies.
A winter guard soldier emerged from his left, coughing and rubbing his eyes. He bumped into Garrid and garbled a stream of Khadoran in the split second before the trencher sergeant’s bayonet transfixed his throat and he slumped to his knees, a shocked expression writ on his features.
Garrid wheeled right as a more battle hardened opponent launched himself from concealment behind him. He barely had time to ram the butt of his rifle into the winter guard’s jaw before reversing it and gutting the warrior in a downward slash. The winter guard threw himself at Garrid, clawing hands reaching for his throat and clasping it in a final, furious death grip. They fell to the ground together, Garrid underneath as the dying man spat a curse in his native tongue through blood flecked teeth and died convulsively. Garrid rolled the corpse over onto its back and climbed painfully to his feet. He gripped the butt of his rifle and tugged hard, securing one foot against the corpse as the bayonet fought to remain in its sheath of ragged, tortured flesh. It came free in a spray of sticky, arterial blood, but he didn’t have time to wipe it before noticing with some alarm that the smoke was dissipating.
“Fall back!” he yelled, muffled by the scarf around his mouth. He pulled it off quickly, shouting again until he was sure that his command had been heard. Again, the cry was taken up, distant and ghost-like through the artificial cloudbank. He turned and hurtled toward the trench line, leaping over the parapet to land with a clatter on the duckboards below. He managed a quick tally of the advance unit and grimaced, noticing that only eight men in addition to himself had survived the encounter. He had no idea of enemy casualties, but that could wait. Survival came first!
* * *
His leg hurt. It hurt like buggery.
He had pulled himself to his feet; groggy and shaky with blood loss and fatigue. He suspected that his skull was fractured too, but hadn’t managed more than a cursory inspection where the tips of his fore and middle fingers had come back bloody after a tentative probe. His dented helmet had been discarded shortly afterwards and he steadied himself against the trench wall as he prepared to make his way reluctantly toward trench 1.
The duckboards were slippery with filth and body matter, not to mention corpses in various states of decomposition. Where he stepped on the wooden duckboards, blood and viscera surged up between the gaps in the planking to mingle with the filthy trickles from the unchecked water table. He tried not to think about what he was stepping in; tried thinking about Bainsmarket but it didn’t work. The trench was preferable.
In some ways, the biting cold was a blessing. Had it been high summer – the campaign season for a normal, southern army – the air would have been thick with clouds of fat, black flies and other vermin. As it was, the cold was keeping all but the hungriest and most desperate of scavengers away from the fallen and he lashed out at a huge, gore spattered rat atop a pile of bodies to his left. That was when he remembered that kicking was a bad idea with one functioning leg.
His feet left the charnel strewn planking and he thumped painfully onto his injured rump, unleashing a howl of pure, unadulterated agony that sent the few rats in the trench scrambling for cover amidst the bodies of the dead. He cursed himself for a fool and made to stand up when he registered – almost on the edge of hearing – the unmistakeably coarse, guttural sound of men speaking Khadoran. He lay where he was as the hushed voices came closer.
A shadow blotted out the weak sunlight as a bulky, furred figure was silhouetted at the lip of the parapet. Garrid didn’t need to be able to see him fully in order to tell that the man was a hunter of some description. He turned back to some figures out of sight and called something out to them. Garrid could make out a tunic of animal skin with a thick, well made fur lining. He had a bushy, black, handlebar moustache and a severely shaved head. A broad, re-curved bow was slung across his back in a deerskin holster. He was joined at his vantage point by two others, a younger man and an equally young, but startlingly beautiful woman. From his prone position, he noted a stark resemblance amongst the group, but that was a matter for another time.
The three talked together quietly for a moment, interspersing their spoken discussion with incomprehensible hand signals before drawing knives and making ready to descend onto the firestep.
“No!” said a strong, commanding voice from somewhere behind them. They had turned around to face the unseen speaker and Garrid took the opportunity to let out a sliver of the breath he had been straining to hold before the young woman turned back round, as though hearing the movement of his lungs. He froze.
“We don’t have time for this. It’s not here. We have to catch up with the column.” The older man scoffed at this and argued, pointing vehemently at the trench line and making an expansive gesture with his arm. The unseen man was obviously unimpressed by his entreaty and said something, this time in Khadoran that silenced further protest.
The men and woman pulled back from the lip of the trench, reluctantly; the older man having to take the younger one by the arm and pull him away with a quiet, but deliberate command. Their feet made no sound on the hard packed snow and ice that had settled on the quagmire of no man’s land.
Garrid lay there amongst the dead for an uncertain length of time; too scared to move in case the savage looking Khadorans were lying in wait beyond the lip. He should get up. Look for supplies, a weapon maybe. Then what? Judging from the trench, it didn’t look as though there were any survivors from the regiment, let alone his platoon.
The dull throb in his leg decided the matter. At the very least he had to go and look for antiseptic powder, a needle and thread, or something to make him feel better about the inevitable gangrene that was going to infect his wound. He climbed painfully to his feet and pulled a broken military rifle from underneath the mangled body of a fallen Khadoran warrior. The sightless eye sockets of the man’s gas mask stared up at him accusingly for a moment before the head lolled back at an unnatural angle, as though the corpse were turning its nose up at him in disgust.
“Suit yourself mate” mumbled Garrid with a morbid smile. Using the military rifle as a crutch, he set off once more through the bodies of his comrades and enemies alike, making the long, painful trudge toward trench 1.
* * *
“Where’s the lieutenant’s bloody sharpshooter?!” yelled Garrid, furiously. That damned widowmaker, (or a different one, he would never find out any road) was back in the treeline. They had repositioned after the shot that killed Enniel, returning to their previous spot later to resume the turkey-shoot. There was the creaking of heavy footfalls on duckboard as a young trencher rounded the zig-zagged communication section from trench 3.
His uniform was cleaner than Garrid’s and he had an eager set to his eyes which betrayed inexperience. He was carrying a long rifle in a canvas bag over his shoulder. He snapped off a smart salute and stood to attention.
“Sir!” he said
“Shit! Get down you bloody idiot!” snapped Garrid, dragging the young trencher to his knees as a round exploded against the revetment where the sergeant had been standing but a moment before, showering them both in mud and splinters.
“You salute me one more time with a hungry Widowmaker on the prowl and YOU’LL be my bloody shield. Get it?!” he yelled. The young man was wide eyed with shock, but there was a stubborn determination boiling slowly beneath the surface.
“Sir, sorry sir. I should have known better!” said the younger man, staring at a point above Garrid’s right shoulder.
“Sod ‘sorry’, just put one between that Northern bugger’s eyes boy.” The young man nodded tersely, the ghost of a frown showing above the line of his scarf.
He drew his long rifle from the canvas bag and Garrid eyed the parts appreciatively. The barrel and stock were fine, burnished oak, chased with gold leaf in spiral patterns he didn’t recognise. The fittings were unmistakably Rhulic in design; solid and well made without sacrificing the aesthetics. He watched with approval as the young trooper expertly assembled the sniping piece with fluid, deft motions, despite the thick gloves on his hands.
The barrel was screwed home into the compound stock and grip. The breech block was primed with a bullet taken from a box with a wax seal in the marksman’s bag, then slotted home into the breech itself. The final touch was the addition of a long glass to the top of the barrel, which was itself adjusted to line up with the rifle sight, before the specialist finally rested the rifle – gently and respectfully – on the body of trooper Enniel. He pushed the long, spiral grooved barrel out through the loophole which the fallen trencher had been manning with aching slowness. He righted himself, took careful aim and breathed in.
“Done” said the marksman, pulling the rifle back through the loophole and rolling onto his back.
“Done?!” said Garrid, bemused. “I didn’t hear anything and where was the muzzle flash?” The young man favoured him with a wry smile.
“I leave that kind of thing to the amateurs, sir” the sir was too much like an afterthought.
“Specialist” Said Garrid with a salute which the younger man returned. They shook hands and the marksman disappeared further down the trench.
“They’re falling back!” someone shouted. There were whoops of exultation and shouts of relieved joy. Trenchers were patting each other on the back. Some of the younger men were crying, or shaking with adrenaline burn. Maybe I can stand up straight now, he thought grimly when a terrified cry came from Kavin’s machine gun nest.
“Morrow’s blessed balls!” shouted the belt feeder, private Kerr.
“ENEMY WARJACK, INCOMING!” screamed Kavin, opening fire with renewed vigour as his partner, Kerr leapt down into the trench and made for an opening in the rear revetment. Garrid made to follow him when the loader re-emerged with a grenade stalk and climbed back to his position. Kavin was screaming insults and challenges to the oncoming enemy, audible even over the din of battle.
He ran to the nearest loophole, fishing out his battered field-scope as he went. No man’s land was awash with smoke, mist and muzzle flashes from the mighty Khadoran field pieces in the distance. Garrid had no idea how Kavin had spotted anything in this quagmire – let alone a Warjack – when a huge, indistinct shape lunged out of the mist and into his waking nightmares for years to come.
It was a beast; a smoke wreathed monstrosity of scarlet and brass that ploughed through the stumps of trees and ground the bodies of both sides underfoot to gory mulch. High powered slugs pinged harmlessly from its ablative hide. It stopped and turned its head toward the Cygnaran trench-line, seeming to look straight at him.
He froze as it tipped its head back and let rip an inhuman, howling roar from venting steam pipes high up on its back. Overlapping armour plates flexed into place on impossibly huge arms as it brought them up to shield its more vulnerable torso and began to trot forward, straight toward him. The hammer of its footfalls increased in tempo until it matched the thundering pulse of his heart.
His mouth was dry and words wouldn’t come. He knew that his men were terrified and needed leadership, but he was transfixed. The matter was settled when a grenade soared toward the Khadoran monster from the machine gun nest above and impacted with the creature’s steel skin in a blistering explosion, causing it to stumble momentarily. There were cheers and jibes from the Cygnaran lines. Kerr was dancing a jig, heedless of the omnipresent Widowmakers lurking in the woods.
The men were beginning a raucous, filthy soldiers’ shanty that Garrid knew was premature. He was running down the line, slapping helmets, shouting over the din and desperately pulling men back into position when the world shook. The Warjack had reared up through the smoke and crashed against the elevated section of the trench above him. Its enormous arms spread wide like some sick, artificial flower revealing the gleaming, bulbous heads of…
“GRENADES!” yelled Garrid, pulling the troopers closest to him down onto the duckboards. There was a blinding flash of white light, followed by a wave of unbearable heat that washed over the firestep. He looked up; idiot lights and blotches dancing across his vision. The machine gun nest was gone. The Warjack was perched on the parapet, watching him with a malign intelligence.
* * *
Trench 1 was a mess. Not quite as bad as trench 4 and more intact than number 3, (Khadoran artillerists had gotten lucky and reduced the majority of it to a smoking crater) but still strewn with the detritus of battle.
Bodies lay heaped at sporadic intervals; sometimes reaching the height of the parapet, which forced him to crawl, slowly on his belly across the corpse piles in fear of Khadorans, or scavengers watching the trench line for movement.
The command trench was dug into the gentle angle of a hill that climbed steadily into a copse of sparse trees and formed the skirt of the broken peak beyond. Dead Cygnarans lay sprawled in the snow behind the trench line; their backs ruptured and punctured, their weapons abandoned behind them. The Khadorans had turned the Parados into a new parapet of their own and gunned down the fleeing Cygnaran troops and support staff as they ran for their lives. Yet another example of their callous disregard for human life, in his opinion. He felt a sharp pang in his thigh and redoubled his desperate search for medical supplies.
The command bunker was dry and well constructed. Apart from scattered sheaves of paper and burnt maps, the small, wooden field office looked otherwise untouched by the terrible calamity that had befallen its defenders. A map table held the blackened remains of a chart that looked as though it may once have displayed troop dispositions. A smaller, intact map lay nearby and he folded it into a pouch on his belt. It was useless without a compass, but made him feel better in any case.
He looked around, frantically, knocking over paraphernalia and abandoned personal effects in his investigation.
“Beautiful!” he growled, as a medical supply box affixed to the wall caught his attention and he opened it eagerly, stifling a curse as the contents spilled out onto the floor. He bent down on one knee, painfully, as he snatched up a packet of antiseptic powder and a spool of strong, sable twine. He was ready to begin his painful ministrations when a metallic glint caught his eye.
He reached down and moved a roll of bandage aside before lifting a small, bronze disc lined with seemingly random numbers and letters around its circumference. Upon closer inspection, it turned out to be a series of interlocking, concentric brass wheels. He fumbled with the outermost wheel and was amazed when the numbers and letters on the innermost circle changed places with those on the adjacent wheel. He tried a few more times before convincing himself that it was real and not the result of blood loss and delirium. He hid the curious object deep in his jerkin pocket and sat down on the rough leather chaise in the corner of the room.
He pulled off his leather belt and bit down on it hard as he pulled off his right boot. That was the easy part. He hissed with barely suppressed agony as he pulled off the trousers of his torn, stained uniform and threw them on the floor. He rolled onto his left side and worked his fingers around the swollen, infected lips of the wound under his right thigh. His injury was too far gone for cauterisation. It had been exposed to the dirt, blood and effluent of a charnel pit for the better part of a day, (as far as he knew) and was throbbing painfully. He was no healer, but he knew that dull pain was a sign of infection in a wound.
He offered a silent prayer of deliverance to Morrow, begging to keep his leg and began the grisly work of tending to his wound by upending the packet of antiseptic powder deep into the gash. Tears streaked his face, making trails across his muck encrusted cheeks. The cut in his thigh burned fiercely and he had to wait for it to subside before taking out his flint and lighting the office’s small chemical lamp, (after taking special care to close the gas curtain leading to the trench outside).
He took the needle from the medical kit and sterilised it in the heat of the lamp’s flame before feeding the sable twine through the eye and setting to his task with grim resolve. To his credit, he held on until the end before allowing himself to black out.
* * *
The monster loomed above him, shielded arms spread wide like a bird of prey as it regarded the scrabbling meat thing on the trench floor beneath it. Garrid sprawled in the filth and detritus, looking eagerly for anything with which to defend himself, or a way out. There was a curious, clanking noise as the Khadoran warjack cycled the loaders of its grenade launchers and glowered at him hungrily. Its face jerked around at a sudden sound that came from somewhere behind Garrid’s prone position. The sound of men shouting.
“...the sarge. Bastard’s gonna’ kill im!”
If he hadn’t been so terrified and dazed at that moment, Garrid would have misted over at the loyalty shown by his regiment. Charging a Khadoran warjack was foolhardy for most Mechanikals, let alone those of flesh and blood, but the men of the Bainsmarket Irregulars cared not a bit as they surged over the parados from the reserve trench to relieve the men of first platoon in their moment of plight.
There was a shriek as a rocket grenade flashed down the length of the trench line and exploded against the Devastator’s exposed chest section in a welter of sparks and a gout of flame. It rocked on its feet for a moment, before beginning to close its arms over its exposed body.
“Goose!” shouted a familiar voice and Garrid turned to see a huge trencher in an ill-fitting uniform heft a rocket grenade one handed and draw back for a throw. The big soldier hurled the explosive over-arm, landing it between the warjack’s arms as they closed protectively about its damaged body. There was a breathless moment in the trench as the monster stood, ensconced in its impenetrable shell. Then there was a dull thump that reverberated inside its frame as thin, greasy smoke issued forth from slim gaps between the armoured plates. It slumped down to its knees and was silent.
The men of second platoon and the survivors of first cheered heartily as two familiar soldiers, ‘Grumble’ and ‘Bad boy’ helped Garrid to his feet.
“Nice throw Goose” said Garrid as the bigger man saluted awkwardly. “Positions!” he yelled, swaying on his feet “And someone get me a rifle!” but no-man’s land was now eerily quiet. The night sky was no longer scarred by the phosphorescent glare of star shells, or the dull muzzle flash of the unseen enemy artillery. To all extents and purposes the Khadorans had withdrawn for the night.
He toyed with the trinket on its chain as it glinted in the light of his small, concealed fire. Had he the choice, there wouldn’t have been one, but the Bainsmarket men had learned to their detriment of what could happen to those left at the mercy of the Khadoran night without warmth. He watched light play on the curved edges of the bauble for a little longer before stowing it away carefully in a pouch of his tunic. He looked wistfully at his surroundings.
The cave was really little more than a fissure in a sheer slope on the skirts of the great mountain that had stood witness to the battle of the day before. He had spotted it on his way to the woods behind the Cygnaran lines. He had barely noticed it at first, concealed as it was by low hanging fronds of creeping vine and brush; dead from the season’s bite. He had pulled it aside haphazardly, uncaring of any possible danger lurking inside in his desperate rush to escape the oncoming snowstorm making its way from the Khadoran lines. The light from his brand revealed a slim crack in the more or less sheer rock-face from which issued forth an inviting, dry, musty smell that suggested warmth.
He just managed to fit inside the opening in full battledress and wouldn’t have removed any of his clothing for fear of the deathly cold in any case. Within a few metres, the cleft curved gently to the left and he worried that he might become trapped. After a few close moments on the verge of panic, the crack opened out into a gallery with a high ceiling of dripping stalactites and damp, smooth walls criss-crossed with strata and a floor coated with a light dusting of chalky sediment and hopeful stalagmites. He had collapsed to the floor, completely exhausted and slept for what seemed to him an indeterminate length of time in the gloomy darkness of the cave.
He was eventually woken by a gentle, insistent tapping on his helmet. His eyes opened, blearily and in the weak slivers of light from outside, he beheld a rough shaven face, scrutinising him intently.
“Oi” said the face. “Get yer own bastard cave!”
He slept for the better part of two days, rising only for calls of nature, or to shake out his limbs and share a little of his dried rations with the cave’s occupant. He had turned out to be another survivor, but from trench one. Garrid could see that the man’s nerves were frayed almost to breaking point. He juddered and shook; walking and twitching incessantly. He never seemed to sleep, but was eager to share the rations he had salvaged from the battlefield. His name was Bryant. It took a few days for him to calm down and engage in a sensible conversation. But Garrid had plenty of time to wait. He wasn’t going anywhere in a hurry with his leg wound and he knew it.
“Never saw you before today.” Said Bryant, conversationally. “What unit you from?” It was now two days after they had met in the cave. Bryant had tended to Garrid’s leg wound as well as the situation and supplies allowed him to. An easy friendship was developing. Both were stranded in a hostile land. Both were scared out of their wits. It was a friendship of convenience, but a pleasant one.
“Penal regiment” said Garrid, levelly. He didn’t need to look at his new friend to know that the man was immediately on guard. He pointed to his epaulette without thinking. The action was ingrained in him now. The sergeant’s stripes marked him out as an ‘honest’ soldier.
“Bloody tough luck there Gar!” laughed Bryant, trying to hide his relief. “Who in the hells’d you piss off to get landed with that mob in this frozen arsehole of a place?”
“I asked for it he replied.” and Bryant stopped laughing.
“I don’t want to talk about it mate. It’s complicated.”
“You...asked? To be here?”
“Of course I bloody didn’t Bry, I’m not some toy soldier like that twat, Lander! You think I ‘want’ the opportunity to kill people and send others to their deaths?” He sighed and wiped his face with gloved hands. The silence in the cave was awkward to the point of being painful.
“I was a courier. I carried out some pretty hairy deliveries in some very nasty warzones. I worked for Vance a few times and we hit it off.” Bryant was silent, watching Garrid intently. He carried on.
“I risked myself in a particularly dangerous run for Vance one time and he used his privilege to offer me any reward within his power. I wanted to be back in active service with a brigade. I was sick of hiding in bushes; too scared to light a fire, wondering to myself when my luck would finally run out. Command didn’t want me to give it up. They were angry with me and with Vance for putting the idea in my head in the first place.”
“What happened?” asked Bryant, quietly.
“I asked Vance for a non-comm post and they gave me this.” He said, smiling sardonically and spreading his arms to encompass the cave around him.
“See? Told you I didn’t want to bloody well talk about it, didn’t I?” he laughed and Bryant did too, visibly relieved.
Their hollow laughter guttered away once more into uncomfortable silence. Both men stared into their small, sputtering fire, lost in thought.
“I’m a scribe” said Bryant eventually. Garrid turned to consider him.
“Pardon?” he said, mildly bewildered.
“I just thought I’d tell you about me, seeing as you shared. I’m a scribe.” Garrid sat upright, despite the pain in his leg.
“Go on” he said, softly.
“I was the youngest of four sons.” Continued Bryant. “Our father was a miller. He wanted better for his sons and worked extra hard to send them to lessons.”
Garrid understood what that meant. Bryant’s father must have paid a fortune to send four peasant sons to school. Bryant nodded in acknowledgement.
“My father worked himself to the bone sending us to that teacher. My brothers excelled, but I hated it. I rebelled constantly, despite the punishments that I received. For a big man, my poor father was too soft on me. There was no room in that heart for scorn, or mistreatment. He raised us alone after our mother died and wouldn’t see a hair on our heads out of place.” He was playing absentmindedly with a twig; poking it into the flames.
“My oldest brother, Jaim was killed on the journey to Corvis. He had been accepted to the University. I can’t remember what he was going to study. The next oldest, Collan, went into the priesthood. He went south and I never saw him again. The brother before me, Jak, became...” he stopped, stifling a laugh. Garrid could feel the corners of his own mouth twitching.
“Go on then man, out with it!” he laughed, encouragingly.
“He.. he only went and opened a bloody mill!”
Both men laughed uproariously. They laughed until their sides hurt and then they laughed more. Their small fire guttered and went out, untended.
* * *
Garrid sipped conservatively at one of their water flasks and used the other to clean his wounded thigh. On the third day, after cleaning his rifle for what seemed like the hundredth time, they ventured from the protective warmth of the cave and set out toward the forest that had loomed so menacingly behind the Cygnaran lines during the engagement. After half an hour Bryant stopped and looked back almost longingly toward their refuge, but a snowstorm had risen and all that he could make out was the dark, blurred outline of the enormous mountain; stark against the late afternoon sky. He pulled his scarf back up over his nose and turned toward the forbidding treeline with a heartfelt sigh. Unseen by his new comrade, Bryant’s eye twitched, unconsciously.
Garrid watched his breath fog in front of him in a wispy cloud, mingling with the cigar smoke being exhaled with machine like efficiency by loader Kerr, (or as the men of 2nd platoon were now calling him ‘Jack-killer Kerr’). He had been blown clear of the parapet when the devastator killed the machine gun nest and landed in a smoking, bruised heap behind the Cygnaran lines where he was found by the advancing 2nd platoon. He had woken an hour after the battle in the makeshift triage area where he sat bolt upright and asked “Did I kill it?” before passing out again, much to the confusion of those present.
The wiry young man didn’t seem overly bothered by the attention being heaped on him by his rescuers, but didn’t seem to be basking in it for that matter. He had a faraway look in his eyes that Garrid was coming to know well. It was the mark of someone wondering why they were still alive when friends and comrades were dead. Kerr seemed to sense his sergeant’s scrutiny and turned to him, proffering the lit cigar from his mouth. Garrid accepted it reluctantly, not wishing to betray his true thoughts. He took a drag and was pleasantly shocked at the smooth, resonant taste on his tongue. The smoke was aromatic and seemed to gently warm the back of his eyes. He smiled and nodded gratefully.
“Where the hell d’you get these things Kerr?” whispered the sergeant.
“Din’t sir. T’was Kavin. Took em’ off a Khadi wot we killed not two nights ago. Bastards, these snow boys, but they makes a good spark, give em’ that much.” He was staring at the night sky above. “Best part sir? We was lookin’ for ammo.” He smiled. Garrid decided not to say anything about looting the dead, which was a punishable offence. What could he say anyway? Everybody in Trenches two through four had been at it just to stay alive.
“Now I know why you’re smoking so much.” said Garrid, handing the Cigar back with a lingering look.
“Oh, no sir, you got it all wrong!” said Kerr. “It was Kav, see? He said smokin’ was the only pleasure e’ had since they got ‘im in Caspia an’ made ‘im sign up. ‘Better’n prison lad... but not by much’ he’ said. ‘We ain’t even proper trenchers, cept the sarge o’ course, though e’s a wrong un’ an’ no mistakin’ – Garrid couldn’t’ help but smile inwardly at Kerr’s panicked expression before motioning him to continue – well, ahem, as I was sayin’, e’ said we should do what we love whenever we get the chance. Might be too dead to do it later when the fightin’ stops.”
Garrid wasn’t sure what to say. Even for a former penal trencher, Kerr’s outpouring was of singular ineloquence to say the very least. There were Trollkin somewhere with a better appreciation for the nuances of grammar, but it was the honesty and sincerity with which the soliloquy was delivered that struck him. He wasn’t sure what to say.
“Bloody smokin’ now, in’t ‘e though?” said Kerr, motioning toward the gently smouldering embers of the ruined chaingun nest. Fear of lingering widowmakers and Kossite indigents had kept heads low, even in the aftermath of battle and nobody had been able to risk recovering the body, if indeed any recognisable body remained.
“S’how he’d ave wanted it though guv, eh?” Smiled Kerr, mirthlessly. Garrid patted him on the shoulder and got to his feet, (head carefully below the trenchline).
“Could be Kerr, could be. He was a mad bastard after all.”
There was a moment’s silence before both men snorted with laughter and chuckled loudly until other men in the trench grumbled; muttering and cursing at the disturbance to their vital rest. A picket behind the parados shouted for silence and Garrid held a finger to his lips conspiratorially before moving on down the line of wakeful soldiers to find Curran of 2nd platoon.
Kuros was cleaning the breach block of his battered military rifle by the faint light of a veiled gas lamp. He didn’t really need it, if he was being honest. Hours of intense training under the watchful eye of Sergeant Vollaire back at Bainsmarket meant that he could strip the rifle down, clean, oil and reassemble it with his eyes closed if need be. The faint light was more of a comfort than anything else.
Garrid had posted him on guard outside the command bunker that was currently housing sergeant Curran of 2nd platoon. He had no doubt that the posting was in light of what he had experienced that afternoon; a comparatively safe shift after the horrors of open battle.
The young man looked up from his reverie at the sound of ugly, grating laughter coming from the zig-zag communication trench to his right. He climbed cautiously to his feet, angry that he had chosen that moment to service his rifle.
“Who goes there?” he asked levelly; sliding his bayonet silently from its sheath as he did so.
“Who’s there I say?” he repeated.
A snigger was his only answer until a horrendously ugly, rangy man turned the corner. His face was a patchwork of old, mottled scar tissue. His smile was the broken keyboard of a piano and only served to emphasize the tobacco stains on his lined cheeks and lips.
“A’right son?” he drawled with a voice like scraped gravel. “Ow’s the night find you then?”
This could only be ‘Grumble’ from 2nd platoon. Kuros didn’t know many of them, but he knew about the troublemakers. A cobbled regiment like the Bainsmarket irregulars was bound to have some real villains, given that a penal element had been folded in to replenish numbers four years before.
“Not bad mate. Yourself?”
“Ach, been better lad, been better. Kill for a smoke, I would.” Said the older man, grinning mirthlessly. Kuros fumbled in his bandolier for the tobacco pouch, but grumble just shook his head, still grinning with those awful, rotten teeth.
“Nah son, nah, you’ve got me all wrong you ave’.” he chuckled. “Got me own smokes right ere’.” He said, waving two stubby, ugly little hand-rolled specimens the colour of mud. Kuros’ eyes narrowed suspiciously; hand tightening on the grip of his bayonet as he looked from the cigarettes to that hideous, leering face and back. Kuros refused to ask the obvious question. He wasn’t much in the mood for games. If the older man was put out in any way, then he kept it to himself.
“Nah, see I fancy an ‘Officer’s’ smokes, I does. Real nice they are…”
“Not going to happen faceache, so why don’t you go and lose a beauty pageant somewhere else.” Interrupted Kuros. The other man’s face darkened for a second and he took a step forward until a warding hand appeared on his epaulette from behind.
“Because…” said the smooth, strong voice “We want some of HIS smokes you little shit. That and anything else he might have. So get out of the bloody way.”
If Grumble was ugly, then the man who stepped out from behind him was the opposite. He had a strong, aquiline face and piercing blue eyes set in a weatherbeaten, ruggedly handsome face. He was unblemished, save for a small, curling scar at the right side of his mouth that curled upwards toward his eye, stopping halfway up his cheek. Close-cropped, dark hair crowned a low hairline. He eyed Kuros with the casual, cruel disdain of a feline eyeing a mouse. This was the bad one. The Penal soldier that everybody in 2nd platoon had whispered about in the lulls between violence. His nickname was ‘Bad Boy’. Nobody knew where his handle came from, but it had something to do with women being hurt. Kuros was in no hurry to find out. Grumble was smiling again.
“What you going to do with that?” asked Bad Boy smiling as he inclined his head toward Kuros’ bared bayonet. He felt his grip slacken as sweat soaked his palms.
“Depends” he answered, mouth twitching as he fought to hide his unease. Bad Boy sighed, shaking his head.
“On whether or not a good smoke’s worth dying for.” He gulped, (hoping desperately that they wouldn’t notice).
The older men laughed uproariously at this; Grumble sounding as though he were in the midst of an apoplectic fit. Bad Boy sighed again, regaining his composure and fixing Kuros with a piercing glare.
“Shouldn’t you be asking that?” he hissed, a very much non-regulation knife seeming to appear in his hand as Grumble prepared to spring forward.
“What in the name of Morrow’s blessed balls is going on here?” asked an incredulous voice from behind Kuros. He was amazed to notice that the blade in Bad Boy’s hand had disappeared almost as quickly as it was drawn.
“Nothing Sergeant Garrid sir” said Bad Boy, smoothly. “Just asking young Kuros here for a light, if you please sir. Our flint papers’ finished on account of private Bellick having the last roll on his person when he was eviscerated today, sir.”
Garrid eyed the pair coldly. He knew very little about either of them, save what he had heard from Curran. None of it was good, but their performance in combat earlier on that same day had earned his respect. There was a story though; something about an incident with a woman a few years back. It had never been proven by the proctors, but it just didn’t sit right. Better to play it safe, he supposed.
“Right, back to trench 1 you two. Get some rest.” They saluted, stealing a glance at Kuros as they disappeared out of sight around the corner of the zigzag section.
“Stay away from them Kuros. They’re trouble. I’ve come to see Curran. Is he in?”
“Is he… erm…. in sir? Well… yes, he is, but…”
Garrid pushed past Kuros and stepped through the gas curtain into the dimly lit interior of the bunker. Curran was indeed in residence, after a fashion. He had been laid out on the fold down chart table and draped with a white sheet from head to toe. There hadn’t been time to clean the body up and a wide, dark stain coated the chest area.
“It wasn’t right sir; them wanting to take the sarge’s stuff. I knew you wouldn’t have stood for it.” Said Kuros, quietly from the entrance. “I just thought you knew sir. I’m sorry.”
“Shit.” Said Garrid, slumping to the floor of the bunker and running a hand through his matted hair with a sigh. “Can things get any worse?”
Garrid could scarcely believe how quickly things had deteriorated. The day had started in the same way as the one before; a light breakfast of dried meat and water preceded by grumbling at the pain in his slowly healing leg from a night spent on the forest floor. A brief, good humoured argument with Bryant, then off again. The first hint of trouble was a thinning in the tree-line. The spaces between the great, towering oaks were becoming larger; great blocks of pure white that stung his eyes after the gloom of his recent environs. He should have been more careful.
“So” said Garrid quietly, looking around himself for signs of danger. “How’d you end up in this ‘Frozen arsehole’ of a place?” Bryant grinned to himself, but there was no hiding his nervous movements. His head was flitting from side to side like a bird’s. He held his only weapon; a trenching bayonet in one hand with a white-knuckled grip. He still managed a hoarse chuckle, despite himself. It sounded slightly manic to Garrid, but he kept that to himself.
“I was accepted for Corvis University.” He replied. Garrid stopped dead in his tracks.
“And you signed up?” Bryant rounded on him suddenly.
“You can bloody talk, look at what happened to you!”
“Stop shouting!” hissed Garrid, stepping closer and looking around, hurriedly. Bryant blanched slightly, but showed no sign of backing down.
“Don’t judge me. You don’t know what it’s like to be me, no-one does! When Jaim was killed, I thought the heartbreak might kill my father. I studied hard, hard enough to take his place in my father’s feelings.” He sighed gently, breath fogging in the air before him.
“My father was so proud. Crying his bloody eyes out on my leaving day. I was proud too, I really was, but that old, wild part of me still called out. I met the recruiter when I arrived in Corvis. I still don’t really know for sure why I did it. My father doesn’t know. He never even saw me in my uniform. He probably never will.”
Garrid was silent. He had absolutely no idea what to say to the man in front of him. The story seemed incongruous with their surroundings and situation, but he felt it would be detrimental to stop him now. Bryant may not have noticed, but he hadn’t twitched, or shaken once during his tale.
“I went to training and they found out I was literate. They made me a scribe from day one. I never even made it to the firing range.” He was smiling without mirth.
“Then the battle?” asked Garrid.
“My first, yes. When the masked ones stormed trench 1, captain Lander threw me a rifle and pushed me at the nearest Khadoran.”
“Bastard” growled Garrid. That’s another one I owe you for, he thought. Bryant was misty eyed now, lost in the retelling. He turned pale suddenly. He was twitching involuntarily once more. His knuckles were purple with gripping the handle of his trench knife.
“I was so... so bloody terrified that...that...I pointed the rifle the wrong way, butt first!” He laughed, but there was no humour in it. His arms were stretched out before him as though holding the offending weapon.
“He... he just... looked at me. He ran past. Barged me with his shield and went for someone else. I wasn’t a threat. I dropped the bloody rifle and ran. Just ran. Then I found the cave and I hid” He said, smiling pathetically, voice cracked with suppressed emotion.
Garrid bowed his head and swallowed hard. Poor Bryant. Garrid had always been rubbish at knowing what to say. He was sure that he would think of the right thing once it was too late. That was usually how it worked with him.
He settled for patting him on the shoulder and smiling reassuringly, but his hard work in the cave had been undone.
“You’re a good soldier.” He said, but Bryant wasn’t really listening. He smiled absently. He was somewhere else now.
The edge of the forest took Garrid completely by surprise. His attention had been drawn to a tall, thin stone lying at an angle, partly obscured by a tree. It took a moment before he realised that the swirls and flowing curves inlaid on the stone were carved and not natural. The top of the stone spire had been cracked off by some huge force and Garrid had the strange sense that it was inert, rather than inanimate. How could a stone have been anything else? and yet the sensation nagged at him as they continued their journey; so much so that he failed to notice the beginning of the scree slope that heralded the edge of the forest. Bryant was in no position to warn him, lagging behind as he was.
Garrid lost his footing and hurtled down the slope end over end with a surprised shout that sent a murder of crows screeching with fright from a nearby tree. His armour and thick uniform had protected him somewhat, but his fatigue and wounded leg caused him to black out with pain. He finally came to a halt in a crumpled heap at the bottom of the incline. The last thing he heard was Bryant shouting his name in alarm, over and over again.
Judging by the position of the sun, he had only been out for a few minutes before a familiar rumbling sound roused him and made him sit up slowly and painfully. It was the unmistakeable sound of an army on the move. A large one, given that they were out of sight, but still loud enough to wake him from so far away.
He looked around to find himself lying in a wide, muddy ditch below the level of a roughshod road; separating him from a wide expanse of snow covered tundra that receded into the distance. The sound of rumbling grew louder and he looked back up the slope, finding to his dismay that while it was climbable, he would be easily visible from the road during his ascent. The alternative was to limp across what looked to be a few hundred miles of barren, frozen wasteland, or lie in the ditch and pray that the approaching army was Cygnaran. He could see Bryant gesturing to him desperately. He looked fevered and tenser than ever.
Moments later, the forward elements of the procession appeared around the curve of the trees. His heart sank at the sight of grey clad men marching ten abreast along the beaten road flanked by masked soldiers carrying tall, spiked shields. He could hear poor Bryant sobbing from some hidden vantage point above.
The alarm had been taken up all along trench 4. A runner had come from trench 1 to advise readiness at some ungodly hour in the morning. Garrid and Kuros had been sleeping fitfully outside the command bunker of the late sergeant Curran when the call came. Both men had been reluctant to leave the place undefended and were too proud to admit that they hadn’t possessed the energy to make the journey back in any case. When the runner finally found him, he advised that Captain Lander had arrived from trench 1 to take charge of the situation. The news aroused a mixture of dread and curiosity in the sergeant. What could have drawn the journeyman caster from the relative safety of trench 1? The question boiled over at the back of his mind on the trip back.
“Hope we didn’t wake you Sergeant?” muttered Lander, a smug, condescending look on his handsome face.
“Certainly not from any pleasant dreams... Sir.” He replied, taking satisfaction at the scowl his delayed ‘sir’ always received from the captain. Grumble from 2nd platoon sniggered, but soon made himself scarce with an icy gaze from the journeyman.
“Better wipe the sleep from your eyes soldier” he spat, returning his attention to Garrid. “The reds are making another dash across the churn, trying to catch us ‘napping’, if you follow?”
Garrid stood at attention, staring straight forward, purposefully avoiding any indication that he may have been listening to his superior officer.
“Rangers reported that the Khads have got some new kind of heavy infantry deployment on the way. No solid intel as to disposition and size as of yet, but it can’t be good. Only one of the ranger platoons returned. No idea what became of the others.” he sniffed. Garrid remained silent. “Is there a reason why you’re not responding to me Sergeant?”
“Sir, yes sir.” Replied Garrid. Lander took a deep breath, closed his eyes and continued in a level voice.
“And that reason is?”
“Sir, I’m glad you asked that sir. As we’re almost certainly going to die in this engagement – thanks in no small part to your insightful leadership – I feel it is my duty to inform you that you are an insufferable arse...
...Sir.” he added, as a a very deliberate afterthought. Kuros was staring at him open-mouthed. He was too scared to look at Lander. His rage was a foregone conclusion in the young soldier’s opinion, so his subconscious must have decided that looking to confirm that fact was a waste of valuable energy.
Lander stepped closer. “You may not like me and Morrow only knows why as I’ve done damned all to you and yours, but this is war man, WAR! Do you understand?” Garrid’s only reply was a cold, hard stare. Lander met his gaze for a moment before cursing and turning to leave.
“See to your men sergeant. You and I can have a reckoning with Colonel Vance once this rabble have been sent packing. Count on it.”
...sir!” replied Garrid.
“Erm… sir?” asked Kuros, tentatively once Lander was out of sight. “Are we really going to die?”
“Well, I certainly hope so private. I’ll be in a load of bloody trouble if I manage to survive this shambles, won’t I?”
The pervasive silence in no-man’s land was unsettling. If there was an advance, then why were the Khadoran guns not pounding at them as a prelude to the assault? He came to the conclusion that Lander was full of shit.
Old Vance must have sent the toady on a tour of the trenches to keep him out of his hair. The journeyman must have wanted the men at full readiness to protect his own skin. Bollocks to the lot of it, thought Garrid. He was about to tell the reserve line of 2nd platoon to stand down when a hissed warning came from the forward observer to his left. Garrid fished out his long glass and squinted through it in the wan light. At that moment a ragged line of figures broke from the murky tree-line in the distance and ran toward the salient at full speed. They were out of weapons range in any case, but they were still close enough for Garrid to pick out small details, like the fact that the men and women were unarmed.
It quickly became obvious that the people were running in blind terror; slipping and scrabbling back to their feet in a senseless, blind panic. Some risked a glance behind them at the receding tree-line before turning back and increasing pace.
They were almost within rifle range when Garrid saw the blue uniforms beneath their forlorn cloaks; saw the golden Cygnus emblem that adorned their tunics and realised that they were the lost platoon of rangers.
“HOLD YOUR FIRE! HOLD…” but it was too late. The men of 2nd platoon were spooked and had already brought some of the hapless rangers down in a flurry of gunfire. The terrified scouts were running hell for leather to reach their lines, heedless of the fusillade that was killing them in their droves. Some were stopping uncertainly and throwing themselves to the ground to crawl forward. Garrid i
Garrid noted with a shiver as he screamed for a ceasefire that none of the rangers considered turning around and running back the way they had come. He wondered what could have unnerved them. The unwelcome answer came with the silent, disciplined advance of a red host ghosting through the battered trees and splintered stumps with nary a whisper. Tall, thick, iron shields protected their masked faces and they carried unusual, double barrelled firearms in the other. They advanced at a steady, ground-eating pace toward the waiting trenchers.
“2nd platoon. Load and take aim. Fire on my signal.” The Khadorans raised their shields high just outside of the Cygnaran’s rifle range and broke into a slow run. “FIRE!” shouted Garrid. A thick, pall of acrid smoke blossomed all along the salient and obscured the enemy from view. Garrid noted with dismay that only a few of the Khadoran troopers had fallen; bleeding from ruptured shins and knees. Some were picking themselves up and continuing the advance. “FIRE AT WILL!” he yelled.
The troops were now close enough that he could hear the ping as lead rounds impacted against their tall shields . He could see the muzzle flash reflected in the lenses of their goggles. To Garrid, it seemed as though the enemy were upon them in moments. The seasoned trenchers of 2nd platoon needed no orders to fix bayonets and were braced for the charge. That was why it was such a shock when the front rank of Khadorans slid to a halt in a spray of snow and formed a wall of shields before the bemused Cygnarans.
Garrid had no idea what to do next, but the choice was taken out of his hands directly when smoking canisters trailing plumes of sickly, yellow-green gas arced over the heads of the shielded front rank and landed amongst the startled trenchers. Garrid was pulling up his scarf as the red-clad warriors surged forward and into the trench in a rumble of iron and a muffled, Khardic battle cry.
* * *
The tramp of hundreds of booted feet was deafening in the close confines of the ditch. It mingled with the creak of leather, the clank of armour plate and the panting of weary men and horses as they made what seemed to Garrid an endless march along the dusty road.
He was screened by bracken and fern, but was too scared to move for fear of attracting unwanted attention. From his tenuous vantage point, he was privy to endless streams of dusty, exhausted looking winter guard marching in ranks under the scrutiny of red-coated Kovniks who shouted occasional, half hearted commands to keep pace, or fall into line. To Garrid, they looked as weary as their men.
He had no idea how long the column of troops had been marching. He had forced himself to stay awake for fear of slipping from his place of concealment and sleep deprivation was beginning to take hold. His vision swam and his temples throbbed. He was so preoccupied with staying still that he failed to notice at first when two of the grimy soldiers broke ranks and jogged over to his ditch, reaching for their belts as they ran.
Garrid fumbled limply for the bayonet at his waist, knowing that he could take at least one of them with him before he was overrun. There was no chance of escape with his wounded leg and the numbers arrayed against him. He gritted his teeth and began to count down from ten when he felt the splash of warm, ammoniac fluid sprinkling his face and stinging his eyes. He could hear the soldiers laughing and sighing in relief as they joked in their guttural tongue. It took all of his willpower to suppress a curse and he offered a silent prayer to Morrow when a Kovnik bellowed an order in Khardic and the winterguard sprinted back to the column amidst hoots and catcalls from their fellows. Garrid spat acrid fluid from his lips and tried to rub his face surreptitiously on the cold ground below him.
He noted that the rearmost ranks of winterguard were walking very quickly and casting worried glances over their shoulders as they moved. What came into view next explained their haste.
The Greylords and their attendant neophytes were instantly recognisable in their flowing robes and the aura of deep cold that emanated from them as they passed mere yards from Garrid’s hiding place. They hefted brutal looking, rune encrusted axes and brandished talismans in their off-hands; chanting sonorously in a language that he didn’t recognise. They were marching in slow deliberate steps; perfectly coordinated with those of their fellows. At each step, a group of neophytes banged hide drums, keeping time.
The melodious chant of the storm wizards seemed to skew the very air around them, twisting and distorting it in visible waves. The pebbles on the beaten road swirled around their feet in an unseen gale and the road was covered in hoary frost. Garrid watched them pass with a mixture of insatiable curiosity and mounting dread. He tasted iron on his tongue and felt his stomach curdle; a sure sign that he was in the presence of powerful magic. The runes on their axes and robes glowed and pulsed a deep blue, leaving idiot trails on his eyes as they trooped slowly past. As distasteful as Garrid found the magic users, what followed them was inordinately worse.
The first thing to hit him was the smell. It was the foetid reek of mortifying flesh and the bitter, acrid stink of stale, sweaty bodies. Above it all was the coppery tang of fresh blood, fresh in his nostrils. The horrifying figures shambled into view with jerky, awkward movements.
Where the Greylords were disturbing, the warriors following them emanated a palpable aura of wrongness. Their muscular bodies were covered in swirling, spiral tattoos broken in places by horrendous wounds. If they were in any pain, then there was no indication. They were clad in mismatched armour plate and chain mail that clanked noisily. Their faces were hidden behind colander shaped visors and Garrid could only give silent thanks to Morrow for that small mercy. He had been briefed about this Khadoran practice once, years before. He hadn’t believed it. Who in Thamar’s hells would be mad enough to chain an Orgoth weapon to a certified maniac? He had thought.
He had met Khadorans in the intervening years and could now answer that question without any sense of irony.
His eye was drawn inexorably to the enormous, double handed swords chained to bracers about their wrists that they dragged noisily behind them. The flats of their blades were engraved with hundreds of lambent, glowing faces writhing in torment. He fought down a surge of blind panic at the realisation that he couldn’t take his eyes from the hellish weapon closest to him.
As he watched, he became aware of a multitude of voices whispering in a harsh, twisted tongue that made his temples pulse with agony. At first he thought it was the Greylords, but the soft, sibilant tones didn’t match with the grim, stocky battle wizards.
He tried desperately to look away, but found that he couldn’t. If anything, the voices became louder with his mounting fear and he had the unmistakeable sensation that they were talking about him; telling the fell warriors where he was hiding. He managed to screw his eyes shut tight and felt a warm trickle of blood run from his eye over the bridge of his nose. The voices were blending into white noise and the thrumming pulse in his temples increased to the point where he was fighting desperately not to scream out in pain and abject terror. He knew the barrack myths as well as any nervous soldier. The blades were bad business, like anything to do with the Orgoth. The mad, lost and downright evil were all susceptible to their siren song. Garrid was near the end of his tether. Days of fear, pain and malnourishment had built up slowly and inexorably within him. Now his situation threatened to topple them and sweep him away on a wave of madness and terror.
The lead warrior had shambled to a halt and turned his hole-pocked visor slowly to face directly toward Garrid’s hiding place. His head jerked around spasmodically as though sniffing the air. The other members of the group were now shuffling to a halt and turning their helmeted heads around in confusion.
The leader took an awkward step from the path toward Garrid’s hiding place. He heard the crucnch of the tight-packed snow underfoot as the Khadoran monstrosity come closer to the ditch; heard the scrape of the massive blade through the cold, hard-packed ground. In his unthinking panic, Garrid took the risk of mouthing Morrow’s prayer at which the voices seemed to scream and hiss in rage. The warrior took another step forward and Garrid heard the creak and grind of leather as the creature tightened its grip on the double-handed sword.
Just when he felt certain that he could contain himself no longer, a strangled cry of fear and pain sounded from the forest above his hiding place. Garrid was shocked and dismayed when a ragged, forlorn Bryant leapt overhead brandishing a long bayonet in one hand and a trench shovel in the other. Garrid shouted desperately, but the man was gripped by a feverish madness and it was too late for him to turn back in any case.
Survival instincts took over. He seized his chance and crawled for his life along the line of the ditch to a cleft in a small rock escarpment jutting from the slope leading up to the forest above. From his safer position, he watched with dismay and mounting horror as the Cygnaran soldier squared off against the muscular Khadoran warrior.
The southerner circled to his opponent’s right, flexing his knife hand; eyes wide with terror and madness. The doom reaver stood stock still, apparently unfazed by the appearance of the trencher. Garrid could hear the rest of the column shouting in confusion and knew that he only had minutes to disappear back into the forest before the woods were flooded with bloodthirsty northern soldiers seeking more survivors, but a sense of duty rooted him to the spot. All he could think about was the old man, milling corn until his hands bled and his knees gave out. All for his son to die pointlessly beside a frozen road that the people back home had never heard of.
With an agonized cry, the trencher sprinted toward his opponent with his bayonet raised high. He swept in from the left in a feint with his trench shovel and then stopped dead, literally, as a bloody line traced from his right armpit to the left side of his collar. He swayed on his feet for a moment before the top right half of his torso slid noisily from the rest of his body and landed on the cold ground with a wet thump. The bizarre Northman was standing with his fell blade raised before him, although Garrid hadn’t seen him move.
He turned and fled as the Khadoran column disintegrated into tumultuous chaos and surged into the treeline behind him.
The trench was in chaos. All around him the men of 2nd platoon were engaged in a brutal, swirling melee with the new Khadoran soldiers. They were not faring well.
Trenchers were gagging, or blinded by the poisonous gas employed by their enemies and dying in droves to the disciplined, concerted attack of their numerically superior foes. Garrid had long since given up screaming orders. His scarf was wrapped tightly about his mouth and he could still feel the acrid tang constricting his throat as he fought desperately to reach the parados through the roiling mass of armoured warriors.
A masked face appeared in front of him from out of the morass without warning and he raised his rifle instinctively. The Khadoran rammed his knobbled, iron shield into Garrid’s face and his mouth and nose quickly filled with blood. He swung his rifle blindly; one handed, but the Khadoran had stepped back out of range, dodging his blow with contemptuous ease and levelling his gun. Garrid scooped up filthy mud from the trench floor and threw it in the warrior’s face, but a quick shake of his head saw him continue his advance unabated, raising his weapon once more.
Garrid backed up desperately against the revetment, looking around for anything that might save him. At that moment a similarly armoured Khadoran hurtled through the air from Garrid’s left and smashed into his enemy, staggering him. He seized the opportunity and shoulder charged the storm trooper against the Parados revetment, winding him. He was inside his enemy’s guard, protecting him from his weapons. He gripped the gas mask tightly on both sides and twisted hard. The Khadoran flailed wildly, dropping his gun and gripping Garrid’s left pauldron, but it was a wasted effort. The mask was twisted around, leaving him blind and Garrid stepped in close, slitting the man’s throat with the bayonet of his own unusual gun. He fell to the trench floor with a muffled gurgle and Garrid turned, emptying both barrels of the Khadoran weapon into the nearest storm trooper’s back.
To his right, bad boy and grumble were fighting back to back against a crushing wave of armoured troops. Bad boy moved like liquid; flowing around the guard of his enemies to dispatch them with swift jabs of his non-regulation knife. Grumble had appropriated a Khadoran shield and was protecting his partner’s flank and rear. Whether the men had lost their rifles, or thrown them away was a matter for later consideration, if at all.
The military rifle looked like a child’s toy in Goose’s enormous hands as he swung it to deadly effect. His unnatural strength meant that the weapon would never fire again; buckled and bent as the barrel now was. Garrid watched as the huge trencher dropped his rifle and gripped a Khadoran by the breastplate. He smashed the man into two of his colleagues, battering the man’s head against the revetment, leaving his neck lolling at an unnatural angle. The big man stamped down on the other soldier’s throat sending him into a short-lived spasm. The third Khadoran was crawling away as Goose reached for him, but Garrid decided not to watch.
From the sheer number of enemy troops pouring through the communication trench, it was obvious to the defenders that trench three had been completely overrun, or abandoned. Garrid seethed as he watched a group of trenchers including Kuros and Kerr were firing off furious volleys at the entrance to the trench while others fought on the earthworks above them in a flagging effort to prevent the enemy from gaining the parapet. They would soon be overrun and there was nothing that Garrid could do about it.
He was so busy cursing that he barely registered the bayonet sliding into the back of his right thigh. He fell backwards with an agonised shout and bashed his head against the revetment behind him. The last thing he saw was a tide of red armoured warriors surging over the parapet and into the trench. Kuros was reaching for him, but Grumble and Kerr were dragging the younger man away was Goose and bad boy covered their retreat with the pitiful remnants of 1st and 2nd platoon.
Then he blacked out.
He stopped at the eaves of the ancient forest and listened to the retreating sounds of the Khadoran column as the Kovniks bullied and battered their charges back into line. He knew that it wouldn’t be long before they sent their scouts into the woodland to look for more survivors.
He knew that his trail would be an easy one to follow, but the thought didn’t bother him nearly as much as it would have only a few days before. He turned to look at the darkening eaves above him. The leaves rustled gently in a slow breeze that carried the smell of pine from somewhere far away; the promise of spring that was forever denied this winter-haunted place. The wind picked up slightly, as though urging him on into the trees.
“All right, all right I’m coming!” he sighed and limped off into the twilight forest, humming an old soldiers’ song.
Kuros was running for his life now; utterly heedless of his previous, irrational fear of beast worshippers living in the primordial gloom beneath those shadow haunted boughs. Slush was falling in small clumps as he sped between the trunks. The first sign of spring.
He thought back to childhood excursions when the family would visit his Grandfather’s farm outside Bainsmarket. The old man used to tell him that spring was Morrow’s gift to man; breathing life and warmth back into the world after the long night of winter, but it was difficult to think in such positive terms when running for one’s life. Roth had seen to that.
Captain Lander had sent Kuros, Roth and Brydon – formerly of Sergeant Curran’s 2nd platoon – on a forage mission the morning before. The survivors were quite literally starving and so they had ranged far from the safety of the Cygnaran rally point in search of elusive winter game, or berries.
Brydon had been caught poaching on the King’s land and accidentally killed the gamekeeper while attempting to escape. He was serving with the penal regiment in preference to a hard labour secondment to Rhul. He was a quiet man in his mid forties, making him one of the older soldiers in the task force. He was also one of the very few repentant ones. He would have made an excellent ranger, save that penal soldiers weren’t permitted the operation freedom of that posting. It would have been too easy for them to take to their heels. Roth was another story.
Kuros wasn’t sure what Roth had done, but it must have been bad. The man was a greedy, arrogant fool with a taste for bullying that left him universally loathed. He had done something terrible during his posting in the protectorate, but was too effective a soldier to be casually thrown before the firing squad. He turned his kit out perfectly, was courteous to superiors and fought like a zealot when the chips were down. It was the periods between fighting in which Roth earned his prefix “That bastard...”
Kuros and Brydon hadn’t wanted to take “That bastard Roth” with them, but Lander was not one to be argued with and so they had set off. Brydon had found a deer trail late in the afternoon and suggested that they camp; waiting to follow it by the fresh light of a new day. Roth was hungry and dismissed the idea. He left, blundering off into the undergrowth muttering contemptuously.
Loath to abandon their companion, even one as vile as Artnum Roth, Kuros and Brydon had plunged into the foliage after him as the short Khadoran day began to draw to a close.
They had followed him by the light of the moon; listening as he crashed and stumbled through the bushes ahead. Brydon winced and cursed every time he heard the snap of a twig, or the swish of a snow laden branch depositing its bounty on the drift below. They were so intent on Roth and their own hunger pangs that they failed to hear any other sounds ahead. Kuros would never find out what Roth had been intent on. Neither would Khadoran encampment that he stumbled into.
He could remember how strange he had found their silence at the time. Khadorans had a reputation for being a rowdy lot. They fought hard and played harder, if that was possible. The quiet was eerie.
They sat around campfires, drinking quietly, or smoking. They obviously weren’t expecting to be found, or didn’t care. One of them turned to look at Roth’s stricken face; his own twisted in a frown of mild confusion. The winter guard began to climb to his feet, scrabbling for a nearby blunderbuss when Roth yelled and shot him through the collarbone from the edge of the encampment. The camp suddenly exploded into life and Kuros saw the reason for their sobriety.
A bearded man in swishing grey-blue robes burst from a tent near one of the fires. His eyes smouldered with an icy, blue resonance. He pointed a huge, rune encrusted axe at Roth and yelled something in a language that made Kuros’ temples throb. He managed to fight down a surge of bile and look up in time to see unnaturally muscular warriors with outsized swords trot silently from the darkness behind the grey man’s tent.
They surged toward the tree-line; hefting their enormous two-handed swords with contemptuous ease. Brydon was now at the tree-line; firing and reloading his rifle with precise, economical grace that betrayed long years of practice. Kuros raised his own rifle and blew a charging winter guard from his feet. His expression of mild surprise looked vaguely comical as his chest exploded and his feet flew upwards from underneath him.
Roth had managed to reload and fired again. Kuros never got to find out if he hit anything. Roth was shredded by a hail of grapeshot a moment later. His silhouette was shrouded in smoke and his torn frame disappeared into the foliage behind him. Kuros had dropped his rifle diving for cover.
Brydon was shouting for him to run, over and over again between shots. He had killed at least three of the huge swordsmen before a fourth reached him; slicing him in three with a flurry of strokes.
He gathered his wits and fled.
Poor Brydon, he thought, then dismissed it. He had his own problems; namely a six and a half foot tall, heavily muscled, clearly insane Khadoran warrior pursuing him doggedly, tirelessly through a forest in enemy territory and a rifle dropped somewhere in the forest behind him in a moment of blind panic. He had been running for ten minutes and was tired and hungry to begin with.
‘Could be worse’, he thought. Then he thought about it again and decided that no, it probably couldn’t. He risked a look behind him and heard, more than saw the clanking, thumping presence of the massive warrior giving chase. He was gaining quickly.
“Hey!” shouted a gravelly voice in perfect Cygnaran from somewhere over to Kuros’ right; behind a tree that he guessed the pursuing warrior must have just passed. He heard his enemy skid to a halt and turn ponderously to face the source of the intrusion. It was a very ugly, grinning trencher with gaps where there should have been teeth. He was waving cheerfully at the silent Doom Reaver who watched him from behind a Colander helmet.
“Ello” said Grumble amiably. “Listen, sorry to be a nuisance, but you haven’t seen a total bastard with a nasty looking knife around here, have you?”
The Doom Reaver cocked its head to one side then stepped forward purposefully; gripping the handle of its enormous fellblade strongly enough to make the leather straps creak. Grumble did the sensible thing and stepped backwards, raising his hands placatingly.
“Never mind” he said, a malicious smile splitting his crooked face “I see him.” The Doom Reaver stopped in its tracks and released the handgrip of its sword, letting it fall to the snow covered ground below with a dull thump.
Bad Boy had stepped from a tree behind him and slipped his curved knife silently between the ribs and up into the creature’s heart, piercing the bottom. The large man fell to his knees, thickly scarred hands reaching up in vain for the assailant behind. Grumble chose that moment to step in, slicing his bayonet blade across the Khadoran’s throat in one swift, smooth gesture. The huge man fell forward like an uprooted tree and lay still. Grumble looked up at Kuros as though seeing him for the first time.
“Rulebook.” He said, touching the front of his helmet in what Kuros took to be a sign of mock deference. Bad Boy just fixed him with a cold, predatory smile and cleaned his knife.
“Aren’t you going to rifle his pockets?” asked Kuros, deeming that a strong offense would be his best defence.
“Shows how much you know boy.” Snorted Bad Boy with what appeared for all the world to be genuine, sincere amusement. “He won’t have anything worth nicking. He’s like us.”
“Sorry?” asked Kuros, visibly confused. Grumble shook his head.
“He’s a con lad. It’s what the Khadoran’s does with their very, very worst lot.” Kuros appeared unconvinced. Grumble continued with a wry smile. “See, this ere’s an Orgoth weapon.” Said Grumble, spitting to his left (quickly followed by Bad Boy and Kuros) to ward off evil.
“Why... why an ‘Orgoth’ weapon?” he asked, spitting again afterwards.
“Because they talk to the wielder” said Bad Boy causing Kuros to turn around with a start. He hadn’t been watching and the older man was now standing behind him. Bad Boy walked back around to Kuros’ front – much to the younger man’s relief – and played with his knife, using it to clean beneath a fingernail.
“What do they say?” asked Kuros.
“How the bloody hell should I know?” snapped Bad Boy. “They only ones who can hear them are the mad, or enfeebled, apparently. I’ve heard that relatively sane people just start to feel sick when they hold one, or get near and hang around long enough to hear it, but this is the first time I’ve seen one and I don’t feel anything. Yet.”
Grumble shifted uncomfortably, risking a glance at Kuros and back to his erstwhile companion. Grumble looked back at Kuros almost pleadingly. He sighed, realising what was happening here. Grumble wanted to move on in case of patrols, or – more likely – because Bad Boy had just spooked him with his stupid stories. In any case, he couldn’t lose face by suggesting something that might be taken as a timid course of action and Grumble wanted him to broach the topic instead.
“I thought you were both dead!” said Kuros. “How did you survive out here alone anyway?”
“That’s a good question, that!” said Grumble.
“More to the point,” grated Bad Boy. How did ‘you’ survive out here alone?” Both men were
now watching him intently.
“Well...” he said, sheepishly. “I didn’t, did I?”
“Well you’re not bloody dead, are you?” sneered Grumble. “You’re not, are you?” he asked, a little more seriously.
“What ‘exactly’ are you saying?” asked Bad Boy, dangerously. Kuros’ mind was filled with the memory of Bad Boy’s knife appearing like magic back in the trenchline.
“What passes for our platoon now – assuming they make the rendezvous – are waiting for me.” Said Kuros. “Most of them are out foraging, so the camp’s probably deserted.”
Realisation dawned too late. Bad Boy and Grumble shared a knowing look. Grumble’s ugly face split in a smile.
“I knew there was a reason we didn’t kill you boy!” smiled Grumble, placing a comradely arm around Kuros’ shoulder.
“Yeah?” he gulped, trying to hide his discomfort.
“Yeah.” Said Bad Boy quietly. “Your boots would never fit him.”
Grumble laughed. Kuros was becoming nostalgic for the Doom Reaver.
They had stopped in the clearing two days prior to the foraging mission, but Kuros had been too exhausted to take much in beyond the small, dry cave at its southern circumference and the steep depression leading down to its base that had promised concealment from the forest above.
At that moment, he was perched in the tree-line circling the lip of the deep crater, eyeing the space warily and looking for signs of his compatriots. It had taken just under a day of frantic, tireless flight through the forest to reach this spot and they had rested in their current position for most of the morning. The sun was now a blurry, white disc in the clear sky overhead. Already they could see the purple tint of dusk lining the tops of the trees in the distance. There was no sign of any Cygnarans, or other human habitation in the crater.
“You’d better not be leading us on.” Whispered Bad Boy. Kuros scowled back at him, swallowing his fear.
“Movement.” Hissed Grumble.
Sure enough, the trencher’s sharp eyes had spotted activity on the opposite slope. Four battered, stricken looking trenchers were making their way awkwardly down the gentle decline toward the clearing floor.
Bad Boy was making hand signals for Kuros and Grumble to hold off from revealing themselves. He made a throat slitting gesture that left little to the imagination. Kuros’ heart sank. He was afraid that this would happen, but there was no other choice. The two trenchers would have killed him out of hand if he hadn’t brought them back with the promise of supplies. He’d hoped that Lander would have pickets on duty.
Bad Boy stared at him intently as though reading his thoughts. “The way those fools are crashing through the forest they’ll be dead soon anyway.” He hissed. “Better we use the provisions for ourselves. They’re in bad shape in any case.” He placed a hand conspiratorially on Kuros’ shoulder, taking the young man aback momentarily. The moment of camaraderie didn’t last long, as Kuros noticed more movement from another point above the clearing.
“Look!” he hissed as the unmistakeable bicorn of one of the regiment’s surviving gun mages came into view through the dense foliage. He was supporting another of his number who had lost his coat and was visibly labouring from a deep gash across his chest. Three more, equally dishevelled looking mages followed, scanning the forest behind them warily and tracking their rune covered pistols along the treeline while faint nimbuses of arcane energy played about the fingers of their offhand.
Bad Boy cursed under his breath and clenched his fist. He suddenly went very still and gulped past a dry lump in his throat. “You kiss your Mum with that mouth penal?” said a voice from the undergrowth behind. Grumble was staring at a point just behind his accomplice’s head, reaching slowly for the pommel of his bayonet. “Don’t.” Said the voice, calmly and at that moment, Kuros noticed the barrel of the military rifle protruding from the leaves to their back; the muzzle nestled in the shallow between Bad Boy’s neck and skull. Bad Boy was staring straight ahead, trying to stay completely still.
“Into the clearing. Nice and slow. No shit, or what passes for brains will precede you. Move.”
It was night by the time the last of the survivors showed up. There were now a total of nine trenchers, (excluding the men of 1st platoon and Kuros who were now under guard.), six gun mages, (one seriously wounded and in the grips of fever) two long gunners, (one without a weapon and the other with one crate of bullets.) and three grim, tough looking rangers who sat apart from the others; draped in their camouflage capes, cleaning their rifles and sharpening their long blades.
Their leader was staring at Kuros where he knelt – hands flat on his head – near the mouth of the cave. The young trencher met the other man’s gaze, but didn’t hold it for long. There was a disturbing, predatory quality about the ranger and the unmistakeable air of haughty nobility and good breeding in his long, chiselled features that no amount of grime and world weariness could hide. He and his men seemed disdainful of the fire which the others had started in the clearing and sat outside the ring of its light and warmth. It was hard to tell, but he was sure that the rangers had taken a significant portion of the picket duty taking place on the crater’s lip above them.
The dutiful part of him was glad that they had been captured. It mollified the guilt that he felt at bringing Bad Boy and Grumble back to the camp with the promise of supplies. He was under no illusions about what the two penal soldiers would have done to anyone left guarding the supplies. The problem was, neither were the soldiers guarding the supplies and they thought he was part of the plot.
“Well, we’re dead for sure this time!” sighed Grumble in a carefree manner that brought Kuros up short. Bad Boy groaned and closed his eyes. “Well think about it!” whined the other man, defensively. “If we’re attacked, then we don’t have any weapons. If this lot move on, then they’re not risking taking us with them this time and they’re certainly not leaving us here for a bunch of beardy, cabbage eating reds to pick up and interrogate, for all that we bloody know.”
“Do you think they know what we were planning?” whispered Kuros, barely noticing that he had said ‘we’. Bad Boy managed to turn his head slightly without removing his hands and gave the younger soldier an incredulous look.
“Ok, point taken. Why don’t they just do us now though?”
“Because this lot are like you rulebook. They’re waiting for your glorious leader to come back and make the decision for them.” Said Grumble.
Kuros found himself curiously hurt by his exclusion from the group, then laughed to himself, thinking back to the time in the trench when they had considered killing him over cigars and Garrid had intervened; almost definitely saving his life. He had been in the company of the penal soldiers from his platoon for less than a week and already he had considered robbing and even fighting his own countrymen. He felt grateful that his Grandfather couldn’t see him now.
“Surely we can reason with Lander?” he asked, almost pleadingly.
“Shit, you really don’t know him, do you?” laughed Bad Boy, quietly. “Let’s just say he isn’t too fond of us and leave it at that rulebook.”
“Hold on, why do I get a nickname?” asked Kuros.
“We like you now.” Said Grumble, a confused expression creasing his ugly features.
“I’ll like you both better when you shut up.” Growled Bad Boy.
“Quiet you scum!” barked the burly trencher, Kown who had been set to watch over them.
“Or what? You’ll beg your Mum to stop sleeping with me?” asked Grumble, innocently. The big trencher was shocked, but only for a moment. He stepped forward and kicked grumble in the side of the skull. He fell over with a curse and lay on his side; hands still on the top of his head.
“Wow, you’re a bit rough!” he said in a hurt voice. The big trencher grinned maliciously, walking back to his seat near the edge of the fire “Your Mum doesn’t do it that hard.” Said Grumble in a reasonable tone.
“Bastard!” growled Kown, running forward to kick Grumble hard in the stomach. He didn’t get far.
Grumble rolled over and kicked out at the big man’s shin while his other foot was drawn back for the strike. He swore and fell on top of the ugly penal soldier with a startled cry. Bad Boy leapt to his feet as the man’s fellows left the fireside and ran to his aid. He swivelled on his heel and let the first trencher pass him, then grabbed him from behind and throttled him, viciously. Another soldier tried to peel him off and was elbowed in the face for his efforts. Bad Boy spun and leapt on his new opponent; kicking the previous one toward Kuros and the melee near the cave mouth.
The rest of the survivors were on their feet now, roaring encouragement and deciding whether or not to join in. The rangers stood by impassively while their leader locked eyes with the young trencher. Kuros was considering whether or not to join in himself, but he noticed the almost imperceptible shake of the ranger’s head and stepped back.
Grumble was being pulled off his bleeding and battered assailant; loops of saliva and blood trailing from his own burst mouth. Bad Boy was being held by two angry, triumphant looking trenchers while a third – a nasty, livid bruise on his forehead – grinned and made ready to lay in with his rifle butt. Bad Boy glared at the man as though staring at him would make him drop dead on the spot. He raised the rifle butt overhead when a strong, commanding voice cut across the clearing from the rim above.
All the faces in the camp looked up to see blue armoured warriors standing above them. Those whose heads were not covered by colander shaped visors glared at them disdainfully. There were a few long gunners, rangers and trenchers in the group, but this only became apparent as they made their way carefully, but efficiently down the slope. The speaker only became fully visible once he was within the ring of firelight at the centre.
“Lander!” breathed Kuros. “Oh shit...”
“Now HIS Mum...” said Grumble before being knocked unconscious by the rifle butt of a nearby trencher.
* * *
Raindrops spat and fizzled on the logs of the guttering fire in the centre of the clearing. Kuros mused that there was at least one benefit of Lander’s return. He had brought a rather hungry looking Kerr and Goose with him. The very sight of the big, even tempered man and his smaller, twitchy companion went some way toward calming Kuros’ frayed nerves, but not by much. They had interceded with Lander on Kuros’ behalf, but hadn’t mentioned anything about Bad Boy, or Grumble. Whatever trust the two men had earned in their travels with the journeyman Warcaster, Kuros doubted that it wasn’t enough to help his reluctant comrades. He wondered if they would appreciate the effort in any case.
Bad Boy was sitting with his back to the cave-mouth wall, staring sullenly into the dying flames. Grumble was snoring contentedly as though he were sleeping in a comfy chair by a roaring hearth. The big trencher, Kown was sitting against the other nominal wall of the cave mouth; taking cautious nips from a brown bottle and casting venomous glances at the two bound penal soldiers.
Kuros shook his head bemusedly at the bizarre scene, then froze for a second as Bad Boy caught his eye. He was gazing at him inscrutably and gave the younger trencher an almost imperceptible nod. He took an involuntary step toward the two bound trenchers when he felt a hand grip his pauldron; gently, but with enough strength to bring him up short without effort. He turned round and looked into the large, round face of trooper Goose who smiled at him blandly.
“Where you goin’ young Kuros?”
“Oh, nowhere really Goose. Just thought I’d head back into the cave and try to get some shut eye before the next forage tomorrow.” The big man’s brow creased as he mulled over this seemingly reasonable response.
“Hmm... that’s funny. I thought you was goin’ to help your new pals what’s trussed up over there. You know, them bad un’s that we found you with.” Kuros snorted derisively and screwed his face up. Goose appeared unconvinced and kept his enormous, gloved hand where it was. Kuros sighed in defeat.
“What am I supposed to do Goose? They’re our comrades. They saved me after all, didn’t they?”
“Yeah, an’ they tried to kill you over some smokes the night before that big shit-storm hit the trench. If they helped you, it was for them. Nothin’ else. You won’t get nowhere in this life if you think everyone’s gonna be as upstandin’ as you.”
Kuros was taken aback. He had fallen prey to the same initial reaction that most people did upon meeting the enormous Goose for the first time. They assumed that his massive brawn and slow, deliberate speech betrayed a lack of intelligence. The hulking soldier was obviously a lot more introspective than people gave him credit for.
“You ask me lad, you’s best just gettin’ some kip and forgettin’ about them.” Kuros was quiet for a moment before turning to look at Bad Boy, then the slumped form of Kown.
“That boy Kown really puts it away, don’t he? Wonder where he scored the hooch?” said Goose. The two men were silent for a moment; sharing a contemplative silence. Kuros hadn’t thought about that. There hadn’t been much time to grab anything, let alone booze in the mad flight from the trench. Kown gave both men a comradely wink and took another surreptitious swig.
“You go on boy. Get some sleep. It’s not right you getting mixed up in all this.”
Kuros walked briskly to the cave mouth. Bad Boy watched him for a second; trying in vain to catch the younger man’s eye, then gave up and turned back to the fire with a scowl. He watched the smouldering logs at the edge of the fire-pit for a minute, or so, then looked over at Goose. The big Trencher was climbing the slope to the forest above, but stopped for a second; turning to look back as though feeling Bad Boy’s eyes on him. The large, round face creased in a sly smile and was quickly complemented by a knowing wink before the giant soldier turned and continued his slow trudge up the side of the ravine and the picket duty that awaited him. Bad Boy frowned in puzzlement. “Stupid big bastard.” he muttered, before spitting toward the fire.
“No Mrs Lander, not the carpet beater... Oh, alright then...” murmured Grumble in his sleep. Bad Boy sighed deeply and willed himself into a fitful slumber.
The fire was dead by the time Bad Boy awoke. He cursed under his breath and tried in vain to shrug the cramp out of his joints and limbs. “Oi, Kown. How about taking these cords off to let a man piss?” There was no answer. He could hear the faint sound of voices from the cave proper, but none sounded as though they were coming any closer.
“Kown?” he asked again, cautiously. The big trencher was slumped against the opposite wall, snoring gently. An empty bottle was lying on the ground next to him. The smell of cough medicine was thick in the cold, still air.
“Shit...” He breathed. His mind raced and he looked round frantically at his sleeping comrade. Grumble’s beating had been serious and he most likely had a concussion. It would be dangerous to waken him too suddenly. He kicked the prone trencher square on the top of his helmet, making him yelp with pain.
“Wake up you handsome bastard.” he hissed. Grumble snapped awake with a start, glaring wildly around him before focussing on Bad Boy. He stared blearily for a moment then grinned crookedly.
“Well?” he asked.
“Did I win?”
“Yes. Now crawl over here, get back to back with me and pull these bloody ropes off like a proper penal soldier, or we’ll both win a trip to an unmarked grave.” Grumble rolled and shuffled until he was facing the other way; back to back with his compatriot. It was at that moment that he spotted the recumbent form of Kown.
“What the bloody hell happened to him?”
“Bad cough, now get these bloody cords loose.”
It wasn’t until the weak luminescence that passed for a Khadoran sunrise was well underway that the camp awoke. Trooper Eoghan Kown was woken much later by a sharp kick to the ribs. He stared up into the impassive face of Captain Lander and his retinue of stormblades. He wanted to talk, but his tongue felt swollen and sticky. He followed the Captain’s seemingly calm gaze down toward what appeared to be a Cygnaran military requisition form. A brief, poorly written note had been scrawled on the otherwise blank reverse side. It read, ‘Deer Kown, sorri mait. Turns out yoor Mum duz ty them roaps tyter than you ha ha! Luv from furst platoon.’ He looked back up at Captain Lander, then vomited loudly over the journeyman’s boots.
The forest was thinning now and in a way, Garrid felt a sense of loss. He had come to feel secure in the cloying embrace of the densely packed trees and felt exposed in this place where the dull, grey sky had become a patchwork; visible through the sparse canopy. He had loaded his rifle during a short rest stop and carried it in the ready position; scanning the trees to right and left, looking for savage, fur-clad Khadorans and praying that there would be none. His prayers were answered, but it was still much later that night when he took the opportunity to rest with his back to a tree before he would relax even a little. He fished around inside the breast pocket of his under-jerkin and pulled out the knick-knack from the command bunker.
It glowed faintly from within as it dangled from its dainty sliver of chain; looking fragile and ephemeral against his thick, padded gloves. He felt a slight tingle on the hairs at the nape of his neck which – to him – confirmed his earlier suspicions that the item had some arcane quality that he was yet to determine. Again, the finely chiselled script flowing about the slim metal bands on its surface seemed to warp and shift; eluding any attempt to read, or even identify the characters and symbols thereon. He rotated the bands experimentally; forming new words and phrases that disappeared before the eye could decode them. He sighed and stowed it back inside the pocket of his tunic once more.
He left the forest behind the following morning and set off across a flat expanse of snow that confused him. He was sure that he had seen signs of thaw before and now he was faced with this seemingly infinite ocean of white. The Khardic winter was no passing flurry, however and not for the first time he cursed the mission that had brought him to this sorry pass.
Even in the regular army, it wasn’t uncommon for troops to be kept in the dark regarding overall objectives, but in a penal regiment it was a basic fact of life. As a non-commissioned officer, he hadn’t been made privy to their location at any point of the journey out from the muster point, just North of Bainsmarket. He laughed morbidly at the idea that he had no idea where trench 4 had been and probably never would. The maps in the command bunker had been destroyed by the time he had staggered there and the place ransacked, or sabotaged, (he wasn’t sure and again, would probably never know anyway, so no point bothering.) leaving him with only the cunningly concealed trinket in his jerkin pocket. A new unwelcome prospect occurred to him then.
Until that point, he had been concerning himself with little more than staying alive and evading capture – or worse – at the hands of his enemies, but a new, long term goal began to form in his mind. This trinket was obviously important to someone – presumably Colonel Vance, or Captain Lander – or else they wouldn’t have gone to such lengths to conceal it. He decided as he trudged through the ankle deep snow of the plain that he would return the item to army intelligence in Cygnar, post haste.
It really was getting quite chilly, he thought.
* * *
Garrid decided that he had never felt so cold in his whole life. Not when he had been doing the six minute mile during training, or standing a lonely watch on the ramparts of the outpost in Thornwood years before. It was an effort to put one foot in front of the other and he slipped and stumbled constantly. He walked on, into the distant horizon which blended into the white sky overhead and all around. The forest was now a distant memory of dark, enclosing warmth and he fought to remember what it felt like to sit before an open hearth.
He walked on.
* * *
A snow storm had swirled into existence from nowhere and blinded him entirely in its wild, writhing dance. His scarf was slipping down over his nose, but his hands were too cold to risk removing them from beneath his chest plate. He had heard stories once about frostbite.
That made him hungry. He could remember food, but not clearly. He had lost his pack some way back. He couldn’t say when. Time had no meaning in that featureless place. At one point; when he had started seeing faces in the snow, he thought for a moment that he had wandered from mortal lands into the twilight realm of Urcaen. His Father had spoken to him. Wasn’t too happy about this soldiering business. Get himself a proper job, like a printer. Yes, that was it, a printer!
“But I don’t want to be a printer!” he whined through his frozen scarf.
No supper for you then.
“Shit, fine. I’ll be a bloody printer then, are you happy now? Eh? You old bastard, I’ll be a bloody printer then and see what you’ve got to say about that!” he yelled at the top of his lungs into the uncaring wastes.
Well, said his Father, I’d say look out for that horse you’re about to trip over.
The frozen stiffness of his limbs and hands made the fall all the more painful as he landed face first in the snow. He gathered his wits as quickly as he could – which was laboriously slowly – and turned to see what had tripped him. At first it appeared to be nothing more than a huge drift, like so many others that he had passed. Then he caught sight of the glint of metal from the area where his fall had dislodged loose snow. He brushed more away, tentatively at first, then with increasing confidence until he had uncovered part of the corpse.
Being a former courier, Garrid recognised it as a Carpathian charger. It was a huge mass of taut muscle covered in armour plate and barding. There was no indication of how it had died, or where the rider had gone. Judging by the size of the animal, he wasn’t sure if he wanted to meet the owner.
It was anyone’s guess how long it had lain there, stone dead in the snow, but its corpse was remarkably untroubled by decay. He considered for a moment slicing off a piece of flank with his bayonet; after all, it was a delicacy in Llael, wasn’t it? No. A man had to have some standards. He would press on and leave the poor animal to its rest.
The horse’s enormous eyeball seemed to watch him as he turned and left, stumbling off into the distance.
* * *
He didn’t see the smoke at first. His Father told him to look to his right and he did. That was when he saw it making dirty clouds against that pristine, white backdrop. That’s a shame, he thought, marring a nice canvas like that. At least it’s stopped snowing.
The smoke was coming from a chimney. A grizzled, bearded man in thick furs was standing outside and dropped his pipe with surprise when Garrid almost walked past him, unaware. He didn’t feel anything as he fell to his knees; nor did he reply to the man’s strange, whittering language.
“Yak Shemash? Gdzie jest?” said the voice.
“No.” Mumbled Garrid, “I don’t want to be a printer anymore...” then, mercifully, he passed out in the snow.
* * *
It happened that the man – Stenya as was pointed out by much pointing of fingers and speaking at high volume – was not as old as he had first appeared and had been prematurely aged by a harsh life on the plains of southern Khador. Stenya lived on the farm with his wife, Magdalen who talked about as much Caspian as her husband, (which was, effectively, none whatsoever). Garrid had become tired of watching his host become exasperated with unintelligible hand gestures and other attempts to make himself understood and gone back to sleep. The smell of hot food had woken him and he grunted weakly with satisfaction as Magdalen spooned a warm, watery gruel full of stringy, unidentified meat into his mouth. She smiled at him, wiping the excess food from his red face. She said something soothing in Khardic as she wiped his bare brow. Her soft tones belied any need for translation and he smiled in return as his eyes grew heavy.
Garrid grew stronger, slowly over the next two days. He reasoned that he had been lucky to survive exposure to what he now thought of as the tundra outside. He whiled away the first day by examining his surroundings. His benefactors were obviously farmers and quite clearly Khardic in origin, but beyond that, he could fathom very little. He noticed a small bed with a stuffed toy trollkin, but no other visible sign, or sound of a child. He thought it politic not to ask about this and was almost glad that he couldn’t if he wanted to.
On the second day he surprised his hosts by being up on his feet, walking around slowly and painfully when they returned from some unknown chores outside. Stenva appeared overjoyed to see him looking better, but became agitated when Garrid tried to walk outside.
“Nie, Nie!” he repeated, over and over until Garrid raised his hands in defeat, returning to the makeshift bed by the hearth and sitting down. Stenva looked worried for the rest of that day and Garrid noted that he left at regular intervals; sharing worried looks with Magdalen as he did so. He would return from these forays looking somewhat relieved, but wringing his thick, woollen mitts and chewing his lip when he thought the Cygnaran wasn’t looking.
On the third night, Magdalen had fallen asleep in her chair just after Stenva left on one of his forays. It was time to move.
He dressed quickly and slipped out through the front door, following a lantern hanging by the door of a large wooden barn that he had been too delirious and snow-blind to notice before. There was the unmistakeable sound of shouting from the barn and Garrid froze in his tracks at the voice. It was definitely Khadoran, but sounded tinny and artificial, with a rumbling quality. He watched for a while until Stenva backed out of the barn, bowing obsequiously and only narrowly avoiding a hurled pail that clattered on the snow behind him. Garrid slipped quickly back into the house and under the covers, still fully dressed. Later that night, he rose from his sheets and gathered his equipment.
The military rifle felt good in his hands; solid and heavy, reliable. He still had a clutch of smoke grenades and a brace of cartridges for his gun. His trusty bayonet was scabbarded at his waist and his scarf was covering his mouth and nose. He set off quietly, pausing when he noticed Magdalen staring at him from her bed, terrified. He touched his helmet in salute and gave her a wink, but couldn’t shake the look of unbridled fear on the woman’s face. He stepped out into the night’s chill and melted into the shadows, wondering all the while if he shouldn’t just cut his losses and run.
* * *
The barn was very large and had obviously stabled a number of horses at one time. Those stalls were empty now, but cattle still lowed sonorously in some of the pens and he heard the grunting and farting of pigs. There was another sound in the background, like a steam kettle whistling. He paid it no heed and set about looking for an entry point.
The ladder at the rear of the building led up to a hay loft overlooking the stalls and pens. It was musty and warm and he immediately felt the itch of weevils crawling inside his clothes as he stalked carefully between the stacked bales. The sound of the steam kettle grew in intensity as he reached the lip of the upper level and he wondered again what he was getting himself into. No point in worrying now, he thought. These simple folk had helped him and whatever was in here was causing them harm. Checking it out was the least that he could do.
He was just on the verge of wondering what ‘it’ was when the creature on the level below caught his attention and he returned the sentiment.
How something so large and bulky could move so fast, he would never understand. It seemed as though the armoured warrior craned its helmeted head to look at him then flashed forward in a crimson and gold streak in one seamless, fluid motion. An enormous, evil looking axe lashed out and annihilated one of the support beams holding up the hay loft floor. Garrid fell along with the timber and hay bales; too surprised even to shout out in alarm.
The hay bales stacked beneath broke his fall and instinct made him roll away for his life as that awful blade came flashing down to cleave the ground where he had been lying. The giant was clearly visible now. He was at least twice the height of Garrid – who was a big man – and wore complicated looking armour covered in pipes and valves that gave him enormous bulk. A huge, bladed curve adorned the top of his helmet and gleamed a ruddy bronze in the light of the lantern. Drying blood was splashed on one side of his already crimson plate, just above the left hip and Garrid noticed a ragged, gaping rent in the plate mail roughly halfway between the waist and armpit. His axe was trapped fast in the hard packed ground and Garrid didn’t waste any time. He sighted at the warrior’s head and fired. He was rewarded with a cloud of stinking smoke and a loud ‘Ping’ as the shot deflected harmlessly from his opponent’s helmet.
The huge warrior stopped his struggle with the axe for a second and turned to look at Garrid, staring at him in what appeared to be disbelief. Then he lashed out with his left hand and swatted the trencher clean across the floor and into the back wall of the barn. He turned back to his axe and rumbled a loud, Khardic oath before pulling it free; holding it up exultantly. He turned slowly to face his opponent then stopped in confusion.
The Cygnaran was gone.
Drakhun Voichek Magrik wheeled on the spot; hunting around him for the enemy soldier, but could find no trace. Strange, he thought. Where had the soft Southerner gone? He was sure that punch would have shattered the man’s ribs. Maybe he was wearing armour? Bah, Magrik would make a trophy of it for one of his sons as he had done many times before. The weakling would not venture outside into the wastes. How could one such as he survive there? And yet, he thought, where else could the Cygnaran have come from? Maybe the peasants had protected him? He could always examine that possibility once the man was dead. Magrik was in no danger after all. The peasants would have been far too terrified of him to shelter an enemy of the empire right under his very nose, wouldn’t they? Better to punish them. Just to make sure. If nothing else, it would give him the right to demand his pleasures from the farmwife.
His reverie was broken by a sharp crack followed by the sound of a pig squealing noisily in its pen. Aha, he thought and stalked over triumphantly, shattering the flimsy gate to splinters with casual ease. He was subsequently engulfed in a thick cloud of acrid smoke. The occupants of the pen surged toward him in a frenzied rabble as the cloud engulfed him. He lashed out, slaughtering two of the animals in one mighty sweep, but was borne over by the combined weight of another three running behind them. He roared and thrashed, dropping his axe as he rolled over onto his side and climbed, awkwardly to his feet. He felt the grilled plate on his furnace open and swung round with a deadly backhand that struck only air and left him facing the opposite direction. An explosion rang out within the confines of his armour and made him scream with surprise and pain.
Smoke filled his mouth and nose, stinging his eyes and making them water, mercilessly. He felt his temperature rise and knew that his steam armour had been ruptured somewhere. It wasn’t serious, or he’d have been boiled alive inside his own skin by now, but the situation was untenable. How dare he? He roared in Khadoran – knowing that his callow adversary could not fathom the tongue of his vastly superior rival – he would wring the life from this Southern turd with armoured fingers and piss on his pox ridden corpse!
First though, he would lift his visor and clear this smoke out. That was better. His vision was returning slowly. He could just make out the Cygnaran...
...Standing in front of him....
...aiming his rifle.
“Shit!” he said in a thick Khadoran accent.
“See?” growled the Cygnaran. “You CAN speak Caspian.” Drakhun Voichek Magrik’s face collapsed inwards with a loud bang.
“Ping.” Said the Cygnaran, then walked out of the barn, rifle shouldered. He stumbled back toward the house, painfully. His side was on fire and he knew that his ribs were broken. He could feel the splintered tips grating painfully against one another as he walked. Stenva and Magdalen were standing by the open door to the farmhouse, staring at him fearfully. He walked past them without a word and sat on his pallet. Eventually, they collected themselves enough to help him out of his armour and jury rig a bandage to support the broken ribs in some way.
He stayed two more days in order to recover from the fight, then deemed the weather calm enough to continue on his way. The couple stood outside their farmhouse as he hefted the sack of supplies and food with a pained grunt. Stenva winced in sympathy and Magdalen stepped forward. She planted a soft kiss on each of his cheeks, then one on his lips. She held his face in her hands for a moment and smiled at him, tears streaking her weather beaten cheeks. He smiled back gratefully and suppressed his shock when Stenva stepped forward and did the same. The Khadoran embraced him in a bear like grip and patted his back. Magdalen giggled at his confusion. He smiled at Stenva with genuine warmth and placed a hand on his shoulder.
“Thank you Stenva.Thank you Magdalen.” He said, then turned away into the frozen tundra. A shout made him turn back. The couple were waving furiously.
“Sank you meester printer!” shouted Stenva in thickly accented Caspian. Garrid laughed until his ribs hurt, which didn’t take long.
* * *
4. Out of the frying pan, into another frying pan...
He ran, casting fearful glances behind him as he did so. It felt as though he were trapped in a bloody nightmare; a repeating cycle of frozen, barren wasteland and shadow haunted forest. There was nothing else to do, so he ran.
Figures darted from one tree to the next in his peripheral vision. They kept pace with him easily, but made no effort to reveal themselves. He couldn’t remember when he had first noticed their presence. All he could focus on now was his headlong flight into the undergrowth. The trees were thinning slightly and he knew instinctively that he was approaching a clearing. Running in there would leave him dangerously open, but diverting, or arresting his course now would give his pursuers the chance that they needed to catch up to him. He made his mind up.
The undergrowth parted before him with a crash and he immediately threw himself behind the first tree, pulling his unshipped rifle upright before him. It had been battering his leg bloody when he started running, but the idea of dropping it hadn’t even entered his mind. There was no cartridge in the breech and no time to load one. He unsheathed his bayonet and fixed it to barrel with a satisfying click just as the first pursuer crashed into the clearing from his left.
There was the vague impression of matted fur and the smell of unwashed bodies. He surged forward and plunged his bayonet into the man’s lower back with a clumsy, powerful thrust. His victim screamed and arced his back. Garrid pressed a foot against him and fought against the suction of his knife. A roar of anguished fury from behind made him abandon the rifle and turn. A similarly dressed man was running toward him; his moustachioed face a contorted mask of grief and rage. He held a woodsman’s axe overhead as he charged toward the architect of his fury. He aimed a vicious swing that left the trencher leaping aside in panic. The fur clad warrior wailed in torment as his blow savaged the body on the ground below him. He turned hateful eyes on the Cygnaran climbing to his feet and stalked forward.
Judging by his deft, expert test swings, the Khadoran was no neophyte. Garrid was a soldier and an impressive one, but only a fool – or the Laellese – played by the rules during a fight. Personally, he had never understood the point of chivalry during combat. The object was to incapacitate, maim, or kill the opponent, not romance them. That was why he had scooped up a handful of snow when he fell.
The Khadoran swung the axe in front of him once, twice, then blended the stroke into a charge; the axe once more held high above his head. Garrid threw the handful of snow straight into the other man’s eyes, then stepped forward and punched him squarely in the throat. He fell to the ground gurgling, landing on the flat of his axe in a choking, thrashing heap. Garrid recovered his bayonet and straddled his chest. He was setting his blade to the thrashing man’s ruined throat when the arrow struck him squarely on the meat of his shoulder.
It punctured his pauldron with contemptuous ease. He screamed in pain, then crashed to the ground when something heavy and hard struck him on the chest. He squinted up through tear filled eyes to see hateful faces glaring down at him. Among the dishevelled, barbarous looking warriors were three faces that he recognised. One was shaven headed with a thick, black handlebar moustache. One was a devilishly handsome young one man with slate grey eyes and long, black hair. The other was a devastatingly attractive young woman of similar hue.
“The trench...” he muttered, before blackness overtook him.
* * *
Consciousness was not a welcome sensation, to say the very least. He was being dragged between two burly barbarians; his hands bound at the wrist at the small of his back. His shoulder burned with a dull pain that he knew was the onset of infection. Each movement jarred the crossbow quarrel embedded in his pauldron and he realised that the pain of one such tearing had awoken him. It should have been hurting more. Definitely infected. How long had he been out?
He raised his head weakly and one of the men dragging him grunted something in Khadoran, or a similar, more guttural language. He and his partner let go of Garrid’s arms and the Cygnaran fell painfully onto the rough dirt track beneath. He cried out in pain as a savage kick to his ribs jarred the quarrel in his shoulder. When he failed to respond to his aggressor’s unintelligible commands, another pair of hands seized him roughly and rolled him onto his back. The quarrel ground painfully against the frozen track beneath as he turned, soliciting another agonized cry. He was pulled roughly to his knees.
Tears stung his eyes, clouding his vision. Faces resolved slowly. He could see the bears and long moustaches of the fur-clad warriors that dragged him and more of their fellows on the periphery of his vision. The striking young man and woman stood nearby, watching him impassive, speculative stares that somehow worried him more than the hateful glares of the larger barbarians. The girl gave an icy smile, utterly devoid of humour that made his blood run colder than the unforgiving Khadoran winter that assailed him. Then he saw the leader.
Whether by design as a mark of respect, or by accident; the savages had formed a circle surrounding Garrid and the older man that was undoubtedly the party’s leader.
“Jak Sziamasz.” Said the old man, levelly. Garrid stared at him uncomprehending. Then he turned his head and spat on the ground. The old man raised a speculative eyebrow.
“We have a similar superstition in our backward, frozen country.” Said the man, smiling at Garrid’s obvious surprise. “We too, spit to ward off the presence of evil spirits.” Garrid tried to speak, but all that he managed was a dry, rasping croak that wracked his throat with pain, making him wince.
“I had many dealings with you southerners in my youth, when riding with the caravans.” Said the man, presumably by way of explanation. “But many of us speak your language. A pity that the same that cannot be said for your people, hmm?” he smirked. Garrid stared up at him.
“Why am I alive?” he rasped, painfully.
“A good question!” said the man to approving grunts from his party. “We should kill you for what you did to Piotr and Szmolya.”
“They came at me from nowhere, tried to kill me!” croaked Garrid.
“You are an enemy of the Khadoran empire and our rightful quarry. You are in our country bearing arms against its people!” snarled the man, coming closer and grabbing Garrid’s chin. His hands were rough and calloused, quite at odds with the noble, almost regal outline of his face. Pale, blue eyes smouldered within deep sockets.
The hatred in them was unmistakeable.
“You had something we wanted.” continued the man, stepping away and turning his back on the trencher. “We just don’t know its significance.”
Garrid’s pulse quickened. The trinket. He knew it was important! The older man turned and reached inside his leather jerkin. A vindictive smile creased his face as he pulled out a folded document. Garrid fought hard to hide any sign of confusion as his captor unfolded the small map from trench 1’s command bunker. He looked away, hoping against hope that his interrogator would mistake his fear for diligence, or stubbornness. Hoping that appearing to hold back information would keep him alive.
He knew that it had worked when the Khadoran leaned closer.
“Shall I tell you what my job is in this little sandbox engagement, friend? The same one that I did as a young man during the Thornwood war. I catch stragglers and interrogate them for useful intelligence. We also search the bodies of enemy dead as well as captured, or abandoned fortifications. Sometimes we search stragglers, sometimes bodies. Sometimes we turn stragglers into bodies, then search those.” The men and women in the party laughed heartily. A few explained it in Khadoran to their monolingual fellows.
His captor began to pace the circumference of the circle, sparing Garrid the occasional glance with his piercing, blue eyes.
“No need to fear for your safety yet. If anything, I’m impressed with you. The nerve that you showed, burying yourself under the dead in that trench and waiting out the battle! Young Arkady was adamant that someone was alive down there, but I was sure we had what we came for. I wouldn’t listen, but he was insistent and the Vodsky family have forgotten more about hunting than I will ever know.” He turned to the young man and woman, giving them a respectful nod that the man returned. The woman continued to stare at Garrid.
“ Eventually, I turned my party round and returned to the scene only to find the command bunker further ravaged and the maps – that I had initially taken to be of no value – gone.” He flicked the fingers of both hands in a theatrical gesture.
“You led us quite a chase, that’s for sure. We found the farmhouse where you held that couple hostage and murdered their guest; a Drakhun, no less!” He whistled appreciatively and Garrid was surprised to note a few of the bearded figures nodding respectfully – if not grudgingly – in his direction. Then the leader wheeled on him suddenly; the condescending gleam in his eyes now replaced by a smouldering fury.
“Then you killed our beloved Piotr and crippled Szmolya the hunter. He took a long time to die from a crushed trachea.” He hissed.
“I was trying to give him mercy!” barked Garrid, blinking from the pain in his throat and shoulder. “I wasn’t torturing him, I fought for my life!” The man stared at him pointedly. The young man glared intently. The woman looked troubled.
“No matter.” Said the leader. “You will pay in time. You went to a great deal of trouble to keep this map out of our hands. Now for myself, I am a simple man; a humble tracker, but my employer will want to know why. We’re taking you to meet him now. Get him a canteen of water.” He said. “He needs his strength. A soldier should be allowed to walk to his execution, after all.”
Garrid’s head drooped between his shoulders and he slid from his knees in a daze. There were disgusted growls and once more he felt rough hands seize his dishevelled uniform. As he was dragged painfully to his feet, he noticed the young man of the party toying with a familiar golden bauble which now hung from his neck by a slim chain. Their eyes met and the young man turned away suddenly.
A canteen was thrust into Garrid’s nerveless hands and he felt himself being shoved forward roughly.
* * *
“I’m sorry, you want to do what, exactly?” asked Kuros. A hateful glare was Bad Boy’s only response and the young trencher fell back into silence.
“If you’re finished, then I’ll continue.” Snapped Bad Boy. “We need to get to the Cygnaran rendezvous at Severed reach. We don’t have a compass, or a map, but the Khadorans are presumably racing there to crush our relief forces. I say we follow them from a distance until we find a way round their pickets. Anyone got a better suggestion?”
“Hold on.” Said Kuros. “How in Thamar’s hells do you know all this? I was under the impression that no one except Lander and Vance knew the purpose of our mission, let alone the exit strategy!?” Bad Boy turned to Kerr.
“Ask twitchy here.” He said.
Kerr looked sheepish. He looked around the circle and sighed.
“Lander was talking to the leader of the Stormblades – Garonne – while we were making our way back to the muster point. If anything happened to him, Garonne was to lead the survivors to the ships at Severed reach.”
“Hold on!” said Kuros, sitting up straighter. “Suppose that we survive the trip without falling prey to all manner of bloody perils; what happens when we reach the spot and Lander catches up to us. We’ll end up being executed for deserting!”
“Nah!” sneered Grumble. “Just means you’ll become a ‘proper’ penal soldier at last!” the others laughed. Even Bad Boy managed a lopsided grin.
“Lander won’t make it Kuros.” Rumbled Goose, silencing the sniggering. They all turned to look at him. “Me an Kerr don’t wish no harm on the captain, but he’s a liability. We’re safer away from him. Tha’s why we freed the gruesome twosome here an’ your good self. They’re handy in a scrap and don’t mind the dirty jobs. Bell’s a sharpshooter. La Varre an’ Tessona are gunmages that want to see another sunrise. Briggs is a Chirurgeon. Tedstone’s a cook an’ Easton’s a slut.” They all laughed again, even Easton made a good show of looking shocked.
“What about me?” asked Kuros, mildly disgruntled by his exclusion from the list.
“You’re here in case we get hungry.” Said Bad Boy, flatly.
“So’s Easton.” Said Grumble. There was more laughter. Kuros gave up asking questions and joined in. If he didn’t laugh, then he’d cry and crying in front of these soldiers meant one of them would be wearing his boots much sooner than he had planned.
Not that any of the party were aware, but the wooded dell in which they were currently encamped was only a short distance North of the Bitterock river, which was itself, only a short journey North of the Khadoran city, Cherov-on-Dron. They had been following Bad Boy’s lead for the last four days since fleeing the rally point near the Nysehatha mountains. Only now had he revealed the reasoning behind their particular route.
“An army’s easy to follow and their outriders will be looking in front for enemies, not to their rear. That’s when we grab a straggler or two and make them guide us to Severed Reach by a quicker route. If that’s not an option? We get them to take us South into Ord.” Bad Boy sat back against the tree bole, a self satisfied smile twitching his lips.
“Well, Shit.” Said Kerr “And I thought I was nuts. This bastard’s loopier than a hungry Tharn!” Bad Boy shot him a murderous look, but Kerr was on his feet now, seething.
“Old Goose here – no offense Goose – but old Goose here has more chance of becoming the next Menite Hierarch than we do of pulling off this harebrained, horseshit play of yours!”
“Feel free to leave any time you like.” Said Bad Boy. “Just remember to leave anything behind that you didn’t bring with you.”
Kerr stood quietly for a moment, then sat back down.
“That’s just what I thought.” Said Bad Boy; placing his hands behind his head and closing his eyes. One thing that he’d been able to do was keep the group fed. Grumble was a decent poacher – among other things – and had the most luck finding game and edible fauna of any present.
“How do you think the Khadorans know about the ships at Severed Reach?” asked Easton, quietly. Bad Boy’s eyes opened suddenly and he squinted in discomfort.
“Now that you mention, that is a funny thing.” He said. “Lander was dead set that the Khadoran column was moving off in that direction, isn’t that right Kerr?” Kerr nodded quietly by way of response.
“Could just be a coincidence.” Drawled LaVarre. The bespectacled gunmage looked more like a scholar than a soldier, but Bad Boy for one had seen the man’s witchery during their fighting retreat and so decided it was politic to grace the ridiculous notion with an amiable tilt of his head.
Inside, he was wondering what had become of Colonel Vance.
* * *
“Get up you shit!” barked the fur clad Khadoran in heavily accented Caspian. Garrid smiled weakly in response and shambled roughly to his feet, as well as his bound hands would allow in any case. He had drank his fill and been given some chewy, dried meat that had tasted surprisingly good. They had even allowed him to sleep when they stopped to make camp. He was still in terrible pain from the quarrel in his shoulder, but felt much better for some food, water and sleep. They were making no moves to extract the bolt.
The party had broken camp while he still slept and were forming their rough column once more. He noticed in his fitter state, that the party was an uneven mix of men and women. The men were of a uniform, stocky build with facial hair of some description obscuring weathered, regal features. The women were similarly careworn, but each striking in their own way. What he had at first taken for a band of savages, were revealed as a close knit unit of nomads; perhaps even a family group.
Their equipment was utilitarian, but well maintained. They carried a mixture of crossbows, hunting rifles and axes of various size. Two of the party had returned to the clearing as they group broke camp. They held up a brace of hares and some kind of wood fowl triumphantly to cheers from their fellows. Garrid felt a shove on his back and broke into a shambling trot.
Hours passed. They could have been minutes for all he knew, but the passage of time felt like hours and so his tired mind fixed on that fact; playing over and over again in his mind like a mantra.
There were no breaks, or rest stops. Any time he fell, the Khadorans would simply drag him to his feet and force water down his throat until he kept walking, or vomited. The endless, monotonous trudge through the forest was suddenly broken by a new sound. Garrid could make out the thundering crash of a powerful river somewhere over to his right and realised with a start that they were walking parallel to a steep, wooded slope. The undergrowth was dense, so he couldn’t see the river in question, but its foamy crash was unmistakeable. He was so intent on the sound that he barely noticed when the column stopped.
The leader was having an intense conversation with two scouts from his party at the head of the group. It was heated and there was a lot of arm waving, but Garrid could make out none of it. The older man was right. It was a disgrace that more Cygnarans couldn’t speak Khardic. It would have been bloody useful now and that was for sure. The scouts were pointing down into the slope. Garrid was bowing his head in despair when he noticed something.
The young man was standing at the very edge of the dirt track overlooking the slope. He was tinkering with the bauble around his neck and staring thoughtfully into the trees. He cast a furtive look at the others in the assemblage and Garrid realised with sudden clarity that the young man didn’t want them to see his prize.
It all fell into place. The Khadoran leader thought the map was important. Garrid was sure that it was the trinket. He was either dead, or headed for a gulag there were no two ways about it, but he didn’t want to risk the young man’s pilfering being discovered. These yokels saw a map and assumed that it was army intel, but that would only hold until they reached their base camp and a Grey Lord, or a Kommandant got hold of it.
Garrid knew what he had to do. He just didn’t like it much.
He bent over double and wracked his throat noisily. His minder grumbled a Northern curse and reached over to grab him by the collar. Once the man’s hand was firmly on the scruff of Garrid’s neck, he rammed his helmeted head back as hard as he could and felt a crushing impact coupled with a squeal of pain and surprise. He wasted no time, powering forward with his head bowed; roaring all the while.
The young Khadoran only had time to look surprised as Garrid’s large, armoured form ploughed into him, sending both of them tumbling over the edge and out into space. He could hear the beautiful young Khadoran woman howling in anguished rage as the dark forest hurtled upwards to meet them.
* * *
To be continued.
Please note that all references to Khador, Cygnar and associated unit types, place names, etc.. are the express property of Privateer press and have been used in this fan fiction in a purely non-profit capacity.
Cos I'm fucking scared of them and their lawyers!