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The rotted wagon wheel lay on the edge of the ditch. Its metal rim had corroded to resemble brown lichen and the spokes were spongy and tainted emerald. Thick purple weeds had slipped through the gaps like assassins in the night, stifling and choking until the bulk of the wheel was engulfed in dense foliage. Its inexorable descent into the soft soil had begun.
Sergeant Talin crouched before the wheel, pushed the rubbery leaves aside and ran his gloved fingers over the decaying surface. Time takes its toll even on the sturdiest, he thought. All are reclaimed by nature in time, from the bones of the dragon to the eyes of the ant.
The rest of the shattered wagon was further along the ditch that ran at the side of the wide forest road. Talin rose and turned to the cartographer, who stomped to his side.
“How long you need here for the measurements?”
“It takes precisely as long as it takes, Sergeant. I don’t appreciate being rushed."
The cartographer had the absent chin and the equine dentition of the nobility and dripped arrogance from every pore. Talin suppressed the urge to ram the pommel of his sword into the pursed lips. He had endured decades of these pampered inbreds, strutting like peacocks safely behind the front line.
Talin wearily indicated for the unit to advance and then rubbed his nose in irritation at the scent of the eucalyptus trees. “I can see why the general didn’t fancy dragging the siege engines down this way. It’s an ambush waiting to happen.”
The cartographer scowled and scratched away at the bundle of paper he carried. Talin squinted at the dense forest either side of the wide path whilst his men meandered towards the remnants of the wagon. A tiny niggle flitted around his mind, like the midges around his helmet.
“Do we get to keep any trinkets that we find, Sarge?” Private Arkas said.
Talin could see half a dozen barrels in the rear of the decrepit wagon. None were covered in moss.
“Lads, take cover,” he yelled.
A flaming arrow whistled across the path and into the barrels. There was a noise like a giant taking a deep breath and suddenly the wagon was a pyre. Arkas screamed and stumbled back, his face seared.
“Jolian, Varis, get that bloody fire under control or the whole forest will go up. Tremen and Ballart, with me,” Talin shouted. The cartographer scrambled for the forest line, his papers spiralling like autumn leaves in his wake.
“Get it under control...how?” Jolian asked.
“How in the Pale should I know? Spit on it, take a leak on it, imagine me in bed with your mother and cry on it. Just do it,” Talin barked, as he ran across the road.
An arrow clattered on the road by his boot as he skidded into the ditch. He unclipped his light crossbow and calmly fitted a quarrel as another arrow skimmed past his shoulder.
“There are two of the buggers, Sarge,” Tremen said. His dour face bore a scar that ran from chin to brow and his left eye was like a yellowed pearl.
“Aye. Up a tree too judging by the angle the arrows are arriving,” Talin said. “Ballart, you break cover, draw fire and we’ll bring ‘em down like geese.”
Ballart’s face was the colour of rancid milk. “Me, Sarge?”
“Aye, lad. One--because you’re the new recruit and two--because you couldn’t hit a drunk eunuch at two paces.”
Ballart nodded silently and then bolted over the rim of the ditch, sword in hand. Talin and Tremen rose and took aim. Two arrows hissed from the branches and the soldiers fired their crossbows.
Talin’s quarrel caught the archer under the chin. There was a sound like a coin hitting a beggars bowl and the archer fell from the tree branch. A second archer tumbled from an adjacent tree.
Tremen was out of the ditch, sword drawn, like he’d sat on an ant hill. Talin winced as he clambered after him--by the gods he was getting too old for this rigmarole. He should have spotted that ambush twenty seconds earlier; he wasn’t about to loose his unit at this stage of life.
The foliage was dense but Tremen’s path could be followed by a monocular mole with its eye closed.
A startled cry transformed into a horrible gurgle and Talin stepped up his pace. The last thing he needed was a dead new recruit.
Ballart and Tremen stood next to a still twitching body. Tremen was wiping his bloodied sword in the ferns, whilst Ballart licked sweat from his lips.
“He was pulling a dagger, Sarge,” Tremen said, spitting on the ground. “You know what southerners are like.”
Talin glanced at Ballart who was staring blankly at the dead archer. He crouched by the archer as he spasmed a final time, little bubbles popping in the crimson rent adorning his neck. By the gods he’s just a boy, Talin thought, and a wave of sadness gripped his heart. A feeble attempt at a beard on the archer’s chin was clogged with coagulated blood.
Talin touched the archer’s hands. They bore deep fresh gashes--defensive wounds.
He lowered his head. Just let this one go, just for once.
“Ballart, go help the others,” Talin ordered. The private was like a statue. Talin remembered that look; he’d seen far too many new recruits ham-strung by it.
“Now, Private,” he barked. Ballart jolted and scampered away.
Tremen turned to follow and Talin grabbed the corporal by his coif and swung him into a tree. Tremen’s face scraped against the rough bark and he began to struggle, until Talin’s dagger was at his throat.
“I’ll say this once more, Tremen. None of your pissing around on this tour. We do it properly...honourably. Clear?”
Tremen nodded slightly and Talin released him, meeting the stony gaze of his one good eye.
“As you say, Sarge.”
Talin watched as Tremen sauntered away. He really didn’t want the corporal as an enemy--watching his back in battle was too much like hard work.
“Talin!” Jolian’s shout rang out.
With a deep sigh Talin returned to the road. Smoke belched across towards them, thick and oily. Jolian desperately attempted to slow the progress of the blaze by shovelling soil adjacent to the treeline.
Where in the Pale, Talin thought, did he get that shovel? He smiled as he coughed in the smoke--when Jolian walked he did rattle like a tinker.
“If the fire catches we won’t be able to mobilise the division through,” the cartographer said, his spindly fingers twitching.
“Onor’s spit, tell me something I don’t know,” Talin said. “Arkas’s eyebrows will attest to that fact.” Blast his luck, he didn’t need this now. Captain Evern didn’t need any more excuses to berate him.
Through the choking haze Talin was abruptly aware of a short bald man in robes. His pate was etched with swirling tattoos and his fingernails ingrained with more dirt than a beggar’s britches.
Oblivious to the astonished stares the man strode to the fire and raised his grubby digits. Talin felt his eyes and teeth ache transiently, as if the pressure in the air around him had been compressed and released. A wall of earth rose in a cloud of pine needles and dirt at the edge of the fire. Jolian dropped his spade and retreated, spitting carbonaceous sputum onto the floor.
“You’re a mage,” Talin said slowly.
“I can see why you are in charge,” the mage replied. “Captain Evern wants to see you tomorrow morning before the battle.”
He handed Talin a scroll case then strolled back down the road.
“Why did you travel all this way to tell me that? The forest isn’t safe,” Talin said, cringing at how stupid he sounded.
“I’m bored of living in burrows,” the mage said as he idled away.
The heat of the fire did little to ease the dull knots in their muscles that night. A return to the division only to be turned around and force marched twenty miles through the forest had not been a morale boost. Jolian banged his gums like a village crone.
“This has to be the dumbest campaign I’ve ever been on. The walls of Keresh are famed as insurmountable. My nephews sing songs about them when they play in the fields.”
“Don’t be so naïve. They are banking that these wizards will tip the balance,” Tremen said, scratching his opaque eye.
“How? We’ve still got to get the towers up to the walls and then clamber over. A dozen sorcerers ain’t going to make that any better--and don’t forget King Encort has his own bloody wizards.”
“Well maybe that egg head from earlier will raise a hill for us to run up,” Tremen said with a sneer. “What do you reckon, Sarge?”
Talin looked up from the fire as if returning from a far off place. He’s testing my steel, the insolent swine. He thinks I’m past it.
“Why should my opinion or yours matter a toss?” Talin asked, spitting into the fire with a sizzle. “The Iron king’s campaign needs this city and that’s all I care about.”
“Proper soldier you are, Sarge,” Tremen said. His single eye glinted malevolently.
“Aye. I’ll tell you what it is to be a soldier, Tremen, before that irreverent tongue earns you the tip of my sword. You could listen too, lad,” Talin said, glancing at the morose Ballart. “We’re weapons, that’s all. The officers don’t want us to question any more than they want a sword to talk back to them or an arrow to ponder which way to fly. We’re honed to a keen edge by repeatedly beating us into shape, hammering the individuality out of us until we kill without compunction or qualm.”
“Onor’s spit, did you breathe some funny smoke back there, Sarge?” Jolian asked, sipping the hot water from a ladle.
“Ha! I should be that lucky. No, Jolian, it’s just that my edge is dulled by twenty years in the army. Soon enough I’ll be tossed on the slag heap and melted down.”
“Probably by a fire mage,” Arkas said, touching his scorched eyebrows gingerly.
“Or by the Captain,” Talin said. “Let’s face it, lads, the wizards are the future. This war will be won by magic not by metal.”
“Should just stick them in a field and let them blast each other to bits,” Jolian said, passing the broth around.
“Like I say, the future,” Talin said. He stood with a wince. “I’m off for a piss. We need rest soon--tomorrow’s going to be a real treat.”
Talin walked from the fire and weaved
between the dozens of adjacent glows of light. The four moons illuminated the
“Sergeant, can I trouble you?”
Talin scowled, the steam of his water rising in the cool night air. Did the youth of today have no respect?
“What is the problem, Private?”
“It’s about before,” Ballart said. “I—I wasn’t sure what I should do. It’s my first time in service, I’m just...not certain.”
Talin adjusted his britches and tugged his hauberk down. He indicated for the lad to follow him and they strolled down to the edge of the plain.
“Twenty years ago the Kershians were our
allies. I drank with a few of ‘em inside those very walls after we’d fought the
hill trolls in the
“But tomorrow, when we scrabble over those walls and they are shooting arrows at your head, they are our brothers no longer. You must kill them without hesitation, care or mercy. Or they will kill you.”
“How do you live with that?” Ballart asked softly.
“You thank the gods you still have breath to ponder with and then drink until you soil yourself.”
Ballart laughed shrilly, coughed and began to retch. Talin rested a hand on his shoulder, glaring at two passing soldiers who smirked.
In time the vomiting eased and the pair walked on. Moths danced excitedly around the penumbra of the fires.
“Where do you hail from, lad?”
“The eastern edge of Artoria, Sarge, from
the woods of the
“Oh? A tree hopper eh?” Talin said with a chuckle. “You should be up and over those walls with no problem, son.”
Ballart smiled and the pair worked their way past the campfires towards their unit. The young soldier paused as they came close, fiddling with his sword-belt.
“Thanks you for your kindness, Sarge.”
“Don’t think on it. I’m certain you’ll pay me back one day.”
Mists clung to the grass of the plain like a needy lover as Talin marched down to the Captain’s tent. His back felt as if a dozen rocks had snuck into his skin and were masquerading as his spine. He hesitated and checked his kit: broadsword, dagger, light crossbow and ten quarrels, catgut, grapple hook and his troll-finger. He tugged the finger loose and held it up to the dawn glow. That had been a hard won prize; it was still horrifying to think just how many wounds it took to kill one of those stupid creatures. He had boiled the dark flesh from it that night as a reminder that perseverance in battle always had its place.
He was late for Captain Evern but this bothered him little. The delay was attributable to him catching Tremen shoving Ballart around in front of the lads. The look that the soldier gave him after he had floored him with a good punch to the face still sent a shiver through his gut. Tremen was a stone killer, from the harsh climes of the Borderlands. He was also getting increasingly cocky, as if he had a secret locked away in his rotten heart.
Talin saluted the tent’s guards then entered. The interior was filled with the pungent odour of rich food. Evern sat wedged behind his makeshift desk, grease shimmering on his toad-like chin. His lily-like flesh flowed over the rim of his armour like rising dough. At his side was his cook, a surprisingly cadaverous individual from Port Belgo. In a line before the Captain were five soldiers, four of whom Talin knew from third company. The fifth was Private Jolian, cluttered as ever with implements and tools.
“Ah Sergeant, how kind of you to fit us in to your busy schedule,” Evern said, chunks of food flecking the table.
“Captain, my apologies, I was preparing my unit for the assault.”
“I am sure. Well rest assured that that won’t be your concern any further.”
“You’ve been posted on special detail,” Evern said. He ripped a sliver of pink flesh from a shank of gammon. “Tremen has been promoted to sergeant to lead your unit.”
The scheming bugger, Talin thought. How long had Tremen and Evern been plotting that one?
“The others have had their...eh, pill already. Be a good chap and take yours,” Evern said.
The cook handed Talin a tiny opal with a ghastly smile.
“Need some sugar for it?” he asked with a wheeze.
“No, just water,” Talin said with derision. “Dare I ask why I am swallowing this?”
“The manifest answer is that it’s an order and if you refuse I’ll have you flogged. The precise task will be evident at the rendezvous point within Keresh. The sorcerers in the city have instituted dark defences and it will protect you when you enter.”
“What about the rest of the division, sir?”
“Oh, you’re going into the city a rather different way, Sergeant,” Evern said with a throaty chuckle. “You’ll be given the route when you’re in the tunnel.”
Talin’s face creased in concern like an old leather cloth.
“And you’ll have to leave your paraphernalia behind, private,” Evern said, gesturing at Jolian with a slimy bone. “I hear it’s a tight squeeze.”
For once Captain Evern had been honest--the tunnel was tiny. With heavy hearts the six had clambered down a ladder into a dark passage two hundred yards from the walls of Keresh. The entrance was protected by a lopsided hut, shields strapped to its exterior.
The passage smelt like a dank tomb as they squeezed through it. Chunks of soil recurrently fell into their eyes but there was no room to manoeuvre their arms to wipe it away. By the time they reached the wizard they were blinking furiously and cursing in the dark.
A faint glow illuminated a small cave carved from the bedrock. The earth mage was sitting, muttering incantations and swaying. His tranquil demeanour made Talin want to strike him repeatedly in the face.
Jolian crouched and retrieved a muddied map from the floor. Talin glanced at the illustration of Keresh and the route drawn in red. The four soldiers he didn’t know muttered nervously.
“Gentleman,” the wizard said, emerging from his trance. “It has befallen me to facilitate your penetration of the city by transiently producing a passage through the rock the city is built upon.”
Jolian whistled and picked the soil from his moustache.
“Under tons of bloody rock. You are ribbing us, aren’t you?”
“He’s no jester,” Talin said, glancing at the oppressive proximity of the stone ceiling. “Just don’t bring us out in the barracks, eh?”
The wizard smiled wryly. “Well that would be a waste of all our time wouldn’t it?”
The witticism was met with a silence as cold as the rock around them. In a huff the wizard stood and began weaving the spell. A glow pulsed from his sternum, dull like the lights of the tavern seen through a steamy window.
Once more Talin felt the curious pressure behind his eyes as the magic began to warp the rock. It ran like mud from the enlarging tunnel, flowing warm and sticky over their feet. They stood with a mixture of petrification and awe for two minutes until the mage, sweat in little balls on his shining head, indicated for them to enter.
No one moved.
“Further delay will risk the passage closing upon you,” the wizard said with a grunt. “I would urge haste.”
Jolian shoved past the others as they scrambled for the muddy narrow hole. Talin calmly remained until last.
“If I get entombed in the foundations of this city I’ll come back to haunt you.”
The wizard smiled thinly.
“One more thing. If you can create these tunnels why don’t you just undermine the walls?”
“That would take two dozen mages and quite frankly the Iron King can’t afford us,” the wizard said, sweat trickling in rivulets down his face.
Talin laughed and clambered into the confines of the tunnel.
Dozens of infantry were marching now to the edge of the rocky plain that ran to the walls of Keresh. Ballart could see the front surfaces of the four siege towers being treated with thick tar. The six catapults were being slowly manoeuvred down the incline from the camp. A detail of burly soldiers were rolling moss-tinted boulders ready for the assault.
His face throbbed from the slap he had received for his dismayed response to the news of Tremen’s promotion. The sick feeling of dread had returned at the prospect of battle and he glanced at the tree line, temptation whispering its sweet call in his ear.
There was a queue of disgruntled soldiers outside the food tent, idly fiddling with their swords and spears. Tradition held that the newest member of each unit was sent to fetch a jug of ale for the corporals and sergeants. The irony of hardened veterans being allowed the benefit of numbed nerves whilst their naïve rookies looked on was not lost on Ballart. He resolved that if Tremen offered he would refuse, irrespective of the bruises he would accrue.
The trees were murmuring their rustling invitation once more. The summer blooms would be decorating the forests at home now, their soporific scent tempting thoughts of gentler times. Were there any lads left in the woods, now that the Iron King’s army had conscripted all those with hair on their chins?
Ballart slumped in despair in the narrow gap between two tents. In a burst of irrationality he wondered if he could hide from the battle here, like a child playing in the trees with his friends.
“Have they been dispatched?” a voice asked. It was like the breeze over a grave.
Ballart looked around, shudders rising through his body. Through the tent’s canvas he could hear two men.
“Onor’s spit, Fentrik, do you have to jump out of the shadows like that?” Ballart recognised the voice of Captain Evern.
“It is prudential. The dark order is not welcomed by the elemental mages.”
“I can appreciate that. The six couriers left a half hour ago after taking the opals.”
“Excellent. That will give you until the strike of the tenth bell.”
“Yes indeed. The carnage will be magnificent--I have arranged for them to be positioned at the Chapel of Egos adjacent to the city square.”
“I must reiterate that this must remain our little secret, Evern. The summoning of demons is the darkest magic and I fear that if your king discovers your tactic then you would pay a dire price.”
“I expect that’s true,” Evern said. “They display such narrow vision. I would sooner have a dozen dark wizards than a hundred fire mages.”
“Oh I think not...our cost is far higher than the paltry trinkets the elementals demand.”
Ballart crept from the recess between the tents and stumbled past the queue, his brain swirling like the fading mists. Talin was cursed with a demon and was certain to die.
Tears of frustration clouded his eyes, drawing jeers from the bored soldiers. There was an insurmountable wall between him and his sergeant. How could he--a pathetic conscript tree-hopper--hope to help?
The tunnel was pitch black, a darkness that was near tangible such was its intensity. His elbows were raw from scraping against the unseen stone of the walls. Every few minutes he would have to pause and press his hand against the surface above his head. He could sense the pressure in the rock above him, threatening and sinister. It could compress him any second.
It brought to mind a memory of a boy from his village. The name had been consumed by the appetites of time. Talin still recalled he was a lanky lad, with knees as knobbly as a beggar’s knuckles.
The boy had tumbled down an old well, its opening concealed by ferns and leaves. It had been five days before he was found, wedged fifteen feet down, his face fixed for all time in an expression of disappointment.
What had he thought, as the breath was eased from his chest by the impassive stone? Had he thought of summers recently passed, trying to recapture images of drifting pollen and the hum of bees? Or had he thought of escape, clawing desperately at the slick stonework, before slumping into prayers of merciful release?
Talin crawled onwards, aware of the faint noises from ahead. He could hear a whispering in his ears, a subliminal chatter of voices forged from despair. Were they demons in the fetid air of the passage or demons from inside? Their lament told of all those souls he had claimed, all those lives he had spent, dispensed as casually as one would a copper piece into the apron of a pot girl. Yet what soldier ever kept count of the heads he split? Perhaps the very first and undoubtedly the almost-last as its cold blade slid between your ribs.
The tunnel rumbled, scattering chunks of unseen rock onto his back. Panic gripped his throat and all thought save escape evacuated his mind. Every iota of energy went into the scramble of his limbs as he rushed down the tunnel. He could hear the sobs from the other soldiers as they rushed ahead of him.
Mud was rising from the floor of the passage, making his hands and boots slip. For an instant he considered pulling out his dagger and slitting his own throat. It was a transient notion--for all men hang on to the hope of life like sailors to a shipwreck.
The light in the tunnel was abrupt. Squinting he looked up and saw the legs of Jolian disappearing through a hole. In five heartbeats he was clambering out of the hole, drinking the air in hungrily.
They were in a cellar surrounded by bags of flour. A haggard tattooed man was holding a lantern towards them.
“You the baker?” Jolian asked.
The man displayed a decayed mess of black enamel as he grinned. “Do I look like a bloody baker? I’m here to guide you.”
“It’s a rule of mine never to trust someone with more tattoos than teeth,” Talin said. “Why are you betraying your country?”
The man sneered and said, ”What is my country but an echo of the past? The future comes with you. You shall be my kin now.”
Talin swigged from his flask, swilled and spat. His guts were writhing like a basket of serpents. Had they passed the magical defences the Captain had warned them of?
“Let’s move out to the rendezvous point then--brother.”
A random arrow caught the soldier next to Ballart in the throat as they inched forwards with the tower. He looked around in surprise before sliding to the patchy baked grass. The soldiers stepped over his twitching corpse as they pushed onwards.
Tremen had nearly wet himself with laughter when Ballart had told him he was going to volunteer for the tower. Only fools and those unfortunate enough to be disliked by the noble officers manned the siege towers. The exhausting task of moving the giant structure across a rocky plain, whilst arrows sought chinks in the shields, was daunting enough. Yet when one actually arrived at your destination then there remained the feat of scaling the tower and the walls.
It was with some astonishment that Ballart found that they had reached the base of the walls. The sergeant bellowed orders and the soldiers began hammering in the securing posts. Arrows thudded down either side of them. Two lads were sobbing, snot pouring down their faces as they battered the stakes into the firm dirt.
“Time to go up, lads. The second tower’s already in position. Watch the arrows from our front line. Gods be with you,” the sergeant said. His breath reeked of ale.
Ballart ascended the ladders behind a private as young as he. The lad shook as he climbed and Ballart caught a heady whiff of urine. The pair paused at the second platform, the ladder blocked by two burly infantrymen.
“Shit,” the lad said. “They’ve got a fire wizard.”
A wave of heat made Ballart jump back from the gap he peered through. The second tower was ablaze, fierce yellow flames roaring against the blackening stone of the walls. Dozens of soldiers leapt screaming from the inferno. Those that survived the fall and the flames were cut down by archers.
A raw sense of panic washed through the tower’s interior as the soldiers all began pushing to get to the top platform. Ballart scrambled up the rungs, kicking out at a soldier below who tried to yank his leg.
He reached the top and drew his sword, his mouth arid and salty. Through the gaps in the shields and tar soaked hides he could see the flames of the adjacent tower spiral and condense into a cone. There was a momentary pause and then the funnel of flame surged up and over the wall like a living thing.
“Looks like we’ve got one too,” Ballart said, his hands trembling.
The ramp dropped with a crash, the distal hooks gaining purchase on the battlement. A cheer bellowed from the soldiers and they charged across the narrow bridge and into the enemy. Ballart was carried forwards by the wave onto the battlements.
Bodies were swarming around him like cockroaches, metal flashing and armour screeching. His breath came ragged as he parried a sword thrust and he reflexively hacked his blade at the nearest shape. Smoke was billowing over the walls and it was impossible to make out friend from foe.
A body fell against him. It was the lad from the tower, his neck open and flapping like a landed fish. His opponent charged towards Ballart, sword slashing at his throat. Ballart stepped back and parried the strike, his arms screaming in pain. He twisted and brought his sword up, eyes streaming from the smoke, and the edge caught his foe across his face.
The Kereshian stumbled and without thinking Ballart thrust his sword through the man’s chest. Hot blood poured onto his arm as the spark of life left the Kereshian’s eyes.
Ballart held back his rising bile and moved on through the smoke. A huge shape passed overhead and disappeared into the smoke. They had begun with the catapults now; he had to get to Sergeant Talin.
His feet scuffed on the ridge that marked the edge of the battlement and a void loomed below him. How was he to get down from here?
A clink of metal behind him made him turn and he saw two Kereshians running towards him, spears lowered. Ballart muttered a swift prayer and leapt into the void.
Talin pulled himself to his feet, his ears ringing. Brick dust and splinters were clogging his mouth. Through the haze of the smoke he could see four other figures.
“Talin, you alright?” a voice called.
“Aye. I think Jolian is under the rubble though. What in the Pale was that?”
“A present from the Iron King’s--our--catapults. Can you get over?”
Talin surveyed the ruins of the house that now blocked the narrow lane.
“No chance. I’ll catch you up--I know Keresh from years ago. I’ll check for Jolian.”
Talin began pulling debris from the ruins, looking for signs of life. He wore a voluminous cloak given to him by the guide to conceal their armour.
“Sarge?” Jolian croaked as Talin shifted a chunk of masonry from his chest. His cloak was tattered and soaked in blood.
“Jolian, you bloody tinker. Don’t you know to move out of the way when houses attack you?”
“S-sorry, Sarge,” Jolian said, blood hesitantly trickling down his dusty chin. “I assume it’s not looking too hopeful.”
Talin observed the shattered remnants of Jolian’s legs. Blood pumped at a slow but steady speed onto the stones. With a shake of his head he cradled the soldier’s head in his arms.
The tinge of Jolian’s flesh was becoming waxier by the second and Talin knew it wouldn’t be long. He spared a glance down the smoky street. It was deserted. You couldn’t be a soldier without pondering your own demise. Most hoped for a glorious end, lunging heroically onto a sea of bristling pikes. A few prayed for a swift death from an arrow through the eye. To some death would come as their throat filled with mud, face down on a battlefield, the crush of the armies above them. Talin occasionally allowed himself a fantasy of growing old in the hills, hobbling through the ferns and heather, devouring the succulent sound of children’s laughter.
Jolian let out a little sigh, as if he had been holding his breath in anticipation of one last surprise. As deaths go, this one wasn’t so terrible, Talin thought.
The sergeant rose and began to work his way past the obstruction when he noticed a dull green glow from Jolian’s belly. He leant over and pulled the armour open but the glow had diminished.
He’d been in the army too long for this sort of nonsense. With a deep sigh he left Jolian and ran off down the street.
The chain was old but robust and permitted Ballart a good grip as he inched his way down. Years of clambering in the trees had served him well; his clutching fingers had found the chain as he hurtled off the battlements. He imagined it to be part of a pulley system, shifting heavy loads the hundreds of feet to the top of the walls.
His arms were searing with red hot pain as he descended. From his vantage point he could see the layout of Keresh: winding cobbled streets, crooked spires, tree lined squares with their distinctive fountains. A huge square was visible before a grand building, which he assumed to be the palace. Ballart could see thousands of soldiers gathered there.
His arms were cramping when he reached the base of the chain. It ran through a gigantic wheel, surrounded by crates and boxes. There were no guards.
Ballart collapsed against the wheel, stretching his cramping muscles. He had lost his sword in the leap but had his dagger still. With a grimace he began rooting through the crates and to his dismay found only arrows and bows.
Another boulder spun overhead and thundered into a nearby wall. He jumped to his feet and ran across the rubble strewn street. The fresh hole led into the interior of a small house. Two girls clutched each other clearly terrified as Ballart entered.
“You--get your dress off, now,” Ballart said.
The girl started ululating and her sister screamed. “Please, sir, don’t do it. I pray to you.”
“Don’t...? Oh, Onor’s spit, girl, I’m not going to...just get the frock off.”
The girl pulled the dirty dress off and handed it to him, desperately trying to cover her nakedness.
With a curt nod Ballart wiggled into the dress, grabbed a dust caked bonnet and ran into the city.
Talin approached the chapel along a narrow backstreet. His journey thus far had been eerily quiet, his footsteps resonating down the cobbled avenues. It came as a rude surprise to find the main street past the chapel, to the city square, choked with Kereshian soldiers. It was like emerging from a pool, the subdued sounds becoming harsh and acute. He pulled his hood close over his head and eased down the back street, hugging the deep shadows of the morning.
Muffled sounds of missiles striking the walls carried through the smoky air. Talin’s abdomen was knotted with pain and as he approached the rear door to the chapel he clutched the wall for support.
The door slammed open and the guide flailed out, his face a mask of terror. Talin drew his sword instinctively.
The door frame splintered as a creature of nightmare emerged. Its black scaled torso was muscular, with two membranous wings projecting from its rear. Its clawed hands dripped rank brown liquid. With disgust Talin saw its face was that of a twisted cherub, eyes smouldering with flame.
The guide tripped and fell into the filth of the street, squealing in abject terror. The demon leapt forward and spewed green fire from its petulant mouth. The guide’s stinking clothes went up in a flash and he wailed as the mystical fire consumed him.
Talin held his sword with two hands to stay the shaking. The demon was regarding him with curiosity. The smell of baked flesh was nauseating. The creature bowed its head silently and then leapt into the air, soaring over the roof of the chapel.
Why in the gods had it spared him? Talin passed through the ruined door in a daze. The chapel was large, its vaulted ceiling cloaked in shadows. From the nave he could see bodies slumped across the transept. Light streamed in through shattered rose windows at the far side of chapel.
Talin stumbled down the nave, knocking off platters of offerings balanced on the pews. The fruit had turned in the heat of chapel’s interior and emanated a sickly sweet odour as it splattered on the stones.
The bodies were of five priests and the four soldiers he had become separated from. Each soldier had a glistening hole in their abdomens, their viscera a horrid grey in the columns of light.
A door scraped behind him and he turned, as if wading through mire. His belly was searing hot and his head throbbed as the sounds of the bells in the square struck ten.
Two Kereshian soldiers were coming down the aisle towards him. Soot and tears striped their grim faces.
“Here is the source of the evil that slaughters our brothers like cattle,” one said.
Talin crumpled to the stone floor wracked in pain. The stones were cursed--he had to get it out somehow. Yet the soldiers were almost upon him. He rested his head against the chill of the flags praying that the swords would kill him before the demon burst forth.
Through his delirium he was aware of the sounds of clattering metal. A body crumpled besides him, eyes wide in death. Blood collected in a crimson pool from a wound in his back.
Hope galvanised his muscles and he lurched to his feet. A woman appeared to be fencing expertly with the Kereshian soldier.
“Get the opal out, Sarge--you’ve got minutes at most.”
Talin tried to focus his swimming vision.
“Ballart, what in the Pale...?”
“Just do it or we’re both dead,” Ballart said, fighting like a man possessed.
Talin grabbed the decayed fruit and shoved it into his mouth. He rammed it in until it began overflowing down his chin. He could feel the heat inside his stomach from the opal. Tears of frustration ran down his sticky cheeks: he wasn’t vomiting.
His hands found his belt pouch and closed around the troll finger. Talin tugged it loose and frantically jabbed the long bone down his throat.
Vomit splashed in steaming gouts across the flagstones and corpses. He rolled onto his side, panting as he saw Ballart strike the Kereshian’s head off. The private tottered in exhaustion and slumped onto a blood soaked pew.
Talin swigged his water, swilling it around his mouth. He gingerly examined the pool of vomit and located the opal. Its green glow had subsided.
“I swallowed mine five minutes after those poor buggers. Demons, I ask you--what in the Pale happened to good old fashioned battles?”
Ballart walked over and Talin gripped his arm silently. There were some words that did not need to be said.
“The demons are slaughtering the infantry in the square,” Ballart said, after a minute. “The Kereshian mages must be deployed up on the walls.”
“Aye. It’ll mean that once the gates are breached there will be no resistance to speak of.”
Talin looked around at the carnage in the chapel, rubbing his bleary eyes.
“This isn’t what I signed up for,” he said, with a sigh. “Screw the captain, I’ll not aid his glory. Let’s go hole up in the bell tower until the fighting is done.”
The pair hopped around the corpses and towards the stairs.
“And lose the dress, eh Private? There are still standards in the army.”
Captain Evern glugged the dark ale, looking with delight around his new headquarters. The tavern bore the stains of recent battle and two privates scrubbed the blood, skull and hair from the floorboards.
Sergeant Tremen stood before him, licking his lips in anticipation. The Captain roared in mirth and passed him a tankard.
“A resounding success, Tremen. Our division first through the gates and nothing but a charnel house to greet us.”
“And the demons are gone, sir?”
“Aye. A transient summoning. It shall remain one of the great mysteries of the war how my men could take this famous city so easily, whilst the major and the general floundered at the walls with their burning towers and pet mages.”
“You’ll be a major soon enough, sir,” Tremen said, slurping the ale. His one eye shone with malice.
“Aye. And well deserved. Where’s that bloody cook? I give him a whole kitchen and he spends hours making me the simplest meal.”
On cue the miserable cook entered with a platter of meat, nuts, garlic and vegetables. He slammed it down before the pair and then stood, lip jutting and arms folded.
Evern tore into the meal, fat globules flecking his ornate armour. Tremen was more courteous, picking at a pork leg. The corpulent officer gorged himself so quickly that he coughed and gagged at one point, reaching for his ale and sloshing it down his front.
“Bit o’ gristle there I think. Standards are slipping.”
The cook snorted and stormed out of the common room. He passed two soldiers on the way without a glance.
“Did he swallow the opal?” Ballart asked.
“Didn’t even touch the sides, the fat bugger,” Talin said. “We’d better make ourselves scarce. There’s probably not as long to wait this time around.”
“What shall we do, Sarge?”
“Well they think we’re dead so if you’ve ever wanted to desert then now is the time.”
“Agreed, but how do we get out of the city? It’s closed to all traffic at the moment.”
Talin grinned, his worn face crinkling like an autumn leaf. “I’ve got that covered. Just don’t bring many things with you.”
“And exactly why should I assist your escape from the rigours of martial life?”
Talin scratched his grey stubble and looked the short earth mage up and down,
“Because you were party to an atrocity of darkest magic, whether you were aware of it or not. And this will go some way to restore the balance.”
“Very well, very well. May I enquire—where will you go when you are beyond the walls?” the wizard asked, sitting in preparation for the spell.
“Somewhere with ferns and heather and the sound of children,” Talin said and Ballart met his wink with a curious smile.
"And when you're done you might want to get together ten of your wizard mates and head up to Captain Evern's quarters. In the next...ten minutes or so," Talin added.
"And why should I do that?" the earth mage asked with a sigh.
"A devillish bit of indigestion--and we wouldn't want half our army dead with it, would we?" Talin said with a grim smile.
Ballart couldn't help but laugh. Ferns, heather and children definitely sounded more appealing.
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