The Siege of 1329AE
OH YES! SWEET SIX ABOVE! This is really happening, I can't believe it! This girl is all over me. I'm definitely in with a chance here. If only Rennie could see this! I don't usually fancy brunettes, but this one's got the biggest, smoothest, loveliest pair of baps I've ever seen. You definitely wouldn't kick her out of bed!
"Erm, so how about I show you around the barracks, should be empty by now", I stutter. She raises an eyebrow at me, suggestive and full of promise.
"Yeah! I can er... show you my musket?" Quality line, I've outdone myself there.
"Why wait, Guardsman?" she murmurs. Woah! She strides over to me and her dress falls off, revealing everything a young lad dreams about. Oh, my Lords. She's absolutely beautiful. Every curve, every motion. I barely know where to start with a body like this! She's wasted on me. I'm batting well above my average! How is this happening?!
Come on, Wex! Get with it! The hopes and prayers of the regiment are with you, son. You can do this. Come and get it, gorgeous. That's right! Wexy's ready! Prepare for the best thirty seconds of your life!
She draws nearer, her nose almost touching mine. She brushes her hand through my greasy hair and pulls me in. I'm going straight for the tongue, that's the best way forward and I don't care what anyone says. Phwoooar, she smells like strawberries. I breathe her in as our lips slowly close, threatening to connect. This is it.
"PPPPPPHHHHHHHHHHHTTTTTTT!" A frigging whistle goes off right next to my head. I wake with a start and fling gracelessly out of my hammock, slapping face-first onto the cold, hard mud and ruining my white stockings. The other lads in the tent who're already awake are in hysterics. They're absolutely wetting themselves.
"Haha, nice one!"
"Alright, shuddup yew lot! Shuddup!" It's that bastard sergeant. "Britches and boots on, you bloody idlers!"
I woozily lift my head, which is now pounding, and croak feebly, "Morning all."
"Mister Wexer!" yells Sergeant Arrowsmith, the whistle dangling around his neck. "I should'a known you would be tossing it off in here, you good for nothing layabout!" He grabs me by the back of my fatigues and hauls me up onto two feet. I spin around and stand to attention; chin up, shoulders back. He's big, and I mean a BIG fellow, like a norn. My face only comes up to the collar of his green tunic, and I'm almost six foot!
"Good morning, sarge'!" I manage to wheeze, trying my hardest to grin and thereby perhaps inject some joy into his existence. Alas.
"Not fer you, it's not", he growls, looking down his crooked nose. "You're supposed to set an example to these dopey herberts. What time do you call this?! We've been looking for you for two hours!"
"Sorry Sergeant!" I bark. "I thought I'd bring a little tension into your life!" He instantly jabs me in the gut, knocking the wind out of me, and I go down sputtering. That's what I get for trying show off to my mates, but it's just instinct!
"A 'Chosen Man', eh? You?" he goes on, as I crumple on the floor. "Well I didn't choose you, that's as sure as a shower of shite. Get yourself in order, you're manning the third parallel with the rest of the 'elite'. Brewer's going to have fun with you."
"But that's right at the front!" I protest, gasping for breath.
"I suppose you want the lash as well?!" he bawls.
"No Sergeant. S-sorry Sergeant..."
"It's only the early bird wot gets the worm. I hope the separatists come down from their walls and you finally get your useless, skinny arse handed to you! It's about time you did some work. First Platoon? Of First Company?! I've seen more muscle on a sparrow's fookin' kneecap. Now piss off out of my sight."
I decide to skip breakfast and get across the field to my post. The main thing is getting past all my mates in First Platoon's siege camp without being spotted. If those knob heads see that I've been given the third parallel, I'll never hear the end of it. Luckily, one of the new recruits grabs all the attention by asking for a fresh beaker. His is full of grease. It causes the typical stir.
"HA! You 'ear that?!"
"Ooh! Bring the young gentleman a warm towel, and a glass of Ascalonian red!"
I sneak by while everyone converges, laughing raucously and giving the poor rookie a good kicking.
Up in the higher camp I can see a pair of finely dressed officers idly looking down on the commotion. Major Murray and Captain Mortcombe. Bollocks. Just look down, keep looking down, and carry on walking. Looked like they were busy scheming. It's funny I should see them both together, my best mate Renfrew mentioned them to me a while back, and I never forgot.
"Fannybaws", (as he calls me). "There're two kinds of officers: killin' officers and murderin' officers."
According to him, 'killing officers' are those wet idiots who manage to get everyone in their rank and file killed, whether they're too young, stupid or drunk. 'Murdering officers' are mad, bad old buggers who get you killed deliberately, when it suits them some good purpose. That's Mortcombe and Murray – a pair of murdering old farts.
Mortcombe's the bad kind of patriotic. It doesn't matter what the job is, or how much blood it'll cost, as long as the Queen tells him to do it. He must seriously love it, the whole 'for Queen and Kryta' stuff. The Duke sticks him and his stupid moustache on all the posters. I'm glad I'm not in his Rangers, they're all a bunch of jobsworths and think they're better than us. Anyone can hide and take potshots from a tree...
Major Murray's a sneaky one, you never know what he's planning. The key to avoiding him is to NEVER excel. Every now and then he'll come sniffing through the ranks looking for anyone who's been showing off. They get pulled for some 'special operation' and then they're never seen again. Sod that.
Looking up again, I take in the sight of Old Keep - the enemy fortress - blurry and shimmery on the horizon. It seems miles away, like a remote island, and it hasn't really hit me yet that one day soon we hope to be inside, slaughtering separatists and beating down the populace. The Mountaineers are notorious, no matter where we go. The provosts always lose control after a victory, the lads and lasses seem to think they can do or take whatever they like by way of reward, prize or recompense.
But we have to win. We have to fight our way in - dodging blade, shot and shell.
I try not to think about it, it's the best way to keep the nerves at bay. Besides, there's weeks of digging to do yet.
I begin to cross the trenches, where soldiers in green chat, dig or idle around. Second and Fifth company are manning the dugouts here, so I don't really know any of these guardsmen. I spoke to a cute girl wearing second company's brassard at one point, but I haven't seen her since the battle at Claypool. Gods, I hope she ain't dead.
"That's it, Ironback!" shouts somebody in the ditch below, as I cross over the flimsy wooden decking. I turn back to look down.
"Up to the front with the rest of the cannon fodder, bonehead!" It's a bunch of Second Company pansies, with their fancy banners, shiny buckles and pristine tabards. I give them the finger.
"Sit on that, quaggan-shaggers!" I yell back.
They all laugh and give me their own gestures. That's just how we talk to one another. It's juvenile, but if there's anything that gets you in trouble with the lads, it's acting like you're weak, or too good to get involved in the banter - like you're better than them.
I know all the insults and all the answers, I've been a Mountaineer for too long.
The final trenches are at the very front: The Third Parallel. Only First Company have got the bottle to hold this bad boy. Yeah baby. We're the elite - an unstoppable fighting force - flawless in our dedication; devotion to duty; organisation and sheer heroism, the very best human examples of the Kingdom of Kryta. I get to the lip of the ditch and look down to see Guardsman Bolger hunched over an iron bucket with his pants around his ankles.
"Hnngrgh!" He pauses to look up and wave like nothing's happening. "Hiya!"
"Alright Wex?" greets Guardsman Appleworth. She swaggers over, her mousey brown hair bobbing around, and gives me a shovel. She's a welcome sight!
"Gretnaaa! Hello, my lovely!" I snatch it and pretend to look like I intend to do some work. "Thank Lyssa you're here too. Digging's so much easier with something beautiful to look at!"
She grimaces, unimpressed, and looks around at the others while gesturing to me.
"Imagine this young twig going at it, he'd start a damn fire." This gets a big laugh from soldiers I previously thought were friends.
"Up yours. You wish you looked like me!"
Corny shrugs his giant bingo wings and nods.
"He's got a point there."
"DIG!" yells the voice of Sergeant Brewer. "You don't dig - you don't eat!"
We get to work. We're digging out an emplacement so the engineers can place a gun here. It'll be one of the big, twenty four-pounder babies and once it's dug in it'll pick the walls of Old Keep apart like a sponge cake. The separatists know it too, so it's up to us to make sure the rampart is high enough to protect the engineers while they set up. It's not taking me long to lose my breath and start getting sweaty as I shift mound after mound of thick, hard mud.
A few hours later, we shore up the rampart with timbers before having a break. Appleworth gets out the water and hard tack biscuits, and we all lazily sit up top to look and listen for lone cannonballs drifting back and forth. They reckon there're enemy snipers watching, but I've not had any trouble yet, not in the entire time we've been here. Besides, I only have to turn sideways and they can't see me.
"This hard tack is rank", moans Bolger. "It wants toasting."
Ooh, that's a good idea. Appleworth knows a thing or two about conjuring flames.
"Come on, Gretna!" I pester. "You can sort that out for us!"
She cranes her neck to look at me as if I'd just wiped my bum with her hair. "No chance. Lighting fires on the parallel is a flogging, and using magic is a flogging... I'd get a double flogging!"
"Come on. Just do it quick, while Brewer's off having a poo. No one's lookin'."
I lay it on the iron beam in front of her, and she lifts a finger to burn it entirely to a crisp.
Stretching out in front of us is a dreary, flat plain of empty green fields, and beyond that...? Old Keep. The supposed bastion of rebellion and liberty. It's full to the brim with traitors - so they tell us - who want to rule their own affairs. Queen Jennah's not good enough for them. Bollocks to 'em. Do they think they're special? I pay my taxes and try to get along with the charr, why can't they? Why do they have to draw us into this wretched struggle? Why should good people have to leave their homes and farms? Why do I have to live in a wet, miserable ditch for a whole season?
I won't pretend to know what it's all about, what the traitorous lords within are up to, but I'd put ten silver on it being something to do with money. I suspect the lads in purple don't really know why they're fighting us either. Pfft. Sod it. They had their chance to come out peacefully, I know that much. I saw them reject it with my own two eyes, so there's no way I'm gonna let myself feel bad about wiping the floor with 'em and picking up a few spoils. If it wasn't for them I'd be back in the 'Reach, drinking and dancing with pretty girls.
It's easy to think tough like this, at least while I know the fight is still a long time coming...
The group has fallen silent as we eat, slouching around at our leisure. We've got Appleworth - she's new and came with the latest draft from Queensdale. She's cute, with freckles across a little, stubby nose, but her muscles are probably thrice the size of mine and she's got a mean streak a mile long. I'd never ask her out. Even the tide wouldn't take her out.
'Big-nose' Bolger is fairly self-explanatory as a name. He's best mates with Corny. They've been in the service for a while, ever since they were both sentenced to serve for whatever crime they committed. They're both dimwits, and we love them for it. Corny must know someone in the stores 'cause he's a big, round fella. He can't just be living on rations, though he says it's just his bones.
Tipper is a melancholy youngster with round, blonde hair. He was only recently handed a musket after having served as a drummer boy for two seasons. I'd never say he was a pansy, but he makes me look like a Tyrian Pro Wrestler.
'Tombstones' takes lots of abuse for the pair of gigantic front teeth that earned him his nickname. I don't even know what he's really called.
Rhoane is a guardsman from the engineers. For her, this sort of digging is a fulltime job. This girl's reputation precedes her. She's as mental as any other sapper, always misappropriating tools and using them to pull outrageous pranks, like shearing off the bolts holding your bunk together, pouring oil in your boots or serving up explosive potatoes. I'll give the Eighth their due, they know how to have a laugh.
Ghrollins, Winters, Musgrove... I don't know them too well, they're not in my platoon either. They've just chucked us all together to do the digging. You might be wondering where my best mate Renfrew is, well guess what: there's work to be done, so of course he's nowhere to be seen. He wrote the book on tossing it off. We won't be seeing him until the real work starts, and that's only if we're really unlucky.
"Look at them walls", Guardsman Bolger finally sighs to himself.
"I'd rather not", groans Appleworth, sitting and facing the other way.
I honestly don't dare to look either, not for long. They're massive.
"What are we gonna do...?" Bolger whines on.
"Go up 'em", Tombstones dismisses. "Eh, Wex?"
"Uh, yeah! Easy!"
Appleworth looks at me as though she's going to take a lot more convincing.
"That simple?" she muses, giving me that raised eyebrow of hers.
"You just have to imagine a big hole and a nice slope of rubble."
"Heh, yeah", Tombstones adds. "With mines thrown everywhere across it, and two hundred separatists at the top, shooting down at you. Spikes, pikes, bayonets, musket balls, cannon balls, fireballs..."
I see Tipper shuddering and fidgeting with his hands.
"Honestly, Tip', it'll be fine", I reassure. "If I've managed to live this long, you've got nothing to worry about."
He nods a couple of times, but doesn't look up from the ground.
"How have you lasted this long?" Appleworth asks, shaking her head at me in disbelief.
"I don't know", I reply. "But I must be doing something right."
"Is that why you're a Chosen Man?"
"Haha, nah!" laugh Bolger and Corny. "That's 'cause he's a suckup who licks the sergeants' arses and noshes the officers' wedding-vegetables."
"That explains it", Appleworth muses, shaking her head at me with derision.
I nod along, smile and roll my eyes. The worst thing you can do is let the guardsmen know they've hurt your feelings. Stuff them. I move across to sit with the silent Tipper instead, while the rest of them laugh and joke.
This is the first time I've really spoken to him alone. All I've heard about him is the usual gossip: 'pansy' this and 'weakling' that. It sounds familiar.
"Are you alright, Tip'?" I ask him, trying my hardest to make it seem like normal conversation. We sit side by side with our legs crossed. He swallows and nods a few more times while poking at the soil with a twig.
I always feel drawn to people as scrawny as me - always interested to see how confident or comfortable they are within themselves by comparison. Add to that the fact that Tipper is crapping his pants, and we might as well be brothers. I wrinkle my nose and think of something to say.
"It honestly won't be that bad. The Forlorn Hope will charge up first and clear the way for us, that's how it usually works."
"The Forlorn Hope?" he asks.
"Yeah! You know. First into the breach."
"What if we're chosen to be the first to fight?"
"Us? Oh no, no. The Forlorn Hope will be made up of volunteers."
"Who would volunteer for such a thing?"
"Junior officers hungry for promotion... Um, guardsmen who want to clear their names. You're an instant hero, you know, if you survive the Forlorn."
He shakes his head repeatedly.
"Not me", he asserts. "I couldn't do it."
"You and me both."
"So what do we have to do? I-it'll be my first battle."
"I'm not sure! Might be that it's all clear by the time it's our turn to go up. Then all we have to do is occupy the town, and I've never done anything like that before so I don't know what to expect. Anyway, it's all weeks away."
That doesn't seem to make him feel any better, and at second thought I can see why. The wait is always worse.
"Who's at home rooting for you?" I ask, changing the subject.
"H-home? I don't have a home, I'm an orphan."
Six's sake, Wex, you moron. You're fantastic at this aren't you(!)
"Oh. I didn't know that. Press gang, was it?"
"They took me off the streets", he acknowledges. "They said they'd be my new family."
"They um... Yeah, they're a cold bunch."
I sit and ponder in silence, with Tipper blinking and rubbing his eyes in the corner of my vision. I'm tempted to blurt out something stupid and clichéd, like 'stick with me, I'll look after you', but thankfully I bottle out. It's for the best, I can hardly look after my own self. Besides, I was in his shoes once, and I settled in okay. Truthfully...? I don't want the responsibility, and I daren't keep many close friends, not in the service. It's too harrowing to see them maimed or killed. We share a nod instead, before we rejoin the larger conversation.
We all sit around chatting until a nearby pair of engineer officers in cocked hats prompt our silence. They're going on about ravelins, palisades and enfilading fire. It's all gibberish to us, we just hope they get us into Old Keep quick and safe. They catch us staring and stop to inspect us, their long, green overcoats swishing to a standstill.
"Oh! I say! What are you guardsmen doing?"
Everyone stands up and freezes in silence, looking left and right for whoever holds rank to reply. Bugger - it's me.
"Oh! We're having our break, sirs", I hurriedly reply.
"I see. Where is your sergeant?"
"He's on the throne, sir."
The officer doesn't understand my turn of phrase, he just gives me a look: the usual up-turned nose, 'who is this scum?' look.
"Well, see that he reports to the watch-post in due course."
The other one is clearly a little more used to dealing with the likes of us. He's smiling and everything.
"I can already see you've set a good foundation for us, fine work m'lads."
We all relax with a nod and a smile. Gretna's forcing hers, I can see her from the corner of my eye. If I look across I'm going to laugh.
"Grateful to you, sirs! You can count on us! Those cannons of yours will be right at home in 'ere!"
"Yes..." The officer blinks a lot and stares at me through an awkward smile. I think I'm talking too much again. "Yes..." he ponders. "Carry on."
"Right you are, sir."
We touch the boars on our tabards in salute and watch them walk off.
"D'you think they can do it?" says Appleworth.
"Bust open the wall."
"Yeeeah!" Bolger chimes in at length. "Have you seen the new twenty four-pounders they've got?"
She shakes her head.
"They're bloody huge", he goes on. "Soon as the Seps' see them dug in, they'll probably throw in the towel."
"That's right", comes the deep voice of Sergeant Brewer, who crests the rear wall of the trench while tightening his belt. "So the quicker we get this done, the quicker we'll have that wall down, what d'you say, Wex?"
"Yes Sar'nt. Next hole!"
We crack on with another shift of back-ache inducing labour. Our jerkins are soon sticky with sweat once again and the feeble breeze gives us no relief. Everyone is either stabbing at the ground with their shovels and throwing muck over their shoulders, or daring to stand up straight to wipe their glistening brows.
"Put your backs into it, you scum!"
I can't take much more of this. Why did I have to have that lie in? If I'd have gotten up on time, I'd probably be doing some cozy musket drills or guarding the officers' tents.
Everything is hazy now. The work, combined with the sun and stifling heat, is making me light headed. Who's got the waterskin?
"Oi, Gretna! Have you got the water or what?"
I turn to look for her, but she's not digging. None of them are, they're all stood staring across the plain. I look across towards the fortress.
Now that I'm standing still I can hear the low, droning creak of the big gates. Cripes! Are they opening?
"Are they drunk over there?" scoffs Sergeant Brewer. "Someone must have fallen on the lever."
"I don't think so, Sarge'", Appleworth murmurs.
Bolger and Corny are transfixed.
"They're bloody coming out!"
They're not wrong. There's a moving mass of people spilling from the gate in one big blob, with a purple flag flying overhead. They're not hanging around, either.
"Whatever's happenin', they're coming in fast!"
The two officers come running back again, looking just as flummoxed as we are. Now I really am worried.
"Sir!" calls Sergeant Brewer happily. "Are they finally coming out to talk terms?"
Lieutenant Ward is the more sensible and reasoned of the two officers, and he breaks his silence by snapping, "Why, no, Mister Brewer, they're coming to fill in what you've just dug out!"
"Where are your muskets?" exclaims Lieutenant Manton.
"We piled them up yonder", Brewer stammers. "Makes it easier to dig, sir."
"You bumbling fools, then fetch them, damn your eyes!"
He draws his rapier, but Ward grasps his arm, holding him back.
"We can't fight them."
"Then what are we to do?"
Ward scowls at Manton, then he scowls at us, then he scowls at the oncoming horde of Minutemen before making his mind up.
"Back!" he shouts. "Everybody get back, I say!"
We stand there, dumbstruck. Fall back...?
"Move your sorry hides!" Brewer bawls. "You heard the leftenant!"
Bolger, Corny and most of the others scramble for their helmets, putting and holding them on while stumbling for the rear wall of the excavations.
"Let's go, come on!"
Me and Appleworth look at each other before the reality sinks in. Yes. We are falling back. Ha! We follow suit, clambering out of the unfinished trench and fleeing to the safety of the ones further back. The ground is uneven where we've made a complete mess of it, and it's not doing us any favours. Corny's helmet falls off and Brewer pushes him onwards before he can stop to grab it.
"Geeet moving, you slugs!"
I notice Ward bringing up the rear and keeping an eye out over his shoulder, making sure that - if we're going to retreat - he'll at least be the last one out of harm's way. You've got to respect that. He seems a proper officer. Looking left and right reveals more digging parties who have abandoned their tools and taken flight back to safety.
The rear ditches are manned by Fifth Company hinterlanders, which is just what we need: they're dependable, supportive and you can trust them to back you up to the hilt.
"Aaah hahaha, ya soft, wee numpties!"
They start chucking mud and stones at us while laughing their ginger beards off.
"Get back oot' there, ya big jessies!"
'Big nose' Bolger drops into their trench with one hand on his helmet. He looks affronted.
"Here, there's bloody loads of 'em out there!"
He's not lying. The Minutemen rush up to our first two lines of earthworks and start making a mess of the fortifications we've built. They tear away the timbers and try to collapse the walls. Every minute of separatist sabotage means another day of protracted siege works.
"Save the spades!" calls the worried voice of Captain Marny, the chief engineer."Save the spades!"
Bollocks. The spades. We've left them over there and now those damned Minutemen are making off with them. No doubt they'll be given a coin for every one they take back.
The Hinterlanders loose off rounds of musket fire, and the rest of us desperately hurl across rocks and stones to no effect.
The Minutemen, who return fire only sparingly, are laughing at us, I can hear them from here.
"Can you hear 'em? Bunch of bastards", I mutter, though I can't help but smile a little. That was cheeky, and they managed to get away with it, can't fault them for that. Just fancy it – a whole week's worth of digging and they just march out to push it all back in. Haha! I bet that was the last thing the officers expected! Appleworth catches me smiling and we both share a maniacal, adrenaline fuelled laugh, shaking our heads.
Some proper reinforcements start to trickle down from the main camp. Lo and behold, it's the First Company guardsmen who rush up first ('course it is, we're the best).
Captain Jackson's always up for a ruckus, so I'm not surprised to see him already arriving.
"Rally to your platoons! Rally to your platoons, guardsmen!" shouts one of his staff.
I sneer at Appleworth. "There, see that? I knew the Ironbacks wouldn't bend over and let those seps' get away with it."
But Appleworth isn't smiling anymore. I blink, letting my grin fade away.
"Come on, we'd best follow the order."
We seek out our platoon once the flags are raised and brought forward one by one. Drums hammer and bugles play flourishes to help us find our units.
"First Platoon! Over there!"
We rush down the trench network, along the flimsy timbers that floor the muddy gulleys, to join our officer, Lt. Goldwing - 'Clockwork Bill'. There's no time to explain it.
"Join the ranks. Look to your front", he drones over and over, as his mountaineers come to join him in drips and drabs. "Join the ranks. Look to your front." He's still in his dress uniform and hat. Muskets are hurriedly handed out by the feared Sergeant Simmonds for those of us who've come back from the forward lines.
"Get your firelocks here! Come an' get yer fookin' firelocks!" he bawls angrily, big black moustache twitching. "Bolger! There y'are. Appleworth?! Good, good. Wexer! One for you, boy. There's no rest for the wicked! Who else?!"
The musket feels oppressively heavy as I turn with it in my arms.
I can tell the others weren't expecting this. Appleworth looks down at the ground, blinking incessantly. Tipper's eyes are wide, and his tightly shut mouth quivers with fear. We're all shattered from digging and running as it is, and now we have to fight. If they thought the service was forgiving, I feel sorry for them. Time for a stirring speech.
"We'll uh... We'll just have to get on with it, lads and lasses. It'll be alright, we've got the whole regiment comin' to join us now. I um... I won't pretend like it's gonna be easy, but we should be okay. I'm sure they'll run off at first sight of us." I nod and try to give them the tried and tested Wexer-smile. It might have worked if my cheeks weren't fading to a pale white.
Gretna locks eyes on her gun, panting, and Tipper just stands there, much like before.
Bolger, Corny and Tombstones look more relaxed, but they'll be bricking it, I know they will. I know I am. I can feel my heart thumping under my tabard.
Captain Jackson isn't inclined to wait for long for more reinforcements, so we have to make do with what soldiers and weapons we have as he draws his pristine sabre and adjusts his hat.
"Alright, let them go!" He nods at a drummer boy in his retinue, who then converts his orders into rhythmic, clacking signals.
Once we hear the roll of the far-off snare, Clockwork Bill draws his sword and orders us up and over the parapet.
"Over the top, gentlemen. Forward march and fire as you will!"
"Let's go and get those spades back!"
The whole platoon shouts its acknowledgment and climbs the wooden ladders and timbers to the sound of a whistle, echoing hauntingly between the trench's walls.
I quickly get up onto the timbers amongst the others - I know better than to try and hang back once the order's given. Sure enough, Tipper and Appleworth are each given a 'push' by the threatening swords of sergeants Brewer and Simmonds, and that's pretty polite as these things go. You're usually safer closer to the enemy.
"Nobody stays! Everyone fights! Go! Go!"
I haul the lightweighted Tipper up with me by the back of his collar, and he holds his helmet down with a trembling hand. There's no time to waste.
"Come on! Don't let them find you wanting!"
We grasp the lip of the ditch and haul ourselves up with our fellow Mountaineers, then we all march forward in step, in a loose formation.
"Steady!" someone shouts. Guardsmen all around start taking potshots as they prowl forward, firing ineffectually from their hips.
Appleworth follows close behind us. She shoulders her musket and levels it ahead. I quickly turn to grasp the muzzle and point it down.
"No! Don't waste your shot yet! Wait 'til we're closer!"
She looks back at me, her brown eyes wider than I've ever seen them. I think this might be her first proper fight, but that's not really a concern at the minute! I've got myself to worry about!
Shots ring out all around us as we advance, and soon we're pacing onward through a haze of white smoke.
"Keep an eye out for the banner and try to stay with it!" I shout as the smoke begins to deaden our senses and dampen the rhythmic clump of our boots. It rolls across the field like a thick blanket. This is why they call our guns 'Messie Bessies'...
"W-Wex!" I hear Tipper shriek. I look over my shoulder to see him lagging behind, lost in the smoke, but Sergeant Simmonds beats me to it. He's already right behind the boy, giving him a rough push on the shoulders.
"Fooorward! You spineless skritt!"
Tipper yelps and falls forward to the ground, his haversack clattering on top of him and his musket erupting into life. The shot thumps into the grass, kicking up the mud. Gods, a tumble and a misfire... Simmonds is going to eat him alive, but what can I do about it? I face forwards, unable to watch. Whatever happens, we've all been through the same thing. He'll survive. But then, as we cross the ground between the earthworks, Lt. Goldwing can be heard beneath the platoon's colours along with a flourishing bugle.
"Charge the enemy!"
He always manages to yell it with such calmness and civility, unlike Sergeant Simmonds, who mirrors him with: "Rooooight then! Charge 'em you bastards! Let's get fookin' stuck in! AAARGH!"
He abandons the shaking Tipper and sweeps past us, setting a frenzied example. This successfully gets the guardsmen riled up, and before long the formation is broken with a great roar and a frantic surge. Appleworth watches on as I rush back to haul Tipper onto his feet, holding my musket in one hand. He's so light that even a scraggy kid like me hardly struggles. I push him onwards, holding onto the back of his shoulder and locking my arm. Trust me, I'm doing him an almighty favour.
"Let's go, mate! Let's go!"
We break into a sprint, hurtling towards the forward trenches with smoke swirling behind us. Suddenly, out of the haze, appear our excavations. Most of the seps' have already turned tail and run off with our tools, but one or two turn to fight back. Lt. Goldwing has dropped in first, he's slicing up a middle-aged straggler with an eerie grace. We tag onto the muscle-bound Sergeant Brewer, who lands in the slick, muddy ditch and strikes down a fleeing Minuteman with the stock of his musket before drawing a knife and kneeling down to finish the job.
"There's more of 'em down there, Wex. Go get 'em, son!"
I set off down the network where he's pointing, with Tipper, Appleworth and the others all hot on my heels, boots pounding the decking.
"Come on, this way! Let's 'ave 'em!"
We surge down the network with excitement, shouting and screaming like mad men. We've got 'em on the run, and there's a chance to show off - to get some easy kills and loot. The adrenaline's going now, with the confidence of knowing that we've pretty much got this in the bag. Come on you purple-bellies! Let's be having you! I'm the first into one of the larger entrenchments, where seps' on all sides are still busy looting and sabotaging.
"Oh bugger!" I cry.
"Loyalists coming in!"
There're loads of them, unfamiliar faces all snapping towards us, and they suddenly spin around to take aim, stopping us in our tracks. I just about shit myself, scrambling back and falling on my arse as a ragged volley of rifle fire is blasted at us from point blank range. I yelp as I feel the shots scything by me, smashing against the timbers and thudding against flesh, a sound that terrifies me to no end - a sound full of horrid promise. Tombstones flops lifelessly onto his belly beside me, eyes frozen wide, and I hear Tipper shriek again. I don't think I was hit. It's hard to tell for the first few seconds. I squeeze shut my eyes and fire my shot from the hip - an automatic, kneejerk reaction that clouds us all in more white smoke.
"Mountaineers! Present! Fiiiire!"
Another staccato volley comes from above as friendly forces reach the trench line, and suddenly the dugout resembles a butcher's yard. Where there were men and women about to charge us - the image burned into my mind's eye - I look up to see them all laying open and twisted. Somebody suddenly heaves me up off my bum and pushes me forward, so that when I try to look behind me for my mates, all I can see for a split second is contorted green uniforms on the floor.
"Who's hit?" I ask, struggling to find my voice.
"Never you mind!" barks Sergeant Brewer. "Just you keep moving!"
I dutifully move on, panting and shaking. I climb up and over the forward rampart and jog across the plain in pursuit of our banner. Further down the network, I can see orange flames slicing along the ditches and bursting up into the air, no doubt the work of 'Danger' Dunbar, the chaplain of Balthazar. I guess that's one way to do it, but the crackling and screaming is the stuff of nightmares.
We've retaken our first trench. What next?
"Fooorm liiine for battle!"
Battle? There's going to be a battle now?! Oh no...
I look around for my friends and try to get my bearings. What the heck's going on? Behind us, up on the field, I can look back to see our reinforcements pushing forward. The colonel must be struggling to get everyone in gear though, because there aren't many.
Looking forward, the gates of Old Keep still hang open and more purple-clad minutemen are coming out by the minute. This whole thing seems to be escalating far more than it needs to. It's all kicking off. There's going to be a straight fight for the plains between us and them.
The lads start forming neat ranks and files, muskets resting against shoulders and pointing into the air.
I catch my breath, adjust my dinted helmet, and take up position in the line of battle, managing to get a good spot close to our platoon command - just like Rennie taught me.
"Get in next to the officers and under the banner. Not only wull yae live longer, but it's where all the most glorious action takes place. You'll be drowning in hero-fanny come the end."
Heh, I can almost hear him saying it.
"Over here, bawbag."
Hang on, what?
"Hawl. Ah'm talkin' to ye."
He's standing right there - tiny and beardy.
"Oh. Awright?" I greet. "Try speaking the same language as the rest of us then."
"Did ye naw see me, naw?"
"How can I when you're three feet below my eyeline?"
"Hmph. You're gunnae pay for that yin. Yer always like this before a scuffle."
"I'm just getting 'em in while I can. I'd hate to die before calling you a wrinkly old scrotum."
"That's whit ye said afore the battle at Claypool. And on the Peaks. I made yir life hell after ye survived both."
"Well, I think all my new digging mates are dead, so my turn can't be much longer."
"Appleworth and Corny, and all them lot."
"Ach. Shame. Ye pure fancied Appleworth, didn't ye."
"Ayyye, so ye did. Had a tiny wee stauner in yer troosers for her. Ah saw it pokin' through."
"She'd snap me in half. She's as evil as they come."
"Aye, and twice as mental. That's the attraction."
"Ranks there! Silence in the ranks!"
Our officers have all turned up, championed by Lieutenant Goldwing. He's surrounded by all his second lieutenants and arse-kissing ensigns. We can overhear them from here. This is a great spot.
"Does he really mean to come out and fight us?"
"It certainly looks that way."
"This must be some sort of trick."
"No, I think they're getting desperate, what with our emplacements almost ready. They either wait to be shelled into oblivion or try to do something about it."
"Correct", Lieutenant Goldwing finally says, putting an end to the chatter and speculation. He's now in armour and is putting on his gauntlets. "The engineers did the separatists the service of fleeing the forward parallel. They have seized the opportunity to disrupt the digging and are now goading our ill-prepared forces into a battle that will cause even further delay to the siege."
"Bah!" exclaims Cadet Greyfeather smugly. "They're only prolonging the inevitable."
"No, that's not the case at all", Goldwing drones on, with all eyes and ears on him. "The Crown decided on this gambit with the assurance that the enemy would surrender upon our arrival." He turns to take his sword from a wide-eyed ensign. "But they mean to outlast us, and if our progress continues to falter the Ministry is likely to give in. I doubt that the politicians ever considered that this would actually spiral into a civil war."
Great. So we're here because the Ministry lost a bet. Ha, at least Goldwing is still just telling it like it is. That man doesn't give a dolyak's toss. I don't know how he keeps out of trouble with the higher-ups. They probably know they can't change him, not without an Asuran technician anyway.
"See, fannybaws?" grunts Rennie. "Same shite, different day. Geez some 'eh your shots."
He helps himself to the stuff in my leather cartridge box while I'm staring forward. I'm too nervous to care now. I can feel my mouth getting dry, and I have to keep wiping my palms on my tunic.
The battalions and formations are moved around slowly and meticulously. I'm sure they do it on purpose to keep our minds on something other than deserting or worrying about what the enemy might be doing.
What the enemy is doing is getting into the exact same formation as us, ready for a straight fight. You can tell there are plenty of ex-Mountaineers in their junior ranks. They're just standing there, above and around our trenches, waiting for us to come and give them a good seeing to.
"Battalion!" chants somebody from the officers' retinue. "Forwaaard march!"
And so the tramping of boots and the clinking of bayonets begins again. I'm swallowing and Rennie's got a sour look on his face. There's no talking now; Simmonds is only a few paces away, and the Lieutenants are in front. They're all that's between us and a wall of purple tunics.
Rennie falls out of step as usual (he can't help it, he's tiny), and scrambles his feet to get back in rhythm, trying to look dignified with his chest out and head tilted back. I'd be laughing if I wasn't busy filling my pants. I wipe my palms again.
The drums are beating.
Oh Gods, this doesn't get any easier. It's always about this time that I start to curse everything about the service, how I wish I'd done something more sensible with my life - found the girl, worked a trade. I'd give absolutely anything to be teleported to a bar and be talking to a cute, shy young woman there. She'll have blue eyes that make my chest fill with butterflies every time they look at me, and every second of attention she pays me is a victory that I won't be able to stop thinking about until the next time we meet. Pfft. More likely, she'll explode with awkwardness, wondering who the lanky streak of piss is that's talking to her, or just tell me to push off. No, no. Come on, Wex, stick with the image here - keep your mind off this horrible battle. You know what it's going to be like. You need to bloody stay calm and just think of that girl. Think of the girl. You're going to survive this. You're going to survive and find that girl. The whistles are blowing. Oh Gods, I'm not. I'm going to die. This time. This is the one. I'm so fucking dead. I can see the enemy Minutemens' faces. Please, all six of you shitey Gods. Do not let me die. Don't you fucking let me die. Get me through this. Please, please, please just let me live through another one. I'll find a way out, I'll run away. I'll fake my own death. I'll work at an orphanage or donate all the loot to a charity. Please!
The pipes are playing. Oh Gods! I can't do it. Never again. Never a-fuckin-gain am I doing this.
Alright! No! The girl! She's so sweet and good hearted. She wears a jerkin. Ordinary. She doesn't make an effort, she doesn't need to! She...! She...! Oh shit, shit, shit! Think, Wex, think! What else? She's... She's cute! She's got... hair, and she... ha! Of course she does, for fuck sake. I'm fighting back tears. Oh Lyssa... She calls me 'Wexy', she... she blushes and she flutters her eyelashes. She always worries. She smiles when she gets nervous, showing those shining teeth. My leg is shaking. She's a worker, a real grafter, knows her way around farming tools, or a bow and arrow, or even a gun. Phwoar, yes. Her clothes are grubby but her smile is bright. She... she always looks down when we're talking alone. I just want to take her hand and be the man I wish I were, look her straight in the eye and tell her how I feel, and have her take it seriously, making her weak in the knees. The thrill of the chase, the excitement and promise of the first kiss. Oh fucking hell, just let me live! Please, please, pl-...
And that's it. There's an explosion. I suddenly slap down to the floor and lose every ounce of breath, my ears ringing. Blood showers everywhere, and I can guess what has happened without having to look. I cower and scream, desperate to be able to hear myself, to know I haven't been deafened. Explosive shells, fired from the fortress walls above, a magical attack, or grenades thrown by the enemy. It doesn't matter. I'm finished. I haven't even put finger to trigger and I'm out of it already. I pull my helmet down over my eyes and push my head down into the ground, screaming and screaming, but I can't hear a thing. My hair feels warm and sticky and I can feel blood or sweat trickling down the sides of my face. A brush of the hand. Oh Grenth, it's blood! I can't believe I'm going to die! After all that! I begged and begged. I prayed! Didn't I pray hard enough?! Oh please, PLEASE! Help me! Somebody get me out! Get me out, get me out! I just want to go home! I want to see Mum, and the girls, and just do farm work!
I'm hauled up, though it takes my rescuer quite a bit of effort. I stumble up onto my feet with his help and turn to see him. It's Sergeant bloody Simmonds and he's shouting and shouting at me, shaking my shoulders and forcing my musket back into my hands. I can't do anything but stare back at him, vacantly. He seems to lose his patience, so he just pushes me around and shoves me back into line before moving on. Everyone else is suddenly cocking their firelocks. They must be giving the order. I know this off by heart. I know the drill. It's all I've ever known and the actions come to me as automatically and naturally as breathing. I can do it in a daze.
'Make ready': I click back the metal hammer.
'Present': I level my musket ahead like everybody else.
'Fire!': I wait until I'm sure the order is given before squeezing my eyes shut and making my own feeble offering to the battle. But I don't think my gun goes off, there's usually an awful kick and a blast of white smoke from the lock. I pull the trigger again but nothing's happening. Dropping it must have shook the powder loose. Suddenly, it's wrenched out of my hands and replaced with another! Guardsman Renfrew steals my musket and rams the butt into the ground twice. He then levels it ahead and it fires perfectly. Typical. He's given me his, but it's already spent.
"Oh, thanks(!)" I shout hysterically.
"Ya fock'n useless jessie bastard!" I hear him scold.
Classic that my hearing should come back only in time to get a round of 'focks' from Rennie...
Men and women in purple can be seen falling in the first rank ahead, but seconds later a volley comes across in response. I squeeze shut my eyes, frozen in panic, as musket balls slash through the air between us, thudding into the tunics and flesh of other guardsmen. I keep my head down and my eyes shut, and a terrified, incomprehensible syllable escapes me.
"Stand!" bawls Simmonds. These are the precious moments in which the officers and their sergeants must win out against our urge to cower and flee. "Stand yer ground, Ironbacks!"
We're First Company, we're not going anywhere, but Gods, it would only take a couple of us to run, and I'd be right there with them. I want to run. I can feel my trembling legs threatening to bolt, but I know that Brewer is going to be somewhere behind us. I like him enough, for a sergeant, but I'm not stupid enough to think he wouldn't cut me straight down if I even looked over my shoulder. There's no running.
"We know that you bastards can fire three shots the minute! But can yer stand?!"
The lads and lasses cheer and roar - most of them in desperation - but it's good enough. The separatists drop to one knee to reload before their second rank pours in another volley, obscuring themselves behind their own flashes and smoke. I tense up again, my knuckles utterly white, and more of our Mountaineers go down screaming around me. It gets even worse as the cannons atop the fortress walls rumble and rock back from the battlements. Explosions start to rip up the ground all around us, and woe betide anyone who happens to be standing there. I'm desperate for it all to be over – tensing every muscle in my body and gasping between my teeth.
There's one more ditch to take, and it's time to get stuck in and under that artillery fire. Goldwing knows it too, because he's holding out his sword in preparation to charge. We've got those seps' to clear off the plain first.
"Bayonets!" comes the order, but we're slow to obey.
"YOU HEARD THE MAN!" bawls Simmonds, slapping several of us on the back of our heads. It snaps me out of my petrification. I pull my dusty helmet back up above my eyes, before we all hold our muskets down by our hips, blades pointed forward. The Minutemen see us and take their stances, ready to receive our advance.
Now's my make or break moment - now I need to be entirely ready to kill somebody. It's all or nothing. I have to do this properly, otherwise I die. It's going to be one of three separatists directly in front of me. Probably the one in the middle, with the blinking eyes and black hair. It's him or me. It's time to go mad, but I just can't bring myself to feel angry or conjure up enough hatred - instead, I'm going to have to think about how much I want to live. Yeah! That's it. I want to live more than he does, but I have to prove it. I have to show the higher powers that I'm the one who deserves to live. I can't do this half-baked, I can't show mercy or use anything less than my full strength. I'm going to kill. I stare at my enemy, encouraged to see that he hasn't undergone the same internal process. His chest rises and falls frantically and his eyes are wide with fear. Then again, I'm sure mine are too.
I breathe heavily through gritted teeth. The wait is unbearable. The other bayonets of my friends hover in the corners of my vision - friends I haven't even thought to encourage, or with whom to exchange final goodbyes. Many lie dead all around us, I can tell they are horribly maimed or missing limbs, but I'm not going to look - not again, never.
There blows the bugle...
I break away immediately with my boots pounding the ground, my eyes raw and glistening, to decide my fate. Good or bad, I just want it to be finished, for the decision to be made. Let's get it over with. I run like it's the race to end all races, my final sprint. My haversack rocks violently on my back and my helmet slides down. I scream and throw it to the floor, then place my second hand back on my musket's stock, ready to ram it home.
Is this where I'm going to die? Here? Now? I still feel like I have so much more to see and learn, more things to experience and more people to meet - more love to give.
No. Fuck you. I'm living.
The seps' hunker down with their boots apart, and my chosen enemy shifts his weight from one foot to the other, as if getting ready to catch something. He's going to catch it alright: eighteen inches of fluted steel. I'm sorry, friend, I'm not ready to die. It has to be you. He reads my mind and his eyes issue me the same challenge, but I'm the one in motion, with momentum and adrenaline soaring. I miraculously slip between the seperatists' hedge of sharp, pointed tips. I go for one side, he goes for the other. Pure luck of the draw. We collide. His musket's blade glances and bends against the metal fauld on my hip. Mine goes right through his purple tabard. It buckles and twists instantly, and I can feel it, I'm attached to it as it pushes and squelches through flesh, organs, bone - Six know what - and it bursts through him. His head instantly slumps down as he's pushed back, his mouth hawking blood and choking him.
I've done it.
I go to yank my musket back, but the thin bayonet is well and truly lodged inside my enemy, contorted and warped. I let both of my hands go, and watch in shock as my victim flops to the side. He's as dead as it gets. I don't know what to do.
I look left. Rennie barrels into his foe, causing him to stumble. The angry guardsman mercilessly presses his advantage, striking and striking at his victim with his musket's stock until he gives up and falls, bloody and beaten.
I look to the right. Lt. Goldwing's sabre finds no resistance - no shields or barriers to stop it from slicing and piercing at will. The officer doesn't even bat an eyelid as men and women wail at the tip of his weapon. There's definitely something wrong with hi- BANG! Somebody clubs me on the side of the head with something solid and I'm instantly smacked down to the ground, my cheek hitting the dirt. I'm knocked senseless, my head spinning, and there's nothing I can do as I'm then kicked over and over again in the stomach, ribs and chin. The breath is kicked out of my stomach and I gasp in pain. Whatever object was used to strike me now bludgeons me repeatedly, and I cough through a welter of blood. I hold my arms in front of my face with nothing else to defend myself, writhing and whimpering. Any second now a blade is going to slip into my skin, or something heavy is going to break my skull. Gods, help me!
The Gods don't help me, but Rennie does, he's in the perfect position to save my arse - this time by spearing my blurry attacker's side. There's a terrible scream.
"Up an' at 'em ya fock'n wee fanny!" he cheers, jutting forward another loaded musket. "Yir missin' aw the good bits!" I grab the weapon with both hands and he hauls me up. I stagger to keep up with him as he then darts off into the melee. I nurse my bleeding temple and pick up my pace, my vision returning to normal, though my head is pounding and I can hardly breathe.
This fight is ours - we have the weight of the charge to carry us through. Not that it would have mattered, you can't beat the Mountaineers at their own game. Everybody around me is engaged, so I don't think I will have to fight anyone else, and thank the Gods for that. I just want to collapse, but Sergeant Simmonds breaks through the purple ranks and tries to call as many from our section to him. He waves frantically with a hand that bleeds from the knuckles, pointing us down and into the final ditch. I hurry over, whimpering like a beggar and taking short steps. There's movement in the ditch below and I bend my knees, keeping low to the ground as I approach. I shoot my musket to keep their heads down. Smoke bursts from the lock and barrel, and the stock pounds my shoulder, threatening to dislocate it.
"Chaaaarge!" bawls Simmonds. "Gut 'em!" He turns to jump down, but someone shoots him straight in the gut from below. He keeps his balance, but the poor bastard is shot again by some young toe-rag leaning up with a flintlock pistol. I freeze in position, praying they don't fire across at me.
"Sarge'!" someone shouts, in a vain effort to call him away, but Simmonds faces the distant fortress wall in time to brave the next cannonade, bloody and furious. Their artillery blasts huge chunks out of the ground, ripping and bursting the sergeant to gory shreds in front of us. I'm deafened again after being splattered with his hot, glistening red leftovers, mouth wide open in shock. That's just about enough for me, I can no longer breathe with the strangling terror. Guardsmen hurry past, bumping into me with their shoulders, but I stay where I am, swaying until I gag and topple forwards to the ground, my world going black.
"Rolyan! Rolyan! Lyssa's glowing knickers, where are you boy?! Come in and get your supper! It's getting dark!"
"Run! If the field hands catch us we'll hang for sure, hahaha!"
"Fancy yourself a soldier, eh? Look at you, mother's milk still wet on your face. I can make a drummer boy of you, see how long you last..."
"SCUM! What are you?! SCUM, that's right. Keep that musket straight! Shoulders STRAIGHT. Higher! Higher! Damn it boy, you'll look smart on parade OR I'LL HAVE YOUR GUTS FOR GARTERS!"
"Lord Madusan is taking us over the 'Peaks again! Oh, it's your first time? Ha! Look at him. He's right to be scared. Ever seen a charr, lad?"
"Right. Moving along. Who have we here? A guardsman of... First Company! Hmm, doesn't look too bad. Move him over there with the others, we shouldn't have to amputate."
"Twenty five lashes, and all's done, sah! And let it be a lesson, eh boy?!"
"He'd still be alive if it wasn't for that skinny coward over there... Useless, he is."
"Wex... We can't keep do-... I just... I can't go on like this... I'm sorry."
I sputter, stir and suddenly wake with a start, yelping to feel somebody's hands on me.
"Awwch!" curses Rennie. "Yer naw deed?"
Indeed, I might have looked dead, with blood coming from my ears and drying against my cheeks. Rennie rests on his knees, suddenly trying to look like he was kneeling reverently beside my corpse. I think the cheeky bastard was trying to loot me. He stands, offering a grubby wrist, and I strain and stumble up onto my feet with his help. Everything's quiet, bodies lie all around us and the survivors are slowly rambling between them, stooping down to check for signs of life - or valuables.
"Did we win?"
"Aye, 'course we did. Look at the state'a them", brags Rennie, gesturing to our surroundings and a sea of violet corpses.
I hobble a few steps in no particular direction, surveying the devastation - ravaged, torn flags; mutilated bodies and dark patches of earth where blood has stained its cratered and smouldering surface. There's the stench of death and innards in the air.
I take two more steps before my trembling legs give way and I fall to my knees. Oh Gods, I think I'm going to be sick. My stomach gurgles violently and I retch, hardtack coming back up and choking me.
"Aww for fock seek", Rennie drawls. "Nae wonder you're like a wee stick insect - if ye cannae keep yer grub in yer gub."
"Sh-... Shut your f-face", I gag, pushing myself up onto my feet and staggering onwards.
"Here, where dae y'think yir goin'?"
I want to find the man I killed.
"Gonna g-get some... Nrrgh... S-some loot", I lie, coughing.
Rennie clicks his fingers.
"Ach, right ye are, wee man." He scurries off in a different direction, presumably to rifle through pockets and pouches.
I don't know what I'm expecting, this is such a bad idea, but the temptation is too much. I have to see. I wander on, nursing my bruised ribs. There's a body, but I can only see the boots and a flash of purple. I round the corpse to see long, brown hair and a fair face. It's a woman - not my kill. I can see she's got a grevious wound on her stomach, her pink innards on display, but there's no way I'm looking directly at it. Next up, a man with his head completely caved in. I can't recognise him, but that can''t have been my doing. I feel another huge bout of nausea coming on, and I gip - desperate not to be sick again.
I turn away, hyperventilating. Wait... over there. Is that him? I edge closer to a man impaled on a long, glimmering bayonet, lying still on his back. His face is contorted with the agony of his final moments. Gods, what am I doing? I can't help it, I need something, anything. Any evidence that he deserved it, any justification I can claw at. Hopefully I'll find a summons in his pocket to answer to a heinous crime, maybe he's a grade-A tosser who beats his missus or runs a gang of highwaymen. I need proof that he had his death coming. I cautiously kneel down over his body and reach out for the first pocket, before invading the purple tunic with my fingers and digging around. There's the chinking of coins, and I coax out a whole leather purse of them. It's mostly coppers and one silver, but every little helps. I tuck the purse away on my person. He won't be needing it anymore, surely there's nothing wrong with this? I go for another poke around the cold body, searching every pocket and pouch. Cartridges, rations, a few keepsakes - ah, what's this? I can see the corner of a letter, though when I go to slip it out, I find it to be drenched in blood. I try to uncrumple it, but it's slick and illegible. Could this be what I was looking for? Maybe his wanted poster, or a writ for his arrest...?
Who am I trying to fool... It's a love letter. I know it is, it's bound to be. It's a letter from his sweetheart, no doubt. He is... or was... good looking enough to have had one. I bet he was a great man - the envy of everyone in Old Keep - killed by some lucky, young scrote with a bayonet. His family will lament him for the rest of the war, and curse those damned Mountaineers sent by a Queen who could just as easily have left them alone.
"Hawl! Whit ye got there?" Rennie suddenly barks over my shoulder.
I quickly scrunch the paper up and tuck it into my tunic.
"Nuthin'. Just a few coppers." I murmur, bitter with the disappointment of not having found what I was looking for.
"Aye? Well, 'mon and hurry up then, the provosts will be right aroon' the corner."
Of course - provosts, gotta stay a step ahead of them. Looting will see you hanged.
Rennie gently rests a hand on my shoulder, and it stays there even as I try to stand up, wobbling on my weak legs.
"On we go, laddie. We've tae do it all again the 'morrow."
"Ungh... We haven't even... made it inside the walls yet", comes my reply as I wipe my mouth with the back of my hand.
Rennie sighs through his thick, grey beard.
"Mhmm. S'gunnae be a challenge, right enough." He gives me a stark look, and I'm probably staring back like a petrified fish. "It'll be messy, but we'll just do what we've always done - look oot' fer each other. And by that I mean I'll look oot' fer you, ya useless wee walloper."
He gives me an encouraging wink. He doesn't mean that, and I smile feebly.
We set off, just the two of us, back across the hellscape towards our own lines, crossing the smouldering craters and ditches laid with the dead and dying. Muffled wailing and crying disturbs my ears, but I just keep looking down. What can I do? I'm not a medical man. All I can do is praise my own good luck, at least until the joy and relief gives way to worry for the next battle. I can't look - that's the simple truth.
We pass behind our own lines, over the siegeworks and between all the white tents. Many lie empty, but are steadily filled as their owners return, broken and exhausted.
"Right 'en", says Rennie, business as usual. "See ye in the mess tent, I'm gunnae get these goodies stashed."
I haven't even bothered to ask him what loot he managed to pick up. Now he's gone.
You can tell he's been doing this a long time. He's hardened to it all, or at least he seems to be. I don't know if I want to end up that way or not.
I solemnly wander through the camp back to my section's tent, pushing the white canvas aside and ducking in.
I look up with a start to see Guardsman Appleworth wiggling her fingers from her straw bunk. She's sat up, eating bread with one hand, the other hanging in a makeshift sling.
"Gretnaaa!" I chant, instantly uplifted. "You made it!"
"Of course I did", she retorts with a humorous snort. She shuffles her bare feet to hang off the bunk and drops down onto the flat earth. "But how the heck did you survive, Scrawny?"
I'd be offended by that if she wasn't coming over to wrap her unslung arm around me in a victorious hug. I embrace her in kind, sinking straight away into her warm and welcoming hold. Gods, that's nice... I needed that. She ought to go through some harrowing trauma a little more often! Oh, right. She asked me a question.
"Well, you know me, I'm just lucky."
"I'll say", she agrees over my shoulder. "Are you injured? You're... covered in blood."
She leans back to take in my spattered face.
"Nothing broken, I don't think", I reply. I'm not going to know about any cuts or bruises until the morning, when my body has had a chance to catch up with the trauma it was put through.
"Anyone else here?"
She stops chewing her bread, falling silent and shaking her head of mousey brown hair.
"Nobody?" I ask with a start, my mouth hanging open. "A-all of them?"
She nods, and I rub my cheek.
She shrugs her shoulders but doesn't say anything. She doesn't want to talk about it, and I don't blame her. Neither would I. I don't want to think about how Corny must have died, how Bolger must've gone, how little Tipper went out.
Maybe they didn't, maybe they'll walk in at any moment.
At least Appleworth's coping better than I was when I was new. Balls, she's handling it better than I do now, after all these years! The only thing that has improved for me is the time it takes to get over these sorts of traumas. Give me a day or two, and I'll be ready - as ready as I can be - for the next battle. Gods, I hope we get that long...
"What happened to you?"
I nod down at her sling, and she instantly rolls her eyes, looking away as she admits.
"It wasn't even the Seps'. I joined one of the trench attacks and ended up falling in. This is just a sprain..."
I can feel the corners of my mouth curling up, though I'm not too concerned about revealing my mirth. I let out a repressed snort, then start laughing.
"Oi!" she protests, giving my arm a sharp dig with her knuckles. Then, she just stands there and we share a moment of eye contact. I'm happy to see her. She's happy to see me. We have each other.
I suddenly wonder if I should kiss her...
Woah. Bad idea. Gods no! What in the Six Hells are you thinking?! One: you should never dip your pen in the regimental ink, it's just not worth the stress, two: I'm covered in dried gore, and three: It'd probably be a horrific misreading of the situation and I'd get a swift kick in the gonads. I settle for a mumble.
"Glad you made it out, Applebollocks."
"You too, Scummy-nuts."
We sit in silence on our own bunks, watching the flaps of the tent. Every time the wind catches them, we sit up expecting somebody from our section to walk in. The flaps just fall silent again, every time.
I sit with my legs crossed and poke around in my little wooden box, where I've kept all my souvenirs and prizes. The charr's tooth from Ascalon; the centaur hair from Claypool (I'm going to make a brush out of it); Emmeline's old letters; the separatist's love letter from Old Keep...
I uncrumple the bloodstained paper. It's had time to dry, and I can make bits of it out now. I slowly slide off my bunk without a word, leaving Appleworth to her silent thoughts and pushing my way out into the cold air. Mountaineers laze around, groaning, chatting or cooking stew. Nobody pays me much mind as I unfurl the letter, steeling myself and preparing to read the legible parts.
...I take your daughter in my arms every morning to watch for your coming, and will say when you come, as you will come: 'see Amelia, there runs your father - in a purple jacket with a big gun. He fights for his flag and for us'...
... time comes, and the Queen's soldiers pass the wall, I shall fight to protect my child and what little honour I am left - against loyalist and against separatist if necessary. You must not fear for me, only to be with me. And live, my darling. Live.
I lower the piece of paper, and it flitters in the breeze by my side. I should've known looking at it was a bad idea. It wasn't for my eyes anyway. Imagine if the woman who had written this knew that I was looking at it. She won't even know he's dead yet. The father of her daughter.
I look across towards the town - hidden behind its impenetrable walls and battlements.
Tears build up in my eyes - tears that I have to hold back before I start getting funny looks. I know one thing: if that wasn't my last battle, it won't be long coming. I've had enough of this.