Karl was cold. He’d thought Hewflore’s streets could suck the warmth off a man, but out here on the wind blasted Marish, he’d found out what cold was. The weak midwinter sun was just bright enough to stab into the back of his eyes as it glared off the sump water and promise a headache later. His muscles ached with unaccustomed effort and his palms chafed against the rough wooden oar. Spending the winter playing housecarl to an aging Baucharite soldier had made him soft, but the promise of an easy Season on the Taygle had lured him in. Sure, the Taygle wasn’t exactly the most appealing place these days, but after Hewflore’s Autumn Fair, pickings were scarce. Some of his compatriots had signed on with caravans to Weanapole, others had found rich merchants houses to guard, and the desperate ones had signed on for “adventure” with the Gangs at the Docks. He wasn’t that hopeless yet.
The Baucharite had taken Karl and Teagr, another would be solider, north to Taygle’s End as the Winter descended. He seemed to know the Lady Osthryd, her Advisor Osric and the famous Captain Zephyros. They called themselves the Tarchoony Brotherhood, whatever that meant, and they had grand plans to improve the town’s lot. It wouldn’t be hard to improve it in Karl’s opinion – flooding would count as gentrification. Still, they’d brought supplies, and pitched in to the rebuild the place, clean out the worst of the debris and see them through the winter. Karl and Teagr had watched as Zelik rose at dawn and left to do his rounds of the outlying steads and fishing huts, tending to injuries and illness, bringing the worst cases to the Monastery. He’d then work around the town, hauling lumber, helping build walls, or on one memorable occasions, digging out a clogged nightsoil trench. In the evenings, they’d sit around a crude wooden table by the fire and eat gruel, with lumps of fat and stale bread and drink weak beer, or mead if it could be had. Zelik would talk of campaigns past. There seemed scant glory in soldiering, the way he described it. Mostly lots of walking from dawn till dusk, not knowing where you were going, or hurrying up to wait for interminable hours in the arse end of nowhere for some sign or decision to be made. Interspersed among the walking and waiting were short periods of terror. An impression of unbearable noise, the reek of sweat and piss, straining with every nerve and sinew to simply live, and at the end, the sickly sight of blood and corpses.
And then, on a clear day at the start of the new year, they’d mustered three score and ten of their troops by the wharf in Taygle’s End, loaded them into six boats and told them to row North West out of the lagoon. North West, North East, East, North East, North West, North East, North West, they’d poled and dipped an oar now and then to keep moving with the sluggish current carrying them deeper into the Marish. The mist burned off towards midday, and with the clear air, the damn pointy eared man-eater hissed out that there was dry land ahead.
They drifted closer, the….officers? leaders? purse holders?….of the Brotherhood’s erstwhile flotilla conferring from boat to boat in hushed calls. Suddenly, the Alfar with his accursed eyes spotted smoke rising from the backside of the island.
Heads bent, they strained at the oars. The boats surged forward, with the helmsmen exhorting the crews to row as if their lives depended on it. Karl could only catch glimpses of the island flashing past, with people running and shouting, before the hail of arrows began. The hiss of shafts followed by splashes, solid thuds or worse, screams. Were they trying to land against a troop of damned archers? They’d all be skewered before they could make the beach! Cursed fools leading them into this. He didn’t want to die in a stinking marsh in the back end of nowhere…. and then his head snapped back with a jolt as the boat grounded. People leapt from the thwarts, snatching up weapons and shields. Someone stamped on his hand as they staggered to the bow, knocking his shield into the bilges. Karl jammed his helm on and tried to stay in the middle of the suddenly pitifully small troop. Oh Maker, they were the first boat ashore..and there were lines of men on the beach ranged against them, and those terrible arrows were still raining down. Karl tried to stop himself throwing up. And then as Osric bellowed something about the Maker before launching himself against the Horde, they exploded into fire. The screaming started in earnest; the sweet smell of roasted flesh was too much and Karl gagged on bile as he retched uncontrollably.
Carried along by the press of bodies and his fear, Karl stumbled onto the foreshore. The opposing brigands were falling over themselves, as half their comrades fell where they stood, struck down by some Eldritch force. The Brotherhood were merciless, cutting them down in the confusion. A severed hand lay still clutching a spear on the sand. Entrails spilled out of a split stomach. A man staggered by drunkenly, half his skull caved in and glistening grey wetness showing through.
And then a ominous pause. There was no one left to fight. Scattered remnants of the other side were running towards a stockade, and the Brotherhood were regrouping on the beach by the boats. Arrows still flew, but far fewer and from too far away to be a real threat. Karl saw at least half a dozen of the Brotherhood’s troops down – missing a leg here, a hand there; or lying still, staring glassy eyed into who knows where. Teagr was standing on the beach, with a confident grin – he’d been the third boat to land and it was all over by the time he stood on the shore. Karl slumped on the beach and gulped fresh air through his chattering teeth. Thank the Maker he’d made it through alive, he was safe…
A kick from another swordsman, as he nodded towards the stockade, tightening his shield on this arm. No no no no no. It was a good furlong across open ground to the walls! This wasn’t supposed to be how it went, running into arrows was dumb, he’d not stand for it. Except he was, lining up with the others behind the fool Brotherhood, hunkering under suddenly tiny shields as they jogged across the broken terrain in two lines. The sweat dropped off his forehead and his helm kept slipping over his eyes but he daren’t risk pushing it back with his weapon or shield arm. The arrows picked up with a vengeance but aimed at the crossbowmen they’d left at their rear. Karl was ashamed to be grateful they were firing at somebody else. They were all running now, breath whistling in and out, no talking, just fighting for each step not to be the last. Up the rise to the wooden stakes, someone crying out to go round the pit, and how were they getting in, wait, the gate was in splinters. But again, those men ranged in lines against them, so similar to him, probably even someone from the same city, but on the wrong end of a spear. Was this what soldiering was about? Being fool enough to go through that gap, broad enough for no more than two abreast, to dash out your guts so someone else could slip on them? How in all that was holy did anyone last two days let alone two decades doing this, Karl thought, as the aging Baucharite pushed forward shoulder to shoulder with Osric. Was that what being a veteran was? Not shitting yourself in battle and taking advantage of those that did? And then, he lost himself in the noise and the fury, moving with those around him to push into the thrice damned fort and kill or be killed.
Karl found himself on the beach again, an immeasurable time later. He was covered in muck, and blood, and guts, but most of it wasn’t his. The healers passed him by with barely a glance as they rushed to the others, groaning or screaming. Those who lay still merited no attention. He’d seen Teagr go down as they rushed through the gate – where was he now? He was no brother, but they’d overwintered together, shared crude jokes over mead and snickered at the Baucharite as he shovelled shit.
Zelik came down the beach, and looked him up and down. He nodded once, and clapped him on the shoulder. “Well fought, shield brother”.