Wednesday August 3, Crow's Bridge
Yesterday our legion entered the village of Crow's Bridge and halted there for the night. We are just four days march from the besieged city of Madrigal now, and with a little luck should arrive there in time to prevent its capture by the enemy.
Shiver, one of the Fallen Lords, has been attacking the city for two days, but so far has been held back by its defenders. We all know the battle for Madrigal will decide the fate of all the Northern lands, and that if it falls we will soon have nowhere to retreat but the ocean.
Fearing for their safety, the villagers here pleaded with us to remain when we broke camp this morning. None of them understand yet what is happening, but they have all seen the refugees from the south, and they are frightened.
Our officers seemed unsympathetic until the people returned with nine young pigs and ten dozen loaves of bread. Fifteen of us are to stay now, perhaps to fight boredom instead of the Fallen Lords, and watch the bridge here for two days.
From the journal of a soldier of the Legion
The legion had marched off six hours ago and Duncan was still torn about the whole thing. They're marching to war – to certain death – but I'm not with them. That should be a good thing … shouldn't it?
Yet for all the relief he felt, he couldn't stop thinking about the coming battle and what his role will be in it – namely to miss it.
He drew his sword, deciding that some practice might take his mind off his problem but the moment he saw the notched blade he was flooded with memories of those who had fallen. Sighing he sheathed the blade. It didn't make any sense, this feeling of guilt that plagued him so – he didn't have any friends in the legion outside of his squad and they were all here. So then why was he haunted by the dead and why did he feel guilty for getting this assignment which kept him away from Madrigal?
Damn it all.
Maybe a more learned man could figure it out but he sure couldn't. Nor was he sure that he wanted to. Muttering to himself he set off in search of something to drink, though the odds that the legion had left even a drop of alcohol in the place were slim. Well he could always try that foul stuff that Thayer was brewing. If I want my beard to fall off
He could feel the eyes of the villagers on his back as he walked along the street and he wondered what they saw. Did they see a man with more silver in his beard then blond, with a notched sword, a dented helm, a chainmail hauberk with missing links and a tabard that had once been white but was now gray-brown mixed with yesterday's lunch?
They saw a warrior of the Light. One of the brave men who stood between them and the frightful armies of the undead. A man of the Legion. Someone who'd been fighting since the start of the war, seventeen years ago. Someone who survived the fall of Scales, the two week running battle in the Chalk Cliffs and all the other disasters and defeats. Oh there had been victories as well, otherwise the undead would have been the only … well unliving things in the world by now. The mere fact that the Fallen Lords hadn't been able to wipe out everything was hailed as a great victory. Just give them time, those grave robbing undead bastards have no reason to hurry
Up ahead he saw a group of kids playing with wooden swords but he found it impossible to smile. Give them a few more years to grow up a bit and they'll be handed real swords and marched up to face the hordes of thrall and be cut down like wheat
. There were no men between the ages of 14 and 50 in the village, they had all been conscripted and sent to fight. Probably all dead by now. Not that the wives and mothers and sweethearts would ever find out for sure. Nobody bothered to tell the families of soldiers that they had died – it would require an army of couriers for that and every man was needed to hold a sword and shield.
Entering the market, which was mainly closed since trading had come to a standstill once the merchants either refused to travel the dangerous roads or simply got themselves killed, he saw one of the recruits near the town well. Rand was chatting to one of the local girls and if his hand motions were anything to go by he was probably bullshiting her about being a great warrior or some such. That or describing his morning ritual under the blanket. Whichever it was she seemed to be amused and Duncan wasn't about to ruin it for the lad. Take what you can while you still live. Tomorrow you might be dead
He was about to enter the tavern, his hand was on the door handle, when someone called to him and he noticed ka'Tanga, one of the fir'Bolg archers. "Don't go in there" he yelled. "Ori is polishing his weapons again."
Duncan backed away so fast he almost fell. With a curse he moved to one of the windows and took a quick look inside. And indeed Ori was at the bar and polishing his weapons. Alongside the dwarf, who was sitting on the bar top with his legs swinging over the side and using one of his satchel charges as a pillow, were eight bottles filled with some dark liquid and their mouths stuffed with dirty rags. Not again
. The dwarf would polish his bombs almost daily and to say that he was possessive of them would be an understatement. If he so much as suspected someone was going to touch – touch! – one of his precious bombs he would get that manic look in eyes, his mouth would curve into a demented grin and the chuckle … that chuckle was more disturbing than facing down your former comrades turned into rotting undead and sent to kill you. The other dwarves in the legion weren't much better, they were all lunatics, but none of them seemed as insane as Ori.
The dwarf finished polishing one of the bottles and was now muttering to it. Then, with a quick look around the empty tavern which apparently didn't include its windows, he took the rag out of the bottle's mouth and took a short gulp of the substance. Great, no wonder he's insane
. With a shake of his head Duncan turned away and walked over to ka'Tanga.
"Ori drinking from his bombs again?" asked the archer upon seeing the look on Duncan's face.
For a moment the soldier was too surprised to even react. "You knew?" he shouted so loud that Rand dropped to the ground and started to look for enemies while the girl began laughing at him.
"Yes" ka'Tanga calmly replied. "And before you ask, I did report him to Balin."
"And?" The pathfinder was the closest thing to a leader that the dwarves had since being driven out of Myrgard.
"And he said Ori is just looking for a good death against the undead and we shouldn't stop him if he ever finds it" replied the archer. Duncan shivered. Ever since the dwarves had lost their ancestral home they had become fatalistic and morbid. He frowned. Not that the fir'Bolg were much better company. Before the coming of the Fallen Lords, the fir'Bolg and Men had fought many times and it was only the greater threat that led to this current alliance.
Oh well, we make do with what we've got
He was just about to ask ka'Tanga if he had anything to drink, though the fir'Bolg alcohol was arguably worse than Thayer's stuff, when another of the recruits ran into the market shouting at the top of his lungs.
"THE UNDEAD! THE UNDEAD ARE ATTACKING!"
As soon as the villagers heard that, the shouting and wailing became deafening and Duncan cursed the idiot for spreading panic like that. If the fool didn't die in the next two hours, he'd have the fun duty of burning the corpses and cleaning the armor and weapons. Marching over to the panicking recruit Duncan punched him in the mouth, dropping him to the ground. Then he grabbed the dazed boy by his tabard, which was still covered in the blood of its ten previous owners, and hauled him to his feet.
"Take a deep breath and calm yourself" said Duncan. He saw the boy was about to shout again so he added "Yell one more time and I'm going to drive my knee in your groin so hard you'll spit your balls out." That got the recruit's attention and he clamped his jaw shut.
After a few moments he opened his mouth and whispered so softly Duncan barely heard him "Thrall and soulless are crossing the bridge." Shit. If they're crossing the bridge it means they're coming from the north which means they've been shadowing us the whole time
. Now the question remained if the undead force was sent to shadow them or if they were simply a raiding party.
Duncan quickly questioned him and by the time Sergeant Bran showed up he had a clear enough picture of the situation. "What's this man screaming about undead?" asked the Sergeant who was rather new to soldiering himself. He only got his rank because his dad has saved Captain Tarquin's life and the Captain was a man who paid his debts.
"We got about forty thrall and six soulless crossing the bridge and heading this way. Merric's patrol is now keeping an eye on them" reported Duncan.
"Any ghols?" asked Bran.
"None that I saw" shrugged the recruit and Duncan realized he couldn't remember the boy's name.
"So just thrall and soulless. Well then" said Bran while clapping his hands "we'll let the fir'Bolg take out the soulless and then the dwarf can prove his use by blowing up some of the thrall. Corporal go gather the men."
Without bothering to salute Duncan found the others and the squad made its way to the bridge. As they left the village one of the few men, probably the village idiot, fearfully asked what will happen to his pumpkins. Duncan's suggestion that they'll be made into pie was met with horror and a lot sobbing.
Atop a small hill overlooking the road that led to the bridge, they found Merric and his four men.
"You got here just in time" said Merric as Duncan reached him. "The undead spotted us and are heading this way."
"Thrall shuffling uphill" muttered Duncan and he and Merric grinned. The one downside that the Fallen Lords faced with their undead army was that unless one of them wasn't personally directing them, the undead were dumb as nails.
"Still no sign of ghols?" asked Duncan and Merric shook his head. It wasn't something that Duncan found comforting. There wasn't much cover around but there was just enough that a crafty ghol could use to sneak up on them.
"Squad form line!" shouted Sergeant Bran and the warriors formed an eight man shield wall. "Corporal I said form line" said Bran when he noticed Duncan didn't join his fellows.
"We should keep a couple of men in reserve, sir."
"What for? The enemy is right there."
Mentally cursing the blue blooded idiot Duncan continued "In case ghols have infiltrated the area."
"The recruit didn't report any ghols and I don't see any marching with the thrall."
"Sir – "
"Corporal get in line or you'll face disciplinary charges when we get back to the legion" shouted Bran and with a silent curse Duncan joined his comrades.
"You really know how to step in it" whispered Merric.
"It's a gift" he replied. Now that he was in formation he could clearly see the undead force. The forty thrall had formed a solid block that was slowly approaching them. The walking corpses didn't have much in the way of armor, just strips of leather and they were slow and awkward enough that they couldn't use most weapons very well. Which was why they were armed with oversized axes that could split a man with one powerful blow from undead muscles that were incapable of feeling tired. Flanking that force were six soulless, floating skeletons without legs who were armed with poison tipped javelins.
The four fir'Bolg archers took their places behind the warriors and took aim while Ori was laying down his satchel charges right in front of the short line. Being so near to that many explosives didn't make anyone feel safe or confident and the damn cackling sure wasn't helping.
Sergeant Bran raised his sword and shouted "Archers! Ready! Aim! Fi –" before his voice turned into an unintelligible scream. Duncan turned to see what had happened and saw that Bran was choking and coughing and his face was covered in some yellow-whiteish goo. There was also a piece of rotting flesh at his feet. Shit
. Somebody, probably a ghol, had thrown a piece of wight flesh at the Sergeant and the poor bugger had swallowed some of the wight puss. He was now staggering about and the horror in his eyes told Duncan that the man was well aware of the painful and disgusting death that now awaited him.
Before anyone could do anything, six ghols jumped from the few trees that crowned the hill. The ghol's weren't undead but they had sided with the rotten bastards and now charged the archers. ka"Tanga managed to turn around and put and arrow through the eye of the first ghol before the others reached them with their knuckle dragging sprint. One of the archers screamed horribly as two ghols slashed their cleavers through his guts. He fell to his knees and got his face bitten off by one of his killers who then proceeded to feast on the contents of his skull.
With a curse Duncan and Merric turned around and charged the ghols. The archers were unable to pick off the soulless and the bastards were now taking advantage of that and were throwing javelins indiscriminately – mostly trying to kill Ori. Dumb as nails as they were, the undead still recognized the dwarf as the biggest threat. The other warriors were now forming a shield between Ori and the soulless and the dwarf was lightning one of his bombs. The fact that he was standing atop one of his satchel charged only went unnoticed by the warriors because they were too busy hiding behind their shields. Otherwise they would have run for their lives.
Duncan charged the nearest ghol and yelped as a javelin fell past him, almost close enough to graze his helm. It struck the ghol in the shoulder and the beast yelled and turned its back to Duncan. Knowing the poison would kill the filthy thing in minutes, the warrior ignored the ghol and turned toward another. It had just ripped out the throat of another archer and Duncan snarled as he sank his blade deep into its side, piercing its lungs. It tried to scream but it only managed to spew blood from its mouth and dropped, drowning in its own blood. The ghol that had stopped to eat now locked up, it's mouth covered in blood and it snarled, exposing bits of brain clinging to its teeth. It jumped toward Duncan who was about to impale it on his blade when he was distracted by the sound of an explosion from the bottom of the hill. Ori had thrown one of his bombs and now bits of thrall began to rain. A hand struck Duncan's head and he momentarily lowered his shield just as the ghol struck him.
It brought him down, its cleaver sinking in Duncan's right shoulder through a weak spot in his chain mail. He grunted as the hooked cleaver was ripped free of his flesh and he knew his right arm was useless until he got someone to look at it. Letting go of his shield he quickly drew his dagger and sank it in the ghol's right thigh. It howled and the cleaver came down to split his skull. He barely managed to move his head aside as the thing bit into the ground. Swallowing his disgust at the thought of what he was about to do, Duncan quickly bit the ghol's wrist, sinking his teeth in its filthy flesh and keeping it from using its cleaver again. This mostly just annoyed the ghol and it brought its left fist down on his face. Grunting from the blow he pulled the dagger out and began randomly stabbing it. The next few moments passed like that, the ghol trying to punch him to death while he bit its hand and frantically stabbed it. Finally it died and collapsed on top of him. Letting go of the thing's wrist he began spitting, trying vainly to get rid of the disgusting taste.
Suddenly the weight was taken off him as Merric dragged the corpse away. "Come on, we killed the ghols and Ori managed to take out some of the soulless but the thrall are almost here" he said as he dragged Duncan up.
"Right" said Duncan, wincing from the pain in his right shoulder "tell the men to pull back." As Merrin began issuing orders, Duncan looked around for the fir'Bolg. ka'Tanga was still alive and he nodded, knowing what to do.
The squad began backing away, Ori cursing the undead and throwing his last bomb. The warriors watched it arch toward the thrall but the flaming rag went out before it hit the ground and nothing happened. This got the dwarf cursing even more furiously. As the squad continued to retreat Duncan saw Rand dragging Sergeant Bran, who was now projectile vomiting and he noticed they were missing a man. The recruit who had run into the village yelling about the undead. Where was he? Then he noticed the still form impaled by two javelins. They were halfway to the bottom of the hill when the thrall reached the satchel charges that Ori had planted earlier and Duncan saw ka'Tanga send a flaming arrow toward them.
Their eyes were glued to the arrow. It leapt into the sky and then began plunging down. They all held their breaths, knowing the arrow was just as likely to lodge itself in the skull of a thrall and that would achieve nothing. It struck right on top of a satchel charge filled to the brim with a certain black powder. The top of the hill disappeared in one big fireball that threw everyone to the ground and left them all deaf for an hour. Of the undead raiding force all that remained was a charred crater.
Well at least there no bodies to burn
, thought Duncan. Then he remembered the recruit and he sighed. Three archers, one warrior and their sergeant were dead. While it didn't seem like much he knew that they could not win a war of attrition against the Fallen Lords.
That night, with his shoulder bandaged and his arm in a sling, Duncan got drunk with Merric and Thayer while the recruits were enjoying the attention of grateful village girls and Sergeant Bran was vomiting his lungs – by morning he was dead.
They burned the body and raced to catch up with the legion. Duncan was damned if he was going to miss the battle of Madrigal. If his comrades were going to die in that battle then he would join them.