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Discussion Starter · #1 · (Edited)
Chosen

‘Archers! Dress that line!’

An insistent breeze whispered through the orchard at their backs, raining pale pink blossom petals on the double line of two hundred strongbow men and women shuffling into sharper formation. The fruit trees stood in their own formation atop Pomma Hill, to the west of a small town called Duskwood. The archers stood on the western slope of the hill, behind overlapping lines of fire hardened stakes, three metres long with rough-hewn points. Arrows were stuck point down into the wet ground before each of them and all carried a second quiver on their backs.

Not far from the base, a narrow road wound from the south, bending around the northern curve of Pomma Hill and east into town. On the other side of the road, acres of frost-rimed grass stretched for half a kilometer to the edge of the vast dark forest of green-black trees from which the town took its name.

An early-spring sun was just cresting the treetops behind, casting long shadows ahead of the archers and bathing the area in a watery yellow glow. A fleet of iron and steel clouds sailed across the blue-green sky. The wind was an icy spectre of the previous winter; men and women blew on their hands and stamped their feet to ward off the morning chill. The last of the snow was weeks gone now and with the thaw had come the resumption of war.

Cambrius stood at ease in the front row, to the right of centre, with his fellow archers spread out to either side. Many of them were veterans of last year’s campaigning, marked by the still-pink scars of their healed wounds and their hard, unflinching stares down field. He checked his bowstring for the third time in as many minutes and brushed petals from his shoulder, nervous energy keeping him from standing still. This would be his first battle.

Shouting the orders was Tavio, serjeant of the strongbow unit and Cambrius’ older brother. Tavio was tall and well-muscled with bright red-gold hair cut short. He was confident and capable, a trusted leader in the duchess’ army. Tavio was everything Cambrius hoped to become.

The brothers were the second and third children of a merchant from the ducal capital of Bridon and would have nothing to inherit after their eldest sister. On his thirteenth name-day, when he was old enough, Tavio chose to swear his oaths to the Duchess and fight for realm and regent. Three years younger, Cambrius had to wait until his own thirteenth name-day had come last harvest before he could follow his brother into the service. After what felt like an interminable winter of training, he had finally been given the maroon tabard that marked him as a soldier of Bridon. He was nearly as tall as Tavio now, perhaps not as broad, but lean and strong.

Cambrius picked another pomma petal from his tabard and looked up to find Serjeant Tavio striding over to him. The archers nearby quit their low chatting and stiffened to attention. Tavio slowed to a stop, his expression stony as he looked his younger sibling up and down. Cambrius stood rigidly to attention, eyes forward. After a moment, he dared a glance at Tavio and found him grinning.

‘Good to see you, little brother,’ Tavio said as he gripped Cambrius’ forearm enthusiastically and tousled his short dark hair. ‘The treasured raven locks are gone, I see. Dagdus-Imperator, has it only been three years?’ There had been no time for reunion since mustering in Duskwood last night, catching a few winks of sleep, and marching in the hours before dawn. Now, in the lull before battle, was a chance to embrace and speak together. Perhaps for the last time.

‘Aye, though it felt like ten,’ Cambrius replied, smiling.

‘At least,’ agreed Tavio. ‘You certainly seem to have grown as much. And an archer, too. Can you pull that strongbow?’

‘Strong enough for a full draw, Serjeant Tavio,’ said Cambrius, grinning.

Tavio smirked and turned to glance over his shoulder. ‘Good man.’

Not far away, Lance-Captain Connemar Ramos sat astride his destrier, puffs of breath from both steaming in the morning air. Man and animal were mirror images of each other – stiff-necked and proud but eminently capable. The captain was a respected commander of the duchess’ forces. The long black horsetail plume that hung down from the peak of his full-faced helm had been earned with loyal and gallant service. Seated in a holder near his right stirrup was the black lance, the weapon dedicated to the defeat of the enemy’s leader. Ramos himself had sworn oaths over the lance: victory or death.

With Ramos – and comprising his command unit – were knights from the area, all vassals of the local Baronet Malia, a well-respected minor noble who was also present in the unit. They were clad in burnished plate, with exaggerated shoulder armour etched with their heraldries. Nearby were the bannermen. The maroon of Bridon, blazoned with a rampant white dragon, drifted in the chill breeze with the smaller gonfalons bearing the colours of the baronet, his knights, and Ramos’ personal command standard. One man was handler to Heartseeker, the lance-captain’s timberfox. Standing almost a metre at the shoulder, the female was sleek and muscular, capable of chasing down a courser and then taking its rider from the saddle in one powerful leap. It was said that Heartseeker had been just another of Ramos’ hunting animals, until a few years ago when she had saved the man from a charging sabreboar during a hunt. The loyal timberfox had been a fixture at the lance-captain’s side ever since.

Tavio’s expression was serious again as he looked back to his brother. ‘All right, I’m off again,’ he said. ‘You be smart, Cam. Follow orders and fight like I know you can. I don’t know that I’ll be able to look out for you, but I expect to see you again when the battle’s won.’

‘Aye, Tav. I’ll make you proud.’

He clapped his younger brother on the shoulder. Before he turned away, Cambrius asked, ‘Who are we fighting?’

Tavio paused for a moment, glancing back toward the tree line. He shrugged. ‘I’ve asked that same question myself, but no one seems willing or able to provide much of an answer. All I’ve been able to piece together is that they’ve massacred three small towns already, and they aren’t from any of the local realms.’

With a last appraising look at his brother, Tavio nodded then moved back towards his position. Cambrius watched his brother for a moment before a rough voice growled from his left. ‘Don’t worry, lad. We’ll look out for you.’

He looked down the line to a willowy, older boy with a hawk nose and thin lips. ‘As you will for us,’ he continued. Heads nearby nodded in confirmation.

One voice piped up. ‘Speak for yerself, Gander. Once we get in it, it’s every man and woman fer themselfs.’

‘All right, as you will for us except that blackguard Jamish,’ Gander amended.

‘Aye, I will,’ Cambrius replied with a solemn nod, frowning at the slightly older Jamish. He took a deep breath of cold morning air and looked around at the Bridonian formation. The unit was called a lance-fortified, Cambrius had been told during training, a versatile combined formation of cavalry, infantry, and archers. Further down the slope of Pomma Hill, the men-at-arms were stationed behind more lines of stakes. Bracketing to either side were squadrons of mounted yeomen, for flanking and for running down routed units, and the knights of Lance-Captain Ramos’ fifty-strong unit.

There were gaps on the ends of the stake-lines so that the cavalry units could sally forth and attack on the level ground between the hill and the forest. When all the chisel-headed arrows had been loosed upon the foe, the archers’ would draw their short swords and supplement the infantry holding the line. Ramos would advance with his cavalry to charge any enemies that survived the clouds of arrows. The lance-captain had a reputation as a commander that led from the front and, it was said, could always be found where the fighting was thickest.

A low and distant roaring rose from across the grassy field, from within the dark forest.

‘Archers! Stand ready!’ shouted Tavio from his place in the centre. The double line of men and women came to a ready stance, their tall strongbows gripped at their sides. From down the hill, the same command was barked by the serjeant of the men-at-arms.

‘Cavalry! Make ready!’ Ramos commanded, his voice precisely the booming bass one might expect from deep in his barrel chest. Cambrius could hear the quiet rumbling of the captain’s warhorse whickering. The destrier, Thunderchild by name, was a powerful smoke-grey beast, standing head and shoulders above the men and women on foot. Clad in plate barding beneath flowing caparisons the same deep red as his rider’s livery, the steed was every bit as fierce and fearsome.

Ramos unlimbered the black lance, three metres of ebon duskwood tipped with thirty-six centimetres of blued steel. There was but one destiny for a black lance and, one way or another, that destiny was death.

The roaring from within Duskwood Forest grew and a chanting rhythm could be heard in time with pounding drums, like the heartbeat of a fell monster. Seemingly at random, as though deliberately sowing discord, there came jarring blasts from horns. From high, brazen trumpeting to the low blatting of carnaxes, the noise was a thing of nightmares.

‘Emperor’s hairy balls, what is that?’

‘Shut yer yammer-hole, Jamish,’ replied a stocky woman with thick ginger hair.

‘Archers! Nock!’ hollered Tavio. With an excuse to tear their eyes from the tree line, the archers nocked their first arrows, holding them ready to draw.

Cambrius looked up again just as the first dark shapes of the enemy broke from the forest, surging like a foul tide onto the open ground. They were massive, tall and broad; thick slabs of muscle rippled under their green hides. Brutal tusks sprouted from heavy jaws, pitted and yellowed and dripping with slaver. They hefted all manner of weapons: cudgels and heavy cleavers, thick swords and axes, crude spears and scythes and spiked clubs. The monsters roared at the Bridonians, a sound of pure malice and hate.

Emerging from behind these beasts were smaller creatures, lithe and wiry and lighter in colour. They cackled and howled as they capered about, shaking fists and waving short blades.

Unseen in the misty clouds high above, angels watched with interest.

* * * * *

‘Confirmed, Brother-Sergeant: we have our first greenskin presence on Persica.’

Scout-Sergeant Thantis of the Arkangels chapter of Adeptus Atartes leaned over Brother Amydon’s shoulder and confirmed with his own eyes what the Thunderhawk’s augurs were reporting.

‘It was no mere meteorite that struck the northern reaches, after all,’ said the Techmarine.

‘So it would seem, Brother,’ replied Thantis. ‘Maintain a watch over the battle. Record and log everything. I will have to report this to the planetary governor in person.’

‘By your will, it is done,’ Brother Amydon said as he began implementing the sergeant’s orders. Thantis rubbed his chin.

‘One thing is for certain,’ he said. ‘This should provide for an interesting recruitment opportunity.’

* * * * *

The last chisel-headed arrow leapt from Cambrius’ strongbow. He lost sight of it immediately in the cloud of loosed shafts, but it hardly mattered. When the cloud rained down death four hundred metres away, it did so into a horde so thick that it was impossible not to find green flesh to pierce.

Cambrius was panting as though he had been running. The sights and sounds of battle assaulted his senses and had made it hard to focus at first. In his haste, he had loosed his first arrow poorly and the bowstring had snapped hard against his leather vambrace. With an effort, he blocked out everything but Tavio’s commands, not even looking down field but instead along his shafts as he aimed high into the morning air. After the fifth volley, he had established a steady rhythm. Retrieve arrow, nock, draw and aim, loose.

With no arrows left, there was little for the archers to do but set their bows next to their empty quivers and await further orders. They had an unfortunately good view of the battle below. Men-at-arms had advanced up the centre and met the greenskin charge with polearms, leaving a reserve behind the stake lines. With seemingly no regard for their own lives, the greenskins had charged the line, some swatting spears and halberds aside, most just running headlong towards battle. Dozens of the monsters had been run through, but the tide rolled inexorably forwards, smashing heads and hacking limbs. One towering brute opened his jaws wide and bit the head off of a foot soldier, helm and all.

‘Sweet Emperor’s mother,” whimpered Jamish. No one called him down.

A horn sounded to the right flank, answered by one on the left, and the yeoman cavalry moved through the gaps in the stake lines. In the middle Cambrius saw Ramos gesture to a bannerman, who in turn waved a signal.

‘Archers! Form for combat!’ Much to his credit, Tavio’s voice trembled only slightly. The strung-out double line became a rough box of ten ranks, twenty abreast, as the archers ran to a pre-assigned position. Cambrius stood in the second rank.

‘Draw blades!’ Tavio ordered.

A soft rasping sounded down the line as the archers drew their wide-bladed short swords. That the archers had blades to draw spoke to the wealth of the Duchy of Bridon and to the importance Duchess Caera o Draco placed on a strong army, well-trained and well-equipped.

At another wave of the lance-captain’s banner, Tavio shouted, ‘Archers! Advance centre!’ He turned and pointed his own blade at the greenskin horde. ‘The Emperor protects! March!’

* * * * *

Amydon turned from his display and looked over his shoulder to Thantis. ‘They are losing,’ the techmarine stated.

‘They have never encountered orks before,’ the sergeant replied, not looking up from his own display. ‘Given the fear-inducing nature of the xenos filth, I would say the Persicans are doing rather well.’

Amydon grunted. ‘A stubborn lot, certainly.’

‘They are that, brother. But I think it is the strength of their faith in the Emperor that lends them their courage.’

Amydon adjusted the Thunderhawk’s flight path slightly. The Sun Chariot still had a tendency to drift to the right. He made a mental note to correct it once they returned to the chapter keep. A brief burst of static sounded in his ear, followed by a vox transmission from Persican High Command in orbit.

‘Intervention and containment elements are inbound. They are equipped with heavy flamers as you advised, Brother-Sergeant.’

Thantis nodded. ‘Good. I want every trace of the greenskins and their leavings cleansed and burned to ash. Let us hope we can expunge the ork filth from this world and return it to its pristine state.’

* * * * *

Cambrius ducked and the spiked cudgel passed just over his head. It slammed into Gander next to him, breaking his neck even as a spike drove through his skull. A spear thrust forwards from behind his right shoulder, driving into the roaring monster’s open mouth. Cambrius quickly stabbed his sword into the greenskin’s throat and the brute gurgled blood as it finally fell.

The men-at-arms had been mired in combat when the archer auxiliaries arrived. In bolstering the foot soldiers, the two formations had become intermingled. Many archers like Jamish and the ginger-haired woman, armoured only in padded cloth, were quickly slain. Cambrius had acquired a longer sword and an iron-banded wooden shield from a dead foot soldier which had greatly aided him in surviving to this point.

The savage grunts and roars of the greenskins combined with the battle cries and death screams of the Bridonians into a deafening clamour. Now, a bass rumble underscored the noise, growing louder and shaking the earth beneath his feet.

“The Duchess and Bridon!” came a stentorian bellow. With a tremendous crash, Ramos’ heavy cavalry smashed into the greenskins, a blur of armoured horses and flashing hooves, skewering lances and singing swords. The timberfox Heartseeker flashed by almost too quickly to see.

Cambrius threw himself back, and rolled aside, away from the wedge of knights. Stumbling to his feet, he found a momentary respite from the fighting and took the opportunity to look around. He scanned for his brother and found Tavio near the front. He too had taken up a shield but was thrusting a spear instead of his gladius. A second wedge of cavalry plowed in the line nearby and Tavio stumbled and fell as he reeled back from the charging yeoman. Cambrius ran to his brother.

He gained Tavio’s side just as his older brother slipped in the thick mud formed of dirt and blood, falling on his backside. ‘That very thing happened to me just moments ago,’ Cambrius panted as he offered a hand to Tavio. With a grin he took it, leaping to his feet and crushing Cambrius in a brief but fierce embrace.

‘Very good to see you again,’ Tavio said, releasing Cambrius and picking up his spear and shield. ‘Back at it, yeah?’

The brothers turned to rejoin the fighting but paused as great black flying creatures swooped in out of the morning sun at their backs, passing overhead, screaming as they came. The black dragons breathed streams of fire and the earth erupted, tearing great swathes in the horde and setting the trees of the Duskwood ablaze.

‘Dagdus-Imperator!’ Tavio exclaimed. ‘He sends His holy Host to aid us against the monsters!’

To the north and south, immense flying creatures touched down and disgorged formations of foot soldiers clad in black and regal blue. They marched forwards, advancing on the greenskins. The horde of monsters immediately turned to face the new threat and roared in defiance. The response from the Emperor’s Host was terse. Furious red lines leapt from their weapons with angry snap-cracks. Entire lines of the monsters were mowed down even as the dragons circled overhead for another pass.

Horns sounded retreat as the cavalry formations rode back to Pomma Hill. Many lost control of their mounts as the fury of the Host spooked even trained warhorses. The surviving men-at-arms and auxiliaries turn and ran back to the stake lines. Cambrius and Tavio ran with them, with Tavio shouting orders to form up. Some did but most continued running without regard for order. When they were nearly to the base of the hill where the reserve men-at-arms stood, Tavio ordered those men and women who had formed up to turn and face.

Even as they turned, greenskins mounted on hulking sabreboars smashed into their lines. A clutch of the smaller greenskins followed on foot a hundred metres behind, waving blades and screeching their bloodlust as they charged. Bodies were crushed or trampled under the monstrous mounts, soldiers butchered as the mounted brutes passed. One charging sabreboar caught a front hoof in the caved-in skull of one foot soldier and stumbled, spilling its rider. In the tumult and carnage, Cambrius saw his brother brace his spear against the ground and angle the tip just as a sabreboar crashed into it, impaling itself and thrashing as it fell. He lost sight of his brother as the greenskin riders continued up the hill.

‘Tavio!’ he cried and hurried in the direction he saw his brother fall. The smaller greenskins were only a dozen metres away as Cambrius pushed through the ranks and saw Tavio lying face up and still, half buried under the dead sabreboar.

Cambrius felt as though he’d been kicked in the gut. A hot tear raced down his cheek as the greenskins capered into the ragged ranks of foot soldiers. Grief numbed him even as hatred and fury washed through him on a molten tide. As he looked to the oncoming monsters, his mind and muscles were flooded with a need for holy vengeance.

Standing over his brother, Cambrius joined battle once more. He shield-bashed a charging greenskin, stunning it, and took its head with one furious swing of his sword. He followed up with a backswing that buried the blade between the ribs of another. He pulled it free, spilling the monster’s guts as another greenskin caromed off his shield and fell at his feet. Looking down, Cambrius smashed the edge of his shield into the thing’s throat, crushing it and nearly severing the head.

In his grief and rage, Cambrius became a storm of metal and flesh, killing wherever he struck. Six, seven, eight greenskins fell to the ground around him. He spun to face a ninth when a cudgel hammered into the back of his head. A flash of white pervaded his vision, and then everything went black.

* * * * *

‘Brother-Sergeant?’

‘I see him, Amydon.’ Thantis watched as a young Persican boy suddenly went from common foot soldier to ferocious killer. He knew not the catalyst for the transformation, nor did he care. All that mattered was that the boy appeared to possess the fortitude and spirit and the towering will that made him a suitable candidate for recruitment.

If, of course, the boy survived the battle.

The boy had slain eight gretchin already and was swinging his sword at a ninth when another caught him from behind. The boy fell to the ground in a boneless heap. The skirmish continued until a Chimera slewed to a halt nearby. The gretchin shrieked and fled; the Chimera gave chase, running down and crushing the greenskins under its treads, those that weren’t picked off by the armoured vehicle’s guns.

‘Take us down, Brother. I’ve seen all I need.’

* * * * *

Tavio woke to pain. His right leg throbbed with a heavy dull ache and his chest hurt. A sharp pain stabbed his side with each indrawn breath. He tried to sit up; his head swam with the effort but Tavio gritted his teeth and fought the urge to be sick. He focused on his leg, and found it to be pinned beneath the carcass of the sabreboar he’d brought down. There was a deep gash in the calf muscle, torn by one of the long razor-edged tusks for which the beast was named. Tavio looked up, casting about for someone who might be able to help. There was a lot of smoke obscuring the field, from burning trees along the edge of the forest and from piles of greenskin corpses. Some soldiers of the Emperor’s Host were washing the battleground in fire, others were lifting the bodies of the dead monsters, carrying and tossing them onto the pyres. Black-armoured squads moved about the field, scrutinising the fallen. Every so often a Host soldier would plunge a bayonet into a green throat. A thought occurred to Tavio then, slapping him into focus like cold water in the face.

Cambrius.

Tavio looked about frantically, scanning the human bodies, both desperate and afraid to find his brother. He tried to pull his leg free and bit back a scream as a sickening wave of pain crashed through him. Again he fought his heaving stomach, swallowing his bile and continuing his search. He heard a curious buzzing noise and the squelch of boots in the mud behind him and twisted around as best he could. His breath caught in his throat and he froze open-mouthed at what he saw.

It reminded Tavio of a knight, clad in full heavy armour with overlarge shoulder plates – if a knight were three metres tall. The armour was alabaster white, trimmed in shining gold, and seemed not to impede the knight at all, though the armour must have weighed a tremendous amount. Striding with purpose, its heavy tread could be felt as well as heard, and the knight moved with a warrior’s grace. It stopped and knelt not five metres away, and scooped up one of the fallen with both hands. The head flopped down and the rare dark hair and familiar features of his brother were clear.

‘Cam!’ Tavio cried. The warrior in white and gold turned. Across its chest was the Holy Aquila, bright gold and glinting in the sun. This was no knight or mere warrior. This was a demi-god. This was one of the Emperor’s Angels.

Horror and hope, awe and grief, flooded through Tavio all at once. Three times he tried to speak before words would leave his mouth, but finally he managed: ‘Is he…?’

The angel stared at Tavio. The blue lenses in its helm held his grey eyes for a moment.

‘He lives.’ The reply was deep and sonorous, but strangely distorted by the helm.

‘What…? Where are you…?’ Tavio sputtered, reaching out as though to touch his brother.

The angel paused again, as though considering whether to respond. Finally, the alabaster demi-god turned to leave. ‘He is chosen,’ it said, striding off to the south.

Stunned and confused, Tavio’s arm dropped. ‘Chosen…’ he whispered. His head swam and he lay back down. His mind numbed and his senses blended everything into a white noise.

Tavio knew not how long he lay there. The sky darkened from blue-green to deep jade and the setting sun painted the high drifting clouds a dusty rose. A man-shaped silhouette hove into view, focusing Tavio’s attention. Something moved slightly and a bright light was shone into Tavio’s face, making him squint and shield his eyes.

The silhouette turned away and shouted, ‘One here, lieutenant!’ Tavio tried to sit up again, but a firm hand on his chest held him down. Tavio winced at the pressure and the stabbing ache in his side.

‘Just rest easy, lad,’ said the silhouette. ‘Help is coming.’

Tavio tried to turn his head as he remembered. ‘An angel took my brother.’

‘An angel…? Ah.’ Tavio could hear the understanding smile in the man’s voice. ‘It seems your brother was chosen to ascend, lad, by the grandsons of the Emperor Himself. A rare and precious honour and you can be proud of that, though it means you may never see him again.’ Tavio frowned.

‘But don’t worry, you’re also going to ascend, though not nearly so high,’ the man chuckled. ‘You and the surviving members of your lance will be joining us in defending this entire world.’

The man raised his arm high and Tavio’s gaze followed as he swept it across the sky, indicating the innumerable stars brightening in the falling night. ‘And, of course, the whole of the Imperium.’
 

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A promising beginning. Very well-written, and as DtH said the successive reveals were done well; it also really felt like a fantasy/historical work at first, and a good one, while being twisted into 40K quickly enough that it isn't frustrating.
 

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Discussion Starter · #5 ·
Thank you both for your kind words! The story is inspired by the homebrew Imperial Guard I wrote up for Persica, and my homebrew Arkangels chapter. I wasn't sure that the idea of a feudal Persica governed by a contemporary Imperial society was coming across too clearly, so I wanted to show it in narrative.

I was very aware of the moratorium on crossovers with Warhammer Fantasy, so I made a conscious effort to make feudal Persica distinctly 40K - the knights clad in exaggerated shoulder armour etched with their heraldries, for example.

As far as more and further, I have an idea rolling about my skull for a short glimpse into the brothers' next meeting, decades down the road. :)
 
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