North-west of Merywyn, Llael.
7th of Katesh, 611 AR.
The Llaelese countryside grew more beautiful every passing day. Rolling grassy hills speckled with asymmetrical fields of wheat and corn, the occasional roaming herd of sheep that kept a cautious distance from the advancing troops who eyed the lambs hungrily, weary of field rations. Intermittent spreads of woodland– cessil oak, black pine, larches. It was a magnificent country. This was Joffrey’s home.
He sat on a grassy knoll at noon to take a break, the midday heat baking him in his heavy armor. The water in his canteen was warm, but better than nothing. A bird landed nearby, eyeing him with curiosity and the hope of food. Joffrey stared at the little creature.
“Tues ple’Llaelese que ce mi,” he said quietly. You’re more Llaelese than I am. The bird chirped a couple of times, tilted its head, and vanished in a flutter of wings.
Every step of his boots left cracks that etched themselves deeper and deeper into the already thin and peeling veneer of his identity. He felt like an invader disguised as a rescuer. Albyn had proven that. The Khadorans would not allow them to retake Llael without burning every last city and village to the ground out of sheer Northern spite. Joffrey’s years-long ambition of saving his homeland from the Khadoran invaders seemed now to be utterly impossible. Every mile of the 30th Battalion’s agonizingly slow advance through this land left scars and resentments in their wake; stolen animals, destroyed homes, trampled fields, obliterated towns, broken families.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, his failure to control himself during the negotiation between Captain Kasey and the miserable greylord dog had cost him not only the respect of his superiors, but the trust of his fellow soldiers. He had not been permitted to enter Albyn during the invasion, and the trenchers in his unit took great pains to avoid him. He was now truly alone. And yet, he thought about Liliana’s words… “Jel’aurai fait tu.”
I would have done the same. Maybe it was worth it in the end. At least Liliana was still alive.
“Break’s over,” someone announced to Joffrey from behind. His new unit leader. “Let’s move, private.” It was the most anyone had spoken to him all day. Joffrey stood, stretching his aching shoulders before donning his pack once more.
Their march away from Albyn was painstakingly slow. Small groups of Khadoran harassment units– irregulars made up of skilled and stealthy woodsmen imported from the far north for this very purpose– moved ahead of them during the day and built boobytraps overnight. Suicidal widowmakers lay hidden in ambush, perfectly camouflaged as the company trudged through, waiting until they were a few hundred yards ahead before firing at the trenchers’ backs and forcing whole platoons to halt in search of the attackers. Yesterday they only moved a mile. Even Joffrey seemed unable to pinpoint where the enemy was hiding, their hunting blinds were so well-disguised. Incapable of redeeming himself with his skill, he remained a social outcast.
Even the replacements learned to avoid him. Fresh-faced young boys just barely out of training and thrust into the depths of the conflict, standing in for men and women who had fallen only days and sometimes hours before their arrival. They served as unwelcome reminders of loss for every unit they filled out, and they were almost universally hated by their peers. Frightened and alienated, the poor replacements seemed to sense Joffrey’s status as a pariah and avoided him almost instinctively, desperately hoping to earn the approval of their new units. Joffrey felt for them. The only difference between them and him was they seemed to stand a chance of gaining some respect, if they could survive. Joffrey represented the absolute floor of the pecking order in Hammer Company. Joffrey tried to think of his role as an act of service; every replacement at least knew they weren’t as disliked as Joffrey. And the really new ones, the ones who hadn’t caught on yet, at least got to receive a friendly word and smile from someone in the platoon when they arrived, even if they quickly came to understand that Joffrey was to be avoided.
He wondered if he would have offered these olive branches to the greenies if he still had the heroic idolization he first experienced from his trench mates when entering Llael. If he weren’t an outcast, would he feel as resentful towards the greenies as everyone else? He wasn’t sure. Right now, their gratitude and relief at seeing his friendliness was like a balm to his lonely soul. It never lasted long.
But at least there were always more replacements.
Jason Merrimack lay on his cot, staring at the tent ceiling that he had been memorizing for a week now. He was supposed to be resting. He was resting, or at least his body was. His mind, though…
A week of recovery had been forced upon him by Captain Kasey, ameliorated somewhat by a medal and a promotion to sergeant. The stylized wings of his rank felt heavy against his collar as he lay in the sick ward south of Albyn, where 30th Battalion HQ had been just a few weeks earlier. The battalion had moved on without him.
The huge spike of wood that had penetrated his thigh in that little bookshop in Albyn had been removed and stitched up, but the muscle was torn and causing him agonizing pain, along with three broken ribs from the bookcase that had nearly crushed him, even as it had saved his life from the blast. The bullet wound in his shoulder was easy to deal with by comparison, and his stitched-up cheek was little more than a minor inconvenience. Other soldiers lay on cots around him, most of them more severely injured than he was; missing limbs, severe head wounds, terrible burns, bodies cut open by shrapnel… He hated being there in large part because he felt he didn’t belong. Most of these soldiers would be going home.
He was absolutely determined not to.
Footsteps approached softly over the yellowing grass inside the tent. Merrimack sat up, hiding the grimace– or at least trying to.
“Back down, Sergeant,” the man said. He was a white-robed figure, head shaved bald, a book with the sigil of Morrow held against his chest by one hand.
“Reverend,” Merrimack said quietly.
“Sergeant, this is the third time you’ve called on me today,” the minister said, voice gentle but firm. “There are limits to the healing powers of Morrow, my son. We cannot go too fast.”
“You have to,” Merrimack pleaded. “My men need me. I can’t abandon them.” Hah, he mused. I’m already calling them my men. How quickly I slip into rank.
The reverend sighed patiently, crouching down beside Merrimack.
“My son, healing magic has consequences,” he said quietly. “We are here to help the physicians, not replace them. Your bones and muscles must be given the chance to knit on their own.”
“I know what you can do,” Merrimack said, undaunted. “I saw what you did to Lieutenant Fields the other night.” The reverend closed his eyes slowly, mustering patience before reopening them.
“Lieutenant Fields was on death’s door,” he said calmly. “He had an infection raging in his blood. The power of Morrow cleansed him, but his blood has been tampered with by magic. It has become unnaturally thin. He will likely have a heart attack before he turns forty.” The reverend shook his head. “There are no shortcuts to healing.”
“Bull shit,” Merrimack said, lips curling in irritation. “A bullet tumbled through his liver, he was dying of gangrene and you had him back on his feet in less than twenty-four hours.” Merrimack forced himself back up, swatting the reverend’s hand away and not bothering to hide his grimace this time. “My friends are out there fighting, and I am not there to help them.”
“They are soldiers,” the reverend said. “They can fight for themselves.”
“But they can’t fight by themselves,” Merrimack argued. “And they left here with a lot of replacements who barely know how to mount a rifle grenade. Reverend, please. I just need my leg and my shoulder to be healed enough to be mobile.” He paused before continuing, “and my ribs.”
“Even if I did what you ask,” the minister said kindly, “there is no guarantee it will work. Rushing the healing process has dangers, Sergeant. What if your ribs heal crooked? You would need surgery. What if the muscle in your leg is filled with scar tissue instead of more muscle?” he shook his head. “You are not the first soldier to beg to be healed by magic. Your recovery can be made swifter by the blessings of Morrow, but it cannot– should not– be made instant.”
“Reverend,” Merrimack pleaded, voice suddenly thick. He blinked hard. “Do you want to help me?”
“Of course, my son.”
“I am dying in here, sir,” Merrimack choked. The reverend frowned.
“But you’re healing–”
“I am dying in here,” Merrimack said, propping himself up on his good shoulder and tapping his forehead viciously. “If I have to spend another week staring at canvas while my friends fight and die without me, I am going to sneak out of this tent on my own and there isn’t a goddamn thing you can do to stop me.” He calmed his breathing. “So, I leave with a limp and a sling on my arm, or you can help.”
The reverend stared at him. Please, please, Merrimack pleaded silently. Do it for them. Do it for me. I can’t live like this.
“I can accelerate your healing,” the reverend sighed at last. “Enough to have you out of here in a week. But there will be consequences.”
“Such as?” Merrimack asked.
“Pain,” the reverend said. “Surgery will not be able to take it away. Nor will magic. You will be in pain for the rest of your life.”
The reverend tilted his head from side to side, contemplating his answer. “Less than you have now,” he said, raising his hand to interrupt Merrimack’s next words, “but I cannot say for sure. Maybe only a little less.”
“I can live with that,” Merrimack said through clenched teeth.
“Yes, I believe you,” the reverend said, eyebrows raised. “But can you fight with that? And in twenty or thirty years, when you have endured ceaseless pain day and night, will you look back on this moment now and thank yourself, or curse yourself?”
Merrimack sighed. “ I do know that I will curse myself if I don’t try everything I can to get back to my unit. That’s the kind of pain that will drive me to a bottle.”
The reverend stood, his book still clutched to his chest. He was silent for a moment.
“I will discuss it with the physician,” he said at last.
“I am walking out of here in a week, with or without your help,” Merrimack said.
The reverend smiled sadly. “I know.”
Only a few tents away from Merrimack, Gerard lay on his side in a cot of his own with tears streaming down his face. His eyes were painfully red and irritated– he hadn’t been able to stop crying for days now. Not even sleep offered any relief from the torment. Terrible dreams would jolt him awake, screaming, pillow soaked in sweat.
Over and over he rewatched Ludwig shoot himself in the head and join the bodies of those dead children. Over and over Ludwig looked him right in the eye and said “I can’t do this anymore,” and every time Ludwig said it Gerard felt his own lips moving. He was stuck in time, unable to jar himself loose.
There was nothing physically wrong with him. He knew that. The medics couldn’t assist him, and mental injuries were apparently beyond the healing magic of the priests because their prayers seemed to accomplish nothing at all. In a few more days he’d probably get shipped off the front to some comfortable hospital back in Cygnar for those soldiers whose ‘shell shock’ was severe enough to get them discharged from service.
“I can’t do this anymore,” Ludwig said, looking up at him from the pit.
“Me either,” Gerard said, perched at the edge, arms outstretched.
“How do we get out?” Ludwig asked, eyes pleading.
“I don’t know,” Gerard gasped. “I don’t know…”
BANG! Brains and skull fragments pepper Gerard’s face.
Gerard recoiled from the memory, suddenly finding himself back in his childhood, his father’s presence looming over him like a shadow. He was locked in the closet again, nine years old, sobbing quietly and nursing the wounds from his latest beating while the angry old man unleashed a tirade of curses at one of his older brothers. One of them fought back that night. Gerard couldn’t remember who. Furniture was thrown and then his father was leaving.
Gerard thought about his brothers. All of them had become trenchers to escape their domestic tyrant. All of them returned to tell him how heroic and adventurous life in the military was, reporting travels to distant cities full of loose women and gambling opportunities. Is that what he had expected this to be? A big adventure?
His father’s backhand snapped him out of his reverie.
“Why are you such worthless shit?” his father asked, sneering through a drunken haze.
Ludwig’s eyes swam with tears. “How do we get out?” the broken veteran asked.
“I don’t know!” Gerard screamed. “I don’t know! I don’t know! It was never supposed to be like this! Nobody told me to–”
Ludwig ignored Gerard and shot himself again. Brains splattered Gerard’s face again.
Gerard thought about his friends in Hammer Company moving farther and farther away from him every minute. He gritted his teeth, waiting for some glimmer of sanity to return. They were leaving him behind. They had no choice.
“We need you, Gerard,” Kirk said, eyes downcast.
“Why are you sitting around feeling sorry for yourself?” Alex said, sneering at him.
“You’re dead,” Gerard said.
“Yeah, and you don’t see me crying about it, do you?” Alex said. “For fuck’s sake, get a grip. My best friend needs you.”
“If he’s even still alive,” Peter said with a shrug.
“I CAN’T DO THIS ANYMORE!” Ludwig screamed and shot himself.
Gerard’s mind flickered back to Captain Willikers. By the gods, how he had hated that man. His cruelty had seemed so pointless, so sadistic. Now Gerard finally understood.
“I was trying to save you, boy,” the one-armed Captain said with uncharacteristic compassion. “I was trying to get you to go home.”
“Why didn’t you tell us!?” Gerard shouted at him, outraged. “How could you not warn us how bad it is!?”
“I tried,” the Captain said, blubbering like a child, snot dripping over his moustache. “I tried, boy.”
“I can’t do this anymore,” Ludwig cried, and shot himself. Skull and brains showered Gerard’s face.
“I know,” Gerard said, weeping. “I know.”
Kirk and Peter huddled together in a shallow foxhole as night’s shadow crept over the world. The company had stopped just inside a lightly forested stretch of flat land bordering two farms, similar to the one they had occupied at their very first trench position but far more manicured. The grassy floor beneath the trees was manicured by the neighboring land owners, the trees kept clean, stones moved. It was practically a little park that shone brilliantly in the afternoon light.
But now night had come, and a dense fog was settling between the trees just a few feet off the ground. With the darkness came fear. Each foxhole now felt many miles apart in the thickening mist; sounds were muted; the pale light of the waning moon scattered in the clouds and illuminated nothing beneath the fog.
“Where the fuck is that greenie,” Kirk mumbled.
Peter shrugged. “He said he was takin’ a piss,” he said. “And his name is Lucas.”
“It’s been five minutes,” Kirk said, “and I don’t want to know his name.”
“Because I’m going to have to forget it when he gets himself killed out there,” Kirk said, irritated.
“Maybe it turned into a shit,” Peter suggested. “Some of the rations went bad, I’ve heard.” He held up a bit of hardtack and gnawed on it. “Though I can’t imagine how this could possibly go bad, seeing it’s made of rock.”
“How have you been in such a good mood?” Kirk asked, gripping his knees into his chest to try and keep warm against the chill air.
“We’re out of Albyn,” Peter said.
“We failed,” Kirk said, incredulous. “What is there to be happy about?”
“I’m surrounded by allies, nobody is shooting at me right now, and the sun is finally gone,” Peter answered.
Kirk chuckled. “You’re unflaggable,” he said.
Peter shrugged. “The Corps. is my family. It really could be worse.”
“Don’t you miss Gerard and Merrimack?” Kirk asked.
Peter sighed. “Yeah,” he admitted. “I hope they’re ok.”
“I’m sick of these new faces,” Kirk said angrily. “They’re not Hammer Company. They aren’t my friends.”
“We’re new faces to them, too,” Peter countered. “If you’d–”
“Shh,” Kirk silenced him, standing up slightly and gripping his rifle, peering into the foggy darkness. Peter dropped his hardtack and grabbed his rifle in silence. Kirk listened. He could have sworn he heard something… Peter listened with him for a while. Ten minutes of tense quiet slipped by.
“I swear I heard someone out there,” Kirk said, finally relaxing back into a crouch, but keeping his rifle in his hands. “If that greenie sneaks up on us he’s going to get shot.”
“Nerves,” Peter said, also holding on to his rifle. “Anyway, I was trying to say, don’t be so hard on the replacements. We were greenies not long ago.”
“It’s not that they’re green,” Kirk said. “It’s that they’re not…” he struggled to find the words he needed to express himself, finally giving up in frustration with a hard shrug.
“They’re not us,” Peter said quietly.
“Yeah,” Kirk said. “Exactly.”
“But what are we then?” Peter asked. “Because I signed up to join the Trencher Corps., not the Bainsmarket Recruits.”
“I wish I was in Bainsmarket right now,” Kirk said longingly, wanting a change of topic. Peter was right and he knew it. Somehow that made him deeply uncomfortable. “We didn’t even get a day off the line. Not one. They let us rest for fifteen hours and then we’re back out here, humping gear into the middle of nowhere.”
“Ah, complaining,” Peter said with a little smile. “The classic trencher pastime.” Kirk chuckled in spite of himself and was about to reply with an insult when he heard a twig snap. He met Peter’s eyes and they both spun around, rifles up, scanning their surroundings.
“Lucas?” Peter murmured. “You need to say something or we’re going to kill you.”
Twenty yards away there was a very faint chik, chik, chik sound, and then a gurgle.
“Hey! Water on the beach?” Kirk shouted into the dark, waiting to hear the designated call-sign answer. No reply. There were sounds of a struggle. Peter’s rifle went off behind him and he spun to see a dark-robed figure stumbling away from their foxhole.
“Kayazy!” Peter shouted.
“KAYAZY! KAYAZY! KAYAZY!” cries went up from foxholes all around. Khadoran assassins had slipped in amongst them.